I don’t have a skin like you do
To keep it all in like you do
I don’t have a soul like you
The only one I have
Is the one I stole from you
Stay Awake – London Grammar
The girl was an orphan, born to an insane mother and an unknown father. The mother had been mad since she blossomed into puberty, a budding rose whose bewitching beauty was not unlike a curse, and stayed mad still. Some man, some good villager, or good husband, father, must have begot the child in her belly, but nobody admitted to the deed. Instead, rumors sprouted that it was a devious demon that had impregnated her, using her womb to produce an instrument of calamity. The most malicious of them even sought to destroy her by setting her lone hut on fire while she was asleep. She survived, albeit ruined beyond recognition, and her baby survived with her while those who had harmed her fell one by one to inexplicable causes. And before long, none dared to come near her hut, let alone offer her a hand. It was not a matter, because she had given birth to the child on her own, miraculously so, and had raised her daughter since, her madness seemingly washed away by motherhood. Nevertheless, the mother perished by the time the daughter had reached her sixth year of life. Blood from her every orifice, a slow and steady killer. No demon to save her this time. She was given no funeral, only an unmarked earth mound, and her daughter was received by none. They held their breath and murmured their prayers that the girl would soon follow her demonic mother. But to their dismay, the girl had learnt to keep herself alive and as years passed, she grew healthy and beautiful like wild flowers, like grass. Their fear grew with her, yet none would lay a finger on her for fear that they would suffer the same fate as those who had ruined her mother. They thought and thought and finally, they accused her of witchery and thus at the turning of twelve, she was banished to live in the deep dark woods, where she lived until adulthood. She had not borne hatred for the villagers though; her mother had not taught her such. Besides, the life in the woods was to her liking: there she felt safe, and absolutely free, unbound, unrestricted by any moral prejudice.
It did not take her too long to realize though she bore no grudge against the folks, she held no love for them either, or men in general. They could all burn to ash for all she cared. Perhaps they were right to assume she was the seed of demon.
The animals brought her food in her first month: the wolves shared with her their hunts, the bears brought fruits and honey and the birds lay seeds in her palms while she was sleeping. With their help, she built a hut and grew a garden of vegetables to sustain herself. Half of the garden was devoted to the flowers she so loved.
The girl lived on her own but was not alone; she had never been since the night her first and only friend came to her hut.
There was a demon that had been lurking about her garden for some time, too shy to make their presence known to the lone human in the hut. Their shyness made her laugh; such a strange thing this demon was, and very adorable so.
“Why don’t you come in?” she asked, directing her invitation at the darkness surrounding her hut. “I have pumpkin soup, very delicious and enough for two.”
“You are not… afraid of me?” the demon shyly asked. Their voice was soft, neither feminine or masculine.
“You haven’t made me,” she answered with a light cheerful note in her tone. “Now come in. It’s terribly lonely in here.”
Perhaps, had someone taught her, she would have better sense than to invite a stranger into her home, let alone a sinister demon. But she had no one but herself and common sense was an oddity to her as it had been to her late mother.
“It was so delicious,” the demon exclaimed as they put the clay bowl down. They was cloaking themselves with darkness so she could not make out their features and it frustrated her.
“May I come again tomorrow night?”
“If only you show yourself to me.” Reply was swift on her tongue.
There was hesitation in the demon’s voice. “You would be very afraid.”
“Why would I?” she asked. She had yet to meet anything that could give her a fright.
“You are bound to be scared. That is what demons are to humans.”
She heard the demon gulp before they continued, “I am never to show you my real form. If I did, I could never visit you again. The Great Master has dictated such.”
The girl, too, was silent. She said, after a pensive note, “Fine then, don’t show yourself to me. Come back again tomorrow. We’ll have sweet potato cake and green bean soup.”
The demon nodded – she could tell – and possibly beamed at her.
So they did tomorrow night, and the nights that followed. They never failed to compliment her well-cooked food.
“The Great Master allows me to come out of the darkness and see you,” the demon jovially told her, “provided that you lend me your assistance.”
“How can I help?” Their joy was mirrored in her tone.
The demon sounded hesitant. She could almost imagine their fiddling with their thumbs – if they had fingers – in the shadow. “I’m happy to help,” she assured them.
“May I… May I borrow something from you?”
“What is it?”
“Your hair,” they replied, voice shaking lightly. “Your beautiful, shining raven hair.”
