The Ugly Duckling

October 24, 2008
By Catherine Zhu, Beijing, ZZ

She was short, she was dark-skinned, she wore an armor-like silver brace for her bent back and black ones for her crooked teeth, she had bandaged fingers, sausage-like, cut and bleeding from practicing violin. Bruised feet and skinned knees, falls from dance class. She was an ugly duckling.

She hated working in groups and made herself as scarce as possible during these times. After all, she was always the last one to be picked—in PE, and art, and music… And for the few times the teacher made choose teams in class too.

She’d approach them, shyly, tentatively, afraid. Meanwhile, they’d talk amongst themselves, laugh amongst themselves, carefree and thick-skinned like they always are. She’d hesitate on the sidelines, grasping for the courage. She’d finally reach it, a spark. And holding that spark tight in her fist, she’d open her mouth, quietly, can I…?
But they won’t hear her. Nobody will. They go on… The spark dies. She is silent, alone.

They laughed at her. Or appeared to. They laughed at her shabby clothes, her dorky glasses, and her endless mounds of books. The mounds of books carried in a huge backpack that almost crushed her tiny body. Unintentionally maybe… But their laughter stung her like bees. Their judging gaze pierced her. Short, sharp, but with a venom that spread.

She passes their table. Faraway, their laughter persists. Piercingly, venomously, following her. But in reality it was just a group of girls having lunch, mindless chatter.

Until… she couldn’t stand laughter anymore. Nor, could she stand anyone’s gaze.

She’d walk around with her nose in a book, losing herself in its fantasy world. But it’d end. She’d look up again. Sometimes, she’d see a black and white film, playing across her eyes. She’d shed a tear or two. Of course, nobody would notice. But it was better that way. Invisibility was her last shield.

But finally one day, poisoned and bleeding, she told herself, this is enough. I cannot go one like this. She left. Not knowing where she will go, but knowing that anywhere would be better. She vowed to return someday, when no longer an ugly ducking, but a graceful swan…

Heads turned as her metallic heels clicked across the corridor floor. A pair of slim-cut designer jeans and halter top showed off her slender figure. The graceful arch of her neck was proud like that of a true dancer, as was the waterfall of black hair that cascaded down her back. Her thick-rimmed glasses had disappeared to reveal a pair of beautiful eyes, downcast, half-hidden behind delicate lashes. It’d been two years since.

Daringly, she raised those pretty eyes to face the classroom. Shyly. Hi, my name is … the faces were different but familiar. Too familiar was the expression on them. Surprise? Shock? An icy cold spread across her body. She thought …it might be different now, but no. Reality was as cruel as it always was. Little did she know though, it was awe that she mistook for fear. But fear was what she read, and fear was what stayed with her as she sat down alone in the furthest corner.

Oh yes, she shone. Those earlier years of work had paid off. She breezed through her classes with straight A ’s. She easily earned the leading role of the school’s semester performance of The Nutcracker. Only last week, did she perform her solo violin concert at the city hall in front of hundreds of people. But for some reason, she could never hear the applause at the end of her performances. It was a lonesome light that shone. A cold one too. Chilled by loneliness and fear.

It was the whispers: the whispers that seemed to go on behind her back; the whispers that went on and on but hushed the second she stepped into the room, or turned around. She heard her name mentioned. Every time. Or maybe it was just once. What were they talking about? She wanted to ask. And she did. The spark of courage was elusive. But she caught it, and held tight.

So… what are you guys talking about?

Startled glances. A step back.


They walked away.

But the whispers didn’t stop. They chilled her.

She wondered why. She wondered what was wrong. What was wrong with her. She wanted to ask. But she feared those startled glances, blank faces, and secretive tones. The matches were damp, and would not light. And pride… it was there too, lowering the temperature to absolute zero.

There was a lake in the school grounds. Rays of sunlight bounced off its glassy surface. She looked down. The reflected light blinded her for a moment. And then it dimmed as she saw her reflection staring back at her. Willowy figure, but her shoulders hunched. Clear complexion, but face too pale. Tired eyes. The dark circles around them reminded her of her old glasses. A breeze ruffled the surface of the water. A wind whispered through the neighboring willows. Shhhhhhhh… The image blurred, and shrunk. Its hair shortened, and thickened. The dark circles grew into black rims of 800 degree glasses. Fearful eyes trapped behind. She tried to smile. It smiled back at her. Black braces showing. A grotesque smile. Staring back at her was the ugly duckling again. With a pale face, but uglier than ever. Shhhhhhhh… the willows whispered.

The whispers began to fade. But the doubts they left behind began to strangle. Slowly, silently.

Her inferior pride, they interpreted as condescending arrogance.

Her distant fear, they translated as aloof narcissism.

They fled her company, as she shunned theirs.

Her heels clicked across the smooth floor. She paused. The world was spinning around her, silently, in footage of black and white. They’d talk amongst themselves, laugh amongst themselves, carefree and thick-skinned as they always are. Their laughter and tears colored the rolls of life’s film. But those scenes were played in monochrome for her. Their joys, their tears, their hopes, their fears, all had nothing to do with her. An outsider. She was, is, and will be.

White feathers, strong wings, elegant neck… But she never shed the shell of the ugly duckling from her heart. Thus regardless of all outward appearances, she stayed an ugly duckling. Forever.

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