Skin Deep
By P.S.C. Willis
History is written by the victors. That’s not me. I’d rather not tell you my name, given all the stories about me. Though maybe my name’s not much of an identifier: it’s frequently left out. I’m reduced, over and over to various demeaning adjectives. I know I’m not without fault. What I did was wrong. But I’d like to start over.
I thought little of it when I passed the border post. They’re common here. The world contains enough small kingdoms for everyone to get their handsome prince and happily ever after —everyone beautiful, that is. I filled out the immigration form, handing it back to the bug-eyed creature surveying me.
“All humans must report to the queen,” it croaked.
That surprised me. Not the order itself —royals interfere— but that there was a queen. I’d seen this strip of land from my kingdom’s tallest hill. It seemed deserted, a perfect place to escape. Who’d be queen of this?
I wandered on, past an attempted building of mud-like bricks. They were painted with something that clung and clumped like tar but sparkled under the sun. Next to this was the charred remains of a lightning-struck tree. It was the tallest in the land, by virtue of being the only feature for miles. Richly embroidered blankets held up by pulleys and ropes hung from the branch stumps.  
“Hello?” I called. Ducking inside, I found a tall, elegant woman sitting at a fine desk, with a regal air. I suspected that, like me, she and the desk had come from elsewhere. The only other object with that presence was a small lacquer-work box by her hand. Everything else looked as sad and dead as the kingdom she ruled.
I squared my shoulders at the sound of a human voice, erasing all traces of worry from my face as she entered.
“Just passing through?” I asked. That was people’s most common reason for being here, and was why I’d established the border post. Too many arrived without realizing it was my domain. It might have been a work in progress, but it was still a perfectly valid kingdom.
“I’m not sure,” she stated. “I’m actually looking for somewhere to settle, if possible...”
“That depends...” I said, tilting my head. “Firstly, what are you running from?” She flinched, and her cheeks flushed. It wasn’t a hard deduction. Who would come to stay if they weren’t trying to leave something behind?
“Family,” she admitted. “I fell out with my step-sister.”
“Step-relatives!” I said, the word bitter on my tongue. “They’re such a problem.”
“Yes,” she nodded, warily. Wary of revealing her secrets, I wondered, or of me and mine? If she had done as much as me, I couldn’t trust her, but if she hadn’t, she’d judge me. Back home, they loathed me. But now, I had my own kingdom again, and if she stayed, I’d have a subject to adore me. It had been a long time since I’d had someone other than the frog-things and swamp-whatsits to talk to.
“Anything else?” she asked.
I considered her. She wasn’t much to look at. Not bad, per se, but certainly no match for me. She was on the plump side, her hair the dull color of sewer rats. Conversation aside, it would be fun to have someone to compete with. Someone I could compete with and beat. 
“Nothing,” I assured her. She would be no threat. I would still be the Fairest in the Land.
I left the queen’s “castle” uneasy. When she smiled, it had daggers in it, reminding me of my mother. My mother, who always said it was for my own good... ‘Pinch those cheeks to get some color, darling. You’re pale. Not in a good way. If you don’t, you’ll never catch a husband. I’m not doing it to criticize, I only want the best for you...’ 
So, I lashed out. Not at my mother, of course, I never could. She held absolute sway. She chose to elevate me and my sister, and that our step-sister could never be part of that. I think mother knew she was prettier than us. I knew it, too. Mother had to push her down to bring me up. I’m not saying it was right to play along or make the only person lower than me feel even lower. I’m saying I was fifteen, with an overbearing mother who kept criticizing me because she knew, we all knew, no one would ever choose me if given a choice.
I wondered whether this queen was the villain in her kingdom’s story too. It seemed likely, but so what? Some villains really were black-hearted and not to be trusted, but others had to be like me —not without fault, but hopefully not beyond redemption.
My weeks fell into a strange but steady rhythm. I was neither servant nor subject, neither friend nor foe —a step up from being a doormat or a pariah. I spent most of my time with the frog-things and swamp-whatsits. They weren’t much for conversation, but they had lots to do. The queen had tasked them with building a road. A real road starting at the gate, going right across the kingdom, and out the other side. I guessed she wanted most to keep going, and I wasn’t sure why she’d kept me around. The road seemed pointless, given that people could drive across the flat mud just as easily. But every kingdom had to start somewhere, and I wanted to be kind. Not that I would have dared cheek the queen. I just knew how it felt to be unsupported.
Each week, I had tea with her. It’s ridiculous to say it made me feel important and favored —I was the only person for miles around— but it did. For once, someone wanted me. She never said things about my appearance —nothing negative, anyway.
‘Aren’t you rosy! I can see you’ve been slaving in the sun!’ or ‘That mud’s got right into your hair, poor dear!’
