(With the live-action coming out soon, I thought it would be interesting to read the original Beauty and the Beast and explore its core themes, as well as how those themes would change if I altered the gender roles of the characters. And then it just ran away from me. This initial structure/writing style is based upon the version by Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont, and some elements were borrowed from the historic figure of Elizabeth Bathory.)
Beauty and the Beast
There once was a wealthy merchant who had six children, three sons and three daughters. Being a man of sense, he spared no cost for their education, but gave them all kinds of masters. As such, all his sons were raised to be sensible and strong, but his youngest son received the most attention, for he was also extremely handsome. The youngest son was also the youngest of the merchant’s children, and for many long years he was the family’s beautiful little boy, called “their little Beauty,” such that even in the last years of boyhood, he turned his head to the nickname.
The youngest, as he was handsomer, experienced life differently than his brothers. The two eldest, though average in their appearance, were given merit on their achievements and deeds. They built their reputations from the ground up, picking the doorframes and shutters of their future as they went along. However, as the youngest was beautiful, without even knowing his name, people assumed him to be brave and capable and intelligent and kind, for everyone knew that beautiful people were innately better than the rest.
As such, the servants favored him and kept his secrets, and though he misbehaved more than all his siblings combined, his punishments were always lesser than those of his brothers. This caused the boy great distress, for he knew that he was neither as virtuous as his eldest brother nor as competent as his other, and he feared that they all would realize this in time. Instead, the youngest came to overshadow both his brothers, in town and in home, and this caused the two eldest to resent him. “It must be nice to be the little Beauty,” they muttered as they passed, and the boy grew to resent the name.
They continued even when the handsome youngest grew into a handsome young man, and with age Beauty grew indignant. He resolved to embrace the name wholeheartedly to ease the sting of his brothers’ bitterness, and he coasted through his days. He neither had to work quite as hard as his brothers for recognition, nor did he have to so carefully maintain his God-given beauty for attention as his sisters did. He lived vicariously and was ever the talk of the town.
One day, Beauty grew particularly smitten with a coquettish young lady of some social standing. Of the many marriageable women who flocked to him, she was loveliest, with a meticulous sort of beauty achieved through great wealth and great care. Though he was polite with all women in his company, he was particular towards her, and he told her, “Ask of me a gift, as a token of my affection.”
At first she declined, modest as she was, but at his insistence then, shyly asked him for a rose. Beauty deemed it a trifle until she continued; she wanted of him not just any rose, but a moon rose from the castle in the woods, for the lover of a friend of hers had claimed to have done just that. And because it would seem cowardly to rescind his offer, he agreed.
His sisters, of course, thought of it as reckless. His sisters called him a fool, for they knew the stories – a hulking, prowling monster dwelled within that old estate. The ghouls of a hundred tortured souls haunted the abandoned halls. And surely the roses, if they ever existed, had withered in the site’s desolate condition!
“I won’t enter the halls,” Beauty assured them, but this was little comfort to any of them. The second eldest brother was never so eloquent as that night in disparaging him. Clearly the woman is a harpy with a siren song, tempting weak and stupid men down ravines to their death, he said, but Beauty ignored him. As Beauty saddled the horse, the eldest handed him a sword, polished and prized. By the time he entered the forest, he was well and thoroughly shaken.
‘Ridiculous,’ he thought to himself. ‘As if such a monster could exist. If it did, surely none would let it live as long as it did.’
He rode for nearly two hours, deep into the forest, until the trees grew too dense for his horse. It was only once he tied down his steed to venture forth on foot that Beauty regretted his haste. In the thick of the forest, the full moon cast no light, and the paths were treacherous. He could have gone in the morning and bought the lushest rose from the next town over and his soon to be sweetheart would have been none the wiser. His sisters were probably right and the roses were just legend. His brother was probably right and the girl did not care for him. In Beauty’s mounting anxiety, every rustle of the leaves set his heart racing, and he had to use his sword to hack through the foliage.
At about the fourth hour, Beauty considered turning back when he stumbled upon a clearing. Moonlight spilled across the grass, casting silver glint to the first glimmers of dew. The night air cooled his flushed skin, and there was a peculiar fragrance lifting with the breeze – an aroma like roses, but deeper, settling heavy on his tongue.
The moon roses, he realized, and he rejoiced. “Of course my sisters were wrong,” he whispered in celebration, for though he now had proof that his sisters did not know what they spoke of, he was still wary of the legendary monster that lived in the castle that now stood before him.
