Once upon a time, in a little village near the Great Woods, there lived a girl who had been blind since birth.
She lived quietly with her grandmother and her grandfather and very rarely ventured out of her house beyond its sagging front step. Though she could not see, her fingers were slim and clever, so she spent her days spinning, sometimes in the cool shade of indoors, and sometimes in the warmth of the afternoon sun. People would bring her their wool, and it was said that there was no yarn finer than what the blind girl spun in the entire kingdom. In this way she was able to live, quietly with her grandparents, for many years.
When summer and market-season came, her grandfather loaded up their single donkey with the wool she had spun, and those that her grandmother had spun, and set off on the worn old trail, through the Great Woods and to the city that lay on the other side. Her grandmother stood in the doorway and waved him off, and the girl continued to spin the morning’s batch of wool, singing louder than normal, so that he could carry the sound of her voice with him for longer.
“He will be back soon enough,” her grandmother said, and her voice was warm like the sun slanting in through the open windows. “I wonder what presents he will bring for us, when he does?”
The girl smiled. “A flower for you, and a flower for me,” she said. “Flowers for his flowers, as he always says.”
“Ah, that’s right,” her grandmother said. “Grandfather is always looking out for us, isn’t he, Beauty?”
And the girl, who had been born blind and knew nothing of how she looked, nodded. “He is, Grandmother.”
The Great Woods, it was said, were haunted. Spirits lived in every tree and under every bush; ghosts haunted the deepest, darkest portions; gods were rumored to walk amongst its trees. No man went through them without some sort of offering or charm of protection. Beauty’s grandfather was no exception. Around his neck he wore a circle quartered by a cross of rowan wood, and in his pockets he kept two small packets of salt wrapped in silk blessed by a priest. He did not turn his head, even when voices giggled invitations from the darkness beyond the path, or the smells of hot food drifted from somewhere unseen. Steadfast, he walked the winding path, leading the patient donkey behind him.
Near the end, though, he came across a giant briar patch that stretched across the entire length of the path, stretching on both sides deep into the woods. It was too high for an old man and a donkey to climb, so he stopped. He stared at the path, sucking on his teeth, and reached into his pocket for the salt. The moment his fingers touched it, something shrieked from the branches overhead. The donkey struggled, terrified, and it took everything the old man had to simply hold on and keep it from bolting and being lost. As he attempted to calm the creature, a large dark figure came crashing down, tumbling down the wall of briars to land in a crouch before the old man.
“There is a toll,” it said to him in a terrible voice, rough and low, like metal on the grindstone. “You must pay it before you can pass.”
The old man trembled, but did not buckle. “I have the wares I am bringing to the market,” he said. “Without them, my family will suffer. Please let me through, and when I return–”
“No,” the beast growled. It had narrow yellow eyes like twin crescent moons, set in a mass of matted dark fur. “The toll must be paid, or else you may not pass.”
“I have nothing, though,” Grandfather cried. “Please, lord of the forest, have mercy on an old man!”
“Mercy has no place in these woods,” the beast said. “Either pay, or return the way you’ve come. That is the law.”
“What can I even offer? I have nothing!”
“Give me what is most precious to you,” the beast said. “Right now, in all this world, whatever you might claim for yourself, what is that which is worth more than anything else?”
Grandfather trembled and he wept, but the beast would not be swayed. It looked at him with unblinking, unkind yellow eyes, and finally the old man was forced to say, “My granddaughter, who is called Beauty, means more to me than anything else. Her voice is what comforts me when I leave, and what guides me when I return. I would give anything for her, which is why I have set out on this path today. My wife and I are old, and we are content with little, but Beauty–”
“Then Beauty it is,” said the beast. “With her, you buy your passage. Bring her to this place when the moon waxes full, and I will take her as my payment. Be grateful, I am allowing you the time to say your farewells.” It raised one great shaggy arm, and the briar wall split in half, neatly as a nobleman’s gates. As they rolled aside, the beast looked at Grandfather again, its yellow eyes never blinking. “If you do not, I will find you and I will tear you apart and take her anyway. She will weep for you before she is lost.”
“Please,” Grandfather begged. “Anything else, but not Beauty–”
The creature turned away and vanished into the woods. The briars continued to roll away from the path until they were also lost from sight; all that was left was the old man and his nervous donkey. He looked at the animal, its back piled with wool from Beauty’s labors, and he covered his face with one hand.
“Ah,” he sighed. “What have I done?”
Visitors came very rarely to the little village near the Great Woods. Occasionally a traveler would stop, on her way to the city beyond the Woods, and even someone like Beauty, who spent all her time within the confines of her small home, would hear of them from her grandmother. Today, the old woman said, a bard was traveling from one city to the next, and was singing for his supper in the mayor’s home. In one of his stories, he told of a nobleman who’d been cursed by a spurned witch, so that he and all his family were forced to flee their home, taking to the forest and sulking like animals–all of them, from the man himself to his unfortunate wife to his spoiled children to the innocent servants.
