As a child, Isa never spoke of her travels. She feared the others wouldn’t believe her. Growing older, she feared that they would. She did not want to end up ostracized like her friend Alys, who saw hallucinations and spoke about them until all the other children believed her to be either a liar or a loon. Nobody had believed Alys except Isa.
Perhaps because Isa was different, too.
The neighborhood regarded Isa as a quiet, odd child. What could one expect? She did not look or behave like the other children. Her father was an African immigrant in Munich who’d climbed his way from brilliant student to resourceful professor before falling in love with a sweet German seamstress. He wed his blue-eyed beauty in Jewish tradition at her request, and soon they welcomed into the world an infant who had her father’s colors and mother’s smile. When Isa was five, her kitten strayed outside on a bone-chilling night and did not return, and the girl grew inconsolable. Her mother walked the streets for hours until she found the kitten in a snowy alley, perished and half-frozen. She herself died of pneumonia days later. Wrapped in his grief, Isa’s father often seemed to forget, thereafter, that he had a daughter. In a way, she’d lost them both.
Only the university librarian heeded her, not minding that a professor dumped his daughter every day in a musty room brimming with books that was anything but a daycare. Though he was an old man of few words and even lesser patience, the bespectacled Greek warmed to anyone who cherished his books with the same reverence he did. He watched over the child while she crouched between the dim rows of his bookshelves, handing her books she could not reach as she filled her hair with cobwebs and her mind with ideas.
Isa loved the books. They were tangible and breathable and welcoming. They could be grim, provocative, and heartless in the truths or opinions they shared, yet they never pushed her away.
On her twelfth birthday, Isa discovered a castle of ink within a forest of paper.
Isa spent the day in the library, trying not to care that her father had forgotten to wish her a happy birthday that morning during their brisk walk to the university. She paced between the bookshelves, restless, one arm outstretched and fingers gently tracing the velvety spines. The library’s music—rustling pages and scribbling pens and muted coughs and the barely-there murmurs of scholars—wrapped around her like a warm shawl. She paused in front of her favorite section of folklore, eyeing a copy of Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm, and decided she would treat herself by reading it for the seventh time.
“Isabella, koritsi mou.”
There was no mistaking that gruff, heavily accented voice. Isa turned to see the man who’d welcomed her into his sanctuary and called her daughter. He held out a book, his brown eyes twinkling behind those thick spectacles. With his curly white hair, pointed beard, and wiry frame, the librarian reminded her of an aging satyr. She liked to imagine that his shoes disguised cloven hooves that no one had ever seen.
“Happy birthday,” he said.
Gasping at the beautifully embossed cover, Isa reached out and traced a finger over the title’s spindly letters, textured like thorns. “The Book of the Beast,” she murmured. Her hands accepted the book before she could think to resist such kindness. “It’s beautiful.”
A little bell tinged at the front desk, signifying that someone had books to check out. The librarian shuffled away, giving the curly-haired girl a fleeting smile.
Had he winked? She couldn’t be sure.
Isa sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor in a corner furthest from the other scholars, the open book in her lap, and ran her fingers over the lines she whispered to herself. Somewhere between the fourth and fifth pages, she felt the letters prick her fingertips. Sensations pulsed along her skin, curious and enticing, as if something intangible clasped her hand and threaded its fingers through hers and tugged her so that she fell, floating, into its embrace.
She could hear, for a moment, her voice still reading the words, until the papery trees darkened and hardened and she found herself within a wintry wood, her breath encircling her like dragon smoke and her flesh prickling with goosebumps, and the only thing surrounding her was the muffling silence of snowfall. She took a few steps until, through the softly falling snowflakes, she could discern a gleaming black gate and the stone castle beyond. The gate swung open of its own accord. More curious than cold, Isa strode up the snow-strewn path through the ice sculptures in the gardens and followed the steps to the main entrance.
The black stones of the castle looked wet, as if freshly dunked in ink, and Isa dared not touch them. A door appeared, and Isa was sure it hadn’t been there a moment ago. Seemingly made of paper, with the head of a lion drawn where a knocker should have been, the door swept open at her approach, looking flimsy enough to be flung back by the force of her breath.
