Chapter 1 Willie Goes Galumphing
Once upon a time, there lived a young woman who was beautiful as the dusk. Her skin was the color of true maple syrup and as smooth as an inflated bladder. Her hair was long and wavy, the shiny black of a crow’s feather, and as soft as a kitten’s fur. When she breathed, her breath smelled of sweet licorice. Princes and Kings and Presidents and Grand Viziers came from all over the world to woo her and beg her to give them her sweet licorice kisses. They were always sorry when she did.
The young woman, whose name was Wilhelmina, often said to her grandmother, “Granny, why can’t I be ugly! Or at least unattractive! I hate having all these people hounding me all day long, and I hate this cat fur hair which is so difficult to take care of — because I don’t have a bristly cat tongue. And have you ever tried to eat pizza when every time you breathe you smell sweet licorice?”
“I’m sorry, child,” her grandmother as often replied. “You were blessed by five fairy godmothers at your christening. There is nothing to be done. Except keep you covered up as much as possible, which I do.” Wilhelmina’s grandmother tried to teach her things like geography and mathematics and rational thinking, but Wilhelmina was not a good student. ”Your beauty shines through, child, even when you are covered up and scowling at them.”
“I thought you covered me up because anytime I touch anyone, they get hives,” said Wilhelmina.
“Well, there is that, too,” said Granny, who had been wearing gloves all of Wilhelmina’s life.
When Wilhelmina was born, the first three fairy godmothers gave her the skin like a bladder balloon and the cat fur hair and the licorice breath. The fourth had said, “This poor kid will be inundated with admirers, you crazy old women! Your brains must have come out of bubble gum packets. I will protect this unfortunate child from the consequences of your ill-considered blessings!” And so the fourth godmother waved her wand and twinkled, “May anyone who touches this lovely girl skin-to-skin break out in hives.”
There was quite the hullabaloo after that, as you might expect, but the deed was done. Godmother number four was convinced she had done the right thing, but she was reproved by the Council of Fairy Godmothers and exiled to the moon.
In the hope fate could fix the mess made by the first four, Godmother number five waved her wand and prophesied: “True love’s kiss will bring you bliss.” Everyone praised her for her wisdom, and she won an award at the next Godmothers’ Annual Banquet.
Unfortunately, all the children in Wilhelmina’s village knew the fifth godmother’s catchy little rhyme by heart. It was a never-failing entertainment on a dull day for some smart aleck to throw out the challenge: “I double dog dare you to kiss her! Bliss or itch? Bliss or itch?”
As Wilhelmina grew up, every child she knew had gotten hives at some point, because who can resist a double-dog dare?
Wilhelmina and her grandmother lived in a medium-sized cottage in a large garden in a small town. A gardener came every day to help take care of the fruits and flowers and vegetables. Granny did all the housekeeping, but she was a horrendously awful baker. They had a live-in cook who shared a room with Granny, and Wilhelmina had the only other bedroom. There was no need of a guest room, because no one ever came to visit. They never traveled anywhere because of Wilhelmina’s difficult personal touch problem, so the only people Wilhelmina had ever met were villagers who knew all about her handicap.
Wilhelmina had begged her Granny to take her somewhere. Anywhere! But Granny had always said that Wilhelmina was not disciplined enough to be trusted with the Public. Wilhelmina had recently turned eighteen, and it had occurred to her that she no longer needed Granny’s permission to travel. She didn’t want to hurt Granny, the only person who had ever loved her. And she knew she had a bad habit of antagonising people.
If Wilhelmina had been the shy, retiring sort, the adults might have been sympathetic and said things like, “Oh, the poor dear!” But Wilhelmina was more likely to look adults in the eye and accuse them of being cowards when they flinched away from her. Children, of course, are rarely sympathetic to anyone who is very different, and if Wilhelmina had been shy they probably would have bullied her unmercifully. As it was, they learned to leave her alone.
Consequently, Wilhelmina grew up hating nearly every person she’d ever met and every suitor she’d ever met, and pretty much every person she’d ever met, except her Granny. Since she had gotten old enough to Know Better, Wilhelmina usually tried not to touch people. Usually. When she did give them hives deliberately, she never said, “sorry.” That would have been hypocritical. Wilhelmina had many faults, but hypocrisy was not among them.
Granny smoothed down Wilhelmina’s shining black cat fur hair with a gloved hand. “Isn’t it enough that anyone who kisses you breaks out with swollen, red, itchy bumps?” she asked. Granny bent her braided head as though to kiss her granddaughter, but of course she didn’t. She never had.
“No! Because it never discourages them at all!” Wilhelmina gestured to the long line of suitors assembled along the driveway.
