A Short Story by Susan Hatters Friedman
Once upon a time, many years ago, long before Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or even Matt Lauer were born, there was a girl named Beauty.
Beauty was born into a family of great riches, the youngest and favorite daughter in a family where the growing girls should each be prepared for an arranged marriage. Her father was a merchant who had amassed his fortune from spice trading.
Disastrously for our young heroine, Beauty’s father’s merchant ship was captured by dreaded pirates, which caused the family to tumble into some version of poverty. Times became rough. They had to let their butler, chef, scullery maids, kitchen boys, housekeepers, ladies’ maids, footmen, valets, and even their shoe-shiners go. Unable to keep up on the mortgage for their castle, the family of five eventually had to move into an 8-bedroom, 4 ½ bath, a few blocks away from the coast. In fact, you could only see the sea with an obstructed view, which is how they got it for such a steal.
The fact that the new place was only a 4 ½ bath despite there being five in the family caused deep consternation for Beauty, who as the youngest was relegated to the ½ bath and had to wait until one of her two sisters was done showering. Lounging in her princess-pink bedroom on long mornings when she waited to bathe, Beauty dreamed of the world outside her now-impoverished neighbourhood. There could be no arranged marriage if she had no dowry. Which might free her up to become a horticulturist, or a juggler, or a doctor, or even a merchant and sailor like her beloved daddy. No one the wiser, she had taught herself to read from her father’s books when he was away losing the family fortune.
One afternoon, still drunk on mead after a night of carousing, Beauty’s disgraced merchant father stumbled upon a castle which appeared to be deserted. He strolled the grounds, lost in thought about how he would move his family to this castle without anyone realising that they didn’t belong there. Maybe they could even re-hire their servants. He laughed and did a little dance. The castle had a rose garden as far as the eye could see, some pink, some white, some yellow, and some red. Our merchant plucked a single perfect blood-red rose from the largest rose bush to bring home to his favorite daughter, his Beauty. He would present it to her with the news of his amazing luck in finding this new place for the family.
Turning to leave, visions of his future improvements to this grand palace in his head, our former merchant was startled by the foulest beast he had ever seen. The half-lion half-bear held him cowering against the castle wall. Suddenly it spoke.
‘You have excellent taste in roses. But in my kingdom, capital punishment is the law for blood-red rose thieves.’
Our merchant begged for forgiveness.
When none was forthcoming, the merchant decided to strike a deal. He promised that if he was set free, then his most beautiful daughter would be brought to the palace, to be the fiancée of the beast. He smirked as he recognized that this would also get him out of not having a dowry.
The beast, with his serpent tongue, informed our merchant, that if he reneged on their deal, the beast would stalk and kill every single member of the merchant’s family. He promised to do this in the middle of the night, since he was half-lion.
Then our merchant ran all the way to the carriage station with his blood-red rose. When he got home to their McMansion and sobered up, he told his beloved daughter of the wonderful palace she would be living in, with more colors of rose than she had ever seen, with her own bathrooms, and much larger than any cages at the zoo. He told her that her fiancé was quite a sight to see, if not easy on the eyes.
Beauty did what her daddy said, against her own better judgment, and moved in with the lion-bear who talked with a snake tongue.
Day after day, our Beauty grew closer to the lion-bear, who was charming in conversation, thoughtful and sweet. He regaled her with tales of his parents who, curiously, he said were a human king and queen. But she yearned for her own life, free of this lion-bear who pressured her for sex every night. Every morning he was sorry and said that it would never happen again. He would cut her a blood rose every day, and put it on the table for her to eat with her breakfast of his fresh kills from the day before. But then, each night he ravaged her again.
Beauty started keeping a chart. It said Day time: Kind and with my favorite roses; Night time: Raped by lion-bear.
Some mornings it hurt to walk, but she loved strolling the palace grounds, and reading the titles on the floor-to-palace ceiling bookcases. She eventually found a volume about sex-trafficking and another about partner violence, and realized she had a lot in common with the victims.
One morning, Beauty finally decided that she needed to escape. She pulled together her brush for her beautiful blonde hair, her emerald necklace (a gift from her fiancé that was the color of her eyes), and her glass slippers. And she made a run for it later that day when her lion-bear-beau was out hunting for their dinner. She picked one last elegant blood-red rose and placed it behind her ear. She had only gotten a half-mile toward the carriage station when she realized she had forgotten to take any gold to pay for the ride back to the city. She didn’t want to escape only to end up raped by some carriage driver because she didn’t have enough gold for the trip.
Upon returning to the palace to grab some of the gold, she found her lion-bear lying nearly dead beside the fountain. He sensed her presence, however, and in between his shallow breaths, uttered ‘do you know I can’t live without you?’
Beauty recognized that is also what abusers always say, from the books she had read.
So she left.
Her love didn’t break the spell, and the lion-bear didn’t turn back into a prince by making a human woman fall in love with him, because it turns out that you can’t make someone love you by threatening to kill their family if they don’t become your mistress/ sex-slave.
After Beauty escaped, during her long walks by the sea, she realized she might have some daddy issues. But moreover, she realized she had experienced some complex trauma.
Beauty decided to become a sailor like she had dreamed. She sailed all across the European empire. When she sailed to Sweden, she heard about Stockholm Syndrome, and that sounded really familiar too.
Beauty decided that the smartest thing was for her to see a psychiatrist. To talk about being sex-traded to a half-lion half-bear in exchange for her father stealing a rose. Whether or not he was really a human prince under a spell. Among other things.
Her psychiatrist was quite understanding since he too had been to Stockholm, when he was in the imperial navy.
Her psychiatrist made her feel listened to. He was dashingly handsome.
But she did not fall in love with her psychiatrist.
In fact, this story is not about how only a man’s love can fulfil a beauty’s life. It is a story about empowerment, and not sex-trading daughters.
But her father didn’t go to prison for sex-trafficking his daughter. The kingdom wasn’t that magical.
Susan Hatters Friedman is a psychiatrist specializing in maternal mental health and forensic psychiatry. She is pursuing a Master’s in Crime Fiction at the University of Cambridge, and has studied satire writing with The Second City. Her recent creative writing can be read in The Centifictionist and the Love in the Time of Covid Chronicle. She has always loved fairy tales, but found them difficult to read to her children.