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By Cassandra Bristow
Sometimes that tale as old as time is so tangible I can hardly breathe.
Every bare boned January has a sort of sky that coats morning light in gray, the one teasing snow though it rarely falls. It’s always waking up to winter’s certain dimness, with each day beginning in a fog of predetermined lethargy.
On this particular morning I knew my eyes would appear bloodshot before I even blinked out of bed. Maybe I ought to try and sleep a little longer— I certainly deserved it. After a soft sigh and cracking a joint or two, I turned over to resume my slumber. Just as I started to sink back in I was jolted awake instead, flinching at the familiar and desperate pounding coming from the other side of my door.
Damn. It’s the cat. I bet she heard my alarm, aware she could now pester me to let her in to my sleeping quarters. Despite how desperately I wanted to turn back over and ignore her belligerent paws I knew the thumping would only grow louder and more frenzied the longer I feigned ignorance. I groaned. This feline creature outside my door meant I had no choice but to tumble down my lofted bed tower. Swinging my legs over the edge, I slowly began to descend down the bedframe’s metal ladder. My feet prickle with an unwelcome sharpness once I make impact with the cold wood of my bedroom floor. I huff. All this just to give her entry.
Sure enough, I turn the knob and there she is, looking through my open door.
Good morning, Beast. I whispered.
She ambles past me as though no temper tantrum took place. I rolled my eyes as she sniffed around, her pointed ears twitching in tilted observation toward the objects clustered on my desk. She hopped up, pawing at the trinkets as though it was their turn to bid her a good morning. Her interest was mostly directed toward the three things I always have on my desk: black coffee in a paper cup with three sugars and no cream, my latest journal with its open pages now crinkling beneath her paws, and the disfigured crimson candle, my monster in the corner. It is the strangest object in my possession. Once shaped to resemble a man, his current frame transformed him into a waxy abstraction. Each ritual burning shrunk him, a gradual deterioration. I light his wick with a pulsing flame.
For two weeks, I’ve studied the heated blood dripping down his carcass, observing the puddle of wax pooling outward, encroaching toward my coffee cup. I make a mental note to consider moving my drink further away from the red melting liquid.
I think quite a bit about how all it takes is one single interaction to change the trajectory of your entire life. One little movement and the axis tilts, everything on a different slant. Sometimes you know when it’s taken place, where other times you aren’t so sure. I suppose how I came into acquiring this candle was the former— one of those exchanges I knew would have a greater impact, changing what I presumed was safe.
It started with a knock on the door, late at night. I groggily crawled towards the sound. I was accosted by the sight of a stranger, entranced by the sight of her odd face. Her skin, though dewy with youth, was marred with cracks as though she were made with broken porcelain that someone glued back together. Every corner of her body other than her patterned face was covered in a thick, black cloak that seemed to sweep far beyond my doorway’s width. Recognizing the bewilderment on my tired face she offered a soft, tight lipped smile.
I said nothing. She blinked and a thick black eyelash tumbled down her cheek. An unexplainable compulsion to cup her face and swipe my thumb over broken flesh briefly crossed my mind. My hand twitched, but I stopped myself from any gestures. Her unusual beauty was fragile, spellbinding, but I did not need to test if this would break.
She spoke before I asked. No introduction, but instead an explanation for why she stood in my doorway at this hour. A rose was stolen from the flowerbed on her front porch, her favorite and most important rose. I learned it was not red, but pink. Pink and marvelous. Was it possible I’d heard of it? Could I have a sense for where to find the lost treasure?
In hindsight, had I been more awake I might’ve heeded the warning embedded in the uneasy feeling sitting in my stomach. Instead of coming across confused I would’ve been palpably uncomfortable, pushing a tension between the two of us. Briefly I considered that I was dreaming, wondering if this bizarre woman’s inquiry was merely something conjured within my subconscious. Just as I felt myself about to ask if she could pinch me to prove this was real, I noticed her hands were concealed behind her back.
Despite knowing nothing about any pink rose or its possible whereabouts, I felt tongue-tied. Why couldn’t I just say that? Even in my hazy state I knew there was a rising feeling in the air, caught on both sides of my door frame. She was watching me, seemingly enjoying my fidgeting. I realized I was growing increasingly worried that if I told the truth it would sound so terribly reminiscent of a lie. And if it did in fact sound like a lie, I felt there would be punishment.
Either way my time was clearly up and I still couldn’t think of anything to tell her so I lamented to honesty. The truth knowledge came out rushed, ending with an apology. After a pause where my whole body went rigid, she bowed her head at last in gratitude, indicating we were finished.
I made the formal motion to bid her goodnight and good luck but as I proceeded to put my hand against the door, her own fingers shot out suddenly and tightly grip my arm in protest. Flesh once hidden was now revealed as a withered and wrinkled terrain of blood clots and protruding bones. Her gnarled fingers ended in yellow fingernails, long and knifelike as they dug. She smiled at me unconvincingly, and only with us this close was it possible to discern that her teeth were black with rot.
I must thank you with a gift.
She released me from her grasp which tingled sharply from the loss of contact. She fumbled through her pockets, a squeal of satisfaction emitted from her throat. Now she held a crimson candle up to my face, pristine and possessing the silhouette of a male body. Curiously, I took it and felt its wax coat my fingers immediately.
Every day. Burn him every day until he’s nothing.
I asked what this would accomplish.
A love that blooms for you so marvelous.
In the next gray light of morning, I was certain the entire strange conversation was merely an intense dream. Until I turned, beholding the sight of her parting present as it stood there, tangible on my bedside table. There he is, I thought, alert and eager for my first strike of heat.