“Isn’t that ridiculous, what people will do,” Grandmother said, clucking her tongue, “for the sake of selfishness?”
“Yes, Grandmother,” said Beauty.
“You must never do that,” Grandmother said. “You must always be direct. Your heart is pure, and it will not lead you wrong.” She paused and put a hand to Beauty’s cheek, her thumb tracing under the sightless eyes, gentle as the brush of a butterfly’s wing on her granddaughter’s face. Beauty turned into that obediently, guided by that touch. “No matter what, never allow yourself to be forced.”
When Grandfather returned, Beauty was singing from inside the small house, her voice carrying easily from the open window and to the path itself. He walked slowly when he heard it, for though the donkey carried most of what he’d bartered for at the city beyond the Great Woods, his heart was leaden in his breast.
The first person he met upon the road was Grandmother, who exclaimed at the paleness of his face. “Grandfather! What’s happened, to make you look so terrible?”
And the old man broke down upon the breast of his wife, who had been his companion for so many years. He confessed the entire terrible story–the briar wall in the Woods, the beast who had extracted the promise of Beauty from him, and the threat that had followed. He wept until the ground under his feet turned muddy with the tears, and Grandmother stroked his white head and stayed pale herself.
“I have heard the story,” she said. “A nobleman from the capitol was cursed and fled in the form of a beast. The Great Woods span the entire country. Perhaps he found his way here.”
“And we will be giving Beauty to that,” the old man cried. “Ah, how terrible, what have I done?”
“If he was once a nobleman, then perhaps there is still some of that in his heart,” said Grandmother. She took her handkerchief and dried his eyes. “Then perhaps our Beauty will not suffer terribly with him. She is a brave girl, and if she cannot see the horror of his form, perhaps that will allow her to escape the true suffering of her fate. And she is young, so perhaps she will outlive him. We cannot let our grief make this difficult for her.”
Grandfather nodded. His eyes were still wet and red from tears, and his voice quavered just slightly. “What shall we tell her?”
“Tell her the truth,” Grandmother said. “She is a good girl, and a dutiful one. If it is for the sake of our family, she will go more gladly than if she is simply abandoned.” She used her sleeve to dry Grandfather’s face, and then took his hands in hers and led him back to their small home, where Beauty was spinning wool and singing. She turned her face when they entered, and her smile was as bright as the sun through the windows.
“Grandfather! Welcome home,” she said. She put the wool aside and held her hands out, expectant. Grandfather hesitated for a moment, then crossed over, taking them and squeezing. Beauty’s smile wavered and fell. “What’s wrong?”
“Beauty,” Grandfather said, his voice sad. “Oh Beauty, our Beauty, we have failed you.”
And as he had to Grandmother, he told her everything: about the beast in the woods and the toll it demanded to cross its wall of briars and thorns, and how Beauty would be the payment for the visit to the market. He wept over her hands as he spoke, and upon Beauty’s upturned face, and Grandmother wept as well, for though she had been practical in advising Grandfather, Beauty was also her granddaughter, and her regret at the girl’s fate was equally deep. Throughout this, Beauty remained silent, her cool fingers clasped around the old man’s.
When the story was finally ended, Beauty kissed her grandfather’s fingers, and she said, “If that is to be my fate, I will go to it gladly.”
“Beauty,” Grandmother said, “remember what I’ve told you before. If your heart is not in this–”
“It is,” Beauty said quietly. “I am glad to do this for my grandfather and my grandmother, who have given me so much in my life. To be the companion of a beast is not such a terrible thing.” She reached out and took Grandmother’s hand as well, and held on to both of them, her smile tremulously lovely. “As long as you both see me off, I will be satisfied.”
On the night of the full moon, Grandmother dressed Beauty in all white: the same wedding dress she had worn years ago, on her own wedding day. She put a wreath of summer flowers upon Beauty’s hair and painted her face in soft warm colors, and then Grandfather fastened a heavy cloak around her thin shoulders. With both of their help, she was placed upon the back of their old donkey, and then Grandfather led the creature into the woods, with Grandmother walking behind. As a family they walked along the long forest path through the Great Woods, towards the wall of briars.
The beast was waiting for them. Coiled in a dark unmoving mass, it opened its bright yellows eyes at their approach, watching. Grandfather could not meet its eyes, instead taking Beauty’s hand and helping her to the ground. It watched as Beauty approached with neither approval nor interest, never once blinking.
“As promised,” said Grandfather, “my greatest possession, my granddaughter, my Beauty.”
Beauty sank to the ground with her curtsey, her sightless eyes turned up. The beast finally lifted itself up and prowled forward, its eyes never leaving Beauty’s face as it approached. It leaned in close, so that its breath was hot upon her face. She did not flinch, though her mouth trembled faintly around a suppressed sound.
“Very well,” the beast said. “She will do. Leave us here, then.”
