Chapter 2 – The fire maiden

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Mary arrived home before the break of dawn. She tried to make as little noise as possible, knowing full well that she couldn’t bypass aunt Lucille’s superhuman scrutiny. The old lady had the senses and instincts of a mountain lion. As expected, her great-aunt was waiting for her in the kitchen, seated at the table with a prayer book in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, in order to press the point that her ailing old body had a very hard time coping with Mary’s lapses in discipline.

She hadn’t been crying, of course, because she secretly felt that at her age she was entitled to the privilege not to, but she liked to display that handkerchief in critical instances, as a symbol of her grave disappointment. The second she saw the dreaded piece of cloth, Mary knew she was in trouble.

Aunt Lucille sensed the girl slide quietly into the kitchen, but didn’t turn her head. Her shoulders were so tense they loaded the whole room with an uncomfortable, almost palpable weight. Mary stopped and waited for Lucille’s chastisement, which was usually doled out in installments: hurt, disappointment, anger, rejection, humiliation and submission, always in the same sequence. Mary had learned this pattern so well that she could anticipate her aunt’s words, those words that tore at her heart with pangs of guilt. Lucille uttered a shrill sigh, and the young girl was almost relieved that her aunt had decided to start directly with installment three.

“Where have you been, Mary?!” her aunt wanted to raise her voice, but her throat had tightened up with all the tension she had accumulated in the last two hours, so the words came out in a strange, almost silent shriek. Mary paused to chose her words.

“Aunt Lucille, why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, strangely poised.

Aunt Lucille turned and pinned her down with a probing stare, despite the discomfort she always experienced looking in those clear green eyes. There she saw the truth, gasped and brought the handkerchief to her mouth.

“Oh, child, what have you done!” she muttered, terrified.

The mirror taboo was so ingrained in the old lady’s heart that she considered Mary all but lost, her anger dissipated instantly and managing this crisis became her only priority. The girl tried to interject a comment, but her aunt was on a roll.

“Did you look in a mirror? Where on earth could you possibly find such a cursed thing around here? Did anybody see you? Mary, please tell me that nobody saw you! We can fix this, you know? Don’t worry, your aunt Lucille wasn’t born yesterday, I’ll smooth things out with the ladies’ circle, we’re just going to have to be very careful,” she went on, outlining the plan that had already started congealing in her mind.

“Why is it so wrong to look in a mirror, and why didn’t you tell me my hair was… different?” Mary managed to overcome her aunt’s verbal avalanche.

“Why, of all the things…! How could you….! The shame I have to endure….! How are we ever going to show our faces again…!” Lucille tried starting several of her favorite penalty sentences, but they all seemed to fall of deaf ears, except for the last one, which filled Mary with outrage.

“Aunt Lucille, I couldn’t show my face in public before, how is this going to be any different? Why am I this way?” she asked her aunt directly, in a tone that required a response.

Lucille stopped for a second, glancing swiftly at the girl to assess her state of mind, and quickly calculated the pros and cons of telling the truth, weighing exactly how much of that truth she had to divulge in order to make this dreadful situation go away. She finally answered.

“We don’t talk about these things! You are called fair, dear, or blonde.” she spoke softly, looking down, embarrassed.

“So what!?” Mary blurted, forgetting for a moment that aunt Lucille abhorred insolence.

The latter ignored the unseemly behavior, determined to be done with the awkward conversation as quickly as possible.

“It’s been a long time since someone… like you has been born in this village, we were all hoping that…” she didn’t continue, concerned she would hurt Mary’s feelings if she completed her sentence.

How could she tell the poor child that the village had hoped, after so many generations, that God finally forgave their transgressions and the blond curse was extinguished from their kin. When Mary was born, the village fell into such despair that nobody got out of their homes for three days, and when they finally emerged, they did so dressed in mourning garments and consoled each other like after a terrible loss. Despite her very conservative nature, Lucille had been so outraged by this display of injustice towards an innocent baby that she decided on the spot to adopt Mary and protect her with her life if need be. Ignorant heathens!