It was different from the stories. The stories spoke of a towering fortress, built not to keep outsiders out, but the monster in, constructed of steel and stone, looming and cold, reeking of old blood and rot. What Beauty found instead was an alabaster palace peering out from behind a high wall, taller than his whole person. The wall was smooth, without a single blemish for a foothold, and upon taking the time to pace the perimeter the best he could, Beauty came to the conclusion that there was no gate through which to enter.
There was no sign of any monster, and Beauty grew bold in his relief. Although there were no cracks or chips along the wall, where the fragrance of roses was headiest, he noticed trunks of old ivy creeping up and over the wall. Securing his brother’s sword across his back, he took hold of the plants and hefted himself into what must have been the palace garden. Here, there were a hundred beautiful flowers, in full bloom like the moon shining above them.
Beauty was so enchanted by the sight of it all that he dallied, taking a moment to sniff deeply at each of the blooms such that he almost forgot his original purpose. When he noticed the arbor of roses, he was so distracted that he failed to notice the lone seat and cup at the table just beyond it.
The roses were breathtaking, and most certainly the moon roses, for the arbor was positioned where the moonlight shafted through the clouds. They were so lovely that Beauty thought to gather a number for his sisters as well, and so he picked off branches lush with crimson flowers until he had himself a full bouquet.
He whirled at the click of a stone just in time to avoid the massive claw that swept down beside him. Beauty screamed and tripped into the garden table. The edge jabbed painfully into his side and knocked the breath from him. The teapot shattered to the pavement. Beauty had no time to waste as the monster gave a rumbling roar, and he felt the heat of its breath at his back. Terrified, Beauty scrabbled away, and with roses clutched tight under an arm, he tried to draw his brother’s sword. He stood no chance, as the monster swept the blade from his grip with a clawed hand the size of his torso.
‘This is how I die,’ Beauty thought, knees buckling, and he cowered before the hulking creature which was at once exactly and not at all how he pictured. Furred and furious, the creature was nearly twice his size and loomed large and lumbering above him. Its chest heaved with its breathing, and through the snarl he could make out fangs that would make even quicker work of his life than its claws. That was as all as the stories told. However, even through his fear, Beauty felt bewilderment edge into his thought at the sight of the intricate bodice of the creature’s dress, and its filmy, luminous eyes bearing down at him, unfocused.
Beauty drew what was surely his last breath when the monster leaned in, sharp teeth mere inches from his throat. He could smell the brew of tea on the monster’s breath as it asked in a low rasp, “Why do you brave the monster’s den, boy?”
It was almost too long before Beauty found his voice. “R-roses,” he stammered out. “I hoped to make a gift of moon roses.”
The monster seemed to contemplate this, and narrowed its strange pale eyes, before rising with the kind of snort Beauty ascribed to his second eldest brother. “You have your roses,” the creature said. “Now leave this place for good.”
So startled Beauty was by this command, and still shaken with fright, he could only stare. The creature grew impatient, and this time it roared, slashing a hand through the air. “LEAVE!” it commanded him, voice rising to a grating note, and Beauty bolted before he could think. In his terror, he barely noticed that there was now a gate where there was none before, and he ran all the way back to his steed and rode the horse hard back all the way to his home. By the time he made it back, it was dawn.
Moon roses wilt when touched by daylight. As such, when Beauty awoke from his exhausted faint, he found upon his nightstand nothing but dry twigs. His sisters sighed in relief at the sight of him but were also too keen on hearing his tale. Perhaps Beauty might have indulged them had he not found himself so confused about the whole ordeal. He avoided his brothers on principle, and also because Beauty knew not how to explain to the eldest how he’d abandoned the sword.
Later that day he found his sweetheart to be and relayed to her his tale of a glorious battle with the monster of the palace and the truth of the moon roses, that her friend’s lover had clearly lied and likely bought a rose from the next town over. She took such offense that she called him a liar and a coward and refused to speak to him again.
Work went poorly that day, but Beauty was assured that it was fine, he was looking a little less radiant that day so surely he must be under the weather, though no one else ever received such leniency. By the time he arrived home, his elder brother had heard of both incidents and readied a full repertoire of mockery. The eldest brother came later, but was swift to track Beauty down and ask back for his sword. His disappointment when Beauty failed to conjure it was bad enough, but then the eldest said that he always knew that the little beauty cared for no one but himself, and Beauty’s misery tightened around his neck.
“You would have fared no better against the beast!” he snapped, desperate as he had ever been for his brother’s acknowledgement and care. “I nearly died! Is your sword worth more than your brother’s life?”
And then the eldest wondered aloud if there truly ever was a monster, dancing around the accusation that Beauty took like a blow to the gut. His kind and virtuous eldest brother, eldest of them all, now thought him a liar. In all their many years with the growing rift between them, his brothers had never once accused him of deceit. Had he been paying attention, he may have noticed his elder brother catch the eldest by the sleeve, hissing about lines to never cross, but Beauty did not hear it.
