Mine are the unseen hands that fetch your morning chocolate. The porcelain cup floats your way, steam riding in its wake like a hopeful ghost, and voila, delicately alights upon your table. Not a drop spills to splotch the damask tablecloth. My hands light the candles when evening falls, turn down the blankets of your bed, plump the pillow for your head. They pluck the strings of the lute that soothe your savage heart.
“The spirits that attend me here will see to your needs,” you told the girl on her arrival.
Spirits. You do not guess that it is I alone who wait upon you. And now on her.
My silent steps follow you. Or precede you. I open the doors you would walk through. They swing wide as if forced open by your will alone. Before the slightest chill can raise a shiver on her skin, I fan the flames to life in the great marble fireplace.
I receive no word of thanks from you. You do not wonder where I go when you cease to summon, whether I observe you unobserved. (And, oh, my love, I do.) You do not think I am an “I” at all. Invisible, inaudible, less substantial than a dream, even I begin to doubt that I exist. Rage subsides. Only desire remains.
I begin to forget what I looked like. Others found me comely. Men pressed my honeyed lips to theirs and counted their blessings. Women, too, desired me, though these were not to my taste.
I forget the sound of my voice, though poets once claimed the silk of my singing set their souls aflame. The last words I spoke were your curse.
To you I had always been invisible. When I confessed my love, your lips curled in disgust. “Unnatural!” you cried. “Bestial!” The curse came easily.
And so this castle was constructed as your prison, woven of equal parts hate and love. Word by word stones blossomed into towers. Spell by spell a garden of roses and orange trees encircled them. Your prison needed no briars and no bars. Beyond the castle, beyond the garden, beyond the forest, your neighbors would kill the fearsome beast I’d made you. Your confinement here was not enough. No, I must come, too, to become voyeur of your suffering. And so I cloaked you in fur and tusks, and myself in invisibility. Revenge! I told myself; to drink in your daily torment was the best revenge.
Now it is myself bewitched and suffering.
Each morning, I lay out a queen’s wealth of clothes for the girl’s approval, let her choose the costume she will charm you in each day. This is one of the many ways I have to hurt myself. (But hurting helps me remember I’m alive. Yes, still alive.) She selects the simplest gowns, white embroidered with darling rosebuds or dove grey, always succeeds in choosing what will make the most of her meager prettiness. I would have chosen russet velvets, purple satins, the princeliest attire.
My gentle hands brush the long silk of her hair. Her glass shows only the brush afloat in empty air.
“Kind spirits,” she will say, “how good you are to me!”
No answer. My honeyed lips are sealed.
When you grow cruel and coarse, more beast than prince, and set her trembling in corners, I do not kiss her cheek or pat her head. Silence. Silence is what I give her. Echo prattled more than I.
Am I not moved? I do feel pity but having chosen revenge, I cannot mete out compassion. The turning of your heart towards her renders me deaf. I have become a mirror shadowing the world, without a self, silver-cold.
If I were good, I would grasp her hands and whisper courage. If I had tears left, I might weep. If I had pride, I would waft myself away, leave her to unwind your tale unwitnessed, dress myself again in human form, returning to the wide world. I do none of these things.
As I hold out your linen shirt, help you shrug those wide shoulders into your brocade waistcoat, my unseen hands briefly brush your fur. How I long to lose them in the deep tawny matts. To stroke the knotted locks of your mane, the yellowing ivory of your tusks. I that marred you—as you’d term it—marvel in your monstrosity. Your beauty has been refined by suffering, made magnificent by your animal guise.
How you have grown into your beastliness! Your genteel manners no longer cloak your true self. You harken to the thrush’s least chirrup, sniff out the upward thrust of each springtime blade of green, perceive the blood course in the throat of the hare. You stalk your prey with greater grace than you once used to dance the minuet. When I strum my lute, you hear the forest’s song call louder than my strings.
All enchanters know that threefold grief rebounds on he who casts a curse. So I’ve achieved my own punishment—to see and be unseen, to love and be unloved, to watch true love’s unfolding and be powerless to prevent it.
You think the howls and windy sighs that ghost your drafty halls mirror your pain, your longing for this girl who’s come at last, carrying your salvation in her little cupped hands.
The trouble with curses is that no matter how impossible the terms one sets, there is always a way to undo them. Do enchanters not read stories and so learn? Must we hire lawyers to inspect each loophole before we mouth a hex?
Every day, she loves you more, thinks she glimpses the inner prince within the beastly hide. Every day she walks with dainty, girlish steps more securely into your heart. Every day those slim white hands undo me. She is the key clicking in the lock. She is the doomsday machine, bringing about the end of days. The stones will fall, the oranges shrivel under snow, the roses die. And I will be extinguished, less than the whiff of burning that remains in the air after the candle’s snuffed.
A kiss will come, its spell more powerful than all my dooms, to topple these towers, this bower wherein I once enclosed you all to myself, safe as a treasured orchid in a hothouse. She will unravel the labyrinth embracing my beloved minotaur.
But know this, my monster, and most monstrous love: She loves you despite. I love you because.
Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker who writes speculative fiction and poetry, often based on myths and fairy tales. Herworks have been published in Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Apex, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling and other magazines. Please visit her on the web at www.sandileibowitz.com.
Photo: Brooke Shaden, “upon pondering”