There once was a pretty, young woman who lived in a little cottage off a country lane. Her name was Sseldaed, and she was vain and arrogant.
One day, a poor beggar wandering through the country lanes stopped at Sseldaed’s door to ask for food.
“Pooh!” exclaimed Sseldaed at the sight of the beggar, and she wrinkled her nose. “Why should I give food to you? I have friends coming over for dinner, and you are not fit to be seen! Go away!” She prepared to slam the door in the beggars face.
“Those who are selfish and cruel to those less fortunate then themselves will be cursed forever,” said the old beggar, and he hobbled away.
“I dare say!” Sseldaed said, sniffing, and she flounced away to get ready for the party. The party went well, and everyone left Sseldaed’s house, laughing and saying how much they had enjoyed the party.
Sseldaed went up to bed, leaving the servants to tidy up her house. She had her breakfast in bed the next day. She ate her lunch in her back garden and sketched for a bit, calling for her gardener to shoo away the stray animals that wandered through her garden.
At dinnertime, Sseldaed went inside and went up to her room to tidy up her hair for dinner. She has started to comb her hair when her head came off in her hands! Sseldaed screamed horribly, and her maid came running. At the sight of her mistress holding her head in her hands, the maid shrieked and fled from the house. She never came back.
Sseldaed wept and cried, holding her head in her hands. She was still able to see where she was by some extraordinary super sense that let her see around herself. Still weeping, she went down to her sitting room to find a needle and thread. If her head had come off without killing her, perhaps she could sew it back on.
But her head refused to be sewn back on.
Sseldaed found all her servants had abandoned her. She sat down to a cold dinner and wondered glumly how she would ever eat anything without a mouth. She looked at her head, sitting on the table beside her plate. After a minute, she picked up her fork.
To Sseldaed’s utter horror, a hole in the stump at the top of her neck opened up, equipped with teeth and a long, slimy, purple tongue. Sseldaed dropped her fork and cried like a banshee. Then she fainted dead away.
When Sseldaed came to, she was still lying on the floor by her chair, and she was very hungry. She forced herself to sit back up in her chair and feed herself through the mouth in the top of her stumpy neck. But her nasty, neck mouth refused to eat anything at all; it spat out the apple pie, and cold beef, and salad. Sseldaed beat her hands on the table and howled again. What had she done to deserve this? What would she do?
Sseldaed’s neck mouth reached out its long tongue and licked her disembodied head sitting on the table. Sseldaed winced at the sight and felt sick. Yuck! Her mouth wanted to eat her head! But she was hungry and, if that was the only thing her neck mouth would let her eat, then that was it. She picked up her head, chopped it into neat pieces with her knife, and fed it to her neck. Her head tasted sour and bitter and tough.
After dinner, Sseldaed went up to bed. When she woke up the next day, she found that she had her head back! Jumping out of bed, she fervently checked her reflection in the mirror before she did her hair and went down to breakfast. Of course, the whole thing had just been a bad dream! How could she have thought otherwise! No one lost a head without dying!
The cottage was empty. Dirty dishes lay piled on the table and plates of food held yesterday’s dinner. Frowning, Sseldaed went all over the house, calling and calling for her maids to tidy the dining room up. When she received no answer, she sat down helplessly in a chair. Perhaps the whole nightmare had not been a dream after all!
Sseldaed did not like dirt. She liked everything tidy and neat. She realized that without servants to keep her cottage clean, she would have to do all the work herself! Sseldaed struggled with the idea. Imagine, a person like herself having to clean dishes and dust and mop and weed the garden . . . good gracious, she would certainly not do the garden! Why, the idea of dirt on her hands was revolting!
Sseldaed soon got used to her new life. But she did not tend to the garden. She could bring herself to washing the dishes and dusting and mopping, but she would not get dirt on her hands. Her hands were no longer perfectly smooth and slender, and her clothes were no longer shining and clean all the time. Her hair did not up in its fancy sets all day. She had to get used to a normal bun.
And every night at dinner, Sseldaed’s head would fall off. And her head was the only thing that she could eat as her last meal of the day. Sseldaed experimented. She did not eat her head one night, and she woke up headless in the morning. She had to eat her head in order for it to grow back.
One day Sseldaed went out into her garden. It was overgrown with weeds and the flowers were dead. It was an ugly sight. The sight frustrated Sseldaed. It was all she could do to keep her house and clothes clean. But to have to make the garden tidy . . . no, she would not do it!
Sseldaed’s friends had abandoned her. They told tales they had heard from Sseldaed’s former servants to everyone they knew. Everyone shunned Sseldaed. She lived alone. No servant would come to help her. The current rumor was Sseldaed was vampire in disguise. Mothers turned Sseldaed into a monster that would eat naughty, little children if they did not listen to their parents.
Sseldaed was just sitting down to eat her head one evening when she heard a knock on her front door. She jumped for the noise startled her. It had been months since she had heard a knock on her front door. No one came to visit her anymore. She got up and went to the door. She opened it nervously.
A young man was standing outside her door. He tipped his hat to her. “Good evening, ma’am. I am a wandering gardener, and I saw that your garden was in a sad state. Shameful, it looked, and such a nice piece if land.”
“I do not have a gardener, sir,” Sseldaed said with dignity. “I am currently indisposed, as you can see.”
“Yes, ma’am. Very sad for you, I am sure. But, begging’ your pardon, ma’am, I have no problems with working for a headless lady. My name is Relaeh” The young man looked at Sseldaed.
