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The Little Beast

“Daddy,” says the little beast. “Come look at me in the mirror.” And he goes because he has to, because the alternative is worse. He stares for a long count of five, because any less and there’ll be tantrums and shattered glass and prising little flecks of it out of baby fingers. “Don’t you love me, Daddy?” she’ll say, face wet with tears and an adoration that’s well-practised enough to mostly hide the malice.

“Don’t you love me?”

Yes, he says. Of course I do.

He’s gotten very good at lying.

I asked him once what he saw when he looked at her. “In the flesh or in the glass?” he says. She looks different in glass. I don’t know why. But the round red cheeks, the curls and puppy-fat and dimples . . . none of that survives reflection.

“I don’t understand,” he says. “When she was born, she was so normal. Like her sisters. And now she’s just a fucking monster.”

The girls were all abed when he said it. We were alone in our chamber, the door shut tight and our voices low but when the mirror broke, snapped across its surface, we saw her face reflected a dozen times over and knew we’d been overheard.

We never knew, before, that her reflection could travel in mirrors.

We never knew if she’d ever overheard anything else.

It wasn’t even her reflection that was the worst bit. No-one ever wants an ugly child, but parental love can overcome a lot. I’ve seen babies with hair lips and twisted limbs, with hunched backs and with the marks of pox all over them. They’re all loved just the same.

If only she’d had a hair lip, I think. To be sure, you can watch her now and think she’s got perfect manners to go with that perfect face, outgrowing tantrums and growing subtler in her manoeuvres. The way she eats her soup with a spoon, doesn’t even slurp or spill it down her front, young as she is, but still . . . I’d give up perfect eating for ugliness and extra laundry any day of the week.

I could have learned to love the reflection, if I’d had to. If I’d had the chance, if it were only skin deep. I could have learned to see it in windows and wine glasses and saucepans scrubbed to a fine polish without flinching.

It wasn’t the ugliness that froze us out.

It was the way she learned to cover it up.

We saw it in the mirrors first. The new lumpiness, the way her features stretched and moulded. As if the moments of her flesh were bread dough, to be kneaded and pushed and cut into shape.

It didn’t happen all at once. She refined as she grew, learned coordination and sculpture, the value of appearances. She’d watch me at my dressing table, watch while I used paint and powder to accentuate what I already had, to hide the flawsbut she didn’t watch as her sisters watched. They giggled and poked and pleaded for their own lips to be reddened, for a touch of charcoal on their eyebrows.

The little beast would skulk in the doorway, forehead furrowed with concentration. In the mirror on the dressing table I could see her face blur and reform in lumps, grotesque. Streaks of colour rose along the cheekbones, under the eyebrowsviolent, vivid streaks of red and yellow and purple, the colour of bruises and old blood. But the flesh itself was smeared and the colours didn’t stay in place.

Not yet. Not so early . . . but she learned.

Perhaps she thought we wouldn’t love her if she didn’t learn.

We wouldn’t have loved her anyway.

You’re feeling sorry for her, I can tell. Poor hideous child, not her fault, you’re thinking. She’s just got terrible parents.

It’s true, she does. If we were any kind of parents we would have smothered her the day we saw what she was, the day we saw the beast emerge.

We had two other daughters. Normal girls, happy girls. We should have put them first.

There’s something of cowardice in parenthood. We like to call it love, or the hope that things will get better. The beast put paid to all that. We should have trusted to what we saw in the glass.

“Don’t you love me, Daddy?”

She always loved her father best. As much as she could love anything . . . I was never sure how much her affection extended beyond herself.

I couldn’t fault her cunning. That was the way of it: all the powereconomic, legal, religiouswas vested with the head of household while the women stayed in the home. Modest, subservient, quiet. No wonder she was always so indifferent to her sisters, to me. There was nothing we had that she wanted.

But her father . . . he was potential. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to snare him. I know it seems ridiculous. I know how it makes me sound: a jealous woman, her own looks fading while her daughter comes into her own. I’ve seen it happen before. It’s not happening here.

