Prose by Bonney Ruhl
Art by Maya Parker
Shall I tell you a story?
Once upon a time a family lived high in the mountains where the air was thin and the forests were thick. The family was rich and had many lovely things, but none as beautiful as their daughter. Artisans traveled great distances hoping to capture her beauty in whatever medium they favored: Endless poems were written about her, masks were made in her likeness. She accepted all of these favors with grace and humility for she was as dutiful as she was beautiful.
The time came for the daughter to be married, and so a match was arranged between her and a man even wealthier than her family. This man lived on a distant mountain peak. Her family wept at the thought of losing her. In the end, though, they knew the daughter must leave the family of her birth to start a new family with her husband for that is the way of things.
On the night she was to be married, tragedy struck. The wedding was attacked by a monstrous beast, who slaughtered the husband-to-be and ate up the daughter so all that remained was her torn wedding gown.
Her family, mad with grief, sought vengeance. They hunted down and then slayed the beast. When they cut it open, they found the body of their daughter inside it. Her head was missing, already consumed by the beast.
They buried the body, and wept for what they had lost.
Was that a good story? Did you like it?
It is rather boring, I suppose. A girl does what she is told and then dies—how predictable.
There are, of course, other versions of this story. Stories are not solitary creatures. I know all this because it is my job to tell stories, to entertain. I know so many stories, so very many. It is sometimes hard to keep them all straight.
Have you ever played telephone? One person whispers to another, and they to another, all along in a chain, and the sentence that emerges is not the same as when it began. The same is true for stories: if you tell a story again and again it changes. Another whisper to another ear and the story changes again.
Shall I tell you another story?
There was once the daughter of an exceedingly wealthy family. The family could think of nothing but adding to their wealth, and were so consumed by greed they never saw their daughter as anything but a possession.
The daughter longed for freedom. Her past, present and future only brought her sorrow, for she knew she would be married off to whoever offered her family the most money, with no regard for her well-being.
Please understand: creatures like her are often sad. Daughters, wives; they are simply pawns to those who covet power. They have no freedom of their own. She knew all this, and she mourned the parts of her which had died before they ever truly lived—her wildness, her willfulness, all smothered under the weight of responsibility and duty.
And then the minstrel arrived.
Did I not mention the minstrel before?
How silly of me. To be fair, he is often not included in the story. After all, he is only there for a few lines. He comments on the daughter’s beauty, asks to make a mask of her face to use in his performances and then leaves. He is just a minstrel, a wandering storyteller—a man of no account to a rich family. How important can he be?
But I am telling you a different story, aren’t I? So why not include the minstrel.
Let us say the minstrel felt sorry for the girl. Let us say that the minstrel told the daughter of a back door to the house, one which only servants and travelers used. Let us say that the minstrel gave her a mask in order to hide her face, so that no-one would recognize her. Let us say that the mask was of a terrifying beast.
Masks are very peculiar things. Put on one and you are no longer you, not exactly. You are what the mask says you are: you are the tender virgin, the mighty soldier, the wrinkled hag. The minstrel would have known all of this, of course. Minstrels trade in masks and stories–the one a vehicle for the other.
The daughter wore the skin of the beast as a disguise, and in doing so won her freedom. She could never be free as she was, and the minstrel knew that. That is not the way that these stories go; beautiful daughters don’t abandon their fiancés and families. The daughter could not escape her life forever. So the minstrel bent the story. He made her into something else, something besides a beautiful daughter.
The daughter was freed. But at what cost? Freedom is not cheap. To be pitifully blunt, freedom in life is freedom for death to visit at any moment. Birds fly and deer run, but their deaths are as unpredictable as their lives. Death is constantly nipping at their toes; it is why they move so quickly. Even great wolves and bears face death every day, through starvation or disease.
But the daughter would die, eventually. Even if she remained at home, even if she married. Would it be better for her to die a slow death in captivity–with her mind and soul dying long before her body surrendered?
