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Oh, I Couldn't Put It Down

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Belle slept late. When she ventured finally from her room, she found a hallway bathed in sunlight from high windows. The gargoyles lining the halls weren’t so frightening now as they’d been the night before, flickering shadows cast upon them by candlelight. The one above the staircase at the end of the hall looked a little like the bookseller, old Monsieur Dumas, like the eye in its long thin face might wink at any moment.

The castle was very still. Perhaps her new friends, clock and candlestick and teapot, were sleeping, too. Perhaps the beast was still abed.

She considered the staircase, the long descent to the kitchen, but at the far end of the hall sunlight poured in through a casement window. She couldn’t help but go to look at it. And there in the side of the hall a doorway opened to a spiral staircase leading up and up and up, brightly lit with squares of sunlight. She reached the top and looked out over a courtyard blanketed in white. She looked and looked.

She turned down the stair again, and this time she took another hallway, and another, until she’d explored the entire tower she’d awoken in. Then she took the staircase down and walked a circuit around the great hall along balconies tapestried and guarded by stern armor. And though she heard voices in the distance, now and again, somehow she never met anyone on the balcony or the stair until she reached the very bottom of the stair.

“Ah, and here she is,” said Lumiere, as smug as though he’d searched her out of some long-lost corner himself. “We were just wondering, would you like a turn in the garden?”

“It’s full of snow,” Belle said wonderingly.

“But you have a cloak, do you not? And we can warm you by the fire afterward. It is beautiful,” he promised with a wink.

So Belle walked upstairs again – her feet knew the way this time, even the once or twice her head was confused – and she put on her cloak, and she joined the beast and the footstool that barked like a dog in the garden. It was as bright and beautiful as it had looked from the rooftop, and as soon as she’d walked the periphery of the garden, she felt as though it was hers.

It was the beast who finally suggested they return to the castle. “Perhaps your feet are cold,” he said.

Belle didn’t mind going back inside, and she didn’t tell think to tell him that her feet weren’t cold at all.

--

The beast promised her a present. He wrapped a ribbon around her eyes and led her down the hall, and she trusted him, somehow. Or she trusted her feet, that they would not betray her. She heard the massive scrape of a door in front of her, and the tug of the beast’s paw on her arm, and she stepped inside.

Belle’s nose filled with the sickly chemicals of ink, the must of old paper, with the odors of treated leather and old glue. The world opened before her, immense. Distantly she was aware of curtains flapping, of the dimness behind the ribbon brightening suddenly and then again, but she could give her attention only to the space that opened suddenly in the center of her and to the certainty that filled it.

Home.

The beast tore the ribbon away from her eyes, too late, his surprise already revealed. Belle opened her eyes and looked at what she knew would be there: the books. They towered above her, they walled her in, they were hers.

“It’s for you,” the beast said.

Belle was slow creeping up the first ladder, and when she reached the top she was slow to look down, but when she finally dared, she saw only polished wooden floor, painted ceiling, and books. Nothing to fear. After that, she climbed every ladder in the place, pushed each one from one end of its track to the other. At first she pulled out a book every so often, read its title, flicked through its pages, but it always ended up back on the shelf, and eventually she quit bothering.

When the shadows by the east-facing windows had grown short, a voice called, “You like it?”

Belle looked down to find the beast standing in the center of her library. “I love it.”

“Do you want to choose a book? We could read together.”

Belle hesitated, but finally she reached out to the nearest shelf. The first volume she touched was of philosophy. The second told the wonders of the world. The third and fourth were mathematics, and she wondered suddenly who had arranged and organized these books. Monsieur Dumas would be horrified.

She would fix it.

With a little searching, she found a book about a cat with a clever tongue and fine leather boots, and that kept her and the beast occupied the rest of the afternoon.

--

Belle ate dinner with the beast that night. She wore a beautiful gown the whole village would have envied – that likely would have bought the whole village, with coin to spare – and she danced and ate soup and sat on a balcony that overlooked the snowed-in courtyard.

The beast gave her another present, a mirror. “It will show anything, anything you wish to see.”

Belle held it in gloved hands and traced her finger over the filagreed frame and thought of what she wanted in all the world to see, and she said, “The library.”

The beast laughed at her as she squinted into the dimness of the mirror. Of course it was dark; there was no one there for whom to keep it lit. Belle pondered. “The university library in Paris.”

Now she had something to look at: high ceilings (though not as high as the ones in her library), bookshelves set into walls and the bases of pillars (but not as many bookshelves as she had), the impression of painted walls, barely visible in the flickering candlelight.

“The national library,” Belle said, and peered at rows of shelves and cabinets that stretched beyond her sight – but it was not a library as fine as hers. She set the mirror aside.

“Would you like to dance again?” the beast asked. “Or—dessert?”

--

Belle woke early. She took the first dress the wardrobe offered, and it was barely on her shoulders before she stepped out the door. The castle was quiet and still around her, watching her go. She strode the hallway, down a flight of stairs, up another – she never paused. She came to those vast library doors. They swung open at a touch.

Belle went to stand in the center of the library, still dim. “Open,” she said, and the drapes did. Morning light streamed in from the east.

When the beast came for Belle, she was hanging from the ladder halfway up the northern wall. A stack of books lay on the floor; she’d painstakingly climbed down the ladder with each and every one. They all needed to go on other shelves, but those shelves were still full.

“Are you finding plenty to read?” the beast asked.

“Yes,” Belle said, distracted. She brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead. “Yes, thank you.”

In the afternoon, he came again. He asked if she wanted to read another book with him.

She reached for the ladder, and it slid into her hand, as easy as the drapes did at her word - though she’d closed them now; too much sun would fade the paper, crack the leather. Better to keep it dim.

It was easier for her to find a suitable story this time.

--

The beast often came to watch her work. “Do you like it?” he asked, more than once. Belle didn’t know why. Would she spend so much time in it if she didn’t like it? It was hers. Of course she liked it, even if she was very tired of climbing up and down ladders.

--

The beast came and stood in the center of the room and called her name. He called it twice, three times, spinning to look for her.

“Yes?” Belle said, wheels sliding smoothly along the track. All her ladders lay in wait. “Would you like a book?”

[end]