This is a story.
This is a story about two girls who lived alone with their mother on the end of a road at the edge of a forest. It was not a tame forest. The trees grew too close together for walking and by summer, the ground between the trunks was fast set with violent green thorns, rotted branches, and aborted saplings. It was not a pretty forest. There were too many trees in too small of space, all hedged in by foul-scented locust trees at the edges. The locusts were new. Tall and skinny, with leaves only at the top, like a broom, they grew ten and fifteen feet in a year and quickly hid anything the forest had to recommend it.
But the two girls were lovely: Rose and Lark-Louise were their names. You wouldn’t have thought they were sisters to look at them. I thought they were merely friends when I first met them, or possibly cousins. Twice removed, if cousins. They were that different. People expected Lark-Louise to be the wild one by her name, but she was slow and quiet as ripples in a pond. Dark-haired Rose was the fiend. The thorns in the forest had nothing on her for sharpness. Both of the sisters lived alone with their mother — I said that, didn’t I? — in a rambler at the edge of the trees. The house had four beds in it. Two twin beds in a shared room for the girls, an air mattress in the basement, and a queen bed that used to hold two. I know all this because I’ve slept in two of those beds. There was no father because a beast ate him. The girls don’t know, but he was trying to cut down the locusts behind the house to make the forest less ugly. It was easy for the beast to reach him from the snarl of thorns. When Rose and Lark-Louise’s mother found him, their father had a twelve foot spear run through him long-wise, and one of the beast’s pronged feet buried into his chest. Their father had managed to cut it off, you see, but the foot was still alive and angry and digging.
The beast was the most frightening thing you could imagine.
Rose and Lark-Louise’s mother hadn’t been a widow long before a stranger came to the house. He was young and dark and handsome, but also scruffy and skinny, and he looked to their mother like he probably smoked too many cigarettes. He had a gritty look, she thought, that deeply-lined, hungry look of a chain-smoker. He knocked on their front door as the street lights came on and he asked if they knew a cheap place to stay. But it was Ellwood, and there was no cheap place to stay because it was too close to the city. No cheap place you’d want to stay, anyway. He didn’t give a reason why he was in the outer suburbs without any luggage, but Rose and Lark-Louise’s mother let him stay anyway.
The stranger overheard them talking about him. In a voice soft as butter, Lark-Louise asked why he was allowed to stay.
“Because he looked afraid,” her mother said.
“Then he’s an idiot,” Rose had replied. “Because the beast only comes out in the day.”
But the stranger was neither an idiot nor had he looked afraid. He had crevices of eyes which found it difficult to convey emotion on purpose, much less by accident. Really, what Rose and Lark-Louise’s mother was saying was that she was afraid. Even though she, too, was not an idiot, and knew the beast only came out during the day, it had taken a shovel and four gallons of gasoline to kill just the beast’s foot and she couldn’t forget the dappled sight of it.
For good reasons or poor, though, the stranger joined their household, sleeping on an air mattress in the basement, next to the water heater. The latter chuckled and groaned to him at night, reminding him of the sounds of the ugly forest during the day. In return, the stranger did what was expected of him and more — mowed the lawn, cleaned the basement, grilled dinner, opened difficult lids on jars. During the day he left when Rose and Lark-Louise’s mother left for work, and returned only moments after her, and during the long summer, the sisters missed him during these hours.
He didn’t talk much about himself. Rose had snuck into the basement and gone through his things once, and she found a little hoard of grubby bills wadded in pencil case. When she snuck down there a few weeks later, the bills had multiplied, but not by much.
“Drugs,” Rose said once, as she walked her bicycle down one of the side roads of the suburb. The street was lined with vestigial driveways; people had lost interest in the neighborhood before the developer had, and so this street was entirely made up of empty lots waiting for houses that never came. “Obviously he sells drugs.”
Lark-Louise disagreed with only a shake of her head. She secretly fancied the stranger and could believe no ill of him. “He’d have more money then. Drug dealers drive Mercedes.”