Of course I can’t expect you to believe that. Not yet anyway. I haven’t told you all yet.

I spoke of mirrors, of how she travelled through them. I spoke of things she might have seen, and how little we knew of it. I covered over the bedroom mirror after that, a heavy wool blanket at night, so she’d never hear what her father said about her again. Never see what we did together in our marriage bed.

She would have watched if she had the chance. Oh yes, I’ve no doubt. I’ve seen her. Sat prim of an evening, sewing shirts for the poor with her sisters while their father reads aloud. Industrious at her work, but when I’ve drunk my claret, when the glass is placed on the side table just right, I can see her reflection in it. The reflection has its skirt hiked up, its clawed and furry beast hands moving busily underneath.

She stares at her father while she touches herself. The long teeth gleam in candlelight.

She smiles at him over the shirts, her legs together and following along with the prayers. Like butter wouldn’t melt.

“I love you so much, Daddy,” she says.

Siblings fight. I know this, and with three little girls there’s never been any lack of pinching and tattling and tears. Even when they’re trying to be nice to each other there are accidents, so the first time the little beast tripped one of her sisters down the stairs, I didn’t assume malice. She cried, after all . . . seemed sorry about what she’d done.

“It was an accident, Mama,” she said, eyes big and wet and hands clasped together, entreating forgiveness. It wasn’t until much later I realised that she’d tripped her in the one part of the house without glass, the one part where I couldn’t see a reflection. Looking back, I wonder if that reflection would have been smirking, but at the time I didn’t think anything of it.

She waited on her sister all the time her leg was healing, until the cast came off. Never impatient, always obliging. She read and sang and played whatever game was wanted, gave up the most favoured of her dolls. “What a little sweetheart,” said the doctor, on his visits. “You’re such a help!”

“You might be quite the nicest child I’ve ever seen,” he said, and she glowed with the pleasure of it, held his bag for him, nestled under his arm.

It was certainly a convincing performance.

Such cynicism, I hear you say. No wonder the child was happyshe was getting praised for once. Children like that. Positive reinforcement, and so on.

I still say the best reinforcement I ever gave her was a good hard slap across the face the third time one of my girls fell down the stairs, with the little beast following too close behind. “But it was an accident, Mama!” she wailed, pretty little face screwed up with crocodile tears pouring down.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” said the doctor, who had already assigned my eldest girl the role of “the clumsy one.” “She’s only a child, madam.”

A child who hid behind him, shaking with silent giggles he took for tears and with a hand-print too-bright over her cheek.

“Be that as it may,” I said. “She’ll be more careful in future.”

As soon as the door closed behind him, her cheek faded. I could see her face in the hallstand mirror, the rainbow of colours across the bone, but the plump smooth flesh she presented to the world was unstained.

“I will be more careful, Mama,” she said.

There weren’t any more falls. Though not two weeks later, the sister who wasn’t laid up with a broken ankle had her hand badly scalded when the little beast overfilled her tea-cup.

“It wasn’t my fault!” she cried, burying her face in her father’s arms. “Don’t let her hit me again, Daddy!”

“There, there,” her father said, stroking her head with a hand that shook, and the two of us staring at each other in silence. We could see her reflected in the silver teapot, and we had two girls injured now, and one of them still unburned. He could pretend to believe and let the little beast nurse themkeep them safe under the covenant of her careor he could risk them further by antagonising her.

There was really only one choice.

“Of course it’s not your fault, poppet,” he said.

I said the worst thing about the little beast was how she learned to change her face. I was wrong. The worst thing was when she grew into what she learned to show.

Her sisters were always safe with her once she’d hurt them. The little beast had a passion for nursingor at least a passion for having the face of a nurse. Patient, kind, a regular panacea. Neighbours began to ask for her when their own children fell injured or ill. “Such a little love,” they said. “A real beauty, and not just her face.”

They never saw her true face, of course. By this time it had been pressed into the mould she made for it.