Grandfather embraced Beauty and wept into her hair; Grandmother embraced Beauty and pressed kisses to her cheeks. Beauty embraced them both in turn, and though she did not weep, she drew back slowly, her hands tracing over their dear old faces until they stepped out over her reach. And then they went, taking the old donkey with them, casting looks over their shoulders as they walked, until the darkness of the Great Woods had swallowed up both Beauty and the beast.
When they were gone, the beast said, “Come with me.” It took Beauty’s arm in its giant paw and pulled, so that she was forced to trot to keep up with its much greater stride. Under her feet, the ground was uneven and rough, but Beauty never once complained, eventually catching onto the beast’s fur with her other hand to help keep her balance. Things rustled and moved in the darkness around them, but the Beast never stopped walking.
“Here,” it said finally. Beauty tripped at the sudden stop, into the warm rough fur of the beast’s side. She made a sound of surprise, and the beast did not apologize, but it went on: “This is where you and I will live, for all of our days.”
Beauty straightened. She said, “Is it a very great castle, then?”
“Great as the Great Woods itself,” said the Beast. “There will be servants who will care for you. You needn’t worry for anything.”
“And what will I do, every day in this great place?”
“You will be my companion,” said the beast. “You will sing for me. You will tend to my fur. You will speak with me when I desire it, and remain silent when I wish to rest. If you do all these things, you will be well-treated, I promise.”
Beauty clasped her hands before herself. She bowed her head. “As you wish,” she said, her voice soft. She could hear the beast moving, its great bulk brushing across her arm before a giant paw of a hand settled on her back and propelled her forward. Things rustled and creaked, and then it wasn’t forest undergrowth under her feet any more, but polished marble that clicked and echoed with each step. The air smelled cool and slightly musty, like a room that had been closed for a very long time. Beauty walked slowly, turning her face upwards; though she could not see, she could hear very well, and the sound of her footsteps echoed slightly. It must be a very large hallway, Beauty thought, then stopped. In the distance, she could hear the wind, and it sounded much like a moaning sob.
“Sing for me now,” the beast said, its voice close over her shoulder. “Until I say stop.”
Closing her eyes, Beauty did as she was told.
So life passed for Beauty, in a great castle somewhere deep within the Great Woods. The servants did not speak to her, though she did hear them moving as they brought meals for her and the beast, or when they passed in the hallways. If she asked about them, the beast simply told her not to mind them, for they were not meant to be addressed except for commands. She was only meant to speak to the beast, and then it asked another song from her, laying its great shaggy head in her lap as it listened.
One morning, only a short time after she had come to live in the castle in the Great Woods, the beast pressed something into Beauty’s hand. It felt smooth and cold as metal, but with a weight that could be nothing other than a stone. Curious, she turned it over with her clever fingers, then turned her face towards where she could sense the beast’s looming presence. “What is this?”
“A jewel,” said the beast. “One whose color suits you. You will wear it.”
“Is it all right, to give me something quite so fancy?” she asked. “A jewel of this size and weight must have cost a great deal.”
“You are mine,” said the beast. “And it would please me to decorate you to my liking.”
Beauty frowned, still turning the jewel over. “And yet, I am a living thing,” she said. “If I have a choice in the matter, I would rather not wear this.”
The beast exhaled; its voice was rough and fast. It panted beside her, close enough that its hot breath stirred her hair. She heard something that might have become a growl, if it were allowed to grow any louder. Fear made her tremble, but she did not bend, balancing the stone now between her fingertips.
Eventually, though, the beast backed off. Beauty did not turn her head to follow its movements, though she could hear it prowling in a wide restless circle around her–first so far that it was circling the perimeter of the room, and moving in tighter circle until its fur brushed her arm when it paced around her. “It was meant as a present,” it said finally. “Please put it on.”
Beauty considered, then held it out, towards the sound of the Beast’s voice. “Put it on for me, then,” she said. “I’ve never had something like this before. You’ll have to show me.”
The beast was silent for another long moment. When it took the stone from her, it said nothing. Beauty lifted her hair up with both of her hands and arched her neck, and though the beast’s long sharp claws brushed against the nape of her neck twice, clumsy with the fragile little clasp, she never once flinched. The weight of the stone was cool and unfamiliar on the slope of her breast, warming slowly to match the temperature of her skin. After the beast stepped back, Beauty touched her fingers to the jewel again.
“It suits me?” she asked.
“… Yes,” the beast said. “Very much.”
Life began to have patterns: different from the years she’d spent with her grandparents, but no less regular.
On some nights, the beast would press a comb into her hand, the edges sharp and cool in her fingers, and she would run it through its matted fur, slowly working snarls and tangles free as she sang. Some nights would be passed silently, with Beauty pressed up against the beast’s warm side, listening to the sound of its heavy breathing until she simply drifted off to sleep.
