Curses are queer things. Settling down, at times, with a crash in the darkness. Others, they start as a whisper in a corner of a village. The whisper curling down alleyways, slowly growing claws and scales and teeth until it is ready to take flight, to breathe fire, to reign.
Beauty wriggles in her bed, unwilling still to leave the downy comfort in exchange for feet on a cold floor. Sleep won’t come again, now that sunlight streams across her pillow, and an unfortunate pressure has settled heavy in her bladder. She likes waking up, putting herself together, recognizing herself once more in the mirror. But this errand is one she likes least: the fumbling for the thing between her legs and the ghostly trickle of hot urine from within to without.
It is done with soon enough, though the shudder doesn’t quite leave Beauty’s shoulders until her undergarments are back in place, her stockings on, her gown laced, and her hair brushed and braided in a style suitable for her age. There. She pinches her cheeks and practices a gentle smile. There.
Marie looks up from breakfast and drops her coffee cup with a clatter. “Go back upstairs,” she hisses, trying -- Beauty can tell -- to keep her gestures small so that the rest of the family will not notice, but it is too late. Three more faces swing to where the stairway meets the great hall, and three more faces drop with disappointment, confusion, and loathing.
This has never happened before.
Something is wrong. Beauty shifts from one foot to the other, twisting her fingers together. “Good morning,” she tries, but nothing is to be done. Her father, the father of these four girls, shoves back from the table and, beet red, crouches before Beauty.
“Do not join us again until you decide to join us as you are.”
The words are darkly coded, and though she isn’t sure what Father means, Beauty can feel the threat deep in her spine. She takes a step back, and then another. When she starts to run out the door and into the woods, she can feel it -- the curse -- filling the air and choking her.
Out of breath, and unsure just where she has run, Beauty finally slows to a stop, leaning heavy against a tree to gasp and shudder. Why she thinks, with every thud of her heart. Is she crying? She doesn’t know.
“Dry your tears,” a wrinkled voice says, disembodied in the wood. Beauty looks up, sees a handkerchief extended from twisted fingers. Then, a cloak, a tired face and tangled hair. Hesitant, Beauty reaches for the cloth and takes it to her cheeks. It smells of lavender and smoke. “When you were born, the village was filled with celebration and feasting. I still remember the sizzle of meat on the spit, the beer sloshed on my sleeve as we toasted your birth.” The old woman’s lips twist into a thin smile. “A son, even after three beautiful daughters, is cause for celebration.”
“Until now, you have been blessed with something countless others have lacked. Beau,” Beauty cringes at the name and squeezes the handkerchief tight in her hand. “You will not always have the buffer of family at your side to stand between you and the world. This may seem like a curse now, but when you learn to stand on your own, no matter what others see, the darkness will fall away. You will breathe, unrestricted.”
This time, Beauty recognizes the tears springing to her eyes. “I don’t want any of this. I’ve never asked for this.”
“None of us do.” She prises the cloth from Beauty’s hand and dabs, gentler than Beauty might have imagined, at the young eyes. “Find someone who recognizes you through the mask. Find someone who sees Beauty in Beau. Until then, the curse will stand.”
“I don’t believe you,” Beauty shouts, wanting to lash out, wanting to fall to the ground and pound her fists against the unforgiving earth. “I don’t believe you,” she shouts again, louder, but the woman is gone, now. Of course Beauty believes. She knows it in her heart, the way she knows everything.
Time and curses do not follow logic or reason.
In the beginning, far beyond anything Beauty can remember or comprehend, perhaps they both set out in straight lines, pressing grids to the earth. The naming of things, the definition. The only definition Beauty knows now is the separation between those who recognize the smoke lingering between bodies and those who seem to ignore it.
Winter sets. Marie and Claire and Madeliene say “Beau” as if their tongues had never forgotten the name. They lead Beauty around the castle, passing her books to read while their hands busy themselves with sewing and knitting and petting the cats. The servants bow and call her “Master.” They do not fumble, they do not make sweeping gestures and smile at their four small mistresses.
It grows harder to breathe. Harder to speak. Harder to fight.
Spring comes then, as it always does, with the announcement of a ball. Marie and Claire and Madeliene sit with a dressmaker and press fabric samples between their breasts with delight. A haberdasher attends to Beauty, never noting or asking about the dresses in her closet where trousers are made to be. He measures for britches, codpiece, vest, and boot. He examines her close and sees only Beau. That is all any of them see.
