I find it fascinating to hear the stories of the people who come to wonderlit.com. Thanks to the Internet, my subscribers enter through doors that are everywhere in the world. Hariny is a recent subscriber who is 20 years old and pursuing an honors BA in English at a college in New Delhi, India. She found WonderLit last year, after she had been depressed for some time.
She’d been away from home for a year, and during the summer months, “I was lost and clueless … unable to leave the bed and was confined to my room,” she told me. “I hardly ate. The outside world believed I was okay, but I was dead and empty inside.”
In her numbed state Hariny began to hang around with the wrong crowd, “a bunch of sick and twisted people who saw nothing wrong in the ways they frittered away their lives.” They took her to dangerous places and exposed her to situations that made her feel horrible and defiled. She was filled with self-loathing.
“I considered myself to be unworthy of everything good the world has to offer. That is when I came across WonderLit for the first time. I had never heard a concept like it before. I have always been intrigued by fairy tales but I had never thought of their healing powers.”
Hariny was magnetically drawn to Cinderella. “She is perfectly sweet and awesome on her own. But somehow she keeps getting bullied into doing chores for the rest of her family. Did she have thoughts of her own? … Just like her, I find myself often getting bullied into doing things for others. Most of the time they are really close friends and I do not want to be rude or hurtful by turning them down. Standing up to our families, friends and the ones that are closest to us can be the toughest thing ever.”
Following the WonderLit exercises, Hariny went to the scene that was pulling her into the fairy tale. She wrote a powerful piece, a mirror image of herself as Cinderella at the ball. But Hariny’s ball was a nightclub. Her Cinderella was “dressed in a strawberry pink frock with her black hair hanging past her waist” who found herself trapped in a loud, smoky, “dimly lit hall with colorful graffiti splashed all over the walls.” The prince was “a wiry guy with black curls” who had his hands all over her. Hariny’s Cinderella started to panic. She texted her friends. When they didn’t answer, she fled in terror, catching her skirt on a nail. She ran down the stairs, two at a time and broke a glass heel in her flight.
Hariny was amazed at what she had written. It reflected her horror and disillusionment with the party life. It also eroded her faith that the fairy tale would take her to any place of real happiness. Yet the story kept tugging on her heartstrings.
Then one sleepless night around 3 a.m., something happened. “I started thinking how worthless everything had made me feel. How nobody could relate or grasp what I was going through. Somehow the word ‘Ugly Duckling’ kept flashing in my mind. I knew that was me. … Around 4 AM I opened my phone and began writing in the darkness. I began by writing to myself about how terrible I genuinely felt.
“But then half way through I did not feel the same way anymore. I felt hope. None of those events could dampen the love I have for myself. Slowly I began writing about that too. About the change in the duckling. Around 6 AM, the sun had risen, and I was burning with a light fever. But I had the finished story and my heart was warm. I felt better than I have ever felt before. I knew that what had taken place was a highly magical experience.”
Hariny’s Ugly Duckling story gave her a long look into a loving mirror. As I read it, I was reminded of some lines that were written by the 15th century Indian mystic poet Kabir:
If a mirror ever
makes you sad
You should know
it does not
I asked Hariny if she would allow me to share her Ugly Duckling story with my readers, and she was pleased to do so. Meanwhile, she has gone back to Cinderella with renewed faith in herself and in the transformative magic of the fairy tale. WonderLit is allowing her to express things that can’t be said explicitly in her environment. “I am completely in love with the concept of WonderLit,” Hariny writes. “I think you created magic with this site to help so many out there who are struggling for an outlet to channel what they are going through. It certainly is helping me a great deal.”
The Ugly Duckling
You are the palest shade of grey with feathers that don’t match. They don’t ruffle gently with the wind. You don’t glow or look like one of God’s aerial messengers when the sun slowly sets or rises in brilliant shades of red and gold. You do not have friends that offer you their shoulder to cry on after a hard day. You do not have someone to protect you from the demons of the dark. You do not receive the easy love which you shower repeatedly after forgiving those who hurt you the most. You are never the most beautiful or the most intelligent or the most talented. You are not big enough or strong enough or beautiful enough. You are not enough.
