My dear sisters,
How can I tell you? I am not coming home.
How this letter will reach you, I cannot yet imagine. But more impossible things have happened to me than this, and I’ll find a way.
I need to tell you why I’ve left you, why I’ve chosen this. Please understand—you know me. Please hear what I have to say, and tell Father what you can. In some way he already does understand, but it is not for him to understand everything that I will tell you now. The beast you feared had enslaved me—he is not a beast. He is a man. I have married him.
Just now he is hunting, in his old embroidered hunting gear from long ago, not with teeth and claws but with a bow. Just this morning I watched him flex and test it with his own hands, for it remained to him from boyhood, and then I watched him sit on the edge of our bed and stare, as he often does now, at those very hands—with amazement. And then seize my hand—not with savagery but with love—and entwine it with his, grinning like a happy fool, still amazed. His face no longer clothed
in hair—he even shaved his beard.
How can I begin to tell you? You know, I have all my old diaries here, and at times I’ve had nothing else to read but them. I’m only sixteen, as you’re fond of reminding me, but I’ve written so many pages. You used to wonder (idly, I think) what was in them—how I could be so silent, but have so much to say. It’s only recently, reading them over, that I understand myself. How perfectly everything led to this moment. The parts of me that fell away, and then returned to me. How I never knew what I was seeking, until it began to hunt me.
Dear, restless Lara. Dear, sweet Addie. How many times, after lying awake for hours, discussing the fine points of how various suitors perceived you, and how their wealth should be measured and compared, did you finally turn to me saying, “Let’s ask our Mina, she always has something to say about it”—? And I had held myself awake for so long each time, knowing that you always would ask. And that you would wait respectfully while I considered, with that silence so unusual to you. Though you never took my advice, I think it mattered to you even so. Why? Not because I, the youngest and least worldly, am in any way wise. But I think because I looked deeper. Always. Into everything. If there is anything you ever respected about me, your shy, dreamy little Mina, wasn’t it this? You used to tease me, but how fiercely you defended me, Lara, if any one of your suitors made some careless comment about my lack of social graces—and “Mina knows what you are thinking, and can surely see inside your very heart,” you said once, Addie, adding your easy laugh to your words so the poor boy wouldn’t be frightened.
Perhaps if you—or anyone—had seen my beast as he was, a beast is all you would have seen. Perhaps I was delirious when Father and I first arrived here, guided as if by magic across Sleeping Lake, for I’d slept the whole way, with a sleep that felt forced upon me. But I was not afraid when I first saw him. You made me describe him to you when I came home, but I never could do him justice. His primordial eyes, the size of my fists. The scents of his fur changing with the weather and the season and what he’d been hunting. His playful tail—always moving, knocking valuables off the old castle shelves on purpose to break them, once he saw how it made me laugh. I knew him when I first saw him, as I know him now. His rugged brows, his strong chest and thighs, his brambled hair like an unkempt mountaintop still as white as the beast’s was, though he stands before me a young, healthy man—he is not so different, now. If an innocent maiden met him alone in a dark forest, she would run. But an innocent maiden would never enter such a forest, and perhaps I’ve never been as innocent as you thought me.
There are things I could never tell you—not so you would understand. The sound of his howl, night after night, every night, for a year, and what it did to me, what it woke in me, how it beat me down with compassion until I could barely rise each morning. I do not think you could feel anything unkind toward my husband if you had heard such a wail—stretching so far into the night, longer than a river stretches from mountain to sea, gouging an emptiness in the sky, and quieting, finally, upon a hushed, panting breath of hopeless isolation. In the sound of that howl, I almost lost hope, too, realizing that all the little tasks of care I took upon myself in the castle each day—the cleaning and ordering, the pruning of the roses, was for no one’s good but my own, and mattered not at all. They could not matter to a beast.
You used to ask what I wrote about, what I thought about so long,wandering through my silent childhood—oh, I hardly knew. I could hardly have explained why I hunted the things I hunted, with my huge and quiet senses.
