Hark! Hear the maiden’s cry as she drowns herself. A gurgle on the face of the water. A single splash. An asphyxiated sound, cut off mid-choke. Engulfing darkness. The sound of rushing water.
The river rumbles with anger at the intrusion. The pressure presses on her, squeezes her body, grips her lungs like a God crushing a mortal.
Death, a whisper. So, this is what it feels like.
She dies…. She dies with a look of shock: an open mouthed gape, raised eyebrows, cheeks pulled in, about to yell. As if any of this is a surprise.
Her body, flotsam, glides along Moses-like, half-submerged. A head or arm or leg roll and show themselves, only to get smacked by a rock, or tangled in seaweed and capsized again. Relaxed-looking fish circle and dodge her, laughing and biting at the dead human.
Ha, ha, ha, says the Fish.
She floats and floats. For how long? Who knows? Centuries, maybe. Through realities and mythologies and minds and hearts and …
Finally, she comes aground, on a small, lonely shore, surrounded in all directions by forest, dense and dark.
A form rushes out of the wilderness and towards the maiden. It is huge, blocking out the moon at times. (A bear?) It runs on four legs and emits a nasty scent-of-a-thousand-men smell. The beast sniffs at the dead girl, tries to nudge her awake. He uses a furry paw to push aside a stalk of wet hair, like a thin, dead leech, stuck to her face.
Little bites and scratches cover her skin, the color of the river, blue-green. Her eyes, large, brown, but vacant, retain some essence of who she was. Intelligence, compassion in those eyes, sadness too. The creature stares at her for a long time.
Then, as sudden as a miracle, the beast scoops her up in two arms and runs back into the forest. On two legs!
A mansion hidden in the woods. All the fixings of royalty: crests and halls lined with portraiture, banners and frescos depicting family trees; all the makings of civilization: kitchens, bedrooms, indoor-bathrooms, closets full of clothes, carpeting everywhere; but with all the life of a desert in the harshest heat of summer. Take a step, it’ll echo for a week. Touch a wall, the print will stick like glue.
The front door is smacked open and the Beast, carrying the girl, scamper inside. He drops her, rushing water pouring out of hisfur and her body and making a waterfall for her to fall into.
The Beast, his shoulders wide as the base of a tree, falls to his knees beside the girl and begins a crude CPR on her: breathing into her lungs without the help of any chest-pumps. How he knows the technique, we’ll never know for certain; ask him and he’ll say, “Knowledge is as timeless as I am.”
The girl, thoroughly dead, makes no response to his efforts, but the Beast continues in his steady work. A faint glow emanates from his chest, centered on his heart. It glows and pulses, changing shape and gaining volume, resembling an animated fractal pattern. The Beast continues his work, unabated, huffing. The ball of light passes from the Beast into the girl, encapsulates her in faint light. Her body changes color, violent reds and blues first, then returns to its pinkish roots. The scratches and bites foam and disappear; her hair dries, takes shape and color and texture. She coughs, once, twice, then opens her eyes.
A gasp from both parties.
Upon seeing the creature above her, the maiden screams as loud as she can. It echoes for a month.
“Ophelia,” says the Beast, speaking emphatically to a wooden door. “Won’t you come out? Won’t you let me talk to you, help you? You’re grieving, I understand. You’re grieving for him… for Hamlet, but you have to realize, you have to understand…”
The double doors shudder in response and are flung open. Ophelia, dressed in a black gown, her raven hair tied back in a ponytail, her puffy eyes spilling black makeup all over her cheeks.
“Don’t you speak his name!” she shouts, malice in her vowels. “You don’t have the right… Creature!”
She slams the doors. (Echo, echo, echo.)
Once, long ago, there may have been servants.
Now, there is dust everywhere. On the countertops and the statues, the chairs and even the fireplace. Footprints, paw-shaped, are ghost-like on the floors. And that smell. Oldness. Death. Inactivity.
Activity, now: the Beast in the kitchen, assembling lunch for the lady of the house. He’s slow and methodical in his work, huge shoulders hunched over as he concentrates on cutting a piece of cheese with a knife designed for a human. He fumbles and slices a gash into his palm, right beside the echo of another. His growl is quick, annoyance not anger.
