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the truth about beautiful women

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I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson earlier this year. I loved this fable from the book and copied it by hand as soon as I read it. I don’t think it really needs any preface.

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Once upon a time, in the forest, lived a woman who was so beautiful that
the mere sight of her healed the sick and gave a good omen to the crops.

She was very wise too, being well acquainted with the laws of physics and the nature of the universe. Her great delight was to spin, and to sing songs as she turned the wheel.

Meanwhile, in a part of the forest that had become a town, a great prince roamed sadly along the corridors of his palace. He was considered by many to be a good prince, and a valuable leader. He was also quite pretty, though a little petulant at times.

As he walked, he spoke aloud to his faithful companion, an old goose.

‘If only I could find a wife,’ he sighed. ‘How can I run this whole kingdom without a wife?’

‘You could delegate?’ suggested the goose, waddling beside as best she could. ‘Don’t be silly,’ snapped the prince. ‘I’m a real prince.’

The goose blushed.

‘The problem is,’ continued the prince, ‘there’s a lot of girls, but no one who’s got that special something.’

‘What’s that then?’ panted the goose.

The prince gazed into space for a moment, then flung his body to the turf.

‘Your hose has split, sire,’ hissed his companion, embarrassed.

But the prince took no notice.

‘That special something . . . .’ He rolled over, and propped himself on an elbow, motioning the goose to do the same.

‘I want a woman, without blemish inside or out, flawless in every respect. I want a woman who is perfect.’

And he buried his face in the grass and began to cry.

The goose was much moved by this display, and shuffled off to see if she could find some advisors.

After a long search, she stumbled on a clump of them under the royal oaks, playing bridge.

‘The prince wants a wife.’

They looked up as one man.

‘The prince wants a wife,’ she repeated, ‘and she must be without blemish inside or out, flawless in every respect. She must be perfect.’

The youngest advisor got out his bugle horn and sounded the cry. ‘For a wife,’ he shouted. ‘Perfect.’

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For three years the advisors roamed the land to no avail. They found many lovely and virtuous women, but the prince refused them all.

‘Prince, you’re a fool,’ said the goose one day. ‘What you want can’t exist.’

‘It must exist,’ insisted the prince, ‘because I want it.’

‘You’ll die first,’ shrugged the goose, about to go back to her feeding tray.

‘Not before you,’ spat the prince, and chopped off her head.

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Three more years passed, and the prince began to write a book to pass the time. It was called The Holy Mystery of Perfection. He divided it into three sections.

Part one: the philosophy of perfection. The Holy Grail, the unblemished life, the final aspiration on Mount Carmel. Saint Teresa and the Interior Castle.

Part two: the impossibility of perfection. The restless search in this life, the pain, the majority who opt for second best. Their spreading corruption. The importance of being earnest.

Part three: the need to produce a world full of perfect beings. The possibility thereby of a heaven on earth. A perfect race. An exhortation to single-mindedness.

The prince was very pleased with his book, and had a copy given to all his advisors, so that they should not waste his time with the merely second-best. One of them took it with him to a distant corner of the forest, where he could read in peace. He wasn’t academic, and the prince had a very dense prose style.

While he was lying under a tree, he heard the sound of singing coming from somewhere on the left. Curious, and a music lover, he got up to find out who was making the noise. In a clearing, there was a woman spinning thread and accompanying herself with a song.

The advisor thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

‘And she can sew,’ he thought.

He went up to her, bowing as he came.

‘Fair maid,’ he began.

‘If you want to chat,’ she said, ‘you’ll have to come back later, I’m working to a deadline.’

The advisor was very shocked.

‘But I am royal,’ he told her.

‘And I’m working to a deadline,’ she told him. ‘Come for lunch if you want.’

‘I’ll be back at noon,’ he answered stiffly and marched off.

Meantime, the advisor questioned whoever he met about the woman. How old was she? Who were her family? Did she have any dependents? Was she clever?

‘Clever?’ snorted one old man. ‘She’s perfect.’

‘Did you say perfect?’ urged the advisor, shaking the old man by the shoulders.

‘Yes,’ cried he, ‘I said perfect.’

As soon as it was noon the advisor banged on the door of the woman’s home.

‘It’s cheese soup,’ she said, as she let him in.

‘Never mind that,’ he retorted, ‘we’ve got to get moving, I’m taking you to the prince.’

‘What for?’ asked the woman, ladling out her own soup.

‘He might want to marry you,’

‘I’m not getting married,’ she said.

The advisor turned to her in horror. ‘Why not?’

‘It’s not something I’m very interested in. Now do you want this soup or don’t you?’

‘No,’ shouted the young man. ‘But I’ll be back.’

Three days later, there was a great commotion in the forest. The prince and his retinue were arriving. The prince himself had lost the use of his legs from sitting still so long, and had to be carried in a litter. At the sight of the woman, who was sitting spinning, just as before, he leapt from his pallet, crying, ‘I’m cured, she must be perfect.’ And he fell on his knees and begged her to marry him.

The court turned to one another, smiling. They could stop all this nonsense now, and live happily ever after.

The woman smiled down on the kneeling price, and stroked his hair.

‘You’re very sweet, but I don’t want to marry you.’

There was a gasp of horror from the gathered court.

Then silence.

The prince struggled to his feet, and pulled a copy of his book from out of his pocket.

‘But you must, I’ve written all about you.’

