Presented here is a retelling of a folktale from the Portuguese islands of the Azores called , Linda Branca and her Mask, from a collection called The Islands of Magic, Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores, by Elsie Spicer Ells and illustrated by E.L. Brock. According to the author, women in the Azores would often say “Stay pretty,” as a farewell to each other when parting and wonders if this story had anything to do with it.
Linda Branca and her Mask
There once lived a long, long, time ago a very beautiful girl who had grown tired of being beautiful whose name was Linda Branca. Many girls of her age would have envied her as her beauty made her the focus of all of the handsome young men in the neighborhood and indeed for miles around who were all desperate to court and marry her.
Every night in the street under her balcony young men would appear singing the most beautiful romantic ballads they had written themselves just for her. Their songs were carefully written hoping to impress her and make her fall in love with the singer of the song.
In fact none of them did and she grew bored and tired listening to the same performance every evening. She did not like hearing them sing in public of her glowing hair, flashing eyes and beauty finding it all disconcerting and in truth false. Some nights she could not sleep with all the singing under her balcony and would be grateful when her neighbours opened the windows and shouted at them to be quiet.
Nevertheless, all of her suitors were all very good looking, very rich, and very cocksure of themselves. They placed bets among themselves, each betting they would be the one to win the hand of the lovely Linda Branca. When Linda heard about this she was angry and unhappy. Although most girls would have given anything for her beauty and such male attention she began to see it as a curse.
Her mother had died giving birth to her leaving her father to bring her up. Although he loved her very much and tried his hardest there are always times when a girl needs her mother. To make it harder as she grew up he was always away on business.
“I wish I was as homely as the girls in the marketplace and not considered beautiful and desirable by men. I want a man who loves me not for my beauty but for who I am. I don’t want to be owned by anyone and I don’t want to own anyone else,” she said one day. She knew the young men only desired to possess her beauty and cared not for what she did, what she thought, or who she was. To them she was a prize that would prove their manhood and how handsome and wonderful they were to possess her.
Linda Branca did not want to be possessed by anyone. Linda Branca was determined to be the mistress of her own destiny. Yes, she greatly desired a soulmate – a companion – who knew and understood her intimately and who she knew in the same way. She knew that he would not be found singing under her window under the moon above. She knew that those who had laid bets on owning her would be losers for she would never accept such young men.
Linda Branca now saw her beauty as a curse and standing upon her balcony looking down into the street said aloud in frustration,
“If only I could be as homely as that girl walking over there I would have a chance of finding my star – my soulmate, my lover, my hero and would gladly marry him. All these handsome young men are indeed very attractive but they are shallow and fickle and when I begin to age they would forsake me, that is what they do all the time. I want someone to grow with to an old age becoming closer and closer.”
As she spoke she looked at the girl’s plain homely face and eyes, Her ordinary hair and body and said, not realising the girl could hear her,
“If only I was as plain and homely as her I could find someone who loved me for myself to marry and be happy, but with all of these unsuitable young men in the way I fear I shall never find my husband and soulmate.”
The girl heard the complaints of LInda Branca and looked up and seeing how beautiful she was she was truly astonished. She thought she must have been hearing things and challenged Linda Branca to say it again. Although a little embarrassed at being overheard Linda Branca was unrepentant and repeated what she had said that she wanted to be as homely looking as she, though she apologized if this should offend her.
However, the girl was not offended and smiling up at her said, “It so happens I am an artist and one of my arts is making masks. If you really want I can make you a mask to be as plain and homely as you want, but be careful with what you wish for!”
Linda Branca was astounded and at the same time very pleased with the suggestion. “Please make me a mask to make me look ordinary and homely, it is very much my heart’s desire!” she exclaimed joyfully.
“Are you really sure about this? asked the artist.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Please make it as fast as you can!” begged Linda Branca.
As evening fell the usual cacophony of young men singing their hearts out found Linda Branca stood on the balcony looking this way and that. This was a most pleasant surprise to them as she usually never appeared to acknowledge their romantic efforts.