As winter trudged on I became resolute in the art of creating a morning routine that brought me some form of satisfaction. And so I did, with Beast’s typical intrusion and my lighting the mysterious candle being the start. I take my seat to be quickly joined by Beast. She purrs contentedly, curling up in my lap. I take a sip of coffee, cold as it’s yesterday’s unfinished drink, but still sweet enough to slide down my throat with ease. I was never one to mind cold coffee. Swallowing my caffeinated elixir with a gross gulp, I push my chair closer to my desk, reaching over Beast’s settled body to grab a silver pen. I begin to write, watching ink reminiscent of clouds beams spill across each page.
Writing was my greatest catharsis during the midst of my ongoing unfulfillment. As much as I read, it was nice to write in tandem, creating realms for my mind to escape into when the ones built around me never sufficed. Although, I never started my day living elsewhere. My morning scrawl was much more attached to journaling, an absentminded recording of the days past so I would be sure not to forget anything. Since I left home I’ve been obsessed with the act of documenting everything, just in case I’ve stumbled upon some solution to my yearning that I’ve forgotten, requiring a visit back to pages past.
I was a newcomer who had been living in a shared space with two girls for just shy of six months. Two girls I would later come to realize were selfish, with a viciously vindictive edge that only grew the longer they were in each other’s company. There were rumors about them that I learned quickly in this bored little town. Some thought their infamous cruelty was a side effect of sisterhood. Others imagined their illicit love affair as witchcraft, giving way to a shared evil they rejoiced in together. Though no one’s ever asked, I can tell you all those whispers you might’ve caught are false. Villainy can live in certain people with no kind way to rationalize it, and when it comes to them this applies. Vainly I must cite myself as a perfect example of this. Those two creatures I now shared a kitchen with had taken me under their wing after I was gossiped about for ambling around their village. A summer sheen of sweat collecting on my upper lip, they took me in. Not because I was a stranger in need who they looked to assist, but rather in the hopes I would elevate the beauty of their household to entice proper suitors, whisking one of them away into a life of luxury and security. And so I quickly realized my home had come with a price, and under a spell of flattery and pleasure at receiving the nickname Beauty, I had agreed to pay it.
In this half year during my quiet lulls which produced brutal introspection, I thought of the mother I left behind. The strict curt woman whose rules I often disobeyed. I pictured her face as she stared at the letter in explanation of why I had chosen to depart. The rage which must have risen up her cheeks, an unsightly peach color that never complimented her sharp and bony features. I recalled her inability to call me beautiful that now seemed only impossible for her to say. How it contrasted her expectation of me to be someday married. I left home to get away from all that, to leave behind the underlying ugliness that consumed my mother’s perception of me. Yet in leaving I was now someone else’s expectation, forced to deal with another daunting task I surely couldn’t complete. I still was watched, scrutinized. In truth it made me claustrophobic, suffocated from confinement. I felt cursed to be nothing but a figurehead, a prized possession sitting on a mantle.
As time passed, this perception only caused more tension between us three. For they were still unmarried and I was growing more ambivalent. I couldn’t help it! I wanted more than to be confined to a life of love! I had seen so many I once considered friends, shipped off to be some sniveling shell of the person I once knew, reduced to their desire to cater to their lover.
Everyone still craves it! Love. Love, love, love. What even is it anyway? I have yet to catch sight of such a sentiment so deeply obsessed over, the same that causes my captivity and failure to satisfy anyway. It all seems to me a farce built on desperation and stupidity.
And yet, as I sit here and chastise this craving amongst all those I encounter, my candle promising a love that blooms as I recall burns bright with hardly a flicker in its flame.
As if it heard me, a popping sound accompanied by sparks and smoke catches my attention and my cynicism slips back into the shadows. A little flaming body seems to want something from me, urgently.
Shush! I scolded. You’re distracting me!
The pops grow louder now and flicker with a childlike defiance. I roll my eyes and shift away from the crackling temper tantrum.
Beast coos gently before sliding off my lap back toward the door I shut before we took our seats. Swiveling my chair so I could once again serve her in this demand, I got up and watched her disappear deeper into the home. I failed to realize that within this action so familiar, I hadn’t given any thought to the denim cloak I’d draped across my seat’s frame as though it hung from my own shoulders. Which means I neglected my carelessly slung sleeve as it rested in my candle’s flame.
I dove back into the page as it beckoned once again, though I mustn’t have been more than a few words in before the unmistakable smell of smoke floods through my room completely. Where had that come from? I looked left and right, only to have immediate surroundings leave this question unanswered. Certainly if a trinket was incinerating it would make it known to me, but alas. No yelp of pain to indicate the source. I could only assume this distinct aroma came from my candle expressing a sentiment I hadn’t heard before. Well it was too much. I sent a puff of air against the wick and put its fire out. Gray smoke followed in coils and convulsing. My satisfaction still felt thwarted so I went back to writing since it was what I had wanted from my morning all along.
When the unattractive siren sound began my head snapped up with instinct. The smell of singe had been persistent despite my feigning ignorance. Now I knew that was no longer an option. In every crevice of my room gray gave it a fog and I was in its center, in the eye of a massive, unwelcome storm of hazy smoke.