The few little coins she earned from nursing, she always gave to her father. “I’m sure we’re very expensive,” she said, when they pressed money into her hand. “And Daddy works too hard already. I’d rather he spent more time at home with us.”

“Such a good girl,” they said. “Such a lovely daughter.”

All other children suffered by comparison. I think they hated her too.

It was her father suffered the worst. She was always hanging off him, and he’d allow it because time spent with him meant time she wasn’t hurting anyone else. More and more that time was solitary . . . the two of them together, kept apart while the little beast did everything she could to convince them both that she loved him.

I don’t know how he did it. If it were me, I would have buried her in the woods and said that she’d been taken by wolves. But then he always thought ahead more than I did. The little beast was loved, loved dreadfully and without criticism. People would have looked for her body, he said. And if they found it, well . . . there’s no mistaking a branch to the back of the skull for tooth marks on ribs, for thigh bones cracked open for marrow.

He cried at night, silent tears against my chemise. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’m so afraid.”

We were all afraid.

My oldest girl told me once that she let herself be hurt. “It’s the waiting that’s the worst,” she said. “Wondering if it’s going to be today when it’ll happen.” When she got scalded or stabbed or broken, when her flesh was opened up or she swallowed poison all unknowing. “It’s better just to get it over with,” she said.

“At least once it’s happened everything’s nice for a bit,” she said. “At least then I’m safe.”

I should have killed the little beast then, should have buried and pretended and howled in the place of wolves but I didn’t. I was too afraid. Not of what they’d do to me: a hanging’s a terrible thing, but it’s mostly quick and even if I strangled on the edge of rope it’d be a blessed mercy in comparison, and at least I’d have the satisfaction of knowing I’d gone to my grave and taken the little beast with me. But of what would be done to my other girls, when I was gone?

What if the village blamed her father too? What if they blamed her sisters? The children wouldn’t do it, wouldn’t make that mistake for all they’d been nursed with such tender ferocity, but their parents, the elders, the ones with power . . .

The little beast could always recognise power. She made up to it, emphasising her beauty, her vulnerability, her helpless feminine quality. Not the sort of girl to die quietly, without mourning and questions.

It would have been revenge from beyond the grave. I couldn’t risk it.

“We only have to wait until she’s grown up,” said my girl. “Until all the children are grown up.” Until the adults now were dead, and there was no-one who would care enough to look towards instead of away.

“I’ll be alright till then,” she said, and if I didn’t know the scars all over her body, the way that she had learned to stop flinching I might have believed her.

“Maybe we could marry her off,” said her father. We were pressed close under the covers, his voice a bare warm whisper in my ear. He’d sold the dressing table with the mirror. We had to pay for doctor’s bills, and that was a convenient excuse but by then we’d stopped wanting to take chances. There were still windows, and the smallest breeze could shift a curtain.

“Who would have her?” I said, and we both laughed a little, because who wouldn’t? She was a real beauty now, even in the glass, but for those moments she forgot and her face reverted in reflection. Not the young men her own age, of course, but there were plenty older who’d be willing enough, and plenty who lived far enough away that they hadn’t had to suffer and learn her.

“It would be a cruelty,” he said, despairing. It was true, too . . . for all the petty annoyances that came from living with other peoplea miller who short-changed the grain, a farmer who dragged mud into the house when he came calling, the doctor who even now overlooked the evidence of his profession for the face of a beastthere were none who truly deserved her.

She was our problem, the little beast. He begot and I birthed and there we were, stuck with her until one or other of us found a way out, one that wasn’t suicide or murder, one that wasn’t bought with blood.

When I entered my room one day and found my cosmetics scattered over the floor, I knew that her mask had been perfected. I’d kept them safe in a boxsilly really, without a dressing mirror to make myself up in, I’d taken to wearing them hardly at all.

