Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the Prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind.
But then, one winter’s night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single blood-red rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold. Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the Prince sneered at the gift and turned the old woman away—although she warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for true beauty is found within. And when he dismissed her again, the old woman’s ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress.
The Prince tried to apologize but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart. As punishment she transformed him into a hideous beast and placed a powerful spell on the castle and all who lived there.
“You have until the eve of your twenty-first birthday to become as beautiful on the inside as you were on the outside. If you do not learn to love another—and be loved in return—by the time the last petal of this rose falls, you, your castle, and all within, will be cursed and forgotten forever.”
Ashamed of his monstrous form, the Beast concealed himself inside his castle, with a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world.
As the years passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope—for who could ever learn to love a beast?
It was a very good story.
It often entertained the woman who lay in her black hole of a room, manacled to a hard, cold bed.
She had enjoyed its repetition in her mind for years. Sometimes she remembered bits differently: sometimes the rose was as pink as a sunrise by the sea. But that never resonated as well as red as blood.
And the part at the very end, where the Enchantress is waylaid upon exiting the castle, thrown into a black carriage, and spirited into the night—well, it didn’t sound as epic and grand. She never included it.
Almost anyone else would have run out of thoughts by this point. Almost anyone else would have given in to the finality of the oubliette until she forgot herself entirely.
A few of her thoughts were crazy, spinning around and around the dried teakettle that was now the inside of her head. If she wasn’t careful, they would become too speedy, break free, and seek escape through the cracks of her mind. But that way lay madness, and she wasn’t quite there yet.
Ten years and she had almost forgotten herself. But not quite.
Footsteps down the hall.
She shut her eyes as tight as possible against the madness from without that tried to intrude upon her black personal madness.
Chattering voices. Another set of footsteps. The swish swish of a rank mop against the endlessly slimy floors. The clink of keys.
“No need to do that one. It’s empty.”
“But it’s locked. Why would it be locked if it’s empty?”
She had to scream, she had to shake, she had to explode—anything rather than let the dialogue repeat itself yet again as it had for the last four thousand days, in only slightly different iterations:
“Ooh, this one’s locked. But do you hear something inside?”
“This door’s closed. You think it’s locked?”
“The one down here is locked—but I don’t remember anyone being put down here.”
It was as if God were trying out all the different possible lines in the mummer’s farce that was her life and still hadn’t gotten it quite right.
The next two minutes were as predictable as the words from a parent to a child who knows she has misbehaved and chafes under the inevitability of the sentences hurled at her.
Turn of the key in the lock.
Door creaking open.
A hideous face, hideous only in its familiarity, the same look of surprise as always and every day since forever began. The face’s owner carried a tray with her in the hand that didn’t have the keys. Behind her, in the hall, stood the woman with the mop. And behind her stood a large and silent man who was ready to subdue any of the prisoners not tied down.
The prisoner found herself opening her eyes, curiosity getting the better of her survival instinct. Today’s tray had four bowls of broth. Sometimes it was five, sometimes it was three. Sometimes there was only one.
“Lucky for you I got an extra,” the one with the tray said, settling herself down in a filthy tuffet of skirts and aprons.
This line never changed. Ever.
The prisoner screamed, unable to contain herself, unable to keep herself from looking forward to that one thing each day—the thin gruel that passed for nourishment.
The woman with the mop muttered indignantly.
“I didn’t hear nuffink about a new one, I can tell you that. Thought they done a right good job clearing these sorts out of the world.”
“Well, there’s one now. There you go, finish up now.”
The woman said it with the same false tenderness she expressed every time. The bowl tipped faster, broth trickled down the sides of the prisoner’s neck and, despite herself, she got desperate, straining against the chains and sticking her tongue out to get every last drop before the bowl was removed.
“This one is old enough to be a mother,” the gruel woman said without a trace of emotion or sentiment. “Think of that, them having children and raising them and all.”
“Like animals, all of them. Animals raise their children, too. I don’t know why they keep them around. Kill ’em and be done with it.”
“Oh, soon enough, soon enough, no doubt,” the broth hag said philosophically, getting up. “They don’t last long around here.”
Except, of course, it had been ten years now.
This time the hag didn’t bother to toss some platitude over her shoulder as she left; the prisoner’s existence was forgotten the moment she touched the door and was on her way out.
It would be all new again for her and her horrible companion tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that….
The prisoner screamed one last time, finally and uncontrollably, as the darkness closed in.
She had to start the story again. If she just started the story and played it through, everything would be all right.
Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle…