Every night before we retire, he gently takes my hand, leans in, and stops a breath away from me. “Will you kiss me with your eyes open, Beauty?” he asks.
And I do, though it is like kissing a mask. A mask with smooth skin and wide, bright eyes. A nose of near perfect proportions and lips just thin enough he’ll never be called feminine.
Behind this mask is my Beast, I know, and I remind myself again and again as he kisses me, as I give him my mouth and stroke my thumb along his wrist.
But I don’t see him. I don’t know where my love has gone.
It is three weeks since our wedding, since we came to the city with a wagon of gold to sell. Now we have a tall townhouse with library enough for me and garden enough for him. We have invitations every week to the theater and elegant dinners. No one cares who my husband is, but that he is rich and foreign. They remember my father’s name, though, and the pearl combs in my hair and the cut of my husband’s suit are all they need to welcome us.
To the city, I am a lucky young bride. They know nothing of curses and magical roses, of terror and loneliness. But what would I say to the women that come to tea? Would I tell them of racing through empty corridors or of tables of fine food set down by invisible servants? Of the bone-breaking fear in those moments when my Beast had no breath at all? Or of crawling away from him when the magic shredded his face and stripped off his fine mane, his tusks and claws and rough fur?
No. When they titter and swoon and compliment the turn of his foot or the edge of his smile, I only lower my eyes to my cup and remember, in the dark swirl of tea, the rough gash that used to be his mouth.
The first weeks were easier, because of his delight in all the human things he could now do. Hold a fork or a handful of seeds in his hand. Unbutton his own coat. Lift a quill to write a letter. All things he could barely manage – or not at all – with his monster’s grip.
On his hands and knees in the garden, he planted bulbs and plucked diseased leaves away. I stood on the terrace and watched as my lovely husband brushed his fingers over the earth. As he smiled, and then grinned, and then laughed at the sparrow bobbing its head. For a moment the laughter was a roar.
I listened and remembered the first time the Beast touched me: I’d stumbled over cobblestones in one of the dozen inner courtyards, because I had my face raised to stare up at the crenellations. He caught me with a great paw under my elbow and in surprise I jerked away. The sleeve of my gown caught on one sharp claw, and it sliced through layers of silk damask and soft cotton to my skin. Blood blossomed before I even felt the sting, and stained the material purple. I could not look away from my blood, at the pattern it soaked into the weave.
My Beast’s breath rattled harsh as a storm and he choked his apology, holding his great paws behind his back. I never told him that his claw left a mark, which did not fade completely for five weeks. By the time it did, I loved everything about him, including his frightening claws.
When he laughs, now, at the silly sparrow, it is the nearest he comes to sounding like his old self. That deep-chested chuckle, that full roar of laughter, it wraps my heart up tight and makes me love again. Just for those brief moments.
At dinner we speak of books and flowers, or the gossip one of us heard during the day. Our small complement of servants are quiet, but to we who are used to invisible maids and wind that pours wine, they intrude. So our conversation is stilted around the comings and goings of the housekeeper and the footman, to the point where I smile at my husband and shrug. He raises his wine and we salute each other in a single moment of camaraderie and understanding. Just as happened in the castle. Those were the moments that first made me love him. Made me see the giant, monstrous form hulking over the far end of the table, made me smile with him, made me understand the person inside.
Or, that is what I believed. That I fell in love with the person behind the Beast. The man he had been, the man he’d held on to through all the years of his curse.
But it was a Beast I loved. Not a man. And I have married a stranger, who reminds me of my love, who with every gesture and word makes me think perhaps I know him.
My eyes don’t believe it.
He brings me home a rose, though it is cold and barely spring. “From a hot-house across the city near the edges of the forest,” he says in that gentle way of his, as though it does not matter. It was how he said everything in the castle. Here, Beauty, is your room and Beauty, the gardens are yours to wander, the library and long halls and kitchens and throne room and grand staircase. All of it is yours. And of course there was Will you marry me, Beauty? which although he said it casually, was the most important moment of every day.
I cradle the rose, touch one sharp thorn curved in just the way his claws were. I touch the petals to my cheek, and then to my lips. It is as soft as was the downy fur under his monstrous eyes and as supple as the corner of his large mouth where I kissed it when I thought he was dead. Before the magic tore us apart again.
