The Literary Lab kindly solicited a story from me for their charity-supporting anthology Notes from Underground. This set of letters written among the inhabitants of the fabled Beast's castle is an accompaniment to my work in progress, Briars and Black Hellebore. I imagined the Beast's cohabitants passing notes like old-fashioned schoolchildren from the days of yore before texting... like when I was in school... Have I dated myself yet? Enjoy!
2nd March, to Dear Savaric:I have drunk too much wine again. Come to my chamber immediately and tend to little William. I am so weak that I can hardly sit at my table to write. Do not send me a note in return, just get over here now. I will be dead drunk by the time you are able to write back and will not be able to read your nonsense. Come quickly.Your Helena3rd March, before dawn, to Dear Helena:I am writing to you after I have come and undressed William and rocked him to sleep. I have also bathed your face and hair and carried you to your bed. I have done my best to mop up the vomit, and I have carried away the soiled blankets and covered you with one of my furs.Helena, why do we go on this way? You know that there is no modesty in this prison we call a palace, and none of us can pretend to be pure. Precious William, Theofric, and Cecily have confessed our sins for us with their sweet faces from the days of their births. When will we learn to be as honest as our babes?If you would stay with me in my chamber, you would not need to send your papa with notes for me to come to your aid on nights such as these. I could look over you and William at every moment so that you would not find yourself in this trouble.Already I have spoken to Boris, and he thinks it is a fine idea. There is no more bad blood between him and myself anymore. He even said that he trusted me more with his son than he trusts himself, and it would be in William’s best interest if you and I remained always together. With the sleeping draughts he takes, you know that he cannot wake in the night when you are in need.Please, Helena, consider living with me as a wife. Think of little William. I love him as my own son. Think of Theofric too. It is plain that you love him despite his parents. Little Theofric may resemble his parents in coloring and form, but in his soul he is nothing like his lazy father or his sluttish mother. Must he pay for their transgressions? We may never be set free from this enchantment, my love. Why give up hope for happiness? William and Cecily will have each other in marriage when they are grown, but Theofric has no one. Only you and I can produce a little bride for him. Can you envisage how fair she would be, Helena, a child born to you and me?Boris has given his blessing.With love, Savaric3rd March, to Boris:I am enraged that Savaric spoke to you about me, and that you allowed it. You always did want to shirk responsibility, first for me and then for our son. How dare you give your blessing to Savaric on my behalf? You have no claim upon me. You are not even a father to William. You are a stranger to him, locked away in your chamber all day and night with your draughts and potions. What do you know about what is best for the children, you worthless slattern?It is bad enough that I am obligated to give my son in marriage to Lora’s bastard with Savaric. I would rather die than bear a daughter to give away to the brat you have spawned upon Lora.And don’t you tell me that I lack a natural wish to marry, because we both know which one of us has the unnatural desires. I will be a wife the moment a man asks for my hand, but there is no man in this castle. Even half beast, our King Gustav is more man than either of you fools.Do not write to me. If you do, I will throw your note into the fire without opening it.Helena4th March, to Dear Lora:You may have noticed the way I look upon you when we pass in the halls. These long, cold months, I have been languishing with regret.I would like to spend more time with Cecily. She grows lovely and sweet, like her mother. It breaks my heart to see her take her first steps, knowing that she may never know the world beyond these walls.I ache with longing for you, Lora, my love. I never wished for us to part forever. I was driven into the arms of another when you would not have me, but it has offered me no solace. Each night I lie awake, alone, thinking of your soft skin and the warmth of your breath on my shoulder.Lora, I ache for you. When Gustav gave his terrible lament from the tower on the last full moon, I lay with my ears uncovered and let my weeping and moaning drown in the frightful noise. Did you hear me, my love, in your heart? Or did you sleep soundly as an angel, with your head wrapped in soft sheepskins and your arms around our beautiful child?Let us end this sorrow. For me, for you, for the children. Run away with me, Lora. My skill with the bow is unparalleled, as you know. I can protect us and provide for us. See how the earth thaws. Our hearts can do the same, Lora, even after the deepest freeze. Let us take Cecily and Theofric away from this cursed place. It is our only hope.Always your own, Savaric4th March, to Dear Savaric:Oh, my darling, how long have you felt this way? Why have you waited so many months to write to me? You had only to ask, and I am yours again. How I long