Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a beautiful young maiden. The only daughter of the Most Christian Prince of Salade, she was, thus, herself a Princess. Some say her name was Bellacornicha, others Lilgurka, but she has gone down in history as St Uncumber. How and why is the subject of my tale.
The story is set in those far off days when good men were Christians (and so were their womenfolk) and bad men were Pagans (and so were their womenfolk). But the good men were not always the strongest, and sometimes the God of the Christians put His people to the test. So it was, and so it went.
Marriage as sacrifice
The noble Prince of Salade was hard pressed to maintain his country’s independence from the powerful Pagan King Coney. Reminded vaguely of the story of Abraham and Isaac, he decided to sacrifice his best beloved daughter in marriage to the King. As was only right and proper, no one took the trouble to tell the Princess of her fate until the day before her wedding.
Curiously, when she finally learned what was afoot, the Princess was not enchanted at the idea of marriage to the Pagan King. Nor was she inspired by religious fervour at the idea of the sacrifice her father was making.
Brought up as a Christian, though, she had nowhere else to turn but to the very God in whose name her father was encumbering her with this unwanted marriage. And so she prayed to Christ, and begged for a miracle that would save her.
God (or – who knows – maybe the Devil) answered her prayers and on the morning of her wedding day she discovered she had begun to sprout a fine beard all over her face. And a fetching pair of moustaches to match. The beard grew at an extraordinary rate. By three o’clock in the afternoon (an hour before the time appointed for the ceremony) it was a good foot long. The Princess showed her maids, and the maids told the Matron. The Matron informed the Major Domo, and the Major Domo called the Prince.
Whiskered and veiled
Horrified, the Prince of Salade ordered the Princess’s beard to be cut and her face shaved. To no avail. The whiskers simple sprouted all the more vigorously. So he ordered her veils to be doubled. No, tripled! And led her to the altar hoping King Coney would not notice.
The Princess and her father processed into the church together. The King and his Pagans had not been keen for the ceremony to take place in a Christian church, but had relented for diplomatic reasons. Likewise the Prince, who had agreed (against his righteous Christian principles) to the ceremony being conducted jointly by the Bishop of Salade and a Pagan priest.
The Church was crowded. Pagans to the left and Christians to the right. Walking up the aisle the Princess peered as best she could through her veils. They were not quite as thick about her eyes as they were about the lower part of her face. The Pagan men were a wild and hairy looking bunch, but their women were all as tightly veiled as the Princess herself, or more so. King Coney, standing at the altar was tall and broad with a shock of grizzled dark hair. He had shaggy brows and a full broad black beard in which his teeth gleamed yellowly. His nose, thick, gnarled and purple, pendulated between his tight little eyes and bobbed in time to his breathing.
The moment the Princess and her father reached the altar, King Coney reached and grasped the Princess’s veils. He swept them from her head, revealing her hirsute countenance to all. The Bishop stepped back in horror, tripped over his own robes and fell, knocking himself unconscious on the stone flags.
The bearded women
The Pagan priest for his part gave the Princess an appraising look, grasped her beard and tugged. When the beard did not come off, he looked at King Coney and smiled. The King smiled too and turned the Princess about to show her off to the Pagans in the congregation. The men leaped to their feet, laughing and cheering. The women, ululating, doffed their veils to reveal, each one, her own flowing beard!
The Princess, the Prince and all the Christian men and women in the congregation were aghast. But at least King Coney had no objection to marrying his bearded bride. Indeed, he seemed to think the Princess had cultivated her whiskers deliberately to please and honour her groom. As nothing was further from the truth, the Princess was deeply distressed. She went through the ceremony in a state of shock.
After the wedding came the feast, which took place in the Great Hall of the castle. The Princess sat at the High Table between her new husband the King and her father the Prince, and watched the eating and drinking, and listened to the speeches and entertainment, with a face that grew longer and longer. Literally as well as metaphorically, for her beard continued to grow.
Inevitably, as the feasting wore on and wine, beer and spirits were consumed in ever increasing quantities, the speeches and entertainment grew ever more raw. Innuendo was abandoned for increasingly specific encouragement and advice to the bridal pair for things to do during the coming night.
The Princess, who had lived a relatively sheltered life up to now, found herself growing more and more flushed. She even found herself thanking God for the hair that covered so much of her face. It concealed the worst of her blushes.
After a while it struck her she could no longer tell the difference between the Pagan merrymakers and her father’s Christian courtiers. Even more remarkably, she was no longer sure which of the womenfolk were Christian and which Pagan, unless … Of course! She realised suddenly that the Pagan women all wore false beards and had removed them to eat. Only she, among all the women in the company, was so richly endowed with natural facial hair. This discovery made the Princess even more despondent.
Suddenly the Pagan King’s jester stood before her with a silver platter. On the platter was a single fat cucumber flanked by two large radishes. The cucumber was green, but otherwise strongly resembled her new husband’s thick, warty, pendulous nose, and the radishes were much like his tight little eyes. The jester turned around to show off his platter to the laughing, cheering company who, it seemed, could also see the similarity. Then he presented it to her again.
