I was not beautiful.
I may have been at birth—most babies are beautiful at birth. But my foot was twisted and deformed as I emerged, and my spine eventually tilted to accommodate my limp. My teeth grew in oddly spaced, and at twelve, I developed your average pubescent skin condition, only with me, it assumed freakish proportions. By the time I was twenty, it had pocked and cratered my face beyond repair and beyond redemption. My hair grew thin on my scalp, and overall, no one had uncovered a mirror in my house, in my viewing, since I was fifteen.
My older sister Gwen brushed her hair blindly in the mornings and got so good at it, no one knew the difference when the heavy, strawberry-blonde mass of it was hanging plaited to her waist. My mother did the same and started keeping it short around the same time. I pretended not to notice that they did these things for me, and they pretended they didn’t take glimpses in stray windows as they walked through the village to make sure they weren’t terribly askew.
We lived on the northernmost island of an archipelago. The archipelago itself was governed by an old and kind family. I understood that cousins and kin often took an island to live on, to rule in benevolence, but as kind as the idea seemed, our island was not one of the lucky ones. We were a rude fishing village with a merchant port, and that was all.
The children in my village weren’t always kind. When I was twelve, Gwen was late to come to get me from the woodworker’s where I was apprenticed, and I walked around the corner of the sawdust hut to find myself surrounded by village bullies. I’d known their names. They’d taunted me since school (which was why I’d left early), and the taunts and the jeers had only gotten worse.
That night—I don’t know. I will not pretend to know what drives men and their children to violence. I only know that after Gwen found me, bleeding from my face, from my ears, from my rectum, I never said their names, and I never saw their faces. I only saw their feet and heard their voices. You cannot take a person’s humanity and then retain your own.
In the weeks it took me to recover (and the blows I took to my face did nothing to alleviate my pressing ugliness) I tried very hard not to ponder the horrible irony that I was too ugly to love, and too ugly not to violate.
The third night after it happened, as I was still pissing blood from my damaged kidneys and my mother was nursing me through a terrible infection that threatened to level me, my sister Gwen came home. She walked into my bedroom (a tiny one, but mine and only mine) and kissed my fevered cheek, then asked Mum to come bandage her hands. I got a glimpse of her through bleary eyes: her eye was blackened, her lip was split, and her hands were covered in deep, painful slices that would make sewing even more of a chore for her the rest of her life.
I thrashed, I screamed, I tried, through a swollen mouth, to demand who had done it to her, but Gwen had come to my bedside and crouched, her face set into the lines of an executioner who was proud of his work.
“No worries, Naef,” she said firmly. “The boy who did this—to you and to me—he will never bother us again.”
It didn’t occur to me then that I had babbled with my fever and my pain, and that she would know who that boy had been.
I was delirious with fever that night, with the town healer as my witness. The town healer never saw my sister, not that night nor the weeks that followed, but it was no matter. No one would believe that a girl would do that to a young man’s body, and it wasn’t like the boy’s cronies were bragging about seeing him rape a cripple for fun. Be that as it may, there is a particular violence in finding a young man pinned to the sand with daggers in his shoulders like a butterfly, and the gentle flesh at the apex of his thighs sliced open like a flounder, the stones within removed, and the body dead from the loss of blood such a wound entailed.
When I learned of the nature of the young man’s death, I curled into a corner and wept inconsolably for the last week of my healing. My sister, Gwen, the girl who would chase spiders outside rather than kill them, the girl who had once beaten the town bullies for trying to drown kittens, and the girl who baked sweets, every spring, for the neighbor’s children at Oestre, my sister, Gwen, did that horrible, horrible thing. And she did it for me, because I was too weak to defend myself and too monstrous to be left alone in my corner, carving my bits of wood.
Someone must have noticed or known. Someone must have made the leap, if not to my sister, at least to me and mine. My skill as a woodcarver was unparalleled, and the beating had not taken that from me. My attackers were too brutish or too unimaginative to reason that the true violation of my spirit would not be through my arse but through my craft, and so my fingers were left unbroken, and my skill remained mine. But that’s not where the bastardization of my name started.
No, it must have been some mistaken assumption, some horrible leap in logic, and I have to admit, it made perfect sense. After all, monstrous was as monstrous does, right?