He doesn’t mind cooking.
When he brings the dish up to Ophelia’s room, he pauses in front of the door and, as usual, waits. Sometimes he takes the dish off the meal and lets the smell of roasted lamb or fresh fruit linger in the air, through the gaps in the doorframe. Hoping, all the while.
It’s been two months. They’ve spoken only a paragraph to each other. And a short one, at that.
When Ophelia doesn’t come out to greet him (which is not once, yet), the Beast lays the platter on the floor, picks up the empty dish from breakfast, and walks away.
Three months. Agonizingly long. Living with someone and not talking is perplexing, unnatural, destructive. The air so thick with silence, Ophelia’s moans and cries echo and intensify… to the Beast, sitting alone in his library-sanctuary. More and more often, lately, the Beast has spent whole nights in the surrounding woods, hunting for food for himself and Ophelia. For the first time in his long, long life, he feels uncomfortable in his own mansion.
In his usual chair he sits, now. Besides a rain-speckled window, he reads by candlelight from a hundred scattered candelabra across the wide room. The shadows caused by a thousand individual flames play hide-and-seek on the bookshelves, the muralled ceiling, the decorative carpeting.
The Beast looks up from his book, sniffs. A hesitant knock sounds at his door. At the second, louder knock, the Beast springs up and dashes to it in a flash. (You would have had no idea he could move so fast.)
He grabs two lion-head-shaped doorknobs in his paws and opens the double doors. She stands in the center, framed Venus-like, in a white gown, familiar to the Beast.
Ophelia curtsies and says, “Gracious Host, I want to thank you for all you’ve done… for me.”
The Beast’s heart is pumping, (can’t you hear it?) In his gruff voice, louder than even the pounding of his heart, he asks, “Would you like to come in, sit down?”
She nods, smiles.
They walk into the firelight-soaked den. Ophelia takes it all in like Cinderella at the Ball. The Beast gestures towards his large reading chair. Ophelia curtsies again and sits in the chair; she resembles a child-Queen on the throne of an adult-King.
The Beast sits cross-legged beside her, resting his large arms on his even larger legs. Their eyes and faces are on the same level and they stare at each other, wordlessly, until the Beast is forced to look away, at the window, then at the dress, the white, dry, clean, dress. He’d washed it himself, to get the smell of river and seaweed off it, then hung it to dry for weeks in the hot basement. It shrunk a little, but was still beautiful, half-transparent like a wedding dress.
Finally, the Beast stutters and then says, “I.. I didn’t know.” He looks her in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
Ophelia turns away from him. Her fingers trace patterns on her dress, H and A and M shapes. “You acted out of the kindness of your heart. For that reason, you are a good… soul.” She traces an L up her thigh. ”You found a dead girl and brought her back to life.” Quickly, cursive-like she draws an E and then stops. Her entire body freezes. “How were you supposed to know she wanted to die?”
Silence. Thunderclap, in the distance.
“And now,” says the Beast, “Do you still want to die?”
“No,” she says, followed by a pause. “Not that I want to live either… but I do not want to go back there. Not yet anyway.” She wipes a tear from her cheek.
“My Hamlet is dead, killed by my brother. I don’t know if I can ever recover.” She looks up at the Beast, a hopeful glint in hopeless eyes. “You have magic… Magic to resurrect the dead. Do you have a spell to make me forget this pain? A healing spell for the heart?”
The Beast shakes his head, ponders his own body for a moment, and says, “There are some things even magic can’t cure.”
Like a broken heart, he should have said. Or grief. Or shattered faith.
Ophelia never recovered. But she stayed with the Beast and they lived happily, like cousins, or close friends, for the rest of her life.
Forty-two years and four months after drowning herself, Ophelia died, again, of natural causes, in her bed, in a black dress. When the Beast found her the next day, the sheets, the dress, and Ophelia herself were soaking wet.
This story was originally published in the 2003 chapbook “Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo” put out by the Ratbastards.