With the rose between us, I close my eyes and put a hand on his chest. His human chest. I lean in and curl my arm around him, press my ear to his shoulder and listen to him breathe. He holds me, running elegant fingers through my hair, twisting it into curls. The rose petals crush between us, filling my nose with sharp fragrance until I grip the back of his jacket and my own breath is hard and harsh. My Beast pulls me tight against him and there is a rumble, a moan in his chest. So deep and powerful it makes me sigh.
He kisses me hungrily, and I twine my hands in his thick hair, forgetting for a moment that he is handsome. My eyes are closed and his breath is hot, his teeth sharp on my lips. I want this, and him, with my entire body.
“Beauty,” he whispers. “Will you open your eyes?”
And I do.
And he is beautiful.
I try not to let him see my sorrow, but he knows me too well. After months alone in that castle, with only each other, he knows every flick of my lashes and twitch of my fingers. His are a mystery to me. Where is the ruffle of fur when he is upset, the clack of his tusk when he is nervous?
“Ah, Beauty,” he says, pushing me away. “What can I do?”
There, that curl of his fingers is how his massive claws curled when he was angry. I only saw that once, but it is the same. I take his hand in both of mine and smooth his hand open flat. I trace the line on his palm, and say, “I don’t know,” without looking up.
When he transformed – when I kissed the corner of his mouth because I thought he was dead, when I begged him to stay, and said that I loved him and all I wanted in the world was to marry him – the magic shocked me away and I cowered in the corner of his fine parlor, my knees drawn up tight and my nose pressed into the filthy skirts. The whole forest seemed to have come inside with me, streaking my boots and bloomers, staining my hands and bodice with mud. I sucked it up, every morsel of evergreen and dirt that I’d gathered as I’d run home, here to my Beast.
I heard his bones shatter and the roar as his tongue strangled him and his teeth cracked.
Then there was silence, but I was too afraid to look.
He touched my back and I hugged myself even more tightly.
“Beauty,” he said, and it was a stranger’s voice. Higher and smooth, without the accent of fangs and more tongue than lips, calm and gentle and coaxing. As if I was the beast suddenly, and he come to save me.
“Beauty!” he said again, and I lifted my head as he pulled me to my feet. This man was beautiful and naked and strong, a golden Adonis with a smile just for me. He cupped my face and kissed me, laughter trembling through his lips and joy in the constant movement of his hands on my hair and shoulders and back and arms. Touching me as if he’d never felt anything before.
I only stood there with my eyes closed, drowning.
One morning as the sun shines through the tall windows behind him, gilding his hair and obscuring his face he says, “Beauty,” but then he hesitates. He has always been careful with his words. With the angles of his phrases, as if aware that words are as dangerous as claws.
“Jonathan,” I say, because it is the name we chose for him, a plain name for a perfectly handsome man.
He winces away from it, and I take his hand. “Beast,” I say softly, my eyes lowered, my fingers folded into his.
We stand there in silence at the breakfast table. So near to each other that even when I look I only see his neck, and the hard edge of his jacket’s collar. It’s embroidered with a thin line of green like a rose vine. I touch it, skimming my finger over the fine material. My husband catches my hand and kisses my palm. I lean against him as he breathes against my skin.
“I love you,” he says.
I open my mouth, and nothing comes out.
That afternoon I take tea with an earl’s wife and her two daughters. Everything is pleasant and easy, but I cannot stop thinking of my husband, of his mouth and the pinch of his hands in my hair. There is something very wrong with me, that I cannot say I love him when his tusks are gone and he can hold me without cutting me open.
“You seem ill, darling,” the earl’s wife says, patting my hand. There is a twinkle in her eye as I nod, setting down the cake I’ve only barely nibbled on. As I leave, I wonder if she delights in my apparent suffering, or perhaps she only thinks I’m pregnant. At home, a dozen roses perch in a vase upon a table in the center of the entryway. A note leans against the glass, addressed to me.
Beauty, he’s written, I have gone home to my castle, and will come back to you at the next full moon.
I sink to the marble floor, staring at the B in my name, part of me light and relieved, but the rest of me only empty and missing him already.
I try to tend his garden while he’s away, but every corner makes me think of his laughter. Of that soft smile he reserves for his flowers and for me. I weed and lay fertilizer, and turn every so often to say something, only to remember he’s gone.