“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Rose snapped. “They drive Hummers now. And I’ll bet he rolls the money back into his own habit.”
This was not how the stranger came by the dollar bills she’d found. But at this point the two sisters had already been distracted from his occupation by the unusual site of a dwarf caught on a mailbox. More specifically, the dwarf’s beard was somehow snagged on the box. I’m certain at this point that you, as a reader, are wondering what sort of world this is that has both beasts and dwarves caught on mailboxes, and I’m telling you that it is the world you’re living in right now. It is full to the brim with beasts and dwarves and you can consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen neither of them up to now.
This dwarf was carrying on and howling as if he were facing his own death. He jerked and struggled against the wooden post, his dense body crashing against a FedEx delivery behind him each time he did. His distress touched the hearts of the two sisters. Taking care to keep her fingers from his mouth with its blunt teeth, Lark-Louise stroked the dwarf’s hair and whispered to him to be calm. Rose removed a folding knife from the ass pocket of her jeans and sawed his beard off.
Ha! I can tell you how that ended. The dwarf screamed as if they’d cut off a limb and began to shout abuse at the two girls. His beard! His beloved beard! The vanity of bearded dwarves never fails to amaze me.
“Some thanks!” Rose sneered. “We should’ve left you for the beast to eat and then seen how you felt about your beard after that!”
“The beast!” shouted the dwarf. His face was red as the beard wrapped around the mailbox and his voice dripped with loathing, not fear. It was as if he had met the beast and was offended by it. “I made the beast!”
“That was a bad idea, if it is true,” Lark-Louise pointed out in her soft voice.
“Pay no attention to him, LL,” said Rose. “He’s an ingrate and a liar and a short person. Leave him alone.”
The girls did just that and that evening they told the stranger all about it when he came home. He was amused by the story and for the first time they saw the hint of a smile in his craggy eyes. He had them tell it again, and then he vacuumed the living room before sitting down with the family to watch makeover shows. By then, they had all quite forgotten that was not a permanent member of their household. And it was true that the stranger himself had grown quite fond of the girls at this point. It had been a long time since he’d had a household of his own. It wasn’t something he’d missed until he had it back again, like a headache that had been invisible until it was gone.
If you haven’t guessed how I know all this by now, I will tell you now that I’m the stranger. It is my body that had been sleeping in the basement on the air mattress with its slow leak and my pencil case with the rumpled bills in it and it was my job they were discussing when they debated whether I would drive a Mercedes or a Hummer. It was me that Lark-Louise was falling in love with.
That summer day was not the last time the sisters saw the dwarf. Not too long after that, on a full-sun day, the best chance to the see the beast, the sisters came upon the dwarf again. Rose and Lark-Louise’s mother had told them not to stray so far from the house anymore, and so they were not wandering; it was the neighbor’s back yard where they found him. He was twenty feet up in a tree this time. A new locust that barely held his weight.
“Oh, ho,” Rose called, not without some humor. “Little man, what are you doing up there?”
The beardless dwarf shouted angrily down at her (beards do not grow back if you are a dwarf). Rose, as Rose tended to be, was unfazed by his many-faceted hostility.
“He’s stuck,” Lark-Louise said with sympathy. “Like a cat.”
“Like a fat badger,” Rose replied. This caused the dwarf to engage in a new paroxism of fury, which Rose endured patiently.
“I was trying to save her,” the dwarf snarled finally.
This was when the sisters noticed that they were not alone in the backyard. One of their neighbors was with them, only they had not noticed her because she was no longer particularly human shaped. The beast has fangs that hang from his mouth. Though his grip is powerful, his fangs are not. They are like strings or hairs as they hang from his jaw, drifting to and fro in the breeze or in the speed of his movement. At the very end of these insubstantial fangs are curved hooks as fine as a wasp stinger. Dangling a foot below his teeth, they brush against his chest constantly, but the beast is immune to his own poison.