“They leave as soon as you’ve kissed them,” pointed out her grandmother. She was a plump woman with long, white hair which she kept coiled on her head. Perhaps she thought it made her look taller and less plump. Possibly that was also why she usually wore long, colorful skirts and long, loose tops. The plumpness would more likely have been mitigated if she hadn’t spent quite so much of her time in the kitchen, talking to the cook about recipes. She couldn’t cook worth beans, but she loved to kibitz.
“Yes, as soon as they find out it’s all itch and no bliss.” Wilhelmina stomped her pretty foot, then raced outside and began kissing each of the suitors in turn, as quickly as she was able. Within minutes, the first fellow in line was hurrying away, rubbing his itching lips, and the second was trying to hide the ugly red bumps on his lean, handsome cheeks as he retrieved his horse from the meadow. The third person in line was a young woman; Wilhelmina shrugged and kissed her, too, and in a few minutes she was moaning with discomfort and trudging away.
Granny stood in the door and sighed with vexation. “Wilhelmina,” she scolded, “I’ve told you before! That is not hygienic. You are going to get a disease. Stop it at once.”
Wilhelmina wiped her lips. “It’s gross and takes too long, anyway. Go away!” she screeched at the line. Patience was not one of her gifts. The suitors who had not been kissed shuffled their feet and backed up a few steps, but they did not leave.
Wilhelmina stomped back to the cottage. She ushered her grandmother inside and slammed the door shut behind them. She sat with a thump on the window seat. The seat cushion had cats at play embroidered on it. Granny had sewed them years ago, when Wilhelmina had gotten a cat and it had turned out that cats thought Willie’s licorice breath was disgusting and they were jealous of her hair. That was what Granny had said was the problem, anyway. Wilhelmina only knew that cats always turned their backs on her and showed her their little cat butts, tail waving above like a princess on parade. And no amount of threatening, or cajoling, or grabbing and hugging made them like her.
Wilhelmina turned around and kneeled up on the embroidered cats and banged her fist on the window and yelled, “Begone you brainless curs, you putrid rascals! Willie doesn’t want you!” Wilhelmina preferred the name Willie, but her grandmother didn’t like it.
“Well,” said Granny, “What does Wilhelmina want?”
“I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t want them!” Wilhelmina banged on the window. Her antics startled the suitors who shifted and whispered uneasily but did not leave. “Why do they pester me so? I know I am extraordinarily beautiful and intelligent and charming — still, I would think that breaking out into gross and uncomfortable rashes would discourage some of them! But if I step outside and the wind blows my hair and carries my licorice breath to them – they all surge forward, hoping I’ll kiss them next!”
Granny looked sideways at her when Wilhelmina said “intelligent and charming,” but she did not comment. Wilhelmina’s temper was almost as legendary as her beauty. “They may be thinking about the inheritance you’ll receive,” said Granny cautiously.
“From my dead father, you mean? I didn’t know there was an inheritance.” Wilhelmina turned around sharply, her cat fur hair flying. Her hair had come loose, again, from the braids Granny painstakingly made with her gloved hands every morning.
“Your father isn’t dead, child! Wherever did you get that idea?”
“You told me my whole family died in a terrible earthquake and tsunami and typhoon when I was but a little babe.”
“Don’t be silly. Of course they didn’t.”
“Well, then, what happened to them?” Wilhelmina tapped her fingers on the arm of the window seat. The embroidered cats on the cushion had never been a satisfactory substitute for a pet. Animals didn’t get hives from her, but somehow she never seemed to get on with any of them.
“Nothing at all, really,” said Granny.
“Everything happened to you. When you were born, and the five fairies gave you their blessings, your mother and father realized it would be impossible to raise you with your brothers, because you can’t stop children from touching, and they would constantly be breaking out in itchy bumps and everyone would be miserable. So I offered to take you away and raise you with gloves on. Your family is still there — in the next county.”
Wilhelmina’s mouth dropped open. She plopped down on the window seat. “Why did you tell me they were dead?”
“I never! You made that up yourself. You’re always making up stories! Some of them are very nice. I enjoy them, I really do, but you have to remember the difference between what you’ve made up and what’s really happened. Stories can take on a life of their own.”
Granny sighed and drew the curtains, so Wilhelmina could no longer look out and be frustrated by the sight of her suitors. “I suppose it’s because you’ve been lonely,” said Granny sadly. “I’m sorry about that. Until you became old enough to understand about the touching, I had to keep you away from other children. And then you became so beautiful, and now you don’t want to be with other people, but if you would just –”
“But how cruel!” cried Wilhelmina, who had stopped listening when Granny started to criticize. “Why have they never visited me? How could they abandon their child like that? What sort of monsters are they?
“My goodness, you weren’t abandoned! You have me, and you’re well cared for, aren’t you? But your father has his business, and your mother is very busy with –- well, your mother is busy, too. When your oldest brother died in the war, she -–“
“I need to go see them!” interrupted Wilhelmina. She stood up. This was her chance. This was the excuse she needed. “I need to go see them right now. Right this minute! How could they do such a thing? Throw a poor, defenseless babe out into the world all on her own and neglect her for years and years, never knowing whether she lived or died?”
