Natalia Nazeem Ahmed
This story revolves around a young woman, a haunted man, and their intertwined fate. Her name was Belle.
Once upon a time, there was a rich merchant with six children, who suffered a series of misfortunes, resulting in dire poverty. The merchant’s only solution was to move to a small cottage and try to recoup his losses, while his children were forced to adjust to a new way of life. Though they did hope for some salvation from their friends, they soon learned that they were left alone, and forced to turn to the land for sustenance. The daughters kept the cottage neat while the sons worked the land to earn a living. The youngest daughter, Belle, was the most cheerful of the lot, maintaining a sunny disposition during troubled times.
Two years pass with the family getting used to this way of life, when the merchant gets wind that one of his ships survived the storms and made it to a harbour nearby. He quickly sets off to the town, after taking requests on what he should bring home with his newfound wealth. Though the other children ask for luxuries and trinkets, Belle only wishes for a safe journey, and, when pressed, asks for a single rose, her favourite flower. When the merchant arrives at the town he realises he’s been cheated once more; his employees, believing the merchant to be dead, divided his profits between them. Dejected, he takes a new route through the forest and stumbles across a large, stunning mansion — the mansion seemed magical, as the walkway was covered with trees in full bloom, though winter raged throughout the land. Worried about whether he should trespass but enchanted by the mansion before him, he continues and enters a richly carpeted hall. Though the room was well-lit, the outer edges were cast in shadow, and a cold breeze swept through the hall, making the merchant shiver. Deciding to dive deeper, he walks in, noting the decadent, yet faded, interior - abandoned but belonging to a wealthy family. Peeking into several well-designed, but cobwebbed, bedrooms, he finally stumbles across a dining room, complete with a set meal and a roaring fire. Afraid that he’s walked into someone’s home, he turns but decides to sneak some food away, as he was hungry after his long journey. A quiet breeze disturbs the fire and goes unnoticed by the merchant. Eyes on the food, he doesn’t notice a dark shadow pass over him. Having eaten his fill, he exits the mansion when he notices a large rose bush near the entrance. Thinking of Belle, he goes to pluck a rose, unaware of the looming creature behind him.
Days passed, and his children began to wonder of their father’s whereabouts. One day, they see a figure in the distance, slumped over his horse, barely conscious. Upon reaching the house, the children realise that the figure is their father, with a rose taped to his chest, along with a smudged note. Belle’s face pales as she reads the neat handwriting. “Beware of the one who takes without seeking permission — I have sent him back alive, and with the last item he took from my house. You have been warned,” Belle read aloud.
As the weeks pass, the merchant slowly gains his strength and his memory, yet refusing to discuss his journey. Eventually, when Belle kept him company one night, he turned to her and held her hand, tears in his eyes. “I should have told you sooner, my dear,” he whispered, “but I couldn’t summon the courage”. In bits and pieces, Belle teased the entire story; his discovery of the mansion, his attempt to pluck the rose, and his kidnapping, by a creature he was still too scared to describe. “He commanded me,” he whispered, face cast in shadow, “to return, with one other — the one I hold dear”. He gripped Belle’s hand tightly. “If I do not return, he will find us and kill us all,” he cried, his tone urgent. “Promise me you will accompany me, my dear. Please!” Belle soothed her father with gentle words until he fell into a rough sleep. Leaving the room, she brushed his fears as that of a troubled man, scarred by a rough encounter, and thought no more of it.
The next month, the merchant began to find his feet,helping with chores, and spending time with his family. Almost two months since the day of his return, Belle finds him packing clothes into a trunk — his and hers. Confused, Belle opens her mouth, when her father spots her. “Ah, my dear; I have a special trip planned, and I want you to accompany me.” He smiled at her, but it was tinged with sadness. “I’m sure this next venture will be more fruitful than the last, Father,” she said, hoping to instil confidence. Her father did not reply, and the two lapsed into silence.
