Published in Issue 18 of Visionary Tongue, 2003.
Grandmother sat in the great armchair like a doll with crinkled skin and ghost-white hair, her eyes blacker than the depths of all oceans.
‘How that woman loved her little girl,’ she said in her feather-light voice, never taking those formidable eyes off me. ‘Loved the girl more than her own life, she did. Loved her more than she loved her husband, which was no hard feat, for he was a cruel man. In fact, she came to believe him evil, a very minion of Satanas.’
Had I made a mistake coming back? Though I had been scared to leave Grandmother and the woods, the only world I knew, I was relieved to escape the memories, which haunted our home. Their elusive presence had always crowded the cottage; I imagined them as invisible moths hovering around us, brushing our faces with their fluttering wings. I knew the memories had to do with my parents, whom I had never known, but whenever I asked about them Grandmother said it was best not to speak of the dead, and I would be told a fairy tale instead.
But as I got older, I was less satisfied with her responses and asked to learn more about my parents. What were they like before they had me? What had caused the accident, which overturned their carriage and sent them to their death? Grandmother would give me brief answers, but I always knew she was holding back things; I grew resentful, restless and frustrated.
And then there was the white rose tree in the garden, which Grandmother spoke to every day. Sometimes, in the night’s breeze the tree made faint sounds like a girl sobbing, and I would lie under the covers, wishing for sleep to chase the sad lullaby away.
Prince Charming came to my rescue when I was seventeen. I had met him wandering through the woods astride a towering ebony steed, and like a sorcerer he charmed me with his moon-bright smile, his gallantry, and his sweet promises to take me away and make me his bride. And I, bewitched and giddy with love, eager for an excuse to flee, ran away with him that very midnight, taking only my precious ruby red cape, thinking I had left that house of memories and shadows forever.
But Prince Charming turned out to be a Wolf with a taste for fear and blood. It began soon after we married. When he approached me I did not know if he would kiss or hit me. After beating me he would apologize profusely, bring me pretty flowers, gaudy jewellery; he would caress me until I trembled with pleasure, kiss my bruises so I would forget who made them. I imagined that he was under a witch’s terrible spell, which unpredictably turned him into a wolf, and that my love would somehow break the spell. But while I was deluding myself another part of me knew the truth and wanted its freedom.
One day, three months after I had left the forest, he came home after a successful hunt and neglected to lock away the hunting rifle in his frenzy to get at me. I fought him but he struck me down, pinning me beneath him so I thought I would never take another breath. Later, as he lay spent and snoring, I reached for the rifle and took aim, tapping the barrel’s mouth against his forehead.
He opened his eyes. And laughed. I might have faltered had I seen fear in his eyes, had he pleaded forgiveness. But he laughed. I pulled the trigger.
How naive of me, to believe it would not be so awful. His blood and flesh spattered over me, spraying the walls, staining the bed sheets. The stench of blood combined with the bitter whiff of gunpowder made me dizzy, sent me reeling from the room.
Wrapped in my ruby red cape I ran beneath the night’s dark mantle. You can’t hurt me anymore, I cried, but I imagined that he pursued me in the shape of a wolf and if I stopped he would catch me and devour me. So I ran, ignoring thirst, hunger, reason, my screaming muscles, the soles of my shoes wearing through, the brambles clawing at my hair and skin and cape, until I found myself thick in the forest of my childhood again.
It was dawn when I collapsed at the cottage door. She was just as I’d left her, still wearing her black gown, her hair an elaborate bird nest atop her head, dark eyes sharp and unnerving as ever. She took me into her arms without saying a word, smelling of dust and lavender. I went limp, sobbing onto her shoulder, damping the velvet, afraid that if I embraced her my arms would break her bones.
She was the only one who loved me where else could I have run to?
I told her everything as she bathed me and fed me. She made us tea from flowers grown in the garden. I thought of the white rose tree and shuddered. Grandmother didn’t reprimand me, didn’t scream. She was all comfort and love, yet I wanted her to yell, to tell me how foolish I had been to leave her that I deserved what I got.
For the next few days I lay curled up in bed. I would not have eaten if she hadn’t fed me. Nightmares of the Wolf made me wake up screaming until Grandmother came to lull me back to sleep. Mercifully, the rose tree remained silent.
And then, one afternoon, as we drank tea together in silence, I knew what I had to ask.
‘Tell me a story, Grandmother,’ I said. ‘A story of memories and shadows.’ She stared at me for a long time. She knew what I wanted to hear. It was then that she began her tale, and the familiar cadence of her voice, soft and lilting, pulled me in as it had in my childhood.