I was frantic. My head hit the metal rungs of my vacant bedroom tower as I shot up abruptly, scrambling to find the source. Rubbing my head with my hands cast my eyes downward I finally saw what was ablaze. A sleeve. My sleeve. A stupid denim sleeve slung over my chair sleeve was glowing with a red ring encircling where a wrist could be.. Billows of the gray smoke matching the rest of the room’s overcast poured from the site like blood. I grabbed the denim in distress and ran to the kitchen, drowning the fabric in cold water. I let out a large, painful roar of relief.
Still in a state of shock, I failed to notice the two girls behind me that were studying my every move. Gently carrying limp denim I returned to the site of battle, charred with silent tears of blackened ash spreading across my wooden floor. A sharp pang of guilt hit my gut. The poor thing. It must have been so painful to endure this pain in silence. I lay the wounded thing delicately across the seat of the chair before the sound of banging almost bent the door. Immediately I assumed the waxen witch had come to collect her candle. Panic from our past encounter returned to spread all through me. Was I about to receive the punishment I feared the night I had accepted her gift?
It was the fire department instead. Perhaps it would have been better if it had been my off putting inquisitor because it would make my upcoming explanation seem less nonsensical. The polite exchange taking place between the gaggle of large men occupying the hallway and my housemate was almost inaudible. I felt myself brimming with dread. My ear was tethered to my bedroom wall, but the effort to eavesdrop was futile. Dread rapidly spilled everywhere. Cup runneth over, I was screwed. All that was distinct was their exchanged goodbyes followed by the front door slammed with a great exertion of force. The whole house shook from its impact and the candle, my culprit, wobbled in its corner before falling to the ground slowly, in a foreboding manner.
It was becoming increasingly tough to convince myself I wasn’t cursed.
Especially here, standing before this castle I am now supposed to call home. A peculiar place with snow tumbling down the dips and valleys of its towers. At every corner there were sharp swords made of pure ice. The stone appears black in the setting winter sun as though this palace was built by night itself. My shoulders sag in resignation. I was at the ominous, cutting doorstep of my last resort. Curling my fingers around a brass ring between a golden lion’s teeth, I pulled it forward and knocked. Damn that candle if it hadn’t yet damned me.
If I ever saw that rotted woman again I would gather my saliva and spit it at her face. How dare she hand me such a vile gift! I never would have been exiled if not for that stubborn flame! Yes, with every huff of breath that came out crystallized, I continued to grow angrier. I would have been fine without that stupid thing. Now I’m banished. I squeeze my eyes shut to shake off the shouting my roommates shouting, their stinging words about how I am just so selfish, you are so selfish for wanting love before us! Us! You have so much to offer the world, why do you need to take from us? How could you do this? And trying to burn our house down no less? A little much, don’t you think? We are at a loss for words when it comes to this betrayal, Beauty. Truly at a loss for words.
Now here I stand after striding past Hell’s gate to knock upon a wooden door that won’t even open though I ask it to. Slamming my hand against the flat surface in anger, it opens to reveal a dark and desolate interior. A shiver ran through my body. A warning. My limbs, stiff from the cold, silently beg me to turn back and seek shelter anywhere besides this hall of darkness suddenly presented to me. As if sensing my hesitation, warm air blew past the doorway and ran across my skin. I relished the heat. Taking one last glance outside at winter’s unforgiving wonderland, I stepped in and left the cold behind. After all, Hell is nothing if not warm.
The entryway’s unnerving atmosphere comes as no surprise. Unlit chandeliers covered in clumps of cobwebs. Ratty velvet carpets covering the stairs and stretching into hallways were sporadically tinged with soft colors thanks to an afternoon sun shining through the stained glass window before me. It held a towering depiction of a red winged angel bearing a sword in his hand, poised to kill the serpentine creature underneath his foot. He looks downward at the head he’s pushing deeper towards the ground despite the defiant gaze of it turned back toward him. The monster with a gleam in its eye that mocked this angelic attempt to be the victor. As though taunting him for even wanting to try. Moving closer I tried to place every emotion held by the demon’s eyes.
I take it you’re familiar with Saint Michael.
An unfamiliar human voice and its echo caused me to lurch painfully in surprise. My skin prickled as discomfort dripped down my whole body, the adrenaline now slowly starting to dissipate. How long had my new housemate stood behind me, waiting for an introduction, watching me scrutinize our suddenly shared home? I turned to make her acquaintance, my back facing the eyes of evil.
You must be Em.
Em, from what I had collected through townspeople gossip, looked exactly like her father. Blue eyes so pale they could have been mistaken for January's morning grey. Her lips, small and pinched with tension as she eyed me. Cheekbones slightly prominent gave her this gaunt appearance in a careless sort of way, as though she’d skipped a few meals by accident. Her features weren’t particularly striking except for the prominent scar stretched along the crooked bridge of her nose, stopping just above her left eyebrow. It reminded me of tree roots, or a firework shooting up into an explosion with its sparks spewing out as fragments. A fantastic burst, or some sort of mangled flower. I wondered why no one had ever mentioned the scar to me. Did her father share this mark with her too?
Remembering her father, I quickly gauge my surroundings for a mirror only to spot strange forms of black fabric jutting out each wall. Any possible reflective surfaces were purposely concealed.
My observation twists into a gnawing panic, worsening the longer I dwell. In hindsight, it might’ve been really stupid to brush aside all those warnings because two girls had forced me to leave. Everyone was lying to me, everyone was telling me something different. Not to mention I was thrust out the door, into the throes of winter. It wasn’t as if I had much time to give anything thought, including who I ought to believe. So that one repetitive warning I kept hearing from everyone but my banishers I decided to dismiss. Until now.
