“Beauty and the Beast” by Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone
“You must go. For tribute.”
“I just… please understand. Everyone who has a daughter must give tribute. If you were a Son…”
She’d simply said “Yes” over and over, “understanding”. She knew how it would be.
If she’d been a son, she’d would still have had to go… except to her most certain death.
First sons and bachelors were went to the forest to “slay” the beast. They never returned.
But neither did the daughters.
It was a myth they knew, to soothe nerves, that he used the daughters as maids to keep his home. But it was a myth.
They could hear the howls from the forest. Too loud to be wolves, too maddening to be human.
A thing like that didn’t want maids.
A thin like that only wanted a maiden’s blood.
She wondered how it would be? Would she be torn limb from limb? Knocked out? Would she faint from terror and fright? Would it matter once she was dead?
There was no ceremony, no carriage. Once she stepped beyond the village into the forest, all of her things would be destroyed. Burned or given away… but who wants the mementos of a sacrifice?
In a town full of the too old and the too young, who wanted to remember that death was there for everyone? Coming in one form or another?
She walked deep into the forest and was not comforted by the quiet. She wasn’t soothed by the sight of nature or the distant song of birds. It got darker and darker the further she went and from the darkness came a stench.
She knew not what it was, but the bark of the trees was slick. And as she stepped, she realized it was not mud that her feet sank into. It was not the white, sharp jutting on stones she saw, nor the green of moss…
But bones and mold and rot and blood.
A bile rose in her throat, but there was nothing her stomach might give.
She came to an open space, a natural opening, littered with bones and the tatters of dresses.
She knew the colors, muted and the fabrics, mutilated. She covered her mouth with her trembling hands and that’s when she noticed the instrument.
It was clean. Free of the horror of the scene, simply sitting there against a tree.
It was so out of place, she was drawn to it automatically.
They’d all learned to play once. A long time ago…
She reached for it and that’s when she saw the eyes.
In the distance, beyond the clearance, in the darkness…
Two glowing eyes.
Her breath stopped and all she could hear was her heart thumping.
This was it.
There it was.
She hesitated and the voice boomed,
So she snatched up the instrument, her trembling fingers trying to find a melody.
It was a monster like she’d never seen nor imagined coming out of the darkness, coming out of the brush. A lion and a wolf and a horned thing, dressed in the tatters of man’s clothing.
She shut her eyes, trying to play something, trying to play anything, knowing, this was what happened! They’d all died this way!
Any moment! Any moment now…
She opened her eyes, her tears beginning to fall. This was how she would die, entertaining this beast.
But he just sat there, at the edge of the clearing, watching her. Listening to the tune.
She sniffled, her fingers faltering, but fast enough to fix the song and keep going.
He watched her and then nodded.
She played for as long as she could, until her fingers bled. She played until the beast began to nod off.
When he was asleep, she put the instrument down. She tried to leave then, backing up and he lifted his head.
“You cannot leave!” he snarled. “You must stay!”
She froze in terror.
“Stay… and play…”
She picked up the instrument again, strumming out a simple melody.
The beast grew tired again and shut his eyes.
She played for days. Every day and sometimes every night.
She could not leave. But he did.
He bought her food. He brought her clothes. He brought her jewels.
Water to wash her bleeding fingers, bandages to wrap them…
And in return she played.
Day after day he sat and listened, falling asleep or leaving to come back with some reward.
She wondered how long it could go on?
“Do you understand?”
“We all have to… contribute.”
“I’ll be a Maid or something right? I’ve heard the stories.”
“I’ll miss you all.”
“Just do your duty, as the girls before you have.”
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
The whole time she’d walked, she’d heard music. She wasn’t sure where it came from, but the further she walked, the darker it became.
She stepped in things she didn’t want to know about and when she touched the trees to steady her steps, her hands came away wet and sticky and red.
The stains were smeared all over her dress and she began to realize, the hanging things weren’t vines, but entrails. The rotting things, the stinking things, the slices of sunlight all revealed them to be… bodies. Bodies of things.
She could see the tatters of clothing in the bushes and trees.
There wasn’t a castle and she wasn’t to be a maid. She’d been so naive.
She cried, going forward, hoping to find the source of the music.
She came to a clearing, her eyes red from crying, her jaw clenched against the screams of hysteria.
“Hello?” she asked.
She heard a simple melody, the sound of a lute and looked.
Across the dark clearing, bathed in a single spotlight of sun, was a young woman playing.
“Oh! Thank god!” the girl said, rushing forward, but then she stopped.
The young woman’s dress was stained with blood, her feet bare and dirty. She played now, louder and faster, looking up at the girl.
She was smiling, crooked and gleeful and the girl backed away, shaking her head.
“Sing.” came a voice from the forest beyond.
The girl shook her head again, screaming.
And the playing faltered.
“We’ll have to find someone to sing for us Beloved.” she said softly, looking over her shoulder.
A magnificent beast sprang from dark forest, a thing that was lion and wolf and horned and quite hungry, and leapt upon the girl who screamed and hollered all of her horror as she was torn limb from limb.
When the screaming stopped, the playing began again, the beast dragging an arm over to the young woman.
“I will find us someone to sing, my Beauty.”
She smiled, nodding and playing.
They would find someone to sing, but for now…
She would play.