Courtesy Photo

Chapter 2: The Beast’s Story

There was indeed a time when the beast had been a man…then he had forgotten how to be a man, long before his form had been altered. As son of the Marquis, ruling over his sprawling estate, he had learned the powder-nosed callousness that came with inherited wealth. He had been told his mother had been the pious one, the one who went to chapel daily and gave bread and roses to the poor. He vaguely recalled her putting him to bed at night when he was a little boy, and how his father had scolded her, saying it was a job for the servants. But that was all he remembered clearly, for she had died and left him before more memories could be formed. His father had taken over from there, and the tenants had suffered beneath his iron fist. He had grown accustomed to the empty trundle of privilege at the expense of those who toiled in the fields. He had been handsome and proud, not unlike Gaston, but for less cause. For while Gaston was proud of what he had achieved with his own hands, through his own talent and tenacity, the young nobleman had been proud of his assumed status as God’s gift to the world, by glaring birthright and golden baubles confirmed. It was only during the suppression of the famine riots, when he rode at the head of troops to disperse the starving throngs, that his sense of invincibility had been tempered somewhat. The blood had sickened him in more ways than one. But he had buried the worst of it behind the glittering masks he wore to his gay galas and salacious salons, and he was praised by the brightest and the best for his flawless gourmet taste. Then the night came…the final straw, the final rose, proffered by a haggard old woman, begging for bread and milk and shelter from the raging storm. And true to form, he had mocked her in front of his distinguished guests, and cast the rose back in her face. But when the hag revealed herself to be a ravishingly beautiful enchantress, he had stammered a vain apology. But she would not be moved. Because she had found no love in his heart, she cursed him to become as ugly as his sins against the people. His hideous appearance would only be lifted if he could ever learn to truly love, sacrificing of himself, and be loved in return freely, before the last petal fell from the rose which he had rejected. Oh…it seemed so long ago… But then she had come into his life. It all had started out so very wrong, and yet somehow, beauty blossomed from it. By then, he had long grown accustomed to being a monster, realizing that his former grandeur had been eclipsed by embroidered myth and blurred memory, and all he could thrive on now was terror. If he could not charm people, he could frighten them, and still hold some power over them. But Belle had not been cowered. She was fearless…and kind. He had captured her elderly father for robbing a flower from his garden…for how dare a commoner intrude upon the grounds of his betters? But then she had come, and nobly taken his place. And the castle that had been dead from lack of love began to breathe again. And the beast found himself starving for her companionship. He was softened by her plight, and moved her from the dungeon to one of the finest guest rooms in the castle. This, of course, did nothing to change the fact that she was still a prisoner; and yet he could not bring himself to let her go, not so much on account of the robbed rose, as over his own desperation to have someone else present in his great, lonely hall. And no one in their right mind would ever stay there of their own free will. But Belle would have none of it, and rejected all of his invitations to sup with him. The former nobleman was unaccustomed to such rejection, and angrily started to sulk. But ultimately, his self-pity was worn away by his own guilt. He went to her again, unlocking the door of her grand chamber. “Do not consider yourself a prisoner here…but as a guest. You are free to go anywhere you wish in this castle or upon this estate.” “But you are still keeping me from my home and family,” she retorted sharply. “Is a bird forced to stay even within the most ornate cage truly to be considered a guest?” “Can you not consider this your home, for at least a time?” he queried meekly. “How can any place be a home away from family?” “Can you not…consider me your family, for some small measure of time?” Belle had given him a look both of astonishment and pity. And though wary, she did accept his invitation to sup with him in the main hall. They spoke minimally at first, all shrouded in awkward courtesies. Belle was noticeably trying not to look at him, and his heart sank, knowing that his monstrous features must be taking away her appetite. But after dinner, when she asked if she might play the ornate harp standing in the corner of the drawing room, and he willingly assented, he was mesmerized by the beauty of the melodies she wrought from the instrument. It had been his mother’s long ago, but had stood silent for so long, he was sure that any song it had to sing had already died. But she was bringing it back to life. As the day ran into weeks, Belle learned that her lonely captor was in fact a cultured man. He in turn learned that his beautiful captive was a cultured woman. They both shared a love for books, and the beast opened his library to her. Having only been able to read the few books available at the kindly parish priest’s rectory in the