Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Heaven and Hell

Once upon a time, in a faraway village so deeply buried and lost in antiquity that no one will ever know its location, there lived a rich merchant whose wife bore him two sons. They were fraternal twins; meaning, of course, that the two boys were in no way identical. One son had a face of unsurpassed beauty, as if God had mistakenly allowed one of his own angels a mortal existence, while the other son was as ugly as the brother was handsome — indeed, some townspeople believed Satan himself was responsible for the abomination. It was said the midwife, when she delivered the ugly son, shrieked so loudly the neighbor’s pear tree dropped all its fruit at once and every cow in the village stopped giving milk for two months. I don’t know if that is true, but we may trust that the ugly son was exceedingly hideous.

The handsome son was named Heaven and the ugly son was named Hell. On their first birthday, the mayor of the town ordered the merchant and his wife to place veils over the faces of their two offspring when they appeared in public, as there had been several instances of madness caused by the sight of Heaven’s extreme beauty and Hell’s incredible ugliness. Father Rolignio, the parish priest, advised the couple to take the further step of removing all mirrors from their house lest their sons, when they reached the age of reason, should accidentally behold their own countenances and lose their minds. “And I would advise you to not look at them either,” the priest continued, “if you wish to preserve your sanity.”

So the merchant had all the mirrors removed from his house, his wife wove nearly opaque veils to place over their sons’ faces with strict instructions never to remove them, and life went on until the boys reached maturity. Then each began to grow beards which felt very uncomfortable under their veils, giving rise to the problem of how to shave their chins. Although no one had seen either of their faces for some thirteen or fourteen years, it had become an accepted fact that to gaze upon their countenances would cause instant lunacy. So the merchant hired Aggripina, the old blind women whose fingers were said to have eyes, to shave Heaven and Hell every day, as the brothers themselves couldn’t do it without gazing upon their own images in a mirror.

Many people asked Aggripina (who at the time of this story was over 120 years old) if she could describe Heaven and Hell’s looks from how their faces felt. Aggripina said, “Heaven has a strong chin and Hell has a bold nose; but if you wish me to tell you how handsome is the one or how ugly is the other, I have been blind from birth so I don’t know what to call handsome or ugly.” So her questioners went away disappointed.

With their veils on, it was nearly impossible to distinguish Heaven from Hell. They had both grown into fine, strapping lads. Their education had been the same, their manners were impeccable, in athletics they were unrivaled, and every pretty maid in the village counted them both as the highest standard of gallantry and masculine grace. There was even a rumor that Heaven was in fact Hell and vice versa, owing to an accidental switch of identities somewhere in their childhood. The young men of the village envied Heaven and Hell and wished that they themselves had some affectation like a veil covering their faces to attract attention and sympathy.

As the years passed, there was one girl in the village, a maiden of some 17 years named Terraina, who became considered the most beautiful young woman of her time. One village youth who was quite smitten by her — Braggondo the lute player, it was — wrote many long ballads that dwelt upon Terraina’s loveliness. One song focused on her skin, which Braggondo praised as delicate and white as lily petals. Another song rhapsodized about her hair, raven black and falling in many long and shiny tresses, like a mountain waterfall that catches itself on small rocky ledges on its way down. Yet another concentrated on Terraina’s voice, which equaled the lark’s in its musicality. And still others spoke of the sweetness of her breath, the color of her eyes, the whiteness and evenness of her teeth, her grace of movement, and on and on and on.

Although Terraina had many suitors, she fell hopelessly in love with both Heaven and Hell. She couldn’t make up her mind which one she loved more. One day Heaven would rescue a child from being trampled by a coach-and-four and Heaven would own her heart for a while. Then Hell would take first prize in an archery contest and Terraina felt certain that is was Hell, not Heaven, who could make her happy. Heaven and Hell were not insensible to Terraina’s notice of them and this caused a slight rift between these two brothers who had grown up the best of friends. When Hell returned from a hunt, he was sure to offer Terraina’s family the haunches from the boar or stag he had killed; Heaven, not be be outdone and who could expertly paint in oils, executed a portrait of Terraina from memory of so startling a likeness that Terraina pronounced it the very image of herself stolen from the mirror. And so this contest between the two brothers went on for some time.