* * *
‘She was a beautiful girl,’ continued Grandmother, ‘with amber skin and eyes like sunlight through spring leaves. Her mother adored her, treated her like a princess. She would comb and style the child’s blue-black hair; every day she had a new hairstyle, each more beautiful than the last. She made her the prettiest dresses and capes out of turquoise silk and pearl-white gauze and scarlet muslin; no other girl around had such exquisite clothes.
‘They would spend the day gathering wild flowers and chasing butterflies, reading in the shade of a giant weeping willow and bathing in the oasis of their pond. But once nightfall came, their home became a prison.’ Grandmother paused, sipping her tea, and I shuddered. ‘The woman’s husband, the child’s father, would come home and hold his family captive. Where is my dinner? He would shout. Why isn’t dinner ready? What have you worthless cows done all day? And he would strike the mother down, sometimes in front of their child, strike her till her face swelled, till he drew blood.
‘The man struck her for any reason he could find: a missing button on his shirt, a layer of dust on the table, a response that was too slow in coming. He could empty a bottle of brandy in one sitting. He delighted in humiliating his wife before the child. He would say, You better not grow up to be as worthless as your mother, Ariana, or I’ll beat you senseless.’
My heart leapt at the name.
‘The woman asked the child to forgive her father. She made excuses for him, ever the loving, loyal wife, even after he smothered her night after night with his crushing weight.
‘And so Ariana grew to be a ravishing girl of twelve, and the woman noticed how her husband stared at their daughter with eyes glazed and a smile that was anything but fatherly.
‘Late one night the woman awakened to see her husband slip out of their bedroom. Sitting up, she heard the groan of Ariana’s door being opened. She did not want to believe it. Only when she heard Ariana’s choked screams and she stumbled off her bed and darted into Ariana’s room and saw her husband shaking the bed with his thrusts did she believe it. The woman struck her husband’s back, tearing with her nails and making him holler. He left the girl crumpled on the bed, grabbed his wife and threw her across the room. She struck the wall and fell unconscious to the floor.
‘The beast then continued to plunder his little girl.’
My hands gripped the arms of my chair until they ached. She stared back with unblinking eyes; her face seemed older and more creased by time than it had been just minutes ago. I wanted to stop her, but this was the story I had asked for. It was essential that I hear it.
Grandmother sipped her tea, her hands trembling more than usual. ‘The beast then continued to plunder his little girl,’ she repeated. ‘Night after night he plundered her until he found the pearl at her core, until he tore everything that was beautiful and good in her. The mother vowed to Ariana that she would make him pay, send him back to the hell she was now convinced he had spawned from.
‘So one night, the woman prepared an elaborate meal for the beast: tender quail in rose petal sauce, savoury wild rice, mushrooms marinated in white wine and herbs, and for dessert a luscious strawberry-and-cream custard. All three sat at the table, but so enthused was the beast by the food he did not notice that neither his wife nor his child was eating.
‘This is a meal,’ he said between huge mouthfuls, a pleased grin on his stuffed face. Drops of rose petal sauce and red wine trickled down his chin. The woman smiled and served him a generous helping of custard. ‘Have some dessert, dear,’ she said. The beast frowned. She had stopped calling him ‘dear’ so long ago, you see, but he ignored this for he was like a child at a holiday feast, and he wolfed down the creamy dessert with its golden brown caramel crust like a thin sheet of glass.
‘He grunted his approval, licking his lips. Then, the first convulsions hit him. He looked up at his wife and child, about to say something, but another convulsion shuddered through him, and another, and another. Food and blood spewed from his mouth. The girl shrieked and flew into her mother’s arms as the beast leapt from his seat and with a dawning look of realization scrambled across the table toward his executioners, who backed away from the table and stood against the wall, gazing at him as he crashed onto the floor before them.
‘The beast shuddered, blood spraying from his screaming mouth, until the screaming stopped and the body lay still.’
Tears welled in my eyes and I brushed them away.
‘They left him in that house,’ she continued. ‘They left his body to rot, bloated by the meal prepared with such hatred, laced with poison and ground glass. They took with them as much as they could carry: money, provisions, the dresses the woman had made for Ariana, including a ruby red cape the girl wore as they left that house behind forever.
‘But they had not travelled long before the mother discovered the beast was not quite dead after all, for she noticed the swell of Ariana’s belly and knew that a piece of him lived still in their child.’
At this I grew light-headed; I listened to the rest of the tale in a daze, staring at the floor, thinking I would faint.