The sisters’ neighbor, however, was not, and the poison had done its usual: first bubbled in the blood just below her skin and then been expelled as her body violently attacked itself in confusion. It would’ve ruined her for a meal, but the beast never ate his victims. He kills for pleasure. That is why they call him “the beast” and not “an animal.”
Lark-Louise made a soft and terrible noise. The thing she lost right then as she looked at that body was the worst victim of the beast so far.
“Don’t look,” Rose said. Then, to the dwarf, she added fiercely, “Why didn’t you warn us?”
“Of what?” asked the dwarf. “The beast is already gone.”
This reply angered the darker sister, who stomped to the garage for a telephone or a shovel or something that might mitigate the situation. Lark-Louise hugged her arms around herself and breathed very quickly. Her eyes were on the soft ground around the body; there were multiple foot prints from the beast that made it clear that he had two feet once more. Like the locusts, the beast grew very quickly. Finally she asked the dwarf, “Why did you make the beast?”
This story was never going to be told the right way by the dwarf, but the dwarf’s version was the only one Lark-Louise was going to get. He said, “There was a prince and he was wicked and so I cursed him.”
There was something making noise in the woods behind the dwarf’s tree just then. It growled and it chattered like the water heater in the sisters’ basement. Lark-Louise looked past the locusts into the forest, but she could see nothing but thorns gripping thorns.
“Cursed us!” Rose snarled as she came back, a shovel over her shoulder. There was no way that she could have done anything with the sisters’ neighbor with the shovel, but knowing Rose, it made her feel better to have it. She had not noticed the sounds from the trees yet. Anger was making her deaf. “That’s what you’ve done! How do we break the beast’s curse?”
The dwarf peered down at her from the height of the tree. He wore a very ugly face. His face was nearly always ugly, but most of all when he was talking about the beast or talking to the beast or imagining the beast before the beast existed. And it was very ugly just then. He said, “Only by killing me.”
Rose peered up at him, her shovel over her shoulder, her black hair blown straight back from her narrowed eyes. Both of the sisters could hear the beast now. They heard the chittering chuckle from his chest and they heard the drag of his metallic living feet, and they heard the groan of his spine contracting and growing, and they heard the moist part of his jaw.
“If that is true,” Lark-Louise said in a voice thin as a blade of grass, “that was a very bad idea.”
Then Rose chopped down the tree. I told you at the beginning that she was the blacker of the two sisters, harder in every way, and even if the dwarf hadn’t died when he hit the ground, I think she would’ve gone after him with that shovel. I cannot tell you if her action there was righteousness or self defense, but knowing Rose, it might have been the two glued together into something new and even more powerful.
So there was the formerly red-bearded dwarf dead upon the ground with the feeble split trunk of the locust broken beneath him and Lark-Louise heaving big silent sobs, because she couldn’t be loud even in her terror and sorrow. In the forest, there was still the sounds of something approaching, but in the end, it was not the beast the forest produced. It was me.
Maybe you’d already guessed that was where I went during the day. Maybe as soon as I said ‘prince’ you knew. Maybe back by the mail box, when the dwarf said he made me. Maybe back at the very beginning, when I first showed up on the sisters’ doorstep.
As you can imagine, this made the sisters both cry and they hugged me and whispered about breaking the curse and swore they’d never tell and they didn’t understand at all.
That night, back in Rose’s and Lark-Louise’s house, I climbed the basement stairs and padded into the dark kitchen. I silently slid open the drawer closest to the back door and I removed the barbecue fork. It was sharp. Not as sharp as my cursed fangs had been before, but sharp enough. I turned to the hallway where the bedroom doors stretched like an invitation.
After this, I thought, I would have to run. People would begin to recognize my face again. I had forgotten what it was like to hide.
I miss being the beast.
Author’s Note: I don’t know why I keep writing unpleasant stories for Merry Fates. This is possibly my most unpleasant to date. I swear I will end on a happy one. Our monthly prompt was “Rose Red & Snow White” or “Snow White & Rose Red” or whichever it is.
Image courtesy: EddieB55