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fairy tales


Laying Blame

Author's Note: The "Long-Suffering Queen" was a heavy piece. Can't say I didn't warn you. But since I'm sharing these works freely in part because of the holidays, I suspect everyone could use something a bit more light-hearted. I've reposted the following on my livejournal before (wrote it at least a decade ago), so it may be familiar to a few of you. Still, I think it's fun and pithy.

The Plague of Blamekins


Once, long ago, there was a great land that had been completely over-run by vermin. Now, these were not rats or locusts, but a greater plague still.  They were a particular species of fairy, very small, that had a habit of buzzing about peoples’ heads.  They were called Blamekins, and they had fat, round bodies with tiny little wings.  As their wings were hardly of a size to keep their corpulent bodies afloat, the Blamekins chattered all the time.  It was through the constant, pneumatic action of their lungs that they remained airborne at all.

These verminous fairies are not only naturally fat, they are also naturally lazy.  They do very little but flutter around, chattering and carrying on.  Of course, the fairies don’t like to think of themselves as lazy, and so they make a great show of being very concerned about things.  They observe people’s actions to the minutest detail, and offer lengthy commentary on what they feel is going wrong.  In doing this, they serve several needs at once.  By carrying on about other peoples’ business, the fairies feel that they are accomplishing something, and by voicing their opinions often and quite loudly, they perpetuate the hydraulic action that helps keep them afloat.

In this terribly afflicted land, the number of the fairies grew to a monstrous proportion. Night and day, the air was filled with the insect buzzing of their wings and the incessant whine of their voices. In every home, in every business, in every public park, you could hear them tut-tutting about how people needed to be more careful with things and how someone should be held responsible for all the ills of the world.

If a woman walked by with a child in her stroller, the fairies would swarm her, telling her how she was pushing the stroller wrong, and how the child was not strapped in tightly enough. When she adjusted the straps, just out of the vain hope that the fairies would shut up, then they would mutter and murmur among themselves, subsequently deciding that the straps were now too tight and she was such a bad mother to let her infant suffer so. If she dared to shoo the hordes of obese little busybodies away, they would fly straight to a social worker and carry on and on about the woman was abusing her child, how it was crying all the time, how the quality of its life was just soooo poor, and wasn’t someone going to do something about it?

It’s not that the things the blamekins were saying were right or even entirely fair. It’s simply that they were so loud about it, and they carried on so incessantly that people wanted nothing more than to make them shut up.  Nothing would quiet the blamekins save for giving in to their demands, and so the beleaguered populace began to enact laws. Mothers were sued for tying their children into strollers too tightly. The stroller companies recalled all their models with straps and replaced them with bars, but when the poor infants wailed in their mobile cages, the blamekins cried about that, too. Parents were brought before judges and blamekin-style justice was dispensed, with everyone paying hefty fines. Quite often, whole new crimes were made up on the spot just to appease the blamekins and garner the rest of the world a little peace from their constant whining.

Of course, the peace never lasted very long, for the fairies would find yet another victim, yelling and carrying on over increasingly more ridiculous things. Because they were loud and only got louder when ignored, people gave in to them, until a dangerous precedent had been set and the legal system of the once-great land was clogged with cases that would have been considered ridiculous trifles before the plague of fairies came along.  Yet such was the nature of the people that many of the lawyers eventually grew proud of the work they did to distort the law in order to appease the vile fairies, and the people themselves began to see everyone around them with the same jaundiced eyes. Nothing ever happened just because it happened – every crack in the pavement, every branch that fell from a tree was found to be somebody’s fault, and the guilty parties were charged and fined accordingly.

Eventually the entire society crumbled under the debts created by its own litigious system, and those that didn’t die a miserable death fled to parts unknown.  All that remained were the wrecks of cars and houses, and the swarms of pesky fairies, buzzing about and carrying on among themselves about what a shame it was the civilization had come to such a mean end … but by that point, there was no one else left for them to blame.

