The beast lived all alone in the tower, and she was monstrous.
The tower was grown over with thorn bushes, in the center of a wild wood. From the tower, the villagers at the edge of the wild wood could hear roaring and slashing and snarling, and when they saw the beast she bared her yellow fangs at them and howled like a dog.
They sent her a girl. It was what you did when you had a beast at your doorstep: you sent him a maiden to . . . appease his appetites. And then the beast ate the girl, if he were a dragon or a wolf, or he married her, if he were a prince.
The beast in the tower in the wild wood was a lady beast, but who, the villagers reasoned, was to say that would have any effect on her proclivities?
They gathered all of the virgins of the town together in the church and picked one by lottery. The girl they chose had bright eyes and dark hair, and her mother wept when her name was called. The priest slipped a gold coin in the girl’s mother’s palm, and the bright-eyed girl packed a bundle and kissed her sweetheart good-bye.
The beast roared when she saw the girl.
“If I stay with you, will you leave the village alone?” said the girl, as she had been taught.
The beast was roaring with laughter.
“What do I want with you?” the beast said. “Stay if you like. The tower’s warm.”
This, in stories, was the kind of thing the beast said if he meant to marry his captive. But first the captive must prove herself through servitude; so the girl set up shop in the kitchen. It was poorly stocked, and the stove did not work, for the beast ate her meat raw.
She grinned at the girl, teeth stained with blood and strands of flesh stretched between her mouth and the leg (the animal, probably animal, almost definitely animal leg) in her claw.
“Want some?” the beast asked.
The girl took the hank of meat the beast offered her and roasted it over a spit on the kitchen fire. Half of it burnt almost to ashes and the other half was nearly raw; the girl ate it anyway.
The beast walked on her hind legs like a woman.
The beast was dressed in rags that could have been silk.
The beast had broken every last lock in that tower.
The girl found a silver-backed hairbrush and showed it to the beast. “May I?” she asked.
The beast bowed her head, and the girl brushed the beast’s mane until it fell in smooth ripples past her shoulders like a lady’s tresses.
It was not long at all before the prince came.
The girl saw the gleam of his armor from far away, catching the light like nothing else in the wild wood. He rode up to the tower on a milk-white stallion, and the crest of his helmet shone like starlight. He brought a bard with him, to sing of his brave deeds. The bard rode a placid dun mare and played stirring chords on his harp as the prince dismounted and drew his sword.
“Beast!” the prince cried. “Stand forth and do battle, for I have come to rescue the fair maiden you hold captive in your dread tower.”
The beast roared from the top of the tower. “Too late!” she cried. “Too late, too late, you’re years and years too late!” She roared with laughter.
The prince set his sword to work against the thorn bushes that stood guard against the tower walls, and to help him, the bard played a heroic air about a boy who trespassed on a giant’s hospitality, robbed him, and then murdered him.
“Shall I help you prepare for the battle?” the girl with the bright eyes asked.
“The battle!” the beast shouted. She rent a tapestry from edge to edge with a swipe of her claws. “I’ll have his liver for my lunch, I’ll have his brains for breakfast, his spleen for supper, he thinks he can come here and do battle with me? I’ve been waiting for this one.”
She paced the top of the tower like it was a cage, and the prince hacked and slashed and chopped dutifully away at the thorn bushes. When he at last made his way into the tower, the beast bounded down the staircase to meet him on all fours, salivating. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
The prince pushed back the visor of his helmet and rubbed the sweat from his eyes. The bright-eyed girl peered around the corner of the stairwell to see. “No one told me about the thorn bushes,” he explained. “I didn’t factor them into my time table.”
The beast prowled around him in circles. “I’ve been waiting for you for years.”
The prince looked affronted. “The girl’s only been gone a few months,” he protested. “Report didn’t come to me until three weeks ago, did it, Jenkins?”
The bard shook his head solemnly.
The beast paced in tighter and tighter circles. “I’ve been waiting for you,” she repeated, “for years.”
“You’ve been waiting,” the bright-eyed girl repeated, “since you were the girl in the tower.”
The beast smiled, showing teeth. There was dried blood under her claws, and her jaws snapped with the hunger to close around the prince’s neck. “I was the princess in the tower,” she said.
The prince looked wary. “I was told virtuous peasant maiden. If there’s a princess to rescue, then that’s a whole different technique.”
The beast was almost within arm’s reach of the prince now. Her tongue came out to wet her snout; she could swallow him whole. “There’s no princess,” she said, “now.”
The prince’s whole heroic face radiated confusion.
The bard played an uncomfortable arpeggio on his harp. “Happens more than anyone would like to admit,” the bard confessed. “There’s a princess with a curse or a prophecy or some such, so you chuck ‘em in a tower for safekeeping. Always mean to come back for them, of course, but, well . . . you can’t win them all.” He switched keys briefly and played a few mournful lamenting chords, and the beast snarled. “I always thought the forgotten ones died,” he added, as an afterthought.
The beast grinned. “It won’t be me that dies this time,” she said. “Finally and for once.” And she crouched, ready to spring at the prince, to tear his flesh away in strings and crunch his bones between her teeth—
But then the bright-eyed girl said, “Why did they put you in the tower?”
And the beast froze, went completely and utterly still, trying to remember—
And the prince’s face brightened as at last he understood, and he said, “Oh, you’re a lost princess! Well, then, I rescue you.”
The beast roared in protest.
“I rescue you,” the prince repeated.
The bright-eyed girl went back to her village and married her sweetheart, and the beast in the tower frightened the villagers no more.
“What was it like?” the girl’s sweetheart asked her once, and she laughed and shook her head and kept sweeping the floor without a word. She had learnt, now, not to try to answer questions that could not be answered.
In a short while news reached the village of the prince’s new bride, a foreign princess who all things considered turned out to be quite satisfactory. At first she evidenced a disquieting tendency to scratch and bite and scream at the top of her lungs, but they worked at her and trained her, and in the end she grew to be quite docile. Quite a tame little beast, the prince said fondly.
Constance Grady is a staff writer for You Know You Love Fashion and has been published on The Toast. Her YA novel reimagines the fairy tales of the Grimms and Perrault.
Artwork: Caryn Drexl, “Dislocated”