Everyone in the village knew that this could not continue and that Terraina had to make a choice. The awareness of this gave Terraina many long hours of consternation. Finally she decided that if she had to choose, she would have to choose the handsome brother. But the rumor of Heaven and Hell’s switched identities complicated matters. What if she married Heaven only to find out that he was, in fact, Hell? Terraina needed to know.

One night Terraina visited Aggripina in her cottage. Terraina knew Aggripina couldn’t tell which brother was handsome or which one was ugly, but the old woman was the only one in the village given access Heaven and Hell’s faces. Terraina offered Aggripina forty gold pieces — all she possessed — to allow her to go in the old woman’s stead the next day to shave the brothers. It is very difficult to blame Aggripina for accepting the bargain because in those days forty gold pieces represented a lot of money — you could buy two horses and a cart with that. As part of the exchange, Aggripina loaned Terraina some of her clothing, including a shawl which Terraina could use to obscure her face by wearing it over her head.

The next morning Terraina reported to the merchant’s house disguised as Aggripina. She shuffled slowly and bent over in imitation of the blind woman. The merchant’s servant led Terraina into the customary room where Heaven and Hell sat waiting on their stools.

“Good morning,” said Heaven to whom he supposed was Aggripina.

“Good morning,” replied Terraina in a raspy voice.

“Aggripina,” commented Hell, “you don’t sound like yourself this morning.”

“It is my old complaint, young master,” said Terraina, making her voice sound raspier still, “nothing to trouble yourself about.”

“Yet look at you! You don’t seem nearly so stooped and your movements are almost youthful,” remarked Heaven.

“Young masters, don’t make sport of a poor old woman,” returned Terraina, growing alarmed.

“But I think Heaven is right,” said Hell. “You do seem different this morning, Aggripina.”

“Now, now, lads, enough of this chatter. Heaven, we’ll start with you — lift your veil so I can shave you, there’s a good boy.”

“But Aggripina! See how you grip the razor! You have gone from being left-handed to right-handed!” exclaimed Heaven.

“That is true,” said Hell, “you have always used your left hand to be sure.”

“Ay, lads, the palsy has affected my left hand too much today, so I must shave your chins with my right.”

“And Aggripina,” pursued Heaven without the slightest motion to lift his veil, “why, if I may ask, do you wear your shawl in that way? My brother and I can’t see your face.”

“I am a blind woman, so it matters little how I wear my shawl.”

“Well, well,” said Hell, “we are seeing many changes in our old friend today, are we not, brother?”

“Indeed,” agreed Heaven, “another woman entirely, wouldn’t you say?”

Finally Terraina could stand it no longer. She threw off the shawl and stood erect before them, her soft cheeks overspread with crimson. Heaven and Hell started to laugh, for they were not stupid and had known soon enough that it was really Terraina in Aggripina’s clothes. They laughed and laughed for several long minutes and enjoyed her embarrassment immensely.

“It is all very well for you both to laugh,” said Terraina finally, “but surely you must appreciate the bind that I’m in. It is clear that I must choose one of you.”

“True, true,” said Heaven. “Hell and I have been on tenterhooks for far too long.”

“And yet I have seen neither of your faces. How can you expect a woman to make a choice under such a condition?”

“That’s nothing!” retorted Hell. “Heaven and I can’t recall ever seeing our faces!”

“Well, this is intolerable! It’s not to be borne! I tell you now that I will never make a decision unless you both lift your veils and let me see you!” And with that, Terraina crossed her arms and stomped her pretty little foot and made a stubborn expression that at once impressed the two brothers with her inflexibility on the matter. What were they to do?