Let us say that the daughter escapes. She slips out of the house while wearing her beast-guise and slides into the dense forest surrounding her home. She vanishes for a moment, out in the wilderness. It isn’t for very long, this escapade. Not long enough to merit a mention in most versions of the story; the minstrel brings the daughter home very quickly. She is soon safe and sound once again. What more is there to say on the matter? Best to forget about it, it isn’t important.
Allow me a few words on the beast. It emerges out of nowhere to wreak havoc, and is then killed by the family. That is the role of the beast in every story: to kill and then to be killed.
Is there anything to say about the beast that has not already been said? It is a creature after all. Who really cares about a monstrous beast? Who cares that it may be lonely, that it may yearn for company? It may look at the small, fragile humans and feel a tug of longing in its beastly guts–but really, who would care? A beast is a beast is a beast. It is unimportant how it feels.
But what if? What if someone–some unimportant harmless minstrel man–offered it a way into the human world? What if this minstrel had with him a mask, cast from the face of a beautiful daughter?
A mask of a beast and a mask of a girl; each given to the other, to bring their wishes true.
Here is where things become confusing; a shell game. Make sure to keep an eye on the cups–which one is the marble under?
A daughter runs into the forest. The minstrel brings out a daughter. One comes in and one comes out.
Is it the same daughter?
The family is ecstatic, of course. Their daughter, returned to them! Or, well, something that looks like their daughter and acts like their daughter. They never really knew her. When you think of a person like a possession, you never feel the need to treat them like an individual with thoughts and feelings. One daughter is very much like another.
It looked enough like their daughter for them to ignore all the differences. Had her eyes really been so dark? Her teeth so pointed and sharp? Was she always so silent, never saying a word, only breathing heavily and staring blankly?
Whatever it was, it could pass for their daughter, and that was enough for them. They sent it off, as the daughter’s wedding day was fast approaching. No matter that the minstrel told the family to keep the daughter close by, to love her and listen to her. He was just a minstrel, and knew nothing of their ways. It was far better that she be married, because that was the way of things. An exchange: a daughter for power, money, glory. A mask for a mask.
It is hard for people to act against their nature. You can tell a greedy family not to indulge their greed, but in the end they always will. You can tell a beast not to act like a beast, and you can give it the face of a beautiful daughter, but underneath it is always a beast. While a daughter may quietly bear the burden of captivity, a beast will fight back with tooth and claw.
There was no trace of the daughter’s body amongst the carnage of the wedding. All that was found were her clothes, torn to pieces. Never a body. How strange.
The rest of the story is much the same. The family hunts the beast, and then they kill it. Justice is served, and they gather the remains of their beautiful daughter.
I am afraid that no matter which version of the story I tell, the daughter always dies. That is the way that her story ends. I know that it is bittersweet, but think of it this way: she was free, if only for a while. She shed her beautiful daughter-skin and was something wild, something dangerous. She became what she always dreamt of being, even if she died for it.
Better to die free then die a prisoner.
As for the beast, I suppose it is still out there, prowling around in the world. Perhaps it found a place where it would be warm, protected and loved. I am sure there are ways for a beast to become different, to acclimate into society. It would require kindness, but the world–despite what this story may insist–is not short of kindness. Yes, I am sure that with time and patience the beast would become soft and loving, just as it wanted. Let us focus on that: the beast, achieving its gentle dream. It is no longer alone.
What of the minstrel?
What of him? I am sure he packed his bags and left after he returned the almost-daughter to her home. He was–is—a storyteller, and he knew what would happen. He knew how this story would unfold.
And what did he do once he left? He would do his job. He would continue to wander, to tell stories. That is what he is meant to do after all. And where would the world be without stories, or the people to tell them?
Is this story true? Well, who knows. This story is very old. The family in question has since vanished, killed by war or plague or by other means: I am not certain. Their estate is nothing more than ruins, rusted and crumbling. Who is to say what really happened. Only stories are left, and they only hint at what might have been. There are no absolute truths remaining.
Here is a final story:
Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted freedom, and there was a beast who wanted companionship. There was a minstrel, and though all he could do was tell stories he saw a way to help them.
And so he helped them.