And some nights, the beast would talk to her. It asked her for stories about her life in the village, about the grandparents whom she had left behind, of the parents she could hardly remember. In return, it would tell her about the world that could be seen through the eyes, of how the sky looked through the tangled branches of the canopy of the Great Woods, of the dark color of Beauty’s long hair, of the shape and color of the flowers that the servants brought her daily, braided into her hair, tucked into the folds of her clothing, scattered under her feet as she walked.
“I was not always such a creature,” the beast told her once, with its heavy damp muzzle on her knee. “Once, I was quite beautiful, just like you.”
Beauty smiled, and ran her fingers through the thinner fur that curled around one of the beast’s pointed ears. It purred at the touch like some oversized cat, and that pleased her, so she continued to do it. The fur there was almost soft, and she could feel the steady heavy thrum of the beast’s heartbeat. “I do not know if I am truly beautiful,” she said, “only what my grandmother has always told me. To me, it doesn’t make any difference.”
“That is what is special about you, then,” said the beast. “For even those who cannot see may still judge one’s worth based on their appearance.”
“That is a very great trick, then,” said Beauty. “To be able to judge on something you cannot experience yourself.”
The beast touched her face with its great paw with surprising delicacy. “Not everyone is so clever,” it said, and its rough voice was sad. “It is the easiest thing in the world to judge based on things you merely think you understand.”
Beauty covered the beast’s paw with her hand, but she could not find the words, and so she began to sing again, the beast’s favorite lullaby about the wind through the grasses and a bird soaring high above the fields, and curled her fingers in the beast’s fur the whole time.
“Beast,” Beauty said. “Beast, do you hear that sound? The howling outside?”
“It’s nothing but the wind,” the beast said. It put a paw upon her shoulder and pulled her in, until her chin was pressed against the rough fur of its chest. “Do not concern yourself with it.”
What Beauty found was that she did not miss the spinning as much as she had feared–instead she kept her hands busy with grooming the beast’s fur–but she missed her grandparents terribly. She found she could not help but wonder about them, and whether they were faring well in her absence. She could not mention this to the beast, who would turn angry and sullen if she she simply asked, without the context of a story of her childhood–but still she dreamed of that little house and the voices of her family, of the roughness of her little pallet and the wood under her legs as she knelt and spun and sang as her grandmother tended to the rest of the housework.
Then, one day, the beast said, “I must go out for a while. Stay here until I return. If you are in need of anything, simply call out, and you will be cared for.”
Beauty turned her face towards the sound of the beast’s voice. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“It’s not your business,” said the beast. Its voice sounded nearly like a growl and it made the fine hairs of Beauty’s arms stand on end. “These are my affairs, and you’ll have no part in them.” It pulled its arm roughly away from Beauty’s grasp, leaving the comb dangling loosely from her fingers. “I will return. Wait for me.”
She listened to its heavy footsteps moving away and disappearing and wrapped her arms around herself. For a long time she merely sat still, listening to the silence, and then finally, she said, “Is anyone there? Please, it’s so quiet.”
At first there was no answer. Beauty reached up to touch her ears and wondered if she would go mad from the silence: there had never been a silence like this in her life–in her grandparents’ small home, there had been talking, or breathing, or some sort of movement, and here in the castle, there had always been the beast. Now she was alone, and her own breath was too thin and small to matter for anything.
“Please,” she said again, more for the echoes her voice created than anything else. “Anyone–he said if I needed anything, I just had to say–”
There were footsteps somewhere nearby. Beauty turned towards them, her hands still half-raised to her ears. “Hello?”
There was a whisper and then a sigh. A voice to her right said, “My lady.”
It was a soft voice, barely above a murmur. It sounded neither masculine nor feminine, almost childlike. “We are here to serve, my lady.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Beauty. “You’re the servants of this place? My grandmother told me about you–thank you for caring for me, after all this time.”
“We were not always servants, my lady,” the voice said. “Once, we were beautiful people, like you.”
Beauty paused. She leaned forward, bracing her hands against the ground to bear her weight. “You … ?”
“The beast of the Great Woods is a lustful thing,” she heard. “Every year, it sets a trap for those who travel through the Great Woods, picking those whose families are the most lovely and the most noble. It demands these people as payment for passage through its gate of briars. Every year, it brings another one home, and the companion of the previous year …”
“What becomes of that companion?” Beauty asked, her voice small.
“They become like us,” the voice told her. “Not even ghosts, no longer human, trapped within the walls of this place. We serve all the needs of the beast and its companion for the year, and we cannot speak as long as the beast is within these walls. And unless we are addressed first, we cannot pull together the strength to warn our unfortunate brethren of our fate. Today it has been exactly one year since you were brought to this place, Beauty, and the beast has grown tired of you. Even now, it heads for the forest path to trap the next unwary traveler and win itself another plaything for the year.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Beauty. “The beast has always been kind to me, these past months. Why would it abandon me now?”
“If you could only see what we do, poor Beauty!” said the servant, whose voice flickered and wavered like the breath of the wind. “A graveyard lies outside of the walls, for all of us who believed the creature’s sweet words. Despite its horrible face, it knows very well how to seduce.”
