Winter was long that year. The snows piled high around the outside walls, shutting in the broken houses out front so that only the thatch showed, piling nearly a man’s height on top of the walls before tilting and falling inward, to leave little melting patches in the summer garden. Ice lashed the trees and cracked their limbs, and sleet drove against the locked front gates. Nobody traveled, and even in the forest, the animals stayed in their dens, huddled and freezing.
Winter was long, but the Beast was glad, for every snowfall lengthened the time Cecilia stayed in his company. He liked that. It mattered nothing to him that he must eat alone and quickly, gulping down his meat and lapping up his drink, away from the dining room and at late and early hours. It mattered nothing that he must stay hidden, walking silently and standing at the ends of halls and huddling outside doorways to speak. It mattered nothing that Cecilia knew little of lords’ affairs, and nothing of government, and spoke only from the ignorant view of a land-worker. All that mattered, to the Beast, was that she was here, and that she walked in his halls and spoke to him.
She still fairly lived outside in the gardens. Early in the enchanted gardens’ Spring, Cecilia went out to each of the rose-bushes and gathered the dried, curling-brown hips. She returned to the house and cracked them open, piling the seeds by color, and the next week she dug up several long troughs of earth in a square, in a grassy area west of the house, away from the main gardens. The Beast watched bemusedly, and asked her what she did, but Cecilia only smiled and said, “watch.” So the Beast watched as she finally finished, and then as she went around, rose seeds in one hand, dipping down to push them into the ground and push earth over them. She planted the whole square with rose seeds, and when she finished she stood, and wiped her hands, and said, “now we wait.”
They waited, and as the garden was enchanted, it took only a week for the first sprouts to show. Cecilia went out every day to look, and she brought out water, and tobacco-juice to kill the aphids, and asked the Beast to send the servants with fertilizer, that she spread thinly around all the sprouts.
They waited another week and the sprouts were knee-high. Another week and they were up to Cecilia’s hip. She brought out long thin branches she had whittled and stuck them in the earth between certain blooms, and curled the vining roses’ stems about them; she had the servants bring a stone bench and place it inside the square, and there she sat nearly every day after, working her stitching or tending to the roses. The Beast could not come close – there was nothing nearby to hide behind – but he lurked by the castle’s wall and spoke across to Cecilia, and in the evenings when she went in, he had the servants bring torches while he lay on the stone bench and surveyed her garden.
Spring came as the roses grew into their first bloom. Outside the walls, the snows calmed, then stopped, and then the rains began, washing the white snow into muddy puddles in the woods. Along the path, footprints started appearing, and then wheelprints, and the Beast looked out and saw travelers passing. When the snow receded from the walls, he knew he could delay no longer, and that night he stood outside in the hall as Cecilia ate, and he said, it is the end of winter.
He heard Cecilia’s spoon laid down in the bowl. Servants rushed empty porcelain past him, and then it was quiet.
It is the end of winter, and the time has come for you to leave.
“Of course, my lord,” Cecilia said. “Tell me when you want me gone, and I will leave immediately.”
The Beast looked away from her back, and down the hall toward the kitchens. There is the matter of repayment.
“Yes, my lord,” said Cecilia. “I have embroidered several fine pieces, and sewn three dresses in my time here. I hope these will suffice.”
The Beast paused. She was smart – they would amply cover the cost in gold of her stay, were this a human castle. I was thinking of another sort of repayment.
Cecilia paused. “My lord?”
Your hand in marriage.
A sound from the dining room, and the Beast looked back. Cecilia had stood, and clasped her hands in front of her. He could not see her face. “My lord, that is hardly fit payment to ask a woman.”
Nevertheless, I must ask. It was the payment I had in mind at winter’s beginning.
“It is unseemly, my lord, to withhold this condition so long. Had I known you were going to ask me to prostitute myself, I would have continued on my way without stopping.” She left the dining room. The Beast followed her, but she only went to her bedroom and locked the door behind her.
The next day, he could not find her. He searched the castle cautiously, peering around corners and stalking on silent feet, but she was nowhere. He searched the gardens, too. She was not among her roses, and she was not among the plants. Finally he caught her scent on the air. It was very faint, but it led him around the side of the castle and to a window. The window was broken, glass scattered on the marble floor inside.
