I fall in love with a shadow the night you rescue me on the mountain.
You are not the hungry beast to whom I was sacrificed, my village’s solemn plea for the goddess’s mercy. I have offended her, it seems, by my birth.
The beast should have devoured me. You, instead, find me and make me your wife.
On that night, you extract a promise. “You must never look upon my face. The shadows hold me fast. Promise me.”
I am no longer cold, or hungry, or afraid. Yes, I tell you. Yes.
I am curious, I admit. What wife would not be? I’m certain I glimpsed you once in a dream, your image fading with morning’s first light, my mind unable to recall the shape of your face, the color of your eyes. And I am grateful enough not to look, though my longing churns like hunger.
We live here in your mountain palace for a time. My days are a bottomless purse of coins; I spend them spinning tapestries of your tales, gathering roses from your garden, walking your palace’s ever-shifting halls. I write letters I will never send. Your ghostly servants, silent, flitting within the light, are my only company.
By night, I keep the company of shadows, you the darkest among them. When morning comes, I am alone once again in your palace of illusions. It is enough, I tell myself. It is enough to be alive, to breathe the crisp air upon this mountain. To hold your hand, even in the darkness. I must be content and true.
Is it enough for you too, I wonder? I imagine you, clothed in shadow and the scent of roses, skulking through your palace, muttering away the light until we might meet.
When at last you come to me, the shadows shape you through a mirror dark; you, a sinuous figure flowing toward me, pausing. I break the silence separating us both, whisper to the shadows, “Come closer.” They obey by small measures. Beyond the shadows, a sigh shaped like my name.
You do not reach for me until I reach for you. My fingertips read your shape, trace your eyelids, your nose, your mouth. I part shadows to hold you, and imagine your heartbeat mirroring mine. I breathe the sweet scent of your skin, as if this is enough to conjure you into the light. It never is. My head settles on your heart, your warm flesh beneath my cheek; your fingers thread through my hair. Rarely do we ever speak in these moments, hoarding words like dragon’s treasure, we two; what’s left unsaid shines between us, darkly golden. Together we lie, of a piece, one with the shadows that bind us.
One night, impatient to see what might grow between us, I ask, “Why can I not see you as you see me?” I am no longer afraid of the beast on the mountainside. My promise seems an age ago.
Voice warm, teasing, you reply, “My darling butterfly, if you saw me, you would no longer love me.”
“You think me so inconstant? I am not like my sisters, flitting from suitor to suitor.”
“Why should you wish to see me? Do you doubt my love?”
And yet, you would doubt mine. At length, I reply, “I have never doubted you. But I would like to see you by daylight, only once. Sit on the soft grass in your company, share a cup of wine, a song, silence, anything, as long I might see your face. Sometimes I think this is some endless dream, with only my voice and yours for company. And sometimes not even yours. Only the shadows are constant. You must understand.”
“I do. But, my dear butterfly, no one is alone in the eyes of the gods, not even the gods themselves.”
“It is not the gods’ company I desire. I’m lonely here, husband, living among your shadows, your gossamer servants, your ghosts. Sometimes I think I must be a ghost, too. I wish to feel alive.”
“I am the only thing that haunts this place. You promised me you would not try to look–“
“Yes,” I let the word fall between us, like a stone upon still water.
“My butterfly, it must be this way.”
“So it has always been.” The words do not sound as bitter as they taste, but only just.
Satisfied, I suppose, you take me in your arms, kiss my forehead, my eyelids, my mouth. “Day tiptoes closer,” you whisper. “I must go.”
My arms tighten around you. “We’ve time yet. Let’s talk of other things. Tell me a story,” I say. It is not a request, but a prayer, a tie that binds you to me, a stroke that separates you from the shadows. Warm breath brushes my cheek; a soft chuckle echoes through the air.
“Which story?” A practiced question. My heartbeat steadies. My breath evens. Already I am surrendering myself to you, to a past that never was.
You begin at length. “Once upon a time, there lived a girl as fair as morning . . .” You spin possibilities. In one version, you are never cursed, and I am never blessed. You fall to earth and forget yourself. I help you to remember, to reassemble the jagged pieces into a new shape, a new life. We make no promises to one another, and yet we are content. We share a little cottage overlooking the sea, fill our bellies with as much fish as we can catch and bathe in the rain. I grow fat with children. Together we live peacefully until the end of our days.
It is my favorite version of the tale, and the least true. Which will they tell of us?