“What proof do you have?” Beauty demanded. “After all of this time, to say something like this now? How can I even believe this?”
“You must, poor Beauty,” the servant said. “There’s very little time. You’re in horrible danger. Quickly, before the beast returns, you must flee.”
“I will not, until you can prove your words,” said Beauty. “I will not risk danger to myself or my benefactor, or to my grandparents if I should anger the creature. It threatened to tear them apart if I did not come–”
“Listen to yourself, brave Beauty!” the servant whispered. Its voice went urgent. “Would a creature who would threaten an old man and an old woman be so unwilling to simply discard its playthings when it tires of them? The beast cannot leave the Great Woods without reason; you have been its companion, given over freely by those who bargained with it! It cannot pursue you if you leave, and oh, beauty, you do not want to become like us, less than breath and unable to do anything but serve its cruelty.”
Beauty hesitated, for she was afraid at the memory of the beast’s sullen anger, and its shortness with her before it left. Still, she did not move. “I still want the proof,” she said. “My heart cannot simply accept the words of a stranger without something to back them. Please, if you are genuine, you must have something that can convince me. If you are genuine …” She held out both of her hands, stretching into the empty air. “Then I will believe you.”
For long moments, the servant did not answer. Then, soft as a breath in her ear, it said, “Think of the day you came here, poor Beauty. All of those who preceded you cried out to you as soon as you stepped over the threshold. Remember! Who do you think supplied that necklace you wear now?”
Beauty touched the stone at her throat. “What?”
“And that comb you use to brush the creature’s fur,” the servant went on. “Who do you think gave that? The food and water you drink is supplied by the Great Woods itself, but the items that the beast has given you–the things you use yourself–think! Who would do business with a beast that threatens all those who have the misfortune to cross its path? And what need does a creature of air and spirit for things such as combs or necklaces? The sad people who came before you, poor Beauty! Think of them!”
Beauty remained very still, her palm hovering above the stone she wore. “That–it couldn’t be …” She tugged at it, wincing a little as the chain bit into the softness of her neck. “I don’t believe it.”
“You’ve heard them, all your days here,” the servant said. “Those who are the oldest among us, with no place at all to return to in the world, they lose even the will that keeps them conscious. Eventually, we all become voices that howl on the wind, powerless to do anything else. Always, we are forced to watch and wordlessly obey. There is no other choice, and there is no other fate for us. Someday, Beauty, you will be like this too.”
Outside, the wind began to howl, as if inspired by the words. In it were the sound of dozens of other voices. Things skittered against the walls like fingers clawing for entrance into the castle. Beauty listened to what it shrieked, and eventually she pressed her hands to her mouth; for the first time in the entire year, she wept most piteously. The voice of the servant remained quiet until her tears finally slowed and stopped, then said, “I am glad that you spoke, Beauty, for now you may be able to save yourself.”
“I couldn’t,” Beauty said. “I cannot even walk through the hallways of this place without someone to guide me; even if I made it to the Great Woods themselves, there’s no way I could make it back to my grandparents–and even if I did, then next year, when Grandfather wanted to go to the city and took the forest path …”
“Brave lady,” the servant said, “if only one of us can escape from the beast, all of us will be freed. It is such a greedy creature that to lose even one thing that belongs to it would crush what remains of its heart. With the death of the beast, the curse that follows us all will be lifted. Nothing will hold us back–we could finally return home–”
“That does not change the problem in the first place!” cried Beauty. “I would not be able to escape–if I made it to the woods, the beast would simply track me down. I would end up only running deeper in the Woods, and I would save no one.”
Something brushed against her hands then, cool as a morning breeze and about as substantial–but real and there, even when she gasped in surprise. It touched her face, then, tracing down the line of tears that wet her cheeks, and eventually settled on the jewel around her neck. After a moment there was a tug of pressure, and then the clasp unfastened itself, sliding free.
“Brave lady,” the servant said, “precious Beauty, your heart is pure and knows the way to the place where those who love you most wait for you. I will lead you myself. I will tie a stone of my own around your neck, so that even if I cannot leave this place myself, I will become your eyes, to guide you through even the most treacherous of places. Your freedom will liberate us all.”
Beauty did not move as another weight was placed around her throat, shorter than the chain from the beast, with the rock resting heavily against her collarbone, rather than the slope of her breast. She could not sense the actual presence of a person, even when something brushes her skin along with her new adornment. For a moment she remained still, then she bowed her head, her palm pressed flat to the stone around her neck.
“Quickly,” the servant whispered to her. “Even now, the beast is bargaining for another beauty to take your place. You must be gone before it returns.”
Like someone in a dream, Beauty got to her feet. She swayed for a moment, then began to walk–she could not tell exactly where, but sometimes the servant’s voice whispered to her–not that way, turn right, keep going, don’t stop. Stopping was dangerous; if the beast returned and found her, perhaps she wouldn’t even be able to survive as a faceless silent servant–perhaps she would die, and her grandparents would never know of her fate, unable to fully mourn her …
Stumbling, hesitating, Beauty pressed on.