to be a whole family, you and me and Cecily. And you are so good to little Theofric that he looks upon you as a father more than his own papa. My heart leaps at the thought of delivering my children from this imprisonment.My darling, come to me tonight.Your devoted Lora5th March, dawn, to Savaric, my darling:I sat up for you until I could keep my eyes open no longer. Did Gustav detain you for some task? Please give me a sign that all is well. Write to me if you can, or come to me tonight. I cannot bear this waiting.Your Lora5th March, to Lora:As you and everyone else in this castle knows full well, Savaric and I often share a bed. It happened that I was in his chamber when you slipped your note under the door. It had no name written on the outside, so I could not have known that it was not meant for me. Therefore I took the liberty of opening the message, and because it was so brief, I could not help reading it in entirety. I hope you can forgive this accidental intrusion upon your personal correspondence.But if I may be of service, what is it that you need to know? Does it concern little Cecily? I would be happy to ask Savaric for you when he awakes. That may not be for several more hours, as he had a late night and exerted himself quite to exhaustion.To make amends for my reading your little note, please accept my apology and the enclosed personal letter from Savaric to myself several days ago. I feel that after opening one of your notes, you have the right to read one of mine.Your friend, Helena[Enclosed: Letter from Savaric to Helena, 3rd March, before dawn.]5th March, dusk, to Savaric:What in hell did you do to Helena this time? That wench has gone back to screaming and abusing me in front of my son as she does every time you have displeased her. It sounded as though you gave her something of a thrill last night. I was compelled to cover my head with sheepskin though it was not a full moon, just to get some rest. Perhaps you should try mistreating her instead. Loving attentions make her ornery as a cat in heat, while a little bit of cruelty makes her malleable as beaten leather. Take this friendly advice from someone who knows.Your friend, Boris5th March, night, to Dear sweet Lora:I am sorry that I could not come to you last night. Poor Gustav was feeling ill and needed attention. I am at your door now, but I find it locked, and I am afraid to knock for fear of waking the children. If you have fallen asleep already, my sweet angel, please give me word tomorrow that I may come to you the next night.Your Savaric6th March, night, to Dearest Lora,I could not help but notice the sharp looks you gave me today. Is something wrong? Are you having second thoughts about our plan? Please write to me. I eagerly await your response.Your Savaric7th March, to Dear Lora:Aren’t you shocked at that saucy Helena? How can you let her say such things about you before Gustav? Aren’t you angry? I would beat her with my own hands if I still had the right to do so.Boris7th March, to Boris:I can defend myself and my children as well as any man, but there is no need today. I am not angry with Helena. In fact, her outburst today gave me a strange sort of pleasure. You see, if envy is the sincerest form of flattery, then I have never been so honored, not by Savaric’s false courtships or by Gustav’s condescension. I am plain, while Helena is beautiful and exquisitely groomed. She is vivacious and energetic, while I am melancholy. We have had the same number of lovers—nay, the same lovers, exactly, as we all know—yet she calls me a whore.That she is so threatened, so envious of me, is the most honest compliment I have ever received. Gustav is wise to Helena’s rages, and besides, neither of us shall ever have him, so I do not care what he hears. Helena is good enough not to abuse me in front of my own children, and for that I am grateful to her. They are all I care about.Lora7th March, night, to Savaric darling:How sad you looked today. Is something wrong? You know that I am always here waiting for you, wanting you.Just send word and I will come to you. If you cannot sleep, just send a note. I will be there in a moment to stroke your hair and kiss away those hard lines at the corners of your mouth.Your dearest Helena8th March, to Sweet Helena:I cannot help but notice how Savaric runs from you with a sick countenance every time you enter a room today. I cannot imagine it to be any fault of yours, for I notice that you smell as fresh as a posy. The youth of your figure is simply bursting from your lovely gown, and I have never known you to speak an unkind word to a living soul.It must be that whoring Lora. What can she have said to him?Come to my room for a drink tonight if you would like to talk.Ever your friend and confidante, Boris8th March, to Boris:Eat a pig’s ass.Helena8th March, night, to My dear Savaric:I found a note slipped beneath my door, and my heart leapt until I saw it was not written in your hand. Damn Boris’ fat little fingers. I had to drink a whole jug of mulled wine just to keep from screaming aloud.I can sense that you are still in some distress, and I do wish that you would speak of your troubles to someone—anyone, even if you refuse to speak to me. Just know that I am always here, thinking of you.Your loving Helena
9th March, early morning, to Helena, my love:
How good it is to awaken beneath the silken web of your hair. I hope that you are as happy as I am to sleep with our limbs entwined as we were. You must accustom yourself to it, anyhow, for this very moment I have determined never to let you sleep alone again.There never could be another. It is true that I have reached out in pain and loneliness to another, but only to you do I reach out in genuine love and longing. Helena, you are the wife of my heart.I have been summoned early to hunt, and I bid you good morning in writing so that I need not disturb your rest. My heart, my lover, my wife, with your golden lashes fanned out on your cheeks and your bright hair tumbled about your head, you look like a creature fallen from heaven.Your devoted Savaric9th March, to Savaric:“Wife of my heart?” What is this nonsense? Have you been in my chamber last night? I can remember nothing after Boris sent me a maddening scribble and I drowned my rage in a jug of mulled wine. What insult have you given me now? I can only hope that poor William saw none of your boorish and disgusting abuse of me.Prove that you can be a man and then a husband before you use such a word as “wife” in my presence.Helena9th March, to My friend Savaric:Do you not remember the sound advice I offered in my last correspondence? I do not mean to dwell upon the obvious, but it seems that every time you ruin my sleep with Helena’s cries of pleasure, she greets you with all the tenderness of a wild sow the next day.I hate to see you mope about so, but I have done my best to advise you. Come and have a sip with me if it would help.Your most sympathetic friend, Boris9th March, to Dear Helena:This is the last letter you will receive from me. By the time you find it beneath your pillow, I will be gone. Never again will you be insulted by a word or a touch from me.Tell William goodbye from his friend,Savaric10th March, early morning, to Boris:I can hardly believe it, but Helena has gone after him. She must have come to my chamber stealthily in the night, for I awoke to find William in a pallet there, having no recollection of how he came to be there. Those two will be taken by wolves, or worse. If she does not return by nightfall, we can be certain that your son William is to be motherless.What will become of us all, Boris? Gustav knows of the escape. He paces the garden, huffing at the air, but there is nothing left of them but their footprints in the snow disappearing into the Dark Forest.Our King will not speak to me, and I hardly know what to do. Your little boys are inconsolable, and they terrify Cecily with their wailing. Perhaps you can gain an audience with Gustav.Lora10th March, to Lora:I have tried every means of communicating with our King in my power, from politely requesting an audience to pleading in writing to pounding and wailing at his chamber door. His silence drives me mad. I can bear it when you tire of me, or when Helena and Savaric go for months without meeting my eye or responding to my kind letters, but Gustav’s dumb animal muteness infuriates me so that I do not know what I will do if it goes on another day.Please destroy this letter after you have read it. You will be the only one who knows what it contained, for I am out of my mind with my potions and will not remember what I have written.Boris16th March, to Boris:Forgive me for delaying my response to you. You have been in such a wild state of intoxication these long days and nights. If you are of sound mind today, come and present yourself at my chamber.It has been a week since they have gone. I fear we must give them up for lost, but I have sensed fire and roasting meat on the wind these past two nights. If it were them, camping so close, why would they not have returned home by now? But who else would linger in the Dark Forest so close to this cursed place? It makes me sick at heart. Perhaps with your sharp eyes you could look from my tower and tell me if you can see any sign of our prodigal brother and sister.King Gustav18th March, to Dear Lora:I see the looks you give me, but you must understand that I cannot speak to you, and I cannot accept your notes, and I cannot write to you now of our business. I will speak to you when and to the extent that I can, so trust and let the two of us alone. Keep the children away from the tower steps. I do not know how many nights I will stay in Gustav’s chambers, it is imperative that we not be disturbed in our work.Sincerely, Boris19th March, to Dear Boris:I never imagined that I would ever set these words to paper, but how good it is to see you and the castle again. I can hardly believe our good luck. A whole caravan of comely dancing girls drawing near our humble home! It must please our good King Gustav, for though he shows no outward sign of joy or calm, nor has he given Helena and I so much as a reprimand for our unannounced sojourn. I assure you, I would have ventured forth into the world sooner had I suspected that my footprints might bait the curiosity of an entire harem.Dare I hope that one of these young ladies could be the prophesied one who will set us all free? I hardly fear raising the hope in my breast, for even if it is not to be, what a consolation we will find in the delightful forms of this new company.Cordially, Savaric19th March, to Savaric:Pull your wits