--M. Belanger


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The Tale of the Long-Suffering Queen

Author's Note: I lost my mother to breast cancer not all at once but in bits and pieces after a long and protracted battle over many years. This tale was inspired by the experience. It made my step-father angry at first, because he felt that I was demonizing him in the figure of the king. But really, the story has a larger scope than that. He is not the king any more than my mother was literally the queen. Fairy tales are less about individual people and more about concepts, figures, and archetypes. They do not show us a world that is real, but perhaps a world that should be. This is one reason I enjoy playing with the genre -- the stories are universal rather than specific and they allow the exploration of profound and perhaps impossible ideas. However, the tale certainly holds an echo of what I witnessed my mother endure for nearly thirteen years, especially toward the end -- so it may not be an easy thing to read.  

The Tale of the Long-Suffering Queen

Once there was a glorious kingdom on the shores of a faraway sea.  A tall and proud king ruled this majestic land, and his beloved lady ruled at his side.

The queen was a young and beautiful woman, and never a day passed that the king did not profess his undying love.  He heaped upon her every kindness, giving her anything her heart desired.  The queen herself asked only that he love her, and this made him more devoted to her still.

All the subjects far and wide respected this great lady, for she was kind and patient, very giving and very strong.  And then something terrible occurred. The queen, beloved of king and people, grew sick and began to waste away.  In spring, the bloom of her cheeks had faded, and by autumn, she could barely leave her bed.

The king was driven to distraction.  He deeply loved his lady, and he could not imagine his life without her.  He spent hours at her bedside, weeping and holding her hand, but the court physicians could do nothing to cure her illness. They could barely forestall her impending death.

When it was clear that their treatments had failed her, the king fired one and all.  Then he sent word throughout the kingdom that anyone with healing skills should come to the palace at once.  He offered a great reward to any who could halt the illness, and if she was restored, he promised greater treasurers still.

For months a stream of healers, surgeons, and physicians poured through the doors of the palace.  Each was given the opportunity to treat her, but each and every one of them failed at their task.  Whenever a new physician would see her, he would shake his head and sadly declare that nothing could be done.

The king, in a state of desperation, threatened to put them to the lash.  Although they doubled and redoubled their efforts, the queen continued to fade.

Angry now, and more desperate, the king called for his soldiers.  He ordered them to search the surrounding lands.  Far and wide, he sent them looking for great healers, and they were to kidnap these, if necessary, and return them to the palace, under guard.

High up in the desolate hill country, the soldiers heard stories of an old and wise man.  This wise man, it was said, was half magician, and he held the secret of an elixir that could keep even a dying person alive.  This substance, extracted from the roots of plants that grew along the highland waste places, could not cure illness, but each time it was administered, it would prolong life another day.  Their search was almost at an end.

Diligently, the soldiers scoured this foreign country, until they came upon the wise man in his cave.  They asked the old hermit about the fabled elixir.  He acknowledged that he knew its secret, but swore he would not administer it willingly to any, on pains of death.  At this the soldiers smiled wickedly and, knowing well their duty, they struck the old man a resounding blow to the head.  Senseless, they dragged him away.  Then they gathered up all his various bottles, jars, and herb-chests and packed them, along with his unresisting body, upon their horses for the long ride home.

At the castle, the soldiers brought the wise man in chains before the king.  The plight of the queen was explained to him.  His two dark eyes, one partly shut still with a bruise, were fixed upon the haggard face of the wretched king.  When at last he was asked if he knew the secret of the elixir, he gravely nodded his head.

“Then you will use this stuff,” the king said in a stern, quiet voice, “to cure my queen.  And if you do not, my men will see to it that you suffer ten times the agony that has made my lady waste away.”

The old wise man regarded the king in silence for a while, trying to see the young and happy ruler through the care-worn mask that now etched his pallid face.  He was certain that the lady lay beyond all mortal hope, but he wondered if there were hope yet for the king.

“My lord,” the wise man said gently, “this elixir cannot heal your lady.  It should not be mistaken for a cure.  Certainly, it can prolong her life, but the pain it brings is amazing and severe.”

“She will live?” the king said, a spark of hope in his haunted eyes.

“But she will suffer,” replied the wise man.

“Yet she will live,” insisted the king.

The wise man sighed heavily and tried once more, though he already knew it was in vain.

“I caution you king,” the old man said, “to consider some other course.  The people of my land do not use this as a medicine at all, but in certain forms of torture reserved for men who have committed the most heinous of crimes.  I can see that you still love her.  By that love, I beg you, do not make me give this to your queen.”