She seemed at a loss for word. They went on elaborating, “My form is not fitted for a human’s eyes. If I wish to show myself to you, it is imperative that I am under a guise.”
“How long do you plan to take it?”
“Just a day only, no more. If you lend it to me, I am sure to return it tomorrow.”
“Then you shall have it for a day.”
Again, had she been taught to take caution against demons by someone with a better common sense than her late mother, she would not agree to lend a part of her body for a demon so easily. But she had not, and this was her only friend; she saw no problem in giving them her trust.
And the worst was she might lose her hair, what was the harm in that? Hair could always grow back, couldn’t it?
The next morning she woke up to find her hair gone, her scalp bare. Running her palm over her head, she burst into laughter. She half-heartedly wished she possessed a mirror so that she could see for herself how utterly ridiculous she looked.
When she was done laughing and wiping away her mirthful tears, she crudely wrapped a shawl around her head and went to tend her garden. The little creatures living on her garden looked at her with their round, beady eyes as if seeing a stranger when a mischievous wind blew away her shawl. Glancing at them out of the corner of her eyes, she wrapped the shawl tighter once she retrieved it.
“There, I give it back to you. Thank you so much,” the demon said to her when they returned to her hut.
In a moment she could feel her hair again, flowing down her shoulders and back like spring water. As she ran her fingers through, it appeared smoother than before. She smiled. “Thank you.”
“For what? It should be I who say it.”
For keeping your promise and my trust intact. But she did not speak aloud; her tender smile conveyed it all.
“Please accept it as a token of my gratitude.”
From the shadow a flower bud was held out to her. As she studied it, she was entirely baffled. She had not seen anything like it before, a flower which was as black and shiny as coal. Black and shiny like her hair.
She gingerly touched the delicate-looking petals. They felt smooth and cool to her touch and she felt a soft vibration humming beneath her fingertips. Like the rippling of the lake when a breeze passed by. Like the gentle waves thumping against the hull. Like mother’s breath in her ears during cold nights. Like music, composed and performed intimately for her. Its fragrance was a tantalizing invitation, floating in the isthmus of reality and fantasy. She inhaled deeply, and thought she had a glimpse of her soul flashing before her eyes.
“What is this flower?” she asked.
“It is a Demimonde.”
“Such a beautiful name. It suits her.”
“Oh, so it is a ‘she’ to you?” the demon asked with a curious note. “In our world, Demimondes are genderless as we are.”
“I don’t know, but when I look at the flower, I feel as if I am looking at a female. Besides, to categorize by genders is one step to humanization,” she replied. She felt the urge to kiss the silky petals, so she did. The bud seemed to respond to her by opening up just a little, exquisite perfume filling her hut.
A silence that she perceived to be the demon’s contemplation followed.
“Is she from where you came?”
“I took her from the Great Master’s beloved garden. I wish I could show you even just a vision of it. Eden He named it and there seasons change to please its inhabitants. Those like myself are only allowed entrance once in a century though.”
“You said demons are genderless but you refer to your Great Master as ‘He’? Isn’t it a little odd?”
“My darling,” the demon chuckled, “He is no demon. He is actually closer to mortals than any of us could ever hope to be.”
It was her turn to contemplate the newly offered truth. She wondered how He looked like. Did He had vermillion skin, flaming horns and a pointed tail like the faded picture in the priest’s dog-eared scripture or was He magnificent like the winged angels painted in the only church in the village? It was not that she had been allowed to enter the church or glimpse at the priest’s scripture; she had only been terribly curious and sneaky. They all said she was the demon child, did they not, but weren’t demons genderless like her friend said? Could it be… Could it be that He was her father? Was her mother with Him then, in Hell, as the villagers shouted and spat every time they came across her? She betted Hell would be a wonderful place, where the Demimondes were always blooming and the seasons changed – but never less than beautiful – to please. She was very tempted to ask the demon.
“That I cannot give an answer to. Do forgive me,” the demon said in a low, almost regretful tone.
The girl fell silent. She did not blame the demon; nevertheless, to say she was not the least disappointed was a blatant lie.
“Still, I can guarantee that we have neither red skin nor pointed tail. Horns vary though; some of us have beautiful curved horns that earn others’ envy while others just… envy.”
A small smile found its way to her little mouth. “Do you make others envy or do you envy?”
