once upon a time there was a girl. she was very pretty and so her parents named her Pretty. "Pretty!" they would call her. and she would come to them because she was a good girl.
then one day she met a boy. "hello, boy" she said. "what is your name?"
"Ugly," said the boy, because when he was born he was an ugly baby (some babies are). but he had outgrown his ugliness, and really nothing was very ugly about him now. "what is your name?" he asked the girl.
the girl felt sorry that the boy's name was Ugly, so she realized she couldn't possibly tell him her real name. it would make him feel bad. but she did not want to take a degrading name for herself either. so she answered him: "Decent."
"pleased to meet you, Decent," said the boy, and he smiled. the girl liked his smile, and she liked that he was pleased to meet her, and she liked that she had not hurt his feelings by telling him her real name.
Ugly and Decent, as she called herself, became good friends. every day they would walk to school together. some of the kids made fun of Ugly because of his name, but Decent would glare at them and they would be quiet, because everyone loved Decent. she was so pretty, after all.
years and years passed. the boy grew into a handsome young man, and the girl grew into a beautiful young woman. their friendship grew along with them, and by this time they were quite close.
the day of their graduation, Ugly was walking Decent home afterwards, when he stopped and looked at her. "Decent," he said.
"yes?" she said.
"the time has come when I must make my way in the world. my father says it is time i seek my fortune in the city."
"oh," said Decent.
they walked a little further. then Decent stopped. "Ugly," she said, looking at him.
"yes?" he said.
"does that mean you're leaving?"
"yes, it does." he looked at her again. "i will miss you," he said.
"and i will miss you," she replied, quickly brushing away the tear that sprung to her beautiful eye. "but will you ever come back?"
"oh yes," said Ugly. "when i have made my fortune in the world, I will come back." he hesitated, then finally added, "for you."
Decent blushed. when she blushed, she was more than decent, more even than pretty. the boy knew this. he had known it all along.
"Decent," he said. "when i was born, my parents said i was an ugly baby. that is why they named me Ugly. you know this. but you..." he looked at her again. "you could not have been merely decent. you must have been a very pretty baby."
she could do nothing but look back at him. she did not brush away the tears that sprung to her eyes this time.
Ugly went on. "and now," he said, "now, you are more than pretty. if i had to name you, i would name you Beautiful. i would name you Breathtaking. but at the same time i would not, because now the name Decent means Beautiful to me, because Decent means you. and i would not change one thing about you, so neither would i change even one letter of your name."
Decent stood looking into the depths of his eyes. she realized he was holding her hands in his. she wanted more than anything to tell him that she would not name him Ugly either. she wanted to tell him that in her eyes, he was the most beautiful and perfect person in the world. she wanted to tell him that her real name was Pretty, it had been Pretty from the beginning. but she could not. he knew her as Decent.
"i will miss you," she finally said again. right away she wished she would have said something better than that.
"goodbye," said Ugly. "will you wait for me?"
"yes," she replied, her eyes not leaving his face.
"when i come back, if i cannot find you, i will tie a cord around this tree," he said, pointing to an old oak tree beside the path. "if you find the cord, ask for me at the inn. i will wait there as long as i have hope."
"i will," she said, and once again she wanted to say much more.
he looked hard at her face, as if to fix the picture in his mind. then he smiled at her, squeezed her hands, and turned away.
and so Ugly went off to the city to seek his fortune.
a year went by. Decent often wondered where Ugly was, and whether he had made his fortune yet. every morning, she woke up and checked the big oak tree, to see if he had come back. she wanted to tell him her name, and she wanted to tell him all those other things too.
another year passed. it was getting hard to be named Decent, because she was one of the most beautiful girls in the land. people constantly told her, "Decent is a poor name for one as pretty as you," and "your parents must have had poor eyesight or poor foresight, one of the two, because there's nothing decent about you." but no one told her she should be named Beautiful, or Breathtaking. only Ugly had said that. and so she insisted that her name was Decent.
another year went by. by this time, many of the most eligible men in the land came seeking her hand in marriage. they would ask her father, and he in turn would say, "my daughter will marry whomever she chooses." and so they would come to her, with all sorts of gifts and perfumes and flowers and poems and songs, and she would politely listen to them, but still her heart was waiting for Ugly to return from the city. she still made a point to check the oak tree at least once a week, even though it was out of her way.
then one day, a suitor came to her and said he had written her a poem. she was listening politely to his poem, when suddenly a phrase caught her attention.
"i would name you Beautiful," he was saying. "i would name you Lovely. I would name you Incomparable." her eyes darted sharply to his face in wild hope, but no, it was not Ugly. she looked away to conceal her disappointment. "for these," he concluded, "are you." he looked up at her, and was surprised to see her looking interestedly at him.
