your father was an inventor. you knew better than to trust him in the center of town. he came home with scrap metal and built ships to glide on the grass. when you were young, you loved him for making. for a brief five years, you hated him, embarrassed of the town loon, embarrassed of what raised you.
but time shifts things. the man in town wants to marry you. a beautiful man by every account, and you hear many accounts. your nose in books doesn’t stop the stories of him: Gaston, bright, young, proud. Gaston, who could hunt and carve and flex his muscles. who forgot even himself what was true and what was fiction. it is a small village in paris, at the base of a kingdom. he is the bachelor you should have your heart set on.
you try to teach yourself to love him. he grins at you over beer mugs. never reads the books you suggest to him, drops one in the mud. and one night you hear him, drunk and singing, laughing with the others about your father, the crazy.
that night your father brings you a single white rose from a garden. you kiss your father and think of Gaston’s log cabin, where you could live in comfort.
they come for your father in the night. he is the property of the prince, on account of theft. his hands should be cut off and sewn to the walls of his house, to remind him of his failures. an inventor without hands is a death sentence. they come with fire and hatred. rip you out of bed. your knees hit the mud. you’re too small to fight them. they tear your father away from you, and your heart out of your chest.
you run to gaston. tall, fast, manly. you beg him. it’s a mistake, you cry, you must help - you gulp - and then we will marry.
gaston laughs and slams oak door against nose. you stumble back, feeling like a knife is in your throat. you take the wagon horse and ride improper, legs spread and bent forward, none of the lady your mother would have wanted. you ride for the life of your father.
at the door of the castle you stop. it is raining. you shout and rave and beg anything. take me, you scream, if you’re listening i’ll do anything. what do you promise on that doorstep, crying yourself empty? what do you promise to keep him alive, to keep him whole, to keep him healthy?
the door opens late. no one is there. you remember, suddenly, the tale of the beast who lives here, who ate the prince, who is terrifying. you think you hear your father and suddenly you are running, following his voice down dark hallways with no ending.
he is in a cell. his head is bleeding. you feel your breath hitch.
“will you?” a voice says, “will you trade yourself for your father, take responsibility for his sin?”
“he’s innocent,” you snarl, “you animals.”
“the rose, belle,” he whispers, and you stare at him. a white rose that is wilting beside your bedside would have been the death of him.
“take me,” you say, somehow empty and full at the same time, “if that’s what you need.”
the first night is ugly. you spend it crying.
over time, the castle learns you, and you learn it. you think you are imagining the talking furniture for most of it. invisible hands whisk food in and out, bring you ball gowns and petticoats and delicate flowers.
and always, the beast. at first, you were terrified of it. always in the shadows. moving like a ghost, prowling. tall, slim. menacing. never showing any skin, any proof it might be human.
but time and comfort destroy fears. you don’t run when it is in the room, you no longer shield your face in fear. it wears a mask, and this is how you know it really must be beastly.
it is the second winter when you, playing snowball fights with the statues - you manage to hit the beast in the face. you freeze, and the panic from the day they took your father returns in a firework.
but then the beast is throwing back. and you are laughing. the next morning it is at breakfast with you, and lunch. it comes and goes, and never speaks. laughs, sometimes, you think. talks with its hands. the furniture translates. you learn, because you are good at learning. the hands that mean can i come in? the hands that mean are you hungry? the hands that mean is it okay if i read next to you, here this book is good, i found this for you.
each morning you wake up with white roses by your bedside. you learn to talk a little louder than you’re used to, to move your own hands in a way that acknowledges the beast. it is strange that you were a quiet girl and now you are comfortable shouting. the two of you have your own language, together. it teaches you swordfighting, you teach it dancing. it teaches you archery and you teach it cooking. you walk through the gardens together. there are moments where your hands touch and for some reason you blush like it was kissing. you’ve never had someone who understands you so completely. sometimes you tell it about far-away stories. sometimes you tell it about your village. and sometimes, when you are raw, you tell it about gaston and the marriage you didn’t want and your father and his insanity
one of these nights the beast brings you the mirror. you cry when you see your father. and the beast is pulling you, running, picking out a horse from the stables, gesturing. go, go. you cry when you leave.
you save your father. tell him you’ll bring him back to the beast. do you talk too loud? is gaston only mad you never belonged to him? when the raid starts, you are still taking care of your father. outside, voices, ringing. kill the beast. you think of hands, dancing in the air to speak, and you think you have never heard something so ugly. you’re ashamed to be this species.
you ride in their wake, your father safe. you ride that same panicked race as three years ago to the day.
you fight, because the beast taught you how. the castle fights, because it is protecting its life. and the beast - you watch the flash of a blade, careful not to kill - the ability you once mistook for savagery.
it isn’t enough. gaston, and a gun. the three of you stand on the balcony, you in between. again you are begging this man, who means nothing. “leave the beast,” you say, “take me.”
“i’ll have both,” he says, and shoots. you feel the bullet streak by you. the beast is all movement, has pushed you out of the way. they grapple, and you scream when the beast falls, skittering. gaston marches over and you move without thinking. he falls into the night silently.
you can’t get there quick enough. you gather the beast into your lap, begging be okay. at the mask, you whisper something, and then say it again with your hands. i love you, you say. you were the best thing to happen to me.
the mask slips. a voice says, “belle,” and you are hit with the full force of something that feels like music. you can’t breathe.
the girl beneath the mask is beautiful. her blonde hair spills across your legs. she touches your face and her hands say i’m okay, and you’re laughing. you kiss her and roses open up in you.
“i thought you were a beast,” you say with hands and lips a hair above hers, “and here you are, the beauty.”
she smiles sheepishly. it is hard when you are like me.
your are sobbing. you kiss her again, because you can, because she’s here and perfect and the answer to questions you didn’t know you had been asking.
her hands, curious, worried, search for your wet cheeks. i’m okay, really, belle. you saved me.
funny, your hands dance, i was about to say the same thing.