The demon cackled. “I cannot divulge this secret to you lest I become your laughing stock for years to come.”
With that the demon transformed her budding smile into a full beam.
“Do you like her? The Demimonde, I mean.”
She caressed Demimonde’s petals with her nimble fingers. She had already fallen in love with the way the flower responded to her every gesture as if an animal, not unresponsive like the plants in her garden and the woods. “She’s mesmerizing, thank you.” A pause. “She’s hasn’t fully bloomed yet.”
“At the right time she shall bloom,” said the demon.
There was a sad note in her tone. “Then I don’t want her to bloom.”
“ If she blooms, she also wilts and dies. I will be very sad when she does.”
“Rest assured, my darling, a Demimonde never wilts. As long as you do not wish her so. A demon flower it is.”
She imagined the demon grinning and was rather frustrated when she could not see. “Won’t you come out now and see me?”
“Not yet, my darling. My guise is far from complete.” They took a short pause. “May I ask to borrow something from you again?”
She waited patiently.
“May I borrow your eyes? Your beautiful eyes that are as blue as the sky seen through the finest sapphire?”
It was her turn to be hesitant. Had someone been here, some villager with the caution and fear of the devils and consideration for her well-being, they would urge her to decline the demon’s request. They might even chase the demon out from the hut, sprinkling garlic and holy water and holding out crucifix. Hair was one thing: one could live their whole life hairless, but eyes were not something one should give away.
But no one was here with her. The demon was, and they were the one she trusted most in the world, if not the only one.
In a timorous voice she asked, “For a day only?”
“For a day only,” the demon echoed.
“You may take my eyes, but without eyes, I will not be able to make the pumpkin cake you so like, nor the green bean and carrot soup.”
“It shall be I who will.”
She woke up in complete darkness, unable to distinguish night from day. Panic seized her, and it was not until the larks and bluebirds’ chirpings in her ears and the warmth of sunlight on her skin told her the morning had come that she was able to calm down. It was only a day, she assured herself, one day and she would regain her eyes while her friend would have eyes like hers. Mother used to love her eyes so much, telling her they were the most gorgeous thing she had seen, that men would follow her to the end of the earth just for a flutter of her curved eyelashes, that even demons would be tamed by a single glance, falling hopelessly in love. Being too young, she had not understood: still, if it pleased her dearest mother, she herself was happy.
She got up from her straw bed and began her normal day, albeit as a blind girl. Things were tenfold harder for her but it would mean immense joy and relief when her eyes returned. After all, not many could experience the sheer happiness of having lost one’s eyesight and finding it again.
She opened her eyes just in time to a forkful of pumpkin cake holding out to her. The color was a little off, the texture not so smooth, and the aroma was not arousing as her cake. Yet she could see that the demon had put much effort in baking this pumpkin cake. They stayed true to their promise, returning her eyes and making her a treat. She had not put her trust in the wrong place.
Her smile was as sweet as the cake as she opened her mouth and let the demon feed her. “It’s really delicious. I love it.”
She heard the demon’s nervous cackling from the dark. A tiny frown was etched between her thin eyebrows.
“Little girls don’t frown,” they said. “Little girls should always smile and be happy.”
“I’m not a little girl,” she protested.
“Little girls do not want to be little girls. Little girls want to be grown-up girls. Grown-up girls would kill to be little girls once more.”
She was uncertain if she should understand the demon’s singing words. Were they supposed to be a riddle? Some demons sure loved riddles, her friend had once told her.
Then, the demon presented a flower bud to her. This time it was blue, blue as the sky seen through the finest sapphire, blue as her eyes.
Her frown vanished from her small face as she clutched the delicate flower in her hand. “What is she called?”
“Demimonde. The same as the black one.”
Not waiting for her to pronounce her curiosity about the color, demon said, “Demimondes changed colors to suit your eyes. They want to please you as long as you do not wish for their wilt.”
“A demon flower it is.”
She got up and placed the blue Demimonde in the little vase together with the black one. “Can you show yourself to me now?”
She heard a whisper of a sigh. “Not yet, my friend. There are still things that I wish to borrow from you.”