It was the locked golden room. Cecilia sat there, on her knees, beside the dried-dead body of the first girl. The claw-footed mirror loomed over them.
“Did she refuse to marry you, too?”
There was no way around it. There was nothing else he could say. Yes.
Cecilia sat there, looking at the body. She reached forward a hand and smoothed the clothes it wore, fingering the hem as though assessing the cloth’s value.
“Come out,” she said. “I have had no notion all winter whether I might be speaking to a fairy or a monster or a wolf or a man. All I know is your enchantment, and,” she pulled her hand back from the cloth, “now I know why it is. Come out. I want to see you.”
The Beast hung back. Then, slowly, he stepped through the window, one paw after another, and stood his full height before Cecilia.
She turned to see him, and then scrambled to her feet. “Oh, God have mercy,” she said, and took a step back.
Cecilia, said the Beast, and came forward.
But she shook her head, backing up. She looked wide-eyed from him to the corpse to him again, and said, “no. No, no – you’ve lied to me – all winter, you only wanted -” her back hit a wall and she looked about for a door, and there was none unlocked and open for her.
The Beast lowered his head. Open them, he told the servants, and all the locked doors sprang open at once. He heard Cecilia’s footsteps, and then she was gone.
She locked herself in her room all day, on the next morning she was gone. The Beast searched the entire castle and grounds halfheartedly, but he followed her scent to the front gates, and there, between the bars, her muddy footprints led out to the road. He could not go past the end of village, but he went as far out as he dared, and there, with his stomach sick and roiling, looked out along the muddy road in the direction she had gone.
He went back there the next morning, and the next, and spent the days there, watching. He hid only when travelers came by, and then ducked into one of the ruined houses and waited, and when they were gone, resumed his watch.
On the third morning, his mother walked past him.
Then he looked up. She had come from behind him, from the castle, from the mirror, and she did not look back as she continued down the miry road, her gay clothes soiled already along the hem. Mother? he called, but the Queen did not look back.
She walked til lost from his sight, and then the long day passed. The Beast sat at the crossroads and did not hide from passers-by this day, and many travelers saw him and cried out and ran. He ignored them all, eyes down the road to the south, watching and watching until the end of the day, when one figure came walking slowly back in long strides. He recognized the height of his mother, but because of the dusk he did not see what was in her arms until she was nearly at the turning.
Oh, mother, no! he cried out, but his mother swept past him. She kept walking, implacably, into the castle, along the carpeted halls, into the golden room, and there she dropped the second body beside the first.
“You killed her,” she said to the Beast, who had followed.
It was indeed Cecilia, though she was beaten about the face and her throat slit from ear to ear. She wore only a shift, and was beaten sore across the body, and the Beast could only look for a moment before curling his head down and covering his eyes with his hooves. What happened?
“Bandits,” said the Queen. “And small wonder. She wore rich clothes and had a bag full of silks and satins. She tried to sell some at an inn. They followed her.”
No, the Beast whispered, and then raised his head and howled. It was not a wolf’s clean sound, but something raw and empty in his throat, and the Queen said nothing as he howled until his lungs hurt and his beast’s voice gave out and still he howled, until the Queen grabbed him by the muzzle and pushed his face to the floor.
“Two dead girls, Beast,” she said, crouching over him. “Two women, dead, because of you. Do you think I should let you live anymore, if all you’ve done in your human life is harm, and all you’ve done as a Beast is this?”
The Beast said nothing, only closed his eyes.
The Queen looked aside, at one corpse, then at the other. She looked at the Beast, then let him go and stood.
“The next time, you die,” she said. “The next time you cause a girl’s death, you die. The next time a woman leaves you, you die. You decide whether this means you’ll try again, or whether you’ll lock your gates and wither here on your own. But the next time you court a woman and fail, you will. Die.”
She turned on her heel and pushed into the mirror. It closed up around her and behind her, and with her went the light, and the Beast was alone, then, in the golden-black room with the two dead girls before him.
