La Belle au Bois Sanglant

It was noon on a brilliant Sunday, but beneath the thorn trees I needed a flashlight.

In the tales, the thorns are three feet long and reach for the seeker’s flesh as though they breath malice and are guided by a wicked hand. But the truth is that they are merely grown so tightly together that you cannot pass without shedding your own blood.

That is, in effect, exactly the point.

They cut through cloth as though it were butter, and leather is like well-cooked steak. I’m told that no corselet has ever protected any seeker, nor plate mail, nor flak jacket, fiberglass, Kevlar, nor Dragon Skin.

I have only my Johnny Strabler knock-off jacket with matching gloves, a pair of Levis, and steel-toed boots. So, by the time I could see the shadow of her tower, strips of my skin hung off my arms and thighs, and blood had soaked into my socks. My limbs burned and tingled, but all the pain centered on the gash throbbing under my right eye. I was fairly certain my cheekbone was breathing dank air.

The tower pushed up through the trees like a moldy rainbow. Yellow lichen and blue moss striped the discolored stone bricks, while trains of emerald ivy curled around its bulky circumference, speckled by pink and red flowers. At the base a black crevasse sucking at the thin rays of sunlight. I dropped my flashlight and entered, knowing its glare would offend her eyes.

Cold pricked at my wounds, and the constant trickle of blood slowed. Goose flesh ripped down my back and arms. I trailed my fingers over the damp inner walls, eyes wide but finding no slight purchase of light to affix upon. The steel toe of my right foot hit the first step and I slowly wound my way upward, hands out at both sides. I heard a drip from somewhere above. That, plus my own breathing, the pound of my heart, and the squish of my heels in my blood-soaked socks.

Up and up I went, and my body hardened as the chill seeped in, turning me to ice. My foot stumbled upon something soft and I fell to my knees. My hands caught against a dry heap that crumbled under my weight. A bouquet of dust and rot billowed out. I blinked and coughed, and drew my hands along the surface of the thing. Ribbons of old cloth over a shattered cavern of ribs, neck, and naked skull. I let out a breath slowly. He would not be me.

I shoved him aside, and continued up as his bones fell apart and clattered down the spiral stairs. Three more times I found bodies, faltering in my blindness, before the hint of sunlight fluttered around a bend.

My pace quickened, and the surge of heat caused my blood to flow again. I stripped off my gloves as I entered her chamber, and the leather tore away blood-sticky skin.

The walls of the chamber were dark with age. Whatever riches might once have slept with her hung like spider-webs and black vines. The bedclothes were tattered and her hair drooped in tangles and knots. It had once been blond, I guessed, but was now patched with green and grey. Her skin was mottled pink and ivory, with hints of yellowed bruises at her wrists and throat and thighs. She healed more slowly than stone, it seemed. Once she’d slept in a gilded gown, which now was torn from her and only bits of a corset clung to her waist, and a stocking hugged one calf.

I strode over the six dead men rotting in the strips of sunlight and knelt beside her bed. Her eyeballs moved as she dreamt – of living and dancing and loving, I hoped – and her lips curved in a Mona Lisa smile.

Men had come before, and women, to wake her and to wake themselves. Most died in the thorn forest, and others from the cold. Still more could not carry the burden of her sleep within their own hearts without collapsing into death. I would not be one of them. My mentor had taken her sleep centuries ago, and he told me his truth: love her.

Love the sleeping maid.

Not for her beauty, nor her nakedness, nor for the gift she might give you. Love her for the tragedy of her tale. For the pain of her everlasting life.

I brushed my bleeding hand to my lips and leaned in to offer my life to her. Her mouth was cold and soft as a peach. First there was nothing. I used my tongue to put my blood against her teeth.

She bit me, and opened her eyes. They were black, black with green and blue and yellow swirls like the outside of her tower. They swallowed me and her hands clutched into my arms. I cried out into her throat and she dragged me on top of her, digging her teeth into my lips. Her strength was of iron and I panicked. I struggled and pulled away from her hunger. But her fingers held me in place and I saw her eyes begin to close: and I recalled the lesson. Love her.

I closed my eyes and kissed her again. She took everything from me. The blood drying on my thousand-thousand thorn-cuts glued me to her as she drank. I forced my hands beneath her and cuddled her to my chest. I kept myself open and whispered my name to her again and again.

She threw me away and I slammed into the stone floor.

Then she was on top of me, tearing away the shredded remains of my leather jacket, of my jeans and steel-toed boots. She kissed every wound, her movements faster than life, faster than the world. I blinked and blinked, my vision like a strobe-light as she kissed and rubbed my blood over me like she was creating me new skin.