village, Belle was ecstatic at this new world opening up to her. And the Beast, in turn, was ecstatic to see her so thrilled, which helped to allay his own guilty conscience for keeping her from leaving. Perhaps the books might even encourage him to stay of his own accord… Belle seemed to have gradually learned to overlook, or perhaps even accept, his appearance, and they spent many hours discussing the things she had read in the library. Sometimes, she would actually read to him. The only one who had ever done that before had been his mother, long, long ago, and now, like an innocent little boy, he would listen, wide-eyed, as she read him stories in the library. Sometimes he would ask her to read him the same ones over and over again, and indulgently she would do so. He had grown so lonely, so very lonely, that the books had long ago become dead to him. But Belle resurrected them. They started taking all their meals together, and sitting next to each other, not on opposite ends of that long table as they once had done, and Belle took the liberty to refresh his memory on table manners which, keeping totally to himself, he had let fall into some disrepair. But suddenly he wanted to do better for her than the simple meals of bread and stew they usually shared. He wanted to dazzle and to dine her, he wanted it to be as it was in the old days. And magically, Belle found that it was as she had wanted it, for the enchantress who cursed the castle had left some positive enchantment behind her as well, to keep the beast sustained via invisible servants. And this night, this one perfect night, there was a feast. There was Chicken Cordon Bleu, Filet Mignons with Pepper Cream Sauce, Zucchini Quiche, Sweet Honey Bread, and Almond Crème Caramel Custard. And afterwards, both of them dressed in the finest the castle wardrobe had to offer, and they preceded to the ballroom floor. He wondered if he would ruin the dance, for he had not done anything like it in so very long, and she was so beautiful in her brilliant yellow gown, and he was so very nervous that his legs were shaking. But she just smiled and offered him her hand. And then…they had glided across the floor, seemingly freed in their realization that they knew the same steps. It was both elegant and unfettered, and they whirled, and she saw in him the nobleman who had wooed so many ladies…yet never felt so free as this. It was as if the enchantment had transformed them into birds, and they could fly away together. They went walking together across the estate, and talked about the seasons past, and their childhoods…and their dreams. When he had been a nobleman, he had taken the grand tour of Europe, and he told the mesmerized Belle of all the sights he had seen. He said that he wished he could do it all over again, with her by his side…but his face and form prevented it. Then she asked the question that had been a long time in coming. “How was it that you became a beast?” He stopped and gazed at her sadly. “Because I was selfish…and cruel. I thought only of my own pleasures, and never the sorrow of others which, in my position, I had the opportunity to alleviate.” “People yet can change, you know,” she reminded. “And…for the better.” He stopped and closed his eyes. “But I have not changed so very much, have I? I imprisoned a poor man for the sake of a rose he wished to bring home to his daughter, not unlike the rose I threw back in an old woman’s face when she tried to give it to me in exchange for shelter from a storm. And now…” He gazed at her, his prisoner, and guilt overwhelmed him. “Would you…like to see your father again?” Belle looked at him questioningly, and then nodded with eagerness. “Come, I will show him to you.” It was a pathetic gesture, he knew that, but he just could not let her go, not yet…he could not bear to face those empty halls alone once more, could not bear to let go of this breeze of spring that had finally begun to thaw what felt like an eternal winter. So he showed her the mirror that had been enchanted when the spell fell upon him. And sure enough, the image of her father appeared in the glass…but he was different now, worn and weary, lying feverish in his bed, calling her name. “Father is ill,” she realized with a start. “I must go to him!” She gazed up at the beast, and her eyes were pleading. No, no, he thought desperately. Can’t let her go, mustn’t let her go…if I do, she will never return and the spell will never be broken… And yet he could not resist those eyes, sorrowed with daughterly concern. Her beauty penetrated his beastliness, shot through and sought that increment of manhood left in him, and he found himself saying, “Yes, you must go…” And he had made the magic mirror a parting gift for her to remember him by, and he opened the stables to her to take the fastest mount of her choosing. Then slowly, solemnly, he opened those great castle gates…and let his blessed bird go. “Oh, Beast…” she cried, tears streaming down her face as she embraced him. His body, though still that of an animal, suddenly felt more human, and his soul was softened by the milk of human kindness. But as he saw her ride away, he retreated to the high tower of his castle, and roared so loud he thought his heart might shatter like that cursed mirror, and all the pieces would fall like the last petals of the enchanted rose. Now, atop that same tower, he saw Belle fall victim to an accidental shot from