Beast Girls

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    Eve was a surprise child.

    Before her there were two sisters. Eve’s mother spent a year under a dark cloud after the second was born, eating little and sometimes becoming paralyzed as she drifted off or began to wake from sleep. Those moments terrified her so, she could not breathe. She knew she was not too old – she could have another child – but she was afraid.
    “You can’t let fear steal your joy,” Eve’s father said. “You love children. You were born to be a mother.”
    “I’m already a mother,” his wife said.
    “Please,” he said. “There’s one more coming. I can see her.”
    After much discussion and a few tears, they had Eve. A few months after her birth, a wildfire raged through the woods surrounding their town. As they fled towards the safety of the nearby city, Eve’s mother insisted on going back for the box of family photographs. When her husband and daughters returned to the house months later, after the police had asked their questions and the rescue workers had said We’re sorry, we’ve done all we can, the box of photographs was still in its place at the top of the hall closet.

    Perhaps this was why Eve’s father loved her more than his other children, although he would never admit it to himself. But his older daughters knew from the way he looked at Eve, how when she cried he came faster to her than either of them, how he could not go to bed without checking on her at least three times. They could feel it in their bones the way an amputee may feel a severed limb, a dull electric burn that never seemed to leave. Didn’t they lose a mother, too? Weren’t they his flesh and blood just like Eve? Is it any wonder, then, that they could not love her?
    Eve felt her sister’s silences and the sharp edges of their words when they did speak, but she got used to it as she grew up. Besides, she had her father’s love and the treehouse he built for her in the peach tree in their backyard complete with a rope hammock and an octagonal window where she could reach out and grab fresh peaches in the summer. Sometimes she spent whole days in the branches eating peaches and reading books about spunky, scabby-kneed girls who discovered worlds behind doors and under the earth. Once she snuck a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from the school library, but felt too guilty to read it – her father had told her witches and wizards did the work of the Devil, and Eve knew how much her father loved her, how it would hurt him to know she had disobeyed.
    Although Eve loved her father, always in denim and smelling faintly of the gasoline from the mechanic shop where he worked, whose stained hands had comforted and protected her since she was born, she also knew that she could not stay with him forever. Someday she would leave the brown brick house with the peach tree house, itchy Sunday dresses, jealous sisters. But she was content.
    Until the autumn she was nineteen, when her father left on the hunting trip.

    A few of his friends from church had invited him on a weekend deer hunt a few hours away, deep in the hill country. On his way home he would pass through the city, did his girls want anything? His older daughters asked for gourmet chocolate, lavender hand cream, candles that smelled of green tea. Except Eve, who had her father’s love and her books and peach tree and so didn’t feel the need for much else. But he didn’t feel right returning without a gift for her.
    “If you have time, Daddy, can you stop by the market for a pomegranate? It’s the season for them now, and they’re cheaper in the city.”
    This made her sisters hate her even more. They hadn’t thought their requests were extravagant, but there was no competing with Eve – she always managed to make them look spoiled and selfish. They rolled their eyes. At least they would have their nice gifts.

    Eve’s father drove west into the hills in the morning when the bright autumn sun turned the landscape a clear, crisp gold, but by evening all the roads began to look the same and seemed to loop back on one another like a labyrinth. He did not have a map, and his cell phone was dead. He tried not to panic, reminding himself he was a grown man, but he had heard stories of strange creatures living in the remote hills, creatures with dark feathers and eyes like crimson embers. And there were bobcats and coyotes and the occasional puma – he took comfort in his shotgun packed in the trunk. He considered bringing it into the backseat and spending the night in his car, when on a back road, he saw a light shine through the trees.
    Thinking there may be a phone he could use, he drove down a winding, narrow drive towards the rainbow colored light, which he saw came from the stained glass windows of a great stone mansion, complete with a tower and ivy climbing up the walls. An iron gate opened as he approached. He parked at the end of the leaf and twig strewn drive and walked quietly up the limestone steps. He hardly raised his hand to knock when the door creaked open softly on its own.
    The hallway was lit with torches in sconces that gave off a sweet, almost spicy odor, like chili flowers. Eve’s father was not sure what to think. He had never been in a house like this. He wondered if he should have brought the shotgun in case he needed to defend himself, but remembered what his own father had taught him as a boy – never carry your weapon through an open door. Besides, it seemed that no one here meant him any harm.
    He came to a dining room lit with purple candlesticks. An antique crystal chandelier strung with blue pearls hung from the ceiling. A fire crackled cheerfully in the fireplace. The mantel was decorated with bird feathers, chunks of citrine and amethyst and lapis lazuli, the skulls of small animals.
    On the table were steaming plates of roasted chicken with butter and herbs, creamy mashed potatoes, cranberry cornbread, fresh iced oysters, fried cactus, deviled eggs, deep dark purple grapes. For dessert there was prickly pear custard, blackberry pie, fresh blood oranges that made him swoon with their scent. In the decanter a rich, blood red wine. A small card read PLEASE EAT.
    Eve’s father had not realized how hungry he was, but could now feel himself salivate like an animal. There were no utensils, but he eagerly shoveled as much food with his hands as he could. When he had eaten so much he felt like he might pop open, and his eyes began to droop with sleepiness, a small white bell appeared on the table. When he rang it, he suddenly found himself in a large comfortable bed washed with moonlight in a room painted red. Eve’s father was very amazed by all this, but did not want to be an ungrateful guest. Before falling asleep, he said aloud to the empty house, “Thank you for your hospitality.”
    In the morning, he helped himself to sumptuous breakfast of biscuits, eggs, bacon, coffee and a bowl of strawberries. As he prepared to leave, he noticed a garden he had not seen the night before. It was filled with overblown marigolds, esperanza, lantana, pointy flowering cacti and a tangled bed of lavender and orange roses. There was a waxy looking magnolia, avocado and banana trees and moonflower with withered night blooms hanging like spent trumpets. And in the far corner of the garden, he saw it.
    The tree was full of round pink husks, fat with ruby seeds. The fruit reminded him of Eve – full of vitality and promise. He had to take one for her. But just as it snapped off the tree, firm and whole in his hand, the Beast came.
    She roared and for a moment he feared a puma had come from the woods. But he froze as he saw the Beast lumber towards him from the shadows of the garden. She circled him and rumbled deep in her chest. Her black fur stood on end, her tail thumped the ground, her claws scraped the earth like sharp silver crescent moons. Eve’s father shook so hard with fear he fell to hands and knees. He felt like he might vomit. He dared not meet the Beast’s gaze. If he did, he would have seen the ethereal, benevolent, violet eyes of a goddess.
    “I give you food,” the Beast growled. “I take you into my home and ask nothing in return. And your greed is so that you take the one thing you’re not allowed to touch?”
    Eve’s father apologized, I’m sorry, I was lost, my daughter, her wish.
    After what seemed like a long time, the Beast told Eve’s father he could go. On one condition.
    “No,” he said. “I’ll give you anything else. Anything at all.”
    The Beast said there was no other way. If Eve did not come in seven days, her father would become ill and die.
    Eve’s father ran from the garden that now felt suffocating with its heavy floral scent, down the limestone steps, away from the stone house that in the daylight seemed dark and haunted. He jumped in his car and sped so quickly down the drive he almost veered off into the trees. When he reached the main road he lay his forehead against the steering wheel and tried to catch his breath. Surely, it had all been some sort of bad dream.
    But on the seat beside him was the pomegranate.