“Fine,” he declared, snatching his jacket. “You’ll have your precious sword in the morning. Perhaps the monster will do you a favor more and mar my face, and you can spend the evening inventing a new name for the youngest of your siblings!” And though one of his brothers called after him, sounding his real name for the first time in years, Beauty did not turn back.
He did not turn back until he was again deep in the woods, and the paths this time were familiar. It was no time at all before he was at the moonlit clearing, brimming with a fragrance like an old hummed song, and Beauty had fantasized the entire way. He hoped the battle for the sword would be difficult. He hoped the monster would hurt him in some way, draw blood just severe enough that he would collapse off the horse once he reached home, and then his brothers would be sorry.
However, none of those things came to pass, as when he approached where the ivy had been upon the wall, he found there was none. The sturdy old tendrils had been torn off and lied in a nest upon the ground, and stuck into the soft earth there was none other than his brother’s sword.
Beauty was dumbfounded, all his vengeful thoughts given no satisfaction. He drew the sword and looked at it, inspecting it for any damage, and there was none whatsoever. Staring from the crumpled ivy at his feet to the smooth, high wall around the palace, Beauty’s throat grew tight with frustration. If he went home as was, it would only give credence to his brother’s accusations. Storm off in a flurry and return with the sword in but a couple of hours, without a scratch, and nothing would change.
So instead of turning back, Beauty sank down with his back to the wall, resting the sword in his lap. There was no point in returning as he was, so he wouldn’t. He had left the horse tied down by a brook with plenty of grass, and there were no wild beasts in this forest. The stories had claimed that they stayed away from the region because they could sense malice from the castle that dwelled in the woods, but now Beauty wondered if that was the case. Nothing else was as it seemed.
And he sat there, pondering grimly who had placed the sword outside – was there a kind servant still dwelling in the depths, or was the strange monster in women’s garb – but exhausted from anger and a sudden loss of tension, Beauty soon fell asleep.
He awoke to a crash of thunder that had him jolting from the bed. It took a long moment for him to realize that he was not where he should be. He turned at a flash of light to see rain dashing against the window and flinched at the second roll of thunder that followed. Slowly, he rose from the bed and found that he had been deprived of his jacket. He found it lightly spattered and hanging over the back of a rather comfortable looking chair in the room. It didn’t take much thought to realize what must have happened. Whatever soul put out the sword must have taken him into the palace – a room constructed with such artistry and high ceilings could belong nowhere else.
His brother’s sword rested against the wall by the door, and he strapped it to his back before creeping out into the hall. Despite all signs to the contrary, Beauty momentarily expected bloodied walls and shrieking ghosts from the past. Instead, he found elegant vases coated in dust, and ill-maintained paintings cracking on the walls, and all was silent save for his footsteps on the wooden floor. As such, it was easy for him to fall into wonder as he explored the rooms flooded with finery and empty of life. He discovered rich bedrooms alongside the one he awoke in and traveled down into what must have been the servant’s quarters, once upon a time.
There was a particular moment of delight in discovering the library, with shelves from floor to ceiling and a seeming infinite number of books. It was also in the library that Beauty discovered the first signs of someone living in the palace, from the small selection of books that lied bookmarked upon a table, clear of cobwebs and dust.
However, he soon came upon the sitting room, and startled as he was by the crackle of fire, it was the gargantuan silhouette that had him leaping away with a yelp.
The monster from the gardens sat upon a loveseat as if it were built for one, wearing what could easily have been a woman’s nightgown, but frankly looked silly upon a terrifying beast. At the sound of his voice, the creature looked up with those filmy eyes, and though they seemed useless for sight, they were fine for a derisive glance. “Please, what have you to fear from a blind old woman?” the creature said, looking more ridiculous still as it drank from a teacup far too small for it.
The voice was still a low, gravelly thing, but Beauty was struck by how different it sounded from the monstrous roar from the night before. There was silence that he knew he was expected to fill, but bewildered as he was, he didn’t even know where to start. The monster grew impatient with his stupor, as the night before, but the temper from before was gone.
“Why are you here, boy?” the creature asked, and Beauty remembered himself.
“I could ask the same,” he replied, stalling, hesitant, as if he were treading around broken glass. “Why have you brought me to the palace?”
“It would not sit right with me to keep a boy young enough to steal roses for a sweetheart out in the rain.”
And this simply built upon the confusion that kept Beauty reeling. In his attempt to find the thread of his thoughts, he let slip his grip on courtesy. “But you’re the monster of the castle,” he protested, and his teeth clicked from how quickly he shut his mouth. To his great relief and even greater confusion, the creature laughed.
