I have real issues with beauty, and with Beauty.
My self-image (by which I mean not my sense or idea of self, but the literal, visual image of my own face and body) is constantly in flux. This is, perhaps, because bodies are constantly in flux. We are human and therefore animal. As humans, our bodies grow, shrink, scar, develop, age and die. Our bodies change, and much of this change is out of our control. Which fact has terrorized and traumatized me since I hit puberty and continues to do so. It's not just me, right? I mean, bodies are weird. You get one, and you're stuck with it, and all sorts of wonderful and vile things can happen to it - and you're stuck with that too, and then there it is: the history of your life written on your body. And even if you do nothing at all, will you or nil you, your body will change and just keep changing, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. What fascinatingly bizarre out-of-control meatbags we all are!
Bodies are weird, but the way we tend to separate the idea of "self" from the idea of "body" -- in Western culture at least - is even weirder. We have a nasty habit of pretending that the mind is not the body, even though we know the brain is just as much composed of flesh as the rest of us. We pretend that the mind and the brain can be separated neatly, and play out silly and horrific stories based on this premise on the Hollywood screen (All of Me, Freaky Friday, Prelude to a Kiss).
"Beauty and the Beast" is my favorite fairy tale (or folk tale, or literary tale, depending on your outlook and your source material), and depends upon this very dichotomy of mind and body. It depends on our ability to think that a man can still be a man or a prince still a prince, though trapped in a beast's body.
I like some similar tales, too ("The Frog Prince," "Hans My Hedgehog"), but "Beauty and the Beast" is where it's at. I love the Disney version and Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete on which the Disney film is largely based. I love the live-action film musical I caught on TV as a child, and the videocassette of that musical that I watched over and over. I love Robin McKinley's Beauty and Rose Daughter. Years ago, the original working title for my own short story (which I shelved for a long time, then returned to, revised and rewrote) was "Beastly." Then, of course, I came across Alex Flinn's Beastly, and loved it as well (and gave up on my original title).
I think the reason that "Beauty and the Beast" means more to me than similar fairy tale variants is that "Beauty and the Beast," for me, has always been about Beast's redemption arc. (Other human-to-animal transformation tales, like "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," also include redemption arcs, but those are usually built around the redemption of the non-transformed bride.) Beast fascinates me because his sin is written on his body. In a sense, his sin is his body. His behavior is beastly, he himself is beastly, and therefore, hey-presto-chango, he is a beast.
The witch's motivations for turning him into one have always somewhat eluded me. I can only imagine that she goes around turning men into monsters as more-or-less a form of community service, a way of figuratively holding up a sign along the lines of: "Warning! This fellow is monstrous! To be avoided at all costs!"
As a modern-day audience, we are often told to interpret the story as a lesson in how to "look past" external appearances, and we laud Beauty for seeing the (good) man inside the (ugly) Beast. But it seems that, if that is the game we are playing, we should laud the witch as well; for she sees "past" a beautiful exterior to a corrupt interior. The difference is that the witch transforms the prince with magic while Beauty limits herself to the transformative power of love. At their respective moments of glory in the story, the witch and Beauty have fundamentally the same job: making the prince's outside match his inside.
And I take comfort from this, this perfect synthesis, this recognition in a fairy tale that, in the end, the mind and the body inform one another. Form one another. Beast's transformation is horrific, but he can get over it. Because he can learn. Because he can change. Because the mind is not just an organism housed in the body, like a hermit crab in a shell.
When the prince is a beast, he becomes Beast; when Beast is a prince, he becomes a prince. If the story's final transformation is the same in nature (matching inside to outside) as its first, then it seems to me that there is no reason to assume Beast's curse ever ended, or ever will.
This story is about taking that premise to its logical if problematic conclusion.
The old witch hung a bundle of dried rosemary on a peg above her window and watched a cloaked horseman as he clopped up the road. The wooden pegs above and below her window were getting crowded. She always ended up with an overabundance of rosemary.
Rosemary was lousy in spells but great for cooking, which was most of what she seemed to do these days. Oh, she still got the odd request for love potions and curses that brought down boils or minor itching upon one's enemies, but it had been a long time since anyone had asked her for a draught that would let them kill ogres, grow eyes in the back of their head or gain the ability to dance for seven days and seven nights without rest. Even if she were still receiving orders for such things, she was not sure she had the strength to carry them out any longer. Spells tended to deteriorate along with the body of the witch who cast them.
"It happens to the best of us," she reminded herself, something that she was doing with increasing frequency. No witch had ever successfully brewed up an immortality potion, at least not without the unfortunate side effect of turning herself into a frog. No one in their right mind could want to be an immortal frog--even if the ridiculous woman had decided that she liked it after the first few decades and had gone around encouraging all her friends to give it a try. The old witch snickered. It was hard work explaining to a happy, well-adjusted frog why you wouldn't want to be one.
