The Ugly Duckling

Charles Haddox

“Do you know A. A. Milne’s play, The Ugly Duckling?”

“No.” I had no idea who, or what, she was talking about.

“It’s really silly. There’s a princess—and she’s ugly—so when the time comes for her to marry a prince from a neighboring kingdom they have one of her maids-in-waiting who is pretty impersonate her. It turns out the prince is kind of dorky, too, so they have somebody imitate him, but the real prince and princess meet accidentally and fall in love, and at the end of the play she’s beautiful. It turns out that somebody put a spell on her so she would look ugly and that way she wouldn’t grow up spoiled and vain, but when she meets her true love the spell is broken.

“My drama class at school is doing the play, and I was picked to be the ugly princess. And even worse, there’s a scene where the guy who plays the prince has to pick me up and hold me in his arms, and while he’s holding me in his arms he has to kiss me. After our first cast meeting, where the parts were given out, I heard him telling the teacher that I was so huge there was no way he could lift me and hold me for that long, and that he didn’t want to kiss me because I’m ugly. So the teacher went and cut out that part of the scene from our version of the play.”

We sat together quietly on the low wall, as the evening slowly turned the rich amber light around us to blush, at the end of childhood, a moment which always comes too soon. The rush hour traffic that had surrounded us a few moments earlier subsided, and the air was quiet, so quiet that we could hear the gentle breeze as it sang in the willows knotted with witches’ brooms, and in the tall, sheltering oaks; in the numinous laurel and sacred yew. The smell of fresh cut grass was like the incense of a shrine. I prayed that my father wouldn’t arrive for a few more minutes. A single star with the form and color of aqua regia appeared and ripened in the twilight sky.

Tricia smiled and leaned back on her hands. The hair that had escaped from under her scarf was as bright and delicate as corn silk, and her skin looked as incandescent as the moon. For some reason, a tiny freckle on the corner of her upper lip caught my eye; it was the most beautiful and irresistible thing I had ever seen.

“So you’re taking an art class here at the museum?”

“It’s a drawing class. I took ‘Pre-teen Basic Art’ last year.”

“I think artists are great. Do you know the painting, Heiliger Hain by Arnold Bocklin? You know, the Swiss Symbolist.”

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s my favorite painting. You should look it up sometime. Last year my mom took me to Chicago, and I bought a print of it at the Art Institute. They should sell prints of famous paintings at this museum, don’t you think?”

“It doesn’t seem like too many people come here anymore. I guess it’s just so out of the way. It’s a real shame, ’cause it’s a beautiful old building, and this park in front of it is like a great place for kids.”

“Wouldn’t it be fun to climb one of these trees?” Tricia asked, tilting her head back and looking up into the shadowy sea of leaves overhead.

“I think it would be fun to climb one with you.”

“You’re nice,” she whispered, in a voice so soft that she seemed to be thinking out loud to herself.

I leaned over and kissed her. I had never kissed a girl before. It was a brief, tentative, clumsy kiss. We sat side by side on the little brick wall. Neither of us spoke. My face felt hot and my hands were trembling. For a moment the world took on the red of her lips and the white of her skin. I knew that I would never be anything but an artist. The lustral light, the trees, the planet in the heavens and the gravity of ancient earth were like emblems.

My father finally arrived. As he pulled his car to the curb, I stood up a little uncertainly. Tricia stood as well, and brushed the back of her jumper skirt with her hands.

“Can I see your drawing?” she asked.

I unrolled it and showed it to her.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “Can I have it?”

I handed it to her.

“It’s charcoal. If you spray it with hair spray the drawing won’t smear.”

“Okay.”

I got into the car, and my father asked me who the girl was that I had been talking to. I still felt numb from my sudden initiation into new realms, new life.

“Tricia,” I finally managed to answer, already thinking about my next drawing. “I don’t know her last name, but she’s a princess in a play.”


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