“Demanding circumstances,” she tells me, as we sit and eat together in the hall that is now hers, a long room made all up of books, mahogany, and red velvet.
“If I recall correctly,” I reply, “it was him, and not the circumstances, doing the demanding.”
And I did recall it, more vividly than any other time in my life. We had just come from Paris, clutching our meager belongings tight to us as we traveled down the muddy country roads. I should’ve known better than to believe my father when he told me he’d inherited a “country house,” but I suppose he wasn’t the sort of man who’d know the difference.
“It has character, doesn’t it?” He’d asked me, taking off his hat and wringing it between his hands. He smiled, nervously. I looked around the dusty floors and molding walls with my lips pursed.
“I suppose a roof is some improvement,” I had replied. I looked down to see a spider with a body the size of a penny crawling over my boot. I watched as it climbed into a small hole at the bottom of the wall like a mouse, then looked back at my father, my eyes narrowing incrementally. He swallowed.
“It’s charming,” Beauty had reassured him, beaming as she took both our hands. “I’m sure we’ll have the place together in no time.” She turned to me, her face bright. “But what first? Do you want to see our rooms? Or town?” She paused, already a little giddy. “I think I saw a bookshop on the way over.”
“I want to put a lock on the door,” I replied. Her smile dimmed, and I squeezed her hand. “Perhaps the locksmiths is near the bookshop? It’s not a terribly large town.”
“Then we’ll go together?” Beauty asked.
“Always,” I replied. I chuckled as she ran to put her things upstairs.
“Things’ll be better for us now,” my father had told me. He always said that, every time he came up with a new invention, and every time he moved us around.
“Prove it,” I’d replied, and followed Beauty up the stairs.
Then there was the day that father had come home talking about a beast. I hadn’t believed him, of course, but Beauty had hung onto his every word. She wouldn’t let me talk her out of leaving, and although I hadn’t believed the story of the beast when Father told it, I believed it when we arrived at those great black gates.
“He said I’d have to go in alone,” Beauty told me, her voice soft.
“You can go in by yourself,” I’d replied, “but you won’t go in alone.”
On the first night my sister stayed in the beast’s castle, I could hear her weeping, though she was miles across the forest. I couldn’t sleep for the sound of her crying.
“You’re imagining it,” our father had said, shaving his beard in the tiny mirror he had hung above our stove. The smoky air of our little house stuck to me, greasing my hands, my hair, my lungs, but I knew I’d get a talking to if I went out that late. “And it’s much too far to go by dark – the wolves, you know.”
“Of course, Father,” I’d agreed, knowing full well that there were no wolves in our forest, and that none would be so foolish as to near a human on purpose. I poured him another glass of wine, biding my time until he fell asleep. Then I took out the map we’d been given on our arrival. I traced the path my father should’ve taken, followed it to a curve in the road. The castle he had described was not on the map, but I could see the patch of blank forest where a path should have been.
The next day I went to the library. I did it early enough that no one would notice – the French peasants did have a way of making a reading habit difficult, at least for anyone with a shred of self-consciousness. Or, as I liked to call it, survival instinct.
“I didn’t know you liked to read!” the librarian said, beaming down at me. Unwilling to admit to such a thing, I let myself smile, imitating Beauty’s tilt of head, her shy downcast glance. “Oh, but you’ve come to pick up something for Beauty, haven’t you?”
“Took the words right out of my mouth,” I replied. “We were planning on going on a walk in the forest, but we found a path that wasn’t on the map. She wondered if you might have some older books on the area?”
“How curious!” He exclaimed. He slid the ladder he stood on down the aisle, frowning. “Well, I have a few that might do–”
“Thank you,” I answered quickly. I watched the street as he piled the books in front of me. One of the village boys had taken to following Beauty home from the library, and I had as much interest in dealing with that kind of nonsense as she did. “I don’t suppose you’d mind if I went out the back?” I asked quietly. “I told my friends I’d be at home with father today, but I wanted to run just one little–”
“Of course,” the librarian replied brightly, pushing his spectacles up his nose. He winked. “Your book habit’s safe with me.”