“Do it, old man,” the king commanded.  “Do it, or I shall have my soldiers torture you to death.”

The old man lowered his eyes and nodded his head.  And to himself, he wept, for he was not brave enough to risk death and disobey.

And so the queen, who already had suffered, began a new exquisite torture, for the elixir was like fire, and each drop seared her aching throat.  Every day, the wise man came and placed three drops upon her tongue.  Every day, the soldiers bore him away, but through the door and down the hall, he could hear her ragged screams.

She shrieked with pain till her voice was hoarse, then she shrieked, voicelessly and without sound.  She sweated, she vomited, she trembled, she grew pale.  She could not eat, and yet she could not die.

The king, who would visit well after her treatment, felt it was a great success.  Day after day, when there had seemed no hope, his queen yet lived.  To be certain, she was so weakened by the treatment that she could but murmur and press his hand.  But she was with him.  She was, though barely, alive.

Once she managed to tell her king that she thought she would no longer be able to take the terrible, burning “cure”.  With a trembling voice, he vowed to her that she would never see that day.

“If you are too weak, I will see that it is given you, even if it must be force-fed down your throat.  You are too precious to me, darling,” he swore.  “I will never let you die.”

At this, the queen wept bitterly, despairing at her fate. And he, in his delusion, felt she wept tears of relief.

Not long after, when the soldiers brought the old man in his chains, the queen weakly bid that they all leave.  The soldiers, unwilling to disobey either king or queen, hesitated, unsure how to proceed.

“Leave my physician with me,” the queen whispered through the rags of her once-sweet voice.  “I would talk with the man who cures me.  Only await – the screaming – and then you can bear him away.”

The old man, who had been weeping, as he wept nightly and desperately prayed, saw something in the eye of the lady.  The soldiers left and closed the door.  The queen beckoned the old man near.

“Sir, I understand that my husband has threatened your very life,” she began weakly.  “So I do not blame you for what you have put me through.  He doesn’t understand that I was ripe for death months ago, and happy with my fate.  I only fought the sickness for what my death would cost him.  But now I am tired beyond measure, and he cannot see.”

“Hush, lady,” the old man soothed.  “I have been a coward and a fool.  In my own land, death is nothing to be feared.  Through it we simply move from one state to the next.  And yet I feared it,” he whispered, “and through that fear, I have cheated you, lady, of the dignity of your own death.  I will no longer.”

He pulled two vials from his pocket.  One she recognized, and its very sight made her stomach clench.  The other, purest crystal, held a clear blue fluid that shimmered in the light.

“This one, well you know, dear lady, will painfully prolong your life.”  He raised the second vial of crystal.  “This one is sweet and a single taste brings easeful death.  I leave them both for you.”

He set them gently on the stand beside her bed.  He knew what would happen next.  The queen grabbed for the crystal vial with a desperation that gave her strength.  With a smile and a prayer, she took a long and longed-for sip.  Just then there was a stir outside the door.  The king burst through, his soldiers fast behind.

“What is going on here?” he demanded, and his eyes were wild.

The queen, her face suffused with an unearthly glow, serenely smiled.

“I love you, dear, but cannot stay.  If you love me truly, let me go.”

She stretched one thin and pale hand his way.  She sighed once.  Her eyes slid closed.  The king shrieked and pressed her hand.  No pulse beat in her throat.  He dashed the vial to the ground, then struck the wise man a vicious blow.

“Seize him!” he bellowed to the soldiers.  “Bear him to the dungeons below!”

The soldiers crowded into the room, but even they stopped at the sight of the queen.  Serene and lovely she had grown, and she wore a smile none had seen since her treatments had begun.

The wise man stared at the frenzied king. In a low and even voice, he said, “I submit gladly to your torture, sir, for I have committed a terrible crime.  For months, out of fear, I have tortured your queen, prolonging her life against her will.  I stripped her of her dignity; I gave her only pain; I robbed her of anything worth living for –“

“You killed her!” cried the king.

The soldiers seized the little man and with a voice that trembled still, knowing of things that were to come, he said, “That alone may redeem me.”