It wasn’t criticism. She almost sounded approving. Then she’d pour me tea, and we’d talk. We kept to the present. The past was off-limits for both of us, as was the box. She glared whenever my eyes strayed towards it. 
One afternoon, as I sat sipping my Dragon-Smoked Oolong, my eyes fell on the decorations behind her. There had always been several sad and dead flower arrangements, but I’d never really paid attention to them before. After a few weeks in the swamplands, I appreciated their rarity more. I noticed each clump of flowers was fashioned into a circle. She didn’t seem to mind me looking.  
“What are those?” I asked.
“Ah,” she smiled, swelling with pride. “You’ve finally noticed my crowns!”
“Crowns? From what?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” she smiled, “On Saturday. This Saturday is a very special day here.”
“What happens?” I asked.
“Our most important annual event,” she beamed. “Come at 6, to the dais outside the palace.”
“Do I need to dress up? I’m not sure I-”
“Oh no,” she answered. “Come just as you always are.” 
For the first time in many weeks, I saw the knives in her smile which so reminded me of my mother. I told myself I was just being paranoid. Or that was just how the rich and powerful smiled. She’d shown me nothing but kindness since I arrived.
Everything was ready for Saturday. My favorite day of the year! I’d say I could scarcely sleep with excitement, but that would have been terrible for my beauty regime. And when the day came, the glorious day, there was almost-sunshine through the haze, and all was nearly-glittering. I glittered. I was radiant.
She was not. She’d taken me at my word, and here she was, cheeks mud-smeared, nose reddened.
“You look perfect!” I beamed.
“” she sounded doubtful.
“Oh yes,” I smiled. “Here, it’s very simple. You parade across the stage, then I’ll do the same, and the frog-things and swamp-whatsits will crown the winner.”
She sounded nervous, but that didn’t matter. It was time to begin!
“Frog-Things and Swamp-Whatsits!” I called in my most regal, commanding voice. “Welcome to our annual ‘Fairest in the Land’ Pageant.”
This could not be happening.
But it was. I wasn’t dressed for a beauty pageant. I didn’t belong in a beauty pageant. But no amount of protesting would stop her, and soon I was being shuffled across that stage, stumbling over my own feet, blinking back tears.
This was going perfectly.
Should I have let her brush her hair or wash the mud off? It was almost too easy, but it had been a while since I’d had real human competition. Seeing her stumble her way across the stage, I knew I was safe. I was beautiful. Still beautiful. She was younger than me, but I was prettier. People always said that. Always. She’s so elegant. Look at her hair! Isn’t her skin radiant? Even after she came along —not this girl, but the first she, the step-daughter, even once I became the mother— no one said I looked my age.
But it was taking too long. The frog-things and swamp-whatsits were whispering and really looking. Why wasn’t it obvious? Did their stupid pea-brains like her better for being covered in mud?
“She works so hard with us,” I overheard a croak.
“It’s not about hard work!” I snapped. “It’s about being Fairest in the Land.”
“I like her,” said one.
“Fairest does have two meanings,” said the first.
“No! NO! I am fairest,” I cried. How could this have happened? But it hadn’t, not yet. It wouldn’t. “I am always the Fairest in the Land,” I said, running and seizing the garland off the table, cramming it on. “You can’t give it to her! It’s mine. And she’s...UGLY.”
There was that word again. The one that kept following me, and which stung the most. Some called us wicked, others mean. Those I could almost take —they were true enough, despite my excuses. But so many of them just resorted to the lowest common denominator. Was it really the worst thing a person could be, or only the easiest to laugh at? And they had laughed. Laughed at the hours I’d spent pinching my cheeks to get color in them. Laughed at the money I’d poured into trying not to be that word. They called it vanity whilst punishing me for not being successful at it.  
And here it was again.
“I know,” I said.     
I turned and ran. On top of the stinging humiliation, I knew exactly who she was, and what she did to those who crossed her.
For a long time, I sat alone on the stage. The frog-things and swamp-whatsits had swarmed after her. That didn’t count as regal. Proper princesses got birds and deer eating from their hands and doing chores for them. Being favored by those things didn’t make her better than me. I didn’t think she came from royalty. I didn’t think she was anybody or anything.
I didn’t.
I held my crown. I was fairest. I had everything I needed and wanted. As much as this place could offer. The crown was the only thing. The crown I’d invented and awarded myself.
It still counted.
I returned to my castle and placed it on the desk. There was an exit paper from the immigration post already. And there was the box. I flicked back the lid, staring at the shriveled remains inside. The withered black skin and pale flesh of an apple, missing a single bite. I told myself to throw the paper out and just forget her. I thought about throwing the crown out. But I didn’t do either. They both just sat there, taunting me until I gave in, and plucked the apple from its box. I held it by the stalk, letting the possibility twirl in front of my face.