She needed to water her herbs, the witch noted. They sat in big clay pots outside her window. The lemongrass had gotten scraggly again and the parsley was drooping like a kicked dog. She had put them under the eave of her cottage to protect them from the sun at midday, but they never got enough rain there. The sweet marjoram, of course, had escaped the confines of its pot a long time ago and was now encroaching upon the area of the garden reserved for tomatoes. "Oh go on, grow," she told it, though she should not have. Plants understand witches some of the time and sarcasm never.
A knock came at her door. The knocker was iron, though it was painted to look like wood, so people tended to bang it a little harder than they needed to. As she made her way to the front of the cottage, her swollen ankles reminded her that she was running low on the ointment she used to ease her arthritis. Then she remembered that her neighbor had complained of her wrists starting to hurt while she knitted.
"Better make that a double batch," the witch muttered, stepping over a ginger tom who was lying--of course--precisely in the path the door would have to swing when she opened it. She nudged him with her pointed shoe. "Go on, get," she said. The tom regarded her expectantly. "No I am not going to pick you up, you fool animal. Get, you." She prodded him again for emphasis. The cat, looking very put upon, pulled himself laboriously to all four paws, stretched and stalked away, tail held high. "Hmph. What kind of familiar are you?" she asked his receding backside. Of course, Simon was not really a familiar; he was just company.
She opened the door a crack and stared out at the stranger with her black, beady eyes. "Stop bothering me!" she snapped. "Go away!" The neighborhood folk wouldn't fall for it anymore, but this man was no kind of local. His cloak wasn't patched and his boots were too well made. She started to slam the door in his face, but he managed to shove the toe of his well-made boot between the door and the jamb just in time. She heard a muffled yelp. The stranger's boot was made of the supple calfskin that noblemen liked to wear. That must have hurt.
He was doing well so far. People who left when she told them to had no business dealing with a witch.
"Please, Madam Witch," he said. "I beg of you to speak with me."
Well, wasn't he a polite young fellow?
"It's Miss Witch to you, young man. I never married," she told him, but she let the door fall open anyway. The stranger had the modulated tenor voice of a young, well-educated man, but she could not tell much more about him than that. He held his head down and the hood of his cloak pulled over his face as if he were ashamed of it.
"Well," she said. "What's your business? A curse? A love potion?" Maybe he had the face of a toad under that hood. Most of the young people who asked her for love-spells were either ugly or determined to believe they were. If he had the face of a toad, that would explain why he was hiding it.
"I've already got a curse, you see. Your curse. I-I was hoping you would lift it."
The witch gave him a long, considering stare that her ginger tom would have envied. "Young man, I've not cursed anyone in a dozen years."
"It was twenty years ago, I think, Mada-er, Miss Witch. I was younger and-and very, very stupid. My friends and I came upon you napping under a bridge, and we-we mocked you--"
"You threw rocks at me." Her voice had gone cold. She recognized him now, though the voice under the hood sounded smoother and milder than it did in her memory of it. A young noble and his pack of wolves had woken her up with such loving endearments as 'Ugly' and 'Turnip-nose.' They had thrown rocks at her until she danced for them like a performing bear. "You made me dance."
"Yes, Miss Witch. We treated you like an animal."
"Even a real bear deserves more respect than that, Highness."
That did explain the hood. If she remembered correctly, she had turned him into some kind of cross between a snake, a hedgehog and a rat.
"First of all," the prince began, "I want to apologize--"
"You did at the time, as I recall. On your knees."
"True. But that meant nothing. I only begged forgiveness then because I thought that was all it would take for you lift the curse."
That was too funny. The witch cackled, loud and long. Cackling was one of the few witchy skills that improved with age. Through the tears that pricked behind her eyes, she fumbled to an armchair and dropped herself into it, still laughing. "And what have you come for now?" she prompted.
"To ask you to lift the--oh. Yes, I do see how this must look from your perspective."
The spell she had cursed him with had a particular kind of loophole. All of her curses had been made with loopholes, so that she would not have to regret them later. His curse was not the kind that needed undoing. "I never turned you into that beast, highness. You--"
"I already was that beast; you simply made it clear to all."
"Why, yes," the witch said, surprised. If he knew that, what was he doing forcing his unprotected toes through her doorway?
"We figured it out eventually. It's a curse of inversion, isn't it? It shows people what you are--really are--on the inside, on the outside." He lifted his head, allowing the hood of his cloak to fall back from his face. "For sweet charity's sake, Miss Witch, undo it."
Now that is just not fair, she thought. Then she thought: Ugly. Then she thought: Turnip-nose. Then she thought of how the skin hung loose at her neck and the flab trembled at her upper arms. He looked like an angel. It was impossible not to think of the great, bulbous thing called a nose that God had slapped in the center of her face like a joke, her skin hung on her legs like wrinkled stockings, her stringy pewter hair.
"Do you understand now?" the angel asked, his desperate hope only increasing his suffocating aura of saintliness.
