A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP). Her fiction and essays appear in Indiana Review, The Southeast Review, The Madison Review, Apex Magazine, Shimmer and many others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief of Cartridge Lit. On twitter @aabalaskovits
Some children are born believing that there are monsters under the bed, witching and wheedling their way from their dark confines towards the light of a baby’s eyeballs. If they make it that far, past screams and parents armed with brooms, the monster will settle in the child’s head and make a gallery of terror and wonder to keep them entertained for the rest of their lives. “It’s only your imagination,” their parents will tell their weeping children, frustrated at the bed wetting and screaming once the moon rises, but it is only because they too forgot that they have monsters living behind their eyes as well, and have long grown used to the presence.
For the children who grew up in the village surrounding the high tower on the top of the hill, they knew the monster did not wait under their beds or behind their eyes, but was biding its time.
Belle heard the stories of the monster on the hill from her father. Depending on the telling, the monster was as big as a house (which is why he needed to live in such a large place) or as thin as a piece of paper. It had sharp teeth or a mouth full of bleeding gums, but regardless of what it looked like, all of the villagers were stuck with its looming presence, and occasionally it would creep out into the night and steal children from their beds to live in the castle with it.
“Is it lonely, then?” Belle asked. “To steal such company.”
“Hungry, I imagine,” her father said. He always made sure the windows were locked tight at night and placed sheets under the doorways, so if the monster made its journey down to their small home, it would not smell Belle’s even breath as she slept.
In the town there were rumblings from the residents that the bravest of the boys should go and kill it and share the spoils of the tower. The only thing that matched the intensity of what the monster must look like was what the monster kept locked away in its home: all manner of gold and silver and at least a handful of rubies, plus all the food and clear water in the world, which seemed even more valuable when the cold swept past their heads and the land refused to grow each winter. Each time the snow settled into its yearly fall, the people would grow hungry enough to arm themselves with pitchforks and hammers and gather at the local tavern to talk about raising the place and ending the monster once and for all, but they’d always have one drink for courage and another for secondary courage, and then one for young Peter’s birthday which fell around the Holidays, and then another for old Tom who had died years ago but who was remembered as a good man with silver hair and a quick smile. Soon enough, it was morning and they were all head-sick, and so they went home to sleep it off and try again tomorrow, starting with one drink for courage.
Belle, her belly rumbling and her hands shaking, decided that since she didn’t remember Tom that well and wasn’t fond of drink anyway, she should be the one to make her way to the tower. Her father was withering and there was only so much she could sell of their meager possessions to have bread for the table. If she could not rely on the men to go and release the riches from the castle then she was perfectly capable of it herself. When her father was in bed, tucked in with thin blankets and a cloth wrapped around his left hand where his thumb had rotted off last winter, she kissed his forehead and bade him pleasant dreams. She wore her heaviest coat and the shoes with only the beginnings of a hole in the sole and went out into the night. She passed the tavern with the drunks and heard their war cries and, while they were not meant for her, she felt rallied by them all the same.
As she walked, she came across a huddle of old women who, curious to see someone walking towards the tower at such a time, or at all, asked her what she was up to. When she told them, they crossed themselves and started to weep into their hands, which Belle thought was a bit much. They explained that they actually believed the monster was not a monster (after all, no one had actually seen the thing) but was actually a cursed royal who had done a bad thing to someone who was probably dead by now.
“It’s a shame” they told her, “to suffer for the mistakes of the past.”
“What else would we suffer for?” she wondered, but all the same she said that was true and bid them a good evening.
“Suffering is the great sin,” they told her retreating body, but that only confused her more. What difference was suffering through a curse compared to suffering from hunger or a broken body? Her father had lost that thumb to freezing last winter digging through the snow for a single root to boil and eat. He had not been able to find any roots, but Belle, clever as she was, used that thumb to make the stock for a thin soup that lasted them through the coldest days.
Her hands, she thought, were nothing particularly special, but she looked down at the cracked skin and chewed nails and thought, well, at least they are lean. And attached.
When she made her way to the entrance to the tower, huffing with exertion, she collapsed at the doors. The sound of her body hitting the cold, old wood reverberated through her and through the entire tower. She was only laying at the entry way for a few moments before the door creaked open a little, and two glowing, bleary eyes narrowed at her.
“What do you want?” a strangled voice asked her.
“Right now,” Belle replied, “a fire to warm my toes. But I’ll settle for a polite hello.”
“Hello,” the voice said gruffly. “Is that all you came for?”
Belle laughed at that. “I think I might freeze to death out here,” she said, chattering her teeth.
