Beauty and The Beast

This post has been written as part of the Exercise for Edition 6 of the Indifiction Workshop, an effort by a collective of Indian bloggers to encourage the writing of fictional short stories. The concept and rules of this edition were designed by Prasanna Rao. The original post can be read on the Indifiction Workshop blog here.

This edition required the participant to attempt a re-telling of the classic "Beauty and The Beast" in contemporary settings, with no major changes to the story and characters. The exercise focus was on beginning the story with a bang, an opening gambit called the conflict-establisher. Read more about it here.

***


The old man scrambled up the thorny slope of the hill, panic-stricken eyes searching behind him for his pursuers. I could hear them before I saw them, their blood-thirsty howls piercing the clear night. The moon lit the scene perfectly. The old man was scampering on all fours now, desperate to reach the walls surrounding my estate. He would find it difficult to escape any further. My walls were built to keep the world out.
The snarling wolves had reached the edge of the forest tree-line and were making their way up the hill. The man had no chance now. Unless…

“Alastair, open the gates. Let him in.”

“Yes, master.”

A minute later, the gates creaked open mechanically. The old man, by now rounding the wall towards the gate, ran blindly in. The gates creaked shut behind him. The wolves bayed on the hillside, their prey out of their reach. Their howls echoed into the night.

*** 

I woke up with a start and lay still with my eyes closed, trying to figure out why I was awake. My sisters’ snoring pierced through the walls, but that was nothing new. In fact, after all these years, the saw-like grating was a soothing lullaby. It was the sound of the dogs howling in the street outside.

I walked to the window. Like every other night for the past three months, I looked searchingly down the road for any signs of Papa returning. Ever since he’d rushed to the coast to see if his ships had survived an unseasonal storm, I’d been left to care for my two elder, and rather unpleasant, sisters.

I thought back to our last conversation.

“Beauty, what if my merchandise hasn’t survived the storm? We’ll go bankrupt.”

“As long as we have each other, and as soon as we can teach Stella and Bella the difference between one coin and ten, we’ll be far from poor.”

“Your sisters have asked for Dior gowns and Jimmy Choos. What do you want from Port Clair?”

“The last big party this town had was a hundred and eighteen years ago, when the King lost his way and thought he was at the Duke of Wembley’s. I just want you, preferably with a ship or two worth of Chinese electronics. And if it’s not too much trouble, a red rose from the gardens of the port city.”

As though floating on air, a magnificent limousine turned into our street. It rode stately down the road and pulled to an elegant stop at our door.  The chauffeur jumped nimbly out and opened the passenger door. A hand emerged, holding a rose.

I sighed. Some dreams felt so real. Maybe this was a sign that Papa would return in a few days. Or maybe this was a sign that the day-old meat casserole should not have been eaten. Either way, it was a pleasant dream and I was willing to let it continue.

A particularly loud snort from one of my sisters jolted me out of my reverie. The limo still stood at our door.  Someone was alighting from it.

“Papa”, I whispered incredulously.

*** 

Over the next few days, I discovered from Alastair’s discreet enquiries that the man was a merchant-businessman named Benicio. His ships had met with misfortune and he now stood on the brink of poverty.  While returning home from Port Clair, his car had broken down in the middle of the forest, and before he knew it, he was being chased by wolves.

Despite his ill fate, he seemed optimistic and determined to put his troubles behind him. He talked animatedly about his travels and his daughters. It was evident from his words that above all else, he loved his youngest daughter Beauty.

I observed him discreetly, always from the shadows. Benicio felt my brooding, malevolent presence in the castle, but the only thing he could get out of Alastair was that the master valued his privacy above all else, and was not to be disturbed.

I envied Benicio. For all the riches locked away in my vaults, I was desperately poor. My loneliness and despair ate into me every minute of every day. There seemed no end to the searing pain and heartrending grief that tormented me. Through Benicio’s tales, I imagined myself in a different world.

A week later, Benicio had recovered enough to head back home. On my command, Alastair insisted that Benicio accept gifts of clothes and jewellery from my collection.
I watched from my high tower window as Benicio, laden with parcels, glided towards the gates in my limousine. No one from outside had set foot in my house for over fifteen years, and I felt a twinge as I watched Benicio leave.

As I turned, I heard the car come to a stop. I took one look out the window, and blood pounded in my ears. Benicio had killed my most prized possession. Blind rage gripped me and I ran down the stairs and out into the grounds.

I swooped down on Benicio, locked my hands around his throat and shook him as he stood.

“You impertinent, ungrateful wretch. How dare you touch her? I could kill you right now for what you’ve done to my Ruby Red. It takes years for one to grow and this particular rose was my pride and joy”, I thundered as I rattled Benicio.

Alastair appeared beside me. He placed a cool hand on my shoulder, “Master”.

I let Benicio down. He fell to the ground, rubbing his neck, his eyes filled with fear and panic. He looked up at me, and let out a scream. “Beast”.

That one word rang in my ears like a curse. Even after all these years, hearing it from the lips of this man felt like ice-cold water thrown on my face. I turned on my heel and disappeared into the shadows of the castle, and the darkness of my heart.

