Midnight for a Curse
A CURSE KEEPERS, CURSE BREAKERS Fairytale
Once upon a time there was a beast who loved nothing better than to sit in a comfortable chair in a sunny spot in his library and read. He was a most unusual beast, not because he read and wore a velvet doublet as fine and well-tailored as any prince’s, but because he was a prince, and was cursed yet content. At one time, he had been a human prince, an indolent, self-absorbed man who lived merely to eat and to read, much to the distress of his father the king and those who would one day be his subjects.
How did this indolent prince become a beast? Well, it happened like this. One fine midsummer the prince journeyed to one of his family’s smaller castles in the west of the kingdom to escape his father’s hounding. He had a fine supply of books there, and the resources of cheeses and fruits from the local villages were excellent. It began as a peaceful summer retreat, but then, on an unassuming Thursday, there came a determined rap on the front door. This distracting noise continued for some time, causing the prince himself to abandon a most interesting book, leave the comfortable library, and limp to the door. Mysteriously, none of the servants were about.
The prince barely gave a thought to the unsightly hag occupying the stoop and paid no notice for her plea for bread and shelter for the night. His mind full of his book and his missing servants, he merely opened the door and said, “Stop that racket at once!” Seeing that she stepped away from the knocker, he slammed the door shut and retired once more to his snug library, convinced that had solved the difficulty.
However, no sooner had he delved once more into the story than he was driven out again, this time by a burst of light that quickly dissipated, leaving an enchantress spewing a string of angry words. Astute man that he was, the prince rapidly deduced the woman was upset and begged her pardon for whatever he had done, or whatever his errant servants had neglected to do. The woman, beautiful and mysterious as such creatures often are, enigmatically declared that his apology—for it was he who had somehow irritated her—was too late. She settled a curse on him and his, turning him into a beast, his figuratively invisible servants into truly invisible servants, and his beautiful castle into an architectural monstrosity that matched its beast-like master. The prince must experience a change of heart, she said, to be free of the curse. He had until an enchanted rose died to do so.
However gloomy such a fate may have first appeared, the prince bore the curse very well. As did his servants. After all, there were no more visitors to disrupt the prince’s reading or cause the servants extra work. And he couldn’t possibly be expected to return to his father and his princely duties any time soon.
Two years passed quietly before the enchantress returned to see what effect her efforts at improving the young man had had. She found him once again in his library reading, the only difference being he no longer had a blanket over his lap, his fur now keeping him sufficiently warm. Her dismay and distress were extreme, but she was unwilling to admit defeat—or perhaps she feared the king would not pay her the final amount he owed her. For he was less than satisfied with the results of her work.
After pondering the situation for a fortnight, the enchantress returned and added new terms to the curse: the prince must venture forth from his castle once every morning and present himself at the boundaries of his land, where the villagers could see him. He must ask any young woman he was in company with to marry him. Their rejections, she was sure, would humble him and make him kinder to poor old hags and speed up his change of heart. If she suspected no village woman, accustomed to hard work, would allow him to wile away his days reading, she didn’t say so.
She reminded him of his timetable, of the enchanted rose now in full bloom minus a few petals, and once again admonished him to have a change of heart. As the door slammed behind her, a petal fell from the rose. With it fell the prince’s hopes of a quiet, literary life.
Belinda Lambton dashed into the woods. The deep, dark woods, where, if she were lucky, she’d get lost.
“Belinda, sweetie pie! Where are you?” yelled a smooth voice that could only have come from one particular handsome face.
Belinda hiked up her skirts and pumped her legs harder. When would her father come back and tell that arrogant jap-o-naps that when Belinda said she wouldn’t marry him, it wasn’t feminine coyness, it was the honest-to-goodness truth?
The woods grew denser and gloomier as Belinda wove in and out of the trees with quiet steps. At the stirring of leaves she changed directions and ducked into the cover of a particularly large and thick cedar, where she collided with a warm, furry blanket. That promptly screamed.
Belinda screamed too and leapt out of the cedar, bumping into the creature again as it chased her out. She kicked it firmly in the shins and ran for dear life.
A bear! She’d nearly been eaten by a bear!
Belinda’s heart pounded as she darted left and then right in a zigzag pattern to confound the brute behind her. Was not marrying Gaspard really worth being eaten by a bear?
“Lindie pie? Are you all right?” Gaspard cried from somewhere to her left.
Yes. Yes, it was.