I lie still and let your voice sing me to another world.
How could I be anything but grateful?
When morning comes, you’ve left only your words behind; my heart is a hollow, your absence its shape. My thumb and forefinger circle my wrist, searching for your kiss. Nothing of you remains.
Outside, laughter rings like temple bells, a sound as familiar as my own heart, a fragment of my former life. Perhaps you sensed my loneliness after all and arranged for my sisters to visit. Perhaps.
I throw back the sheets and rise. My feet settle on the cool marble floor patterned like breaking waves. I smile despite myself. Save for shadows, there are few constants here; your palace lies upon this lonely mountain always dreaming, revealing a different face each day. Tomorrow, the floor might be fine white fur; the next day, silk rugs the color of a storm; the next, a sea of jewels. I never know what wonders this palace of illusions will conjure. It has, after all, conjured you.
Invisible hands dress me. Garbed in gold and ivory, I step outside the palace doors, blinded by the light as I search for my sisters. I wonder if their laughter is another of your palace’s illusions after all, until they nearly bowl me over with their hugs and kisses; they chatter like two larks, their dark eyes running over me as though they believe this to be some dream they’ve stumbled into. Who is the dreamer, I wonder, and who the dreamed? I cast off this idle thought, laugh, and return their kisses. They are both beautiful in their linen chitons of leaf green and earth brown.
Shadows of surprise gather in my eldest sister’s eyes as she studies me with all the shrewdness of a dragon. “Darling,” she all but purrs, “is it you? Truly you?” She embraces me once more and I am enfolded in her scent of ambergris and rosewater.
“If it isn’t, no one has told me otherwise,” I answer. She laughs again and turns me loose.
My youngest sister clutches my arm. “Sister,” says she, “after you were taken, the rains began once more. They say the next harvest may be the greatest yield seen in many decades. We thought you lost after all this time.”
“Not lost,” I answer, “merely misplaced, though I’m pleased you’ve found me. So few visitors I have had.”
“It is the strangest thing,” replies the eldest. “We had gathered lilies for your . . . your resting place, you see, and traveled all day to place them there.”
“The Oracle suggested it would bring good fortune.”
The eldest throws my younger sister a cutting look and continues. “We were nearly finished when a stiff, cold wind blew us across the valley and set us down at the foot of this magnificent palace.”
“We thought we must be dreaming! A palace of gold and ivory, all alone on this mountain.”
“What a curious tale,” I murmur.
The eldest takes my arm and we walk on, three abreast, through the palace doors. “Tell us more about this place. Why, you are living like a queen. Are you a queen? Our little butterfly. What fun.” She smiles as kindly as diamonds.
I return her smile. “You both look famished. Come and eat with me.”
“These are jewels we walk upon,” breathes the youngest. “Jewels of all colors. Such bright chaos. Oh, how they capture the light. Even the grass seems to be made of emeralds. Your husband must be ever so wealthy.”
“Well,” says the eldest, “fortune has always favored you, though her humor is ill.” Her eyes are over-bright. “Tell us, what is this place truly? A vision, a dream, or something yet unnamed?”
I shrug. “The palace shows many faces.”
She nods slowly. “And what of your husband? Will he not show himself to his guests?”
“He shows himself to no one,” I answer. “Not even to me.”
Their brows lift at my answer. “And you’ve seen him not at all–not even on your wedding night?” presses the eldest.
“Once,” I answer, “in a dream. Or so I believed. They are unreliable at best, changing their shapes before our eyes.” I tell them of my promise, of our love, of you.
At my tale’s end, my sisters share a look and some silent thought passes between them.
“What?” I ask.
“My darling,” says my eldest sister, “what if he means you harm?”
“He would have harmed me had he meant to. He never has. He never would.”
“As you say,” says the eldest with a flick of her wrist. “Perhaps he does not mean harm, not exactly. But perhaps he is simply hideous–a monster who could not have a wife without some pretense. Is that not as bad or worse? Does not your very soul shiver at the thought of a monster crawling into bed beside you every night? Mine does.”
The youngest gasps. “He is the beast. The one who haunts the mountain.”
“He is no beast. I would know.” But as my words leave my lips, I am not so certain. You have, after all, told me that I would no longer love you if I saw you. “He rescued me.”
“Of course he did. No monster could resist a beautiful offering. My dear sister, you must leave this place. This is likely some cruel game he is playing with you. You have always been so kind. But believe me, it is all a lie. Scatter his illusion, dear butterfly. Fly while you still can.”