“May I enter, p-p-please?”

“What do you want now?”

“A thousand apologies, sir. I am ashamed and appalled at my own behaviour. To think that I have repaid your generosity and hospitality with such ingratitude, and to have insulted you in such an unwarranted and harsh way makes me cringe in shame. I could not live with myself knowing that I have sinned against one as kind and giving as you.”

“I don’t care if you live or die. Be gone, Benicio, before I lose patience.”

“I have been selfish and self-indulgent, my lord. I lost myself in your wholesome hospitality, to the extent that I never even asked for my host’s name. Punish me, my lord, for I have wronged you.”

“You do know my name. You said it yourself. I am The Beast.”

“Please don’t torture me so, my lord. Ask of me what you will, my life itself if you so desire, and I shall give it to you. I am your servant, my lord.”

What I said next came from the deepest, darkest recesses of my pain-corrupted soul.  The words sounded strange and alien to me, and shocked me just as much as they shocked Benicio as I spoke. “Would you be willing to give me your most prized possession in return for mine? Would you give me Beauty?”

*** 

“Papa! You’ve smartened up a bit, haven’t you? I take it the ships survived the storm?”
In truth, Papa looked pale and haggard. His clothes, though expensive, hung on him and his face held all the colour and radiance of Stella’s soups.

He drank me in as though his eyes were parched for water. “Beauty” he said, and burst into tears.

The burnt tang of Bella’s biscuits was widely known to awaken the dead. Between sobs, sips of tea and energising nibbles of coal-like biscuits, Papa told me the story of The Beast. He did not tell me the reason for the name, no matter how much I asked him.

“When he asked for you, I could not refuse. I was bound by my word. Oh Beauty, what have I done?”

“You’ve done me proud, is what you’ve done. I couldn’t live with you knowing you’d gone berserk and destroyed half of some poor man’s hand-raised roses after having belched at his table for a week. Don’t you worry, Papa. I’ll stay with this Beast person for as long as he needs me. I deserve a break anyway, what with slaving after Stella and Bella, while you were away racing wolves and making merry.”

Papa and I sat in silence till the first golden rays of sunlight lit up the rose on the table. My sisters had, incredibly, slept through the night.  I peeped into their rooms one last time to gaze upon their drooling faces. Truth be told, I was looking forward to this adventure.

***

It had been two days since Benicio left, with a promise to send back Beauty. His home was a day’s ride away, and if he was a man of his word, as I believed him to be, she would be arriving today.

Nervous anticipation made me tense. I still could not fully believe what had transpired. Ever since that day, fifteen years ago, when I lost everything, I had shunned human contact. It took years for Alastair to gain my trust again. And now, I was about to open my home, my only refuge, to an unknown person, and that too, a girl.

As I heard the gates creaking open, I knew I did not have it in me to face her just yet. I closed the curtains and sat in the embrace of the shadows.

*** 

All along the way to The Beast’s castle, I pestered the chauffeur, Tim, to tell me something about his master. After chewing half his ear off, he finally admitted that he had never personally seen the man, but Alastair, who seemed to be the whole and soul of the castle, had assured the servants that the master did, indeed, exist.

This piqued my curiosity like nothing else. The Unseen Beast, living in seclusion, shrouded in mystery, surrounded by walls. And I liked nothing better than a challenge.
When the castle loomed into view at the top of a rocky hill, a thrill tingled up my body.
I was met at the entrance by a tall, thin man of aristocratic bearing and a stiff neck. I knew without having to be told that this was the legendary Alastair.

“Madam, it is our pleasure to have you here. I am Alastair. I trust the journey was comfortable?”

“Yes, thank you. And please call me Beauty. I’m not vain, it’s my name.”

Alastair bowed his head. “The Master sends his apologies. He won’t be joining you for dinner. But we have a sumptuous feast prepared in your honour.”

“Will you keep me company, Al?”

“I’ll do my best to keep you entertained, Madam.”

Dinner was a dreary affair. Alastair’s “entertainment” extended to burning his fingers slightly while lighting an extra set of candles to brighten up the proceedings. The castle seemed bereft of electric lights.

 A frightened looking maid led me to my room. She trembled like a leaf when I spoke to her, and answered solely in squeaks of varying pitches. As I lay back in my bed, my soft head resting against the down pillows, I felt I was being watched. The Beast was near.

*** 

I saw her for the first time that night. She was flawless. A rose-cream complexion that even the pale moonlight couldn’t wash away, her slim form draped gracefully on the sheets. As I started to close the hidden door behind the wall-panelling, she jumped out of the bed and jammed her foot in the door.

“Gotcha! I knew you were watching me, you perv. Why are you blending into the woodwork? Out into the open with you, chappie!”

I was stunned into inaction. No one had ever called me “chappie” before.

I emerged into the moonlight, my head bowed, my ears waiting for the inevitable scream and the sound of feet running away from me as fast as they could.

I was met with a thoughtful appraisal.

