He wakes before dawn to prepare her breakfast. The spoons and pot-handles are clumsy in his curving claws, but the servants all left long ago, and so he has learned to make do. The breakfast is not what he would wish it to be; getting supplies is difficult these days. He found two eggs in a lark’s nest yesterday, though, that he cracks with painstaking care, scrambling them because anything else requires more dexterity than he possesses. There is meat, as always, and bread he stole for her.
The claws of his feet click against the stone as he hurries from the kitchens, tray balanced in his enormous hands. The sounds echo off the walls where the tapestries have long since fallen away. It took an army of servants to maintain this place, once; he cannot manage it on his own. Even the small areas he keeps are almost too much for him. The kitchens; one of the parlors; her bedroom, of course. The garden. Everywhere else has been given over to dust and neglect, surrendered to the dominion of spiders and mice. But he makes these few places as pleasant for her as he can.
He tiptoes into her bedroom, comical in his caution. She does not stir at the sound. Laying the breakfast tray on the bedside table, he averts his eyes from her motionless form. It would not be proper for him to look. She should have a lady’s maid; she did, for a time. But the woman had been the first of the servants to leave. Now they are alone.
Drawing back the brocade curtains, he says in a gentle voice, “Beauty, it’s time to rise.”
He helps her dress, eyes shut tight as he fumbles for buttons and sleeves, moving her like an overgrown, listless doll. The gown is one he purchased for her, when he had servants to go into town for him. The figured muslin is decorated with a delicate embroidery of roses. She was a village girl, before; he had to teach her the distinction between day dresses and evening ones. But he spared no expense on her behalf: she had lovely gowns, expensive furnishings, everything she might desire. Before the servants left, her food had been exquisite to match. But they could not live with her, they murmured, and one by one they fled.
She does not touch her breakfast, again, and it worries him. Guiding her from the room, he apologizes for the fare; he apologizes, though he cannot think what he might do to improve it. He would move heaven and earth to make her happy, but he cannot leave this castle or its grounds, the woods that lie to the south. The villagers would kill him on sight. He must make do with what he can hunt or gather, or occasionally steal from the nearest houses. And if she continues in this manner, she will simply fade away. When was the last time she ate?
He leads her to the parlor, where he sings for her entertainment. Harp strings snap under his claws, and piano keys are too slick, but he has a fine bass voice. When noon comes, he slips away to capture and devour a plump rabbit, then returns to her with an offering of ripe cherries. She does not touch these, either.
Tomorrow, he tells himself. Tomorrow she will be hungry.
In the afternoon, they go to the rose garden, where she sits quietly in the sun. He has a new book of poetry to read to her today, one he has been saving for some time. He judges—he hopes—that now is the time to share it.
Turning the pages with careful claws, he reads the romantic poems to her, one by one, in a rich growl that holds a wealth of emotion within.
In the hot summer sunlight, she sits without a word. A fly lands on her cheek, and she does not brush it away. A stench fills the air that the roses cannot mask. The servants did their best for her, trying to make her happy, praying their master could be delivered from his curse. Some of them stayed even after he drew her from the pond at the base of the garden—but not for long. Their hopes died with her.
But his live on. The truth cannot be borne. And so, day after day, the Beast cooks meals she does not eat, sings songs she does not hear, and reads poetry to her in the rose garden, waiting for Beauty to love him.
Originally published in Apex Magazine #39, August 2012. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
© 2020 Marie Brennan