“Thank you,” I said again. This time, I smiled without trying to.
Beauty’s absence made my day twice as long as it usually was for, as usual, our father could do nothing for himself. Between my chores and hers, I found myself working so late into the night that when I awoke, a book still in my lap, the sun was rising.
The sun was rising, and sometime in the hours before I fell asleep, I had set my finger on the right map. I prepared father’s breakfast, wrote a quick note warning him that I would be away visiting our aunt a city away, and packed myself a knapsack for the journey. In my sleeve, I carried the long thin knife I had acquired in the slums of Paris. Beauty had always insisted that she missed the city, but at least here she didn’t have to choose between one of her books and a day’s meals.
I did not find the castle until dusk. When I did, I had to suppress a shudder, for the front gates looked like nothing so much like the Gates of Hell. Not seeing any less conspicuous entrance, I reached to push one of the gates open, only to find that it had already begun to open of its own accord.
I entered slowly, wondering if I had perhaps overestimated my own abilities, and my father’s tendency to elaborate.
I did not enter the house through the main door, although I heard the knockers start… well, knocking, as I passed beside them, a rattling knock like chattering teeth. Father had mentioned the North tower – or something like – and I had come North, hadn’t I? I passed along the side of the great blackened fortress, looking for some other kind of egress. My heart leapt as I heard my sister’s voice, then abruptly sunk as I realized that she was weeping.
“Beauty!” I called. The cries stopped, and after a moment my sister stuck her head out of a window high above me. Her hair fell around her face, as lovely and untidy as ever, and tears ran down her porcelain-pale face. “Beauty, has he locked you in?”
“You must go!” Beauty yelled back to me. “It isn’t safe here!”
“Yes!” I agreed. “Exactly why you should come down! Do you have sheets? We could make a rope.” She shook her head, teary eyed, though I could tell she liked the idea. Something out of her novels, you know.
“I promised him I would stay.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged. “But you promised under great duress!” I stopped, trying to think of what would persuade her. “What if I carried you out? Surely that wouldn’t break your promise.”
“You must go,” she replied. “Before he finds you and locks you up as well.” I considered this, glad for my knife. If I wouldn’t be able to convince her while she was this upset, perhaps I could come back another time.
“And does the monster sleep during night or day?” I asked. Beauty tilted her head, confused by the question.
“He wakes from mid-day until midnight,” she answered. “And soon he will hear us, if you stay.”
“What shall I bring when I return?” I asked. Beauty opened her mouth to argue, then shut it when she saw the look on my face.
“One of my books,” Beauty answered finally. “If that will satisfy you. Now, go!”
“I’ll bring it tomorrow,” I answered. “You’ll see me soon, Beauty.”
My sister turned away, tears running down her cheeks. She shut the windows, her hands pressed against her heart. I left quickly, but not quickly enough to miss the rattle as she leaned, sobbing, against the glass.
I let the knife slip from my sleeve down into my hand as I made my way to the gates. When the knockers began to chatter I gave them a look that could’ve soured blood as well as milk, and they fell quickly quiet.
“I’ll see that beast dead,” I promised myself.
I came to see my sister every day with a different book, though I could rarely get them to her at such a distance. Some mornings she refused to come out at all, and I would read aloud to her until I heard her weeping begin to quiet. When he shut her up in her room for refusing to dine with him, I read to her from Cyrano de Bergerac, and, confident that no one but her might hear me, I gave each character a strange, silly voice, just as I had in when I had taught her to read so many years ago. When I finished the first scene, I heard a weak chuckle from the window.
“Think you can catch it this time?” I called up, my voice teasing.
“I’d rather you kept reading,” she replied. “But it is almost noon.”
“Another day, then.”
She cheered a little when he gave her the magic mirror. It was the first day I found her that she was not weeping, but the idea of her eye on me at all the times was hardly reassuring. I started to sleep during the day, rather than the night, if only to gain what little time I could unsupervised. When I wept, I learned to do it the privacy of my darkened room, a rag against my mouth, and only when I knew she must be sleeping.
“Why, Sister, you must sleep all day,” she told me one morning, her mouth quirked as she traced the edges of the mirror. “Have you become nocturnal in my absence?”
“There’s no one to wake me so early,” I replied. “I’m on my way to a life of leisure. And you know I’ve never minded the dark.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Beauty admitted. She paused, then looked down at me, her eyes suddenly bright. “You know, there’s a library here twice the size of our old house.”
“Oh?” I asked. My throat felt suddenly dry. “And you like it?”
“Very much,” she replied. “So… you wouldn’t need to bring me books, anymore, if you didn’t want to,” she added. “I hate that I cause you so much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” I answered. I took a deep, slow breath. “Perhaps you could lend me a few, then. If there’s anything you… think I’d like.”
“Of course,” said Beauty. “I didn’t know you liked–”
“If you like it, I like it,” I said quickly. “I’ll be back tomorrow, Beauty.”
I left before she could argue, a cold wind pushing me through the front gates.
Soon, of course, she began to smile again. And sigh. She spoke of the beast constantly, and though I occasionally got a word in edgewise about our father or the village, I was hardly blind to what was happening. I read the books she gave me only to have something to talk about her with, though even then her thoughts always returned to him. I began to drink, always at least an hour after midnight, when I knew she would be well on her way to bed; and on one of those nights, I must have said the wrong thing to Father. I cannot remember what it was, now, only the look in his eyes as what I had said settled in. He looked as though I had cut open his heart and lain it on the table to feed to him.
“How could you be so cruel?” He asked me, his voice wavering and his eyes wet.
“If you wanted better, you should not have sold your better daughter,” I answered, and poured myself another glass.
The next day was the day they put him in the madhouse. And the day after that, I had, at last, what I had wanted: Beauty returned home, though even I could see that she no longer had any desire to be there.
“It’s true!” She’d cried as she’d fought against the crowd, the mirror snatched so quickly from her hands that it nearly broke. The man who’d followed her all those days had given me a look, then, as though to say, “you, at least, are a part of none of this bookish, intellectual silliness. You, at least, will see reason.” I had nodded, my jaw set. Then they had begun to light the torches, and I had felt a surge of triumph. I would be the one to rescue Beauty. The people marched because I gave the signal.
The feeling did not last long, for as the villagers marched forward, out of the town, Beauty threw her arms around me. She wept against my shoulder, and I could not raise my arms to comfort her. It had been months since someone had held me, and the sheer shock of the sensation was enough to hold me fast.
“They’re going to kill him,” she’d sobbed, her slight body shaking. “I can’t… can’t lose… him.”
“Your… suitor… has left his horse in the stable,” I said quietly. Perhaps we could ride just a little slower than the townspeople, arrive only a moment too late. It would be easy to feign getting lost if we didn’t travel by the main road, and Beauty would never think to blame me for it.
I helped her to the stable, an arm around her shoulders to keep her upright.
“How will we get there before them, if they take the main road?” Beauty asked me. I stopped for a moment, closing my eyes. Then I turned back to her. I made myself smile, and she smiled back, uncertain.
“Have I ever let you down, Sister?” I asked.
“Never,” she replied.
“Then would you doubt me now?”
Beauty took a slow, shaky breath. She opened her mouth, as though to protest, then closed it. “No,” she said softly, firmly. “You wouldn’t let me down.”
I kicked the horse’s side and we surged forward, staying just off the path. Ahead of us, I could see the line of torches stretching out into the woods like the Phlegethon, the river of fire that leads into Hades — something I’d never have thought to imagine if it were not for Beauty and her damnable, silly books. When most thought of that night, they thought of the moment that Beauty had told the beast she loved him, and all his fur and fangs had fallen away, and left a prince. I thought of the moment I’d seen the river of torches, and wondered: where did I lead my sister, then, if not back into hell?
