I’VE HEARD IT SAID—AND my guess is you have too—that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I’ve never been certain it’s true.
Think about it for a moment.
It sounds nice. I’ll give you that. A way for every face to be beautiful, if only you wait for the right pair of eyes. If only you wait long enough. I’ll even grant you that beauty isn’t universal. A girl who is considered drop-dead gorgeous in a town by the sea may find herself completely overlooked in a village the next county over.
Even so, beauty is in the eye of the beholder doesn’t quite work, does it?
Because there’s something missing, and I can even tell you what: the belief we all harbor in our secret heart of hearts that beauty stands alone. That, by its very nature, it is obvious. In other words, Beauty with a capital B.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Now that’s another statement entirely.
And what it means, as far as I can see, is that those of us whose looks aren’t of the capital B variety can pretty much stop holding our breaths, stop waiting for the right eyes to show up and gaze upon us. Our Beauty—or, more precisely, our lack thereof—has already been established. It’s as plain as the noses on our small b faces.
That sounds more like the way things actually work, doesn’t it?
I suppose you could say that finding out just what a pair of eyes can do, and what they can’t, is what the story I’m about to tell you is really all about. It will come as no surprise that it is, of course, my story. Which means I should probably back up and introduce myself.
Annabelle Evangeline Delaurier. That is my name. After my father’s mother and my mother’s mother, in that order. But, though it was my father who decided the entirety of what I would be called, it was my mother who sealed my fate and set my tale in motion. For she was the one who decreed I would be known as Belle, a name that means Beauty in the land of my birth.
There were problems with this decision, though nobody realized it at the time. Two problems, to be precise: my older sisters, who displayed such extraordinary Beauty that they were famous for miles around.
My oldest sister was born at straight-up midnight, on a night so clear and cold it snatched the breath. A night that made the stars burn sharp and bright as knives. The baby’s hair was as dark as the arc of heaven overhead, her eyes a blue both fierce and sparkling, like the stars.
In celebration of my sister’s arrival, Maman, who has a tendency to be extravagant even in life’s simple moments, named the infant Celestial Heavens, having earlier extracted a promise from my father that she could name their first child anything she wanted.
As I’m sure I don’t need to point out, Celestial Heavens is quite a mouthful.
Fortunately for all concerned, and for my sister most of all, my father’s more practical approach to life won out. Celestial Heavens the baby might be, but even before the ink on her birth certificate was dry, my sister was being called Celeste, as she has been from that day forward.
My second sister was born on the first day of the month of April, just as the sun rose over the horizon. Her hair was as golden as the sun’s first light, her eyes as green as the meadow that the sun ran through on its way to make the morning. My father, now somewhat prepared for what might come next, took it in quiet stride when my mother named this daughter April Dawn. By the time the baby had been tucked into her cradle that night, she was being called just April, and she has been ever since.
And then there was the day that I arrived.
At noon, on a day in September that could have been either spring or autumn, judging by the blueness of the sky. Or by the temperature, which was neither too hot nor too cold. A quiet, peaceful kind of day. The kind that, at its end, makes you wonder where the time has gone. A day that doesn’t feel like a gift until it’s done. For it’s only as you’re drifting off to sleep that you realize how happy you are, how happy you’d been every moment you were awake.
It was on just such a day as this that I was born.
Even my coming into the world was straightforward, for my mother later related that the time of her labor seemed neither too short, nor too long. Following these exertions, I was placed into my mother’s arms. My father sat beside her on the bed, and both of them (or so I am told) gazed lovingly down at me. And if my father felt a small pang that his third child was yet another daughter and not a son, I’m willing to forgive him for it.
It wasn’t that he valued daughters any less, but that, after two such extraordinary children, he was ready for one that was, perhaps, a little less remarkable. A child who might be more like him, follow in his footsteps rather than my mother’s. And as he could not imagine how a girl’s feet might accomplish such a task, in secret, my father had longed for a boy.
“Well, my dear?” my father asked my mother after several moments. He was referring, of course, to what I would be named, for, as always, the choice would be Maman’s. She knew what to call my two sisters without hesitation. But here a curious and unexpected event transpired.
Accustomed as my mother was to the spectacular arrivals of Celeste and April, my appearance called forth not a single inspiration. Though her imagination was vivid, my mother simply could not conjure what to call a child who had arrived with so little fanfare, on a day that was so very unremarkable.
