Ask Iksha what it means to be beautiful, and prepare for batted lashes.
Please, do not be so quick to scrunch your nose. This is not a show of vanity.
Instead, with a gentle touch, dab the left side of her chest, and you will find pure love flowing all throughout the veins in her vessel. Capture the affection escaping from the gap between her teeth as she speaks. Close your eyes and picture the portrait that she shall paint for you: long, wavy hair the shade of golden hour, paired with eyes as bright as Jupiter from Earth. Lips—though not so full—she swears are softer than any cloud during a summer's day. Skin almost the same color of dried leaves, not spared of lightning strikes and the occasional hill. Laughter, brutal, yet good-natured, thrown along with banter around the dinner table.
"She is just as the earth intended.” Iksha softly sighs.
Did you listen closely enough to unbury the grief between her syllables? Have you seen how it condensated from thin air, prancing around her frame, possessing her bony fingers? Just notice the way she holds her teacup. Indeed—not without a quiver.
Now, enough of that. Move your gaze upward and mimic her direction. Look past the humming wind chimes and the praying angels sitting peacefully by the windowsill.
It is open for a reason, the window. The forest wishes to invite you in, should you follow the passing sparrow about to enter the evergreen awning. Now, now. Do not fear. You may find Iksha remaining seated in front of you, but know that she is already there—just at the heart of the forest, where the canopy ceases and the sky begins.
The little lake.
One look into its surface and you shall find not its depth, but the most accurate image of yourself. With its mirror-like face, there is no way of figuring out if life thrives beneath. The only clue is the few lily pads floating here and there. It sounds like a wonder, does it not? If only the folklores were forgiving.
If only the folklores weren't true.
Iksha clears her throat, and you are taken back inside her birch-walled cottage. A cool breeze blows through the window, sending the chimes into a singing frenzy.
“Ceceilia believed in fairytales,” she looks straight into your eyes. Pardon the way her face crumbles with disappointment. It is not your fault. “So much more than she believed in me.”
Imagine this: Iksha strolls around the lake's perimeter. Her hands are behind her back, wrist clasped by the other. She stops at the only corner devoid of lily pads.
“They say that before the night comes, when the sun is just about to dip into the woods beyond, it shines a perfect orange ray of light into this little lake.”
Iksha looks up into the autumn-hued sky, watching quietly as a sole ray of sun slides diagonally into the water. It pierces through a certain spot in the lake, just a few inches away from where she stood.
“And when it does, you will no longer be met by your own reflection,” she carefully kneels by the lake’s edge, leaning into the spot of light to take a peek. She presses her palms onto the soil to keep her balance. “But your heart’s deepest desire.”
The instant the light touches her head, her eyes go wide—whether in absolute horror or elation, you are not so sure—and her body quakes like the earth awakened, with tremors rupturing her shoulders down to the tips of her toes.
Pay this no concern. Iksha does not need your help. In fact, just as a single tear betrays her and escapes to her cheek, she immediately wipes it with a forceful, shaky hand. With all her strength, she pulls her face away from the sun ray.
Her lungs beg for air. She breathes in, breathes out.
“However, you must never, ever, reveal how desperate you are.” Her gaze drops into the ground, the corners of her lips curving down even further. “For the lake takes.”
Unlike the first time, she lets her tears cascade down her face and into the muddied ground. “I still do not know what her heart yearned for.”
“I still do not know if any of it was true.” Her sobbing persists.
“Excuse me.” She sniffs, and the forest dissipates, reverting back to her snug dining table. She promptly stands up from her chair and leaves for the powder room.
I’m quite sure you’re confused. No? Ah, curious, perhaps. Do let it eat you—from the inside out. Let it crawl against the deepest pits of your stomach. Allow it to scrape your palms and dig at the heels of your feet. You want answers.
The sparrow taps the window with its miniscule beak.
The forest invites you in.
Run, child. Follow the path the dear bird creates for you. However, should you be so bewildered by its wings, you will miss out on the figure in front of you who is running just the same.
The first thing you may notice is her—yes, her—hair entangled amongst themselves, its strands accompanied by dead leaves. Second, her nightgown, smeared with mud at the seams. It is torn at the very center of her back, highlighting freshly bled scratch marks. Third, her pitiful wails, an awful sound that sent crows flying from their branches.
An arm of thick root collides with her bare foot. Falling face flat into the ground, the damp soil envelopes her frail body. Still filled with the same panic, she crawls forward, inching herself towards a haven of lily pads.
Up above, the endless blue succumbs to a dying orange. The maiden has found her way to the brink of the little lake, whose only greeting is of her own crying face. Her long, wavy hair loses its aureate gleam as it bathes in the glass waters. Her eyes, albeit red, are clouded by an unknown darkness.
Cicadas start to play their soulless tune, and Iksha’s words echo in your ear: “The lake takes.”
The fabled ray of light bursts from the sky and shines down on where the girl had laid.
“I wish—I wish…” A mere whisper. “... to be beautiful.”
A gust of wind swipes through the trees, silencing the world around her.
“To be clean.”
She finds the spot touched by the light—eyes snapping shut, her mouth hangs open. A scream erupts from her throat, filled with the same anguish that won wars and burned kingdoms. Her tears are waterfalls, then rivers, stopping at nothing to reach the ocean.
You need not hold back anymore. The truth deserves freedom. Step forward.
Watch it all undo: Her father’s soiled grip digging her wrists. Stop! The bedframe snapping by the leg. Let me go! Pleading unfurling from her chest. Please. Despair devouring her whole, until there is no more of her left. Please. Snapshots of a black-haired girl and her gap-toothed smile. Iksha. Her warm embrace, her daily praise: “You’re beautiful.” Please. I love her.
“I love her!” It was an epiphany.
As the sun bids its final goodbye, Ceceilia dives into the lake. Her arms flail, almost as if begging to be saved. You only watch. You must watch.
She surrenders to the waters.
She surrendered to her desires.
Apologies, the forest must escort you out of its thickets now.
Remember, there is a woman at the cottage glen waiting for your return. If she asks what you know of the lake, of her missing paramore, you must hand her the answer.
“She loved you so much, she spared you from herself.”