Belinda skidded to a stop and tucked herself into the hollow of an ancient tree partially hidden by a rhododendron, her own private cave she’d found a few weeks before. Scarcely daring to breathe, she pressed herself against the damp wooden shell until the sound of heavy footfalls passed her by.
Once, then twice. Gaspard coming and going, she hoped.
After some minutes of quiet, she peeked around the stiff rhododendron leaves, saw only peaceful nature, and ventured from her sanctuary. She finally dared a deep breath, reveling in the feel of lungs full of fresh air.
Judging from the sun, it was about time for Gaspard to return to the butcher shop. She stretched her arms, letting out a great sigh. “Congratulations, Belinda. You’ve survived another morning. Now only…” Was it six weeks remaining before she could expect her father’s return, if things were on schedule?
Groaning, she started for the village. She snagged an oak leaf off a low bough and tore it to shreds as she walked. It was a pity she hadn’t brought her bow. She could’ve caught fresh meat for herself, preventing the need to venture any further into the market than the herb dealer she would sell her plunder to. With a smug smile, she patted the satchel resting against her hip. These trips into the forest to avoid Gaspard had produced some reward.
Belinda froze in the shadow of a pine.
Gaspard hadn’t given up on her.
Restraining an unladylike word, she backed slowly around the tree, her gaze searching for her tormentor. And then she bumped into something firm, but not rough and hard like a branch. Soft fur tickled her neck, and a blood-curdling scream found its way out of her mouth.
The funny thing was, and she must be going hysterical even to think it, was that the meeting had a similar effect on her attacker, for it shrieked likewise. Even as she lunged forward with another cry of her own, she quailed at the noise it made in return. It could be nothing less than the yell of a creature raising its courage to slay her, but it sounded almost like a cry of terror equal to her own.
Gathering her pluck, she snatched a fallen branch and spun. But the sight of the creature was too much for her. Her arms stilled, branch raised.
A man-sized hairy beast stared at her through wide blue eyes, eyes the color of a mountain lake on a sunny day. They looked almost human. It blinked, drawing her attention back to the fur surrounding the eyes. It was trying to mesmerize her with its gaze and then eat her.
Arms quaking, she filled her lungs with more air for a scream to break the spell of its eyes.
It raised its gigantic paws to its cat-like ears, great tufts of auburn hair sticking straight up above them. “Please not again,” it said in a low, rumbly voice.
Belinda stiffened. Had fright damaged her senses, making her hear words in a dumb roar? She opened her mouth again.
It scrunched its face. “Please.”
Please? She slowly lowered the branch. “What did you say?”
Its blue eyes widened. “I mean, ‘Roar.’” Curving its massive paws in front of it, it lurched toward her, sharp claws glimmering in the sunlight.
Mouth agape, Belinda stepped back, her foot twisting on a fallen limb. Dropping her branch, she landed on the ground with an “oomph.”
“Oh my,” the creature said. It stepped forward as if to help her up, but then seemed to think better of it and returned to its aggressive position and roared.
There was something familiar about that pose. Belinda blinked, a sly smile forming on her face. It was monster’s storybook illustration pose.
She tucked her smile away for later. An old wise woman had once told her she should follow the story at her feet. And this was a very large story and would be easy enough to follow. “Well, don’t just stand there, Mr. Monster, help me up,” she said sharply. It took all her restraint to keep from smiling at the startled look on the creature’s face.
It put its hands on its hips. “I shall not. You should be running for your life.”
She extended her hand. “I am, for life and freedom. Now help me up.”
It arched a great patch of light fur, possibility the equivalent of an eyebrow. Then, it growled and grabbed her arm and helped her up. “All right. But it’s only to give you a head start. I like to keep my hunting sporting.”
“Oh, Beastie! Where are you?” A high-pitched, saccharine-coated feminine voice made Belinda cringe worse than the hairy paws that had pulled her gently up.
The creature shivered, sending loose fur wafting down to the ground and onto Belinda’s sturdy boots. It glanced between her and the forest through which the voice had traveled. Did it just send a look pleading for her to be quiet?
“Bella pie? Sweetie. Is that you? I have lunch all laid out at the shop. It’s getting cold,” Gaspard called.
“Beastie, I’m over here, dear,” continued the woman.
Belinda and the monster both gulped. Slowly, they both backed between the branches of the pine.
When naught but a squirrel had moved for a full five minutes, Belinda let out a great breath, hissing it through her teeth. The monster followed suit.
