On Esther’s Vengeance and the Beauty of Women’s Rage
Esther, you are a queen not because of your physical perfection, but because of the horror and rage you transformed it into.
When I think of you, I think of my mother, running a brush through my tangled, curling hair. At every chestnut bramble, she would yank the comb through, no matter my whimpering. Over the curve of my shoulder, her breath would descend a gentle storm on my ear, always to say the same thing.
Beauty is pain.
Which is to say, when I think of you, I think of this hairbrush lesson, repeated so often that it has become a truth I hold self-evident. You are a reminder to me that to seek beauty is to seek pain, that to hold beauty in one’s face and body is to hold pain there too, and that, ultimately, perhaps pain itself is beautiful.
Despite memorizing this message as truth early on, I have sought beauty all my life. As a little girl, I preened in front of mirrors, twirled in pastel dresses, my ears cocked for the cooing of an adult who might tell me how cute or pretty I was. I watched animated princesses on television with a practical kind of jealousy. I was envious of their seemingly evergreen status as beautiful, while studying their movements, how they lifted their waifish wrists to wave, how they looked up at a precise, doe-eyed angle through heaving lashes.
Has the beauty obscured where you come from? Is this forgetting part of the pain?
In Sunday school, I was troubled, fascinated, and captivated by women like Eve, Rebeccah, Sarah, or Ruth, but it was you whom I first truly loved and yearned to be like. Esther, the beautiful. Esther, the lovely. Esther, the Queen. You invaded my imagination as I tried to picture just what you must have looked like to capture a King’s interest, to win out as the most beautiful against thousands of others, and then to deliver your people from sure death. You were a perfect combination of physical beauty and easy moralism in a way that was magnetic to me at eight years old. I was enamored, through and through.
Esther, your story begins not with you, but another woman: Vashti. Vashti is the also-beautiful first wife of King Ahasuerus, who, upon refusing to make herself available for the King to show her off to his guests, is functionally excommunicated. Vashti’s refusal is a puzzling one; as a queen, she likely knew that the consequences of disobeying an order from her King would be one of life or death. She refuses anyway, as if choosing death is better than being a beautiful object to be gazed upon.
But never mind this. This is your story, not hers. In your story, it is her absence that is important because it creates the opening for your entrance. You can only exist because of pain, though it is of another woman. Vashti’s pain in objectification, Vashti’s pain in being thrown out of the palace (but perhaps this could have been mingled with relief?)—in this way too, beauty is pain, or more accurately, here, begets it.
Vashti safely deposed, King Ahasuerus sends out a call for beautiful virgins to be delivered to his harem for a beauty pageant of sorts. You, a natural beauty whom I have always imagined to be unaware of her own loveliness, are presented to the court by your uncle, Mordecai. You win over the affection of the eunuch in charge of the harem and receive months of beautification treatments. Six months in myrrh, six months in perfume. Such attention and luxury I cannot even fathom. Around you, girls are called to the King for a night of “inspection,” after which they are sent to a different harem to live out the rest of their days, no longer virgins and not yet queens. Finally, the King calls for you. You are so pleasing to him that he crowns you Queen. The pageant ends, you as victor. By the law of the land, you are the most beautiful woman in the entire kingdom.
As a child, this pageant was the most bewitching part of the story—literally being named the Most Beautiful Woman. I spent hours wondering what you must have looked like to earn this title; whether your hair was tawny or jet, your face carved or smooth. I did not think at all about the realities of that victory, the separation from your family, the alienation from normal life. I did not think about all the pain this pageant must have brought for you.
There is a villain in the court. His name is Haman, a trusted advisor to your new husband King Ahasuerus. Haman hates the Jewish people and wishes to be rid of them. Haman especially reviles your uncle Mordecai after Mordecai refused to bow to him in the street, signaling just how self-centered and aggrandizing Haman is. One day, Haman approaches the King with a plan to kill every Jewish person in the kingdom. The King agrees, not knowing that you are yourself a Jewish woman as you have hidden this fact upon your arrival to court. It is announced that all Jewish people will be killed in a mass genocide.
Mordecai approaches you and asks you to intercede on behalf of your people, and Esther, at first you refuse. And I wonder at this. You say you are afraid of approaching the King without an invitation, an action that is sure to bring a death sentence. Your hesitancy at a clear call of duty slightly mars your perfection. You are selfish and afraid—finally, a real human woman. But I wonder: Are you not under a death sentence anyway? A death sentence because you are Jewish, yes, but also perhaps because you are so beautiful that in a way, all you are is beautiful? Has the beauty obscured where you come from? Is this forgetting part of the pain?
