Like most grandmas, mine liked to tell stories. She was made for it. She was short and wide, with a billion wrinkles folded into one another, like elaborate human origami. Her skin was the color of peanut butter and she always smelled like her daily cocoa butter routine. We children used to say she was carved out of candy. But her glory was in her voice. Her voice was bull strong and sugar sweet and had the power to make every word into a jewel.
I used to dream about someday borrowing that voice, when I was big enough to carry it, but that was before I learned that voices like my grandma’s were kept secret.
Now, when I was little, I didn’t like having my hair combed. She knew how to sort me out.
“Come here, baby girl,” she said. “Let me braid your hair and I’ll tell you a story.”
Once in a place, in the oldest of times, there was a famous princess. Conventional wisdom held that she was quite ugly.
The princess’ story began before she was born, when her father the king shocked his people by marrying a woman with skin the color of chocolate. It was whispered that she must be an enchantress. How else could a woman so dark have ensnared the king?
In due time, the new queen became swollen with the country’s future. It was a difficult delivery and she labored for many hours. When the baby was finally ripped free, it was wrapped up and taken away from her. She turned and grabbed the hand of her favorite maid.
“Well,” said the queen, “What have I brought into this world?”
“It’s a girl.”
The queen closed her eyes in resignation. God does not answer every prayer. Her next question came out in a faltering tone unbecoming of her majesty. “And she has her father’s color?”
“She has skin of coal,” said the maid.
“Doubly cursed, the poor little wretch,” said the queen and she set about the task of raising her daughter.
But babies, like cats, understand everything and so the little princess grew up with knowledge of her two curses inscribed in her bones.
She and her mother kept to themselves. They spent most of their time in her mother’s apartments and gardens, with infrequent excursions on the orders of the king. The king was a faraway god to his daughter, capricious and dangerous, occasionally loving and kind. Every day, the little princess watched him kiss her mother and then disappear into the outside world of dignitaries and women with creamy gold skin.
The golden women hated her.
She had skin of black satin (“Look at her, with her skin the color of coals. Hardly fit for a king’s daughter to always look like a maid in a chimney.”) Her limbs were long and graceful (“Far too tall to be a girl. Are we certain she isn’t a little prince?”) Her hair was thick and strong, a powerful halo of twisting curl (“They ought to tame that lion’s mane.”)
“Why don’t they like me, Mama?”
“Don’t worry about it, child,” said the queen. “They may look like humans, but really they are monsters with vipers instead of tongues.”
This answer did not satisfy the little princess and she struck back with the precise cruelty of children. “Does Baba have a snake for a tongue?”
Her mother slapped her. Palm met cheek in a violent kiss. The only sort of kiss, the princess thought ruefully, that skin this black deserved.
She made her friends among the birds in her mother’s gardens. They lived in a parallel kingdom above her’s, their jewel bright colors a shocking tapestry against an azure sky. They sang wonderfully, intricate patterns of high angel voices twisting beautifully with one another. Sometimes, alone in her bed at night, she tried to copy their songs. It comforted her, bringing the beauty of the birds back inside with her.
She was outside with the birds when her father found her.
“I have found you a husband,” he said, not unkindly. He was good at being gentle with her when there was no one else to see. Still, it was not a question. “He’s a king. He will take care of you.”
She wanted to ask if this king had gardens overflowing with birds, but she did not want her father to say she was silly. “I’m sure you know best, Baba,” she said. There is no sentence men like better.
It was a good match, by any metric. The one king would get rid of a daughter disliked by his people. The other king would gain a dowry. There was nothing to dislike.
The little princess fretted for months. She stayed out of the sun so as not to darken her hated skin. She applied potion after potion to her head to try and tame the wild masses. After the customs of their people, the bride and groom were not to see one another until their wedding day. But at last that day arrived, and the princess was draped in red bridal silk. She was covered in the best of her mother’s gold and the best of her new husband’s gifts. Her proud height displayed the jewelry fully, and her dark skin contrasted majestically with her bride’s dress of red. Her hair had been made into a thousand braids, the thickness a display of her health and prosperity.
“Did she look pretty?” I asked anxiously. There was a thousand other somethings in the question, the kind of somethings that were too big for my childish mouth.
My grandmother put one hand on my shoulder and turned me around to face her. “Pretty?” she said with obvious frustration. Maybe there are some somethings that are too big for even a grandma’s mouth. “Honey, she was magnificent.”
The princess was carried into the wedding chamber. She looked anxiously about for her new husband. She could see her parents standing there. Her father, as ever, was inscrutable. Her mother was holding her breath. The holy man came forward to perform the ceremony.
She was placed on a couch, and a handmaiden came forward to remove her veil. The princess looked around immediately for the unfamiliar face. There he was, her betrothed, a tall man of perhaps twenty five years. He was handsome with broad shoulders, honey skin and sleek hair. But his face was twisted in disgust.
“I was told that I would find the princess unhandsome,” he said in a voice like rocks. “But I was not told she would be so grotesquely tall, so unfortunately black, so, so… How can I look upon that skin every morning? How can I walk the palace with her by my side? What apes would she birth and call my sons and daughters? No! This marriage cannot be.”
The princess stood up swiftly at this pronouncement. She was perfectly still and her chin was lifted high. His words had talons, but she refused to let them snatch her dignity. She looked at her father, whose cheeks had gone red with humiliation. Her mother had turned away.
With shocking composure, she walked out of the room, the gold on her arms and neck glittering proudly. Once out of sight, she broke into a run and ended up, as always, in her mother’s gardens.
God, make me into a bird so I can fly away from here, the princess prayed. She could almost see her new fluttery wings, purple maybe or crimson red. She could imagine what it would feel like to be light and pretty, no longer clumsy and earth-bound. But God does not answer every prayer.
She opened her mouth and, almost involuntarily, began to sing with the birds for the first time. Oh, who could say that her voice at least was not gorgeous? She had a voice like honey, rich and sweet and high and clear. Her voice reached high into the heavens and the birds themselves stopped their fluttery little tasks to listen.
They came down to her, the little birds, and rained little feathery kisses on her cheeks and hair. She smiled, pleased. But when she stopped singing, they protested with urgent squeaks.
She started her song again, and the birds were enchanted. They flew around her and in her hair. As her song grew longer, they began to try and copy it. They wanted to sing with her, like her.
But their voices could not compare to her’s in beauty and power. More and more birds came down and surrounded the princess. Those who came called for their fellows, asking in the language of the birds for one who could perform their own art just as well as this human.
The best of the bird champions were called. But even they could not match her song; it swelled and swooped around them. They could not understand her strange beauty, so they could not even come close to overtaking it.
As the number of birds grew larger, their frustration mounted. How could it be that she, an awkward and grounded Adam-child might chirp and tweet better than those made to chirp and tweet?
The birds fed on one another’s jealousy. It was suggested that they leave and stop trying. But then the song would still exist, reminding the entire world that there was one who had bested the birds. It could not stand.
So they flew as one to her throat and they ripped out the song, and her life’s blood stained her chest and face with bridal red.
My grandmother’s voice crescendoed with the princess’s life and faltered on her death. She gave up the ending almost timidly, like a secret she wished she could keep.
I didn’t yet know whose claws and beaks had reached for my grandmother’s golden voice, but I knew enough to heed her warning. So it was in a whisper that I asked, “But what happened next? How did they fix it? She can’t have died.” One hand was pressed firmly to my own throat, trying to keep my beauty from escaping.
“I don’t know,” my grandmother said. “Your hair is finished.”
And she fixed a bead to my final braid.