--M. Belanger

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The Truth in Their Eyes

Little known fact: I write fairy tales. Love reading them, too. My love of this genre started with an artbook my mother left behind when she moved away when I was in kindergarten. It was a collection of Arthur Rackham's works. Rackham's gorgeous illustrative art brought a number of fairy tales to life, as well as Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream, Wagner's Ring cycle, and Alice in Wonderland. The art book was all images, full-color, with a small caption on the back of each page that didn't explain the image so much as it tantalized. Beneath the caption was the book and author from whence the illustration came. I would sit for hours with this book, gazing at the images, telling myself stories about the actions and figures depicted there. When I grew older, I sought each of the books out and read them -- but of course, as these things go, few of the stories lived up to the dream-tales I had woven for myself throughout the years. Still, I owe my love of Shakespeare to this book as well as my discovery of Andrew Lang's extensive collections of fairy tales.

When I first tried my hand at writing tales,  naturally gravitated to fairy tales first. Myths, as well, because one of the other books left behind for me was D'Aulaires' illustrated Greek myths. I moved on to other things, aping the styles of writers I enjoyed reading, from Lovecraft to Bradbury, Asimov, Poe, Tolkien, McCaffrey, and the many other muses of my youth. I love horror and urban fantasy, but I also am drawn back to fairy tales every now and again (Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, & Neil Gaiman have all produced works to feed this passion). I have a whole book worth of these little tales kicking around. Sometimes light-hearted, but more often dark and moody, they always revolve around a lesson, as good fairy tales do. "The Truth in Their Eyes" is one of the darker ones, shared here:

The Truth in Their Eyes

Far away and over the sea, there is an island of people who have a strange and alarming custom.  Whenever a child is born among them, before it reaches the age of one, they heat up a poker and sear out its eyes.  This grisly process is accompanied by all manner of pomp and ceremony, and it is the fundamental rite of passage for the people of that place.  Needless to say, every single living person who inhabits this island is blind.  Yet the elders of the island avow that this willful handicap of their populace is preferable to the alternative, which is to suffer excruciating mental anguish as the result of a curse placed upon their entire race by a vengeful Faery maid.

As it is told at their ceremonies, just before the putting out of the eyes, a grand princess of Faerie had been sailing to meet her love when her ship was caught up in a storm.  Blown off course and tossed by the winds, the vessel was smashed on the rocks that ring the far side of the island.  That side of the island had long been the bane of passing ships.  But rather than erect a watchfire to warn sailors away, the islanders of that day allowed the ships to wreck so they could loot the remains.

It was a policy among the islanders to wait a night and a day before looting the wreckage of any beached ships. This, they felt, exonerated them from the deaths of any of the sailors. Very, very rarely one or two survivors would cling to life throughout the requisite night and day.  For these, there was a specially consecrated knife that would put an end to their misery.  For, while the religion of the islanders taught them that murder was wrong, their most recent theologians had developed conditions that excused certain opportunistic killing. Thus, as the blood poured out on the sand, the beachcombers would erect a pyre of driftwood and then, once the corpse was merrily burning, they were free to pick the goods from the wreck with a clear conscience.

But the Faery vessel changed things for them, for it was the source of the curse.

The first to see the proud white ship was a fisherman who often watched for vessels during the storms.  He stood on a high cliff over-looking the rocks, and as the storm rolled in, he saw the prow of the vessel gleaming like ivory in the evening light.  He had never seen a ship so tall and grand.  For a moment, he almost felt sorry that a thing of such beauty would soon be wrecked to splinters on the rocks below, but thoughts of that kind were quickly supplanted by dreams of what kind of treasure such a ship might bear in its glittering belly.

The wind dashed the ship upon the rocks sometime just before midnight.  Everyone in the town heard it, and every one of them rolled over and went back to sleep, visions of rich cloth and rare, fine spices sweetening their dreams.

Dawn came, and everyone listened to the morning breeze as it came off the beach.  No sounds came forth from the doomed vessel.  Still, the edicts said that they must wait a night and a day before they could safely loot and be exonerated from any obvious wrong-doing.  But they knew the sea to be a fickle mistress who would take just as easily as she gave.  The tide might shift, and then the chests of cloth and the casks of wine would be lost forever in the deep.

For the fisherman who had observed the ship when it was caught in the first grips of the storm, that flash of bone-white prow haunted him. The masts had gleamed with leaf-of-gold and the sails seemed spun from silver thread.  What riches were the waves carrying away even as he waited, breakfasting with his fellow islanders?

