beauty is not the only weapon women have.
"please," mary says, and her father kisses her too-large forehead. runs his hand along her puffy cheeks. there isn't any one thing, not any single marker of her ugliness, only individual parts that don't seem to fit together right. lumps where straight lines should be, pocks along her chin, eyes that were too bright and too big and yet still not considered striking. he kisses her and holds her and says, "no." -- this is what you learn, when you are young and you don't look how they want you to:
the baker closes at four. if you are hungry, he will feed you, out of pity.
witches are everywhere. witches understand. witches will hold your hand, and run their thumbs along your lifeline. witches will say, take this, and press a bag into your palm. take this, it will help you.
beautiful women look at you once, and then never again. they fear you. they fear what you remind them, which is that natural beauty is unearned and hard-won beauty is unnatural. beauty is arbitrary, but beauty means everything. you are here, you are alive, you are ugly: they do not know what this means.
beautiful men will look at you, and look, and look. they will try to understand. they will say cruel things first, because that is how men are taught to treat ugly things. then they will taper into benign amusement. eventually they will forget you are a person at all, and they will say anything. they will say their darkest secrets and not realize you can hear them.
mary learns. mary listens. mary understands. mary is not as bitter as her name. -- they say "ugly," but what they mean is, "stupid." what they mean is, "useless." what they mean is, "defeatable." "be good, boys," she scolds a particularly loud table as she gathers their empty pints. the lights are dim enough to ease the angled corners of her broad shoulders. they love her here, gentle dim mary, too ugly for marriage. such a shame. what a nice girl, our ugly duckling. "Ugly Mary!" says jonas, the butcher's son. "have a sit. tell us a story." "these tables aren't gon' clean themselves," she answers, even as she sits. jonas always leaves his purse on the table. the more drunk he gets, the less attention he pays to its weight. "what kind of story?" "a good one," jonas insists. "make us laugh." "all right," says mary, and leans forward. she wraps her fingers around jonas' purse and holds it up in front of him. "this is my dowry," she says. he laughs, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut. the stable boys laugh too. everybody laughs. a dowry, for ugly mary. a dowry! mary palms the purse and leaves an empty one in its place. a witch gave it to her, once. a witch gave it to her and said this will come back to you, no matter how far away you send it. mary has given jonas the butcher's son this purse five times. he has always brought it back, confused, asking for his own. "i seem to have stolen this from someone," he laughed, nervous. "only--don't tell, mary, eh? i'll leave it here, and no harm done, eh?" mary had tutted at him every time. "watch those sticky fingers, jonas," she'd said. "they'll get the better of you one day. but it'll be our secret." "last drink's on the house," mary says, and whisks their glasses away. -- a beautiful woman would walk into any room and have all eyes on her long legs, her round mouth, her startling eyes. a beautiful woman would have them on their knees saying yes. a beautiful woman would say, "i want--" and they would say, "we'll give it." everyone wants to please a beautiful woman. mary's first trip to the palace is with a hood over her head. don't make them look too long at you, edna had said, her hands on her hips. edna loves mary, too. edna loves mary and edna always tells mary no. she's here to make a delivery, some chickens for a party, and their usual boy has a broken leg. so mary brings the shipment. mary has her witch's purse in her pocket, a snack from the baker in her mouth. "oh, well aren't you a bit of a divine accident," says the royal chef, frowning. "angels were scraping the bottom of the barrel for you, eh? parents couldn't quite get pregnant 'till you? asked a witch for help?" mary flashes a smile. first they will be cruel. two days ago, she had knocked out a tooth specifically for this event, and her mouth is swollen. "where should i leave them?" she asks. "six of them straight to the kitchens, but leave one with me," the chef says. he is still looking at her. "i'm hungry too, eh? ha!" he winks at her. then they will taper into benign amusement. when mary moves to obey, he catches her arm. "what's your name, ugly girl?" "mary," she answers. her breath whistles through the gap where her tooth used to be. she smiles again, and watches his eyes soften. good. "ugly mary," he muses. "i like you, girl. come again, with the next shipment." "yes sir," she says, and smiles. -- the chef cooks laxative herbs into the food of nobles who mistreat him. he tells her this thoughtlessly, sprinkling a leaf onto the