She Danced for the Queen
1240 words long
The castle is adept at working transformations.
Notes from the author:
Beauty and the Beast is a remarkably pliant fairy tale. To be sure, there’s a master checklist of recognizable elements: The stolen rose, the transformation curse, the merchant father, the young woman imprisoned in a magical castle, the plea for a temporary freedom, the nightly ritual question “Will you marry me?” But they don’t all have to be present. A representative sample suffices. And as for Beauty’s backstory, that’s entirely up to the author. She’s been a bookworm, she’s been a gardener, but she could as easily be a plumber, a computer programmer, or a dancer. She doesn’t have to be beautiful at all.
When the sun touches the horizon, Beauty opens the castle door and steps out into the courtyard. She hesitates there by the fountain as though choosing between two paths. There are two paths, but there is no choice, not really. No choice, at least, that she can see.
One of those paths leads away from the castle, into the forest and through it, back to the ordinary world. There are tall, ornate gates across that path, and they are closed. Beauty knows there is no point in taking that path. As long as the gates are closed, there is no real choice.
She takes the other path, which leads into the garden.
Her name is not really Beauty. She grew up answering to another name. Dancing masters shouted it at her like the crack of a whip. Parents crooned it to her and spoke it to others with pride. And for one brief week, her name filled the Queen’s auditorium, radiating light from the marquee, booming with acclaim in the voice of adoring crowds. But it’s been so long since she heard it spoken that she’s almost forgotten what it was. It’s simpler just to call her Beauty.
The roses in the garden nod in greeting. She nods gravely back, passing between them to take her seat at the head of the long, stone table. Every evening she finds that table groaning under the weight of a vast banquet: twenty covered dishes, five bottles of wine, clear water and creamy milk each in their cut-glass pitcher, baskets of delicate rolls paired with plates of butter and chutney. Each night she sits at the single place setting, and the castle’s magic fills her plate and glass.
She drinks water, not wine, and hardly touches the food. Anticipation, hope, and dread kill her appetite. Besides, she never could perform on a full stomach.
In the center of the table there is a vase. Once upon a time it held a rose, which she stole. These days, the vase is empty.
At the opposite end of the table there crouches a vague stone form. It looks like a statue that has endured years of wind and weather, its carefully chiseled lines having melted like wax. But it has not been here as long as the stone table, whose finely detailed ornamentation remains as sharp as ever.
The last red-gold crescent of the sun loses itself beneath the horizon. Beauty rises from her seat and begins to dance.
The castle is adept at working transformations. It transformed a man into a Beast, once, and later worked a second transformation upon him. It transformed a jailer and his prisoner into friends, and then into something more. With the years, it has also transformed Beauty.
She was a dancer, once, and a very good one. She ought to be; she’d worked at it all her life. She was on her way home from a triumphant recital when the storm separated her from the company’s caravan and blew her through the castle’s gates. And when, a month later, she begged the Beast’s leave to go, it was to rejoin her company for one long-anticipated performance.
“It was all I wanted, in my old life: to dance before the Queen. And my company have at last received the invitation for which we--I among them--worked so hard.” She gestured toward the oracle bowl, frozen on the instant of revealing Beauty’s old dancing master with the royal correspondence in his hand. “Let me dance with them. Just one night. Please. Let me have this one dream, and then I’ll come home and dream of nothing else.”
Beauty never understood later why this request he granted when he had granted so few before, and certainly none of this magnitude. Perhaps something changed for him when he heard her call the castle home. Whatever the reason, he softened beneath her pleading gaze. He gave a long, deep, world-ending sigh and let her go. The gates opened for her. The road took her back through the forest and into the ordinary world. She brought nothing with her but the dress she’d worn to dinner and the rose--given, this time, not stolen--in her hand. When she danced that night, she wore the rose in her hair.
The crowd came to its feet and cheered and called her name. The Queen crossed the stage to take each wondering performer’s hand in turn; Beauty’s hand she held the longest of all. Their eyes met and something sparked there, something that made Beauty catch her breath and curse her circumstances. Then Beauty’s old dancing master pulled her aside and said, “Listen to them. It’s you they love. If we go onstage without you tomorrow night, I fear there will be murder.”
So she stayed. She danced with them the next night, and the next. And the spark she’d shared with the Queen fell on dry tinder and grew to a blaze.
Then one night, sleepless beside the sleeping Queen, she found herself staring at a thorny stick that stood dry in a vase on the table beside the bed. She wondered why it was there. Wondered, and then, with a sick jolt, remembered.
“I cannot live long without you,” he had said. She’d protested, citing his centuries of solitude before she came. He had laughed, a bittersweet rumble like a distant earthquake. “That is the danger of joy. It changes you. I am not the same Beast I was before you arrived. Listen: when the rose loses its first petal, I will have begun to die. Return to me before the last petal falls, or not at all.”
She did not hesitate. She ran. She took nothing with her but the gown she’d worn to bed and the rose stem she’d snatched from the vase. By the time she arrived at the castle, her hand was bleeding freely from the thorns. She didn’t care. All that mattered to her was finding her Beast, finding him alive--he must be alive--and telling him what she’d finally realized: that the spark she’d seen in the Queen’s eyes, with its potential for flame, she’d seen before in the eyes of her Beast. She’d been seeing it all along, and never knew. She thought she’d die if she never saw it again.
She found the Beast exactly where she’d left him when the rose was new.
She was a dancer, once. But the castle, adept at working transformations, has transformed her over the endless evenings she’s endured since her return. Now, she is the dance itself. Had she danced like this on the Queen’s stage, there would have been no applause when the dance was done, nor even the sound of breathing. She is dance incarnate, and it is dangerous to watch her.
She no longer thinks of the Queen, or her old dancing master, or the crowd in the auditorium. She dances for only one person now. When the last light of the twilight fades to black and her dance comes to its end, she drops to her knees before the weathered maybe-statue, rests her arms on its maybe-knees, looks up pleading into its maybe-face.
“I love you, my Beast,” she says, “and I do want to marry you.”
But tonight is no different from last night or the night before, and the stone says nothing at all.
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