Several hours later the same servant who allowed Terraina into his master’s house discovered the three bodies of Terraina, Heaven and Hell lying on the floor of the shaving chamber. The servant, before he went completely out of his head, reported to the merchant that Hell’s expression was one of exquisite bliss, while Heaven’s showed profound horror. Terraina’s expression was enigmatic, yet strangely peaceful. The constable was called in after the two brothers’ faces were safely covered and conjectured the following: that Terraina had somehow inveigled the two brothers to reveal their faces, which lead to her death, and that the brothers, for their part, had incautiously unveiled themselves while facing each other, and so caused their own deaths. The inquest agreed with the constable’s supposition with very little deliberation, and the matter was closed.

In the churchyard, for years and years and years until time had effaced it from the sight of all men, there stood in its center three headstones, those of the two brothers flanking that of the woman they loved. And from that time to this, Terraina has always been remembered as the one who paid the price for coming between Heaven and Hell.


Blogger Michele said...

What a compelling story, mr. schprock! More please. :)

11:58 AM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Wow, Schprockie! Simply Wow. LOVED IT!!!

You are beyond clever.

2:07 PM  
Blogger tiff said...

Mr S - nice wordplay on the names, and a lovely story, to be sure.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

That had an authentic old feel to it. I'm sitting in my public library right now enjoying a nice piece of mythology. Entertaining as usual, and great writing.

4:08 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"What a compelling story, mr. schprock! More please. :)"

Thanks, Michele! As you may know, it's a slow week at work, so who knows?

"Wow, Schprockie! Simply Wow. LOVED IT!!!"

Kathleen, you are too kind. Can you possibly recognize this as an imitation of "100 Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez? That's what gave me the idea to do this.

"Mr S - nice wordplay on the names, and a lovely story, to be sure."

Thanks, Tiff! And good luck with your Carnival of the Mundane!

"That had an authentic old feel to it."

Thanks Scott. I had a little fun with a certain style of writing.

So, sitting in your public library eh? Sounds like you're up to some serious stuff.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Nah. I bring the kids here to participate in a summer reading program. After reading so much, we earned raffle tickets for various prizes the kids put in for. We are hoping for the robotic scorpion.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Flood said...

I was sorry this was over because it was a great read.

6:56 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Well done, Master Schprock. Tell us another!

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic. Beautifully written. I'm at a loss for words. Thank you.

8:22 AM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

That was great! Like a fairy tale, before Disney got to it and stuck on a sappy, happy ending.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous dreadmouse said...

A very nice piece of work, Herr Schprock. It has a slightly bent edge to it that I enjoyed.

Do you enjoy webcomics? If so, you might want to check this out: as it is inspired by fairy tales as well.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Michael Eisner said...

"That was great! Like a fairy tale, before Disney got to it and stuck on a sappy, happy ending."

Hello, I'm former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. I've got to say, it was okay. I mean, it could have used more villains falling off of precipices in climactic battles. Or a touching ballad by Elton John. Oh, and a funny sidekick, like a howler monkey voiced by Edward James Almos. Now that's storytelling!

10:24 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

See? See? This is why you rock the casbah! Brilliant! (as always)

12:15 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

Thank you very much everybody, and a special thanks to Mr. Eisner for taking the trouble to give me those constructive comments. I am already rewriting the story to include a talking stuffed bear, a flying car, and a computer that wears tennis shoes! Stay tuned!

1:12 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Schprockie - I read 100 Years so long ago, that I'm afraid that I did not recognise it. I suck. ;-) But I adore mythology, so I just loved your story.

2:02 PM  
Blogger LL said...

A truly fantastic tale of irony spun by the Master himself.

I thought it exceptional.

6:13 PM  
Blogger SzélsőFa said...

The style rings Oscar Wilde in my head. Take it as a compliment.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Sela Carsen said...

Followed a link from Flood's blog and I'm so glad I did! I've been on a fairy tale kick recently, and this was as beautiful as any I've read. Thank you!

7:02 AM  

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