But it was not the love songs that Linda Branca was on the balcony to for. She was hoping to see the artist appearing along the road with her mask but she did not come.
Evening after evening she stood looking out from the balcony. The young men below crooned their hearts out thinking that she must be choosing her most favored suitor. Indeed, as she stood looking out from her balcony her sparkling eyes and dark flowing hair sent them into raptures of song. While the young men below were all very excited by her appearances the young woman besieged upon the balcony was not remotely interested in them at all. She was simply looking out for the arrival of the artist who bore the mask of Linda Branca.
The idea of a mask had greatly excited her and she hoped it would solve all her problems. She was so excited she would not have been able to sleep even if the barrage of love songs floating up from her desperate suitors below ceased to exist. When she did manage to sleep in her she dreams she saw herself wearing the mask. Sometimes her beauty was covered up by the likeness of a plump homely girl. Sometimes a skinny homely girl and once or twice with the face of a donkey. She thought they would all have adequately covered her loveliness and would gladly accepted any of them.
At last a week later the artist finally arrived with the mask which was none too soon as she had grown very impatient and began to give up hope. When the artist showed her the mask she could see why it had taken so long. It was indeed a very plain face, though not ugly, but homely and unremarkable and just like a real human face. The kind of face that does not stand out and is easily lost in a crowd. It was an amazing work that had required great skill, patience and artistry to create and now it was here ready for her to wear and said, “Why, it is even better than I had hoped. It will cover my beauty and is not too ugly but plain enough not to stand out in the crown and be recognized!” She was confident that when she put it on not one of the flocks of admiring suitors would recognize her and she made a plan.
Having no mother to answer to and her father being away on business would make her plan easier. Her father was a successful businessman who made a great deal of money and doted on his daughter. When he came home after being away he would take her out and buy her expensive presents of jewelry and fine clothes that enhanced her beauty. She rarely wore them but there were two gowns that she particularly liked. One was blue and trimmed with silver and the other was also blue but trimmed with gold. Although at the time she had no plan to wear them she thought that maybe one day she would be in need of something finer to wear on some occasions. Therefore, she packed these and a few other belongings into a bag.
Placing her new mask upon her face and a long, dark cloak around her shoulders she left the house walking through her crowds of admirers who never gave her a glance. Wasting no time she traveled to the city and finding the palace of the king, knocked on the door and asked a surly looking woman who answered if they required a maid. The surely looking woman was the King’s mother and glaring at Linda replied, “It is my son who is the King, therefore you must ask him,” and took her to see the King.
The King looked down on Linda unkindly and said, “Only last week I employed a new girl servant purely because she was so very pretty. I think I will employ you purely because you are very plain.”
Not a very nice thing to say you would think, but this was music to the ears of Linda Branca as she took up her employment in the service of the King. However, although the song sounded nice to begin with she would find it would go on far too long for her liking.
She met the pretty maid whom the king had employed the previous week and saw that although she was pretty she was not anywhere near as pretty as herself without the mask. Furthermore she discovered that it was she who would get all of the hard and dirty jobs while the pretty maid smiled and fluttered her eyes at her employer and was given the easier tasks.
Although her sleep was no longer being disturbed by her many suitors singing under her balcony, because of all of the hard work she was going to bed exhausted and sleeping through until sunrise. When she awoke she would have a quick breakfast and then begin work again carrying water, scrubbing floors, washing dishes and doing all the tiring unpleasant jobs around the palace.
While she was working away the pretty maid would be doing all the easy tasks like waiting upon the King and laughing at his jokes. As the days went by the more work she was given the less the pretty maid received. Furthermore, she could not help but notice it was the pretty maid who received all of the praise and attention from all of the high people. All she ever received was more and more work. It was clear the pretty maid had the easier, happier life and was never as tired as herself when she went to bed. Linda Branca began to think that just maybe there was something to being pretty after all. “I am wondering if maybe I should once again be pretty!” she said to herself as she climbed exhausted into her bed one night.