The images I saw in the streets of Sirenia, the muffled echo of wood against wood underwater as the boat hulls struck the house landings in the evening, the songs of the doves pouring over each other in waves, the sylphs and griffns that played in the carvings on the columns of the palace dock—how I wondered at the way time could be stopped that way, by art, and how I knew that the lives of those mythical beings continued on into the past and the future, but on some other layer of reality we could not see. I wrote of the pigs’ foolish antics as they jostled each other for scraps in the empty town square after market day—one of the few things that made me laugh. I made up stories for the faces I could not see beneath the hoods of the peasants, as they passed with their parcels and donkeys over the little bridges that crossed the canals—the beautiful arc of the bridge capturing them for an instant in time, making a painting of them before they moved on and were lost again in their own unknown stories. I loved to watch the way, after a rainstorm, the garbage of both rich and poor all mixed together. I loved to watch how the glass-blower’s hands trembled but the glass unicorns still came out perfectly, and how the bee-keeper looked a monster in his bee-keeping suit, and how the music of a wandering minstrel changed the shape of the sky and the pace of everyone who passed, and how everyone distrusted the miller and talked behind his back and accused him of cheating, but his face never changed and his hands never shook as he poured the grain like sand onto those ancient scales, measuring out the food of the world, and how sometimes when I had been watching for a long time and least expected it, I saw shadows pass in the windows of the Cygnini palace, and I wondered about the people inside, and if they were happy or sad, and if watching the swans that sailed below them made them feel peaceful and tender toward the world as it did for me.
Living in the castle with the beast, it was the same for me—the same beauty overwhelming, in the great stained-glass mermaids and the up-side-down snowflakes of glass in the silent Great Hall, the empty, ruined rooms now open to the wind, and the jagged shapes of sky framed by the upper balconies all fallen to rubble. I never wanted to own the beautiful things you did, but I loved to watch beauty. And now, you see, here in the Ghost Kingdom, for the first time it was watching me.
As far as I knew, I was the only human creature alive here. There is a madness in that kind of solitude, already, but it was intensified by the ever-shifting reality of this land, a slippery uncertainty in the very air that I took a very long time getting used to. Night winds carry illusory voices, and mists hide the day. The moon shines brighter than back home, as if it is closer to the earth, or more desperate somehow, and it changes familiar shapes with more violence, more daring. When I lived here with the beast, every room, every step, seemed haunted by some living, awful history whose meaning and intention I could not tell.
It took me many moons to realize that the invisible presence that hunted me was not a ghost in the castle or in one of the sculptures but rather the beast himself. He followed me. He followed me through the garden of roses, as I lifted them upon fingertips he did not have and shivered from their thorns with a bareness of skin he could not feel. He watched me while I ate the meals I’d cooked from the meat he left me and the overgrown weeds. I found his moon-colored hairs on the diaries I had lain down the night before. He glimpsed me when I bathed, when my eyes were hidden by my wet hair.
What did he want? You might think him perverse, but he was ananimal—can an animal be perverse? To tell the truth, it thrilled me, secretly, with a subtle, dream-fragrant, whisper-bite of rapture. I have not truly explained to you what his eyes were like, how they understood things about me I had not understood myself. Not only my loneliness, but my desire for something so beautiful, I had never seen it. On the night of my sixteenth birthday, I caught his eyes in mine, kneeling suddenly before him at the foot of the tower stair, when he descended in exhaustion from his long, desolate howl. “Dear Beast,” I said to him, “I beg of you, do not howl in the night anymore. Let us comfort each other, somehow.”They were the most intimate words I had ever spoken to anyone—but I supposed I was half out of my mind with loneliness, too, and could not help it. When he came to me, he smelled like the trees’ breath at night, the hidden sweat of prey before it succumbs. He knelt as an animal kneels, with his knees bending backward, and lay his head in my lap. I felt his throat against my thighs, his brutal fur scratching my skin through my nightgown, and a gulping ache within me that I do not know if you have ever felt before, my sisters—I have never asked you. For years, I wanted to, but was ashamed.
I told you once of a cave I found in the forests here, a womb of crystal among glassy springs, with a darkness breathing cold from its mouth like the breath of the night sky. But I did not tell you it was he who brought me there. I did not tell you of his presence beside me, exploding over and over with emotion that only I could feel.
