I wake with a skull-biting migraine around midday, as always, forever too tired to greet the morning. My mouth is as thick as linen, and I wouldn’t get up at all if the wardrobe weren’t so eager to dress me, which she does, in blue and white, like the habit of a nun I once saw carrying milk down a street in Montmartre.
The wardrobe sings rather too much for my headache, so I sit and massage my forehead, wishing I’d slept in a little longer. It’s not like I have anywhere to be, people to visit. There’s never anything but me, and the castle, and the Beast; it shouldn’t matter if I dream another hour away.
But then the clock and the candle are at my door, coaxing me down to a breakfast of fresh pastries, and butter, and teeth-achingly sweet jam that always reminds me of my village. I wonder where the food comes from; I’ve never seen any of the servants leave the castle, and the Beast cannot, as much as he wants to. It must be so very difficult to get hold of, I think, and so I get up, after all, thinking what a shame it would be to waste it.
Yawning, I sit at the breakfast table and eat croissants until my stomach aches- or perhaps it’s the tea that makes me nauseous, tasting of forest mulch and yeast. The servants always say that I must drink it, that it will calm my nerves, salve my sorrows. Once or twice I’ve poured it away into whatever vase of flowers centres the tabletop, letting it leach harmlessly into their dying stems. But there is always more later where I have nowhere to dispose of it, so I can never tell whether or not it is really the tea that has changed me.
I wish it was easier to think. There is always music in the castle, always movement and colour and noise that fills my head like a travelling carnival. It’s certainly no different now, the table swimming with motion. I badly want to be sick, and so I rise, sweating, with the excuse I’d like to visit the library. It’s the only place that is cool and quiet; my vision jumps about too much these days for me to read for very long.
In the soft gloom of piled shelves I put my head on the backs of my clammy arms and weep. Only here, unseen, do I feel safe to, surrounded by a thousand leather-bound tomes as intimate to me as family. Sometimes I think I hear their pages rustle their sympathy, but today they are silent, grieving with me, I imagine, for the life I left behind. For my father, who’s face I might never see again, his features as faint as a paper tracing in the dull throb of my memory.
It is for my Papa that I stay here, for much as the Beast claims that I’m welcome to leave whenever I like I know well what he could do if I did. I think of red roses on white snow, red blood on white skin, red blood on black claws. My father is safe as long as I am here, free to tinker with his complex machines and forget the winding-down doll that was his daughter, just as I am slowly forgetting him.
I’ve thought about ending this life, once or twice, secreting a blade in my sleeve at dinner to split my wrists to the pomegranate red beneath in my evening bath, spinning my bedsheets into a noose so that I might spin from the window of some forbidden wing and slip into the liberating darkness beyond. But each time I’ve made such a plan I’ve either forgotten it in my perpetual stupor or been caught by loitering servants, each of whom know their existence pivots on the continuation of mine.
To my knowledge they’ve never dared inform their Master of these attempts, or perhaps it is that they are too kind to; it would be me, after all, who would cower from his bellowing, who fears the weight of an enraged paw.
I brush dust from my dress and stand, sighting the Beast through the library window. He runs on four legs through the snow, forgetting how hard he has battled to walk on two, as he always does when he knows that I’m watching him.
He is as vast and as shaggy as a bear, his face and limbs more lupine, vast white flakes clinging to the ruff of dark hair circling his throat like the corona of some dread sun. The clothes he insists on dragging over his bulk are snagged from his tearing about the woods, and as he lifts his head to look up at the window only his eyes appear human, shrewd and tragic, the colour of verdigris.
His eyes. Even at this distance I feel their pull at my wounded heart, and as ever I do not know whether it is affection or hatred or desire I feel, or some devil’s concoction of the three. I have become so reliant on the comings and goings of the Beast, his presence, his conversation, like air seized by drowning lungs. How pathetic I feel, compelled to my captor, sympathetic, even, as I watch him ascend the granite steps in the garden below, buckling his spine to stagger on hind legs at last.
He has never told me how he came to be such a monster, but I feel the pain of it as if I’ve touched my hand to the slick edges of a poisoned wound. A self-inflicted one, no doubt; each time he tumbles into some rage it is through fault of his impatience, entitlement only the inhabitant of some great fortress could possess. And still, still, I pity him as I watch him shamble beneath my window, wish that I had magic enough so salve his darkness- I, who he keeps like some decaying bud under a bell jar, still, I pity him.
Plucking a novel at random from a nearby shelf I make my egress from the library, knowing the likely discontent my hiding away from him would unseat in him. I meet the Beast in the parlour to take coffee, the acrid drink sharpening the fog of my mind just enough that I’m able to converse with a ghost of my old intellect. He leans towards me, hanging off my every word as if I were a bard relaying a sonnet.