The voice sighed, as if to really drive home the point that the girl was putting it out, and opened the door. If Belle had been warm, and her belly full of food, she may have had the energy to express her horror at the monster before her, but as it was she was too cold and too hungry, and so could offer little more than a slight baring of her teeth at him. It was not the patched fur, like a dog with mange that covered his body, or the thin, pointed horns jutting out of his head, or even his paunched belly that sagged on the ground, its back hunched over by the weight, but that he had eyes the color of gold, that glinted so unnaturally, Belle felt revulsion at the gaze.
He swept her up in his arms and carried her into the tower. Every room they passed, though it was sparsely decorated, had a fire roaring, and Belle felt herself feeling more like herself the more the beast brought her deeper into the tower. He deposited her, not entirely gently, on a bed so soft she thought she would fall into the covers and never make her way out.
“You’re nothing more than skin and bones,” the beast said to her. “You’ll get one carrot and you will warm up and then you will leave.”
“Is that all you can spare?” Belle asked. “A single carrot?”
“You didn’t earn it,” he told her, “so I am being more than generous.” He then left her, and Belle fell into a comfortable rest. Later, when she awoke, there was a single carrot lying next to her on the bed, with the green stem and dirt still attached. She chomped on it spitefully.
She felt better with that little bit in her belly, and decided this was all very much a lost and fairly stupid cause. She would try to make her way into wherever he was keeping the food and stuff as much as she could in her dress pockets and carry the rest and bring it back to her father and the rest of the villagers to eat. It might not be much, for she had shallow pockets and thin arms, but it might, if they ration, be enough to make it through the winter.
Unfortunately, she did not know the direction of the kitchens or pantries, and took to tiptoeing around so as not to run into the monster again. She found, instead of food, pictures depicting ancient battles and nude women so fat Belle could not believe they existed except in perverse imagination. She found creaking furniture covered in dust, and long tables with cobwebs. Whatever riches the townspeople imagined were here, well, they would have been disappointed if they ever managed to make their way up the hill.
She did, however, find a library, or a room that was supposed to be one, but now had more shelves than books. The ones that were left were very old, and when she attempted to lift up the cover of one particularly large text, it blew up enough dust to make her cough.
“You’re still here,” the monster said, grumbling and looming behind her.
“Yes,” she said, because that was a true statement.
He looked, for a moment, like he wanted to rip her head off and be done with the whole mess, but instead he looked over at the book she had tried to open, and narrowed his eyes at her. “You know how to read,” he said.
“No,” she said, because that was also a true statement. “But my father knows how to, and he would read to me. I like the pictures. He had only one book, you see. I’m not sure where he got it, I suppose he bought it when I was younger and we had a little extra money, before the winters became so cold. It’s a book about cakes, you see, all sorts of cakes. One of the photos is of a cake so large it is bigger than the women who baked it!”
“You won’t like my books,” he said.
“No pictures?” she asked.
“There are pictures,” he said slowly.
“Well,” she said, feeling a challenge. “Show me.”
She supposed she should be shocked at the photos in the first book he showed her, but she had seen such things in person, and so this historical treatise about how to bury the dead did not shock her so much as make her think it was, perhaps, written out of date, for no one oiled the body and set it on fire anymore. What a waste of grease.
“These don’t bother you?” he said, and Belle could hear the awe in his voice.
Why would what you live with shock you, she thought, but stayed quiet as he continued to tell her about how these books frightened him, how he used to lay awake and dream of death and starvation and all manner of horrors, and so he collected these books and forced himself to look at the photos to numb himself to it, but it only made it worse, and so he stopped looking entirely, and they had gone to waste in this room.
“It’s nothing I have not seen myself,” she said.
“Of course,” he said, his glowing eyes large and focused on her. “I suppose now you’ll want more of my food.”
Thinking this was his way of asking her to get out, she said that she would be happy to leave, and thank you for the hospitality, such that it was, though the hunger aching in her belly indicated this was a lie.
“I suppose it’s too cold for you to go out now. You’ll only make it halfway and then you’ll freeze to death,” he took a long sniff at her head, so long that Belle felt uncomfortable at his closeness. “You smell like you’re about to croak as it is. And then I’m sure some rugged man is going to come here and blame me for it,” he said. “Which is all very inconvenient.”
Belle agreed it was, though having known all the rugged men in her town, also knew that they were too hungry to make the climb. That evening, he fed her an onion.
Their first days together went very much the same. Belle would look for where he stashed the food and came up empty. The beast would grumble at her presence and give her a single vegetable, or an apple or a pear, but only one, at night, and then herded her to the room he had dropped her in that first night. Sometimes, he would stand around her, making conversation about the pictures on his walls or the photos in the books, and asking her what it was like to not be afraid of dead bodies. She didn’t know how to respond to that, and said it was something you just get used you, she supposed. Eventually, she knew she had to return home, for her father would certainly be worried. Yet, when she went to the front doors and bid him a farewell, the turnip he had given her secured away in a pocket, she was surprised to find that he did not want her to leave, even barricading himself against the door and waving a stalk of celery in her face if she agreed to stay with him.
