Against the mountain all the houses made little steps, like the staircase of a giant. All the walls were thin, woven from twigs, whistling in winter. All the roofs were topped with snow and all the snow was gray. All the houses were only one room, with one fire in the courtyard at the bottom.
All the houses were gray, but one was mineral-gray. When the light moved low in the sky, her walls shone with as many stars as there are in the night. This was the beautiful woman’s house.
The beautiful woman did not sweep her house, yet the floor was always packed and there were no crumbs. She found flowers in the spring and kept them, and her walls were dried purple, dried yellow. She picked fruit and forgot, and her house smelled like lemons.
She smelled like lemons and honey. At night she fell asleep to the beautiful smell of her own skin and she dreamt of sunny fields of flowers, even in the dead of winter. She wrapped her long silken hair around herself like a veil as she slept, and in the morning it was curled to the shape of her body, and soft, so soft, soft enough to tickle the backs of her knees as she walked.
When the beautiful woman walked down the mountain, all the children stopped to stare. She smiled and waved and the children waved back, and their parents laughed. She swung her arms and her hips as she tumbled down the hill, like a puppet with loose sockets. Her boots were muddy.
The village had many men, but none were beautiful. They were missing teeth, or their teeth were brown. The skin of their faces was thick but the skin stretched over their bony shoulders was thin. They coughed when they laughed, and spat bile into the dirt.
These men sometimes asked the beautiful woman if they could move into her house. “I have no house,” they would say. “I am tired of living with my sister. And you must be lonely.”
But the beautiful woman imagined the skin of these men becoming her skin and shook her head. “No,” she said. “I have enough blankets.”
The years went by and all the men moved into houses. Only one house was left, and only one man. He had droopy mammoth ears and a long mammoth trunk, and like a mammoth, he was covered in hair. “Please let me into your house,” he begged the beautiful woman.
“You’ll leave hair on my floor,” she replied.
The mammoth man had asked every day for nearly a year now, and he was getting impatient. His sister’s children were so noisy.
“Look,” he said to the beautiful woman. “Look at the light that shines from your house at sunrise. Where does it lead?”
At sunrise the light hit her wall and bounced as if it had hit a diamond, always reflecting to the same point, somewhere far off in the hills, but the beautiful woman had never ventured that far. She took the mammoth man’s hand and accompanied him up into the mountains.
“Here it is,” he said. They had reached the other side of her light, high in the hills. The sun was high in the sky and all around was blue sky and spring’s first flowers.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. It was a pond, not murky like the laundry pond, but clear.
“Look inside,” said the mammoth man.
The beautiful woman approached the pond and bent over it. So long she had only seen her reflection in the yellow-green waters of the laundry pond, and she knew she was not yellow-green. Finally, she would see the beauty everyone else saw.
But as she bent over the pond, there was only an ugly old witch with one small eye and one big eye, with long hair that clung to her head in some parts and left other parts bald as a baby, with arms coiled up beside her chest like a new duckling’s wings.
The next day, the mammoth man moved into the witch-woman’s house, and they lived happily ever after.