The point was not to prevent me from wearing them. The point was to show me that she had no need of them now: that even the glimpses of her I got in windows, in water and glasses and the few mirrors we had left, matched her appearance. She was pink and white and perfect, the years of practise and mutilation and her face bubbling up in surfaces all paid off for good.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” said the little beast, her little mouth plumped up with a particularly insincere distress. “I think the cat must have gotten in and upset everything. I’ll help you clean it up.” And off she trotted for a broom, knowing full well as she did that the cat never came inside anymore. Not of its own volition, anyway.

The cat was the especial favourite of my middle daughter. We all conspired to give it a happy life in the barn, lest it come to grief in the house.

It was too terrified to come inside anyway.

The little beast swept up the powder, scrubbed the paint from the floor. She sang as she did so, and her eyes gleamed over her teeth.

When the cat went missing I suspected the little beast had a hand in it. We tried calling for it anyway, a useless endeavour but our daughter missed her cat so much that her father looked for it in the woods and I put out saucers of cream to try and lure it back. We both knew that we were doing it for show.

“Takes after you, don’t she?” said one of our neighbours, leaning over the fence. “In some things, at least.” The news of the handprint had gotten around. The little beast owned to others that she deserved it for not being more careful, and that she was thankful to have parents to correct her and the resentment so carefully seeded had spread.

“Who?” I said, milk-handed.

“The little beauty, of course. I seen her out bringing that creature milk all the last week. Loves her little pets, don’t she?”

Loved to put rat poison in with the cream, at least. When we found the poor animal, all foamed up at the mouth and its body a rigor of agony, I knew what had happened to it.

All three girls cried. With the first two it was genuine, but the little beast wept so prettily and read a poem she wrote for the funeral. She insisted on a funeral, even if only for a cat, and most of the village came because she invited them, looking so sweet and sad in her black dress. “It’s for my sister really,” she said. “Please come. It will make her feel better.”

“What a lovely girl you are to your family,” they said, and forgot, nearly all of them, to say anything to the girl whose cat it was to begin with.

“She’s getting worse,” said my husband.

Everything was getting worse. We were low on moneybusiness was bad and my husband didn’t have it in him to concentrate anymore, to trade and bargain on instinct. All our instincts were bent on survival, on retaining the knowledge of what we housed.

If only we’d have been weaker, I thought. If only we’d believe what she wanted us to believe, that she was as good as she looked, then it might all be over. She’d have sovereignty then, and there was enough self-deception mixed in with monster that she might have been a good ruler if only given the chance. But we slept with a shard of broken mirror under our pillows, her father and I, and when it cut our fingers of a night it reminded us of what she was. Of what the little beast had looked like, before she changed her face.

Then news of a ship came in. “Can we have some new dresses, Daddy?” said our oldest girl and who could blame her, garbed as she was without complaint in old clothes and out of fashion. Clothes wouldn’t keep her safe but they were a distraction, and God knows the poor scarred thing needed enough of those.

“Can you bring me a new necklace, Daddy?” said our middle daughter, and it was something safe to ask for, for the little beast was never jealous of clothes or jewellery for she looked better than her sisters even when they wore beautiful things and she did not. Something safe, for a necklace even if damaged was made of only gold, only jewels and she’d never risk asking for a living thing again.

“I just want a rose,” said the little beast, and that was her all over. Not even a rose bush, which could be transported in a sack and kept easily wet. No, a rose bush just wasn’t ostentatious enough. Just wasn’t modest enough in its ostentation.

“Isn’t she sweet?” we heard. “Isn’t she just darling. Not a materialist bone in her body. Not like her sisters . . . ”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting pretty things,” said the little beast, loyally. “Just because I don’t want a nice dress doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.” She smoothed down the cheap fabric of her skirt. “I’m good at mending, and this has a lot of wear in it yet.”

Truly, she didn’t care for material things. The little beast never wanted to take up space with her belongings. All the space she wanted was internal. She wanted to be kept in mind always, to be thought about every second. To take up so much emotional landscape that no-one had energy for anything else.