The next morning, they set out on horseback into the forest, riding for many hours until they stumbled upon the stunning mansion; a gentle breeze made the leaves sway, accompanied by the smell of roses. “We’re here,” he muttered. As they climbed up the steps, he announced, “We’re here!”, while Belle wondered who he called out to, recalling the one feverish night where her father gripped her hand in fear. Though there was no greeting in return, the two of them continued to wander the hall, getting nervous as time passed. “Father, why are we here?” Belle asks, as her feet begin to ache. “He’s here, I know he is,” he muttered, ignoring her question. Exhausted and hungry from the journey, Belle takes a few hesitant steps towards one of the doors on the right, hoping for a kitchen. Wordlessly, her father guides her to the dining room, where a resplendent meal was set, with two places on the table. The merchant gestured to the table, and they ate in silence. After the meal, he cleared his throat. “I understand your confusion, but I’m afraid I cannot say more,” his eyes glanced to the shadowy corners of the room. “Come, let us retire for the night. The journey home will be long and arduous, and we must rest.” They climbed up the stairs and entered one of the many chambers, and Belle fell into a quiet and deep sleep.
Awakened by sunlight pouring in from the windows, she turned, only to find her father had vanished. A note was on the pillow beside her, with the same scrawl she had seen pinned to her father’s chest a few months ago. “Your father chose to leave you in his place. Beware a father’s love for his children,” she read, frowning at its ominous tone. Curious about the rest of the mansion, she walks along the carpeted hallway, drawn to a large portrait of a young man on the wall — his face was curled into a sneer, his features were sharp, and his pointed face struck fear into Belle’s heart, even though it was a painting. Shuddering, she turned and moved towards the kitchen, hoping to scrounge up a few scraps for a meal and discover more about why she’s here. The back of her neck prickled as she walked, and she got a distinct feeling that something, or someone, was watching her.
“Do you know why your father left you here?”
Startled, she turned around and gasped, too stunned to scream. A monstrous creature, a beast standing over 8 feet tall on its hind legs, large paws with claws like talons, and a vicious face with a sharp set of teeth, grinned at Belle. “Do you know why your father left you here”, he repeated patiently, eyes still on her. Unable to respond, Belle stayed silent, terrified to speak. “Let me tell you, my dear,” he continued, taking delicate steps despite his large size. He licked his lips with a thick, red tongue.
“Your father was trespassing on my property, and he was duly punished. However, I did spare him his life, in exchange for something just as valuable. I gave him a choice, you see. Something that he couldn’t bear to live without — his life, or the one he loves. Judging by his decision, I can see his love doesn’t extend that far,” he grinned, his teeth looking even more monstrous in a smile.
“What makes you think you know my father?” Belle cried, her anger taking over her fear. The Beast grinned even wider. “And what makes you think you do?” he asked, before getting up. “Enjoy breakfast, my dear,” he purred, before leaving.
That night, Belle fell into a shallow, uneasy sleep plagued with dreams. She dreamt of two people; a tall, beautiful woman with jet-black hair and ice-blue eyes, unsmiling, and the man she saw in the portrait; cold, harsh, unfeeling. “I know you think you’ve suffered, but our happiness is linked now. To stay content, it’s important to keep me happy. Do you understand?” he asked. Belle nodded. “What can I do to make you happy?” “Be grateful, and never leave me,” he responded, before melting away. Belle finds herself in a room with the woman, who said, “Try not to be afraid. You’ll find yourself used to it,” before disappearing.
The next morning, she discovers a number of fascinating rooms in the house; one room was covered with mirrors, one held an incredible amount of fabric, one aviary,a massive library, and many empty bed-chambers. Come nightfall, she goes to the dining hall once more, finding a set meal for two already laid out on the table. “Good evening, dear,” she hears from the shadows. Gulping her fear down, she smiles. “Good evening, sir,” she replies, taking a seat. “You seem to be in a better mood,” the Beast continues, still staying in the shadows. “I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation,” she replies. “Bad situation? I expect you’ll change your mind soon,” he whispers. Unsure of how to respond, Belle eats her meal, the two falling into an oddly comfortable silence.
