Theodora and The Devil by Morrigan Bonegardener

She was a quiet child, always lost in the silent fields of fantasy while she gathered acorns with a perpetual furrow of thoughtfulness between her brown eyes. In a low lilting tune that was sad and happy all at once, her mother would sing to her of a peasant girl who becomes a princess, and the girl would sleep in her mother’s arms and dream of warm, dry grass in summertime.

When Theodora was six, her strong-headed mother – whom everyone in the village adored for her virtue, wit, and kindness – grew many little purple lumps in her mouth and throat that spread across her porcelain face. The healer crafted all variety of remedies, at no small expense, but nothing could stop the growths. The bumps grew larger, and she grew paler and weaker. Her voice grew frail and cracked, and her skin grew so thin it wore holes that oozed with blood and foul fluid. And because she couldn’t sing to her baby anymore, she died of a broken heart.

The girl’s father could scarcely manage his meager herd, let alone the home and the childrearing. He loved his daughter, but he had no idea how to take care of a girl, so he took a wife – Tofana, with her two golden-haired teenage daughters with sickly-sweet smiles.

As she grew, she came to understand herself as different from her stepsisters who, with their comely faces and agreeable conversation, were lavished with attention from their mother and their suitors. She was pale, and thin, and black-haired with an ugly black mole on her right cheek, and a frown fixed on her face. Only her father, who dwelt in pain, thought her beautiful. “Just like your mother,” he would always say.

She had a crack in her heart, so she didn’t giggle and speak of idle things, and when she did speak, she made no friends with her unbecoming bluntness.

The year Theodora turned sixteen, the winter was so long and harsh, with winds that howl like wolves through the skeleton of the forest, that all the family’s livestock died and soon after, her father fell gravely ill and abruptly died.

So, Theodora’s callous stepmother arranged for the marriage of her daughters to the landlord’s sons.

 “But he only has two sons. What will become of me?”

“Theodora, you will marry the landlord himself and have the finest lot of any! He’s a good man and it would do you no harm to work in his house. It’s all settled already so there’s no use arguing. Soon you’ll have many mouths of your own to feed and you’ll understand it’s for your own benefit.”

Theodora felt the crack in her heart widen as she bent all of her will to hold back from showing her mind on her face.

  “Yes, mistress.”

 “How many times must I tell you? Call me mother, my dear girl.”

 “Yes, mother.”

That night when her stepmother and stepsisters were all asleep, Theodora in her long black gown fled into the night as far and as fast as her feet would carry her. Away from the front step, away from the village, and into the dark forest she ran, full of fury, until she could not run anymore. And then she trudged, folding her face in the fiercest furrow. On and on she pressed until she found herself at a fork in the road.

Never having been this far from home before, she didn’t know which way to go, and so she sat down to rest, and in her resting she let her grief overwhelm her for the first time. Softly at first came a small quivering whimper from her throat swollen tight with stiff sadness. Then a sob, then tears, more and more until they were as great rivers pouring into the black earth all her grief and her loneliness.

  Her tears flowed so profusely that they began to pool in the middle of the two dusty roads so much that they soaked the soil and wore a hole in the ground that went all the way down to hell where the stream of tears became a great wide river that quenched the thirst of the damned. So many were relieved by her weeping, calling her Our Lady of Perpetual Tears, that the Devil took notice and rose up through the watery hole to appear before its source.

Roaring like wild rapids, the spring gushed from her eyes like a great waterfall, plunging into a whirlpool that spun with the force of a tempest on the open sea, circling the hole into hell.

“Stop it! Stop it! Hey! Girl! Stop that crying immediately!” the Devil commanded over the rush of the river to no avail. Bewildered by her seemingly unending supply of brine, he looked her up and down for a moment and quickly crafted a new scheme. “There, there, my sweet child, whatever is the matter?”

 She choked out her story between wet, labored gasps—her mother and father and her stepsisters and her fate to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather who smelled like a goat, how she had run away and it was too late to go back and how it all came crashing down when she came to this cross in the road. All the while the Devil listened. And when the words between sobs had gotten less frequent to a point that one might assume the story was finished, the Devil interjected with as sweet and syrupy a voice as he could muster:

“Poor, poor, poor child, how tragic it is to be born into this unfair world where praise and reward are distributed so unequally. But you know it doesn’t have to be so hard. I could make you beautiful, so that princes would fight for your hand in marriage, and your previous life and pain would fade as does a dream upon waking. You could live as a princess in a castle with a prince for a husband and a king for a father, wanting for nothing.”

The girl, weak and weary of walking and wailing, wiped her nose and looked about at the ocean she had created.

As the sun began to rise, her eyes changed from plain brown to a deep warm oak, and her hair from black to shining jet. Word spread of the mysterious girl of incomparable beauty and grace whose countenance and elegance were supremely sublime in every way, and soon kingdoms were at war with each other over who would have right to her hand. Many men were mown down and the fields of warm grass stained with blood and the miasma of death.

“My prize!”  shouted Victor as he jammed the ring onto her finger and lifted it for the crowd to see. A royal marriage as the devil had said, with the husband and the father and nothing to want for. And Prince Victor – a beast of a man, in command of an enormous roaming army that dominated and subsumed every nation that stood in its way – came and went again, conquering, crusading, leaving behind a trail of poor bastards with nothing but a likely tale to show for their blood. All the while Theodora remained alone in the cold tower of stone, pressing her lips firmly together and tightening the furrow of her brow.

In the silence and the solitude of the grand halls, peopled only with servants so meek that they scarcely could be seen, the princess let loose a single tear that rolled across her famed beauty mark. The crack in her armor had only grown, merely obscured behind an ivory face crowned with gold and jewels. A sudden sob escaped her dutifully stoic façade, then another, swelling into a crescendo of bawling wails that echoed through the vacuous chasms of the castle and all the way down into hell where the damned heard her voice as the music of an angel, sad and happy all at once, and again the Devil rode out to find Theodora, lamenting her fate.

“Oh, my poor, poor princess! Haven’t you been blessed by destiny? Do you want for anything that I have not provided to you?”

“You have delivered me from one cage to another, the beauty you cursed me with has only made me a rare ornament to be possessed. Surely if you would want me to be free you would set me with my own riches, so that I could live my life as I see fit, making my own destiny.”

So, the princess in black velvet readied herself a ship and a crew and she set sail for the lands of Africa and Asia, stopping where she liked and doing as she pleased, and everywhere she went she was called Queen of the Sea and Your Majesty and even her most trusted men cowered when her favor for them fell.

One day she arrived in Ephesus and found her two stepsisters forced to work in a tavern to scrape out a living from sailors, as their husbands had both died fighting a war over a beautiful princess. They recognized her despite all the years and change for they had heard of her wealth and her travels through a lilting song that made its way from pub to pub and garden to garden about a black-haired girl with a spot on her cheek who lives like a man, sailing the seas with her band of loyal followers and an enchanted chest of gold.  

Hateful was the midnight wind that whipped at the shutters of her captain’s quarters and black was her mood as she sat awake, wrapped in thought and flickering lamplight.

 “After all this time, nothing has filled this chasm in my heart. My wound has only grown wider with every hopeful fantasy, a rift when I was a girl has now become an abyss. I lapped up your lies like the sacrificial beast drinks its milk and oats not thinking of the priest or his cleaver. Only at this late hour could I have come to you freely, having no account until now of the way a life is woven with heartache, grief, and regret. Leeches feasting on putrid blood have no love for the dying; they will take their fill and drop away when they’re sated. O Devil if you would grant me but one last wish, I would never have cause to trouble you again, but you must grant it to me on my terms. In all my wretched life the only souls I ever truly belonged among were those who loved me not for shallow beauty or money, but for my broken heart, who called me lady of tears and of song. And so, Devil who took from me all love and gave in exchange mere glittering phantoms, l shall live and weep among those who number enough to fill the hole in my heart, for all eternity.”

 And so, the river flowed in Hell for all of time, carving its path down the icy way and cleaving in twain the world of the damned and the living, offering peace to those innumerable souls who dwelt in torture, with its soft babbling and low lilting tune that was happy and sad all at once.

About the Author

Morrigan Bonegardener is a first-year creative writing student at Selkirk College in Castlegar, and a Queer, Transgender Woman whose writing style and voice reflect her lived experience. She lives with her husband Léo, and their two dogs, cat, bird, and fish on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Sinixt Peoples.

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