‘They came upon an abandoned cottage deep in the woods. And it was there that they made their home; it was there that Ariana had a baby girl. But she was too young, too weak; the birth overwhelmed her. So, having given life … she died.
‘The woman buried her in the garden. That summer a tree of white roses, faintly flushed pink, and sprouted from Ariana’s grave. No roses were ever cut from it. The woman, instead of burying the new-born alive as she had first intended, chose to raise her in that isolated forest, away from the cruelty of men and how she came to love that little girl who, after all, was not at fault for what happened, for whom the woman made the prettiest dresses, whose blue-black hair she combed every day in a style more beautiful than the last.
‘And so they lived happily in that forest, gathering wild flowers and chasing butterflies, reading fairy tales in the shade of giant trees and bathing in the pond’
‘Stop’ I cried. Awkwardly I rose from the chair and it clattered to the floor, rousing clouds of dust with its fall. Tears filled my eyes and through them I saw Grandmother, perched on that armchair like an ancient doll, sipping her tea and staring at me with those eyes blacker than the depths of all oceans.
A tear drop streamed from the corner of her left eye down her wrinkled cheek, and I knew then, as much as I wanted to believe otherwise, that it was all true: that she was the woman driven mad by the beast, that my mother had been that beautiful little girl and that I was the daughter named after her.
Her daughter, and the beast’s.
This was no fairy tale.
Silently, I picked up the chair and sat down again, dizzy. Grandmother poured me a fresh cup of tea. I grabbed the cup, took a sip, and immediately placed it back on the table before it dropped from my shaking hands.
‘I thought I could protect you,’ she said after the longest, loudest silence I had ever known. ‘But I failed. I told you fairy tales instead of the truth, your truth. So you went and found it on your own.’
Grandmother’s eyes were moist and glittering like strange dark gems.
‘You tried to tell me,’ I said after a moment. ‘The fairy tales. The wicked stepmother disguising herself to kill Snow White. Bluebeard and his wives. Briar Rose waking from her hundred-year sleep giving birth to twins after Prince Charming had his way and left her.’
Nothing is what it seems. In her own way, she had tried to tell me this. I had wanted a happy ending so badly I missed those darker warnings.
‘When I killed the beast I dared not question what I had become,’ said Grandmother. ‘I hid in these woods and prayed that you would be spared, but now there is blood on your hands, which will never wash away. Will you hide, like me, or will you be free?’
‘To live; and find happiness.
A great weariness came over me and dulled my senses like a heavy sleep, blurring my vision until all that remained was darkness.
* * *
Nightfall in the forest.
Ahead of me, in the distance, loomed a man’s silhouette holding up a lantern. Come, he whispered; a breeze caught his soft voice and brought it to my ears, and smiling I ran towards the silhouette, my red cape streaming behind me. As I got closer, the lantern’s flame bathed me golden but the man remained a paper cut-out darker than the black sky. When I finally stood before him he was still in silhouette, despite of the light, and that is when I saw that he carried not a lantern but a bouquet of roses on fire, yet the roses remained intact. A rose-scented wind put out the flames and all I could see were two rows of grinning, beastly teeth opening wide to devour me. But then my own mouth opened, wider than that of the beast, and an ear-splitting roar came out of me, a huge flame that set the howling beast, the silent forest, and the cottage nestled at its heart, on fire.
* * *
I found myself lying on the floor, my head in Grandmother’s velvet lap. I looked up at her and a tiny smile stretched her lips. Gently, she rocked me in her arms, humming some sweet familiar lullaby.
For that moment I allowed myself to be a little girl again and rest, but I knew I could not do so much longer. Still, it would take many months before I ventured beyond the woods again. I would interact with others, learn about myself, face many more doubts and fears, and even meet men who were not Wolves, though I could not entirely shake the notion that they would turn into beasts at any time, without warning. I learned to live with this. I remembered my dream of fire.
I don’t remember how long Grandmother and I stayed there on the floor that afternoon, but it felt like a very long time, as infinite as the hours had seemed in my childhood, when we gathered wild flowers and chased butterflies and read fairy tales.
‘Let’s take a walk in the garden, Ariana,’ she said. ‘I know that your mother would love to see you.’
© Ian Rafael Titus
“Ian Rafael Titus enjoys all things weird and twisted. He lives in New York City, where he collects enough books that he could open his own second-hand bookstore. He enjoys all kinds of films and art, fairy tales, mask making, Buddhism and mythology. Among several of his projects is an erotic vampire novel set in 19th century West Indies.”
Ian’s story originally went through the editing process with past VT editor Justina Robson.