Once upon a time there was a beast and a curse and an enchantress, which I’m sure surprises nobody. Better put it this way: once upon a time a girl was locked in a castle, and she begged so hard not to be the sleeping princess that she became the beast. That’s more like it, anyway — fairytale logic. You get what you wish for, but it isn’t what you want.
“Don’t let it be a prince,” she begged, “don’t let it be a kiss I can’t see coming and can’t refuse.”
Enchantresses, wicked fairies, call them what you will — they’re all the same story in the end. No one will remember if this enchantress began the story by giving the princess a naming day gift of a hundred year sleep once the tale switches to another track. The point is that she didn’t mind granting this one favor. Maybe it was an issue of statistics. Maybe she thought finding a girl who would fall in love with a princess-beast would be harder than finding a prince to kiss her, make her curse harder to lift (considering the probabilities of who might wander onto the cursed castle grounds). As if girls who love girls don’t know they have to fight harder to begin with, as if they won’t cross miles for each other.
So maybe there was a spindle once, but now there is a rose, and a girl who wanders through a thorn maze unable to find her way. This is the wrong story, she thinks to herself, clutching her leather satchel tighter, but she doesn’t know what the right story is.
“Let me through?” She suggests to the roses that grow squeezed between their own thorns along the twisting hedges. “I’m looking for the love of my life. I’m in a hurry.”
She’s met only with the rustling of leaves and haughty scoffs. “No prince ever found his true love by being in a hurry.”
“I’m not a prince. I’m a shoemaker, and I’m lost. Can you let me through to the castle?” It rises dark and spindly overhead, but though it seems so close she can see no way out of the maze.
Laughter, echoing through the hedge corridors, and then something dark prowls around the corner and half-crouches there, hidden as much as possible under a hooded cloak. Shining talons dig into the earth under their feet.
The beast says, “A shoemaker? You really are in the wrong story.” Her voice is gravely and doesn’t match the laughter. That must have been the roses as well.
“I have glass shoes,” the girl says, staring at those claws. “Or I can make something sturdier, if you give me time.”
“I don’t have enough time of my own to be giving it away,” the beast says, bored, and gestures around them. Even now the hedges seem to be encroaching further into the maze’s corridors, the roses growing and multiplying. One day soon, the girl realizes, the maze will entirely fill in, and the castle will be blocked off.
She’s clever, and she’s brave, and those are the two most important things for a fairytale heroine to be — besides pretty, but that’s easy enough to fake with the right kind of smile. “Then don’t give it to me,” she says, “we can share.”
So the beast reaches out one arm, fingers tapering into knives that she curls so gently they don’t more than scratch the girl’s skin — and the shoemaker takes it with an earnest gravity, looking right under her cloak’s shadow and into her eyes.
The beast’s eyes are unnaturally big and inhumanly shaped, but they’re not cruel, and in fairytales the evil beasts always have cruel eyes. The girl bobs a polite curtsey, using the beast’s arm for balance, and sees those eyes narrow slightly with amusement.
They walk through the twists and turns of the maze to the castle, the beast bent slightly so as not to tower over her guest. “About those shoes,” she says, when they reach the front doors, golden light spilling from the entrance hall and shining through the delicately carved details in the ancient wood.
“In the morning,” the girl says, and because she clearly has not even entertained the thought that she might be argued with, the beast cannot summon an objection. She watches the girl follow an unfurling carpet along the floor to a dusty guest room with no hesitation, as if every dwelling should be as accommodating.
And in the way of fairytales, that’s enough to make the beast fall in love — a disregard for every unspoken rule, a smile that glimmers in the darkness. Should I tell you that the moment the girl arrives at breakfast the next morning the beast can barely look away from her for a moment, that she stays by the girl’s side as she produces leather and tools from nowhere and searches floor by floor for the perfect room to work in — or should I let you imagine for yourself?
Gradually the hood is pulled back, eventually the cloak discarded altogether; they sit in patches of sunlight together to eat lunch, staring down at the maze below. Roses and leaves devouring each other and everything in slow motion.