“You do like it here, don’t you?” Beauty asks me, her voice soft. Father has consumed two plates of food, his face a brilliant ruby red from the wine. The beast sits to Beauty’s side, his hand over hers. He has been human since they were married, and so unrelentingly gentle and mild that it is almost impossible to hate him.
“Of course, Beauty,” I reply. “You’re here, after all.” The beast smiles and my father caws something cheerful and unintelligible. “But as I told you before, I really must be going.”
“Of course,” says Beauty, rising to accompany me. She glances at the beast apologetically, and I take the momentary distraction to quietly hand my plate down to the dog.
When we are outside, Beauty touches my arm. “Are you sure you’re alright?” She asks. “All alone in that old house?”
“You know I’m never lonely, Beauty. And we’ll see each other often,” I answer. “I promise.”
“Oh, well… Alright.” She hugs me, then draws away, squeezing my hand. “Thank you, for all you did,” she tells me. “I would’ve gone mad if not for you.”
“Tell him that,” I reply. Beauty’s face darkens, for only a moment, and I know I have misspoke. Then she straightens, her face softening with its usual concern.
“It would only hurt him,” she replies. I turn to go, and she takes my hand. “I love you, you know.”
“I do,” I reply, and she laughs as I make my way back into the woods. I follow the path until I am out of sight, then walk into the woods. I walk until I can barely make out the trees for the canopy overhead. Then I sit down, my back against a tree, and start to weep. I weep until there is no sun to shine between the trees, and then I rock back and forth against the cold. When the wolves start to howl, I raise my head and cry with them, rubbing my arms with dirt.
“Are you lost, dear?”
I look up, startled, to see an old woman standing in the clearing. She wears the skin of a wolf wrapped around her, a single rose in her hands. I shake my head, wiping my face dry with my dirty hands.
“Then you wouldn’t mind helping me find my way back to the path, would you?” The woman coughs, just a little too piteously. I realize where I have seen this woman before – the stained glass of the beast’s house – and begin to smile.
“That was terrible,” I tell her. “You need practice.”
“I’ll take you back to the path,” I say. “But no funny business, and absolutely no curses. I’ve no responsibility to be nice to you, especially not after that beastly brother-in-law business. Understood?”
The woman stands straighter, her lips pursing with rueful disdain. Her hair lightens to gold as I watch, and her wrinkles smooth away into a youthful loveliness. The wolf’s skin lengthens, becoming a long emerald green dress.
“I hear they call your sister Beauty,” says the enchantress, her voice a deep, rasping alto. “I imagine what your nickname starts with a ‘B’ too, doesn’t it?” She lights a pipe as I watch, raising a single blond eyebrow at me.
“It even rhymes with ‘witch,'” I reply. “Good call on the curse, by the way. The man’s a piece of work.”
“He was,” agrees the witch dryly. She blows out a long drag of smoke and I find myself, perhaps for the first time in months, beginning to relax. I recall, standing there, that I have implicitly lied to Beauty – that I had sold the house a week before, so cramped with smoke and memories of worry that I could not make myself spend another minute inside, and now had nowhere to go. I swallow, eyeing the witch, and try to decide how to phrase my next query.
“I don’t suppose you have somewhere… I could… stay?” I ask. She frowns at me, raising an eyebrow. “It’d be hypocritical of you not to let me in… And while I don’t have a cursed bouquet to offer you… I can do you one better.”
The enchantress takes the proferred wine without looking at me, uncorking it with one long green talon. She hands me the rose, her hands now strictly occupied with the bottle of wine and the pipe.
“One night,” she says. “And you’re out of my house.”
“Agreed,” I answer. “I’ll be out with the morning light.”
And I imagine I would have been, too – had we not, by that time, started on the second bottle.