Beyond the kingdom, the world was even emptier. I wondered whether she’d chosen this division, or if it was a natural one where the world became true nothingness. Would she pursue me? I was no threat —I was no longer in her land, and even when I was, I would never have been ‘fairest’ no matter what the creatures said. 
If I truly wanted to be alone, this was my opportunity. There was no one to label me. No one to choose what I was. I’d run away from everything, leaving only a trail of other people’s venom in my wake.
I was nothing and no one. 
For three days, I repeated the pattern. The paper should go. The crown. Neither. Both. And then the apple...I took it out, held it and—
“Coming to force that down my throat?”
I jumped, dropping it, and scrabbled, wanting to shove it back in the box, but she’d already seen.
“No,” I promised, though she had no reason to trust me.
“Why keep that then?” she asked.
“To remind myself I still have power,” I answered, trying to draw myself up. They’d let me keep it, when they banished me. I couldn’t cross the border but I still had a way out. I still controlled something. 
“What you did was mean,” she said.
“I know. So why are you here?” I asked, hating the note of anger that crept into my voice.
She didn’t answer, coming across the room and sitting opposite me. I felt her sizing me up, inside and out. I tried to suppress the feeling I’d be found wanting, or that I’d care. Her eyes landed on the crown.
“Why does it matter so much to you?” she asked. I wished she hadn’t. I would have rather talked about the apple, whether I’d really use it, what despicable things I’d done with it the first time, what a rotten person I was. But she had to ask that.
“Because it’s all I’ve got,” I choked out. “It’s all I’ve ever had. I was never anything else —never worthy of replacing his first wife. Just the pretty little consolation prize to soften the blow. When it’s the only way anyone measures your worth, it’s easy to become obsessed.”
“I know,” she said.
“Is that why you came back?” I asked. I’d assumed it was fear or anger. I’d wronged her; you either fled or sought revenge. 
“I decided you don’t get to define me,” she answered, sticking her chin out. “And I’ve also done mean things in my time. I know what it’s like to want forgiveness, and to not get it.”
I didn’t dare say anything. I didn’t know whether or not I was forgiven. I wanted to be, and I searched my brain —my scheming brain that could plot someone’s utter destruction— trying to work out how to make that happen. She waited.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I wasn’t sure I’d used the words before. They felt insubstantial —it wasn’t like I knew how to do better next time. “I don’t know how to be anything else,” I admitted. “I’m not good or kind. You saw it for yourself. The only other thing I ever managed was ‘wicked.’”
“You’re good with apples,” she suggested, with a hint of a smile. “I heard that came from a tree you grew yourself.”
“It did. But what use is that? This place is dead, and that’s full of poison.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said, “I think there could be good nutrients where the swamp-whatsits forage. And as for this,” she reached out, gripping my hands, which still clutched the apple. “Maybe it’s not all the way down to the core.”
Maybe it was naïve. Maybe I should have left again. But it was one mistake from someone who was hurting, with the same system stacked against her. It didn’t surprise me she didn’t know how to have friends. I was starting from scratch myself —I’d only ever had competition.
I took the queen out the next day to mark space for a garden. She took a silver knife from the box’s lid, sharp enough to pierce a heart. I watched as she used it to cut away the withered, poisoned parts of the apple, and pretended not to notice her hands shaking. 
“What if nothing grows?” she asked, closing her hands around the tiny black pips. 
What if she left? I didn’t command her. I couldn’t make her stay. I couldn’t order a tree to grow from these tiny, lifeless things in my hand. They seemed so dead, so fragile. 
“Something will,” she said with certainty. 
The queen wrapped the seeds in cold, damp moss, covering the surface of her desk to keep them safe whilst they sprouted and we prepared. I watched her watching them, lifting the moss each day to peek at their progress, running her fingers over it and topping up its moisture. There was a lot to do to get the garden ready, digging and transporting rich peat from the bogs. 
One day, as I set out with a wheelbarrow, she fell into step beside me. 
I wasn’t sure I could be much help, but I wanted to try. I’d watched her working; she was strong and capable.
She was nurturing and patient.
We tended the seeds together, getting dirt under our nails, and reddening our necks in the sun. The first green shoot appeared within a few weeks, a little sign of hope, even if it would take a long time to turn into a full apple tree. From a seemingly hopeless wasteland, something new was sprouting. 
With each passing year, it grew. Whilst there would sometimes be clear landmarks —the first bud, the first blossom— we barely noticed much of its progress. Day by day, things seemed the same, until we looked back and realized how much had changed.
After many years, it bore fruit. The sweetest, juiciest, crispest in the land. And we both lived happily ever after.
DreamForge Anvil © 2021 DreamForge Press
Skin Deep © 2021 P.S.C. Willis