The First Tale
The lady was born with fingernails the color of blood. She was an otherwise beautiful child. Her cheeks were full and soft. Her eyes were warm brown, and they glittered when she laughed, and that was often. Even as a baby, she had glossy auburn hair. She was an otherwise bright child. Even-tempered, quick-witted, keen of thought, and wise of action.
At first her nails horrified everyone. Her mother thought it an illness. Her father thought it a curse. And her young brother called it a deformity. Her mother bought her gloves to wear on all occasions, though gloves had gone out of fashion during that period. Her father commissioned a painter to paint her nails to a natural color, but the painters could not keep up with always painting the little baby’s nails, for the nails always grew and the paint would look odd. Or the paint would flake off at times and reveal the dark vivid red underneath.
For a long time, the lady’s nails were hidden, but when she grew older, she refused to wear the beautiful gloves her mother gave her. She was a highborn lady, and expected to marry whom she was directed to marry. To the lady, her nails were a gift. They did not pain her. They did not hinder her. It was not a true debility, not like the bent backs of the aged, or the frail bodies of the ill. They were a gift, for only a lord who truly loved her and truly thought her beautiful and good would overlook her defect.
So she dreamed that she would be rejected by all the other lords. Rich and powerful lords, but distant and disdainful, cold and critical. Young and spritely lords who cared only for debauchery. Lords who were kind and handsome, but for whom she felt no passion and who felt no passion for her. She dreamed there would be one among them, and only one, who would look beyond the rumors and the whispers into her eyes to her soul and her spirit. And such a frivolous thing as the color of her nails would mean nothing to him.
Not all such dreams come true. But the lady’s did. She traveled abroad on a long sea voyage and met a soldier-lord who was coming home after being honorably discharged from his duty. He was poor in riches but rich in stories. They dazzled each other. And for the first time, the lady was hesitant to remove her gloves and show her blood-red nails. For she feared that he would be as horrified as others and that he would leave her be with only sweet memories of the short time they spent conversing during the voyage.
She realized that she was not brave then, for she did not show him, not until they were close to shore. She could see from his manner that he wanted to begin a courtship with her. So she pulled off her gloves and as she dreamed, he surprised her by grasping her bare hands and asking if he might court her.
He moved to her town. It was a remote place, a verdant place, and the lords and ladies there were not well-traveled for they had no reason to be. But the soldier-lord had seen all manner of wonders and horrors during his tours of duty. By that time, no one ever spoke of the lady’s red nails, but the soldier-lord told stories of even more unusual sights. With the men, he spoke of great beauties in the east and the south who wore red color on their lips and cheeks. With the women, he spoke of wise ladies in the north and west who painted symbols on their hands and arms to ward off evil and to heal their fellow folk of strange maladies.
The oldest folk and the youngest folk seemed most intrigued by the soldier-lord and his tales. But those in the middle were rather dour about the disturbance he was causing in their contented town.
Their disdain was made all the worse when the lady with the red nails and the lord with the fantastical tales came to wed. They quickly began to grow their wealth, for both were clever and were all the more inspired after their talents were joined. The town began to change. More young men and women wanted to travel away from home. They did not stay to watch over the wealth or trade of their families. A few of the most prominent families were much threatened by the prosperous, industrious, and anomalous lord and lady. And some of the young lords took it upon themselves to plan an attack on the soldier-lord in his very bedchamber. They thought to drive him from the town, and with him, the lady who was not content to hide her defect and who had brought such tumult into their town.
But the lady of the red nails had many friends (some might say, spies) among all the people of the town, and she got wind of the plan to attack her husband. She told him and they hatched a plan. The young lords came and when they entered the bedchamber on the night of a crescent moon, they were met with a terrifying figure.
She was dressed in a ghostly white robe that fluttered from the wind beyond the shutters. A strange light glowed from behind her. She raised her hands up and they saw that the tips of her fingers dripped and as the drops fell upon her white robe, they saw that they dripped blood. And then, the figure spoke in a dark and cold voice.
