This is based on Allerleirauh (Grimms) or Peau d’Ane (Perrault), depending on which you prefer, which has ties to the story of Saint Dympna. It also borrows from the story of Mary of Egypt. This is one of the things I like best about fairy tales/folklore, really: the endless number of layers you can find in one story, linking it to a million other stories.
Hagiography (another great word!) is the biography-ing of saints’ lives. Apparently from the Greek!
The sky above Marseille was bright, the sun’s glare making the cloudless expanse a blinding blue. Jean-Paul and Luce had disappeared into some forgotten corner but Michel didn’t mind. It was better to be alone than to be a third wheel. He drifted, letting the crowd push him where it wished, ducking into tents when he grew too hot. Vendors shouted their wares: candies and patisseries and crepes; gaudy signs advertised conjoined twins and mermaids and fire-eaters. Everyone was laughing and shouting. All but the most dignified of men had unbuttoned their vests and were mopping their brows with limp handkerchiefs. The women with them stood gasping and pointing from under what thin shade their lace parasols could provide. Children ran between everyone’s legs, some shrieking with laughter, some quietly slipping their fingers into unguarded pockets. Michel, whose pockets held very slim pickings, was happy just to soak up the atmosphere.
A group of young men came pushing through, shoving people out of their way with shouts and cries. Rather than be bowled over, Michel slipped into a nearby tent. Inside it was mercifully cool and dark. The heavy canvas muffled the sounds of the crowd. The air was dusty and Michel sneezed quietly. He squinted in the gloom. The only light came from under the uneven gap below the canvas door.
A long-legged man sat draped over a wooden chair by the entrance to the tent’s inner room. His skinny limbs splayed in front of him, two inches of pale ankle showing past the hem of his threadbare grey trousers. His vest gaped, unbuttoned over a rough white shirt. His head had lolled onto the back of the chair. A shapeless cloth hat covered his face. A collection tin sat at his feet, nearly invisible in the half-light. Michel eyed it but kept his francs in his pocket. The man snored gently.
He waded through the gloom, feeling the sweat dry on his skin. Pushing past the next flap, he stepped into the inner room. In there the noise from outside was entirely gone and the absence of sound rang loud in Michel’s ears.
A single oil lamp hung from the highest point of the ceiling, its murky orange light nearly lost in the thick air. A small raised platform stood at the far side of the tent. It was piled with chunks of moss-covered rock. As Michel approached, he could see they were made of plaster and the moss was nothing but dyed bits of un-spun wool.
A woman was sitting among the rocks, her back to him. The long wave of her dark hair hid her completely, pooling around her bare feet. He must have given himself away some how for she cocked her head suddenly and peered over her shoulder, eyeing him like a bird of prey. Her hair rippled and parted with her movement and he could see that she was naked beneath it. He blushed and swallowed.
She turned to face him, arranging herself in her false grotto. He could see then why she was travelling with a freak show. A long, curling beard fell all the way to her knees. She met his gaze, her black eyes reflecting the orange light of the oil lamp. Her face was expressionless.
Hesitatingly, he approached the platform. A plaque had been affixed to the wooden railing meant to separate her from her audience.
“’Saint Dympna, the Miraculous Bearded Woman’,” he read aloud.
Dympna, if that was her name, didn’t react. She just sat and watched him, the oil lamp light flickering in her black eyes.
He kept reading. “’Found living in a hollow tree in the mountains of Alsace at the age of fifteen, Saint Dympna grew her miraculous beard in order to protect herself from the unwanted advances of her lecherous father, a heathen German King’.” Michel pulled a face. “Those Germans! Honestly, why does the Emperor even bother with them?”
Dympna remained mute.
Michel turned back to the plaque. “’Her father, enraged by this divine intervention, cut out her tongue to punish her’. How awful,” Michel shuddered. “That must have hurt.”
Wordlessly, Dympna nodded.
“’The pious Saint Dympna fled from her sinful father and sought refuge in the forest. Her lustful father was later punished for his sins by Our Lord the Almighty Father and struck down by lightning’.” Michel’s mouth made a perfect circle in his horror.
Dympna’s eyelids drooped. She looked utterly uninterested in her own tragic past.
Michel watched her for a moment. She was very thin beneath the masses of her dark hair. “You must be so bored,” he said.
Her beard twitched; it might have been a smile.
“Do they ever let you out?” he asked, stepping right up to the rail.
She shrugged one shoulder cryptically.
“They must,” he pressed, putting his hands on the splintered wood. “It would be inhuman to keep you cooped up in here all day and night.”
This time her smile was definite, but it was not a happy one.
Her eyes were very beautiful, thought Michel. Her heavy lashes cast smudgy shadows on her cheeks. He leaned on the rail. “Did your father really try to-”
She reached forward, putting one slender finger to his lips. He went cross-eyed looking at it. The nail was long and ragged.
Her hand moved again, cradling his face. He swallowed. Her heavy lashes cast smudgy shadows on her cheeks. Her black eyes reflected the orange light of the oil lamp. In the flickering light, he could see his face reflected, his own blue eyes wide.
Delicately, she kissed him. Her beard tickled his cheeks and her hair fell about him, closing around him like the trees of a forest. His heart fluttered like a bird in his chest, its wings beating hysterically against the bars of its cage.
And then, suddenly, she was gone, her hair falling away from him, leaving him bare once more in the oily light and dusty air.
There was a noise at the door and a flustered Michel turned to see the lanky man standing there, mopping his forehead with a dirty handkerchief.
“Touching is extra,” said the lanky man and rattled his collection tin.
“I – but -” Michel looked back to Dympna. She had turned her back to him. She sat among her plaster rocks with their woollen moss and the long wave of her dark hair hid her completely, pooling around her bare feet.