Lets begin by closing our eyes, taKing a few easy breaths, and allowing ourselves to cross over into the timeless world of fairy tale. a place we entered often and with ease when we were children…
The Kingdom was in chaos. People rushed here and there. Everyone was talKing and no one was listening. Buildings were taller, travel was faster, women were more beautiful, men were stronger. Children grew quickly yet no one grew old. Everything was bigger and more, but there was trouble in the Kingdom. And the Queen was missing.
The King of this land had twelve daughters, each more lovely than the next. They all slept in one grand chamber, canopied beds lined side by side. Each evening the King locked and bolted the princesses’ chamber door. Each morning when he unlocked the door, he saw that the girl’s shoes were worn out from dancing and no one could discover how that had come to pass.
The King was bewildered. His was a fine and orderly rule and there was no excuse in the noble monarch’s mind that his daughters should escape their beds night after night, wearing holes in their shoes and driving him mad with worry.
At his wits end the King issued a proclamation; “Whosoever can discover how the princesses wear holes in their shoes at night shall choose one of them for his wife and be King after my death. But whosoever comes forward and has not discovered it by the next morning shall forfeit his life!”
All the while in the great hall of the palace there stood an empty throne. Upon its embroidered cushion the Queen’s purple velvet robe was neatly folded beneath a golden crown. No one knew where the good Queen had gone. From time to time one princess or another would halt her frenzied dance long enough to notice her mother’s absence and implore their father to search for the Queen. But each time Richard, preoccupied with important Kingly duties, replied, “Modern women don’t need rescuing. Your mother can take care of herself. Can’t you see I have a Kingdom to run?”
It so happened that Queen Gilda had a sister who was as dark and dangerous as she herself was bright and good. Esmerelda ruled the nighttime Kingdom of the Underworld and freely offered its seductions in trade for whatever she wanted. It was the Evil Sister who lured the princesses away each night into a carnival of fantasy where nothing grows and nothing changes. She led them into the darkness and delusion of the Underworld with false promises of perfection. The wicked Sister’s plan was to extract the vitality of the girls. From this essential fluid she would create an elixir of youth. For Esmerelda, no price was too high to retain the power of youth and beauty.
The jealous Esmerelda had long coveted her sister’s throne. Having cast a spell on Gilda she approached the King as he slumped on his throne, mulling over his predicament. “Richard”, purred the dark enchantress, “If you and I joined forces, I could give you anything you wanted, included maKing you young again. Take me for your Queen and we will rule together over the upper and lower Kingdoms. Young and beautiful. Together forever.”
Years ago Esmerelda bewitched her sister with a curse that was to activate upon the first signs of aging. The day Gilda’s first wrinkle appeared was the day the people of the Kingdom would stop seeing her. On that very day Gilda would be met with blankness in her husband’s eyes and would succumb to the power of Esmerelda’s black magic.
And so it was that Gilda grew older and the prophecy was fulfilled. The beautiful, genteel Queen vanished from the Kingdom under the horrifying spell of the Ugly Mask.
Deep in the forest thicket Gilda crouched low to the earth, covered with a gray hooded cape. There she sat like a stone. Gone was the familiar hum of Kingdom life. There was no path and no light. Salty tears streamed down the face of the Ugly Mask washing away all memory of the lovely face that had once been hers. There are oceans of tears that women have never cried. Gilda shed those tears for herself and for all women who had come before her and for all who would come after.
The Queen lived in the shelter of the wild wood for many days and nights. The seasons changed and the moons came and went. The trees and birds felt her loneliness. The elemental world enfolded Gilda in its impartial acceptance.
It happened one day that Peter, a rough and ragged soldier-for-hire, wandered into the deep forest glen. Dusty and tired, he dismounted his horse and laid his sword against what he thought to be a large gray stone. Startled by the intrusion, Gilda threw back her cape and stared at the young interloper, her face still covered by the Ugly Mask.
An unexpected conversation took place between the two strangers. The young mercenary shared his provisions with the ugly old woman and ministered to her cuts and bruises. Touched by his kindness, Gilda told Peter about the King’s offer to whichever prince could solve the riddle of the princesses’ worn out shoes. Though the ragged soldier was clearly not a prince, he was a man of instinct, raw honesty and strength. Gilda gave Peter her gray hooded cape imbued with magical wisdom to aid him in his task. Armed with her power and protection, the young outlaw departed to seek his fortune.
Meanwhile back in the Kingdom, Richard was faced with carrying out his threat to behead the naive young princes who had tried and failed to uncover the secret of the twelve girls. He ordered his royal jester to bring the somber black robes that he, like his fathers before him, wore for public executions. However, instead of the robes, the royal jester placed a large mirror before the King. In the looKing glass Richard saw, not the distinguished ruler he thought himself to be, but rather a weak and frightened man who had lost his wife and daughters, whose Kingdom was spinning out of control and who was now about to sacrifice the lives of innocent young men. Richard fell to his knees.
The King tore off his crown and ran deep into the darkness of the forest. The limbs of trees scratched his face and all around were dreadful sounds and shadows. At last, spent and confused, he collapsed into the black soil and fell into a troubled sleep.
Richard awoke to find an old hag tending to him near a small fire. Her face was horrible but her touch was soothing and familiar. The old woman asked if he was lost. Weeping he answered, “I’m as lost as a man can be”. She spoke his name. Remembering her voice, her touch, Richard knew that this ugly woman was his own good wife, Queen Gilda. At that moment he understood that what is essential is invisible to the eyes alone. One sees well only with the heart. The King knew then that his love for Gilda could not be altered by the changing faces of time. He kissed the cheek of the Ugly Mask and at that moment the spell was broken!
Hand and hand Richard and Gilda set out to save the princesses from imprisonment in the underworld. Peter, the young outlaw, was there to assist them with all his strength and courage. Together they stripped the evil sorceress of her black magic. Esmerelda was left behind, languishing alone in the underworld, alongside the tattered remains of the Ugly Mask.
It is said that though Gilda be an old woman now and Richard an old man, they remain side by side on their thrones in the great hall. The princesses have halted their frenzied dance. The villagers talk less and listen more. Men fall in love with less-than-perfect women and elders wear their age with pride. The people of the Kingdom have come to know the magic of ordinary life.