The saddest man in the world lived in a little town at the base of a mountain. It was a pretty town, but nothing much happened there. The townsfolk went about their lives. Sometimes they discussed the saddest man, and shook their heads in sympathy or exasperation. The saddest man knew they gossiped about him. It made him feel good. But now he wanted a bride, and did not hesitate to let the whole town know of it.
Mothers forbade their daughters from receiving him. “Sorrows are a woman’s lot anyway. Why spend your life with such a man?”
Fathers disagreed. “He won’t stray for a bit of fun. Sad or no, he’ll do his husbandly duties.”
But the mothers knew what was good for their daughters. So, the fathers kept their peace and took long swigs from their ale mugs. The daughters kept quiet. Secretly they wished they could cup the saddest man’s face in their hands and kiss his sorrows away.
Now in that town there lived a widow, who agreed with the fathers. The widow had a daughter. Her neighbors whispered among themselves about the daughter. How ugly she was. And how she had been on the shelf for a while, to put it politely. The widow knew all about the gossip, but never lost her cool. She believed her daughter was not unwomanly once you overlooked the down on her upper lip. Besides she had the sturdy and buxom figure of a woman capable of bearing and nurturing many children. And if she needed more food to keep that body of hers together, well then, she was strong enough to work for it! The widow reasoned that her daughter stood as good a chance as any.
The widow was well known in the town for her breads, jams, roast hams and other tasty victuals. She spent a whole day cooking. She filled up a basket with the goodies and covered it with a piece of new gingham the color of ripe cherries. Then she went to the saddest man in the world carrying the basket, and with her daughter in tow.
The saddest man in the world received them in his large and plush parlor. He ate the good things the widow had brought. He picked his teeth. He sat in silence, his chin resting on his hands, and stared into space. The widow argued her case. The girl stood stiff and prim beside her mother. The man sat still, a displaced boulder in the room. When at last he opened his mouth, he spoke so chillingly that the girl’s urine froze in her bladder.
“Be gone! Scram! Vamoose!” he said, with a curled upper lip. “I’m the saddest man in the world, NOT the sorriest!”
This story could have ended here. There was a ring of finality to the man’s brief speech. But we live in turbulent times.
The girl turned and left the man’s big house. She left her mother’s house. Indeed she left the town. She got into a bus and headed straight to the big city, where there were no decent values whatsoever, and no way of knowing who was decent and who was not. Where life was hard and spent among strangers. But the girl didn’t care. She reminded herself that nobody had loved her back home anyway. What did she have to lose? Maybe things would turn out differently here. Maybe not. But she would never know unless she stayed. Unless she gave it a shot. She looked around for a job. She looked hard, and found one that she knew she would enjoy doing. She worked harder, and after a while found a better job in a bigger and further away city.
The girl worked harder and harder. A few years passed. She continued to work hard and smart. And soon fortune found her. Wealth and status brought her confidence, good clothes, and the right make-up and accessories. She had become a swan, well almost. Life was good, but she still needed to see the man who had turned parts of her into icicles that refused to melt away even after all these years.
“Just once,” she said to herself. “Only once.”
It had been so long since she had left the town. Her mother had grown old and feeble. She lived comfortably though, because the girl sent her money every month. The widow looked neither happy nor sad when the girl drove up to her door in a big, expensive car. She took the gifts her daughter had brought with a barely perceptible nod of approval.
The girl went to her old room and sat on her old bed. She got up after a while, took a shower in her bathroom, which felt cramped and shabby now, and changed into a dress she had bought at a swanky city boutique. It was made from a soft and shiny material, the color of midnight with tiny star shaped sequins scattered near the right shoulder strap. The dress showed off her figure, and swished around her hips when she walked. She wore high heels and carried a stylish clutch purse. Her mother was watching TV and didn’t bother to look up when the girl went out through the front door.
She drove straight to the saddest man’s house and rang the bell. A petite woman opened the door. The girl noticed her small heart-shaped face, straight jet black hair and deep brown eyes, the shape of almonds. And that she had buttery skin the color of dewy fresh primroses. And the littlest feet.
“Yes ma’am,” said the woman. “Who do you want to see?”
The girl hesitated a bit before asking for the master of the house.
The woman bowed and led the way in.
Everything looked exactly as it had been all those years ago. The girl swallowed. Suddenly it felt like she had never left. Her heart hammered. She thought she would not be able to muster up the courage to say what she had come here to say.
“Please be seated ma’am,” said the woman softly, indicating the couches and cushioned chairs. “He will be here soon.”
The girl chose a high backed armchair in a corner of the parlor, and sat down. She waited. The man entered the parlor eventually. He looked at her quizzically, as if to say, “Do I know you?” The girl stopped herself from rising.
“So, you did manage to find yourself a bride,” she said.
Something flickered in the man’s eyes. An understanding or maybe his memory was jogged. He pointed both index fingers at her. “You,” he said. “You were one of the many hopefuls?” A slight smile flashed across his lips.
“No,” she said, but a little too quickly. “My mother had brought me here. You were rude.”
The man looked amused in a nasty way. He didn’t look sad at all. She wondered what all the fuss had been about. What was so special about him? She sat there, calm and composed on the surface. She didn’t like the way his lips curled when he spoke
“So why are you here?” said the man. “Want to try your luck again?” He looked her up and down. “Funny. I don’t remember you. You are not half bad-looking.”
The girl rose. She stood up tall in her heels and looked him in the eye. “You are not satisfied with one wife, even though you could use a plastic surgeon or two yourself!”
The man sneered. “She isn’t my wife. Just a poor thing I adopted from a passing ship. These women are happy to serve. So long as they get enough food and nice clothes. They don’t harbor notions of equality and,” he waved a dismissive hand, “what is it? That thing you modern women want?”
He took a cigar from a case on a table. The other woman hurried forward to light it. He ignored her.
“I realized soon after I went through that charade of bride-viewing that marriage was too much of a bother. What does a man need for his comforts? Eh?” he leered at her. “You tell me?!”
“You’re disgusting,” said the girl. She turned to go.
“But you came back, didn’t you?”
His laughter chased her even after the door had closed.
The girl returned to her mother’s house, took her bag and left. Her mother didn’t see her leave; she was still watching TV. The girl drove straight back to her city, where she was successful, beautiful, had friends and a life. She grew more beautiful as the years went by; age softened her features. Her wealth grew, and so did her circle of friends. But sometimes on a quiet day her past life would sit with her, and no matter which way she turned, it always seemed to succeed in catching her attention. She would sigh and get up and go to the mirror. And look herself in the eye.
“I know I am beautiful. I don’t need anyone to tell me so. I am a successful woman of the world. I have friends who love me. My colleagues respect me. I am not alone,” she would recite.
She would keep reciting the lines over and over to herself, even after she walked away from the mirror. Even as she went about the house, clearing away the table, switching off the lights. Even as she lay down on her bed and pulled up the sheets to her chin. Even as she fell asleep.
She would wake up the following day, go to her kitchen and pour herself a mug of coffee. She would inhale the brew, take a sip and drink in the early morning sunlight. She would watch a sunbeam light up the palm of her hand as she held it up, making it glow like an ember. A shadow would always fall under it. Shifting and changing its shape whenever she moved. Dropping to the ground when she arose. Grabbing at her ankles. Slithering after, but never directly behind her. An elongated smudge lingering slantwise on her path. Beneath the golden light.