She woke up with a raw, aching sensation spreading from her head to the tips of her toes. Never before had the straw mattress brought her this much discomfort: every movement caused her to wince and every wince caused her pain and tears to pool at the rims of her eyes. Even discomfort was an understatement. The pain was bearable and short-lived once she was more careful and less hasty with her body; however, there was the feeling of countless tiny little thorns continuously pricking at her flesh that was maddening. She remembered having been bitten by a little ant when she was very small and the itch had been her worst torment. Now imagine a hundred ants, probable more, gnawing on her nerves. Moreover, she could not scratch no matter how horrible it was for fear that she would leave permanent damage to her uncovered, oversensitive flesh.
The demon had told her.
It was her skin, white as the virgin snow, that the demon had asked her. Like the first and the second times, she had complied to her friend’s wish.
Do not look into the stream, the demon had repeated over and over. It may drive you mad. Mad as my mother, she asked. Yes, mad as your mother. Incurable. Doomed. I would not have you become as such, swear to our Great Master, I would rather break into a thousand pieces. So please, stay in the house until I come back in the night. And remember (again) do not scratch!
Her sweet, sweet demon. She felt warmth pooling in her heart. She got up from her bed, dressed as carefully as she could with the wool and linen she had, and set out to the wood. Sorry, she murmured. Those poor, hapless creatures would starve if she neglected her patronage.
She supposed she felt a sting of pain in her chest when she witnessed the doe and pigeons that always ate from her hand fled from her, frightened beyond hope. She looked down at her skinless hand, her raw, red flesh and did not find the cause to be angered. The hideous, scary monster that was out for their tender flesh. Were she them, she reasoned that she too would flee from the monster’s sight as fast as she could. Still she hurt. How wrong of her to have thought that animals would look beyond the skin.
“Every creature with eyes finds it extremely difficult to look beyond the skin,” the demon said. “Because the skin is what most of them look at first, and to some, perhaps the only thing they can see. That is why we can only wander in human world under one guise or another. Even the Great Master is no exception, and His, no matter what shape or form, always captures the mortals’ deepest desires, and thrives on them. But in our world we never, just come as we are.”
“I’m different,” she protested, shaking her head.
“You are not, little girl, if you see the real me.”
She sulked, though she knew there was truth in the demon’s words. She herself had never looked beyond the skin really; she chose to feed the doe and pigeons because she thought them lovely, beautiful, innocent-looking, all the goodness in the world combined. All the time she had been ignoring the ugly toads and the slimy snakes. Today, the doe and pigeons had fled from her while the toads and the snakes had regarded her with their beady fearless eyes and stayed in their place.
She felt a hand on her hair with fingers and smooth skin. Gently it messaged her scalp like her mother used to do.
“A Demimonde for you.”
White and pure as virgin snow, with petals as smooth as her skin.
She looked ravishing between the black and the blue.
“Is your guise complete now?”
“It is, and it is not,” said the demon in their androgynous voice. “Still I lack a human voice.”
“What you are using to converse with me…”
“…is the demon voice. The demon whisper, as mortals say, that not all humans can hear.”
“But I can always hear you.”
“You are always special,” said the demon. “There are few humans who are attuned to the supernatural melodies and only they can communicate with the unseen and unheard. Sadly their number grows smaller still, alienated, discarded and slaughtered by their skeptical kin.”
So that was the “damned witch”, she recalled the villagers’ words, reeking of fear and disdain. Well, if witchery was her nature, she never felt ashamed.
“What can I lend you so that you have a human voice?”
The girl imagined the voice to be intangible, not physical like the hair, the eyes and the skin that the demon had borrowed so far.
The demon chuckled. “Oh, it is not so intangible. In fact everything is physical in one way or another: the mind to the brain, the sight to the eyes, the beauty to the hair and skin, and so on.”
“So, do you want to borrow my mouth, or my tongue?” This time the girl was not hesitant in voicing her question.
“May I borrow your tongue? I have yet found a way to remove the mouth,” the demon jested.
“Then my tongue you may have.”
In spite of the unfamiliar emptiness in her mouth, the girl found out with delight that not having her tongue was the least inconvenience she had experienced so far. The need to talk was nonexistent as she was mostly by herself during the day. She did not develop the habit of talking to herself, the trick that others would find useful in fighting off their loneliness. If she really had to, the thought of finally seeing the demon tonight, provided that with her human voice the guise was complete, kept her company all day.
The doe and the pigeons did not flee from her, seeing that it was not a skinless monster approaching them this time but a beautiful, harmless-looking girl they were used to. She ignored them however, and went to feed the toads and the snakes instead.