Being here was different. Her obscured reflection implied the face meant to be her own was also her father’s poltergeist. A child, a daughter haunted by this painfully uncanny resemblance. Perhaps she recoils because of grief. How desperately I want to believe that, yet the decomposing grandeur surrounding me and my new roommate carried an air that spoke to something more sinister. My head wouldn’t stop spinning, but it was dangerous for me to speculate about the truth since I’d already sealed my own fate. The only thing to do was hope the truth didn’t align with all the rumors. If it did, then the two people who forced me here wanted me to die.
Em took out her hand and I shook it, grip taught between soft fingers.
Let me give you a tour.
Our pace through the beautiful dark hallways was a bit more swift than I preferred. Em’s gestures were loose and her tone flat, descriptions laced with cold familiarity. I was enamored by the rows of beautiful paintings, every ornate trinket, the different wallpaper patterns and color schemes of every room. Despite how beautifully fantastical my new landscape was for me, to her everything about
this was dull, monotonous. When our rapid walkthrough came to an abrupt conclusion I didn’t even bother asking questions. Everything I wanted to know about this place I’d have to discover myself, but perhaps that would be part of its wonder.
My bedroom was in the South Wing, and I was practically thrown into it with the door slammed shut. A lovely start to my first moment alone in the home I’d stay in indefinitely. I flung myself against the mattress. My room felt like spring with its blue sky walls covered in leaflets and flower buds poking through their wavy vines. I felt fidgety, playing with the blue velvet of my canopy before stretching out with a huff to look upward at my painted ceiling. Frockling cherubs in the spring, each wearing a mischievous grin. Staring at the group of painted angels I reminded myself I would be lonely here. I would be lonely here and it would be wise for me to exercise caution in regards to interactions with my roommate.
I sought out routine in the way I knew I would and it came quickly in a way where I found comfort. Mornings were still for coffee, writing, and reading as they’d always been. My afternoons were different though, altered by exploration. I took the time to roam, peering down hallways and into rooms. Every path I chose to take within these walls left me somewhere different. On occasion I tried to track my adventures, drawing maps to try and make sense of where I was. When I would return to my recollection of past footsteps they always turned out impossible to follow for a second time and without fail I would be lost. Sometimes I wondered if while I slept things were shifted around— maybe by ghosts, maybe by Em— to keep me in a state of constant disorientation, stuck without a sense of where I ever truly was.
The one room I could find without trouble was the main library, located in a comforting proximity to the kitchens (another room I felt sure of). Golden arches adorn the spectacle of the vast, expansive rows of books. White flowered iron fences with complimentary marble columns separating shelves into floors that categorize them. Following the last sip of my daily morning coffee I’d go straight there and make a beeline for my favorite velvet chair, the one in the far left corner and open the book I’d left on its cushion for me to read after putting it on pause the day before.
Most of my encounters with Em happened here. She was usually sitting in her own chair of choice by the time I entered, looking up briefly to nod at me. I nodded back and then we dove into our separate books, reading in silence on opposite sides of the room.
Sometimes, when my book hit a certain lull, I would sneak a look at her reading. I wanted to see her emotions. I wondered if she’d take a finger to her lips, biting her nails during certain passages. I bet she’d shake her head if she didn’t like what she was reading, furrowing her brow before bringing the pages closer to her eyes. I wanted to see it, I wanted to see her. Except when my eyes went to study her she’d always notice and snap her book shut, rising from her chair without a glance at me. With cheeks flushed from embarrassment, I’d look back down to resume my reading alone.
These cold mid morning exchanges were becoming a source of fascination. It was hard not to fixate on my only human interaction since most of my days stretched on with solitude. It warped me, making me miss things I shouldn’t. I was so terribly lonely I even began to talk to the trinkets I’d acquired from my constant different journeys throughout the castle. Today I was chatting with this rose carved pocket watch I’d found on the desk of a room reminiscent of someone’s study along with the hand mirror in the drawer of my vanity not too long after settling in. How awful, how truly awful to be this lonely.
At my most desperate, I’d return to the mirrors and those rumors, worrying again that I was living on borrowed time. It wasn’t as though either way I had much to go on. I could either believe a village or search for an explanation held in the eyes of my roommate. That was the only way I’d ever find out anything, anyway. She’ll never speak to me, and I swore to myself I’d never let her.
I loved her. I really did.
It happened slowly, the way I think it’s always supposed to, but I remember the first moment I felt it in my knees. When I put the words to the feeling because subconsciously I’d stopped thinking my stay here was temporary and realized each time I spoke about it there was permanence behind my words. Stagnancy transformed to security. I found myself caught up in the desire to embody anything domestic, something once unfathomable to me as a craving and a state of being until now. Truth be told, only true love could generate these sentiments, deepening this world until it’s built stable fixtures around each other out of the other.
Maybe I loved her from the beginning. Maybe she always loved me too. I hope so anyway— I know the assumed curiosity I felt in those first glances between us amidst rows of books, coy and intimate, was something all consumingly inexplicable.
The first shift happened when I caught her trying to read my book. Offended, I marched right over to her body and before I could stop myself I reached my hand down and snatched the book away quickly. I held it tightly against my chest after that, just to be sure she didn’t make any other attempts to grab it from my hand. We were both quiet and staring at each other. Between us there was mutual shock, but mine was far more anticipatory than his. I found her unpredictable and it terrified me. Then she smiled softly, dangerously, and I understood.