“Has it been so long they’ve forgotten,” she mused – she, for now that he was holding a conversation with the creature, surely it was a woman despite the monstrous visage. “There was a time they called me the Beast. You may call me that, if you wish. None of this monster business. I find it demeaning.”
Beauty did not understand how being called a beast was any less demeaning than a monster, but he resolved to respect her request. She looked at him then expectantly, and he realized only then that this was a conversation. He was conversing with the Beast of the palace in the woods.
“People call me Beauty,” he said, offering the despised nickname despite himself. She had given him a false name, surely. It put them on equal footing for him to do the same.
“Are you beautiful?” the Beast asked of him, and he hesitated to respond. Again, she spoke on at his silence. “By all means, be honest, lie, but do answer. As you can see, I cannot,” she said, gesturing to her eyes with one clawed hand. “See, that is. I was raised with propriety and answer when asked a question, boy.”
“People think me beautiful,” he said, and when the Beast gestured, an armchair positioned itself across from her. Beauty sank into the seat, still speaking. “And because they think me beautiful, they also think me good and brave and wise above all my peers.”
“Are you?” the Beast asked, hooking the handle of a teapot with a finger. She poured him a cup of tea, and Beauty found the entire ordeal incredibly surreal.
“Am I what?”
“Good and brave and wise.”
“Certainly not as much as others I know,” he responded, words bitter on his tongue as he thought of the animosity between him and his brothers for the recognition they all knew was ill-deserved.
“But are you?” the Beast pressed, conjuring also a tray of sweets to set upon the low table between them, and Beauty floundered at the question, as he had always known he was not as witty as his elder brother nor as virtuous as the eldest, but he had never thought to ask if he was virtuous or witty at all.
“I,” he started, but could not form the words. In awe, he could only shake his head, forgetting a moment that the Beast was blind. It did not matter, for she seemed to know his response. Perhaps his silence was response enough.
“Perhaps in time I can answer for you,” the Beast said idly, setting her empty teacup aside. “I will not be blinded by any claimed beauty of yours, boy. I’m already blind.”
“In time?” Beauty echoed, and the Beast went still.
“If you so choose,” the Beast replied.
“You were very insistent I leave,” Beauty said, shivering at the memory of his terror in the garden.
“And now I ask that you visit if you ever find time. For now, it is daybreak, and the storm has stopped.” She was right. The low patter of rain had died down long ago. “Go. Return to your family and sweetheart and all those people who think you beautiful.”
Beauty did, and upon his return home, he found his brothers arming themselves upon their horses, and he found that their concern was not nearly as satisfying as he had imagined. Feeling quite as if the earth had turned to feathers beneath him, Beauty fell into a confused and dreamless sleep.
It was a fortnight before Beauty returned to the palace, meaning a fortnight for his confusion to set into curiosity. It was very strange fortnight indeed, where his ventures through the town were marked with the strange clarity of seeing things from a distance. The townspeople noticed the change, and all remarked that Beauty seemed a thousand leagues away.
This time, when Beauty approached the palace, it was midafternoon, and there was a gate. It opened for him on its own when he drew near, and seeing the layout of the court, he realized that there must have been a front entrance once upon a time, for the patterned stone paths led from there to the doors of the palace. Those opened for him readily as well.
In sunlight, the alabaster palace seemed to glow, and he noticed glints of gold accent at every corner. He found the Beast in the same sitting room as before, looking almost as if she had never moved had it not been for the altered color of her dress and the changed pattern of her teacups. There was a second chair already prepared.
“You were expecting me,” he said, taking his seat.
He hadn’t thought it possible with a face as gnarled as hers, but the Beast smiled at the sound of him. “There’s a difference between hope and expectations,” she said. “Do not, however, feel obligated to stay.”
Beauty did not know why he came. He had the feeling that any man of common sense would have stayed far away after that very first night, or at the very least returned with a mob with swords and torches. He knew, at the very least, that it was not obligation that bid him stay. He had many questions – about the bloody stories and the stranger truth, about her rage in the garden and the oddity of her attire – but he was raised better than to voice every thought in his mind.
Having come of his own volition, Beauty found himself less overwhelmed by the Beast’s presence, and he could take a moment to take in his surroundings. The sitting room was awash in blues, sunlight streaming through drapery clumsily tied. The wallpaper had faded across the window. Above the fireplace there was a towering painting, a portrait. Beauty’s father had once dealt in paintings, and so he could recognize the artist’s style as one from over a century past. Within the ornate golden frame stood a truly beautiful woman, proud in an embroidered dress that fell in an elegant sweep. He was drawn to her eyes, dark and watchful, as if she could see straight through him.