“A crimson Demimonde for your mellifluous voice.”
The girl did not know her own voice to possess such a velvety luster until she heard it speak to her. “Thank you,” she said, and placed the red Demimonde together with her other siblings. Their exquisite colors complimented one another so well that together, they were the most gorgeous things she had laid her eyes on. Normal flowers simply could not compare; they were beautiful all right, but their beauty blended in the surroundings, and became part of the overall landscape. Demimondes did not blend; instead they drained their surroundings off colors, making them lifeless and dull while they burnt lividly. She wished never for their wilt.
“I suppose you can see me now.”
“Without doubt, my darling.”
The shadow retreated and a figure came into her view. She gasped audibly, but with delightful surprise and joy rather than shock and fear. Here she was looking at her spitting image, down to the white cotton gown she was wearing.
Her more beautiful twin. Her superior half.
“No…” whispered the demon.
She reached out with her hand and the demon did the same. Their hands touched, feeling the mutual warmth and they both smiled. The same gesture, the identical smile, it was as if looking at the clearest mirror in the world.
“I have been longing to look at you with your eyes, touch you with your skin and ask with your voice if I can stay with you, now and always?”
Happiness overflowed her, threatening to burst her small chest open. She would very much like the demon to stay with her, now and always; however, she hated it when her rational voice always had the first say, “But won’t you have to return to your world? To your great Master whom you worship?”
The demon chuckled with her ringing voice. “And forfeit this perfect guise that I have so painstakingly crafted? No, my darling, the moment you lent me your hair, I was accepted to your world, and left mine behind. The Great Master consented to my leave.”
“For how long?” she asked meekly.
The demon’s eyes briefly shifted to the four Demimondes. “For as long as you wish the Demimondes not to wilt.”
“That would be eternity.” There were tears in her eyes and tears in her voice.
“Then eternity you shall have.”
The demon leaned in, licked away her tears, then proceeded to kiss her with her own lips. Tenderly as first, for her to accustom to, and then becoming passionately, bordering on desperation.
The Demimondes on the shelf were blooming.
Demimonde – that was the demon’s name from then on. And they was no longer ‘they’, but ‘she’.
The girl grew up to be a maiden, and Demimonde grew with her. They were inseparable, a pair of beautiful twins who shared the labor in the garden by day and the warmth of the blanket by night. With Demimonde, she forgot how to shed sad tears and with her, Demimonde forgot her previous eternal life brimmed with boredom and loneliness in the demon world. She had devoted to the Great Master, had worshipped him with all her fibers like each and every of her kin did night and day, but the Great Master gave no love in return, no cure for the forlornless plaguing every black heart. Love between the Master and His subjects went one-way; they accepted this truth as universal. Yet it was different in this human world: what she gave away would come back to her doubled, and affection flowed easily and naturally as the little spring in front of their shared hut. She might even have forgotten that she used to be a demon – was a demon still, being too comfort in her perfected guise.
But her power surfaced one night, in the form of a roaring angry mob and torches. Demimonde woke up, soaked in human sweats, and before she came to true understanding of the images in her dream, she had burst into loudly wails. Her cries disturbed the maiden’s sleep and she opened her eyes, confused as to why her dearest sister was making such heart-wrenching sounds in the middle of the night. No matter how she asked, the demon would not tell her an intelligible answer. The words disjointed, chocked in tears and Demimonde appeared to momentarily lose her human speech, which had become a part of her like her breath over the years. The maiden cradled her sister, laid her head on her bosoms and sang until Demimonde, calmed down, fell into the sweet embrace of sleep. She herself followed suit shortly after.
Her dream was as ugly and cruel as whatever had troubled Demimonde, and just as vague and incomprehensible.
Demimonde was restless these days. The maiden could see the previous dream had plagued her tremendously, but how and why, she could not figure out. Her sister held onto her silence like a cord that bound her life together, and she would sooner fall apart than let it go. Only her grief-stricken face and sunken eyes gave silent hints of the tumult gnawing her inside. She wished she could soothe Demimonde somehow, brought the peace back to her, but how, she did not know. All she could do was envelope her sister in her warm embrace, softly humming to her the nameless lullaby her mother used to sing to her. But even that could not prevent Demimonde from growing distant from her. It broke her heart to wake up one morning to find their shared bed empty and cold and Demimonde curling up next to a huge, hollow trunk outside their hut.