He didn’t feel the Spring. Summer passed by outside the walls, and the Fall was only a cooling of the weather. Why notice, when the garden summered for an age, and the Beast was still alone?
Always alone, no one and nothing. There was nothing to be done. There was no reason to do anything. He ate only when hunger pressed him to, and slept the long days of summer inside, the curtains drawn, his rooms dark. He woke, slept, dozed, ate a few bites from the trays the servants left. He grew bored, and hated himself for it, and for many things.
She was dead. It was his fault. Had he told her at the beginning, perhaps, asked her then to marry him – but of course she would not have, he was a Beast, and she would only have left at the beginning of winter, frozen to death out there on the snowy roads. Her staying had only prolonged her life a few months. Or not – had he not asked, she would be alive now. Had he never asked her to marry him, perhaps she would still be here, still sewing in the solarium, or walking the garden’s winding paths. She would be here, and alive, and well, and they would be talking, and there would not be this summer silence.
The Beast grew restless. He could not sleep. Sleeping overlong left him awake and staring in the early dawn. Hunger gnawed when he did not eat, but still the servants put out food at every mealtime, and took it away again when he left it. He watched them at it, and thought – perhaps he could starve himself. He need only not move from his corner, and thirst would do whatever hunger would not. He began to stay, then, away from the food, though he could smell it and his mouth watered. He turned to the wall. He closed his eyes in the dark, dozing fitfully and aching from hunger.
He woke, once, sick-stomached and realizing: had not Cecilia run from a famine? She had. She had given herself up so her family could live better. She would have felt this, mouth unable to swallow, stomach empty and body tired, wanting nothing more than to fall asleep again and die.
No. She would not die. She would leave.
He could not leave.
But she had not just lain there. She had told him this, hadn’t she? She had picked herself up, taken her cloak and her dress onto her and her sewing bag up, and she had left. She had walked long across the countryside, pulling up grasses and eating their roots, trading sewing for food when she found human life. She had not stolen. She had made her cloak into a fine small set of clothes for a child, and won a fortnight’s stay with that. Her dress she’d embroidered and traded for another fortnight with the blacksmith’s wife in a small village, but even then, she had left, and kept walking, always going on.
The Beast could not even do that. He could not leave. And he had never made anything. He could do nothing that was useful or good. He had never done, he knew. That was why he was here. That was why his mother had left him: “lock your gates and wither here on your own”. Yes. He could do that.
Once, he woke. Invisible hands were lifting him. The servants. He hadn’t known they were so strong. They took him out of his rooms, down the halls, and into the court room, where the doors were open and the two dead girls lay before the claw-footed mirror. They laid him down there, and then there was silence.
Why here? The Beast looked at the bodies. He knew what he had done. He had caused this, both of them. That mouldering flesh and dry bone was his fault. He knew this. Why were they showing him?
He could smell, in the summer-warm air, the last traces of putridity. The second body – Cecilia’s body – had smelled more before, certainly, but now it was, to an animal’s nose, the scent of drying meat.
Meat, and the Beast was hungry. Why had they brought him here?
The Beast stood. He was very weak: he could not stay on his feet, and he staggered away from the bodies, but the smell followed him. He fell against the door. It would not open. It would not open, and the smell followed him, and his chops were watering for the first time in weeks.
Suddenly, he knew, if he looked around now, that in the mirror his mother would be watching him. This was her doing: only she would test him in such a way. She wanted to see what he was, and she would be watching him, smiling grimly, as if she already knew.
No, he said, not looking back. I will never be that much of a Beast.
Silence met him. After a long time, the door opened. A tray was set down outside it: meat broth, soft bread, cool water. The Beast crawled out of the room, and ate.
There was still nothing to do, but he could not let that happen again, and so the Beast walked. He could not leave, and so he paced the castle, wandering the halls, alone. The silence pressed at him. It was still and quiet between the stone walls, and all the Beast could hear was his own self, his hunt-silent feet padding quiet down the corridors. Doors opened and shut before him, creaking lightly, and then it was quiet again.