“Who is the woman in the painting?” he asked, in lieu of his less tactful questions. As fortune would have it, his question proved to be the least tactful of all, as the Beast stilled mid-sip.
After a long moment, she set her teacup upon her saucer and turned to where she knew the painting hung and seemed to gaze at it wistfully. “Me in another life,” she said, after pause, and quietly resumed her tea as Beauty cursed his stupidity.
Those were the first stories, after all, he remembered now, the story of a vain and vengeful countess, cursed into a monster as punishment for her misdeeds. Some stories said that said that she blinded her servants for cowering at the sight of her and then later killed them for their incompetence.
“You’re long-lived, then,” he said, nudging his thoughts towards the safest course. “Ageless?”
“Immortal,” the Beast replied readily, “though I’ve lost track of the years once I lost reason to count them.”
And though Beauty could not imagine what reasons those could be, he did not ask. In his silence, the Beast offered him a scone which he took merely to keep quiet. It was rich with raspberries and delicious, and he took another once he was done.
The Beast, true to her word, let him depart when he wished. Beauty took his leave once he polished off all her scones and left feeling even stranger than he had when he arrived.
He visited again the fortnight next, particularly sour of temperament. The coquettish young lady with whom he had been so smitten had returned to reassert his affections for her and, finding that he had none remaining, took grave offense. She then used her minor social standing and greater social influence to slander him and brand him a liar. Beauty recounted this story to the Beast in aggravation. They were in the library this time, and he had settled himself sideways in an armchair.
“With how you complained at first, one would think the loss of your reputation would please you,” the Beast remarked, dragging a knuckle against the embossed spine of a heavy-bound book. She tipped it from the shelf.
Beauty cast a glare before recalling that she could not see him, and then he scoffed for better measure. “What I despised was reputation unearned. I certainly didn’t earn the brand of a liar.” Thinking on it frustrated him further and he slung an arm over his eyes. “I did not think it too much to ask, wanting to be judged for my actions and merit alone.”
The Beast hummed as she made her selection of readings and sank into the sofa across from Beauty. “I understand how that must feel,” she said before cracking the spine of her first book.
They settled into a companionable silence of sort for near half an hour, with the Beast engaged in her perusal and Beauty watching the blind woman read. He wanted to ask her why she bothered with opening a book and turning the pages, what she got out of the exercise, but she seemed so at peace that he didn’t wish to mar her enjoyment with his prying, senseless questions. Even so, Beauty was the one to fill the silence. “You spoke of reasons to count the years,” he said and asked the question he’d wondered since the last. “What reasons were those?”
So quiet was the Beast that he wondered if she, absorbed in her reminiscence of storybooks, failed to hear him. He noticed, however, that she did not flip the page, and knew she was choosing her words.
“These rooms were not always empty,” she said at last, “and the walls were not always closed.” And then she spoke in a lilting voice, as if remembering an old song that once echoed through the halls. “I was a countess, and there was a court. There were servants and, through them, children. Celebrations were good reasons to count the years.” Her voice was too rasped for her memories, and the tune of whatever song was lost. However, in that moment, Beauty could not imagine the Beast as the one from the old stories, killing servants in misplaced wrath. He could not even picture her as the monster who had attacked him the night he came for moon roses.
Beauty shifted to sit proper in his chair, and he watched the Beast as she returned to her reading. He formed his words carefully in his mouth, felt them roll across his tongue like marbles, shaping them, before he said, “I was born in the first cusp of winter.”
The Beast folded the book closed and, purely for effect, looked at him. Even so, Beauty felt as if she could see straight through him with her sightless eyes.
When she failed to respond, he prompted, “If I continue to visit, will the years begin to matter once more?”
“Perhaps they will,” the Beast replied and opened the next book over. “Only time will tell.”
The fortnight next was, as it so happened, the first cusp of winter, and a powder snow dusted the kingdom. It was enough for his siblings to dissuade him from leaving the town, but not nearly enough to stop Beauty himself. Where was he even going, his family demanded, but Beauty merely told them he hoped to visit a friend who lived away. They did, however, insist he stay long enough for celebrations.
As such, it was nightfall when he arrived at the palace. However, unlike before, he found that lanterns had been lit throughout the courtyard and there was a glow in every window. In the light, he could see the snow blown across the ground, and he could trace the outline of the Beast’s footsteps leading into the gardens.
He followed them and found her pruning the moon rose arbor.
“What is this?” he asked, but the Beast continued snipping rich blooms from their branches. They weren’t as large as under the light of the full moon, but they were still larger and lovelier than their common counterparts.
