Written for Purimgifts 2016. Based on the Child ballad "Kemp Owyne."
From the time Isabel was young, when she sang, the birds would come to her hand and the grasses would sway gently although there was no wind. Her father smiled when he saw it, both sad and proud. "Just like your mother," he would say. "You have this gift from her." Isabel did not remember her mother well; when she tried, she could only find cloudy memories of gentle hands stroking her hair and a beautiful voice. But she tried to remember the way her mother used to sing, since her songs seemed to make the people around her happy.
When Isabel was older, she learned to weave and sew. When she sang over her weaving, guiding the shuttle in time with her melody, then the crops grew well and the rain came in season. When she sang over her embroidery, twining the different colors together like voices joining in a duet, then the animals gave birth easily, and there were plenty of fish in the river, and everyone seemed pleased.
But when Isabel was sixteen years old, her father married again. The first time her father's wife heard her singing over her loom, her face twisted as if she had bitten into something sour. "You are never to do that again, Isabel!" she said. And then she took a knife and cut the half-finished weaving to pieces. She never seemed to like Isabel after that, although Isabel obeyed all her commands as quickly as she could and only sang very quietly to herself when no one else could hear. Isabel did not want her father to be troubled. She thought it must be her fault somehow if her father's wife did not like her, and so she said nothing of it to him, but only tried harder to please her stepmother.
But one day at last her father's wife called to her, as she often did. "Isabel, Isabel!"
"Yes, lady?" Isabel said with a respectful curtsey.
"Come with me and carry my cloak. We are going to walk by the sea."
"Yes, lady," Isabel said again.
And they walked along the rocks by the sea, until at last her father's wife said, "We have come far enough. Set down my cloak." And Isabel did.
The lady pulled out her kerchief, one that she had woven on her own loom. "You have not stopped your singing, Isabel," she said, twisting the kerchief between her fingers. "And I thought when I came here that I would be the only woman of power in this land. I will not share what is mine!"
"I do not understand, lady," Isabel faltered.
And then the lady twined her kerchief between her fingers once, twice, and thrice, weaving it in and out like thread on the loom. "No more shall you cause me grief," she said. "Isabel, go and jump in the sea!"
Isabel opened her mouth to say that of course she would not do such a thing, but her limbs would not obey her. Against her will, she took a step, and another, and a third—and then she was falling off the rocks into the sea. She hit the water, and then her body twisted in and around itself like the lady's kerchief. She tried to scream, but her voice would not obey her.
And then somehow she struggled her way back to the surface, but her body felt wrong. When she looked before her, instead of her own hands and arms, Isabel saw the scaled limbs of some loathsome beast, with long sharp claws. When she looked behind her, she saw another pair of scaled legs and a thick finned tail, and her hair had tumbled loose from its snood and trailed out behind her, longer and thicker than it ever was. When she looked at her reflection in the water, she saw a snarling scaled snout and a jaw bristling with long, sharp teeth. She tried to speak, to ask some question, but her voice was so hoarse and rough that it frightened her.
"Do you see what you are now, Isabel?" the lady said. "You are an ugly beast, and you should not live among gentlefolk. Now hear my curse: You shall dwell on the Eastmuir Crag and never be released, until the king's son, Kemp Owyne, come to the crag and kiss you thrice." She laughed. "But I do not think a king's son will ever kiss a hideous monster, and if you call for him to come to you, I think he will slay you, like the brave hero he is! Now go, and swim to the crag."
And Isabel swam. At last she pulled herself, shivering and weary, onto the rocks of Eastmuir Crag.
The crag was hard and bare; nothing grew there except some hardy wild plants that bore no flowers, and one scraggly tree that had been twisted by the wind into a strange shape. Like me, she thought with an odd sympathy. When she became hungry enough, Isabel dived into the ocean to search for fish. She caught them with teeth and claws and ate them raw. She would have wept, if her beast-shape could weep. At least her new form was strong and powerful, able to swim far and dive deep. Her long tangled hair trailed behind her like seaweed. She tried not to catch sight of her reflection in the water, or her claws and finned tail.
Once she thought of swimming far away and not returning to the crag. She would never see her own land again, but at least she would be free. Perhaps she could forget that she had ever been human. But when sunset came, she felt the spell tug at her, and she could not help swimming back. She climbed slowly up the crag again and, compelled by the enchantment, she went slowly around the tree three times, her claws scrabbling among the rocks. When she lay down to rest for the night at the foot of the tree, her hair was twisted thrice around the bare trunk, as if to remind her of her imprisonment.
In the morning, the spell released her and her hair slipped loose again, but she knew it was only temporary. Digging tracks in the rocky ground with her claws, Isabel considered her situation. She could not free herself from the curse, but she knew she did not wish to stay on this bare crag until she died. Until the king's son, Kemp Owyne, come to the crag and kiss you thrice. So her stepmother's curse ran. Isabel knew almost nothing of the king's son Owyne. She had never seen him. The stories that came to her father's house had said he was brave and kind and courteous, but would they not say that of any prince? Could he be kind after all, even to a monstrous beast? She would have to hope so, but she did not wish to rely solely on that. And if he was brave, he would think it a noble deed to slay a hideous monster. She needed a reason for him to pause before acting.
Isabel went diving deep in the sea, until she found an old belt, the leather eaten away and half-rotten. She sang over it, though she hated to hear the deep growl her voice had become, until it was once more shining and beautiful. And she sang over it again, until there was enchantment around it that whoever wore it would be protected from any weapon that would shed his blood. And she stored it carefully in a cave of the rock. But perhaps the belt would not be enough.
Isabel went diving again deep in the sea, and she searched until she found a golden ring, dull and encrusted with sand. She sang over it until the sand fell away and the gold shone out brightly in the sun, and then she sang again until there was enchantment around it that whoever wore it could understand the speech of bird and beast. When she was done, she stored it carefully in a cave of the rock. But perhaps the ring would not be enough.
Isabel went diving a third time deep in the sea, until she found an old sword, blunt and rusted. She sang over it until the steel shone bright again and the edge was sharp and keen. Then she sang over it again, until there was enchantment around it that whoever wielded it with a true heart would never fail to strike his enemy. And she stored it carefully in a cave of the rock.
And then she went to her crag, and she cried aloud in her deep growling beast's voice. She called to every ship and every fishing boat that passed by on the water, and to every traveller who passed by on the land, that Kemp Owyne the king's son should come to her. She would have to hope that the belt and the ring and the sword would be enough. She could not truly believe that a king's son would be willing to kiss a loathsome beast even once, let alone three times; but if she offered him three treasures, perhaps he would listen to her before he struck. Perhaps when he came, he would not slay her.
And perhaps—though it hardly seemed possible—the king's son would be as brave and kind as the stories said, and he would not be afraid to come within reach of her teeth and claws. Perhaps he would undo the spell, and she would feel the curse that bound her untwining from around her body once, twice, and thrice until she was free-and twisting instead around her stepmother, as all such spells must when broken. Isabel let her hair twine thrice around the tree and waited.