And she was gone and I panted and stared up at the arched wood of the ceiling. The air was hot. I tingled and burned again, but it was with different pain. Holding up my hands I saw beneath the blood was whole flesh. I sat and my thighs and abdomen and arms were healed. I stood. I stretched. I laughed.

She slept, sprawled on the bed as if she had never stirred. Her tangled hair, her mottled and naked skin, her tiny bare feet exactly as I’d met her.

I knelt beside her again and kissed her, tasting her dead, peachy lips. I could hear the rattle of air inside her ribs – so slowly like the shudder of wind in an ancient forest.

Beyond her cradle a balcony opened into the afternoon. I stepped out into the sunlight, a king among men.

23 thoughts on “La Belle au Bois Sanglant

  1. Oh my god, this is visceral! They never talk much about what fighting through a thorn-forest does to a person, but yeah! And I love the blending of the fairytale and the monster-lore sensibilities–this seriously gave me a little adrenaline rush.

  2. Sweet! Adrenaline rush!

    I’m making it my mission to convince you and Maggie that vampires don’t suck.

    (ok, well, they DO totally suck, but in a slurpy, sexy, good way!)

  3. I think this is my favorite vampire story ever… also my new favorite fairytale!

  4. I really liked this story, and like an above poster, I often don’t like vampire stories. There’s only so much “Creepy, now with extra blood!” someone can heap into a story before it becomes ludicrous and contrived, and you have managed the balance very well.

  5. Whoo, love the combo — and some of the language in here was both drop dead gorgeous and yet nonchalant. Like . . .”Whatever riches might once have slept with her hung like spider-webs and black vines.”

  6. Thanks. I tend to use vampires as a metaphor instead of a vehicle for carnage. (Now, I don’t have a problem with carnage itself – but it should serve a purpose. Shock and gross not for their own sakes, but to point something out, to highlight, to create queer space, etc.)

    It really isn’t because I want to drink blood and accumulate massive wealth so I can stalk and torture people for the rest of my unlife. Really. It isn’t.

  7. Good! That particular kid of discordant parallel (whimsy/gruesome, regular/wondrous) is the sense I try hardest to capture when I’m writing contemporary fantasy. Or whatever you want to call it.

  8. Wow. Lovely language and imagery.

    This: “and the squish of my heels in my blood-soaked socks. ” Is so wonderfully disgusting.

    Also, I was halfway through when “Kiss the Girl” came on my iPod.

    I think Eric might have pissed himself.

  9. That was my favorite image! Ewww! Can’t you just feel it? Like having icky lake water in your shoes… only not. So much worse. Yay for gross!

    Also, re: “Kiss the Girl”, WOAH! What are you doing listening to Disney while you read something *I* wrote?!? Are you wanting to destroy your innocent love of Ariel et al? :p

  10. What are you doing listening to Disney while you read something *I* wrote?!?

    Oh, just “Tess’s favs” on the iPod. Disney was preceded by Marylin Manson, of course.

    😛

  11. I used to wear jeans and steel toed boots. Butcher sheep and be covered in blood. Clear brambles, gorse, and black berry. My arms and legs were always covered in scratches. The sweat and blood soaking my shirt. Nights would have been so much nicer if I’d been slammed into the floor and had my clothes ripped off. Vampires are sexy and fun.

    What Maggie said, drop dead gorgeous and nonchalant.

  12. Nights would have been so much nicer if I’d been slammed into the floor and had my clothes ripped off.

    This is one of the universal truths. ;0

  13. “It really isn’t because I want to drink blood and accumulate massive wealth so I can stalk and torture people for the rest of my unlife. Really. It isn’t.”

    Someday, when you are a rich and wildly famous author, someone will come to me and say, “Hey, don’t you know Tessa Gratton?” And I’ll say, “Yes, I’ve known her since she was in high school.” And they’ll say, “What’s she really like?”

    And I’ll say, “This.”

  14. You know, I really think this is the best version of “Sleeping Beauty” I’ve ever read. Creepy and awesome. I love how it subverts so many of the basic premises of the fairy tale as most people know it: that the princess’s chastity is guaranteed by her sleep, by the thorns, by the tower; that she remains in a perfect and beautiful stasis; that the kiss means that she belongs to the man who kissed her; that the kiss even wakes her up permanently. If sleep can be a symbol of agency, I think you’ve managed to make it so here.

    I love that the tower is littered with the corpses of men who thought they were in those other versions of the fairy tale, in which they could just waltz in and have her for themselves without considering who she is as a person.

    This is just really wonderful.

  15. Wow, thanks.

    My sleeping lady is definitely an agent for something, though maybe not herself. And… I toss corpses around whenever I get the chance. 😉

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