What to do?
The Princess reached out a hesitant hand and touched the cucumber. The King roared with laughter and the feasting men and women, Pagans and Christians alike, choked in delight.
The Princess stroked her hand along the skin of the cucumber, feeling its knobbly, veined surface. The company cheered and shouted encouragement. Disturbingly, even the Prince, her father, was leering at the spectacle.
The Princess lifted the vegetable gently from the plate. One of her delicate hands supported the green length of it underneath, while the fingers of her other hand encircled the top. Delicately she brought the cucumber to her lips. The crowd went wild with laughter and ribald cries.
Opening her mouth the Princess slowly slipped the cucumber between her lips. Deeper and deeper into her mouth. And then …
Then she bit down.
There was a deep collective gasp, a sound of the utmost horror, from male throats throughout the room. A few chairs fell over. In a nice counterpoint, a fraction of a second after came a chorus of high-pitched giggles from most of the female throats. Chewing, the cucumber juices running in her beard, the Princess turned to her husband to see how he was reacting.
King Coney had not taken it well. A pallor had come over his features, those that were not hidden behind by all the hair on his face. His forehead and cheeks were clammy, his lips were white (which made his teeth appear all the more yellow). Even his purple nose had taken on a slightly greenish tinge. In fact, the Princess thought (absentmindedly taking another bite from the cucumber), if it got any greener that nose would look exactly like the cucumber.
It seemed, without knowing, the Princess had hit upon the one action she could have taken that would cause the Pagan King the most distress. A beard on his bride, even one that really grew from her cheeks and chin, was something that pleased him, but the threat to his cucumber that the Princess had made, quite emasculated him – at least metaphorically.
The Pagan King quickly got over his horror, and determined never to allow his new wife to make such a spectacle of him again. The Princess’s punishment was usual for the times: a cruel death. King Coney had her crucified as a terrible warning to all cucumber crunchers.
A Christian burial
After he recovered from the concussion he had sustained in the church, the Bishop of Salade, sent minions to fetch the body of the Princess to give it a Christian burial. There were some men among the Bishop’s flock who grumbled over this, but the Bishop was adamant.
“This poor innocent was crucified in mockery of Our Christ, and all because her prayers to God were heard. Her youthful beauty was destroyed by a beard, and that was what infuriated the Pagan King.”
“It wasn’t the beard. It was the cucumber!”
“I know what I saw,” the Bishop replied. “That beard was a horrific shock. So she also ate a cucumber! That was her crime, you say? Even if it were so, how can we deny a Christian burial to a Christian woman who lost her life for such a trifle?”
“It was the way she ate it,” grumbled the men.
The Bishop, a very innocent and otherworldly soul, had lain unconscious throughout the wedding and feast. He could only judge the Princess, he insisted, by what he knew of her and by what people told him. As no one was able or willing to explain to the Bishop, in terms he could understand, exactly what was so terrible about the way the Princess had eaten the cucumber, a Christian burial was what she received.
The Bishop commissioned a fine commemorative statue. It depicted the Princess dressed in her wedding gown, hanging from the cross. The beard with which God had manifested His mercy flowed luxuriantly from her cheeks and chin. The sculptor’s suggestion, that she should hold a half-eaten cucumber in one hand, the Bishop rejected as frivolous.
The apotheosis of St Uncumber
Curious then that soon after the Princess’s tomb was complete and the statue unveiled, women supplicants would frequently leave offerings of cucumbers at the foot of the cross. Even in the depths of winter, when no fresh vegetables were to be had, jars of whole pickled gherkins would pile up at the Princess’s feet.
Then came the stories of miracles wrought by the Princess. One overbearing husband had become suddenly mellow after his wife had prayed to the Princess. Another man had fallen beneath the wheels of a cart and had his arms crushed, the very arms he’d just used to thrash his wife and daughters to within a inch of their lives. A third, a drunken abusive bully, had stepped off the edge of a cliff and plunged to his death. In every case the Princess was credited with unencumbering the women of their menfolk.
The cucumbers kept coming and the stories of the Princess’s efficacious interventions spread. No longer a Princess, but a Saint, a Saint who could uncumber women of cumbersome attachments.
For centuries St Uncumber was revered and adored, but times change. Equality between the sexes having been finally achieved in 1969, the Catholic Christian Church removed St Uncumber from the list of “real” saints. Her story, like that of many another, is classified now as a fantasy, a myth.
But somewhere perhaps, a saintly Princess Uncumber contemplates our world as she idly strokes her beard and crunches another cucumber.
The young woman in the illustrations came from a competition on Freaking News from 2008. [The original is no longer available. 22 Mar 2020] All the other elements came either from my own photos or from Creative Commons sources on the net.
Originally I wrote, illustrated and published this story in March, 2011. I’m going through my back catalogue and I thought it deserved to be reprinted. (Also it saves me writing a new post for today.)