My mother opened her mouth, then closed it, without making a single sound. She took a breath, then tried again. And when this attempt also failed to produce a name, she tried a third time. Finally, she closed her mouth and kept it shut, looking at my father with beseeching eyes.
Fortunately, my father is quick on his feet, even when he isn’t standing on them.
“My dear,” he said to Maman once more. “You have given me a beautiful and healthy daughter, and surely that is gift enough. But I wonder if I might ask for one thing more. I wonder if you would allow me to name this child.”
Her lips still firmly closed, my mother nodded her head, and my father bestowed a name he had long cherished: Annabelle, after his own mother, who had had the raising of him all on her own. Then, mindful of my mother’s feelings, he gave me the name of her mother as well.
In this way, I became Annabelle Evangeline, and no sooner had my father proclaimed his choice than my mother recovered enough to announce that she wished me to be known as Belle. If I could not have an arrival quite as remarkable as those of my sisters, I could at least have an everyday name that, like my sisters, would match the Beauty I would surely become.
Allow me to set something straight at this point.
There’s nothing actually wrong with the way I look. I have long brown hair that generally does what I ask it to, except on very rainy days when it does whatever it wants. I have eyes of a deep chestnut color that are not set too far from each other so that I appear to look over my own shoulder, nor so close that they appear to be trying to catch each other’s glance across the bridge of my nose. And there’s nothing wrong with my nose, either, thank you very much.
In fact, I have a face that is much like the day on which I was born. It contains neither too much of one thing, nor too little of another. A perfectly fine face. Just not an extraordinary face. And therein lies the problem. For the Beauty of my sisters can actually take a person’s breath away.
I think my favorite example was when April surprised a would-be burglar in the middle of the night. She was no more than nine years old—which would have made me seven and Celeste eleven, just so you know where we are.
The thief, who turned out to be not much older than Celeste, had come to steal the brace of silver candlesticks that always stood on the sideboard in our dining room. April had gotten out of bed for a drink of water. They encountered each other in the downstairs hall.
All it took to subdue the boy was one look at April’s golden hair, shining ever so faintly in the darkness, giving off a light of its own. The thief saw all that Beauty, sucked in an astonished breath, then fell to the floor like a sackful of rocks. The noise of this, not to mention April’s sudden cry, roused the rest of the house. The would-be robber was still passed out cold, the candlesticks on the floor beside him, when my father summoned the constable.
The story has a happier ending than you might suppose. For April took pity on the lad and convinced my father to do the same.
Shortly after the constable arrived, and with his permission, Papa offered the unsuccessful thief, who had the extremely un-thief-like name of Dominic Boudreaux, a choice: Dominic could go to jail or he could go to sea. Papa is one of the most successful merchants in all our city. His ships sail to every part of the globe, and he had a ship scheduled to set sail with that morning’s tide.
Not surprisingly, Dominic Boudreaux chose the second course. As a result, he departed for his new life almost as soon as he’d made up his mind to have one. To the astonishment of all concerned, Dominic took to the sea like a sailor born. He’s been sailing for Papa ever since, for about ten years now. Papa gave him command of the newest ship in the fleet when he turned twenty-one, the youngest man he’d ever raised to captain. When Papa asked Dominic what he thought his ship should be called, Dominic answered without hesitation: the April Dawn.
It’s a nice story, isn’t it? But I’ve told it to you for a reason other than the obvious one. Because what happened to Dominic and April in the middle of that night tells a second story. A tale about Beauty that I’ve often murmured to myself, but that I’ve never heard anyone else so much as whisper aloud. And that tale is this: Beauty does more than stand alone. It also creates a space around itself. Beauty casts its own shadow, because it finds its own way to shine.
There’s a catch, of course: For every moment that Beauty shines bright, something—or someone—standing right beside it gets covered up by Beauty’s shadow. Goes overlooked, unnoticed.
You can trust me on this one. I know what I’m talking about.
On the twenty-fifth day of September, ten days after my tenth birthday, it happened to me, for on that day I performed an act I never had before. I stepped between my two sisters, and the shadows cast by their two Beauties so overlapped each other that they completely filled the place in which I stood.
As a result, I disappeared entirely.