“Moon roses cut in the cold will not wither in sun,” the Beast explained, and offered to him a small bouquet. “You desired these enough to steal them, once upon a time. Take them now and spare an old woman fright in the future.” She said this with more levity than Beauty deemed necessary.
Even so, he accepted the token, and he was touched so that he did not tell her that he no longer had a use for moon roses. “You remembered, then,” he said, hoping that this gift was planned in nature.
“The first cusp of winter is easy enough to remember,” she answered, and it might as well have been a yes.
Beauty stroked the petal of one rose and marveling at how the frost patterned upon it. “How does one acquire moon roses in the first place?” he asked. “A fairy’s blessing?” The old stories always spoke of the fair folk and their blessings to the nobility. To Beauty’s dismay, the Beast whirled to face him. Beauty flinched at her motion, and he was shamefully grateful for her blindness.
However, instead of anger or sorrow, the Beast spoke with a tired kind of mirth, as if she were humoring a child. “Still young enough to dream of fairies,” she chuckled, and in some manner, that was worse. To Beauty it was like a fine knife scratching at his spine. To say so on his birthday, with him long past of age, seemed to him condescending.
Indignant, he spoke to dim her amusement. “Did a fairy curse you to such a state?” he asked, and his words hit their mark.
The Beast went still once more, and she blinked twice as if a memory had lodged itself beneath the eyelids and she hoped to chase them away. “If you mean my countenance, no,” she murmured, “but a fledgling fairy took my sight.”
Beauty regretted his impulsiveness. “I’m sorry,” he said, though he knew not if it was for his question or her circumstances.
The Beast shook her head. “She thought she was doing me a favor – a temporary ordeal, she said, until the curse was done. She thought to spare me from the tragedy of my appearance and the horror in the eyes of my contemporaries.”
And hearing this, Beauty could only repeat, “I truly am sorry,” and he took a step closer without a thought to what he would do next. He stood barely an arm’s length from the Beast and took a proper look at the contradiction of her. She carried herself at odds with her appearance, dignity holding her tall though her size and limbs hoped for her to stoop like the gargoyle she so resembled. Her movements were measured and graceful despite the ungainly size of her clawed hands and feet.
“When will the curse be done?” Beauty asked of her, although he knew that it wasn’t fair of him to ask.
It was the longest silence of them all that followed, and in the cold night air, it seemed longer to Beauty. He wrapped his jacket tighter around him as he waited for her response. He did not expect for the mournful sound that came from the Beast’s throat. He had not known that she could cry, and he had not known that anyone could cry with such rage.
“It will be done when I am wed,” she whispered, and Beauty bit his tongue to keep from asking more. It was all for naught when she gently pushed him aside and asked of him to leave.
“What?” Beauty protested, distressed from her distress and floundering. “You cannot expect of me to hear this and just—”
“Perhaps I will tell you the rest of the tale next time,” she said, tears staining the dark fur of her face, “But tonight, leave me be.”
Beauty kept the moon roses on his nightstand and refused to let his sisters touch them.
He visited again in a mere five days. Even that had been following an excruciating wait, for Beauty knew that he had deeply upset the Beast and hoped to give her time to recover. When he could wait no more, despite the snowfall, he set off entirely on foot, for he could not in good conscience tie his horse down in the winter chill.
He knew enough of the Beast now to guess where she would be on an evening as cold as this, and though he was correct he was also very wrong, for when he set foot in the sitting room, he shivered from the chill of it. The fireplace was shadowed and empty, though the Beast huddled before it. Beauty hurried to the firewood stacked to the corner and cast them into the hearth, and he was scanning the room for matches when the Beast spoke.
“I had a husband, once,” she said, and though Beauty had not a clue why she brought this up, her voice was so tired that he could not bring himself to interrupt. “Before the war, all was well. People respected him, and through him, me.”
Beauty began riffling through drawers, looking for something to spark the wood. “Tell me more,” he said, to assure the Beast that he was listening.
“But he went to the war. And while he was gone, someone had to keep the estate in order, and who better to do so than his wife? Others of the court resented that, of course, taking orders from a woman, but that was all fine as it was temporary. Soon the count would return, after all, and all would be well.”
There were matches tucked deep into one of the dustiest drawers, and Beauty dragged them out. He hurried to the fireplace and struck the matchhead with the stone before setting the tinder aflame. The fire quickly grew into a glow and Beauty sighed from the warmth, shaking out the match in his hand. He startled when the Beast tugged at his sleeve, a ridiculous sentiment as the width of her hand could easily span the whole of his forearm, but he looked down to see that she had pinched the cloth between two of her claws. She for all the world seemed to be staring at the fire.