“Oh my. She gets closer every day.” The monster started forward, then jerked back. With an “Oh bother. Don’t let me keep you,” he started peeling off his fur, making Belinda cringe, and think of the necessary preparations for the rabbits she should set a trap for. Yet the beast’s peeled fur looked remarkably like a coat, its coloration and texture a perfect match to its head and hands.
The coat remained on the pine branch as the creature stepped forward. He brushed a few pine needles from his shirtsleeves, which were pushed up to his elbows, then rolled his shoulders—under a fine velvet doublet—before carefully unsticking his coat from the branch and placing it back on. He fixed her with a fierce gaze. “Now, I’ll give you a ten second head start, just to be sporting, and then you’re fair game. It is nearing lunchtime after all.”
Belinda eyed the monster, with its hidden suit of fine cloth and noted the scent of lavender mixing with the tang of the pine swap dripping from the branches around them.
“All right,” she said. After peeking around the edge of the branch’s covering, she stepped out into the forest and swiftly crossed to the next thick tree trunk and then to the next. Then, she sneaked back to the first. Pressing herself to the trunk, she watched the creature make a cautious exit and hurry past her. Before it could disappear among the foliage, she eased from her hiding place and followed it.
It soon slowed its pace and began to swing its giant arms in rhythm, as if it was finally walking with its accustomed gait. It removed its fur coat and tossed it over its arm. Around rocky outcroppings and over dry, leaf-strewn streambeds it strode. A clump of silver-leafed hoary mint, topped with wispy pink petals, reached out from a lightly sloping bank. He snagged a silver leaf, and rubbing it, raised it to his snout just as his feet discovered the hole of a rotted-out tree stump. With a strangled yell, he tumbled to the forest floor, his fine jacket catching amid the briars.
Belinda rushed forward and knelt beside him. “Do let me help you up. Just to return the favor, you know.”
He jerked to a sitting position but stopped short as the briars clinging to his jacket pulled taut against their tree. “What are you doing here?” he growled as he strained against his bindings.
“Following you.” Belinda grabbed a handful of jacket, making him hold still.
“Why?” he sputtered.
She didn’t answer but began releasing him thorn by thorn. After a minute, during which he puffed angrily and fidgeted, she removed the last briar. With a clipped thanks, he jumped to his feet and brushed the dirt from his clothes.
He started off again, and Belinda walked by his side, studying him. He kept his gaze fixed ahead.
“You’re the monster said to have eaten the prince, aren’t you?” she asked at length.
He jerked to a halt and spun around to face her. “Eaten the prince? Really! I must say I—” He paused, mouth agape. He closed it slowly. “Yes, you’re quite right. I did eat the prince. I love eating princes. Very nutritious. Full of minerals.”
“Like gold and silver?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Quite right. Eating young women is my next favorite, however; so you should scram.” He shooed her and walked on.
“Now look, Mr. Monster, I’m in a jam—”
“My name is not Mr. Monster. I really prefer Mr. Beast, or just Beast.”
“So sorry. As I was saying, Beast, I’m in a pickle. This village lout called Gaspard keeps after me to marry him. He won’t take no for an answer, and my father is away and so can’t back me up.”
“That’s most unfortunate. I wish your father a speedy return. Good day.” He raised his paw as if to tip a hat and picked up his pace.
“Wait. You have a giant castle where no one goes. Why can’t I stay there until my father returns?”
“Out of the question.”
Belinda ran around in front of him and poked him in the chest. “Why don’t I give you a ten-second head start just to be sporting, Beastie?”
He jerked to a halt, eyes wide. “That’s not fair.”
“I’m no fool. You’re running away from someone same as I am. If you let me stay, I’ll help you.”
“No, no, no.” Beast clenched his fists and marched around her. “You’ll interrupt my daily routine and I’ll have to—No, certainly not.”
Belinda jogged behind him. “I’ll help the servants, brush up the hair you shed”—Beast glared over his shoulder at her—“keep unwanted visitors away. Anything you ask.”
“Why don’t you start by keeping yourself away?”
“You’ve got to help me. Please.” A hint of desperation edged into Belinda’s voice, ruining the bossy tone, but it, or something, put a stutter in Beast’s pace.
He turned to face her. “It is that bad?”
With a growl that vibrated the ground under Belinda’s feet, Beast motioned her forward. “All right. But only until your father gets back; then you must leave and promise not to tell a soul what you’ve seen.” He muttered as he walked on, “I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this.”
Thanks for reading! Do you have a favorite Beauty and the Beast retelling?