While peace was fragile in their small hut, outside the woods it was chaos. Draughts had been going on for years, hungers reigned and recently a terrible disease was sweeping across the devastated village, taking the young and the strong of the population in its dreadful wake. All hope was lost, and despair turned them to the witch they had banished into the deep, dark woods, and against the fear of tragedies that had befallen their predecessors for bringing harm to the little devil’s mother. Boiling in hatred and rage, that satanic witch must have lay a curse on them, and at the moment, she was peering at their miseries through the eyes of the dark creatures lurking in every nook and cranny, laughing at they perished, one by one, their corpses piling up and nourishing the vultures.
They gathered at the center of the village, all that remained. The gleam from their weapons and the torches in their hands seemed to the night to day.
They found the witch outside her lair. Such a face she had – even God could not craft a better visage. And such a dark, sinister heart – the Devil must be proud of his handiwork. The witch neither tried to escape nor cried when they dragged her back to the village to be burnt at the huge pyre at its center.
In her dead silence the villagers’ fear grew as they stared at her writhing form slowly devoured by the hungry flames. After the fire had died out, hours later, they did not find her blackened bones in the ash.
No one knew exactly how many decades had passed since the last one of the damned village drew their last breath. The burning of the witch had not lifted their curse – if any – and the plague, which made their skin blister and fall off and their blood boil, marked for death those draught and hunger had failed to. Soon the village was wiped out from the map altogether. Still, the deep, dark woods endured, growing stronger than ever, and so did the legend of the black-haired, blue-eyed witch. People told their children, and their grandchildren the story as a cautionary tale even after they settled on the once cursed land and for generations, none of them had mustered enough courage and strength to cross the thorny vines and venture into the heart of the woods.
Came a day when an adventurous and dashing young man, perhaps a knight, a lord’s son or even a prince, passed the village on his relentless journey. Oh, how the poor, honest villagers pled him to opt for a different route around the woods lest his life be endangered by the legendary witch. “There were men from the cities,” one would say, “men of high caliber who swore to put an end to the witch’s terror. They came in living men and came out horrifically disfigured cadavers.” “Their eyes gorged out, their body skinned and in their mouth where the tongue should be there was only blood,” another would add. Yet all the ghastly details had been turned a deaf ear to by the brave young man. He boldly declared that he would cross the witch’s territory, and slay her if needed be, provided that her legend proved to be no more than an old wives’ tale, a superstition, a tale to warn children from the dark places reserved for adults only.
In the villagers’ sigh, he rode past the thorny vines, penetrating the witch’s lair.
“What are you doing here?”
For hours the young man had been lost. Here, in this dark woods, all sense of direction seemed to be swallowed by the thick mist and wherever he rode, the trees and vines appeared the same. Taunting him they were. He might have been wandering in a circle for god’s sake and worse, signs of fatigue had begun to plague him. But he supposed Lady Luck was on his side today, because when he resigned to his fate of having to spend a night under these ominous canopies, with dark creatures lurking around, he saw a maiden in flowing white gown standing a few feet away. And she saw him, too, for she asked, “What are you doing here?”
He had not known angels until he saw her and heard her speak. “Terribly lost,” he answered. In the sky of your eyes.
“Would you please show me the way out?”
“Are you not afraid of the witch?”
He was a little taken aback by her surprise question.
“No. I don’t believe in her existence. Now…” He made no attempt to hide his scrutinizing eyes. “…I’m confident that the old hag either does not exist or has simply wasted away centuries ago.”
He could see the corners of her lips curve up ever slightly and her eyes mellowed. His heart melted at the sight.
“It’s getting dark. Come, I can let you stay the night.”
Hers was a small but very nice hut standing in the middle of a garden that stretched deeper and deeper into the heart of the woods. Carnations, roses, daisies… The vast array of colors gave his eyes a delightful blinding feast.
But even the whole garden pale in comparison with the four unfamiliar flowers arranged in a clay vase inside her hut. Black, white, red, blue, each shone with a vividness that gave an impression that they had a life of their own, even though they were merely flowers clipped from the stems, bound to wither in a few days’ time at most. And if Heaven had a scent, it would be their fragrance.
“Demimonde… That is how they are called.” The maiden spoke before he even asked, as if reading his mind.
“I’ve never seen anything like them before. So strange, and so very beautiful.”