It was a smile I’d search for in those cherubs gliding above my nightly rest and morning rise, and within every trinket I discovered to hold precious. A smile I’d see stretched across her lips once she started to leave books out for me, recommendations lying shut on my claimed chair. Back when we still mostly kept to ourselves. She’d watch me as I finished each book she left for me, sliding them on a shelf. I wondered how she chose those books. I often imagine her desperately scurrying around the library after I left. How she’d look around her grotto of books, wanting to be sure her next gesture was a meaningful one. The very thought made a tingling sensation run through my stomach and toes. How recently had she read what was left on my cushion before I read them myself? I still don’t know. Any information I gleaned came from the ripped pieces of paper tucked into each cover, handwriting scrawled with a succinct note to me. I still have the first note she ever left me. It’s on my bedside table, tucked under a happened upon pearlescent teacup that had quickly become one of my favorite treasures.
You ought to read this.
It’s similar to what you just finished, but I encourage you to notice where the differences are. When you’ve turned the last page, come find me. I want to know if you’re smart enough to make these distinctions and speak to them.
I can’t explain it, but there was an instinct pulling at me, telling me to store this piece of paper as a keepsake. I suppose I knew it would change things. Sometimes I stare at it, tracing the curves and dips belonging to her beautiful penmanship. It was elegant but clear, decipherable and sure. Her handwriting was one of the few places where everything felt visible and certain. There were no tricks within such legibility.
It took me three more books for me to work up the courage to speak to Em.
I’ve been reading the books you leave for me. I said at last, standing above her slouched body as she rested in her desginated library chair. Just finished the most recent one.
She shifted into a more upright position, leaning her head up to ensure our eyes were level.
You speak! She teased.
I frowned. She continued.
So, tell me your thoughts on the first book I suggested.
Seven books later and we’re eating all our meals together. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner suddenly a shared activity. We alternated who chose what recipes for each occasion, cooking whatever we chose individually together. One night after dinner, she surprised me with a dessert she’d baked when I wasn’t looking. After that I realized I wanted this ritual to be entirely romantic but Em was still Em, only speaking to me when she felt inclined before disappearing within the castle somewhere I’d never find her.
I was growing frustrated and increasingly lonely. I was starting to wish the trinkets I cherished could talk back to me. Sometimes I even waited for their reply, urging and hoping that my loneliness would wean. Only it hadn’t, and I was reduced to hysterics. A claustrophobic captive.
During a supper where Em chose to make a rabbit dish, I chose to break. I was being chipped at, cracking just a little bit more week after week. Something needed to give so I decided to stop my gradual deterioration and skip right to the shatter. Before I knew it an adolescent sort of rage was wrapping itself around my skin and rising up my throat, clustered into an ugly lump. I was suffocated, irritated, and ready to throw a temper tantrum as I glared at the pink mass of meat sitting on my porcelain plate. What would happen, I wonder, if I asked Em to serve me up and savor every last bite.
Open your mouth for me, monster.
Aren’t you supposed to be ruthless? I want to watch you take me in.
I slowly dig my knife into the meat I’ve been too busy staring at, grumbling as I lift my fork close to my lips. Em is watching me, but I purposefully ignore it. Opening my mouth with reluctance I place the meat on my tongue, jaw tight from my refusal to chew. The taste begins to sour.
Are you going to swallow it? Em asked softly, but with a raised eyebrow. I could tell she was perplexed and mildly annoyed, but I needed more. I needed to feel something and see her feel something too. So I pushed.
Are you going to start spending more time with me outside of the library and these shared dinners? Or are you just too dull to have anything else to keep up a conversation?
Now I met her gaze, watching as her eyes widen with surprise, only to quickly narrow with obvious irritation. A swell of satisfaction pulsed through my stomach. I’m under her skin tonight.
I am so lonely, I continued with my mouth still full of rabbit, a bit of drool trickling down my lip toward my chin, But what are you going to do about it?
I took a breath.
Nothing. Because you’re too much of a coward.
She tensed. I felt delicious.
Then everything was fast. Her chair clattered to the ground as she leapt up suddenly. My delight was starting to dissolve, twisting into terror. She was glaring at me, enraged. Her eyes were glazed with such fury that she looked almost possessed, succumbing to a beast living inside her. This was not the girl who left books on my chair and laughed with me as we cooked dinner. This was the Em I was warned about. This was the monster.
It seemed as though there was steam coming from her nostrils. Her chest rose and fell dramatically as she hoisted herself onto the table, standing high above me in the midst of our meal. As she strode toward me I watched her pointed heels break the glass beneath every fierce step.
I spit out the sour rabbit to protest, but all I could say was Are you crazy?! Heartbeat pounding in my ears I looked around, hoping to see a route for possible escape before she reached me. Except I knew there wasn’t one, and I had nowhere to go. I was trapped. I could see the subtle grooves within her scar as she approached me, grabbing me so I was standing with her, four feet against the porcelain plate my rabbit lay upon. I heard it crack beneath our weight.
Face to face I wondered if she was going to kill me.
I looked away in preparation for my fate but she responded by digging her fingers into my cheek, forcing me to turn back toward her. I observed every flicker of emotion as it ran through her pale eyes. We were so close.
This isn’t funny. I whispered, too stunned and scared to raise my voice. I thought about the ways she might kill me here and now. How she could move her hands to my neck, pressing down until I suffocated. She could grab a plate and knock me out, dragging me to some torture chamber where I’d wake, strapped to something as she used tools and trick to cause me pain.
What did I want to remember before I died? Beast, my mother, the two evil girls who damned me here. The candle and the strange woman, how her hands wrapped around it that night.