I never knew what God was—I still don’t know. I don’t hold in my mind such a clear idea of Him as you do, when you blame Him for the pirates that took Father’s fortune, for the collapse of your dreams and the disappearance of all your rich suitors—I know I didn’t lose what you did, and it was easier for me, but it never surprised me. I can’t define why exactly, except that maybe I knew that what we had owned we had not really owned, for our life had always seemed to me as great a mystery as everything else in this world, the doves singing over and over each other or the glassblower’s trembling hands or the minstrel’s songs which were always sad but which made people happy. I will always feel nostalgic for those evenings we spent in the country, once we left everything behind for the little cottage out there by the Golden River—when I’d finished my work and sat alone by the creek and looked at the stars and the invisible light behind them. Addie, you were weeping in your bed, and Lara, you were disappearing half the night, wandering in hungry rage we knew not where—and I was so sad for you both, I loved you with all the love I knew, and yet I was not afraid. God was a question I could never answer, and I loved the not knowing. I love it still.
You may laugh at all of this, my dear elders, my savvy sisters. I don’t write it in the language you are accustomed to hear me in—I who never use more than a few words to answer your questions. When I read my old diaries back to myself, I find that I hardly exist in them. They are first my childhood impressions of the world, and then later my retellings of your love stories and adventures—when I was yet too young to imagine such things for myself. Oh Lara, you were always the talk of the town, with your elegant bones and sharp, wistful face framed by layers of dark red wings. And Addie, darling “Adeline” upon so many fervent lips—how languid your walk, your shoulders drenched in freckles, your face always laughing. If I walked with you, I only did it to help your cause—to increase the dazzling spectacle of our hair, that fever of red, red hair which you both wore loose but I always kept in braids. You used to tell us, Lara, when we were children, that in the old days before the Savior, on the old continent, our people believed red-heads were touched by the fire of gods. I don’t know if it’s true, but unlike other aberrations, red hair did always seem to dazzle our peers, inspiring wistfulness instead of suspicion. I enjoyed sharing that magic halo with you, in my quiet way. But the truth is my hair is darker, duller, a shadow of your own. I hid my boyish, narrow body behind your curves. I never looked at myself in the mirror if I could help it—my face too severe, and dusky like our Wye mother’s, not fair like yours. I never wanted a separate identity from the one we shared. If someone had told me, two years ago, that I would ever part from you for more than a day, how it would have wounded and bewildered my heart just to think of it.
It still does. I cannot bear that I shall not see you again until some unknown time. It is the only thing that mars my happiness—that, and the fear that you will not forgive me. I adore you, both of you. I was perfectly content doing most of the housework, even when poor Father scolded you for your neglect of it—I understood that you suffered as I did not, that you had lost more, and I loved to work for my family, I loved to know that I could be there for you in any small way. To be honest—I think you know this—I always tried harder than you did to replace our mother, who after all died giving birth to me, so I felt a certain responsibility. Perhaps, I think now, I was not actually born to be a merchant’s daughter, though of course I will always be grateful and admiring of Father’s hard work and the esteem in which he was once held. What I mean is that working with my hands, taking care of home, of family, of animals, of vegetables—of anything—I felt at home in myself for the first time. But now Lara, now I have seen you married well enough, though I don’t think you realize how well, and your good husband will take care of Father in his declining years, I know. Addie, I know you will soon be well cared for, too—I saw it in your prospects during that brief time when I was home.
Now it is my husband who needs me. And I, Mina, rejoice to be needed by him.
His name is Nicolai—Nicolai Wolf, I call him, for he was cursed to be one for fifty years. Everything I wrote just now about God, and the dreams I dreamed when I was young—perhaps I have been trying to prepare you for a kind of magic you will not believe. And yet you believed well enough in unicorns, when Father came here hunting their ivory—the very last of it, they said, that could be found in the world. Well he found none, because the unicorns were all destroyed or disappeared all those many years ago. Nor are there any real wolves here any longer—those, too, were massacred long ago. It was for these crimes, and more, that Nicolai—and all his people—were cursed by the Dark Faerie Rhiannon. I suppose she wanted him to experience the desolate loneliness of an animal who cannot bear to live without his pack, in a land where he was the only one, so that he would understand the devastation his people had wrought upon this place. They are called the Ghost People now. But once they called themselves the Unicorn Riders. It is a long story, one I hope to tell you in person one day when we see each other again. But for now I imagine you have enough to take in, if you are reading this—and as I write it I am distracted by a nervous anxiety, as dusk falls so gently, too gently, over the castle stones and my love has not yet come home...
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