There was sound out in the garden. There were birds, and the rustle of leaves. But the garden held too much of Cecilia in it. He did not want to see the garden. He stayed inside. He stayed away from the solarium, and the dining room, and the courts, and the ballroom, any room that opened onto the gardens.
He went to the Library.
It was a north-facing room, with tall, high windows between the shelves. From here he could look out onto the front garden, and past it, the gate, the small houses, and the road away. He could remember going out there, waiting for Cecilia; coming back through those gates at his mother’s heels. He turned from the window.
But it was better than the gardens. And, lying on the carved and cushioned couches, looking idly around, his eye fell everywhere on the books.
He had never paid much attention to books before, they being only another indicator of wealth – they lined the shelves in neat, untouched rows, many of the pages not even cut. A few were open on the desks – Cecilia had been admiring the pictures. He remembered even before that, then, when he had been a Prince, and bringing the noble ladies in here, courtiers reading aloud, affecting voices, telling stories.
He had the servants put a book on the couch before him. A Beast’s eyes were better than a dog’s – he could see the individual letters, read the words, slowly first, and then faster. It was hard to turn pages with his hooves, but he learned. He read one book, then another. He stayed in, as the days grew shorter, taking his meals in the Library, sleeping curled on a couch, book open in front of him.
He learned many things from his books, and chief among them was what he was not. There were paeans to virtues he had never in his life possessed; there were examples of good princes more like his brothers than himself. There were dialogues on how one should conduct oneself, and through them the Beast learned every fault, and he thought.
What should a Prince be? just, generous, good. What should a Beast be? the books would not tell him.
One day he left the Library. He went outside, into Cecilia’s rose garden. It was winter, and even in the garden the ground was frozen, the roses dry on their stems, the new growth twined around each other and closing an arch high overhead. He went to one corner of the rose garden, and began, with his hooves, to dig. The first day was hard work, but then the garden must have realized what he was doing, for the second day the ground was firm but not frozen, and the Beast could dig better. He dug a long, shallow hole, and then another one beside it, and left the earth piled round them, and then he went back into the palace. He walked through the long, silent halls, until he reached the rooms of court, where the two bodies lay, now dry. He took a rug, and nosed Cecilia’s body onto it; the skin cracked and the bones clattered, but he finally got the remains onto the rug. Then he dragged the rug in his mouth, slowly, carefully along the halls, down corridors, out into the garden, across the rough earth. He dragged the rug into the rose garden, and into the first of the graves.
The second body was harder, falling apart as he brought it, but finally it, too, lay in a grave. He thought, then brought the thief’s body, too, from upstairs, for hadn’t they been together? and laid it next to the other. He pushed the earth back in over the bodies, covering them, filling the graves up.
A few days later, Spring came to the garden.
The Beast bore it. He returned to the Library. He read more. He walked the silent corridors, and sat in the silent dining room, and looked about the silent rooms of court. He stood outside in the gardens, watching buds push out of their twigs. He sat on the stone bench in the rose garden, as invisible servants pruned back the dead growth and red new leaves grew out green from the stems, and the dirt in the graves settled.
He had the gates opened. Ivy had grown them over, and the houses outside were falling to pieces; saplings were springing up inside them, and the forest to either side had wildened, creeping over the houses, ivy eating over the roofs. The Beast had the path cleared, though, and the gates cleaned and oiled. He commanded the servants to lead people inside, bring them to the palace, where they would be fed and sheltered however they may need. After all, their need was greater than his: they might be running from a famine, or need a shelter from the rain.
There were not many. The ivy, and the forest, and the silence frightened many. The Beast stayed hidden, and watched many come to the gates and look in, only to run. Of the few who came, some stole – nervously, eyes darting around as they took candlesticks and silverware and eased backwards out the front doors. The Beast began leaving gifts, small chests and sacks of gold, for would they not steal anyway? The gold brought him no joy, so he might well give it. And it was great joy to those who came. Some would not take it, but some would, and some would thank aloud the silent palace, the invisible servants, the unknown master who had caused this all to be given to them.
Summer passed into fall, so, and more came. The Beast always stayed silent and hidden, and watched, noting the people, saying nothing.
And then, one day, came a rose-thief.