“Tall and well-built. That’s good. Strong features. A bit charred, but that adds character to your face. All in all, not a bad specimen of a man.”

Stunned, I looked up at her. Her face and voice held no mockery. Her clear eyes looked at my half-burnt, grotesque face with frank honesty.

“A man? I am barely human anymore. Look at this melted face, these red eyes, my claw-like hands. I am not even fit to be called an animal. I am The Beast.”

“Beast-schmeast.  Don’t give yourself too much credit.  All this hype and mystery and nothing to account for it. I don’t think you’ve seen yourself very well.  Take my advice and put some electric bulbs in this castle. Candlelight is fine for a romantic evening, but I don't want to risk going blind in low light.  It’s time for proper introductions now. I’m Beauty.”

“I’m… Richard”. I hadn’t used that name in over fifteen years.

“Rickie, I sense this is the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship. I will expect you at breakfast in the morning. If I have to eat one more meal with Al singeing his gloves, I don’t think I’ll have much appetite left.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. I am the master of this castle. And don’t call me Rickie.” Her flippancy irritated me.

“Riiiiiiiight. Off with  you now, Rickie. Nighty night.”

The door shut in my face.  I stared at it, fuming. Then, I stormed off to my tower.

*** 

I knew now why Papa hadn’t told me much about The Beast. Yes, he was hideous to look at. But his eyes were beautiful. They were large and black, and there was so much sadness in them that they touched my heart immediately. He’d probably been stared at, made fun of, teased and shunned for not looking “normal”. And there was a pain that radiated from him in waves. He needed a friend. And I sensed in him a kindred spirit.

The next morning, and every day after that, Richard and I had our meals together.  He fussed and threw tantrums in the beginning, terrorizing the servants. It didn’t cut any ice with me. I had enough baby-sitting experience to know how to deal with a spoilt child.
Slowly, but surely, I made progress. Every day, I discovered something new about him.

He was well-read and intelligent. He was kind and generous, and the servants, once they got over his appearance, adored him. He played the piano beautifully, and had a way with horses. He was surprisingly easy to talk to, and I found myself sharing my hopes and dreams with him.

We took walks in his beautiful gardens. I could see why he’d raged against Papa. To pick those roses was definitely a crime, they were so exquisite.

He did have a temper. A nasty one. The smallest thing could set it off. On one memorable occasion, he ripped a waistcoat in half right at the dining table because he spilt some eggs on it. Entertaining though it was, it caused my maid to squeak and faint. I had to revive her and give a talk to Richard about table manners. However, if Alastair was to be believed, Richard had never been in better spirits.

*** 

Beauty was just the name for her, inside and out.  One night, I told her about the day I lost everything. It was the day I got my license. All of sixteen years of age, I enthusiastically took my parents and baby sister out for a drive. It was a cold winter’s evening. I did not know there was sleet on the road. I lost control of the car and it spun off the road. We were trapped in the car, all doors were jammed. And we burned inside it.

It was my fault, my inexperience, my over-eagerness and I was the only one who came out of it alive.

Never once did Beauty pity me, blame me or shrink away from me. For the first time in my life, I gave of myself freely. My pain was leaving me like water flowing down my skin. My inner darkness was pierced by warm sunshine. I was in love with her, from the very core of my soul. I dared not tell her that, in case it drove her away.

One fateful day, we rode our horses into the forest together. Beauty wanted to see where the river became a waterfall.  The forest was usually bereft of human presence, but that day, we ran into a hunting party. Four men, rough-set and thuggish, and obviously drunk.

“Where’s the two of you off to, now? There’s a beaut, ain’t she, boys? What’s a piece like you doing with this ugly fella?”

I snarled at him. Beauty was calmer. “Why don’t you gentlemen have a nice day, and we’ll all be going our own ways.”

“Why don’t you make our day better and spend some time with us. We’re getting lonely out here in these woods.” And he pulled Beauty off her horse.

I turned into the Beast that I had been for years. Two of them went down before they knew it. I was grappling with the third, when the fourth man hit me from behind. The world swam before my eyes, a blinding pain drove me senseless. I heard Beauty scream.

*** 

I heard a noise nearby and screamed my lungs out. To my eternal relief, it was a pair of forest rangers, out on patrol. The situation was soon brought under control. The four men were apparently poachers  on the wanted list, and they were swifty cuffed.

I rushed to Richard. He was unconscious, and blood flowed down his temple. It was at that moment that I realised how much I loved him. I cradled his head in my lap and bawled like a baby.

“Richard, please, please wake up. I love you, so much.”

I think it was the flecks of snot falling on his face that made him wake up. He looked adorable, regal and handsome. More handsome than any man I had ever seen. I kissed him, a long, sweet kiss. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. 

 "Who would have ever thought. Beauty and The Beast."

4 comments:

  1. Ha ha ha (lol doesn't do justice to this tale). About time this story was updated anyway. Can't wait to read Cinderfella.

    ReplyDelete
  2. wow! I loved the narration! wonderful take on much loved fairy tale.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks a lot Meenakshi!

      Delete

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