But no matter, Mordecai convinces you otherwise and you approach the King. My child self imagined that surely you were the loveliest that night, trembling in your skin, fear painting all the angles of your body in gold relief. I imagined you swathed in purple robes, a color I find indecisive and hard to see, a combination of impassioned and fearful reds muddled with sorrowful, still blues. The King extends his scepter to indicate he still finds you pleasing. Does he forgive you of your seeming impropriety out of love? Is it adoration that he has felt this whole time, choosing you out of a sparkling line of pretty women as prized above all?
I prefer to think instead that he is bewitched, that your beauty has cast a glamour over him. He is dazzled, blinking in the spangled halo of your beauty, and so he allows you this indiscretion, asking you what it is that you want. As you muster your response, Haman preens to the side. You beg the King and Haman to attend a banquet you are throwing tonight and he does. At the banquet, the King asks what it is you want, and you ask that he and Haman attend another banquet tomorrow.
The next night, after the King and Haman are good and full, you ask the King: What would he do to a man who has condemned your family, your people, to death? The King responds that he would execute such a man and so you reveal yourself to be a Jewish woman, thus ensnaring Haman. And the next day Haman is publicly impaled on a pole over seventy feet high, leaving your people safe.
Esther, I am older now, no longer that curly-haired girl in the cupcake of a dress, and though shy to admit it, I am still preoccupied by beauty. Skincare, exercise, holding my gaze for too long in the front-facing camera—I am still trying to practice prettiness. I get my eyebrows threaded under the clucking tongue of the woman at the corner salon and grimace at each pluck, repeating to myself that beauty is pain. I scroll through Instagram feeds of women I think are beautiful and flood myself with a rotting, acrid jealousy to better nurture my own want of beauty. I despair and aspire in an alternating constant spin cycle of emotion. I want people to see me and think that I am nice to look at. I want to win the perpetual beauty pageant of living life as a woman in a body inspected by society. I want to be crowned beautiful. I want to be worthy.
Beauty is pain. It is also power. It is both, shifting between pain and power, as if something acrid threading its unblemished surface.
But today, I re-read your story and came across an unexpected ending, not covered in the pastel sensibilities of my Midwestern evangelical Sunday school—the teachings that said you saved your people and then lived Happily Ever After, akin to a Biblical Disney princess. I learned today that after your people were safe, you went back to the King. This time, you did not invite him to a banquet or wreathe yourself for presentation. Instead, you asked the King to make a decree allowing all Jewish people to assemble and defend themselves, to kill and annihilate anyone who would wish harm on them, on you. The King agreed, and seventy-five thousand of his citizens were killed at your behest.
What gore there must have been; what wailing must have risen like pyres of smoke from the city; what blood must have fanned in crimson outbursts down the streets. Your beauty shifting shape into something sharper, more defined, an elegant, well-manicured hand curled into a ruthless fist. I wonder now if this is the real crux of your beauty; if this shattered suffering refracted as justice is what makes you beautiful. Maybe it is not the days you spent perfumed and pampered, a monument to one man’s ego, that makes you beautiful, but instead this final outburst of anger and vengeance.
Because Esther, earlier, I lied. Or rather, I misremembered. Yesterday, I asked my mother if she remembered those hair brushing sessions, her telling me that beauty is pain. She looked at me and frowned, said “No, Nina. I was saying beauty is power.”
I do not know why I misremembered this, repeating the mis-memory to myself so often that it became truth. Maybe it was the sharp jolt of the brush against my scalp. Maybe it was the congested ache, the disappointed scrambling feeling I was left with after the pursuit of some physical ideal: a botched haircut, a manicure smudged before dry. Or maybe in my mind these things blended together in a trifold chant; Beauty is power is pain. Beauty is pain is power.
Reading your story now, though, I see that all of this is true. Beauty is pain. It is also power. It is both, shifting between pain and power, as if something acrid threading its unblemished surface. Vashti was beautiful, and she wielded that beauty to humiliate a King, no matter the pain. You were beautiful, so beautiful you thought you could suffer the pain of watching your own people die while you hid behind your loveliness. Instead, that beauty and pain transmuted itself into an unspeakable, terrible power. Your wrath, a thunderous, murderous finale, rendering you dangerous, fearsome to behold, and achingly lovely. A queen not because of your physical perfection, but because the horror and rage you transformed it into.
Esther, today while I wrote this, reflecting on your rage, a storm broke suddenly and ferociously over the pavement outside. Through the windows, I watched the blue sky turn dark without warning. Rain thrust itself onto the sidewalk, falling in thick, ropey tumult. Unsuspecting pedestrians thrust their arms over their head to no avail; there was no space between the pelting water for reprieve or air. A pretty day turned murderous and seething, power roiling in the ether.
And oh, Esther, how beautiful and terrible it was.
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, currently living in Chicago, IL. Her writing has appeared in EATER, The Collapsar, and RHINO Poetry among other places. Her debut chapbook haircut poems was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.