Em’s grip on my face loosened as our noses brushed against each other. My breath hitched. She wasn’t going to kill me, but what seemed to be happening instead felt impossible. But I wanted it, lifting my chin and cocking my head, waiting with curiosity. Then she kissed me. She kissed me right then and there, with the two of us standing on a broken plate with cooked rabbit squished beneath our shoes. Kissing, in the middle of our shattered meal. Everything was melting around me— the room, the past, the winter. I was slipping into something softer, something deeply tender.
We broke apart, each stepping backward with slight surprise. I looked at her and smiled, understanding all over again. This was inevitable from the very beginning.
I learned quickly that Em was a very calculated person. Her moments of vulnerability were somehow always carefully planned. She was rigid, sure to never let her guard down long enough for me to truly break through. Her disposition was an enchanting and charismatic performance, just as I expected it to be. As she withheld, I thawed toward complete transparency. She asked me all the right questions and always retrieved the truth, even the ones so dangerous and deep I thought I’d never utter them aloud. Not to mention her memory was sharp which she used to her advantage. I was tethered to her, entranced by her ability to recite the name of very trinket I might talk to as well as the little jokes she’d make about how we ought to kidnap Beast and bring the animal here to live with us. My stomach dipped each time she admitted we were some sort of pair.
She paid attention to all my little movements, the quirks I never expected anyone to see. She knew I tucked my hair behind my left ear when I was nervous and that if I gnawed on my pinkie nail it meant I was nervous to ask for something. Always gathering these things about me, always paying attention. Why I know it’s love, though, is because she observes me without projection. Em had no expectations of who I was supposed to be or how I was supposed to behave. She appreciated my presence because it was a presence. Beloved, I sank deeper into our world, this utopia where she unraveled me.
We both committed to our little acts of loving one another. Mine were perpetualness but tentative. Of course I knew I was special to Em, that she had some sort of love for me. But there were days I wasn’t sure. Sometimes she got so aloof I felt unable to reach her. It made our love fragile. I worried one day she might wake up and stop loving me, that I could somehow push too hard and lose everything. Maybe it was due to the fact that I remained affectionate no matter my irritation or restlessness, but she was far more likely to shut down. If she did, it was often because I stuck my foot into my stupid mouth.
Did you really kill your father? I asked once, when darkness engulfed us both so she couldn’t look for her reflection anywhere.
I tried again.
Why are there no mirrors visible around our house?
I can’t stand the sight of myself.
Because you look like your father?
Because I can’t stand to see the scar he gave me.
I offered my story to raise compassion and diffuse the rising tension between us.
You know the town down the road, the one I used to live in, they had nicknamed me Beauty?
She looked at me with an unreadable expression. I continued.
I was shocked by it.
She snorted. You, shocked to be called beautiful? Must be nice to have such innocence regarding how people describe your appearance.
I ignored her mocking. I was shocked because I had never seen myself in such a fashion. My mother, the one I left behind, was never cruel but had her words for when I misbehaved. When I went against her rules she would get caught up in this anger and say, “You stupid creature! Foul, unsightly thing! Wicked child and repulsive girl!” until she sent me to my room without supper. I went to bed hungry often and I figured my appearance had something to do with this fury. So I never thought to be bestowed with such a complimentary nickname.
We sat in silence for a long while after that before she finally stood so I was alone. After that I didn’t see or speak to her for two weeks. During that time I was reeling from how I’d overstepped, chastising myself over and over. I was fearful, fixated on how it felt like she was now lost to me forever. Then one night she sat across from me at dinner, wordlessly diving into the steak and eggs I’d left out just in case.
It was beginning to become intuitive, when and where I’m better off being silent. When to be careful about the things I’d press as well as careful that I wasn’t laying the sweet nothings I’d like to whisper on too thick. I felt well versed in what would set her off, familiar with her temper’s inevitable appearances. I found the beastly, raging part of her easier to handle over the relaxed cruelty she often conjured. Sometimes her tongue twisted over itself with rancor in order to make me squirm. She’d absorb my palpable discomfort, loving when I writhed in anguish. She’d carry on with her verbal barrage until I surely couldn’t breathe. Once she felt that I was properly gutted, scraped out like an autumn pumpkin she would skip away in triumph, high off how she could reduce me into nothing.
I think about leaving every time I try to heal the pain which follows. I’ve been living here long enough to anticipate the surrounding patterns and recognize the damage done to me behind them. I’ve let my pain swirl into a heated frenzy, packing my belongings along with the trinkets I’d grown so fond of having nearby. I’d snap my bag shut, leaning against the bed as a helpless sob escaped my mouth. Hopeless, stuck, diminished. What was stopping me from walking out the door right now and leaving? I had done it before with my mother, and again after the candle. Why did something stop me here and now? What happened to the girl who I was when I arrived, the headstrong beauty who wanted more out of life? She was replaced by a blubbering lost thing who couldn’t even stop her cries long enough to stand up and walk out the door. Why?
Because she fell in love, I croaked aloud, crumbling in defeat.
The bag snapped open in response. I wasn’t going anywhere.
She fell in love.
March prepared its last words quickly. There was a soliloquy in the air hinting at spring despite the persisting insufferable cold. Subtle frost of a winter which had notably overstayed its welcome still strewn across the ground. Only the midday sun offered any real returning sense of warmth, its gilded light covering the walls of my castle. Every room and the objects within it now appeared to be made of gold and the sight was positively exquisite, only adding to my morning joy as I floated about my home. Soaking up the sunshine and basking in an afterglow.