Either way, it didn’t matter. The day I returned to my place in the woodworker’s hut, “Naef” had been burned away like my innocence, and all that remained was what I became: “Knife”.
I used that name. In truth, I preferred to huddle in the back of the woodworker’s shop and play with my tools—the awl, the lathe, the tiny scraping pick—they were all my friends, and in my hands they became like paints or piano keys or potter’s clay: I controlled them, and they sang for me. When I worked wood, the ache in my leg ceased to matter, and the shrieking harpy that my back had become over the years, well, that bitch curled up and died. When I was with my blades and my craft, I was master of my body, and I was free.
The summer I became “Knife” I stopped making toys, which is what I had made my name with, and started making chess sets. Good versus evil, beautiful versus beastly. That became the fashion of my craft. Every set was unique, and dragons would battle knights or dancing girls would battle leering courtiers or elves would battle trolls, all embodied in the exactly crafted figures that emerged from my hands. Me and my knife, we wrought wonders, and all it took was one burning glance from under my scraggly, sand-colored hair to make the rest of the fuckers in our village remember that there were many, many things a knife could cut.
I made children cry with a glare and a snarl. When the women pulled their skirts aside as I passed on the streets, limping furiously and hauling at my lurching spine, I would spit on them. Schoolboys would jeer at me as I passed the small house where boys and girls learned their letters, and I flicked tiny, homemade knives. I would score blood, every time, and crow disgustingly as I stalked away, enjoying their tears.
I became the town pariah, and that was well and fine for me.
It was not so well and fine for my gentle sister.
Poor Gwen. She affected not to care about the way the boys in the village sneered at her as she walked me home. She pretended that being the one girl at home, sewing with her damaged hands, was not one more burr in her stocking among others when the rest of the village was gathered on the sands below for the raucous dances of Beltane or Litha or Samhain or the solstice. In our village, when a dog killed a chicken, it was common practice to tie the dead chicken around the dog’s neck with twine until the poor carcass rotted off. Well, instead of her rightful kill, poor Gwen was stuck with me twitching at her neck and stinking up her chances for a real life, one with a husband and a family, one with kindness and love.
The kicker came when a new ship came in with the fall tide. It was too late in the season, so the sailors put up in a local inn, as they often did. The first lieutenant started frequenting the dress shop where my sister worked. He was a handsome man—anyone could see it. A strong jaw, warm brown eyes, golden hair. But it was the way he looked at my sister, the way he brought her dinner when her workday was done, and the way he listened to her, head cocked to the side, considering, when she spoke softly and hesitantly about her day, these things made him beautiful beyond stars.
For her, though, it was the way he spoke to me.
“Hi, Naef,” he would murmur, not loud, because loud, overly jovial voices tended to make me startle, trying desperately to pull into my shell like a crab. “What did you make today?”
I would show him, although it took me weeks to do so without suspicious haggling on my part. He would turn the pieces slowly in his hand and smile. True appreciation, that one.
“When you are done with this set,” he said one day, “could you make one for me? I will pay your master well, and pay you well also, for taking the commission. Could you do that for me?”
The ship was going out within the week. A chess set was always more than a fortnight endeavor for me. “Will it make you come back this season?” I asked, looking sideways to where my sister was standing, staring out to sea with troubled eyes, as though he had already left with the tide.
Kyln looked at my sister too. “That’s the idea,” he said softly. “But the set is for my cousin, and it’s a very special gift.” He looked at me now, in all seriousness. “I’m not asking this out of pity, Naef. I’m not asking just to see your sister again. I’m asking because my cousin… he’s having a troubled time, and I can’t give him counsel, and I can’t stand in his place. This… this is all I can give him. The things you make are beautiful, and my cousin is the best of men.”
I swallowed and nodded. Kyln was also, apparently, the best of men. I watched my sister bob her head nervously and give him a watery smile as he walked toward her, hand extended, me hobbling in his wake.
She was going to tell him no. I knew it in my bones.
That didn’t stop me from pouring my heart into the chess set he commissioned from me. He wanted a set where the white king was a beast, a lion on two legs, and his queen and court were animals.
It was beautiful.