top of a perfectly roasted turkey. his serving boy takes silver from the storage and sells it. their errands boy has been sleeping with the queen's lady-in-waiting, and the queen's lady-in-waiting told him that the queen is sleeping with the king's brother. there are fights, at night, loud and long in the war room. mary gives her magic purse to the errands boy and he comes to her, days later, in a panic. "i don't know where i got it," he babbles, "but it's got a note in it, what says there's some kind of plot, some kind of secret plan, i--it wasn't me but if they find me with it--" mary smiles. "shhh," she soothes. "it'll be our secret." -- "it'll be our secret," mary promises the chef, the purse full of belladonna in her hands. i didn't mean to, he'd blubbered. i didn't know, i thought it was sage, i thought it was-- "it'll be our secret," mary says to the serving boy, taking the purse from him. the queen's diamonds are in it. her favorite. she's gone to war for less. i don't know where it came from, he'd wept. i must have grabbed it by mistake. "it'll be our secret," mary assures the queen's lady-in-waiting. the purse is heavy with a vial filled with liquid. enough to terminate--oh god--a pregnancy, the girl had whispered, horrified. i must have taken it from her bathroom, thinking it was mine, i...if she knows... our secret, mary promises, smiling, smiling. they thank her. they give the purse back, and give it back, and give it back. -- mary eats well. her mother sells the diamonds mary gave her--"a gift," she says, smiling, smiling--and their roof is thatched, their clothing mended. they buy a cow. mary holds onto the vial. she knows better than to waste opportunities on frivolous purchases. "are you proud of me, father?" mary asks, and her father says, "yes." -- "so you're ugly mary," says the queen, looking at her. mary nods. smiles. mary is not as bitter as her name. the king laughs, loud and booming. the king is not a beautiful man, but beneath the glitter of his crown it's hard to see. he hides his ugliness, with thick capes and gold crowns; mary knows better. "can't seem to get anyone to say a single word against you," the king says. "everyone says: you want something done, ask ugly mary." "if i can serve you, Majesty," mary says, curtsying deeply, "it would be my honor." "no," says the queen. the queen is beautiful, and she looks away. "just to do the cleaning," the king says, and smiles at her, benign. "nothing like an ugly girl to do the ugly work, eh?" mary smiles. "indeed, your Majesty," she says. -- beautiful women are noticed. you never stop noticing them. they arrest you. they want you to please them, and you want it too. ugly women are noticed. you never stop noticing them. they arrest you, and you want them to please you. it is not hard to please you. they only have to give you what you think you want. -- "what i like about you, ugly mary," says the king, "is that you never make a fuss. i barely realize you're here." that's not true, mary knows. but she has worked hard to learn how to make it seem as if it is. she is not unnoticed, she is simply unremarkable. surely someone who looks defeated must be defeated. "aye, Majesty," she says. he trails off, fingers running across the bedspread. "what's this?" he asks, plucking mary's purse from the sheets. she keeps her eyes on the floor, scrubbing. one dose before bedtime, the paper reads. the pregnancy will end with blood. "the pregnancy will end," the king says aloud. "the pregnancy will--the pregnancy--" mary looks up. she waits. the king's eyes snap to her. "tell no one," he says, and mary smiles. "Majesty, it will be our secret," she promises. -- father are you proud of me father are you proud father yes yes yes yes yes -- the day of the queen's death, and the death of the king's brother, mary stays at the castle. she cleans, and waits. she is careful to be in the king's chamber when he returns, puffy-eyed. drunk. "ugly mary," he slurs as she tucks him into bed. "she was too beautiful. she lied. her beauty lied, she--you would never lie." mary smiles. she takes a liberty she never has before, and brushes his hair from him face. "never, Majesty," she promises. "your ugly face hides a beautiful heart," he slurs, and mary laughs. "please don't tell anyone, majesty," she teases, and he says, "no mary, no. it'll be our secret." -- you are here, you are alive, you are ugly: they do not know what this means. -- at the wedding, mary does not try to look beautiful. she dresses simply. they love her for it, ugly mary with the beautiful heart. the chef weeps, the serving boy weeps, the errands boy weeps, the lady-in-waiting weeps. ugly mary has been so kind to them. ugly mary keeps their secrets. they stand at the altar, mary and her king, her simple king. he looks at her and smiles, so fond, so trusting, so sure. a woman like ugly mary could never betray him. a woman like ugly mary is surely so grateful. gratitude is loyalty. gratitude keeps your secrets. mary smiles.