By noon, he could stand it no longer, and he was not alone.  All morning, he had spoken of the richness of what he had seen.  Every member of his audience had been enchanted by the images he painted of a treasure beyond their wildest dreams.  And so it was that a group of perhaps fifteen men trooped down to the rocky beach to gaze at the wreckage of the once-great ship.

As they rounded the hill, the first thing they saw was a thin curl of smoke.  This made them hurry, for if the vessel was burning, even more of the glorious treasures would be lost.  But, to their surprise, the ship – or what remained of it – was not ablaze.  Instead the smoke came from a fire of driftwood that had been set on the beach.  Beside this blaze huddled a figure in white, her fine gold hair spilling down to her waist.  When she saw the men, she jumped to her feet.  Waving her arms excitedly, she called in a language they did not understand, but seeing their looks soon changed to an accented version of the common tongue.

The men hesitated at the top of the beach.  They muttered among themselves, each looking to the other for some sign of guidance.  For it was obvious that this woman was nowhere near death.  True, her face was scratched and some blood was clotted near a bump on her head, but though the ship lay splintered around her, some miracle had protected her from all other harm.

The fisherman, who had dreamed all night of the riches that would be his, was the first to speak.  He smiled genially and strode down to where she had been drying out by the small fire.

“Greetings, lady,” he said in the sincerest of tones. “My companions and I live on the other side of this island, and we thought we heard some noise in the night.  We have traveled all morning to search for survivors.  Are you the only one?”

She wept at this and at first could not speak. But once the fit had passed, she nodded, saying, “Kind sirs, my ship was caught in a terrible storm.  The sails tore, the mast was split, and the wind threw us against the rocks.  Many of my brave sailors were washed into the sea as they struggled to keep us afloat.  Those who survived what the storm handed out sadly did not survive the rocks.  I alone escaped, and that with the help of my magic.  If only they had awakened me in the night, I may have averted the storm! But alas, I only awoke as we crashed against these harsh rocks.”

At this she began weeping bitterly again.  The fisherman glanced nervously at his companions.  Their own eyes widened at what they had heard.  They knew enough of magic to know it should be feared.

The fisherman turned back to the lady.  Tentatively, he spoke in the language of the islanders.  The lady looked up from her weeping, but her gaze was blank.  Just to be certain that she had no idea what he was saying, he insulted her and then attacked her parentage, smiling gently all the while.  She knit her brow and shook her head and motioned that she did not comprehend.  His smile widened, though he turned to his friends before the lady could see the glitter of greed in his eyes.

“What do you think?” he asked them.  “She has magic, but maybe enough to save her only once.”

“Too dangerous,” said one.

“We can’t do this,” said another.  “She’s not dead, not even near to it.”

A third looked down and shuffled his feet in the sand.  “This won’t be like the other ones,” he said.  “You know the rules. We can’t just murder her, and we can’t outright steal what’s left of her ship with her still breathing. ”

At this the fisherman frowned, but then the faery woman spoke, and he turned back to her, smiling with all the benevolence of the world.

“Could you use the common tongue?” she asked hesitantly, her own words thickly accented.  “I’m unfamiliar with the language of this place.”

“Certainly,” he said, stepping forward to take her arm.  “Now, you must tell me.  Who are you and where were you headed when you were caught up in that awful storm?”

“My name is Melissandra Orimunde and I am a princess of the Shining Host from across the Crystal Sea.  I was sailing with my dowry to meet my betrothed, Prince Ilhander who rules over the Islands of the Sun far to the West.”

Throughout all this, the fisherman nodded, lending support with a comforting arm. He kept his face a compassionate mask, but underneath it lay a calculated avarice more dangerous than the storm.

“Her dowry is here,” he called over to the others, using the tongue of the island.  They, torn by equal measures of guilt and greed, sat huddled around her campfire, uncertain what to do.  A few looked up, but they shrugged dejectedly.

“What does it matter?” one called. “She’s not dead.  I won’t risk punishment, not even for all this!”

Stroking her hair as she wept for her losses, the fisherman shot them a darkly triumphant look.

“She may not be dead,” he called, sounding just like he was discussing the weather.  “But she’s a witch, and she’s admitted it.  We can kill her for that without fear of sin. You know the laws demand death for a witch.”