The black pieces were twisted, like my spine and my heart, and pock-riddled and snarling. The animals were grotesquely formed, with distorted limbs and enlarged heads, half-formed chests and engorged phalluses. The black king was… was me, glaring from a carved riddle of hair and ugliness, and physical pain and painful anger.
I carved him last. When it was done, I spent an hour simply running my fingers over the ebony and maple, the warm finish soft under my fingers.
It was the most amazing thing I had ever crafted, and a part of me wanted to destroy it, crush it into splinters with a hammer, because it left me naked in my hideousness, and it was all for naught. The morning before I finished, Kyln had arrived on our shore, looking tentative and humble and hopeful, and my sister had broken his heart.
I’d seen it. I’d seen her as he’d walked up from the harbor, and her face had been a mixture of joy at seeing him and terrible, terrible sadness. I’d huddled in my workshop corner, watching the two of them talk. I hadn’t seen her face, but I’d seen the stoic disappointment on his. She’d turned away first, and walked away with shoulders held stiff as a soldier’s, and I thought that maybe being my first line of defense had done that to her. Every beat of my heart ached like an abscessed tooth.
Kyln was good to his word, though, and he came into the little shop, ignoring the master woodsmith, who used to kick me and spit on me until I got very good at the tiny knives.
I let him look at the chess set, and something about it must have permeated his misery.
“It’s magnificent, Naef,” he said softly. “It’s… it’s all I could ask for. It should make Aerie-Smith very happy.”
Aerie-Smith was a very odd name, but I didn’t ask. Instead, I took what little grace I possessed and tried to give him a bandage for his heart.
“It’s not your fault,” I rasped, taking the white pawns (different exotic birds, all of them) and wrapping them in soft leather.
“I’m sorry?” he asked, and his face was naked with grief.
“It’s not your fault. She… she’s wrong-headed. She’s staying to protect me. It’s not worth it. I can’t seem to tell her that it’s not worth it….”
I was looking at my scarred hands, and watching miserably as my snarled hair became wet and even nastier than it already was. I saw his hands: clean and calloused from working on the sea, but still, straight and even, sensitive, and not covered in woodworking scars or attached to bony wrists. They moved out of my vision and came back, wet on the backs. Then those fine, noble son’s hands came to cover mine and I almost shook them off, just so they wouldn’t be soiled with my touch.
“It’s more than worth it,” he said gently, and I pulled away and wiped my cheek on my shirt. I could very likely fall in love with my sister’s suitor, but even then I knew my temper was too foul. I would need someone as bullheaded as I was, and Kyln would never be him.
“She killed for me,” I choked, and was expecting to see him recoil. He didn’t.
“So she said.”
I was so startled I actually met his eyes. “She told you that?” I couldn’t help it, and the expression was so alien it actually hurt my face. If nothing else, taking the pressure off my teeth made my head ache with relief. “There’s hope!” I said, not sure if I could talk through a smile. “If she told you that… oh, Kyln, you mustn’t give up hope. I’ll… I’ll run away. I’ll stop rotting on her neck like an albatross. I’ll….”
I turned away then, frightened and unaccustomed to hope. When I spoke again, my voice was under control. “I would do anything to see her happy. Come back. Come back, and don’t mourn me if I’m not here….”
I was not thinking of suicide. I was not thinking of hurling myself off the cliffs to the north. It was a bitter life, full of hatred and bloody thoughts, but I still clung to it. If nothing else, I would not give the humans around me the satisfaction of leaving it before I’d exacted my last measure of revulsion from them.
But Kyln’s hands came down hard on my shoulders. “Don’t think of it,” he rasped. “Don’t think of leaving her. She’ll walk the ends of the earth to find you. Stay. Stay here. I have a plan. A plan that could get you out of this place, that would free her heart. I have a plan, Naef. Don’t despair. Please. For the both of us.”
Kyln’s faith—oh, gods. What must it be like to have such faith in the world, in plans, in your own ability to control your fate? It was contagious, that’s what it was. I could not help it. I caught his hope like a plague.
“Fine,” I snapped. “But if you don’t return, or break her heart, you’d better be dead.” I looked at him in my accustomed way, from beneath my brows and the snarl of hair in my eyes. “She killed for me. I owe her.”