On the afternoon, Beauty’s sisters and servants gather around her like they used to. They tug and pinch and press and button, but this time when they step away and Beauty regards herself in the mirror, she pinches her cheeks and her smile looks hollow, foreign.
Everything about the ball is wrong. The lights too bright, the music too loud. The press of the crowd feels suffocating, hot, and unfortunate. Beauty is paraded and lead and made to touch sweating palms. They curtsy and bow to her, murmuring “sir” and “Beau” and Beauty can feel the sickness rising in her throat. The curse is choking her now, and it is a wonder that in this over-lit room no one else can see it.
The balconies, at least, allow her room to breathe the poisoned air. Beauty looks out into the darkness and does not think of the woman in the woods, or the mother who died touching her cheek, whispering “my beautiful girl,” or the lucky father of four young women. She thinks, perhaps for the first time, about the distance from where she stands to the ground below.
“Excuse me.” The sweet whisper slinks out into the night and cups Beauty’s cheek. She turns, caught off guard and off balance by the way the boots grip her feet.
“Yes?” Beauty snarls, knowing that the word will act as a slap. She knows the power of words, now. Knows the pain they can inflict.
“I am sorry to interrupt your solitude, but wished to dance...” The girl shrugs, making the stiff bodice of her gown lift and drop. Her thick hair falls in curls around her shoulders.
“I do not wish to--”
“To be here at all?” she finishes, corners of her mouth and eyes lifting. “Unfortunately, for the child of a lord, these events are quite unavoidable.”
Beauty raises an eyebrow and drops a hand against her breeches, missing violently and suddenly the pouf of taffeta beneath her fingers. “You are familiar with the feeling?”
The girl takes a bold step forward. “I am certain we’ve met before, at an event much like this one. You were not so despondent, then.”
“You have me confused with another,” Beauty says, frowning.
“Dance with me, and perhaps you will remember.” Another step forward and the edge of the girl’s skirt nearly brushes Beauty’s ankles. The cool wind shifts, tugging at a curl.
Beauty wordlessly offered her hand to the girl, unaware and unstartled when she tucks Beauty’s hand in the crook of her elbow.
The dance is a quick one, and the moves come easy. This, at least, Beauty knows how to perform. They move close and singly. Beauty’s fingers tingle when curls rest against them for brief moments, the pulse beneath her palm churning forward. The room shifts and spins around them, heat gathering and pooling. “My name is Sandrine,” Beauty’s partner whispers, and her fingers briefly flex around Beauty’s waist. The music stops, then, and the world returns to focus. Beauty opens her mouth to reply, but stops when she feels the weight of eyes. Hundreds of them, watching the pair.
Beauty’s heart thuds, pounds, breaks. She jerks her hands back to herself -- they have been dancing as man and woman, as they should have done, but Sandrine has played the man.
In the buzzing silence, Beauty forces the words “Mine is Beau,” forces her tongue to cooperate, to make the right sounds.
Sandrine laughs then, the sound wide and loud and golden. Beauty watches her throat, her teeth, the shadow where her dress falls against her collarbone. Her gloved fingers come at Beauty’s neck and despite the flinch that comes, work deftly at the single braid that falls down her back. “You speak as one unconvinced, as well you should.” Her fingers move between pale strands and rest, finally, on Beauty’s shoulders. “You and I know that Beau does not exist. It is Beauty who stands before me, who has stood before me all this evening.”
The silence is painful, then, as Beauty inhales sharply. Her father’s guests all seem to do the same, their lungs working as one. Finally, strangely, Beauty feels the cinch fall away from her chest, sees the darkness dissipate, sees it fall from eyes and hearts alike.
Beauty’s limbs feel free and loose and wonderful. She takes one of Sandrine’s hands and squeezes it. She does not speak, not because she cannot, but because the words for this feeling have not yet been invented. Even still in breeches and codpiece, she is no longer fearful. She looks around once more. The crowd is full of smiling faces, but one stands out. A woman, gray and wrinkled stands taller than the rest, her hair twisted back, her hands clutching a handkerchief.
“My Beauty,” booms her father, and the room explodes in sound.