Days pass with little changes — Belle continues to explore the house and wander, and dinnertime is the only time she sees the Beast, who remains polite and distant. Every night, Belle dreamed of meeting the woman and the man, with each dream boiling down to the same message — be grateful, be happy, and most importantly, to stay. Every night, the Beast gently probes her walls, making Belle feel comfortable and safe in the house.
As time passes, Belle felt more comfortable with Beast, with the house, and with being away from her family — in fact, their faces were slowly fading from her memory, and she no longer remembered some of her siblings’ names, or what her mother’s favourite flower was. Meanwhile, her days flourished — meal-times were had with Beast (she learned to avoid certain topics, like his past, after witnessing a few terrifying bouts of anger which involved breaking furniture), and she spent most of her time in the garden or in the mansion’s library. Every day, she grew fond of Beast, feeling comfortable with his charm and wit. One night, while Belle and Beast danced, Belle whispered about how much she wanted a family, daydreaming about spending her future with Beast, until she felt his arm tighten on hers to a painful degree. “I am not a fan of families,” he growled. “Do not discuss this again.” Unnerved, Belle stayed silent a while, before absently wondering aloud, “Where is your family?”. Beast stood still, and Belle paled, trying to take a step back but trapped in his iron grip. Before she had a chance to apologise, beg for forgiveness, or even breathe, Beast’s paws were raised high, his rage unleashed.
Belle woke in her own bed, weak and dizzy. Her head aching, her memories are blurred from the night before — the only thing she can remember is her dream, of the young man, older woman, the same message. Her face felt odd, and a glance in the mirror told her of a bruise on her cheek. She whimpered, noting that it didn’t do well to anger the Beast — but what had they even argued about? She gently washed her face, counting herself lucky she had some makeup powder to cover it up, thankful that she could face her Beast without worrying about her appearance. She vowed to bury her curiosity and stop asking unnecessary questions; it wasn’t right to anger Beast, and it wasn’t in her place, either.
The Beast invited Belle to dance in the great hall, the dance becoming one of their nightly routines. Although the Beast was hideous, ill-tempered and aggressive, Belle found herself slowly falling in love with the creature, her memories of her family slipping away as she continued to spend time there. “My dear Belle, would you consider marrying a creature like me?” he whispered, close to her ear. He had asked her every day for a few weeks now, but Belle refused, a part of her fighting for her family and her independence. Today, however, things felt different. She felt safe in his arms, and realised that she cared deeply for him, and could no longer remember a time when her Beast wasn’t by her side. Blushing, she whispered, “Yes.” The next few days felt like a whirlwind, she worked on her wedding gown while he decorated the mansion. Despite no guests (he convinced her that her family wouldn’t approve), the ceremony was beautiful, and her gown even more so.
After sharing vows in the courtyard, Beast leaned down and gently kissed Belle’s forehead. “You are a stunning bride,” he whispered. “I’ll be sorry to see you go.” Belle’s look of confusion quickly turned to horror as she saw him unsheath his claws and open his mouth wide. Before she could scream, he swiped his claws across her body and bit down on her head, his strong teeth breaking open her skull. Blood poured down Belle’s broken body as she collapsed onto the floor and the Beast writhed and grunted in pain. A few minutes after, a tall, handsome young man with a cold, cruel stare stood up tall, staring at Belle’s corpse. A cockroach crawled up to his feet, before transforming into the woman of Belle’s dreams. “How satisfying for you to have found a bride at last,” she purred, her eyes glinting in the winter sunlight. The man had a small smile on his face. “Now that I’m free at last, let’s set about exploring the land that I was cursed to retreat from, shall we?” “Of course, master,” the woman crooned, before turning into a cockroach once more and crawling away.
Lightly pushing Belle’s bloody body with one foot, a strange emotion — grief? sadness? disgust? — crossed his face, before remaining blank once more. “I never lied to you, you know,” he said. “You were the most beautiful of them all.” He turned and retreated into the castle, leaving Belle empty and alone, to lie forever underneath a starry night sky.
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's August 2020 Issue.