And thus, in the third year of the Beast’s punishment, comes the story into the world of men.
They know nothing of the years that passed before Beauty. They know nothing of the Beast, but that, to Beauty, he was kind, and generous, and good. They know not why.
And thus, in the world of men, there is only a moral, and a happy ending.
It was early in the winter, with freezing sleet falling fast, that a merchant-man came to the Beast’s palace. The Beast had been in the Library, but he heard the arrival of a new guest, and ran silent down the corridors and to the front rooms as the merchant blundered in, freezing and shaking, to the dining room with its warm fire.
He watched, but with the merchant it was only as at had been with others – he ate, thanked the room aloud, found the room to sleep in, fell asleep. He woke in the morning, and took the gold from beside his bedside, and wandered the rooms, calling thanks again and looking about. “No one,” he said to himself in a corridor, when there was no answer, then wondered aloud, “there is no one. Perhaps this palace is meant for me?”
How selfish, the Beast thought, but listened curiously to the man’s reasons: there was no one, he had been served without question and lavishly, gold had been given to him, and there was no one about. As if, because the house had no master, it could belong to those who walked in! “It is a present to me,” the merchant muttered, walking the hallways, filling his pockets with trinkets as the Beast followed silent behind him. “Some generous spirit has smiled upon me and gifted me this palace. This will be my eldest daughter’s room, this my eldest son’s…”
The Beast followed the man, in wonder at his unequaled selfishness. No, he realized, not unequalled. ‘If I wanted your pennies, I could have them taken from you.‘ The Beast stopped a moment, filled with shame, and then continued.
He followed the merchant out into the garden. “Ah, it is as if these were made for Beauty!” the merchant cried, and walked out among them. He wandered the paths, remarking aloud at their loveliness, and how he must return home at once, to bring his wife and children and servants. He turned toward the stables, eager on returning, and then he saw Cecilia’s rose garden, bright in its last fall bloom.
“My promise fulfilled!” he cried, running up to the garden and tearing off a rose.
Fury hit the Beast, and he roared. The merchant froze, staring around, and the Beast bounded up to him, barely stopping himself from ripping out the man’s throat. I feed you, I clothe you, I shelter you, and this is my repayment? he roared. You take possession of my palace, and you steal my roses? My roses?
“Mercy!” the merchant cried, stepping backward and treading on the graves.
The Beast swiped a paw out and clawed the man aside, throwing him to the ground. No mercy! Not for a thief of my roses! You deserve death for this!
“My Lord!” the merchant scrabbled to his knees, imploring. “I knew not what I did! I only wanted a rose for my daughter Beauty! It is the only thing she asked! Her sisters are grasping and greedy, my Lord, but Beauty is sweet and kind, and she knows we are poor – I have lost ships, my Lord, and she -”
Don’t think to call me Lord, the Beast interrupted. You only do so to flatter me. You only fear for your life.
“I do, my Lord, and had I known such a little thing would be worth my life, I would never have taken the rose! You must believe me, it was only for Beauty, my favorite daughter, the only generous soul among my children -”
The Beast was disgusted. Generous enough to save your life?
The merchant stared. “What?”
You say you have no generous children. Perhaps this is only from your own faults – you wished to steal my palace, and it is only when I threaten you that you abandon that thought. How could such a man raise any children who did not think of themselves? The Beast went and stooped beside the torn rose. The penalty for what you’ve done is death, but if any one of your daughters will plead for you and replace you, if any of them is courageous enough, or loves you more than herself, you may live.
The merchant began to shake. “But my Lord, my daughters – how could I ask any one of them to die for me? They will refuse!”
Then they will refuse because of you! the Beast snarled. You will not blame them for your own faults. Go! You will return in a week, either with a daughter willing to pay for your sacrifice, or yourself!
He called the servants to bring the merchant’s horse, and told one of them to accompany him, and then sent him off. Go, he said, putting the rose in the merchant’s hand. And return in one week, or you will wish you had.
The merchant did return. The invisible servant saw to that. What the Beast was not expecting was what he saw riding on a second horse behind the merchant – a daughter. The Beast watched from the window above, and wondered if the merchant could have brought a goose-girl, or a servant, someone to replace a daughter, but as they neared there was no doubt they were family. And the Beast quailed, as the girl and her father rode up, for Beauty she was in truth.