“If you stay too long you’ll be trapped here,” the beast warns, anxious when the girls shows no concern in her usual solemn air as she watches the maze devolve.
“I haven’t finished your shoes,” is all she says. Each new morning she promises that in return for this latest night of hospitality she is making the shoes more beautiful, and each evening that she has not finished she stays another night.
Sometimes when the girl has gone to bed the beast sneaks back into the workroom, in agony over whether to rip out the stitches or finish the work for her.
Leave before you are trapped here forever.
Stay here forever because I love you.
Each night she does not touch the shoes and returns to sleep herself, and in the morning the girl thanks her for letting her stay, as if the beast could ever turn her out, and promises to repay the night with even more beautiful shoes.
And each morning the beast says, “That’s fair,” and wishes she could find different words, the words she means to say.
The maze grows. The roses are larger than hands with fully spread fingers. The corridors are barely large enough for a small girl to squeeze through. In the dawn light it is lit gently and slightly pink, but the sight of it is painful. The wide window of the workroom shows the progress the maze had made alarmingly clearly, and it’s only then that the beast wonders if that was the appeal of this room over all the others.
The girl appears silently in the doorway as she has for the past week. “Thank you for letting me stay last night. I’ll repay you—”
“No,” the beast says, her voice alarmed and rough. “No. You are leaving now.”
“Before you can’t leave. You must go now.” Her throat is closing up and her voice growing thicker with each word. They’re not the words she wants to say.
The girl cocks her head, a curiously nonjudgmental silence. Finally she crosses the room to her worktable and picks up the shoes, turning them around and around again. They’re boots, really, and almost comically big in her hands. The beast cannot tell if they are as beautiful as she was promised, because the girl is smiling now and that eclipses all else.
“Are they finished?” She asks.
“Yes,” the beast says, unable to choke out anything more.
The girl leaves the boots on the table and swings her satchel, out of nowhere, across her shoulders. “Thank you for sharing your time,” she says. For a moment she holds the beast’s hand in both of hers, and then she’s gone. From the window the beast can watch her leave; for all her trouble getting there, she finds her way out with ease.
She leaves the workroom and doesn’t return all day.
Do beasts grieve? She hadn’t thought they could. She hadn’t grieved when the curse was settled on her; she hadn’t grieved at the idea that it might never lift once the maze finally knit itself together during the coming night. But the loneliness she feels now was different. The absence of the shoemaker is something worse. She’d had no choice in her fate, but she had told the girl to leave. This misery she’d brought on herself.
At night she wanders back into the workroom out of habit, sleepless and hopeless and refusing to glance out the window. Has it happened yet? Is she truly trapped now, or will it happen in five minutes, an hour, at dawn? She stares at the boots for an indeterminable amount of time before she thinks of putting them on.
She does so only because she thinks the girl wanted her to wear them; left to her own devices she might have destroyed them with as little thought as she now gives to slipping them on. They are big enough, and the fasteners are easy to close even with her unwieldy claws. Designs etched into the leather yet invisible in the darkness spiral and branch out beneath the thumb-pad she runs over them. Vines, she thinks. Roses.
A tear slips out, or three, as she stands in her beautiful new boots and smells leather and rotting roses. I want her back, she thinks, even as a wave of thankfulness rises up from the deepness in her, thankfulness that the shoemaker will never feel this trapped. I want to go to her, she revises. Since she doesn’t know how, she goes to leave the workroom instead.
One step and darkness is rushing past her. The rough scrap of stone walls, the rustle of leaves and the tearing of thorns, night air soft all around her. She has stepped not into the hallway but out of the castle, beyond the maze, into the star-dappled night.
“What did you do?” She asks, alarmed, almost before she sees the shoemaker sitting cross-legged on the grassy hill, as still as if she has been waiting all day and night. “What happened?”
“I found what I came for,” the girl says calmly. “And I made her shoes.”