“Really? Well, if you would come in, I will interview you. I am afraid I do not have a hot dinner on hand, as I am eating my head, but you can have the leftover lunch.”
Relaeh sat down to the table and tucked into the food Sseldaed placed before him. He did not seem unsettled, nor did he stare, as Sseldaed started to eat her head. “A very pretty head you have got, ma’am,” he said politely. “Now, I am sure you would like to see my references. I am a special class of gardener, ma’am. I only work for people with peculiarities. See here, I have worked for a lady with bird feet, a man with a tail, and I have taught one or two little kids with no eyes and wings. But I have never met anyone with a peculiarity such as yours, ma’am, if I may say so. Got yourself cursed, I suppose? Refused an old beggar a meal, from the looks of it.”
“What do you mean by that, sir?” Sseldaed asked haughtily.
“You do listen to the old tales, don’t you, ma’am? You know the tale about the beggars realm?”
“That is a silly child story,” Sseldaed said, brushing it away with her hand. “Who ever heard of such rubbish?”
“It is not rubbish, ma’am,” said Relaeh. “I will explain it to you. The tale goes that all the old beggars live in a secret part of the world. And they say the old beggars come out into the world, and go about looking for rude, arrogant, selfish people to teach lessons to. When they find someone who is rude to them, they curse that person in such a way that if the person manages to cure their curse, they will no longer be rude, selfish, or arrogant.”
“I would say you are the selfish, mean sort, ma’am. From the looks of it, you must have refused an old beggar dinner so he made you eat your head every night for the rest of your life. I have seen it all, ma’am. Those beggars are a nightmare, ma’am!”
“I suppose it might be true,” Sseldaed said doubtfully. “Now, what do you charge for your services?”
Relaeh named a reasonable figure. He agreed to sleep in the spare bedroom, and get to work early the next morning.
Sseldaed went to bed thinking about what Relaeh had said. The next morning at breakfast she asked him if he knew how to undo curses.
Relaeh finished his coffee. “Well, I would say, ma’am, that you will have to be kind and generous. Excuse me, ma’am, but I have to get to work.”
At ten o’ clock, Relaeh brought in an abandoned cat. “Here you go, ma’am. A little something that needs a bit of help. Remember what I said about your curse, ma’am? Well, you can start undoing it right now. A bit of food is what this ol’ gal needs to pep her up.” He dumped the spitting cat into Sseldaed’s arms and marched out.
An hour later, Relaeh brought in a stray dog. Then he reappeared with a bird that had broken its wing. Shortly thereafter he came back inside carrying a mouse with no tail. Sseldaed squealed when she saw it.
“Oh, oh! Get it out! I will feed the cat and dog, and fix a bird’s wing, but I will not doctor a mouse! Ooh, you wicked man! Take it away!”
“Do you want your head back, ma’am? Well, until you have done two good deeds for every selfish thing you have done, you will have to keep on eating your head. Healing a mouse, ma’am, counts as two good deeds since you hate them so much.”
Gingerly, Sseldaed took the mouse. She carried it into the kitchen and gave it a bit of cheese. The dog and the cat were occupying separate corners of the kitchen. The bird was in the old cage belonging to her dead pet canary. Books on medicine lay littered about the kitchen. Sseldaed had dug them out of her attic. The books had belonged to her godmother, who had been an herbalist. When her godmother had died, Sseldaed had inherited the books. She had packed them away at the time, but now they were coming in handy.
Over the next few months, Relaeh kept bringing in stray animals. He brought a cat with a broken leg, a dog with a bleeding side, a lame duck, an injured baby deer, and a rat with a broken paw.
Every day, Sseldaed wondered what Relaeh would bring in next. Her house was full of healing animals. Every day she let the healed ones go back to the wild, and Relaeh would bring her more. She had no idea where he found them. But her garden was looking lovely.
One day Relaeh brought her an abandoned, dirty child. “Afternoon, ma’am. Lovely day to be out weeding. I found this poor little lad a ways down the road. What he needs is a good bath and a hot meal. Afternoon, ma’am. Must be getting on with my work.”
Sseldaed looked at the little lad. Then she went to fill the bath. The lad splashed in the bathwater, laughing. He ate messily, and danced wildly around the house. He grinned crookedly at Sseldaed when she scolded him for not behaving, and replied to her in a language she did not know.
But that night, Sseldaed’s head did not fall of! She was so happy she cried, and cooked herself a proper dinner to celebrate. She went to bed and slept comfortably, with her head on the pillows.
Relaeh said to his employer the next morning, “Now, ma’am, you listen to me; as long as you keep on being kind and generous, your head will stay where it should be. The minute you are mean, off it will go. Crack! You understand?”
“Yes. But who are you? You are not an ordinary man, are you? I mean, how do you know so much about curses?”
Relaeh smiled suddenly. “No, ma’am, I am not. You know the old beggars tale? Well, the old buggers make so much trouble in the world cursing people, we angels, ma’am, have to come out of heaven, and help some of the less fortunate cursed people out a bit. You will excuse me, ma’am, but my son and I have got to be getting back to heaven now. Good morning, ma’am.”
Relaeh took the hand of the little lad in his and stepped outside the house. There was flash of light, and both of them disappeared.
When Sseldaed went up to tidy up Relaeh’s bedroom, she found he had left her a present of a book on gardening. Sseldaed knew she would treasure the book forever. She sat down to read it with avid attention.
~a short story by Layla