And this was why the Beast had quailed: his mother’s words were coming true. This girl was coming to him, and like it or not, she would have to live here, for if she left, the Beast would die.
He saw the future clearly: she would refuse him and flee, and he would die. This night, the next, the following – it mattered nothing when it might happen, only that it would.
At least, though, she would not die because of him.
The merchant and his daughter came into the castle, and into the dining room, and ate. The Beast let them. Then, as they sat back from the table, he approached.
Hello, merchant, he said. Hello, Beauty.
He watched Beauty’s face fill with horror as he came in, and then watched as she stood from her chair and curtseyed. “Good day, Beast.”
The Beast marveled. Courageous indeed, to stand there so calmly as the merchant sat shaking. Are you here of your own will? he asked.
“To save my father,” Beauty said.
The Beast looked at the merchant. And just what has he led you to believe will happen, should I take you instead of him?
Beauty paled, but curtseyed again. “I would gladly give my life so that my father might live.”
The Beast looked back at her. You will not need to. Tomorrow morning, your father may leave. You must stay. Take your farewells this eve – I expect him gone at dawn.
He left them to grieve and to goodbye, and went upstairs to his rooms. He slept very little, though, thinking on the new life before him. He was no longer alone in the palace. He was no longer alone! The more he thought on that, the more his heart seemed to fill: he was not alone! he was not alone! there would be steps in the corridors, a woman in the gardens! There would be talk – and! And, he decided: there would be no lying. He had shown himself already. Beauty knew whose house she was in. He would ask her plainly about marriage. He would not withhold anything, and he would not force his company upon her. She would have no reason to leave. He would live, and so would she.
That was well. On the day Beauty’s father left, he sent servants to tell her he would await her at dinner. He did, and she came, finally, but her eyes were red-rimmed and she smelled of worry and exhaustion. She did exchange what courtesies were necessary, and she did eat, but when the Beast began to eat she left off, looking away, and the Beast, covered in shame, stopped.
I know I am alarming, he said, approaching Beauty, but you need not see me. I will not subject you to my company unless you ask it, except for dinnertime. And at that time each day, I will ask you a question. Always the same question.
Beauty looked at him.
Beauty, will you marry me?
Beauty pulled back in her chair. “You will kill me if I refuse,” she said.
The Beast sighed. No, Beauty. I will do no harm to you.
“Then no. No, Beast, I will not.”
Then goodnight, Beauty, said the Beast, and withdrew.
The next day was much the same, although this time he followed as Beauty explored the palace and the gardens. She did love the roses, he saw, and she did see the graves, and stepped carefully around them, and the Beast left her there, for while she was careful, she was still another woman in Cecilia’s garden.
He went to the Library, and found his current book on a couch, and leapt up and curled up to read.
It was not an hour after that that Beauty came to the Library.
The Beast heard a door creak, and dragged himself out of his book to look up and around, and there was Beauty, just walking into the room and looking about in awe at the stacks. She went straight to the first shelves to read titles and authors, pulling out book after book, her face lighting up, putting one book back and pulling out more, piling them in an arm. She looked about, saw a desk, started toward it with her armful of books, and then saw the Beast and froze.
He only sat there, head raised, looking at her.
Beauty looked at the Beast. She looked down before him at the book on the couch. She looked at the books in her hands. She swallowed. “May I?”
The Beast inclined his head and went back to reading.
Not truly reading, for he watched, surreptitiously, as Beauty put the books down on the desk, and, between many glances at him, shuffled through the books before her. She finally selected one, two, three, four, and looked up. “Beast?”
The Beast raised his head.
“May I take these to read?”
You need not ask me, the Beast told her. You are mistress of this house now, and anything you wish will be yours. Take any book. They are yours as they are mine.
Beauty stared. Then she thanked him tremulously, took the books, and rushed out.
He saw her again at dinner. She exchanged courtesies and then said nothing as the dinner was served, and nothing as she ate. Only as she finished, and they had passed to the cakes, did she finally ask, “Beast, what were you reading?”
