NETTLES • by Rebecca Rozakis

I miss my hair.

It’s not all gone, of course — I’ve trimmed the ragged ends into a little gold cap. My mother calls it fetching, but she is the same foolish woman whose cravings for lettuce sent my father into the witch’s garden in the first place and caused all of my troubles. (That’s what my name means, did you know that? Rampion. Lettuce. A lifetime of gilded cages in exchange for a salad.) Whatever she might say, I know better. I look like a stable boy or a page. And all the velvet gowns in the world won’t change that. The hair will grow back, but not like it was.

I miss the heavy golden braid thicker than my wrist. I miss caring for it, as difficult as it was. Near the end, it looped the tower room over and over, coiled upon itself. I used to leave it there, pulling loose only the last few feet so I could move about. At the time, I felt like it was a chain, more binding even than my doorless tower. To think I wished for this, this so-called freedom. When the witch cut the braid, I cried, of course. For more than one reason. But at the same time, I felt suddenly light like I could fly like a bird. Just the act of turning my head was suddenly effortless. Surely I would be able to overcome any difficulty, no matter how hopeless things seemed at the moment.

He says it makes no difference to him, that the woman he courted now looks like a boy. I was always slender. He called me beautiful when my tears healed his nettle-ravaged eyes. But then, I was the first thing he had seen in months.

I know better. I was all he could see when he first opened his eyes. But once we were out of the wilderness, he could see plenty. He tracks them now, like a hunter watching a doe in the meadow. At first he tried to hide it from me, but now he no longer bothers. He had to marry me, after I cured his blindness, but I wonder if he had intended to in the beginning. For all his promises in the tower.

Beauty says that it is natural, the way of things. They love us when they are dependent on us — when we are the only ones in the world who would love them back. Cut off from civilization, all we needed to bestow was a kind word for them to believe we hung the sun and the moon. But once restored, what need have they for a peasant girl, however pretty? They must marry us, by all the laws of fate and magic. But that does not mean they must stay with us. Or come to our beds at night.

I asked her if she really preferred him when he was the beast. After all, blindness is nothing compared to claws and fur. She sighed. She said she missed his desperation to please her. She missed the feeling that were she to scorn him, he would let her go and then slink away in the night to die of love. There is a certain power to controlling a creature so much more powerful than you. Love makes an odd bridle; thin as gossamer, stronger than iron chains. But what other power can we wield?

She sighed again and said that those times were over now. All times pass, from the joys of girlhood to the power of the wooed maiden. And she loves her beast. Even though her bed is cold and her ladies-in-waiting grow round with child. Even though he snubs her noticeably in public now. Still, she loves him, for the love he once offered her.

I miss my hair, and my girlhood. One may grow back, but the other never will. Do I love him? Yes, I suppose. In a way. But I am not Beauty and I will not accept her fate.

So I stopped one day in the market and last night a gypsy came by my chambers. My ladies whispered about remedies for my barrenness. I did not mention the children — the twins who betrayed us with my growing belly in the tower. The same twins — a boy and a girl — that I lost alone in a bloody mess in the wilderness. But I took the vial of oil of the stinging nettle from the old gypsy woman, paid her handsomely, and sent her on her way. Back through the worst part of town where an old woman with a bag of gold could never walk unmolested. It wouldn’t do for those whispers to be contradicted, after all.

Tonight, I will brush the oil on my beloved’s eyelids as he sleeps. And when he wakes, he will no longer look at other women, ever again.

And this time, I will not cry.

Rebecca Rozakis has the amazing superpower of causing professors and technicians to stare at her lab equipment and say, “I’ve never seen it do that before!” Her current job at a museum in New York City seems so much safer, really. She lives with her exceedingly patient husband in Jersey City.

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