about you, man. The intruders upon our land are a coven of witches. Do not ask how we have come to this knowledge, but trust that the good King and I have discovered their evil ways already.Gustav is furious with your treason, but there are more serious matters to attend before meting out your just punishment.Keep your head and do not let the sight of these women enthrall you. Abuse Helena however you must to turn your mind from their charms. If you want to gain the slightest chance of escaping Gustav’s wrath in the near future, you should take up your bow and arrows and strike the demons down before they reach the castle gate.But DO NOT attempt to speak with Gustav about our enemy. I have sworn not to reveal a word. Please burn this letter when you have read it.Your friend in confidence, Boris19th March, to Dearest darling Boris:My tender Savaric is weary from our recent jaunt, and because I cherish him so, I took the liberty of intercepting your last missive slipped under his chamber door, where I am devotedly guarding his rest. I recognized your writing and felt obligated to take it upon myself to read it first and determine whether to bother my love with its nonsense or burn it up in the hearth before he rises.But instead of annoying me, as I expected, your letter sent me into such a fit of mirth that it took all my fortitude not to laugh aloud.How you envy those foreign tramps! Those big, frightful girls have taken Gustav’s attention away from you, haven’t they, pet? Your jealousy gives me such amusement that I tremble with the anticipation of making the ladies’ acquaintance.Your oldest friend, Helena19th March, to Helena:How prettily you speak of jealousy! You yourself know so well what it feels like. I have been nearer to him than you will ever be, have shared with him what you can only imagine sharing—with him or anyone else.Once you fancied yourself Gustav’s savior. How the recollection makes us all laugh! You make beasts of men, not the opposite. You are no saving angel, Helena. You are a succubus, drawing every good thing out of a man and then mocking his weakness. Only Gustav is too wise for you, for he is the only one of us who can smell a witch beneath all those perfumed powders and oils.Perhaps Lora and I would have had a peaceful life together with Cecily before you seduced me away and turned me against women entirely. I hope you choke on whatever is left of Savaric’s manhood.Boris20th March, early morning, to Savaric, my love:I hope that you slept well and have regained your strength. During the night, a letter from Boris arrived for you, which I placed on the hearth. Please do tell me what it contains, if you may, once you have read it. On my nighttime walk from your chamber to my own, I could have sworn I heard Gustav and Boris pacing about the hall muttering about witches. Do you think those mysterious dancing girls who gave us such hope could be the very opposite of the blessing we await? Gustav is wise, of course, and senses what we cannot.Your Helena20th March, morning, to My dear Helena:I have read Boris’ note. Are you certain of that which you heard? It is not like Gustav to hold counsel about matters of import outside his chamber, even at midnight. We all know the fat little goat is infatuated with Gustav. He probably made it up out of jealousy.Your Savaric20th March, morning, to My devoted Savaric:Please come to my chamber at once. My nerves have been so raw wondering when and if these visitors will present themselves at our gate, and if they do, whether they are not simple lost travelers but either angels or demons, that I have drunk too much wine again. I feel as though I will faint at any moment. I need you now, Savaric.Your Hele20th March, morning, to Dear sensible Lora:Thank you from the depths of my unworthy heart for caring for the children when I, and then Helena, so rashly left them behind. It was an act of foolish desperation on my part, but I began to hope last night that my actions may have drawn salvation to our household.What do you make of our present circumstances? Gustav has instructed us to welcome our guests with honor and warmth if they approach our gate, and he is in the garden now, with his silly fur brushed to a gloss and his mouth open to the wind like a rutting buck.Yet Boris is raving that the travelers are witches who must be killed, and now Helena is pleading for help, claiming that she faints with terror.You alone in this castle have maintained your reason and humanity. I too fear opening our gates to witches, but even more, I fear missing our single chance at breaking the curse. Please advise and instruct me, Lora.Your servant, Savaric20th March, to Savaric:Of course I trust Gustav’s senses far better than those of Boris or your dear Helena. Perhaps, knowing no other life than the bondage we have endured thus far, they resist venturing into the unknown. But we must not let them sabotage our freedom. If those women be minions of hell, let them come anyway. They can hardly be worse than the lot of us.Boris is hog-tied in the wine cellar. I gave his wine an extra spice he did not notice. He is out of harm’s way for several hours at least.Go now and make sure Helena is quite as faint or dead drunk as she has claimed to be. Make an honest woman of her and a man of yourself. This is our chance!Lora