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The Bayou Beast: A Modern Retelling of Beauty and the Beast
The cypress and black willow trees filtered sunlight betwixt branches flexing weary fingers towards the still bayou waters. The fisherman cast his line, unaware of eyes the color of persimmon fruit keenly watching him not three meters from where his boat swayed. His youngest daughter, Sydney was some ways off, her gaze intent on the waters, almost willing the fish take the bait. The Cajun song the fisherman sang as he kept a firm grip on the handle soared up the trunks of the tupelo trees and stretched its sweet verses out over the dark, reflective waters. Some hours after, the horizon pulled the sun close and the fisherman packed his gear and what would later make a hearty meal of bass and bream; though there would not be enough to sell at the market. He hoped Sydney, who was just now pulling in her catch, had faired better than him. As he readied the boat, a beautiful but odd congregation of roses sprouting forth from the base of a cypress tree caught his eye.
Many years ago when his daughters had been very young, the fisherman would bring the most beautiful things he encountered on his trips into the bayou, which were often flowers later dried and pressed using newspaper, tissue paper, and a faded volume comprising of a collection of German fairy tales. But soon, like all children, his eldest daughters reached adolescence and, led by their vain mother, forgot the beauty of the bayou and the secrets of its waters. The youngest, however, still found great pleasure in her assortment of beautiful flora so the fishermen happily obliged to remain on the lookout until he was forced to find a better job with a commercial and charter fishing company.
His hand hovered over one particular rose, somewhat larger than the others and with thick thorns, ‘til he decided to chance the pricking of his fingers and with one sturdy tug pulled the crimson rose clear of the vine. A howl blasted the silence out of the bayou, and it was so frightening, so full of pain that the fisherman instinctively jumped backwards and tipped off his humble boat into the night. Sydney was quite far from her father’s fishing spot, but not too far that the screams didn’t reach her.
The fisherman found himself dangling from a thick branch jutting at an awkward angle from the cypress tree. The tree’s base seemed to split in two amidst a chorus of water spray and bark. A strange and warped creature pulled the man’s face so close to his own he could taste the chill wind spilling from the creature’s cracking lips.
“What right have you to take what is not yours?” In that frozen instant, the man could have passed for the fish that fed his livelihood, mouth agape in wonder and terror.
“Answer me, or I will snap your body in two!” Its grip tightened severely on the back of his neck.
The eyes burned with the intensity of hell fire, so he answered, “I-I don’t know what you mean!” The creature scooped the languid rose from the ripples. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It is yours, I don’t care, just don’t kill me. Please, I have a daughter who needs me.”
“A daughter, you say?” a curious tone crept into the creature’s growl.
“Yes,” the fisherman replied with sudden zeal as he mistook the creature’s curiosity for compassion, “she is twenty and beautiful beyond compare, and has high ambitions. We are all we have, her and me, daughter and father.”
“You have caused me much pain. These roses are the only beauty left to me in this world, and they can never grow back. However,” the creature paused for a length of time so protracted that the fisherman could not push aside his inquisitiveness.
“What crosses your mind, creature of the bayou? Have you decided to spare me?”
“No,” the fisherman’s heart raced, “bring me this precious daughter of yours. A fair trade, I believe, for what I have lost, and then we shall be even.”
“I refuse to bring you my daughter, demon! Do whatever you want with me, but you will not come near her!” Desperate hope clawed at his belly, hope that his daughter would head straight home and avoid the demon’s dwelling all together.
Not too long after Sydney, rowing as fast as she could, pulled her boat up to her fathers’ and saw the strangest, most frightening thing she had ever seen. At first, the creature looked like a stout tree, but its monstrous silhouette, aglow with a tempered demon fire that caused waves of nausea to roll over her, came into sharp focus. It held a great egret’s neck in a tight fist; its’ pitiful cries beating pitifully against the creature.
It towered over her, orange eyes glaring down on her, before it picked her up and threw her over its shoulder. The thorns on the roses that peppered his hands pricked her body like tiny arrow heads. As they made their way through the swamp, Sydney beat at the creatures head and chest until her hands were bruised and bloody.
They reached an enormous house made of willows and tupelos bent at the waist as if under some heavy burden. Vines and tree roots snaked between the trees, connecting them in a leafy web. The bayou no longer felt like the beautiful, ethereal land she had been born and raised in. Demons fleeted from shadow to shadow, sharp teeth glinting steel light from the depths of the water. Inside, the beast fed thin branches to the fire and cooked some bream for her in a rusted skillet; the great egret gobbled the leftovers. The tree man or demon or what ever he was set out a pallet for her on the wood floor and she laid on it with her back to the beast and the bird wrapped in her arms.
She woke up in the early twilight; the beast was propped against a magnificent willow oak in the center of the house, his head lolling with heavy sleep. She watched it for some time, debating possible escape routes, but she could not find the doorway from which they had entered the night before. It looked harmless in sleep, like an illusion from M.C. Escher’s imagination, so she knelt in front of it and placed a hand on what would be its cheek. Its eyes were suddenly ablaze and she fell back in fear. “Please don’t hurt me, or the bird!” her voice faltered and she straightened her back to make up for this sign of weakness.
“I have no intention of harming either you or your father.”