“What’s wrong with being fair?” Mary asked, more curious than upset.

Lucille sincerely tried to remember anything she might have heard, any folks’ tales, any superstitions, but there was nothing to point to the reason for the blond curse. Nobody discussed it and nobody remembered its origins, suffice it to say that being blonde was considered a bad omen in and of itself.

“I don’t know exactly, dear!” she brushed Mary off. “Did anybody see you?” the great-aunt continued compulsively.

“No.” Mary grumbled. “What difference does it make? Nobody looks at me anyway!”

The morning sunshine crept over the tops of the trees and bathed the young girl in a sea of golden light. Her face glowed radiant and her hair caught ablaze, surrounding her face with light, like a halo. Lucille didn’t know how to react to this unearthly vision, so beautiful in its own way, the harbinger of doom. A chill went through her bones, she shuddered, then composed herself.

“Don’t give it another thought, child. We’ll discuss this later,” the good lady changed the subject. “Whatever possessed you to seek your own reflection? Don’t you know it is sinful and forbidden? Do you want to get banished?”

She would have liked to give Mary the standard speech about how God would be saddened to learn that she needed to feed her vanity and gaze at her own beauty, when He put so many loving hearts around her to reflect this gift with their friendship, appreciation and kindness, but then she remembered Mary’s specific situation and reconsidered.

“I could, maybe, color my hair…” Mary suggested tentatively.

“Good graces, girl! Is there no end to your dissent? Whatever did I do to you to shame me so! Coloring your hair! How can you ever harbor such a horrible thought! What would people think?” Lucille built herself up into an outrage.

The conversation suddenly took a familiar turn and Mary found herself, wretchedly, facing installment one.

“What am I to do, then?” the young girl asked, and her aggrieved tone made her great-aunt dial down her indignation.

Lucille wrung her hands and started pacing to chase away her growing panic. What were they going to do, what was she going to do, what will people say, how was she going to explain this, and did she have to? She knew she did, there was no question about that, one of those nosy busybodies in the ladies’ circle must already know something, she could swear they had a special sense for gossip, those ladies, and nothing moved in the village without their knowledge and consent.

The more she thought about it, the more she panicked, and a deep muscle shiver set in, against her will. What was to become of Mary, anyway? She couldn’t help but jolt at the thought that there may be some truth to the blond curse, otherwise why would so many wise people hold it in such dread? One has to remember that traditions are usually born of common insight and who was she to judge the reasons behind the warnings of her ancestors?

How was this fair child born of raven haired parents anyway? Lucille’s panic turned to sadness at the fate of Mary’s mother, poor thing! Her entire life had fallen apart after the girl’s birth, and nobody believed her innocent. The whole family repudiated her and she had to leave the village with only the clothes on her back and without her child. Lucille could only hope that God, in his kindness, found a place for Mary’s mother, because the latter was a kind and saintly woman who deserved to be protected.

Lucille remembered all those stories she had heard when she was a child, of a maiden born of fire, whose locks were the color of gold and who was going to herald the end of time. Nobody ever elaborated on what that meant, exactly, and none of the children knew what to expect, after all there hadn’t been a golden hair person among them for generations. When Mary was born, though, there was an instant recognition of the omen from everybody, young and old alike. There was no doubt whatsoever that she was the fire maiden and since she’d already arrived into the world, there was nothing anyone could do to stop the reckoning.

The old lady shook her head to chase away these superstitions, for she liked to think of herself as an enlightened woman, who doesn’t let her mind be filled with this kind of nonsense, but she had to admit she never thought the fire maiden would be born in her lifetime, and couldn’t help being constantly distracted by Mary’s eerie appearance.

She finally looked at the girl, who stood there, wide eyed, waiting for her to answer, oh, those huge, clear eyes that put a shiver through the old lady’s bones!

“We’ll figure it out, Mary. Aunt Lucille will think of something, don’t you worry about that! You should go to bed, child, you didn’t sleep a wink,” she remembered her motherly doting.

Mary turned around, obediently, and started up the stairs to her bedroom, and her faint halo of golden light lit up the darkness as she ascended.

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