“Oh, of course they know you –” began Granny, but Wilhelmina had grabbed a full load of self-pity and was running with it.
“Why have they cared nothing for me? Why have they never written me? Why have they never come to visit me?”
“As I said, they –”
“There can be no excuse! Nothing you can say can atone for my years of loneliness! I must go and harangue and rebuke them for their heartlessness.”
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea. Listen to me, child!”
Wilhelmina stopped haranguing. When Granny spoke like that, she knew it was time to Behave.
“Your parents want you to come see them.”
“Oh,” said Wilhelmina.
“When your brother died, they sent for you, but I told them you weren’t ready.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
Granny sighed. “Your parents are wealthy and important people and you must be on your best behavior.“
“Well, of course, I can behave!“
“And that includes being nice to suitors! Because there will be suitors at your parents’ home, too!”
“Oh.” Wilhelmina thought about this. “But Granny…my parents have neglected me for lo, these many years…why should I be nice to please them now?”
“They haven’t precisely neglected you,” said Granny. “But now you’re thinking, and that’s good. Always think before you act, Wilhelmina. Beauty is only skin deep, but–“
“– my brain is three pounds of solid gray matter. I know. But why should I care what my parents think of me?”
“Because they are your parents. Because you may find they had good reasons for acting as they did. Because you may want the life they have to offer. But you’ll never know them at all if you alienate them the moment you arrive.”
“Hmmm.” Wilhelmina furrowed her perfect brow. Her gray matter worked quite well when she bothered to use it. “All right, Granny. I will take your advice, because your advice has always been good.”
Granny nodded approvingly. “Observe, evaluate, and form—“
“—ulate conclusions based on evidence,” finished Wilhelmina. “But I have a great deal of anger and frustration bottled up right now. I’ll need to take my time getting there and work out my angst and horror that I have endured on discovering that I am an Abandoned Child.”
“Oh—kay,” said Granny. “That sounds reasonable. Will you hire a carriage?”
“No, I am going to walk. That will give me the time to work out my angst and horror. But first you must make me ugly so all those ridiculous suitors will leave me alone while I journey to rediscover my long-lost, horribly mean and neglectful family.” Wilhelmina was already on her way to her bedroom to find her ugliest clothing.
“I suppose we could try. But I don’t think you understand what a difference it will make to you.”
“Yes, of course I do.”
Over the next week, Granny helped Wilhelmina dye her hair a murky moss-green and cut it to an uneven snarl. They mottled her skin with uneven foundation make-up, and glued a large wart with three hairs to her cheek. Wilhelmina began wearing one wooden shoe and one regular shoe, so that she walked with a limp. Galumph, tap. Galumph, tap. She wore a long, black cloak over a long, mildew-green robe with long sleeves and a high neck, and she covered her hands with gloves.
Gradually the suitors stopped coming to woo her, because even a fortune wasn’t enough to marry a woman who looked like that, especially one who also gave them hives, and was as irascible as a wildcat whose tail had been pinched. All the children in the village made fun of her in the streets — but they’d always done that — and all the dogs barked at her — but they’d always done that, too. Willie cursed the suitors in absentia, and spat great wads of licorice-scented saliva at the children — she’d always done that — and threatened to kick the dogs with her heavy wooden shoe. She knew better than to actually kick one. Granny would never have stood for it unless the dog attacked. Granny had told Willie to always be kind to animals, or else. Willie had tested Granny’s or else only once, and she never would again.
When she was sufficiently disguised, Willie said, “I am going to go find this family who gave me up just because they will get a little itchy if I touch them. And along the way, I will punch every suitor whose superficial attention has made my life miserable.”
“It seems to me a very negative reason to be taking a trip, Wilhelmina. Will you do one thing, please?” asked Granny.
Willie loved her Granny, and so she said just a little sulkily, “yes…”
“Will you ask yourself what you want, rather than simply tell people what you don’t want?”
Willie frowned. “I’ll try. Could you remind me somehow?”
So Granny embroidered WWWW on both of Willie’s sleeves, so that every time she raised her arm to hit someone she would see them.
Willie said, “They look very nice. I’ll try not to get them too dirty or tear them.”
Granny said nothing, just watched as Willie took her backpack and set off. Granny stood at the door to their cottage and waved and wished her a safe journey. “I think you have a great education ahead of you!” said Granny. Willie didn’t know what that meant, so she ignored it. Willie was inclined to ignore anything she didn’t understand.
“Remember,” yelled Granny as Willie galumphed away, “Beauty is only skin deep!”
“But my brain is three pounds of solid gray matter,” Willie muttered. “I know, I know!” She waved to show that she would remember.
Granny shook her head. “If you know so much, then why are you going north when your family is in the south?”
But Willie ignored that, too.