“That is because they are demon’s flowers,” she explained. “Time doesn’t touch them, and they never wilt.”
The mention of “demon” should ring an alarm in him, yet he found it matter little in her presence. “Unearthly,” he breathed. Just like hers. “If I looked at them too long, would they take my soul away?”
Her perfect Cupid’s bow gave an illusion of a smile. “Only if your soul was worth taking.”
He stayed the night, thoroughly enjoying her sumptuous meal and the cozy, soft straw bed she prepared. The hut was small, and there seemed to be only one room and one bed. He had insisted that he should sleep on the ground but she had already disappeared before he could open his mouth again. He thought it odd that she would vanish from sight as soon as darkness blanketed the earth, but he reckoned she was only wary of strangers; she seemed to live here all alone. Was she an orphan? He had heard many stories about orphans being cast out from their community as they were thought to bring misfortune to the people. If that was the case, would she be happy to depart from this forsaken land with him?
Though the nocturnal creatures howled and croaked throughout the night, he had had the most pleasant dream ever, a dream that involved raven-black hair, midsummer-sky eyes, milky white skin and lips softer than the petals of the flowers that surrounded the hut.
He used up all his wits to come up with reasons to prolong his stay at the maiden’s place. To his utmost delight, she made neither questions nor denials, treating him with the same hospitality she had shown him in the first day. On the fourth night of his stay, he boldly asked for her hand in marriage. He longed for the moment he could bring her back to his kingdom and present her to his parents and the court the most beautiful maiden in the world, whom he would vow to love till the end of his life in front of the High Priest and Priestess. His whole being trembled at the vision of her in pristine white gown, golden tiara shining on her black hair, woven with roundest pearls harvested from the depth of the sea. She would make the finest princess in all the ten kingdoms.
“Someone borrowed my heart a long, long time ago,” she said in her mellifluous voice, to his dismay, “and it has yet to be returned.”
Twinkling with hints of moisture, her eyes lingered on the four strange flowers in the clay vase. They swayed as if responding to her words. When she turned to look at him, his heart broke to find not the smallest trace of emotions, only the distant politeness present always. Cold.
Had she ever been anything but polite and cold to him?
“But I love you,” he cried. “My heart is all yours.”
The maiden looked unmoved by his proclamation. “Your heart isn’t what I need. Instead, I would very much want something else from you.”
“Whatever it is, I would gladly give. For I would die without you.”
“Oh, don’t be so certain, my lord.” She stressed the last two words. Was that contempt in her tone? “Not until you listen to what I want from you. I want your hair – fair and shining as sunlight taken form, your eyes – deep and dark as the woods, your skin – the finest honey and finally, your tongue – the instrument of your sweet, eloquent declaration of love.”
She paused, staring at the shock rapidly seeping into his handsome countenance. “Would you be willing to give them to me, and be a hairless, skinless and blind mute for the rest of your life? Would you be able to go to that extent to prove your love which is so passionately and easily expressed?”
“Why… why would you want them?” he stammered. “What could they be of use to you?”
He was flabbergasted by her silvery ringing laughter – the first time he heard her laugh while she had been all but quiet and soft-spoken. “My lord, you are questioning a witch’s witchcraft. Very unwise.”
She stopped laughing and stared at him, her eyes shining and piercing his soul – how he had not noticed the sharpness of her eyes before. “What the villagers say are not the least false. Men entered the woods alive and went out dead. Do you know why? They were enchanted, and they surrendered themselves to the witch’s demand. They did not fight her, never tried to. Would you do the same?”
She shook her head, and the mask of cold politeness returned to her face. “You’d better leave this land while the sun is still high. At night, I cannot guarantee your well-being.”
“What about you? That means you’re not safe here, too.” He grasped her small hand, squeezing it. “Come with me, to my kingdom. You will be the most beautiful princess in the world.”
“This is my home, the safest place for me. Go, and do not come back. You can stay a couple of nights, but that’s the limit. For you, for any human.”
Her hand slipped from his slackened grip effortlessly and she drifted away faster than his eyes could follow. Like a phantasm. Cold sweats dampened his clothes despite it was in the late autumn. He shook his head and tried to calm himself. It was hard to tell whether what he had seen was real or imagined with the thick blanket of fog that would from time to time erase all sense of directions and logic.
Defeated, he went to retreat his horse, tied outside her hut, and mounted it.