She didn’t really want to, but it had been ages since she had had fresh celery.
He took to waiting outside of her door in the mornings, shadowing her steps even as she searched every room of his vast tower to figure out where he was squirreling away the food. He would read to her, like her father had done, and wait for her to react to every page, offering her a single green bean pod if she did. Since she was hungry, she reacted every time. He asked her what she wanted beyond food. Having always been a person who had needs, not wants, she was confused by the question. He was forced to ask around the question: what do you like to do when you have free time? What would you like to do if you had no worries in the world? Where would you go if you had nothing tying you down? What would you see if your eyes could behold anything in this world? She thought these questions ridiculous, and only laughed at him for thinking to ask such a thing.
One day, he presented her with a little cake, and when the sugar touched her lips she cried.
“I have something else for you,” the beast told her, and she hoped that it was another sugary delight, but the way he was holding his hands behind himself indicated that, if he was a cake or any sort of baked good, it would have been crushed. Instead, it was a ruby on a gold chain, a fairy large ruby, and as beautiful as a little sparrow’s heart.
“That’s very nice,” said Belle, taking it and admiring it against the light. “What do you think this is worth?”
The beast rumbled before her. “Worth? It is worth worlds. Kings of all nations would lay down their lives to gift this to their queens.”
“Really,” said Belle, distracted. “I think I can sell this in market. Not ours, mind, but two days walk from town there’s a field where the merchants from all over exchange their wares. Think of all the flour I could buy with this. We could all make bread for years.”
The beast snatched the ruby out of her hands and put it in his mouth. With an exaggerated performance, he held Belle’s furious hands away from himself and ignored her shrieks of displeasure, then swallowed it with a gulp.
“What did you do that for!”
“If you are not going to appreciate a gift for what it is when it is offered, then you don’t deserve it.”
“But it could be so much more,” she argued.
He would have none of her protests, and even through she tried every trick at her disposal, crying, begging, arguing with cold logic, he would not be moved. She even tried telling him about her father, who no longer had a thumb, and how devastated she would be if he had to eat the rest of his fingers to survive. The beast told her that did not matter to him, for he did not know the man, and why should he care others did not have what he had toiled to gain? Really, it was she who was being unfair, asking this of him.
That night, when it was especially cold, she shivered in the bed, though the blankets were heavy and warm. The beast must have heard her teeth chattering, for he crawled into bed with her, the great big furred lot of him, and wrapped himself around her.
“I don’t want to,” she started, but did not know how to finish.
He only rumbled beside her, appearing content that she was there, if nothing more.
She fell asleep then, warm in his embrace, but she dreamed of her father gnawing on his own limbs, and when she awoke her eyes burned from the salt that had collected there. The beast was still wrapped around her, gently snoring into her neck. She placed her hands on either side of his face and smoothed the horns atop his head. He had such lovely eyes, like sapphires. She wondered what a monster thought about his own kind, and if he too looked under the bed before he slept to search out his cousins and friends.
No, she thought. A monster would not do that. The monster of a monster resides behind its own eyes. They were born there, and take root and grow like corn. She would find out what his looked like.
She curled her sharp and lean fingers into claws and licked the edges of her nails. They were so sharp she almost pricked her tongue. Carefully, she pressed their fine points around his closed eyes and pressed down with all of her strength.
Oh how he thrashed, how he wailed under her! But she held on, grateful that she had all ten of her fingers still, and that her thumbs were the strongest of them all. When he was silent under her, and his chest no longer rose with breath, she removed her fingers and dropped his eyes to the ground. Before they even bounced, gold flew out of his sockets, piles of it, coins and statues and jewels on delicate chains, so much so that it was enough to trade for generations, and everyone in town could have enough. But she did not stop there. With her nails bleeding, she cut open his large belly, and out poured chicken stock and flour and onions and pomegranates and potatoes and carrots and celery and beef hearts: so much food, she knew she would fatten up everyone enough to last the winters, and longer than that.
With a cry of joy, she ran, blood on her hands, to the front doors of the tower. She opened them wide and shouted out to the town below her: there is food here, there is gold here, there are enough bones to make stock for months.
Slow, but sure, the townspeople climbed the hill and entered the tower. When they saw the body of the beast, and so much food, and so many precious stones, they began to dance. Whirling and twirling one another, they danced until their feet were sore, and then they began to prepare the heart of the monster: the first meal they would all be able to eat together.