"would you think these names more fitting?" she asked him, smiling.
"oh, yes," he replied hopefully. "not that any words can fully describe your matchless beauty."
"yes," she sighed again. "i fear that is what i shall be forever... a matchless beauty."
still another year passed, and finally Pretty began to wonder whether Ugly was going to come back at all, or if something terrible had happened to him. she was only checking the tree when she remembered these days, which was about once a month. suitors kept her busy, and all of them said Decent was a terrible name for her. more and more were saying she should be named Beautiful.
what really got to her was the comments she would hear about her parents. "that girl's parents must be blind as a bat to have named her Decent," they would say, or "the poor girl's parents tried to doom her to a life of mediocrity, but she showed them."
she hated to hear people saying bad things about her parents. she knew her parents had named her Pretty. no one would talk poorly about her parents if she went by Pretty. besides, it was her own fault she went by Decent, not her parents'.
then the fateful day came. the day when she woke up and she was Pretty. she was Decent no longer. "good morning, Decent," the neighbors would say as she ran her morning errands. "my name is Pretty, it always has been," she would tell them. "yes, of course," they would nod. "we knew it all along."
it felt good to Pretty to finally tell the truth. she liked that people would not talk badly about her parents anymore. but something inside her felt bad about changing her name back. she did not know what it was.
yet another year went past, and by this time, she was sure Ugly was dead, or had forgotten her, or had met someone else. her suitors would pile in, one after the other, to deliver their piece, and she would honestly try to be interested in them. they would heap their compliments and gifts on her, they would talk of her beauty, they would tell her that her name was the greatest understatement of all time, that her name was the most appropriate of all time, that they would still change it to Beautiful, to Gorgeous, to Glorious. but they were all missing something, and she could not say what it was.
about that time a stranger entered the town. he did not speak to anyone, but people said he was polite when spoken to. the people were curious about him, because he was not coming to court Pretty, like the rest of the strangers that visited the town. he stayed at the inn, and during the day he wandered around the town. people said it seemed that he was looking for something.
when he had been there for a month, the people eventually stopped taking notice of him. Pretty never heard him mentioned, because she was too busy listening to the suitors that would come in from all over the land.
still another year passed. Pretty never checked the oak tree anymore. she was sick of the suitors coming, speaking their fake words to her. she knew they thought she was pretty, but she also knew they did not love her, and she was sick of them telling her they did.
finally Pretty had enough. she told the suitors to stop coming to see her, because she would never be interested in any of them. she told them she was sorry if she led them on by granting them an audience, really she could not love any of the hundreds upon hundreds that had come so far, and she had tried, really she had, so she was certain she would not love someone in the hundreds that would yet come. so the suitors left town.
she lay on her bed, listening to the rain fall outside, not sure what had become of her life. why wasn't she happy? she used to be happy. when was that? it seemed eons ago. what changed? what was missing?
she used to think it was what Ugly had said, "i would name you Beautiful," but when the suitor had said it, and all the suitors after him, it had not meant anything to her.
why had it been different when Ugly said it? what changed?
then she remembered, and suddenly she knew what was missing. she knew what was missing from all the suitors. she knew why she felt bad about changing her name. she remembered all too vividly looking into Ugly's eyes, and hearing him say "i would not change one thing about you, and so neither would i change even one letter of your name."
she remembered, and knew then that he loved her.
she suddenly cried out, "oh Ugly! what have i done!" and she got up and ran as fast as she could down to the old oak tree. she barely noticed that the rain completely soaked her, she barely blinked when her feet slipped in the mud.
then she was there. she walked toward the tree, pushing aside the wet hair that had plastered itself to her face.
it was there!! the cord was there, tied around the tree, just as he had said. but something seemed wrong. she restrained herself from whooping triumphantly and walked closer to it.
she stared, blinking through the rain, as she took in what she saw. the cord was frayed and rotting. it had been there a long time.
she sat down on the soggy grass, still staring. she tried to order her thoughts, but she could not. all she could think was "he could not find Decent." all she could see was Ugly walking around the town, searching for the woman he had come back for, a woman named Decent. all she could hear was Ugly calling the name that once had been her own. all she could feel was emptiness. she wished she were angry at herself, and she knew she was, but she did not feel anger. she wished she were very sad, and she knew she was, but she could not cry. the rain fell. she felt hopeless beyond care.
Hope! the word rang in her mind like a gunshot. something about that word... Hope! the word triggered a memory: "ask for me at the inn," Ugly was saying. "i will wait there as long as i have hope."
she leapt up. she hoped fiercely that his hope was greater than the age of that rope. she ran toward the town.
© 1998-2021 Zach Bardon
Last modified 7.19.2019