…the son whom [the queen] shall conceive shall be born in the skin of a pig, with a pig’s ways and manners, and in this state he shall be constrained to abide till he shall have three times taken a wife.
-- Gianfancesco Straparola
|"The Lady Clare (Study)," by John William Waterhouse|
Forgive me, but only a fool
would believe the story
they tell of my sisters and me.
That they were cruel at worst
or at least ungratefully indignant,
that it came to me, the sweet one,
to turn the prince born as swine
back into a man.
He marriedmy oldest sister first and killed her
that same night. The wedding gifts
of land and ease, how easily
they could be revoked.
We were no one before we were
in mourning. Poor so long before
she was pledged.
Instead of justicethe palace guard came to us again
to deliver the king’s request, decorous
but a command no less, and took
my last sister to the chapel before
he killed her too in their marriage bed.
Our mother thought she’d lose us all
to that same cursed prince, when I,
her last, was pledged to wed him too.
He doesn’t say, the court-bought teller
of our tale, how my sisters wanted
to be princesses, how they meant
to love him, but who teaches you
to love the filth and squalor of one
you have wed and who now wants you
as if you were a suck hole in the mud?
Kiss a frog? Close your eyes and pucker
your lips about that warty sack
but find yourself pinned beneath a hog
caked in the mire of muck and dung,
his hooves gashing flesh no longer yours,
spittle frothing along his jowls and tusks,
his loins rooting into the soft of you made sore,
and see if you can choke back retching screams.
I begged and looked to run, when the guards
came with their royal request and kept
watch till we were wed. I was left
only to prayer
not to the Virgin—what would she know of a swine
within her? No Christ, no holy spirit
this one promised me. To Ceridwen,
who knows such magic
as would seek to enter me, I sent
my whispered pleas, and on the night
before I wed that bristle-backed
and cloven beast, she came
in my sleep to me
and shared what need be done.
Tell your daughters this, should they find
the one they need to love
be prince sealed in pig’s hide.
When he comes, she said from behind
her dark stew pot, for the wet of you,
tell him No, that he is a filthy pig,
and you, his princess, will not have him
near until he lets you bathe him.
When he agrees, for you, like the palace guard,
will offer him no choice, order
from your maid a pail of scalding milk
and wire brush. Pour the milk hot as it comes
over him and scrub
a layer from his hide.
After this, give him one kiss and no more
till next he comes with heat upon his breath
for you, and do the same until
the curse is broken.
I wanted her to numberthe nights that I would need
to rip from him the animal that held him
but then I woke and was prepared
to become a princess to a pig.
I did as I was told, and he did snort
and squeal his complaints
but did not bring my death to me
and kept what became
our secret for thirteen moons
until I’d scrubbed every
rough layer of curse from him.
He didn’t step from his hide
because I was sweet or because
I loved him best, unless
you call love what is far from sweet,
the kindness of Scheherazade
that knows instead of stories
grim labor and bald command
as preservation’s art.
That he did step from his foul hide
to please me is a lie.
I would not love a swine
and, as a swine, my husband
could not love. Sweetness
does not end a curse. I did
as was given me to do
and hurt him for his good
and mine, so love came
to his sad eyes
when he brought himself
so many nights to be scoured of his skin,
those same eyes that sparkled when
he took our child, ten-fingered, in his arms.
James Tolan is the author of the poetry collections Red Walls (Dos Madres) and the forthcoming Mass of the Forgotten (Autumn House) and co-editor of New America: Contemporary Literature for a Changing Society. He is an associate professor at the City University of New York/BMCC.