He told her.
“Ah,” she said. “I did not know a Beast might read the sciences.”
Beauty, will you marry me?
But she came to the library again the next day, to pick up one more book. The next, she put back one of her first books. The next, she approached the Beast, peering onto the page around his hooves. “He does not write pure science,” she told him, that night, at dinner, and the Beast agreed.
Of course not. But you must remember, his science is based on his travels, and in fairy lands they have different methods.
“Fantastic methods,” Beauty argued. “They work in fairy lands, but you cannot ask me to believe that fairy magic is a given everywhere. There are lands where people know only science, and there is no way one can believe stuff that presupposes ubiquitous fairy magic. The author wants the reader to take magic as they would take the elements, and coming as I do from lands where we see a fairy once in a year, you cannot expect me to believe in omnipresent magic.”
Fairy magic made all you see around you, the Beast said, and Beauty looked about.
“Perhaps here, but-”
Fairy magic made me, the Beast said, and Beauty looked at him long.
“I daresay it did, but that does not excuse the author from passing off magic as science,” she said. “I know well that I am in a place where there are different rules, but for a man who writes of the lands where fairies never come, bringing their magic in as a reason for everything, this is ridiculous. He tells the reader he writes only truth. Truth for him is not always truth for the reader.”
The Beast was amused. So you might consider there being more than one truth?
Beauty could, and argued for it. She argued so well and so convincingly that the Beast almost forgot to ask her to marry him.
Winter finally came to the garden, and Beauty came to the Library. “It is too cold outside to read,” she told the Beast, who asked with interest if she’d been reading outside. Of course she had, in the garden, but now – and the servants built up the fire and pulled two couches by it so that Beauty and the Beast could sit and warm themselves while they read and talked and argued.
For Beauty did like to argue. She was not always right, but she was passionate, and very well-read. It took only a few days before the Beast told her where he’d come from, what he’d been (though not, of course, anything that had happened during the course of his enchantment), and Beauty, appalled at him, went through exactly what he had done wrong, and how. Could you do better? the Beast asked, and Beauty said, “of course!” and listed what a prince must and must not do. The Beast pointed out those parts in her theory that he’d seen in court, or that he remembered, and Beauty went quiet, thought about it, and tried from a theoretical perspective to solve it. No theory, the Beast said, and sketched a situation. What would you, in my place, have done? And Beauty set her book down and answered.
They spent long days discussing in the Library, and longer days, when the garden turned spring again, and then summer, out on the stone benches and gravel walkways, putting theory to the test. Beauty was utilitarian and practical; she advocated the hard but right choice, and the Beast, several times, left her alone, to go to the rose garden and think. He had not been anything Beauty advocated; he could not. He cared too much for himself, for his own happiness. He told this to Beauty, and she said, “you can change that.”
How would he, though? “I’m not going to do your thinking for you,” Beauty told him, and so the Beast stalked off and thought about it, then came back. “Maybe,” Beauty said, then took his ideas apart, challenging them down to the minutest idea. The Beast built them back up again, and “yes,” Beauty said, “and if you ever break the enchantment, you’ll be able to try it.”
But there it was. She would not break the enchantment for him. She would not marry him. Why? he asked once, and Beauty looked at him long, and then responded, “you would have a human woman marry a beast?” He realized, then, that he could not ask it of her, yet he could not stop from asking. Not for the enchantment, and not for his own growing desires that he knew would never bear fruit. Never – if he courted a woman and failed, he would die. If another woman left him, he would die. He looked upon the mirror and imagined his mother on the other side, laughing at him.
“Beast?” Beauty asked one night at dinner. “May I go home?”
The Beast looked at her, food forgotten.
“It has been almost a year, and I dearly wish to see them again,” Beauty said. “My parents, and my brothers, and even my sisters. They know nothing of how I am. They think me dead instead of my father. I will come back.”
The Beast was silent.
He was silent so long, that Beauty stood from the table, curtseyed, and went to her rooms.