The following evening there was to be a great banquet that would be held over two days and Linda went to the King’s mother to ask her if she could attend. As usual the King’s mother was not in a very good mood and told her angrily, “Go and ask my son for he is King!”
Therefore Linda bided her time until she was in the King’s presence tasked with the job of polishing his boots.
“Please may I go to the banquet tonight?” she asked as politely as she could.
“What? Go away or I will boot you!” replied the King.
In the evening after the feast had begun Linda Branca unpacked her beautiful blue gown trimmed with silver. She put it on and taking off her mask looked into the mirror. She saw she was still just as pretty as she had ever been and far prettier than the pretty maid. Indeed, she found it quite a pleasure to see herself pretty once again after such a long time of being plain. Wasting no more time she took herself down to the banqueting hall and mingled with the guests.
The Land of the Boot
Everyone was astonished to meet this beautiful and mysterious young woman. She was the talk of the evening and the King paid her special attention dancing and chatting gaily with her becoming completely beguiled by her beauty.
“May I ask where it is you come from, beautiful one?” he said as they danced.
“Why, I come from the land of the boot,” replied Linda Branca laughing gaily at her own little joke and slipped from his hand and was gone leaving the King bemused and trying to puzzle out where the land of the boot was.
The King was most perplexed. He had never heard of the land of the boot and he asked his mother and all of his wise men but they had never heard of any such place. The next day he spent his time pouring through books and maps searching in vain for the land of the boot but could not find even one single mention of it.
“I want to marry her, she is the most beautiful maiden I have evers seen. How will I ever be able to see her again if I cannot even find the land she comes from?” he cried to his courtiers.
The King fell into a depression and all of his courtiers and counsellors were worried. It was very disconcerting that their King had fallen deeply in love with a mysterious and unknown maiden from a far country and nobody knew its location or could even find it on a map.
The next day Linda Branca donned her mask and went about her work as usual but found she seemed to have even more and harder tasks than usual while the pretty maid had none. The King passed by looking down at the plain girl he had employed as she scrubbed the floor.
Later after she had completed her work she went to the King’s mother to ask permission to attend the banquet that evening. “You must ask the King,” she snapped in reply. Therefore at an opportune moment while the pretty maid was brushing the King’s hair she asked him ever so politely if she could attend the banquet that evening.
“What!” cried the King, “Get you gone or I will hit with my hairbrush!”
In the evening after she had finished her work she put on her beautiful blue gown with the gold trim, took off her mask and looked at herself in the mirror. She was pleased to see that if anything she looked lovelier that ever and went down to mingle with the guests in the banqueting hall.
The Land of the Hairbrush
As she entered the King, who had been watching the door attentively, gave a happy cry and ran over to greet her. From then on he danced with her all evening chatting and laughing gaily and never left her side.
“And what country did you say you came from?” he asked politely.
“Why, I am from the land of the hairbrush!” said Linda giggling at her own little joke.
“And where is that land?” asked the King but the intriguing maiden would not tell him no matter how he implored. He turned around to call over his wise men and asked them where the land of the hairbrush was not none of them knew. When he looked round again he found the beautiful and mysterious maiden had gone.
“Find her!” he commanded and although the banqueting hall was searched high and low there was no sign of that mysterious maiden, just some plain servant girl washing up in the kitchen.
The next day the King and all of his wise men poured over books and maps searching for the whereabouts of the land of the hairbrush but found not even a mention. The king flew into a rage and chased them all out and went through the maps and books alone.
He would not eat and he would not sleep but continued to study all the maps and books in the palace. When he had studied these and found nought he decreed that all the books and maps in the land must be sent to the palace. From then on he studied each and everyone himself for the land of the hairbrush and the land of the boot refusing to eat, sleep or drink until he had found it.