My sisters hear that he is away, I don’t know how, and so they come. I am so lonely I allow it, though I know they’re only here for the dining and theater box and to share my name and fortune. The arches of my town house echo with their pealing laughter, and they send out invitations to a grand party in my name. I don’t bother to stop it, giving in to them as I always have, except when they try to have the garden pruned. I snap at them and slam the doors shut in my sisters’ faces.
The evening of their party I put on a gown of blue and gold, and my girl braids silk roses into my hair. I greet everyone and smile, I dance with our neighbors and make up stories to explain where my husband is this month. The house is alive with color and music, but I keep glancing over my shoulder, expecting him to be there.
I watch the women in their ruffles like petals and the men offering arms and drinks. I stare at the bright faces and even at my sisters who revel in the wealth and vigorous energy. They seem beautiful here. I go into my husband’s bedroom, where the sounds of celebration are muffled. There is a mirror here, gilded and old, brought from the castle where it had been in my bedroom, the only mirror to be found. I look at my reflection, and I am only a poor girl in a dress too bold for her face. I am not beauty, because the most important part of me is missing.
Closing my eyes, I think of his whisper, Will you kiss me with your eyes open, Beauty? And I want to.
The day of the full moon I fill the house with flowers bought up from that hot house on the far edge of the city. Roses and lilies, bushels of pansies and carnations and sunflowers. Even a few spindly orchids.
When he walks in the door I will kiss him and never close my eyes. He’ll be surrounded by this garden I’ve made for him, and in my hand will be one red rose. I will say, I love you, Beast, and never call him Jonathan again.
But my Beast does not come home.
The housekeeper tries to take me to my bed, but I refuse.
I remain kneeling at the bottom of our stairs, in a nest of flowers, and stare at the door.
The rose in my lap wilts.
It is three days past the full moon and I bring a handful of jeweled rings to a stable. I throw them at the owner and take his fastest horse. My gown from the party hangs off me, the full skirts dragging in the wind, pulling me off the horse. But I bend over his neck and urge him on.
Through the winding tunnel of trees we race, until I tear him off the road and plunge into the darkest part of the forest. Time blurs and the leaves are so dense daylight disappearing into the long night I am so familiar with. For I have traveled this way before.
The castle grows with rose vines as though it has sat here a hundred years. No magic protects it now, or hides it either. My horse feels the old trembling curse and rears, refusing to go on. I slide off him and run forward on loose legs. I stumble and crash to the ground, gouging open my hands. Blood smears on my dress and I rip at my petticoat, wrapping the lace around my palms. I go on, pushing through brambles, keeping the tower ever in my sight.
I find my Beast is there in the center of the garden, twisted in thorns. I can only see the glint of his golden hair as the thin sunlight filters through a layer of clouds. Thorns pierce my arms and neck, scratch up my calves and tear my stockings into strips as I make my slow way to him.
“Beast!” I cry, and his body shifts toward me. His eyes open and they are as lovely as ever, though blood makes his lashes stick together and streaks down his face in dark rivulets.
I kneel beside him and use my dress to wipe blood away.
“Beauty,” he says, his voice rough and dry from so much long silence. “I cannot be what I was.”
Just then I see what he’s done. This is not blood from accidental cuts or a single gash across his head. My Beast has gouged great wounds over his cheeks, across his nose. Split open his mouth.
I touch him and he hisses painfully. My hands hover between us, blood under my nails, and staining the hem of my sleeves. It gathers in the wrinkles of my knuckles, and in the lines of my palms.
“Oh, Beast,” I say. I don’t need to ask why he did this. I know. “Forgive me.”
His mouth stretches into a smile. “Forgive you? For what?”
“For being a shallow, useless girl.”
“Because you loved me too well?” A laugh more like a cough catches in his throat. “Because you loved my horrible face itself? Never.”
I pick up a rose, and hold it so that one wide, sharp thorn presses its tip into my thumb. “I love everything about you, Beast,” I say, and I slice the thorn down my own cheek.
He yells, and I stare at him, never closing my eyes as the pain fires sharp and hot blood slips out. A drop hangs off my jaw and falls over my heart.
We bleed together into the wild rose garden.
image by BenSpark