There was a murmur from the others that made the princess look up from her grief.

“What is it you are discussing?” she asked, pale brows knitted together.

“You said you worked magic to save yourself from the storm?” he inquired, almost smug.

She nodded hesitantly, searching his eyes for his intent.  But all she saw was what he showed her, and this mask of compassion eased her growing fears.

“Could you show us some of this magic?  We’ve never seen faery magic before.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” she sighed.  “It took so much to survive the wreck.  If I work my magic so soon after that I risk illness or even death.”

With a grin, he said, “That’s just what I wanted to hear.”

Before she could react, he seized a fistful of her golden hair and unsheathed his sharp little knife.  With an upward thrust he pierced her heart, and never once did the pretended benevolence leave his face.

Her eyes grew wide as a gout of blood erupted from her mouth.  His features twisting in disgust, he shoved her to the sand.

"Lying!” she gasped.  “Lying?  For what?”

He had already turned back to the others.

“She’s as good as dead,” he said, wiping blood from his face.  “Let’s start hauling these chests before the waves take them out.”

“For … that?” she muttered.  “My death for that?”

And her lifesblood pumped out onto the sand.

Pressing her hand against the wound, she sang a spell with failing breath. For a moment, she seemed to revive: bolt upright she sat, her face ablaze with inner light.  She fixed them in her burning gaze, and with a voice that vibrated the very air, she cried:

“Forsake your greed and petty lies and see the truth within your eyes!”

With this, she expired.  For a moment, all stood frozen on the beach, expecting lightning bolts or tremendous waves to wreak her vengeance on one and all.  When minutes passed and no vengeance came, they went back to the looting of her wrecked ship.  Afraid to touch her bloody corpse, they left her for the seagulls and the rising tide.

Although some were shaken by this final display, when days went by and nothing came, they dismissed it as a spell gone wrong.  After all, she herself had declared her magic spent from the crash and the storm. But the curse was both powerful and insidious, and it took some time for those afflicted with it to even notice its effects.

The first one was a respected matron of the town.  She had worked most of her adult life to help the needy and the poor.  Her altruism was a point of pride, and she never tired of reminding people how selfless she was.  Yet one day, as she presented a shiny bangle to a woman less fortunate than herself, she happened to catch sight of her reflection in the bronze.  She gasped at what she saw in her reflection’s eyes: instead of selfless devotion, there was gloating pride.  In that moment, she realized that all her life had been a lie.  There was no denying it: she gave, not out of benevolence, but because she felt superior to everyone else. At no other time did she feel more superior than when giving little trifles to those less fortunate than herself.

Her voice failed her. The bangle dropped to the sand. The poor woman looked at her in confusion, but she turned and fled without saying another word. Later, she was seen in her home, smashing every mirror.

After her, it was one of the elders of the town.  He was an upstanding man who set the moral standard for everyone else.  As a town elder, it was his responsibility to judge the members of the community who had committed grievous crimes.  That day, he, along with his fellow elders, had to cast judgment upon a man found cohabiting with another man.  Before the trial, the elder practiced his speech at his bedroom mirror.  He loathed homosexual behavior, and he intended to convince all the others to sentence the criminal to death.  Yet as he met his own fervent gaze in the depths of mirror, he saw something that made him stop cold.  There, clearly written within his eyes, was the self-same lust for another man. The forbidden desire that he was seeking to condemn was a desire he felt himself.

With a strangled cry he smashed the mirror and used its shards to put out his eyes.

On and on it went.  Mirrors were smashed. Whole families leapt to their deaths from the cliffs.  People went mad as their darkest secrets could no longer be denied but instead stared back at them whenever they gazed upon their own face.

With the island in chaos, a meeting was held.  They had tried outlawing mirrors, but this did not end the workings of the curse.  One young man had gazed deep into his lover’s eyes, but saw only his own reflected there. What he saw inspired him to strangle his infant son, drown his wife, and then kill himself.  After that, no one could even meet the gaze of another for fear of what they might learn of themselves.  They were a society stripped of the protection afforded by comfortable lies.

In the end, the choice was clear: all the people of the island chose blindness rather than run the risk of gazing at their own ugly truths.

--M. Belanger