Last night had taken such a sharp turn toward the wonderful, and I was deeply grateful for it. Though it had a rocky start, with Em’s brow furrowed from a sour mood while we partook in supper. I picked up on her lowered spirits, so we twitched together in uncomfortable silence. Spinning my fork around undercooked pasta (she made dinner tonight), I chewed and swallowed purposefully.
Is it good?
Her voice held an outright desire to trap me in it. I swallowed harshly as I hoped I would pass this upcoming test.
It’s great. Thank you.
She studied me for another second. I silently prayed my word choice would prevent any upcoming verbal torture. Our eye contact caused chills to run frantically around my body, fear dripping cold and callous down my spine. Then she threw me a half smile, not so different from the first smile I ever saw. It was an indication I had nothing to worry about for tonight and for now. She returned to her bowl, knuckles rising and falling gently as she moved to collect her next mouthful. We resumed our quiet eating comfortably.
I leant over my own bowl, urging myself to hold back the sigh of relief which wanted to fly out from my mouth. In our shared candlelight her scar shone silver, glimmering as though if I reached over the table to cut her with my dinner knife, her blood would ooze like liquid stardust. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her bleed.
When we both seemed full and finished I stood to collect our dishes. Reaching down to take away her empty sauce stained bowl, I was startled when she placed her hand around on my wrist, stopping me.
I was somewhere between amused and uneasy.
Hold off for a moment. I want to show you something.
I raised an eyebrow in surprise.
Is it urgent?
No, she said softly, But I want to do it now.
I knew better than to argue with Em about things such as this. Another testament, I suppose, to how intuitive our dynamic had become. It had seeped into my flesh and bone, comfortably engrained. Besides, her quiet determination was endearing enough to plant a seedling of hope within my chest. Perhaps an act of tenderness was forthcoming.
Follow me. She instructed, grabbing a candelabra from the table. Exiting the dining room she paused only to stand in the doorway, throwing me an expectant glance. Promptly I set down our bowls, nodding in compliance as I joined her. We left the room behind.
Her back was all that led me through an unfamiliar corridor, hair shimmering subtly due to the lack of light. I squinted at the red tapestries covering each wall. The fabric’s texture flickered as the guiding fire’s glow trembled. No shapes and stories sewn within this cloth would be apparent at this hour. After an unexpected detour to our left I slammed clumsily against the wall, making impact with the same tapestries I was trying to observe just seconds before. Em’s head cocked at the sound of my embarrassing thud, but still she advanced on without stopping. I rushed forward to catch up with her, agitated. A need to whine about how long this whole ordeal was stirred within me, but of course I bit my tongue.
Our footfalls remained the only sound between us until she stopped without warning so I ran into her backside.
Sorry! I squeaked, encircling my arms around her waist.
Her hand not holding any candles went to where I was wrapped around her as she stepped forward, clearly nudging me off. I ignored the pang of hurt that blew through me like a soft gust of wind.
Here meant a room dim amidst the starlight, but as Em lit all the candles scattered about the room I began to discern little attributes around exactly where we were. Glass shelves encased in silver each held varying books and strange ornaments in a rather scattered fashion. Carved within the silver were roaring lions, mouths agape as though to terrify the snakes that coiled alongside the raging predators. I ran my fingers over the edge, skin pausing on the grooves and etches within each creature.
A globe rested on a small wooden table next to an open book, the pages covered in dust implying no further lines had been read for quite awhile. To the tabletop’s left was a gray cushioned chair that finished its silhouette in a sharp point, framed by a silver that matched the shelves with the same creatures echoed in its metal casing. It was the only place to sit within the entirety of the room, tucked against a desk which stretched large enough to conceal a portion of it. A black desk standing tall with a pair of ornate legs, curved and spindly up until a smooth surface which was covered in papers additionally fuzzy with dust. Out of curiosity I tried to make out some of the writings scrawled across each sheet to no avail. Or perhaps I averted my gaze quite swiftly because there were spots dispersed throughout the parchment that possessed a deep burgundy, which made my stomach sick. For I really, really thought its shade had a dangerous resemblance to the color of dried blood.
Distraught, I slowly backed away, head up to behold a sight that left my jaw slack in shock. Above the fireplace across me was a large charcoal portrait of Em, smudged and kept inside a silver frame.
Her face was set in a soft expression, eyes wide and accented by a twinkle. My fingers drifted upward to touch the drawing’s cheek, careful not to leave fingerprints that might taint the clear glass protector around it. Around her, around this different version of her face. My Em could never take on such an expression of innocence. Her skin would appear so smooth and pristine as it was in this illustration, for it clearly preceded her father’s parting gift— that unforgettable scar.
Where are we? I inquired, searching for Em until I located her figure in a shadowy corner of the room.
My father’s study. She replied.
I hesitated before choosing to press on.
Why have you brought me here?
Emerging from the shadows, she advanced toward me until we were close enough to touch but neither of us moved to make contact.
I wanted you to see this part of me, who I was before all this scar. Before my father’s death, everything. When I was immaculate and naive, a child excited by the world.
I was speechless, swirling in a struggle to put words behind how touching her newfound sincerity felt. A flood of devotion tore through me until I was almost brought down to my knees. I could grovel at her feet. I could say thank you. I could say I love you, the thing I knew I felt right then and there. I could fawn over her with sweet nothings even though her face would pinch in discomfort before she stormed out of her father’s study. I could. I could. I could say—
I love you.