The Great Woods felt darker and meaner without the beast guiding her. Though, as promised, the servant’s voice whispered directions to guide her, she felt lost and more than a little afraid. Her chest ached with each breath she took with fear and regret both. Even knowing her fate if she stayed, she half-turned back at one point, when the forest fell so silent that her own breathing was the loudest thing.
“You’re close now, brave Beauty,” she heard the servant say. “Just a little further.”
She turned back to her path. Something caught under her feet and sent her stumbling through a thin sharp netting of branches and out into a sudden burst of heat on her face. The sun, she thought with something akin to wonder–it felt hot and wonderful on her skin, and she couldn’t help but stop, turning her face upwards and spreading her arms. She’d forgotten, and the realization shamed her, how it felt to simply be out under a clear summer sky.
“Thank you, kind Beauty,” she heard the wind whisper to her, fading into nothingness. “With this, we are free …”
“Beauty!” another voice cried, a year unfamiliar and yet still so dear. “Oh, Beauty, is that you! Tell me it’s not a dream, that you’ve come back to us!”
Tears welled again in Beauty’s eyes. She turned towards the sound of that voice. “Grandfather,” she whispered. Footsteps were running towards her, and she opened her arms again. “No, it’s real, Grandfather, it’s me.”
A moment later she was swept up in her grandfather’s arms, pressed to her breast and breathing in the smell of sun and grass and the animal dustiness of sheep. Beauty wrapped her arms around the old man in turn and they wept together, and for the time being, at least, Beauty found she could ignore the leaden weight in her chest for this single moment of relieved happiness.
She was returned to the little home where her grandparents lived, and Grandmother wept into her hair as well, running disbelieving hands over her face murmuring her name over and over. Beauty remained still and trembling for it, and only after long minutes was her grandmother satisfied. They asked her all sorts of questions, fearful and curious of the year she’d spent in the beast’s castle in the Great Woods, and Beauty talked until her voice went hoarse. It had not been an unkind master, but it had been capricious; it had never tried to touch her in any sort of impolite way, but she’d rarely been allowed to go more than an arms’ length away from its side. Beauty talked and talked, and as she did her heart grew heavier and more uneasy, until finally her grandmother stopped her, saying that she looked tired, and urging her to rest. She was kissed again and fussed over and tucked in like she had not been since she was very, very small.
“I’m glad you’re back, Beauty,” her grandfather whispered, and then she was left alone.
Beauty dreamed that night: of the Great Woods (though she’d never seen them before, she knew the tall lean shapes of the trees and the thick dense tangle of undergrowth), of the beast’s castle (she recognizes, somehow, the hulking dark shape of the building itself, the long empty cold hallways of the castle; the sound of her footsteps are so familiar to her)–and of the beast itself.
Gazing upon the beast at last (and because it was a dream, Beauty found herself thinking on the fact that she could see–but it didn’t seem so very strange to her), she was surprised. It had always seemed so large when it was reaching out to her, its paw upon her back, but now–seeing it finally–it looked so very small. Stretched out to its full height, it seemed barely taller than her, with oddly delicate bones under the heavy layers of its fur. Beauty knelt beside the beast in her dream, reaching out to lay a hand upon its arm.
Its eyes snapped open. They were thin and yellow and keen, but Beauty could not make herself pull away. Its breathing was labored and rough, its red tongue lolling out of its mouth. Saliva puddled under its head. The air smelled rank, not unlike rotting meat, and a darker stain under the beast’s belly was sticky to the touch.
“Oh,” Beauty said. Her fingers came away damp.
“Beauty,” the beast whispered. “Ah, Beauty …”
“What happened?” she whispered. “You’ve gotten so thin.”
“I’m tired,” the beast whispered. “But I can’t sleep. Your singing used to help me, but now …”
“Haven’t you been eating?” she ran her fingers through the coarse fur of its arm. “You haven’t, have you?”
“The servants are gone,” the beast said. Its voice had dropped even further, to nothing more than a weak whisper. “They all left with you. Without them …” Its lips pulled back from its teeth, showing all of them in a grotesque sort of smile. “But you knew that would happen, didn’t you? You left. You couldn’t have left unless you were told. Unless you were guided–” The beast raised a paw and placed one claw delicately on Beauty’s chest, over her fast-beating heart. “And you could not have been unless you wanted to go.”
“I didn’t want to become like them,” Beauty said softly. She did not move into or away from the sharp weight of that claw. “Just another ghost rattling around in this castle, only able to speak if my master wasn’t there to stop me.”
The beast made a low rumbling sound. It might have been a laugh, and it chilled her down to her soul. “So that’s how it was,” it said. It shifted its hand on her chest until its palm was pressed flat to her breast. She could feel it trembling minutely, as if holding it up was some great and terrible effort. “If that’s what you believed, Beauty, then that must have been the truth.”