In another time, another place I might have found it endearing, but now all I can think of is the calcite jut of his fangs, the way he stinks like a boar under his genteel clothes.
We discuss the book under my arm- thankfully one I read long before I was ever held here, before my mind was knocked away like cinders from a hearth -and again my heart clenches, warmed by his eagerness. Oh, but that he were not an animal, were he not jealous and possessive and prone to rage. I can only fantasise about the man he could be, because even were he to change he has gone too far for me to forget the wretchedness of his keep.
After an hour of polite chatter I rise, allowing my jailer to kiss the back of my hand with his wet, bristling muzzle before I ascend the stairs. It’s only when I reach the top of the bannisters and slip out of sight that I rub my hand dry on my dress, continuing to chafe it until it comes away red-raw. At once I feel guilty, and hold that feeling as I wait for a servant to run my bath.
There are still emotions that the all-encompasing numbness hasn’t taken away, and I must cleave them to me before they, too, are smoothed away like grooves on a stone by the sea.
Another steaming cup is brought to me with my evening meal by a benevolent pot, or so she appears with her smiling moon-face and unturned spout of a nose. I sit on the rim of the bath and sip at it with a show of gratitude until she departs. Then I kneel over the toilet and feather my fingers at the back of the throat until a rush of bile courses over my fingers into the china bowl, dark specks of vegetation standing out upon stainless white.
I’m elated by the ease of it, but not surprised; a scientific journal in the library expressed that poisons might be ejected in such a way, and no book has ever done me wrong.
My bath feels so much more cleansing without the tea’s effects. For once I truly enjoy the heat, the scent of oranges on my skin from the soaps and oils in the steaming water. It feels like so long since I’ve taken pleasure that isn’t fraught and filtered to an insipid mimic of experience. As I climb from the bath and towel myself dry I realise that my perpetual headache has dissipated at last, sharpening my thoughts to such clarity that tears stand out in my eyes.
I must not let anyone see, not the servants, not the Beast. My father’s life is bound to my acquiescence; it is not to fight my imprisonment that I have freed my mind, but for my sanity’s sake. I cannot bear another moment of folding softly into each day when I have always been sharp. At least if my physical self is trapped and lonely my thoughts will again roam free.
In my boudoir I’m accosted by the wardrobe again, unveiling a dress of a like I’ve never seen. Golden yellow as a meadow flower and glittering like the sheerest star; such garments are not made even in the finest Parisian boutiques, I’m quite sure of that. One of the servants must have made it, conjuring the fabric from the same enchantment that holds the entire castle in its grip.
I’ve never been vain, but when I lace the dress upon me I become so, for a moment, as swell-headed as some of the girls I knew, at home.
He means something with this dress, my captor, I’m sure of it. As many garments as he has provided to me this dress comes weighted with a need for something I don’t know that I can give, even if I feel the pang if it, at times. If only I’d met him in the woods one afternoon and fallen for the poetry in his eyes instead. There are so many if onlys, now. So many shattered dreams.
Whatever I yield to him now is bound to feel indentured, no matter how passively I give way.
I approach the great staircase, stepping as lightly as I can in the heeled slippers that came with the dress so that I can peer, unseen, down through the handrail at the hallway below. The Beast paces, four-limbed again, reduced in his anxiety to the gait of an animal. He has dragged an expensive suit over his shoulders, and the seams strain and buckling so obscenely over his solid muscle that I feel ashamed of the effort he makes for my benefit.
As I descend the stairs his head lifts to watch me, and what passes as a smile upturns the corners of his jaw. A ripple of fear and disgust tears, unbidden, through me- God, he’s ugly, so wretchedly ugly -but I return the gesture, my lips aching from the force of it. It’s usually so easy, when everything feels so much less real, when his kinder nature outweighs the bestial. Now I’m keen to what this evening means to him I flounder in my own performance, stiff and false and hard.
The Beast takes my hand and leads me into the great ballroom, rising up to his full height so that I am as dwarfed as the smallest Matryoshka doll beside him. His paw is hot, the pads coarse and rough from running outdoors; I think how cool and soft mine must seem to him in comparison. In the mirrored walls of the room we look strange, like something from woodcut art depicting a cautionary tale. My breath hitches, and as the Beast takes bashful lead in a waltz I wish impulsively that I’d swallowed my tea after all to take the edge off this madness.
