The Ugly Duckling

The comparative perception of beauty
is essentially cruel.
The Taoist sage does not differentiate
between the beautiful and the ugly.
Beauty is beautiful
when it emanates from
("The Tao is Tao", 110)

We used to call my cousin Veronica "Baby", because she was a bit neurotic, or so we thought. Even though she was fourteen years old, she was always crying. The only thing she seemed to be good at was eating a lot, for she was really very fat, almost completely round, with pimples.

Baby was treated by everyone the way all fat and meek girls with pimples are mostly treated. So she probably had enough reason to cry a lot. She always spoke too softly, almost as if she were afraid someone might just hear her. And she could not stand being teased or jokes being played on her. She would sulk and cry, but she would never hit back. She was simply too gentle to become mean herself. Maybe that was why all the children loved to play jokes on her, and why I felt so sorry for her.

When we were alone on a summerís evening, someone was sure to suggest, "Letís make a sucker of Baby." The lovely summerís evening would then end with Baby falling over, under or into something and crying, and everybody else choking with hilarity.

I can remember I was often a bit embarrassed to go out anywhere with Baby (my mother blackmailed me to). I was afraid somebody might think the fat girl with the pimples was my girl-friend. Everybody stared at her. Girls who were supposed to know her were rude to her. Somewhere, somehow, someone would laugh at Baby, or be insulting to her, and my day would be spoilt by Babyís crying and my having to take her home.

It was not that I did not like Baby. When we were alone together, Baby was sweet and intelligent. Her dark eyes sparkled and she was witty and laughed a lot. I could forget how fat she was, and she became beautiful to me then. It was then that I was ashamed that I was sometimes ashamed to be seen with Baby. Baby absolutely adored me. She knew I understood her, and she was not afraid to tell me what she really felt.

"Everybody hates me!" she used to say when we were alone together under the lapa after a swim in our pool.

"Nonsense!" I would answer, trying to sound convincing.

"Now donít lie to me, Jonathan," she would say. Then she used to smile at me in the most enchanting way, and her face would miraculously change into something gorgeous. "But you like me, donít you, Jonathan?"

"Of course, Baby, now donít be silly," I would answer, and I would look around me quickly in the hope that nobody had overheard us talking to each other almost like lovers.

My uncle John, who was an engineer, got a job with a firm in Australia to go and build roads and bridges there, and so the family left Windhoek for Australia shortly before Babyís fifteenth birthday, and the last thing I saw of Baby when we left them at the airport was Baby crying as usual. I was really relieved, I must admit, to see Baby go, and like everybody else, I had soon forgotten about her.

My uncle and his family returned to Namibia three and a half years later. I was almost twenty then, and I was studying at UNAM, but living with my parents. It was towards evening, and I returned home from somewhere to find my uncle with my parents in the garden, enjoying the cooler air outside, preparing for a braai. It was then for the first time that I again thought of Baby.

"So howís Baby?" I asked after the greetings.

"Baby? Oh, you mean Veronica," my aunt said, a hint of pride in her voice. "Sheís in the kitchen fetching us something cold to drink."

Just then a young woman came into the garden. I had never in my whole life seen such an exquisite, beautiful creature. This was not just another pretty girl. The woman standing before me was out of this world. Then this woman smiled at me stunningly, and I recognized her.

It was Baby.

I was speechless.

"Now Jonathan," my uncle proudly said, "canít you remember your cousin?"

Veronica came up to me, a bit shyly at first, and her beautiful eyes looked into mine. "Hello, Jonathan," she said. Then she flung her arms around me and kissed me. I could hear bells ringing. It was love at first sight for me, like for most men laying their eyes on her.

Veronica was the absolute hit of the town. The young men were besotted with her. They were lying at her feet and she could pick and choose whomever she wanted to go out with.

To my delight, Veronica still liked me a lot, but my disappointment was great when I realized she liked me the way girls like their cousins. I was very careful to hide my feelings from her. Veronica would still sometimes come over to me and we would sit under the lapa, like we used to when she was still Baby. She was still as sweet and witty as she had been in the early days. She sometimes went out with me, but my mom had nothing to do with my taking her out. I was filled with pride to be seen walking into a club with such a beauty on my arm. All the guys would look at me with real envy.

Then Veronica met Peter Miles, the handsome son of a millionaire, and I saw very little of her. I would sometimes see them drive by in his sports car, and I would feel very jealous. She had become too classy for me. I was just a poor student with a bicycle.

"I love him, Jonathan, I really love him," Veronica told me one afternoon as we were sitting in the winter sun, trying to warm ourselves, for it was becoming very cold, and the leaves of the fruit trees had fallen, so that they looked bare and desolate.

It soon turned out that Miles was really in love with Veronica. He stopped going out with other girls and soon they got engaged.

Everybody said it was the perfect match. Beauty, money, brains, everything was there, everybody enthused. It could not go wrong. It really was like a fairy tale, everybody thought.

I sometimes saw Miles and Veronica drive past in his new sports car, and I had to admit that they were a beautiful match.

It was six months after they had got engaged, exactly eight days before they were to get married, that it happened. Miles and Veronica were on their way from a party late at night, and Miles had drunk too much. Miles was driving too fast and his sports car left the Okahandja road and turned over twice before it came to a stop.

Everybody said it was a miracle that they had survived. The greatest miracle was that Miles escaped unhurt. What a pity it was about Veronica, though, everyone said, what a pity. The poor girl had been so beautiful.

Veronica had also survived, and she was still as beautiful as she had been before. Except for her right leg, which had to be amputated just above the knee.

Peter Miles, of course, did not marry Veronica. He bought her flowers and sat next to her a lot at first, but his visits became rarer. He nobly told Veronica he was still "willing" to marry her, but Veronica made it easy for him and broke the engagement herself.

From the moment of the accident, there was not a single man in town still interested in Veronica.

I will never forget when I first visited Veronica after she had left hospital. She was sitting in a wheel chair outside in the garden, holding a book as if she were reading. But she was not reading. She was just sitting there, her beautiful face pale and drawn.

"Hi, Veronica!" I said, trying to sound cheerful.

She slowly looked up at me and her beautiful eyes looked even darker than usual against the paleness of her face.

"Donít call me Veronica, Jonathan," she said, and her voice was so soft I could hardly hear her.

"Iím not Veronica ...," she said. "Iím Baby again ..."

"Youíre not," I answered, and things became very clear to me then. "Youíre not Baby."

Veronica stared at me, baffled.

"Youíve never been Veronica either," I heard myself say. "It was all illusion."

Veronica, the real Veronica, looked at me and I could see she didnít understand, but I did, with acute clarity.

My Comment - TA Chew

Life is like a dream.
One moment we are happy and another we are sad
One moment we are laughing and another we are crying
Like the story above, how life is so fragile
When we are happy, the world is so beautiful
When we are sad, the world is so cruel
One moment in love and feel on top of the world
Another moment a broken heart and feel life is not worth living
If only we understand and just let it be
Whatever comes, just take it, be it good or bad
The time will come where we know
Oh! this is life!
How can I transcend this life?
How can I have eternal happiness?
How can I end all these endless pains?
Look for Tao and practise it
Make it your life
One day you will really understand
What is life?