He almost reached the entrance when a sudden pull caused him to reverse his directions. He had been a fool, he chided himself, for giving up just because of a few of her hardened words. Perhaps it was only her test, a small trial to see if he had been earnest in wanting to marry her. Of course, she had every reason to be cautious – every village girl with a head to think should know better than to trust strangers in fancy clothes – and so far he had proved her doubt to be true, that his words were just as light as the winds. Oh, he could stab himself if it allowed him to turn back time. Foolishness. Cowardice. His thighs squeezed the horse’s sides, urging it to run faster and faster. He had to apologize to her, giving her hard and concrete evidence that he loved her, that he really could not live without her. Giving her his heart should she demand proof, and anything else she desired. Then he would take her out of this woods, and to his palace, where a precious jewel such as her would shine the brightest.
The horse neighed loudly, hesitant to follow his instructions and he had to whip it. Its hooves thumped on the leave-covered ground.
The moon had hung high above him by the time the young man saw the flickering light from the maiden’s hut. The darkness surrounding everything vibrated with ominous hums but he paid it no mind as he got off his horse and crept noiselessly to her place. His hand was about to knock on her door when he heard her ringing laughter, so full of life and joy. He froze and retreated to a corner, where he could peer at her through the open window but the maiden could not spot him.
She appeared to be conversing with someone. He saw her smile, a warm, affectionate smile that was entirely different from the polite ones she had graced him with, and her perfectly shaped lips move. Sometimes she spoke loudly enough for him to pick up random words, and sometimes she only whispered or broke off in low giggles. Whoever in her company must be entertaining her tremendously, which he had failed during his short time staying. The young man felt a pang of jealousy. Still, no matter how he tried, he could not get even a glimpse of the other person in the hut. He decided to risk and creep a tad closer, and spied something, or someone moving in the shadow around the withering candle.
He saw the maiden stand up, her slender arms outstretched, and she took something into her embrace. He squinted his eyes. The duo swayed, coming closer to the candle. Closer. Just a little closer. His eyes widened. He heard a scream tear out his throat.
Both the maiden and the ‘creature’ – if that could be called a living being at all – turned to him, alarmed. The maiden’s eyes searched the darkness and found him effortlessly, her gaze a sharp dagger slicing through him. The ‘creature’ in her arms stirred and it appeared to be ‘looking’ at him with its vacant sockets.
Eyes were not the only thing it lacked. It was also hairless, no inch of its naked body was covered by skin, and from its throat only gurgling small noises came out.
The beauty and the grotesque creature, was it not the most frightening picture of all?
The maiden looked straight at him, the contours of her lips forming a curve. Both her smile and the light in her shining eyes were alien to him. At this moment, she was inspiring terror in him, not admiration and love. His throat clotted, he was petrified.
“Darling, if you had your eyes now, you would see how horrified he is,” she said to the creature clinging to her arms. “Every creature with eyes…”
It appeared to understand her, and nodded.
“You should have listened to her.”
Those were last words the maiden spoke, and the last he could hear.
Silvery moonlight bathed a soft glow on the naked body. Long but graceful limbs, small waist, straight back and toned muscles, this was the body of a man in his golden prime. His hair was short and fair, his eyes black enough to radiate light, the beauty of his youthful countenance matched the Adonis-esqueness of his body. Beside him stood the most precious jewel that shone brightly in the darkness of the deep woods as it did in the royal palace.
Together, they were a sight to behold and envy.
The young man took the maiden in his strong arms, pressing her slim body close to his.
“The most agreeable skin I have had after yours. I think I would weep when it decays,” a deep baritone said. “I have to admit I was deeply regretful when your fondness for him allowed him to leave.”
“Yet he came back, didn’t he, despite my warning?”
A chuckle. “My darling, did you honestly think he could fight your charms?” He caressed her cheeks with the tips of his fingers. “When even the shape of your lips could hook his soul?”
“No,” said the maiden, leaning to his touch. It was still strange to her, the feel of these fingers, but she would grow accustomed to it soon enough. Just like any other times.
“Would you rather have a new name to match your new guise?”
“I would rather keep Demimonde. After all, that is the name you first gave me.”
“Demimonde then,” she breathed, and kissed him on the lips, her kiss firm, certain, experienced and overwhelming with passion.
Dark creatures of the woods gathered around them to share the body laid at their feet.