“And where shall I go?”
“Anywhere. You could sell your lovely clothes, your jewels, and live very well for the rest of your life. You are not so old.”
“Come with us,” says the youngest.
“Indeed, you would be welcome at my hearth. Your needlework, I remember, is very fine.”
“It is an illusion.”
“It is my home,” I finally say. “I cannot leave.”
“I told you she wouldn’t,” says the youngest. “She prefers the lie.”
I release a startled breath and turn from them. In the bright light, the palace shimmers like a long-forgotten dream. Wind scatters fallen roses, and a single scarlet petal clings to my hair. I brush it away.
“Dear sisters, I am afraid I grow tired.” But when I turn to bid them goodbye, they have already gone.
Their words remain with me even as daylight fades and our time together nears. A beast. Impossible.
“You enjoyed your visit?” you ask that night. The mattress trembles as your body curves toward me, enfolds me in the scent of roses.
“They were disappointed they could not meet you.” I pause and continue despite good sense. “They say you are a monster.”
You bring my hand to your lips, kiss the inside of my wrist. Your mouth lingers a moment, before departing. You do not release my hand; instead, you cup it within yours as though it is a moth, fragile, changeable as light. “And what do you believe, fair butterfly?”
I want to say it is never enough to love a dream. “I know my own heart. I would know yours.”
“You already do.” You kiss me again, hungry, urgent. I meet your hunger with my own. Sated, silent, limbs entwined, we sleep.
That night I dream of shadows. I am caught in the embrace of some winged demon, its claws raking my back. My sisters’ words chase me through my dreams; I call your name until I conjure you, or something like you. I cannot see for shadows. I strike a light and find myself alone in darkness.
I wake, bathed in early morning sun. I run my hands along the sheets. Cool to the touch they are, devoid of wrinkles, of your scent, as though you have not lain upon them. As though you never have. I turn the previous day over in my head, worrying at the events until they are sharp-edged. My sisters believe you to be a monster, a beast who lies in wait to rend my heart. I don’t believe you are a monster. I would have felt your fangs, your claws. I would have known. And yet, in this palace of illusions, this shadow place, you might be anything, and I would never know.
If you saw me, you would no longer love me.
Beloved, I believe I would.
I gather the ingredients that afternoon. It is not hard. For a wick, I use my hair; for light, a dribble of butterfat; it needn’t burn too long. Fire is more difficult. An ember would die hidden in a pot, and I am little practiced starting a fire from nothing. I take my chances with a tinderbox I fashion from a stone for flint, a hank of wool for tinder, and a sharp knife for steel. I hide lantern and tinderbox beneath the bed.
After dusk, I prepare for your visit: I undress and fold my heavy silks and linens away in the cedar-scented chest; I climb into the golden tub and wash with cool water fetched by one of your invisible servants; I perfume my body with the scent of roses and white lilies.
I await the darkness, as always.
The moon has waned when at last your shadow melts through my chamber.
I take you into my arms and talk to you of nothing in particular. I spin a tale of the sparrows nesting in my trees, the pattern of the morning light scattered along the palace floor. I speak not of how cold your pillow is at morning or how my body instinctively curls toward what is not there. You fall asleep to the sound of my voice. A candle in the dark, you once called it, allowing you to know yourself once again. Satisfied you are finally asleep, I set to work.
I crouch at your bedside, holding lantern and tinderbox, and pause. A seed of a question held within my heart blooms, unfolds, yearns toward light. I cannot see what lies beyond my own doubt. I cannot see. I draw breath, hold this bitter flower in my mouth. What will I find? Man, or monster, or both? Would I love you still, if you are indeed the beast they say? Will I be a liar, after all? I nearly falter save for one truth, beloved, I tell you now: I must know.
I exhale. Perhaps it does not matter.
I strike stone against steel.
Yes, I tell myself. It matters.
Fire sharpens the air. Light pierces shadow. Shadow parts to reveal nothing beyond shadow: an empty space in our marriage bed.
My vision blurs. I call your name, but only an echo answers in the sound of my voice.
I find myself alone once again in the company of shadows.
[Sabrina N. Balmick is a writer of fairy tales and fantasy. She’s a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Her fiction appears in Metaphorosis, Enchanted Conversation, and Eternal Haunted Summer. She lives in South Florida.]