All the books and maps in his kingdom were brought to his palace and as good as his word he studied each one without taking a single sip to drink, a single bite to eat, or a single wink of sleep. By the time he had finished he was so weak he had to be carried to bed by his physicians but he had not found those mysterious lands. They begged him to eat and drink but he refused and said, “What do I care for food, or drink or sleep? I only care for the beautiful maiden I was dancing with.”
When Linda Branca heard the King was ill she took off her mask and put on her blue gown with the silver trim that she had worn on the first night. Looking at herself in the mirror she thought, “Maybe, It is not such a terrible thing to be pretty after all!”
The Masquerader Unmasked
Sneaking outside she made her way to the window of the King’s bedroom and peeped in for a few minutes before one of the King’s counsellors saw her.
“Whose is that beautiful face looking through the window at the King!” he cried.
“It is the mysterious maiden from the land of the boot,” said one.
“Nay, it is the beautiful maiden from the land of the hairbrush,” cried another.
The King jumped out of bed and ran to the window but when he opened it, there was no one to be seen.
“Mother, tell me who was at my window!” he cried.
“There was no one, or maybe just a masquerader,” she answered nonchalantly but she was very worried about her son fearing he was so ill he would die.
The following day the King had grown weaker and the royal physicians feared the worst. The King lay on his bed, refusing to eat, drink or sleep with his eyes set firmly on the bedroom window should the lovely face return. The entire palace fell quiet and as an atmosphere of gloom pervaded, Linda Branca, this time dressed herself in the blue gown with the gold trim and sneaked to the King’s bedroom window and peeped in.
She looked directly into the face of the King and he looked into hers. “Ha!” he cried jumping up and running to the window and managed to grasp a handful of the blue skirt.
“Masquerader, unmask yourself!” he cried.
Linda had quickly put on her mask and looked into the King’s face with the face of the plain girl he had employed for her plainess. He stepped back in surprise and then she slipped off the mask revealing her true beautiful face smiling at him with shining eyes.
“Ha! Now I know who the beautiful mysterious maiden from the land of the boot and the land of the hairbrush is!” he cried.
With that Linda Branca confessed to the king and his mother and all present. She told them the entire story of how she had longed to be plain and how she had concealed her beauty with the mask the artist had made for her.
No one had ever heard of a maiden who had yearned plainess instead of being proud of the beauty that nature had bestowed upon her. The King’s mother said, “I have always been confident my son would one day choose a rare and beautiful woman to be his wife,” while giving him a little dig in the ribs.
The King remained silent for a long time gazing upon the lovely face of Linda Branca with such love in his eyes but what he said was not what his mother expected. “If it was the will of Linda Branca I would humbly beg her hand in marriage.”
Linda Branca looked at the King in surprise and in his eyes she saw nothing but love but then turning quickly she placed her mask quickly on and turned again to face him,
“And how would you have her as your wife?” she said looking him full in the face while she wore the mask, “Like this?”
The King looked at her in the mask and looked deep into her eyes for they were still her own beautiful eyes that he saw.
Or perhaps like this?” she said pirouetting and pulling the mask off to face the King in her own natural beauty.
After a pause the King answered thoughtfully, speaking with deep sincerity,
“I am asking for the hand of Linda Branca in marriage but in doing so I wish her to know that if she should accept there are three conditions that she must understand and agree. The first is that she would be her own sovereign over her own body and her own mind. The second is that she will have complete sovereignty over my body, soul and all my worldly goods. The third is that should she so wish she may wear or not wear the mask as is her want and it will make no difference for my love to her.”
Linda Branca looked at the King in surprise and for once she felt loved and desired above all. At last she knew deep down that she was happy to be blessed with beauty and from then on she would stay pretty.
© 26/06/2019 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright June 26th, 2019 zteve t evans
- The Islands of Magic, Legends, Folk and Fairy Tales from the Azores – by Elsie Spicer Eells, Illustrator: E. L. Brock