    “I’ll go, Daddy,” Eve said when he told his children what had happened. “I’m the one who got us into this mess. It’s only fair that I fix it.”
    Her father wouldn’t hear of it. Her sisters rolled their eyes, muttered that he should just go back and shoot the Beast with his shotgun.
    “She’s far too powerful,” their father said. “And I don’t know the way.”
    “I will go, Daddy,” Eve said again. She hugged her father. In her heart, she knew that she had been waiting for a chance to leave.
    Her father kissed her and told her not worry, he would figure something out. But that night Eve lay awake and wondered how you find a magical mansion hidden in the hills occupied by a she-beast. Near daybreak, she heard a whinny from the front yard. From her bedroom window, she saw a black horse. He wore no saddle or bridle but she knew, somehow, that he had come for her. She dressed and quietly stepped outside. The horse kneeled before her, as if it was an honor to carry her away.
    They rode off the highway, through the scorched bit of woods that were still recovering from the fire and eventually into the thickets of mesquite and cedar. It thrilled Eve because as a child she had often wondered what it would be like to travel through the trees instead of driving down the road in a deadly machine – cars had always made her anxious. She felt the horse’s powerful muscles move between her thighs, the autumn sun warm her skin, the breeze tangle her long strawberry hair. She saw a red and a white fox run through the brush together and a flock of wild green parrots glide over the trees. Eve had never felt so free, even though she was afraid – not so much of the Beast, for she had read enough faerie tales to feel fairly confident in dealing with one, but the thought of leaving one sort of cage for another. Still, she knew it was by her own choosing, and that had to count for something.
    When they reached the Beast’s mansion, the twilight had settled in and turned the hills purple. The rainbow light filled the courtyard from the stained glass windows, making her less afraid. The front hallway was lit with torches and full of chittering bats hanging from the ceiling and flitting around in the firelight, as if to greet her. Eve was perplexed – why had her father not mentioned this? In the dining room a two-headed snake twined around the chandelier and gazed benevolently at her with four eyes like crushed onyx. There was a bobcat curled up by the fireplace that yawned sleepily when she entered. Tiny chrysali hung from the stained glass windows.
    The table was covered with fruits of every color of the rainbow, big thick purple carrots and roasted sweet potatoes, smoked cheeses rolled in herbs and fresh baked bread, a pitcher of blood red sangria. When Eve had eaten her fill, a bowl of pomegranates appeared, their bright pink seeds glistening like jewels in the candlelight.
    As she swallowed her first seed, she heard footsteps. She turned, prepared to meet the Beast.
    Instead, she saw a woman with olive skin, hair like midnight, amethyst eyes. She was dressed in a black silk slip covered with silver stars. Eve felt a pang in her stomach, like something died inside her, only to be resurrected a moment later.
    “Your father said you were fond of them,” the woman said in a voice that reminded Eve of wind chimes in a summer storm.
    “You’re – the Beast,” Eve said.
    The woman shrugged. “It takes a beast to know a beast.”
    “Do you have a name?”
    “Lilith.”
    “Lilith.”
    “Are you afraid, Eve?”
    “No. Yes.”

    Lilith and Eve spent their days running through the hills, swimming in blue sinkholes, painting each other’s bodies to look like opals, garnets, diamonds, dancing in the moonlight garden with the bats and snake and bobcat. They wandered the woods freeing animals from hunter’s traps. They ate wild berries and mushrooms (Lilith taught Eve which were safe and which were deadly) and flowers and fruit from the garden. Eve’s hands and feet grew hard thick calluses, and she learned to love the feel of dirt under her fingernails. She bathed less often and her hair grew tangled and full of leaves and twigs. When winter came, they stay curled up together in Lilith’s bed with the leopard and black lace sheets in a room that smelled of Egyptian musk, old Souixsie and the Banshees cassettes playing in the stereo, and read from yellowed books of poetry and myth. They rarely found it necessary to speak.
    But every day, Lilith asked the same question.
    “Do you love me, Eve?”
    “Of course I love you, Bat-Girl.”
    “I mean, me – not the kind of love you feel for an animal.”
    “But you are an animal. And so am I.”
    In the spring, the chrysali opened. Forty purple, red, and black butterflies dripped out like wet flying gemstones. The garden was heavy with fruit.

    Although Eve had never been happier than she was with Lilith, she didn’t forget her father. Somehow she sensed when he became ill. The turn of the year brought more than shorter days and cooler evenings – the air tasted different, heavier.
    “I have to see him, Lil,” she told Lilith. “I couldn’t forgive myself if he died and I wasn’t there to say goodbye.”
    Lilith nodded, but her face was grave.
    “Humor me.”
    “How?”
    “Promise you’ll remember me when you go.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “You still belong to the world. I was foolish not to see it.”
    Eve took Lilith’s hands and kissed them. She looked into Lilith’s wet purple eyes.
    “This is my home now. With you, Lili.”
    Lilith smiled with her mouth, but not her eyes.
    “At sunset, go to the top of the hill. You will find what you need.”
    Eve threw her arms around Lilith’s shoulders.
    “You’ll see me again.”
    “I know. But I won’t.”