“You dare attack my husband. As blood drips from my fingers, so shall it drip from you until you are drained.”
She had no weapon but their fear. And it was enough. They fled the bedchamber. And the lady’s allies put potions in the young lords’ cups that when drunk would make their noses drip with blood. And so the lords, fearing curses from the lady with the red nails, gave up their plotting and fled the town.
In time, the lady became the leader of the town and the many surrounding towns. She sired seven children, all extraordinary, all renowned. The first became a soldier, like his father. The second became a scholar. The third became a healer. The fourth became a traveler. The fifth became a painter and sculptor. The sixth became a teacher. And the seventh, like his mother, became a great leader of the realm.
So respected was the lady by that time, so admired was her husband, and so adored were her children that a habit grew among the young women of the town. They began to paint their nails red whenever they were with child in the hopes that their children would be as prosperous and happy as the lady’s children. The other people of the town became used to the practice. This superstitious habit became a custom. A woman had to paint her nails and keep them painted, and if she did, she would give birth to a great scholar or warrior or leader or teacher. For the most part, the men neither minded nor favored the practice. But the women began to enjoy decorating their nails. They demanded nail paints in different colors, bright and dark, soft and bold, and they began to make designs. Rich and noble woman commissioned nail painters to paint masterpieces on their nails.
Some changes take eons. Some take the blink of an eye. By the time the lady with the red nails was a great-grandmother, dandling her first great-grandchild on her knee, all the women and girls of the town had come to paint their nails and show them with pride. For it had come to be a sign of beauty to have colored nails. No other decoration—rouge or powder—had caught on quite as well in the town as painted nails. And no matter how rich or poor a girl was, she could find a bottle of paint for her nails. And so the lady triumphed at last, for the thing that was deemed her defect became her pride. She never did paint her nails a different color. Always they were red. And when she passed at last and was placed onto the funeral pyre, her hands with their still-vivid red nails, were crossed over her heart.
The Second Tale
All the men wore beards in the far, far south where the town lay covered in snow for half the year. In ages past the practice began, for the men were the ones who went out to hunt and then to work the small and delicate fields. They grew their hair and their beards long to keep their faces warm, even under layers of scarves, for scarves were often torn off or lost long before the man could return to what was then a mere village. It is not said why the ancient people chose to live in such a harsh clime.
Over time, the people built homes and places of work that were well warm enough. From fires of wood came fires that burned from oil. There was less and less need to hunt or scavenge, for the food the people needed could be grown, the animals raised in farms where warmth was nearby. But the beards of the men abided, for they came to serve a different purpose. They came to be a sign of manhood, of productivity, and industry. Indeed, it was considered indecent for a man not to keep his face covered in hair as soon as he was able to grow it, and those unable to grow beards wore false ones. And those unable to buy false beards wore masks and lived in shame, for they were deemed failures and lesser men.
So when the young lord first appeared at a ball with no beard and only an ornate band of hair above his lip, everyone present was shocked and scandalized. The young lord was ridiculed behind his back. He looked like a boy, they said, and would never find a woman who was willing to take him until he grew out enough hair to keep his cheeks and chin covered, as any decent man would. Rumor spread throughout the town, and rumor became truth when the lord showed himself about town, purchasing in the market, visiting the officials and regular folk. Women averted their eyes. Girls and boys gazed with curiosity. And men stared with disdain and disfavor.
All the eligible ladies were swept away by protective mothers, or their views were blocked by fathers and brothers, whenever the young lord came by. But none could say anything to correct the lord, for he was powerful and had brought his riches to a town that was dying. Not much could grow in the soil. There were no precious minerals to be found in the caves and mountains that lay to the west. And the town did not lie on any well-traveled routes. The last great lord to rule and govern the town had lost most of his fortune when he was cuckolded by a treacherous lover and abandoned by a disgusted family. He was made to shave his beard and leave the town in shame.