But she was quiet and avoided him the next day, and the next. The Beast realized she must have been thinking on this for several weeks now. Late fall was outside the walls, high winds and dead brown leaves rattling along the path between the overgrown houses and the forest. It rained cold and often, and the ground was frosted over in the mornings.
Will you marry me? the Beast asked after dinners, and Beauty responded, “no. May I go home?”
He couldn’t say yes. It was his death to say yes.
But was that so bad? She would be free if he said yes. A shame to lock her in a palace alone with a Beast her whole life; if the Beast died she could have the palace, bring her family, live there in comfort, find a human to marry. There was no wrong in that. And the Beast would be free, too, dead and far past whatever paths the dead go, no longer a Beast.
He went often to the mirror. His mother would only see that she was gone. It didn’t matter that she would come back – she would be gone. Another woman left him. Would she strike him down, or would it come slow? Would she leave him here, alone, without servants? Take her magic away? Leave it, to kill him should he ever leave these walls?
Better, then, to do it himself.
One week, he said, one night, as Beauty ate. She stopped eating to listen, but the Beast stood to leave. Take that ring, he had servants bring it on a tray. Its fairy magic will bring you anywhere you’d like. Think of the place, then turn the ring.
“Beast, thank you -”
One week, the Beast responded, and left the room.
He did not say goodbye. He stayed in his rooms, and when he was sure she was gone, went out to the rose-garden and curled up on the two graves.
His mother found him there.
“She’s gone,” she said.
The Beast closed his eyes.
“One week,” his mother added, and the Beast opened his eyes and looked up at her. “You have fulfilled my conditions. Now she must fulfill yours.”
The Beast shut his eyes again.
He slept outside, in the summering garden, while fall rains fell outside the walls. Servants brought him food, but he ate little. He could not read, because everything was something he wanted to discuss with Beauty, and with her gone, there was only the Beast, alone.
He could not face being alone again. The sunlight of the day coming through the palace’s empty windows, shining bright upon the still walls, setting orange and bright and alone. The halls and rooms silent but for him, the garden blooming and blooming and none but him to walk in it, the books all talking of a world he would never again touch. The silence.
One day passed.
Two days passed.
Three days passed.
Four days passed.
He thanked the servants, and stopped eating.
Five days passed.
Fall hit the gardens. Around him, leaves shriveled yellow against the cold winds, and the rain no longer stopped at the walls, but came in and swept through, battering the newly-weak leaves off their stems. Flowers wilted. The roses dried and dropped their petals around him.
The rose petals around him turned dark and brown, curling small and dry. The rose leaves went yellow, then black-spotted, then dry, and the new wind and rain stripped them off. The hedgerows littered leaves everywhere, and the flowerbeds had died.
The grass yellowed and died. Leaves scattered across the gardens and collected in now-dry fountains. Wind brought down limbs from the forest; some fell into the gardens harmlessly, and some crashed down on the walls, cracking them and making them bow inward, until the wind brought them down. The roses’ thorny stems whipped in the wind above him, and around him, as night fell, frost crept through the dead grass and into the earth.
The Beast heard her, but didn’t move. She was running in the gardens. There were dreams like this often.
This one had her scent, too, and her kneeling over the graves, over him. The Beast didn’t open his eyes.
There was rain, above him – no, not rain. He blinked his eyes open. Beauty poured water over him again, held a bowl to his mouth, wet his lips, shook him. “There, Beast, you mustn’t die! Oh, please don’t die, please come back! I’m back too, see, and I brought you new books – I didn’t know! It was only three days, Beast, I’m sorry, you must come back, you mustn’t leave me! I didn’t know!”
The Beast yearned for her, but the feeling was dull. He couldn’t speak; he couldn’t think straight. This wasn’t a dream, this was Beauty, but she would be free very soon, and so would he. He shut his eyes.
“You can’t die!” Beauty took his fur in her hands, stroked his muzzle. “Please, Beast, you mustn’t! I – I’ll even,” she stopped and sobbed and held his head, “I’ll marry you, if I must, but you cannot die!”
And then it was quiet, warm, and bright.
Warm, in the garden, and red new buds on all the plants. Beauty stared, as the Beast opened his eyes, and knelt up on two legs, and held out his hands to her.