“But then my husband died, and I retained the estate and the power. The other nobles did not like that, a woman bearing land and authority that could be theirs, and so the proposals came in. Courting was rare, and most resembled demands. I refused, of course. I was still in mourning for my first husband, it would have been improper, and I had seen how they run their estates. They could do no better than I had. So I refused, and they angered, and one duke in particular despised that.
“He had been blessed in his childhood and knew of magic, and he assumed a woman’s worth was in her beauty. He cast a curse that would end when I would wed, and he knew that he was the most influential of all my suitors. If I chose not him, he could crush anyone else and seize the estate by force. My beauty was famed, so he took it away and rendered me a monstrosity, and I will never forget the expressions of both my closest confidantes and dearest friends.”
Beauty sank to the floor, sitting with an arm raised so that the Beast may keep hold of it. “But you didn’t wed,” he said.
“I would not give into coercion,” she said. “I would rather be a beast than a monster’s wife. I made this very clear. And even though everyone left me, either of their own will or lost to time, I succeeded. No one lays claim to this estate except the Beast in the woods. This palace died with the countess.”
“They were cruel,” Beauty said, though he felt the words inadequate.
“I was not always at peace with it, of course,” the Beast continued. “The curse. I studied magic for a long while, hoping to find means to break the curse. There was none I could do. I must say, it did make life easier once I grew blind.” To prove her point, she summoned from somewhere a tea set, but when she reached for it Beauty batted her hand away.
“Let me,” he said, and poured her a cup before gently setting it into her hand.
And the Beast did not thank him, but seemed to stare at him with something close to wonder. “What a foolish boy,” she said, and he wanted to protest at this sudden declaration when she went on. “You were always good. Braver than most and wiser than some, but good beyond so many. I need not eyes to know this.”
And then, feeling rather foolish indeed, Beauty felt tears brim at his eyes.
The visits grew more frequent, then, from every fortnight to twice a week. His siblings grew suspect, of course, and soon even his brothers joined his sisters in their concern. They demanded to know where he was going, who he was seeing and when this started, assuming him lost to some sweetheart or another. They were divided, wondering if he’d met someone of delicate constitution or if some impish thing had seduced him to clandestine affairs. Perhaps she is married still, the second eldest supplied, and must keep only to trysts.
Beauty told them it wasn’t like that, that it was nothing, and the visits went on. However, it was not nothing, and they all could see the change in how the youngest in the family suddenly seemed grown. He carried himself tall with a comfort, no longer straining with the burden of arrogance, and his conversations grew easy without concern for what others thought of him.
The elder brother noticed the firm change when he accosted his brother on the way out, demanding they need to talk, and Beauty agreed without protest. But when they settled, it was Beauty who spoke first, and there was nothing but startling honesty. “I envied you, always,” were the first words out his mouth, and the elder brother had never known this. “You were smarter than I could ever hope to be, with better focus than I could ever hope to have. And believe me, brother, I despised nothing more than when my meager efforts were held up to standard with your brilliance, because no one could see more clearly than I the difference between our competence.
“I got caught up in the that notion, and though people put me ahead in the light, they never realized that I was always walking backwards, and you were the shadow, and you loomed so large before me, always. I thought it would always be this way, but I am finally turning around and walking forward. I hope to make it clear that when I do, I have no wish to overshadow you.”
And then Beauty offered his hand, and what could a brother do but take it.
The eldest brother noticed the change when Beauty approached him first and pulled him into an embrace. “You were not always good to me,” the youngest said, “but you always did care. I didn’t recognize that at the time, and though I thought you cold to me, I was no better to you. But thank you, for the moments you did show it.”
And what could a brother do but return such a heartfelt embrace with his own.
It was well into spring before Beauty visited the Beast again on a full moon. She had delighted at the idea and set placements at the table by the arbor in the garden and encouraged Beauty to arrive just past sunset, and so he had. The Beast, though sightless, knew her garden far better than he could, and every few minutes would point out which blooms had just opened based on temperature and scent, and Beauty marveled at the feat.
As had become their custom, they conversed over tea and sweets, which Beauty learned did not in fact come from thin air but were hand-baked by a blind woman, with magic for an aid. “There are many skills one learns as a blind, lonely widow,” the Beast had said, and they had come far enough in their companionship that Beauty could laugh.
The moon roses opened to full bloom when the full moon rose into the sky, and suddenly Beauty was swept back to the first moment he stepped foot in the palace walls. The aroma of the roses seemed heavy with the memory of it, with the weight of the unfounded fears he had shouldered back then, the childish desire to impress a petty young woman.