For many months, the people of the town said nothing to the young lord’s face, for they needed him, but they whispered and plotted. The town had few other nobles by then, and their sons were young still, but were sent to try and befriend the beardless lord and perhaps in time to encourage him to grow a beard and become the dashing and heroic young lord that the town needed him and wished him to be. If the beardless lord grew angry, they could simply appease him by scolding their sons. For these young sons were beardless as well, but only because they had not yet passed into manhood. One was trying desperately to grow a beard and checked on the progress of his stubble in a looking glass every day. Another wore a false beard made of goat’s hair. Still another merely hid his boyish face under a green mask that covered his nose and mouth.
The boys surrounded the beardless lord one evening at a dinner. While their sires tried not to watch and listen, they began to speak to the lord on matters of manliness. They spoke of strength and tradecraft. Finally, they came upon the topic of beards. The beardless lord smiled softly and raised his brow just a bit when the boy with the goat’s hair beard rubbed his chin and proclaimed how impatient he was for the time he could grow a full beard of his own hair, and how fortunate the young lord must feel for he could do so at any time, or so the boy assumed.
“I have worn a beard in the past,” the young lord answered.
The boys glanced at each other in confusion, for it was rumored that the young lord was not capable of growing a beard. But if the young lord could grow a beard, they wondered why he did not.
The boy with the green mask looked about at his fellows and took a bold breath. “What is it called? That thing on your face? The top half of a beard. Is there was a word for it?”
The lord smiled and gave a nod. “Indeed, there is. It is called a mustache.” With that, he grasped the end of his mustache between his thumb and forefinger and gently twirled. He laughed and the boys laughed with him. They were too young to be friends he could carouse with, and the townsfolk should have known that. There were other young men they could have sent to the lord, but those men were not of noble blood, and the nobles of the town were well-set in their ways.
A young lady approached and began to scold the boy with goat’s hair beard. She told the boy he would never grow his own hair if he kept gluing that goat’s hide onto his face. Then she looked at the beardless lord. She offered her hand and her name to the beardless lord, and he learned that she was the boy’s older sister.
She did not say so, but she found his face to be beautiful. It was not like the face of a boy at all, for she could see his jaw was square and firm and his cheeks were high. Beardless his face might be, but it was not a soft face, nor a harsh one, but quite fetching. His eyes were kind and playful, as was the smirk he gave her when he told her that she should move along lest he damage her reputation.
“My family is not so important that we need worry about such things,” the lady replied. She smiled. “It was my pleasure to meet you, my lord. I thank you for all you have done for our town.”
With that, she bobbed quickly, and swept her little brother away as he fussed with his “beard.”
The boys were sent often to entreat the lord to grow a beard. They boys did manage to charm the lord, and he came to love them as if they were his young brothers, for he had no brothers of his own blood. But the boys were just as charmed with the beardless lord. To the dismay of the nobles in the town, the boys began to take after their idol. The boy with the green mask set aside his mask. The boy with the uneven stubble began to shave his cheeks. And the boy with the goat’s hair beard became the boy with the goat’s hair mustache.
So long as it was just the boys, not much fuss was made of it among the nobles. But then the young men among the common folk came to shave off their beards and keep mustaches. Some even shaved all of their beards off. Strangely, there was little scandal among the common folk. Perhaps because the men found it to be so practical to have no beards. And the women were suddenly faced with husbands or prospective husbands who had smooth cheeks to kiss and faces both familiar and excitingly unfamiliar. It is said that many children were born in the year that followed.
At last, the nobles followed suit, only they had to assure their styles were refined compared to the common folk. So they began to keep mustaches of all different shapes and lengths, some with curls and some with twirls.
The beardless lord soon came to marry the young lady who had so boldly and charmingly made his acquaintance at a ball where her young brother had been tasked with turning the beardless lord into a bearded lord. They had two sons, who when they were grown both preferred beards to their father’s perpetual mustache.
In time, the fashions changed in the town as whim and weather changed. Men grew beards. Men shaved their beards. Men grew mustaches. Men shaped their mustaches. The beardless young lord who invigorated the town back into prosperous times left behind a legacy of generosity and good deeds. But he also left behind a more lighthearted legacy. The legacy of the mustache.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.