“Was it so wrong, to not want that?”
“No. It wasn’t.” A strange softer note entered the beast’s voice. It made Beauty’s heart twist in her chest, as if though the beast had reached through skin and bone to grasp it and pull. She opened her mouth to say something, but the beast was still talking, quietly, as if her presence no longer registered to it. “But it doesn’t matter either way, any more.”
With a tremendous heave, it shoved her backwards. Beauty cried out as she fell, through the floor and into darkness. The last thing she saw was the beast’s great shaggy arm, falling limply–
–and then she woke.
The darkness she’d been accustomed to all her life was back, unchanged. To her left, her grandfather stirred and mumbled something in her sleep; through the open window, she could smell damp grass and wood; under her back and against her hands, the wool blanket was warm and rough. She sat up and touched her face, wondering at how wet it was, then at her throat, where the servant’s present still rested. In her chest, her heart beat slowly and painfully.
To her right, her grandmother said her name. Beauty turned towards it.
“What has Grandmother always told you?” the old woman said softly. “You must stay true to what you believe. Be direct. Your heart will not lead you wrong.”
“Grandmother,” Beauty whispered.
“You already know the way back.” There was a rustle, and then her grandmother’s cool hands were on her neck, brushing against her nape; when they pulled back, they took the weight of the servant’s stone with them. “This old woman is grateful to have been able to see you once more and know you were fine.” Dry lips touched Beauty’s forehead. “Go on.”
Quickly now, restless, Beauty got to her feet, shedding the thin blanket as she did. Without guidance, she walked to the front door of the little house where she’d lived for so long and stepped out into the damp coolness of the night. The first step made her legs tremble, the second let her catch her balance, and by the third she was running. Her body felt weightless, like the breeze could carry her up and spirit her away.
Beauty ran. Her breath came in short bursts and her heart felt like it was being pulled from her chest, leading her.
Beauty ran. Here the ground went dry and crackling under her feet and small branches caught and whipped at her arms and face.
Beauty ran. The fragments of her dream bubbled up and drained away, real as actual memories.
Once, during her year in the castle, Beauty had said, “Will you ever tell me your name? Calling you ‘beast’ all the time seems sad.”
And the beast had simply slid its claws through her hair, letting it cascade free around her shoulders. “It was sealed away long ago,” it said. “Along with everything else. It’s not important any longer.”
She half expected to hit the gates in her flight, but nothing at all barred her way as the crunch of undergrowth beneath her feet turned to hard cold marble. Her footsteps echoed loudly, nearly loud enough to drown out her own panting voice. In the back of the furthest room, she caught herself on the door frame, clinging for support as her knees went weak, unused to such effort.
“Beast,” she murmured. “Ah, beast …”
There was no answer except for the rattling exhale of the beast’s breath. Beauty forced herself to let go of the wall, stumbling the remaining steps over until she could fall by the beast’s side. She reached out with both hands, grasping handfuls of sticky damp fur, then leaned forward, until her nose was pressed deep into the smell of iron and meat and the faint sickly sweetness of rot.
“Beauty,” the beast sighed. Its side hardly moved with the word; if not for how closely she was pressed to its flank, she might have guessed it was already not breathing. “Foolish Beauty.”
“I’m sorry,” she said into its fur. “I’m sorry, I never should have left you. Even if I turned into another bodiless thing–even if I became nothing more than another voice on the wind, I shouldn’t have left. My heart warned me the entire time, and I didn’t listen. Forgive me.”
A soft sound rumbled up from deep within the beast’s chest: a normal human-sounding laugh, quiet and more than a little regretful. “What an honest confession. Shouldn’t you be glad you escaped me?”
“Maybe I should,” said Beauty. She clenched her fingers in the beast’s fur. “But I feel like I’ve done something wrong, instead.”
The beast sighed. “I wasn’t going to bring another companion home,” it whispered to her, soft as confession. “I went to see the witch who’d cursed my family.”
“You did … ?”
“I wanted to stop,” the beast said. “I thought, ‘ah, at least, there’s someone who wouldn’t be afraid of me, who would tell me if she thought I was being foolish.’ And I wanted to beg to be able to keep you, instead of being forced to find someone else.”
Beauty turned her head towards the sound of the beast’s voice, pressing her cheek against the damp fur.
“My family was cursed, long ago,” the beast whispered. “I know you’re not surprised. The story’s very popular outside of the forest, I’m sure. We were a foolish family, too obsessed with ourselves and our own wealth. My father played around with women, and my mother did the same with men. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that they would eventually run into trouble …”
“Don’t,” Beauty whispered. “You can tell me after, you’re injured now, you shouldn’t–”
“You’re not wrong, Beauty,” the beast said. “I did trap a new companion every year, and forced them to become my servants when they weren’t enough. All those voices you heard, all the things you were told, they were true.” A rumble went through the body under her cheek. “Are you afraid, Beauty?”
“No,” she murmured. “I’m not.”