    When the hills turned violet as the sun sank, Eve ran to the top of the hills above the garden. Lying on a granite boulder was a pair of great white owl wings. She slipped them on and without thinking about it, she flew. Her stomach dropped at the initial launch away from the stability of earth, but once she caught the wind current she forgot to be afraid. The cool blue air felt sweet in her lungs. She laughed with pleasure as she glided and tumbled in the air. This must be how a bird feels, she thought, so far removed but still connected, parallel, to the world below, the stars above. Gliding over the blankets of trees, the city that glittered like a silver charm, the blue snake of the river that wound past the blackened woods and there, on edge, her father’s house with the rusty swing set and peach tree in the backyard. Eve felt her heart deflate as she ascended downwards – she wanted more sky and stars and dizzy thin air. Still, the soft grass of the kempt lawn felt good under her feet after so many months of running barefoot through the woods. She hid the owl wings in her old treehouse.
    Eve’s father was overjoyed at her homecoming, but her sisters could only stare in shock and fear at her matted hair, dirty fingernails, the soft hair that had grown over her arms and legs and her strange musky, woodsy odor. But her father’s health improved within hours of her visit. After a few days of making him healing soups and teas and reading to him from his favorite books, he felt strong enough to sit outside in the sun.
    Eve told her father about Lilith, their moonlight dances and swims and the animals and twilight runs, but he shook his head.
    “I don’t want you going back there,” he said.
    “It’s alright, Daddy,” Eve said. “I’m very well cared for and happy with Lil. She’s a fierce one, but she has a kind heart.”
    “That’s not how I remember her,” her father said. “Don’t be confused, sweetheart. You may only be feeling pity for an animal.”
    Eve smiled and dug her bare toes into the grass.
    “But I am an animal. We all are.”
    “God made us separate,” her father said. “Gave us dominion. It’s just the way it is.”
    “Maybe,” Eve said, opening her mouth wide in a yawn, “or maybe we just forgot who we are.”

    Although his heart had not felt happier in years, the disease still ate away at Eve’s father’s body. Eve stayed with her family through the winter, helping to feed and bathe him and take him to the hospital for treatments. Although her sisters were frightened when she first arrived home, they bonded taking care of their father in a way they never could when they were children. After they had helped him to bed they would stay up late into the night baking banana bread and playing card games. Eve told them about her life with Lilith and they told Eve all the things they had been doing since she’d been away – one working as a nanny, the other completing a nursing program, how they tried to take their father out to Daisy’s whenever they could because he loved two-stepping, and so that he would not forget the good in the world.
    “We were afraid when you first came home,” they told her. “Dad has always favored you and we had only just learned to forgive him for it. But you’ve made him happy, which is what he needs more than anything now. And maybe we needed to see you, too. To forgive ourselves.”
    Eve began to shower more frequently and wear shoes. She brushed the tangles out of her hair, although she didn’t mind when leaves and twigs got caught in it. But every night as she lay in her bed with the pink blankets she had loved as a child but that now felt smothering, she thought of her Lilith. Was she lonely? Sad? And why could she not sense her thoughts the way she always had before?
    She’s fine, Eve told herself. She’s far too powerful. Isn’t she?

    When their father died, just as the first flowers were beginning to poke their heads out of the ground, Eve mourned with her sisters but knew it was time to leave. She promised to see them again in the winter. Again she flew, but faster this time, beating the wings frantically over the highway with its cars like dust-covered hard candy, the scorched dragon woods where new green saplings were just beginning to emerge, the silver city that glowed gold in the sunset and the violet hills. She feared that she may not remember the way to the mansion, but somehow, the way a bird knows north from south in its blood and bones, she did.
    She ran through the barren garden until she found Lilith, curled up under the pomegranate tree, surrounded by dried husks of the spoiled fruit. Only it wasn’t Lilith. It was an ugly, beautiful beast with ebony black fur that had been picked away in places to reveal raw flesh beneath, silver claws like sharp curved moons. But she was frail – her bones jutted out, threatening to rip through the seams of her skin like a worn and neglected stuffed animal. Her breath rattled like an empty gourd. She did not look like a hungry demon – she looked small and lost.
    Eve threw her arms around Lilith, I’m sorry Lil, I’m sorry, I love you Lil, please I can’t lose you too, I love you baby.
    Lilith’s eyes fluttered open. They were murky and runny, like lavender milk, but she whined and licked Eve’s cheek.
    Lilith got better, but she remained a beast. That was alright with Eve – she loved her beast-girl regardless of what she looked like. What saddened her was that they now had to speak more often, although they still walked in the woods and swam in the river and ate together with the bats and snake and bobcat and shared a bed. They no longer painted one another’s bodies, so Eve began painting the walls of the rooms with forests and oceans and planets.
    Sometimes, when they argued, Lilith would go off roaming the woods for several days at a time. When that happened, Eve would bathe and take the owl wings to visit her sisters. Those times she was in the air were when she felt most like herself – beast girl, animal girl, girl, belonging to the night and day, confusing and astounding those whose eyes were too closed to understand.

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