Despite the fact that I had wanted to say it many times before, I hadn’t expected to just blurt it out in the middle of her father’s study. This place had such an evil air pulsing through it that the words almost made me feel sick the second after they left my mouth.
Her expression was placid, body almost still. Though I knew it was impossible, I wondered if she hadn’t heard me.
I’m sorry. I said, voice cracking with regret and remorse.
She did not shift at all, still without movement or sound.
Then she sighed.
I love you too.
I had never felt so wonderful as I did in the atmosphere following our tender declarations. My most glorious early spring morning yet. I was in disbelief that I could be so alive and feel so incredibly radiant, singing and dancing around the halls in delight. Still bouncing about when a knock on my door stopped me, halted in mid tiptoe.
Now I was disoriented, by both the foreign sound and my sudden turn away from bliss. Since I’d been here not a single presence had knocked at my front door. I thought immediately of the candle-bearing woman, surprised to do so and still remember every detail of her face. I thought I’d left her behind after stepping into my life within this castle, but now she was back. Had she heard word of where I’d settled? Was she behind the wood now, waiting to greet me in a congratulatory manner on my love as it prospered and bloomed? I briefly considered finding Em to ask if she would answer the knock but brushed away the thought soon after. She was most likely still asleep. If I were to wake her it could certainly damage the love she just admitted to last night. I suppose it was just me and whatever stranger waited behind my door.
Turning the knob felt wrong and awkward. The hinges creaked as a pair of sheepish girls was revealed to me, fidgeting at my doorway. My old roommates, the pair that instructed me to go here. I raised an eyebrow. Soon realizing my lack of enthusiasm was to be their only greeting, the two suddenly began to supply a rushed explanation for their spontaneous arrival.
We want to apologize, they said, For your exile and everything else.
I wanted to scoff but kept my mouth shut. My jaw hurt from clenching it in distaste.
We haven’t stopped worrying about you since we sent you here, they continued as my irritation grew. We agreed we would make sure you were alright and well before spring came.
I nodded slowly as they tried to peer over my shoulder, craning their necks to try and glimpse the lavish interior behind me.
Are you alright? Would you mind if we come in and see how you’re faring?
For a second I said nothing just to watch them wriggle in guilty discomfort, but there was a part of me still much too soft from feeling utterly lovestruck on this day. So with a glowing sense of pride, I acquiesced. In a voice that sounded so reminiscent of Em’s, my love, I spoke out the phrase that started it all.
Very well. Let me give you a tour.
They balked in envy of my vast corridors, sights filled with abundance of remarkably strange and beautiful objects. With each murmur of dissatisfaction shared between the two my stomach soared with pleasure. It was a lovely thing to be reminded how lavish my life had become. The all encompassing luxury I lived in felt heightened with every jealous contortion warping each expression of the spiteful pair. They didn’t ask about a single thing and I provided no prompt for them to try. We only made an effort to keep the atmosphere polite between us three (but how they coveted! And how pleased I was to be able to pick up on it).
Our tour came to a close after the library, in part because I was anxious Em would soon make her way downstairs to me, but also because the girls in front of me I regarded as extremely dull. True, their company had once temporarily satisfied my slight nag of loneliness, but really nothing changed despite this visit. They were still the people who exiled me to this isolating palace because of a candle and justified it due to the a lack of potential suitors my beauty was intended to provide. They too had made me feel ugly, I realized, and with that in mind I pushed their bodies toward the door with a bit more strength behind my action.
Once past the doorway they turned. I plastered on my most saccharine smile rapidly, hoping they’d soon quicken their pace home.
How nice it was for you to visit! As you can see I’m doing quite alright, but I am of course deeply appreciative of your gesture. Get back to the village safely! I’ll be sure to write you both.
Their expressions were puzzled.
Do you want to come return to the village? We’d like to see you often again.
I stiffened, once again caught off guard. That was a lie. They wouldn’t. Yet in their inquisition I knew there was my opportunity to leave, to go with them and never look back. Away from this castle, away from this life. The thought drained me. I suddenly felt faint. For she may have said I love you, yes, but I knew that made her no less of a beast. She would always be callous and cold. Love wouldn't change that. It doesn’t make anyone less cruel.
So I had a choice. I could make my honest exit and never see Em again. My heart twisted at the thought. How would my love take my departure? Would she howl in agony after realizing I left her? Would she turn to indifference? Would she come find me if I ran away and take me home to our castle, or would this place we shared never be ours again?
I remembered the girl I was before I turned to this castle. A creature who was determined to extract more from life. Now I was terrified of the world as it existed outside of Em and our castle walls. I worried there was nothing out there capable of bringing me joy like the one I woke up with in the morning. I worried I would always be searching for something I’d never find, when here I had a home all my own. A lavish, beautiful home where I was also in love.
If I let all that go, I’d be returning to a town that would not greet me with open arms. I would return to my status as the resident piece of gossip, never able to escape the rumors whispered about me as I walked through the village.
Tempting, isn’t it?
Firmly I shook my head, bidding them one last goodbye with certainty.
I sighed in pleasure as I watched them walk away, content with my decision. No agony within these walls could ever compare to those conniving townspeople. My search for more would’ve been pointless anyway— better to let it be forgotten. This castle is where I belong. This is where I’m meant to be. I smiled at the thought, letting my hand finally pull the door shut.
Just before the golden lion faced the forest once more, something caught my eye. A flower, peeking shyly through the snow. Curious and surprised, I moved away from the door in order to lean down and inspect it. It was a rose in the beginning of its bloom. A pink rose to be exact.
Pink and marvelous.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.