“Perhaps you should be.” The beast moved again, then made a small pained sound. “I’d hoped that we could spend more time together–maybe a lifetime, if it had been allowed. But the witch didn’t want to hear that from me–all these years, and I still haven’t learned how to properly bow my head. She wasn’t happy to be disturbed, especially by someone who couldn’t ask politely.”
“Please stop,” Beauty pleaded. “These injuries, they’re terrible, aren’t they? You’ll waste your energy like this, and you must save it, so you can get better! Beast!”
A trembling paw cupped her face. Immediately she leaned into it.
“Kiss me once, Beauty,” the beast whispered. “That’s the last thing I will ask from you.”
“Don’t say things like that,” said Beauty. “You’ll get better, and you’ll make unreasonable requests again. Sometimes, though, I’ll listen to you.” She pushed her own hair back and leaned down. The beast’s muzzle was damp and rough under her lips, and its breath tasted like sour meat. Beauty remained still at the contact, tears winding their way slowly down her face.
“My name,” the beast whispered to her, “was Hope.”
Under her, against her, it gave a single trembling sigh, and was still.
Beauty didn’t know how long she remained where she was, arched over the beast’s cool body, her lips pressed to its slack jaw. Her tears had stopped long ago, and her back and hips ached now, but she could not make herself pull away. She felt numb from more than just the cold that seeped up from the marble floor into her knees. One of her hands continued to slowly stroke a dry patch of the beast’s fur, almost soft under her fingertips.
“Ah,” said a voice behind her–a woman’s voice, high and oddly lilting. “So this is what it’s come to?”
Beauty did not lift her head. She heard footsteps now, where there had been none before, approaching, then circling around her and the beast. A hand abruptly fisted in the long fall of Beauty’s hair, pulling until she was forced to lean with it, away from the beast.
“Hmmmm,” said the new woman. “I suppose you do have the sort of face that would inspire loyalty like that.”
She licked her lips. “You’re the witch, aren’t you?” she asked. “The one who did this to the b– to Hope.”
“She told you her name!” the woman sounded surprised. “That is a surprise. Perhaps there is more to you than that pretty face. Yes, you could call me a witch, if that pleases you, though that’s not all I am. Why did you come back to this place, when you’d managed to escape before?”
Beauty shrugged as best as she could. “It was wrong to leave,” she said. “I shouldn’t have–the beast never treated me unkindly, no matter what warnings I had. I didn’t feel right about leaving in the first place, but I let myself be convinced. I didn’t want to fade–but I didn’t want to just abandon Hope, either …”
“Most people would have taken that opportunity and never thought twice about it,” said the witch. “And if they had any guilt over it, they would have forgotten it quickly once they returned to the embrace of their family. You worried, though, and you dreamed–and then you came back. How peculiar.” Two sharp fingers grasped Beauty’s chin as the hand released her hair, forcing her to stay in place. “Why didn’t you want to abandon a creature who had been willing to discard its own name? What brought you back?”
Beauty swallowed. She flexed her own fingers, still caught on the beast’s thick fur. “Isn’t it obvious?” she whispered. “If you’re a witch who cursed a man for discarding you, then you must know.”
The witch snorted and let go of Beauty’s face, giving her a small push as she did. “Unfortunately I do, for all the good it’s ever done me. Recently, it’s done nothing but cause me trouble. Perhaps that’s my own punishment.” A finger tapped itself against the center of Beauty’s forehead. “Say it honestly, then, Beauty. There’s power in words, especially one like that.”
Helpless, her fingers knotted in the beast’s fur, Beauty said, “I love Hope.”
Once upon a time, deep within the Great Woods, which were said to be haunted by spirits and ghosts and gods, there lived a girl who had been blind since birth.
She lived in a great mansion that was situated near the path that wound its way through the forest, the guardian of a great briar-hedge that blocked the way for travelers who tried to make their way through. Though she was blind, she spent her days spinning wool and tending to the briars, accepting tolls of money and materials before she opened the path. She was lovely as a princess, with dark hair and a smile as radiant as the sun. She was called “Beauty” by those who met her, and it was said that no name could suit her better.
And by her side always was a tall woman dressed in a heavy brown cloak of fur and who kept a sword at her hip, whose face was so stern and unforgiving that most of those who tried to argue the toll–or those whose eyes strayed for too long on Beauty’s pale face and lovely smile–were cowed by a single look. Only for Beauty did the warrior’s expression ever soften, and though her hands were scarred and callused, they were gentle whenever they touched Beauty’s hair or cheek. And only for her did Beauty show off the true brilliance of her smile, leaning into that touch with a complete and tender trust.
It was said that the two of them had been charged to be gatekeeper of the Great Woods by a witch so powerful she could bring the dead back to life. Perhaps it was punishment for something, but those who encountered the two gate-keepers said the two seemed so happy together that it seemed more like a reward, instead. If they lacked for anything, no one who met them could see what.
And if a thousand years passed and they are not dead, then they are living happily ever after together still.