Last night I found myself revisiting the old tale of The Ugly Wife – Emma Restall Orr’s retelling, from which her book Kissing The Hag takes its title. “It’s a story that can be found in very many forms, in old myth and legend, in folklore and music…”
The form it brought to mind was a retelling of another old tale by another wise woman, Clarissa Pinkola Estes: Skeleton Woman. I had never connected the two tales before – the first so rooted in the British Arthurian tradition, the second from the faraway Arctic of the Inuit – yet they speak to the same fears, and the same needs. Put bluntly, they speak of love and death, attraction and revulsion, trust and fear. All are intertwined.
All love must one day meet death. Nothing lasts for ever. The promises I am preparing to make last for a lifetime, and cannot be made in good faith without appreciating just what that means. One of us may well end up burying the other – or, if not, both of us will have to let our life together come to an end, in order to begin anew, alone again. And along the way there are a hundred little deaths: the deaths of illusions, old habits, fleeting physicality (already, the first white hairs, the suggestion of crows’ feet at the eyes, the settling of weight in unfamiliar places). Love itself is constantly dying and can be constantly reborn, if we trust each other and ourselves enough to let it happen.
Between my overblown romantic tendencies (“when love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep”) and studying and celebrating the mysteries of our cycles of death and regeneration, I feel ready to meet this challenge with a steady gaze. Timor mortis (non) conturbat me.
But lurking underneath this tale of renewal are other questions, and my gaze is much less steady when I meet them.
Who is the hag? Who am I? Who are you?
Can you love me like this? Can I love you while I am like this?
Can I be the soft-skinned maiden, feeling myself to be the hag underneath? Can I be the warm-blooded lover as well as the sea-ravaged skeleton? Is one more real than the other? Do they co-exist?
And what if I am the soft-skinned maiden, not the hag, but need your kindness to break me free? What if you, the fisherman, don’t feel that compassion, don’t shed that tear – am I stuck forever as a skeleton beneath the waves?
If I can change, what’s to stop me changing back? What’s to stop me wanting to change back?
Could you weather all these changes?
For some reason I find these questions more difficult to face than the idea of death. They all ask the same thing: am I loveable? Could you love me, really, as I am? Everything I am? Are you worthy? Am I?
And the most difficult thing about these questions is that I have to face them for myself. Each question needs an answer from myself, first, before I pose it to my partner (though in reality he’s several steps ahead of me on these, just as I know I can happily answer all of his questions when he feels ready to ask them).
Fear, it seems, is the one thing I am not ready to let die for the sake of love. It’s such a cliché that it took an unexpected telling of an old, familiar tale to jolt me into recognition of its truth. So I am preparing to sit with my fear for a while, to understand it and to learn from it, until I feel ready to let it die, ready to promise a lifetime of love with my partner, in good faith.