“I just want a rose,” she said. “And for you to come back safe, Daddy. I know when you see the rose it will remind you of just how much I love you.”

A rose is the worst of long-distance presents. It’s a cut flower, it wilts. He’ll have to wrap the stem in wet tissue, to watch it every second so that it doesn’t fall off the cart or get run over, so that it isn’t bumped and bruised by packages or the careless elbows of passers-by. He’ll end up carrying it himself, the whole of the trip home. It’s such a simple request, that made by his youngest daughter. Such a modest desire.

And every night, when he stops at an inn, he’ll have to ask for a vase and fresh water and before he gets it he’ll have to explain why he wants it. He’ll have to tell about his daughter, about her rose. And they’ll coo and congratulate him on having such a loving girl, and none of them will stop to think that she’s asked for a gift that’ll take more time and trouble than her more conventional sisters. No. They’ll be too busy making a fuss for that.

(None of the fuss will be about him.)

But cut flowers die, and no matter what he does, no matter the trouble he’ll go to, by the time he gets back home the thing’s going to be half-dead anyway, all wilted and with the petals falling off.

And the little beast . . . the little beast will look at her sisters with their expensive, easy requests and her bottom lip will quiver, just minutely, and then she’ll smile anyway and thank him for the present and say that his coming back safe was all she really needed. And all this ridiculous sequence of events will have been set up, by her, for his next line, because there’s only one thing he’ll be able to say at that point, confronted with that brave, martyred little face and that sad little flower.

“You’re such a good girl, Beauty.” (So much better than your sisters.)

It’s enough to make me want to drown her. I lie awake at night, listening to the rain on the roof and even if I could get away with it, I’m afraid of what I’d see in the water.

Of how her face will change in it.

It turns out that both our premonitions are for naught. My husband doesn’t come home with gifts and platitudes and gritted teeth, the bitter knowledge that he could have run away from the little beast forever but didn’t.

Because he loves me. Because he loves our daughters, and he’s spent so much of his life putting himself between that he’s forgotten how to do anything but sacrifice.

He comes home giftless, my man, because the ship has sunk and we’re ruined, all of us . . . or at least we might be, but he’s come across an investor who might bail us out, and all the brute wants is a daughter in return.

Her father and I might have despaired of a marriage, but anyone who buys a wife deserves what he gets and the investor lives far enough away that we’ll not have to see either of them, ever.

It’s too good a chance to lose. “Of course I’d never let her go,” I say loudly. To the village, to everyone. “Poverty is nothing compared to the loss of a child! And she’s a good girl, our Beauty, but this is a sacrifice too far. I’d never ask her to martyr herself in this way. Who knows what kind of man trades in young girls? He’d have to be a beast . . . ”

He’d never guess he was getting one of his own in return.

And the little beast . . . our vicious, subtle little beast, has never once thought that in changing her features she taught the rest of us what having two faces looked like. She can’t refuse to go, not and keep up the saintly appearance she’s constructed for so long, remaking her own flesh in service of praise.

I don’t know if she does it because her own generation is growing now, growing into power and with that deep-seeded dislike welling over, or if she’s truly bought into her own spell. But “I’m a good girl,” she says. “Of course I’ll go. For you.”

There are tears and prayers and protestations, but she can’t keep her own face intact and not move forward.

Her father gives her the rose he stole, and it’s bruised and with petals falling off because that’s what a rose is: a present of heart-felt emotion. He even cries, as ostentatious in his grief as the little beast ever was in her martyrdom, because the only alternative is laughter and relief as deep as a new well.

“I’ll send you a mirror as a wedding present,” I say.

Perhaps when she sees her own face it will remind her of ours.

Originally published in Respectable Horror, edited by K.A. Laity.

About the Author

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold around sixty stories to markets including Clarkesworld, F&SF, and Asimov’s. She’s a Bram Stoker nominee and four time Sir Julius Vogel award winner, and was the 2020 visiting writer in residence at Massey University. Her latest book, the climate fiction novella The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, came out recently from Stelliform.