Again the woman smiled, and read the title. Then she frowned, and motioning to the prince, pulled him inside her home.

For three days and three nights the court camped in fear. No sound came from the hut. Then on the fourth day, the prince appeared, weary and unwashed. Calling his chief advisors around him, he told them all that had taken place.

The woman was indeed perfect, there was no doubt about that, but she wasn’t flawless. He, the prince, had been wrong. She was perfect because she was a perfect balance of qualities and strengths. She was symmetrical in every respect. The search for perfection, she had told him, was in fact the search for balance, for harmony. And she showed him Libra, the scales, and Pisces, the fish, and last of all put out her two hands. ‘Here is the clue,’ she said. ‘Here in this first and personal balance.’

‘There are two principles,’ she said, ‘the Weight and the Counter-weight.’

‘Oh yes,’ put in one of the advisors, ‘you mean the sphere of Destiny and the wheel of Fortune.’

The prince swivelled round.

‘How do you know?’ he demanded.

The advisor blushed. ‘Oh, it’s just something my mother told me, I’d forgotten it until now.’

‘Well anyway,’ said the prince peremptorily, ‘the point is I’m wrong and I’m going to have to write a new book, and make a public apology to the goose.’

‘Sire, you cannot,’ gasped the advisors, as one man.

‘Why not?’

‘Because you are a prince, and as a prince you cannot be seen to be wrong.’

That night the prince paced the forest, hoping to find a solution. On the stroke of midnight he heard a sound behind him, and drawing his sword came face to face with his chief advisor.

‘Lucien,’ he exclaimed (for it was he).

‘Sire,’ the man answered, bowing deeply. ‘I have a solution.’ And for forty-five minutes he whispered in the prince’s ear.

‘No,’ cried the prince, ‘I cannot.’

‘Sire, you must, your kingdom is at stake.’

‘No one will believe me,’ wept the prince, sitting on a log.

‘They will, they must, they always do,’ replied his advisor evenly. ‘Trust me.’

‘Must I?’ asked the prince wildly.

‘You must,’ said the advisor, very firm.

The night continued, and the prince fixed his heart to evil. At dawn, there was a great trumpet cry, and all the court and all the village assembled together to hear what the prince had to say.

He stood in their midst, newly washed, and called for the woman to come forth.

As she came from her home, the first light caught her, and she shone beacon-like across the clearing. There was a murmur of amazement, for she was more beautiful than ever that day. The prince swallowed hard, and began his speech.

‘Good people, all of you know of my search for perfection, and many of you I hope have read my book. I had hoped on coming here to find an end to my quest, but I now know that perfection is not to be found, but to be fashioned, there is no such thing as flawlessness on this earth . . . .’

‘But there is such a thing as perfection,’ the woman spoke out, her voice clear and strong.

‘This woman,’ continued the prince, ‘has done her best to convince me that perfection and flawlessness are not the same thing, and why should she take such trouble if she were not flawed herself?’

‘I took no trouble,’ returned the woman, as strong as before. ‘It was you who sought me.’

There was a ripple of dissent among the crowd. Suddenly someone cried out.

‘But she healed you!’

‘Heathen arts,’ snapped back the chief advisor. ‘Arrest that man.’ And the man was bound, and taken away.

‘But she has no blemish,’ shouted out another.

‘But I have,’ said the woman quietly, ‘I have many.’

‘Proof from her own lips,’ screamed the chief advisor.

Then the woman took a step forward and stood before the prince who began to tremble uncontrollably.

‘What you want does not exist,’ she said.

‘Proof from her own lips,’ screamed the chief advisor again.

The woman took no notice, but continued to address the prince, who had turned deathly pale.

‘What does exist lies in the sphere of your own hands.’

The prince fainted.

‘Evil, Evil,’ shrieked the advisor. ‘We will not give up on our task.’

‘You’ll be dead first,’ shrugged the woman, about to go back inside.

‘Not before you,’ cried the prince, coming to. ‘Off with her head.’

And they chopped off the woman’s head.

Instantly, the blood became a lake, and drowned the advisors and most of the court. The prince only managed to escape by climbing a tree.

‘This is a tedious affair,’ he thought. ‘Still, at least I have stamped out a very great evil. Now I must continue my quest, but alas, who will ever advise me?’

At that moment, he heard a noise beneath him. He looked down, and saw a man selling oranges.

‘What a good idea,’ exclaimed the prince, ‘I’ll get a dozen for the trip home.’

‘Old man,’ he hailed, ‘sell me a dozen oranges.’

The old man fumbled out a dozen, and put them into a bag.

‘Got anything else?’ asked the prince, feeling better.

‘Sorry,’ said the seller, ‘I only does oranges.’

‘Oh dear,’ sighed the prince, ‘I was hoping for something to read on the way back.’

The old man sniffed.

‘No magazines?’

The old man shook his head.

‘No informative booklets?’

The old man wiped his nose.

‘Oh well, I’ll go then,’ decided the prince.

‘Wait a minute,’ said the man suddenly, ‘I got this.’

And he pulled from his pocket a leather bound book. ‘I don’t know if it’s up your street, it tells you how to build a perfect person, it’s all about this man who does it, but it’s no good if you ain’t got the equipment.’

The prince snatched it away.

‘It’s a bit weird,’ continues the old man, ‘this geezer gets a bolt through the neck . . . .’

But the prince had gone.”

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Excerpt from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson (1985)

Copyright held solely and completely by the author.

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