It was staring at the moon roses, with moonlit blooms larger than hands, that Beauty finally spoke. “I could marry you,” he said, sincere. “I could break your curse, and you could have the palace full again with more than enough reason to count the years. You would never be alone again.”
The Beast looked upon him with such surprise that her sightless eyes grew wide, and a moment passed between them as the clouds shifted across the sky. The moonlight reflected off her eyes, rendering them luminous, and round as they were, they seemed like pale moons themselves. And then she laughed, deep and from the belly, truly happy.
Beauty did not understand, both fascinated by the sound and confused by her response. He kept his silence, inviting her to continue, and she did.
“I never thought I would receive another proposal, old as I am,” the Beast said, her voice lilting like the swoop of a swallow. Her smile gentled the whole of her, and she shook her head. “So forgive me if this is blunt, boy, but I’ve forgotten the etiquette for it – I refuse.”
And this, too, Beauty could not understand. “I ask then, why not? Why keep the ailment when you’ve been offered the cure?” he asked.
The Beast hummed in thought, and it gave Beauty great relief and only the mildest of irritations to see her so mirthful at his suggestion. “What rumors have you heard of me?” she asked, finally, rising to her feet. Her offered arm was an invitation, and Beauty rose to hook his arm through hers.
“I have heard many,” he confessed, thinking of the stories of violence and vengeance, and he could not hide his resentment for the ones who had spread such falsehoods.
“Tell me of them.”
And as they began their walk through the gardens, Beauty hesitated, reluctant to ruin the beauty of the simple moment with such vile words, but the Beast rarely made requests. “They call you a monster,” he said at last, “that you’re a creature with no heart nor reason. They claim that you were cursed for your cruelty, so that your appearance reflects your soul.”
The Beast stopped at a bush of purple flowers Beauty had never thought to give attention to. At her encouragement, he leaned in to breathe in the scent and was surprised by a smell like the sound of glass bells. “They claim that your home is empty because you slaughtered all within it,” he continued, for her silence was an invitation. “The reasons vary. Some say you killed servants for how they looked at you. Others say you bathed in the blood of maidens so that you can be young and beautiful again.
Again, the Beast hummed as she often did in the midst of idle pleasures, though Beauty did not know how this conversation could qualify. “Do you know who spread those rumors?” she asked.
“Those who hoped to scavenge your estate,” he answered readily. “The suitors you rejected. The men who felt insignificant in your presence and fell to envy.”
The Beast shook her head, seeming to hold back laughter. “None of those,” she said, and then as if imparting a great secret, she beckoned Beauty closer, and he obliged. In sotto voce, brimming with amusement, she told him, “I did,” and Beauty jerked back in surprise.
“You spread the rumors?” Beauty echoed, uncomprehending, for surely he had misunderstood. However, the Beast nodded and continued her graceful gait, and with arms interlocked, Beauty could only follow.
He did so still reeling. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Why would you slander yourself so?”
The Beast continued to smile, but she did so with a nostalgic sorrow, the ache of an old wound in the rain. “This, you could not possibly imagine,” she told him as they walked, stopping only to point out new flowers that changed in the moonlight. “There was a time before the rumors, when the truth circled throughout the land. Men of all walks of life flocked to me, hoping for my affection when I had none to give. Each had some veiled agenda. Nobles assumed that I, despairing, would be wooed by their lies. Townspeople thought that, looking the way I do, I could do no better than wed below my status. Servants flocked to me, thinking I would overlook petty thieves, desperate for company. All of them thought they were doing me some tremendous favor.”
Beauty remembered her words as similar to her tale about the fairy that took her sight, and he wondered how many favors in life came of self-satisfaction. And beyond that, Beauty found that the Beast had been right, as he had learned she so often was. He could not imagine the pain of such a life. “And so you made yourself a beast,” he said, finally understanding.
“Indeed I did,” the Beast said, and nothing more needed to be said on that matter. “So I have no wish to marry, and I have no wish to break this curse.”
“Then I will respect your decision,” Beauty said, but could not help himself and added quietly, “but I am compelled to confess that even so, I will care for you always as a friend, and should you ever wish to break the curse, my offer will always stand.”
The Beast, hearing this, did not speak, but she did still. They had finished a round of the garden and was back at the table by the moon roses. “Do not speak of always,” the Beast said, “for always is merely another curse.”
And then she untangled her arm from his, and Beauty took this as a sign to return to their seats. Instead, however, she turned and held out a hand. Beauty locked his fingers between the claws of the Beast and held fast.
“But for all the time you have to offer, I will confess that you are welcome at any time.”
And like that, with their hands in a quiet, measured embrace, they exchanged names.