Gaston’s pistol, and again he roared, this time wrought by the lust for vengeance. In spite of his own grievous wounds, he charged at the hunter like an enraged bear, and unleashed the fullness of his strength, pummeling the man against the stone floor of the turret. Gaston seemed far too stunned to fight back, and did nothing but stare up with a look of horror on his face as the blows fell, and the claws scratched across his face. His fury reaching its climax, he seized the man by the collar with his paw, and dangled him over the edge of the parapet, relishing the fear he saw spark in his eyes, and preparing to let go any second… “Beast…stop!” Her voice, a frazzled scream, caused him to turn to her. She was clutching her bloodied dress, propping herself up, and pleading with him, “Don’t kill him …don’t…if you do…you…become the beast…don’t hurt him anymore…” She listed and fell back against the floor. The Beast panted, staring at his victim, and the strange look in the hunter’s eyes, a look of realizing at long last what it was to be the hunted, to have the tables turned in a flash, and to prepare with a surety to face the end unflinchingly. Whatever Gaston was, he was brave…but now, he was also broken by that selfsame shot that had shattered Belle’s breast. A hunter’s accident, Beast thought. Yes, that’s what it was…and now he’s suffering…now he’s afraid… And his heart was moved unexpectedly to a pity which the hunter had refused to show him in his own grief. And he pulled him back from the edge, and pushed him with a roar to the far side. He could hate him easily enough if he tried, for he had harmed his precious flower, and she was now bleeding out on the ground. But Belle, alive or dead, had aroused in him a quality unique to the race of man: Mercy. And he could not turn his back on it. Gaston’s eyes were glassy, gazing at the blood-drenched form of Belle, and it seemed that deep within him, something twisted, and then snapped. Was he finally realizing that his pursuit of her beauty was now beauty’s anguish, and that pulling up the rose was dooming it to wither between his fingers, leaving them stained forever red? “I would have…loved her…” That was all he managed, in a voice ripped raw of all its haughty show, and his eyes burning out like dying coals. Then he turned to the edge of the tower, and looked down, and down, and down, and fell forward, into the chasm of forever, a tortured cry echoing off the ramparts as he hurtled towards the ground. All the strength had long since drained from the Beast’s hulking form, and he collapsed in a heap, all mortal thought fading from him. But then…he heard her voice. “Beast…Beast!” She was dragging herself along the ground towards him. “No, no, don’t die…don’t die…” He opened his eyes through the glass of pain, and saw her hovering over him, and the blood staining her dress. “Belle…” he choked. “You…came back.” She fell on top of him in a weakened embrace. “Of course…how could I not? Oh, Beast…” Tears ran down her face and into his own bloodied fur. “Hold me…it hurts…” And he did so, as tight as he possibly could. “You should have stayed away…oh, far, far away…the curse has not caught up with you…” “Let it…let me die here…” Her body grew increasingly limp, the life draining out of her in a steady crimson flow. “Don’t you know…Je t’aime?” “What…?” “I…I love you…” The words were spoken and the tears fell, and then…and then…the wind of change seemed to whip across the turret, with the sting of the rain, and his face and form seemed to melt into something altogether different than expected. The curse was breaking, and secrets were coming to light… Human again, yes, human again…but the side of his face was burned out of its natural form. Oh, now it was clear…all the fine masques, the costumes to disguise him, all of it…was to hide this war wound received in the famine riots that had disfigured him. He covered his face in anguish, the feeling of flesh instead of fur burning the palm of his hand. “Oh, Belle, you see? Even now…I am no man…you are dying, but not for a man, oh…” She saw him for the first time, human eyes meeting human eyes, and touched that burnt side of his face, and whispered, “You’re beautiful…”

And then, overcome, he had kissed her. Death played in that kiss, tingling inescapably, singing through the silent lips…first it stole away the peasant girl, her mouth unmoving and her eyes forever fixed. He kissed them closed, like closing the chest containing his only treasure, and then he too, slipped away. And the last petal of the old woman’s rose fell silent in the darkened room, like a tomb awaiting resurrection, like a womb awaiting rebirth.

Avellina Balestri (aka Rosaria Marie) is one of the founding members and the Editor-in-Chief of The Fellowship of the King, a literary magazine with a strong Tolkienite influence (which, by the way, is open to submissions). She reads and writes extensively, and eagerly seeks out the deeper spiritual significance of popular fandoms such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. And yes, she does have a soft spot in her heart for classic Disney movies, The Princess Bride, and Merlin 😉 She is also a recording artist, singing traditional folk songs and her own compositions as well as playing the penny whistle and bodhran drum. She draws her inspiration from the Ultimate Love and Source of Creativity, and hopes to share that love and creativity with others.