His skin did not glow, not really, but it was so clean and so smooth that she got the unmistakable impression of a nimbus of light surrounding him. His soft blond locks curled gently to his shoulders, reflecting the light from her little window like polished gold. His cheekbones were high and pronounced, but his face still managed to keep a youthful, rounded look to it. His delicate nose was straight and even and turned up ever so gently at the tip. He looked a great deal like the rude young man she remembered, only seven times as pretty.
"Oh yes," she answered with a sneer. "I'm sure that perpetual youth and beauty is a terrible burden." Not that she would know. She wanted to stab him through the heart.
"I have a wife," he said. He wrung his hands, and somehow even the pitiful gesture became beautiful. "She fell in love with me, even though I was still a monster. I loved her for that. Love her. Every day I love her more."
"How tragic," the old witch muttered.
He began to pace. "Every day she gets older, and every day I love her that much more. For choosing me. For growing old with me. And every day I get a little better for having loved her. Her name is Beauty, don't you see?"
She did see. It would feel like getting robbed, to watch your husband get prettier and never age a day, while you turned into an old woman. "She sounds like a very superficial girl," the witch hazarded. Surely couples had faced worse problems.
He stopped pacing and stared at her. "No. She is not. She could love me as a Beast. But. She says she cannot love a perfect thing.
"I tried to burn my face off. I took a hot poker and burned two long lines from my forehead to my chin before Beauty caught me and wrenched the thing from my hands. She scolded me for it, but when the scars healed right up in the middle of her tongue-lashing--well you could just see the disappointment in her eyes! She has amazing eyes," he added wistfully. "So expressive."
The witch tried very hard to pity him, but could not quite wrap her mind around it. Here she was, a twisted old crone, listening to the sob story of a man more beautiful than any human being had any right to be--
No. That was not so. She scowled. She had put the curse on him in the first place, and the people she cursed only ever got exactly what they deserved.
That was his real problem, she realized. His wife could not blame her husband's nauseating loveliness on mere heritage or the whims of chance. He really had earned it. By being good.
The prince sank gracefully to his knees before her armchair. The arch of his neck was perfect. The way his neck met his shoulders was also perfect. He lowered his gaze to her shoes. A body could make an inkbrush out of his eyelashes. "We have children," he murmured. "Beauty and I. Soon, they will be older than I am. Please. I swear I will pay any price you ask."
The old witch sucked a long breath through her teeth as the glee she had felt as a younger and much stronger witch came back to her in a flood. Absolute power. That's what he was offering her. Absolute power over a prince who also just happened to be the most beautiful man she had ever seen. And he had been mean to her. Ugly and twisted as she was, she could take this prince, this angel, and promise him that she would lift his curse, even though she knew that she could not. She could punish him--
For what? For his beauty? That was as much her fault as his, and she had punished him for his meanness long ago. He could not be mean now. He probably carried baskets for little old ladies like herself and was kind to children and small animals. He was probably kind to everyone.
Even the witch who had cursed him.
She felt sick. As tempting as it had been for a few moments, she did not really want him. She could not love a perfect thing, either.
"There is no antidote," she admitted. Love was supposed to solve everything.
His perfect eyes brimmed with perfect tears that clung to his perfect eyelashes like diamonds. He allowed them to fall freely to the dirt floor. "Can you curse me again, at least? Make me ugly like before, or turn me into a frog or something?"
The witch shook her head, suddenly very tired.
She leaned back into the plush of her armchair. "Impossible," she told him. In order to make him ugly, she would have to first lift the original curse, and even if she had the strength to lift a curse she had laid when she was in her prime--which she did not--she would not have known how to go about it. That curse was not supposed to need lifting.
"Thank you anyway," the prince said, and kissed her knobbly hand as if he meant it. "For listening, and for allowing me to apologize. I am truly grateful."
And he was.
"Oh just get out of here. I'm sick of looking at you."
"I understand," the prince said, and rose without brushing off his knees. The dirt seemed to drop from his trouser legs of its own accord. He pulled his hood back over his face. It was obvious he was still weeping as he stumbled back to her door, nearly tripping over Simon, who was back in his favorite spot. The prince apologized to the cat with perfect sincerity.
Kind to children and small animals.
"Your Highness," she called after him, because she realized that she really did pity him, in some strange fashion.
He turned back to her, all attention. He had gotten more beautiful on his journey from her feet to the door.
"You could try being a little worse."
He gave her a sad, polite smile like a gift from Heaven and made his way out of her cottage, closing the door behind him.
The old witch sighed. Perhaps she did have a few regrets. Who didn't, at her age?
She might have one new regret, but she still had a batch of anti-ache cream to brew and plants to water. As long as she was going to give a pot of the ointment to her neighbor, she might as well invite the woman over for some vegetable stew. Her cabbages were doing especially well, and it's hard to cook for one in a cauldron.
* * * *
Katherine Heath Shaeffer is a writer and graduate student who lives in Gainesville, Florida with her boyfriend and three cats. She is the current Production Editor of the academic journal ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, and she has a short story forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction.
Penumbra's next issue will be released on June 1, 2011.