You are picked upon. Bigger and better birds turn your everydays into a constant war of hit, strike and run. Wherever you walk you find yourself to be the one that doesn’t belong. The misfit. You aren’t given the best meals. You are left to scrape the leftovers after everyone has had their fill. Wherever you walk you are met with immediate disgust, silent frowns and heavily disapproving coughs. They call you names. Hit you. Thwart you. Steal from you. Isolate you. Make your life a living hell.
You have tried to change many times, haven’t you? You have tried to stop looking so small and weak. You were tired of being the vulnerable and easy target all the time. So you puffed out your chest, pecked your feathers too clean and arranged them in the best fashionable way you knew. You practiced that smile long enough and promised yourself that it will stick to your face no matter what. You were so sure that you will conquer the world. Yup. You tried. But the moment you stepped out of your little safe spot under that patch of discarded hay, things only got worse.
One day you decide to run far away. Far away from this misery. You do not want to live with beings who breed such poison in their hearts. You find yourself curled up in a cold cave. Your heart doesn’t thump faster with fear or shame anymore. The freezing cold doesn’t affect you. The deep darkness of the cave has never scared you. Your feathers are thick and warm, shielding you constantly.
Wow. You have never thought this way before.
Yes. Your feathers. The dullest shade of grey, random and shaggy-looking but they held off anything that could harm you.
And the beak. Others poked fun of since it since it was jagged with irregular ups and downs and not perfectly curved like theirs. Oh well. You could easily catch your food from the lake or weed out the most stubborn plants to create your space. What takes an eternity for them, you finish in seconds.
Your heart grows warm. You have always been far ahead of everyone else around. You stand up tall to have a look at yourself in the reflection of a small puddle formed by the drops dripping from the roof of the cave. You look so strong. Huge. How did you never notice this before? You are way bigger than the other birds that pecked at you every day. For what silly reason did you feel so small when in fact you looked much more menacing than any of them over there? Your feathers are still grey. You don’t glow or shine in the darkness. Instead you merge with it into a beautiful hue of melting grey to complement the wonder of that exotic cave. You look at your eyes. They are a bright glowing black. Two magical orbs that stayed bright all along. Your eyes are the most magical things you have ever seen.
You feel silly now. What were you even thinking? Why did you let them get their way? You are more special and more exquisite than all of them combined.
You remember all those abuses and sharp pokes. You roll your eyes. Oh please. You are above all that. You sit back, fuzzy and warm with this realization. You are smiling so hard right now and your heart is racing wild with triumph. You laugh. You giggle. You hug yourself. Unbelievable. You are the best thing you ever knew. Not like those birds that strutted around in their in basic common colors.
Suddenly the cave is pierced with the warmest rays of a starting spring. It’s no longer freezing or dark. The air smells of slowly blooming roses and breezy promises of love and joy. You run out. You have never felt so joyous or graceful. There is an undeniably sure spring in your every step.
You go back to the place from where you ran away some days ago. As you walk back, the scattered birds suddenly freeze and fall silent. They are all staring at you in amazement. Pure wonder is written all over their faces. Slowly they all come swarming around you as you walk back tall. They keep muttering questions that you don’t really understand. Everyone who used you as bait and deprived you of what you deserve now stands shorter, crouching in the common crowd around you.
You feel surreal, like it was part of a rare good dream that ends before it gets to the best part. So you run fast to the little mirror you have under that patch of hay. Everyone follows you.
You look into the mirror. You gasp, breathless. This was definitely not what you were expecting.
You see a large, luxurious being. Snowy white feathers. Royal posture. Regal curves.
Every time you move, the creature in the mirror does the same. With such intense charm and grace that it makes you blush.
Just way too beautiful.
No other word strikes your mind.
You tear your eyes from the mirror. The only thing that outdoes the way you shine and reflect the sun like a frothing ember of pearl is the fierce glow that is pulsing within you.
Everyone is staring at you. They have scarcely looked at anything else the whole time. Their expressions vary between joyous shock, wonder, fascination, awe and intoxication.
One question rings over and over again, magnified multi-fold.
Who are you?
Who are you?
Who are you?
You say, “The ugly duckling”.
Illustrations (in order of appearance) by Vigée Le Brun, Nikolai Sinezouboff, T. van Hoijtema, and Roberto Innocenti.