I tremble against him, swept up in the strange romance of the moment, repulsed by the yearning in his gaze. The Beast rakes his eyes over my face, my throat, my breasts sculpted by the dress like white blossoms on a yellow heath. The paw he places on my waist engulfs me, and I think how easily he could break my body, how much he clearly does not wish to. He wants to be gentle, to cup me like this, forever, pretty little thing that he has holed away from the world.
“I’m in love with you,” he says, simply, honestly. “From the day you rode between the castle gates I’ve loved you.”
“Oh,” is all I can think to say, softly, ineffectually. “Oh, Beast.”
I know he wants me to say something witty and intelligent and impassioned; laughable, really, considering he still thinks me drugged, but part of me aches to give him what he wants.
“You don’t feel the same?” asks the Beast, the deep timbre of his voice breaking.
My throat squeezes, and for a moment I’m sure that I’m about to scream.
“It is too soon for me to say,” I reply, at last. “You must be patient. You are a dear friend to me and have given me so much. Can’t that be enough, for now?”
The expression on the monstrous face is both dismayed and furious, and the paws on my hand and middle are suddenly vice-like, agonising.
“I need you,” he growls. “Please, Beauty.”
He doesn’t mean to frighten me, hurt me, but I cower from my jailer as if he might unfasten my throat with his teeth, just as he tears objects around the castle, when he is angry.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say. “What does it matter when I give you my answer?”
“You don’t know what it would mean to me.”
The Beast releases his grip on me and circles the room with a frantic, desolate intensity, clearly wanting to drop to his haunches but holding himself painfully upright for me. I could almost weep to see his torment, and yet it disgusts me so to see him victimised by his own sorry trap.
“It’s alright,” I say, and approach him gently, as one might a feral dog. “Beast, the night isn’t over. Don’t spoil this time together.”
His eyes, clouded with misery, roll towards me and soften. He bows his head, and I see tears gleam in his fur like broken glass.
“Forgive me. You’re right, as always, Beauty.”
We dance again, spinning until my vision is more indistinct than ever. The dance only ends when I trip over the Beast’s foot and fall on him, my body flush against his. A thrilled rush takes hold of me, and I feel abruptly curious about what it could be to belong to him, pet to an animal.
“Come to my private chambers,” says the Beast. “That wing you have barely seen. You should, if this is your home.”
“I would be honoured,” I tell him.
A lie; I know the hungering greed in his vast pupils, the loneliness there. But what else can I do? To fight him is to invite violent anger, to gently refuse may spiral him into hopeless doldrums of equal risk. Thus I follow, pretending to be curious, flattered, my lids half-closed.
He takes me to a darkened bedroom that smells of him, damp hair and perspiration and forest. Although candles are lit all around feels lustreless, enclosed, like a cave bored into some cold hill. I stand, frozen, in the doorway, knowing at once what the Beast is about; although inexperienced I have read enough on the subject of coupling than I am no fool in his game.
But I cannot reject him, cannot push him away. He must think me adoring, on the brink of true love, or I know not what he will do, nor what might be my fate.
So I walk to my captor, even as my flesh creeps and my eyes burn with the marks of unshed grief. I walk to him and let him rain my face and neck with open-mawed dog kisses and ease my dress down over my arms with the only gentleness he possesses. He lays me on the vast, black bed, and folds himself over me, shedding his clothes as a wolf might rain from its pelt.
At last I open my thighs to make room for the Beast, shudder and gasp under crushing weight. He is so huge, so inhuman that I think I might die, but I only burn, as he pants and slavers at my throat, as his talons open me like the petals of some late bloom.
While I stare past him at a shivering candle flame I think that it might be wise to marry him, the best option for any unwed girl swept up by a man of means. I will have wealth, honour, opportunities, protection; my beloved Papa will be safe. Nor would it be an entirely loveless marriage, there being enough real affection between my captor and I, surely, to sustain us. It wouldn’t be a sham, but a calculated choice, one that I have made in my right mind rather than the sick pull of entrapment and laced tea.
As soon as the thought occurs to me I understand what I will do, in a month or so, when he will better believe the words. I’ll flutter my lashes, cup that dread maw in my hands and return the words he craves so very badly. I know because as I’m made small by the body of the Beast I see why he has kept me here, that I am not only a beauty to him but the precious tool to unlock his curse.
Obvious, so obvious; I was dull not to comprehend it, before.
There is power in such knowledge, power in the awareness that without me my captor is as lost as I have been, trapped senselessly in his thrall. I could spin him along forever, if I wished to, with love as my promise, or sit back and watch him whittle to nothing in the lack of it.
And so I lie in the black mouth of his room and let myself be consumed by the Beast, for will eat at him too, in time.