“My father? What are you talking about?” she glanced at the bird, which cawed softly and wiped its beak on her jeans. Sydney sprung to her feet, “what have you done! Turn him back this instant. There was no reason for you to turn him into a bird!”
“He took what wasn’t his, this is his punishment.”
“No, I don’t care. Turn him back, his humanity for my freedom. Please!” He gazed at her with something like pity.
“I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”
“Why? What kind of demon are you?”
“I’m not a demon,” he growled, “I was human once, like you.” He saw the dark anger in her hazel eyes give way to curiosity, and she sat down with her knees drawn up to her chest. He offered her some breakfast, but she kindly refused. The bayou seemed to come to life as the beast began to divulge the tale of his misfortunes.
His human life had been full of ignorance and vanity, he admitted to that. From a young age his mind had been conditioned to obsess over the material, giving little thought to the ethics of his decisions and their consequences. Being the son of a wealthy land developer, nature only meant one thing: profitable resources. This blatant disrespect for nature eventually became his undoing. He was known in the social scene as Tristan Favrot, a golden child well groomed to take over his mother’s company when the time came. There was a rich piece of land near St. Martinville – “where we are now?” Sydney guessed- that was ripe for construction. If developed, it would prove to be the company’s most profitable project to date. One morning his mother decided he should acquire some experience dealing with what she called “unsavory characters”, meaning those who opposed the company. That morning, to his great misfortune, a Cajun man dressed in bizarre attire came to the office, begging them to spare the beautiful land he called his home. Tristan, not sure how far his power extended in the projects’ details, arrogantly advised the man to get his filthy self out of the office and come back in a tie and suit. The man spat in his face and cursed him. By the time he reached his condo overlooking the shoreline, branches had begun to sprout from his arms and legs. By nightfall he had transformed completely and sought refuge in the wetlands of Louisiana.
“This all seems too incredible for me to believe, except you are here before me, the bayou has washed away all traces of the man you once were,” Sydney said.
“I cannot break the curse placed on me, or your father, I don’t know how,” he flexed his fingers, “I love the bayou, but I crave the sensation of wind on my face, of warmth, of…” he threw his hands up in the air, not knowing the right words to express his feelings. They ate breakfast and talked through lunch and dinner, the bird no longer afraid to perch on the beasts’ shoulder. At night, while the beast retreated into his memories, Sydney began to formulate a plan.
“What if I find this man, the witch doctor that placed the curse on, and convince him that you have changed, that you are as much a part of this bayou as he is and you will let no harm come to it from your family’s company?” the beast though it over.
“You will just leave and never come back.”
“No, I won’t. I keep the promises I make.”
He brought the row boat from where they had left it and escorted her to the witchdoctor’s house. He could not step on the witchdoctors’ property and so could not accompany her into the house. “I’ll be outside though, if anything should happen run outside into the river and I’ll protect you there.”
It seemed the closer she was to the house, the darker the bayou became, every shadow hovered menacingly at her back, daring her to turn back. She docked at the decrepit house and it took all the courage she possessed to climb the creaking steps. The door was slightly open and even though she knew she was trespassing she went in regardless. She stood at the kitchen, clenching and unclenching her clammy hands. The voice was like mist creeping over the waters, and she didn’t catch the first words, “-en that I get visitors in this party of the bayou.”
Her eyes were pulled to the far corner of the dark kitchen, a very thin man, who was as tall as her sitting down, sat hunched over, a snake observing his prey. She knew as sure as the sun rose in the east and sank in the west that this was the beast she had to fear.
“I’ve come to work out the detail’s of Tristan Favrot’s curse.”
“Oh, he sends his captive to do his work for him?”
“He’s changed, he will keep this land, your home, safe and in return you may let him go, along with my father.”
“I don’t think so child, that man has learned nothing and never will. Now, go before I place a curse on you.” He stood up and started walking out of the room when Sydney grabbed his arm.
“Please, you just can’t turn a man into something like that for the pure fun of it. He’s learned his lesson.” The witchdoctor would hear nothing of it, and struck her face with the back of her hand, sending her crashing to the floor.
“Get out!” She stood again and took a step towards him, but this time he grabbed his staff and swung at her. Sydney ducked and grabbed the first thing her fingers came into contact with: the handle of a gutting knife. She brandished the knife in warning, hoping he’d back away. With the flick of his wrist, he sent an invisible force that lifted her off her feet and sent her into the wall closest to the bayou. He conjured small balls of flame her way, and where they came in contact with wood, a black flame erupted into existence. They circled each other; Sydney knew her chances were slim and Tristan’s words kept running through her head. Suddenly, the witchdoctor threw the table, the last thing keeping her safe, against the wall and lunged for her. He was like a demon, black fire trailing after him and it was a sense of survival profoundly engrained in her that drove her to bury the knife deep into his throat.
She stumbled out of the house, blood dotting her face, chest, and arms. In the water lay the beast, the vines and tree bark covering his body began to dissolve into the bayou. He climbed onto the porch, the fisherman close behind. Before her stood a tall man, beautiful in the way he looked at her. She ran first to her father, who collapsed on the porch, looking in awe at the rising sun. After a happy silence they returned to the row boat, father and daughter on one end and Tristan at the other. Sydney stretched her arm out and took Tristan’s hand in her own.