She felt the castle welcome her with a gust of warm air that smelled of vanilla and fresh-baked bread and homey things—things you wouldn’t associate with an abandoned old castle—as if someone had noted she’d been in the cold and threw a blanket over her shoulders. But in the darkness within, Isa thought she heard a distant rumble, darker and deeper than thunder. She stumbled back, suddenly afraid, and remembered the library.
Isa opened her eyes and found herself seated cross-legged on the library’s hardwood floor with a book in her lap and her heart pounding in her chest.
The Book of the Beast was the only book that had the power to consume her. Consume—that was how she thought of it, yet it never frightened her. Now when Isa slipped into the book, she slipped in completely. She knew because her father had combed every inch in the library when he looked for her one afternoon after his lectures, and the librarian convinced him that Isa had run out for an ice-cream when he knew quite well that she hadn’t left the library. Isa coincidentally appeared from her corner a moment later, to the mixed relief and annoyance of her father.
It was her favorite pastime, even as she grew older and stealing away for hours at the library unnoticed wasn’t as easy. Each time, getting through was easier. Each time, coming back was sadder.
The Monster still hid from her. For years he’d watched the child explore and play from afar within the castle. She drew the curtains for the sun to flood dark rooms, used the brooms he purposefully left in her sight, and brought in roses from his garden to fill the empty vases at his tables. She knew he was there. She knew the castle was his.
It was, after all, The Book of the Beast.
He began to look forward to her visits, enticing her with little gifts: paints and paintbrushes, sewing kits with balls of colorful yarn, delectable chocolates and sweet dried fruits. He left her beautiful silk dresses that were exactly her size. Once a kitten greeted her at the door, as delighted to see her as she was it, and she gasped to see it had the same calico fur, green eyes, and sweet disposition of her long-lost friend. Isa learned through trial and error that these were not things she could take with her, just as she could not bring things to him.
He didn’t have to ask if the girl was happy here. He saw it in her gaze, her smile, the way she scampered up the castle steps with such joy and later slipped away with sober eyes, back to the shifty eyes and growing curfews and chilling melodies of When Jewish blood reds my knife, then my life is free from strife.
When she appeared one day and called out, Where are you? Will I ever get to see you? the Monster’s heart froze
He realized then that he’d been happy, too.
The stairs within bucked when she looked at them, rolling once in a come-hither gesture that made her smile. She never thought to fear the castle, as otherworldly as it seemed, and never thought to disbelieve it either. Who was she to doubt it? On the contrary; the more she read, the more she realized how much there was that she didn’t know. The more time she spent here, the more tangible this world became. She accepted its existence as a lesson in existentialism.
At the top of the stairs, the Monster stood waiting in the darkness, shaking his mane and lashing his tail. He stepped out of the shadows one horrible clawed paw at a time. He braced himself for her revulsion. He stooped so that his heart was closer to hers and whispered: I’m very glad to meet you.
The girl gazed at him curiously. She’d never seen anyone or anything quite like him, though she’d read about him. She knew he’d been a prince once, an enchantress had cursed him, and now he was sorry and stuck in his new form. As playmates went, he didn’t seem bad.
Do you want to play hide and seek? she asked.
You need to eat more, the Monster said. Have they run out of food where you come from?
He hadn’t known if it had been days or years since he’d last seen her—time followed its own rules here—but she looked taller, her thick black braids longer, her body no longer that of a child’s. She was still the loveliest human he’d seen in forever (perhaps because she was the only human he’d seen in forever) but he didn’t like how thin her face had gotten or the tiredness within her eyes.
The Teapot perched on the table between them, blushing rosy-hot and brimming with tea, dying to hear a word from an outsider. It whistled a hello at the girl, two cups materializing on the table when Isa wasn’t paying attention.
I eat. Isa accepted her cup of tea gratefully and wondered how foolish it would be to hug a teapot. The tea warmed her stomach and her heart, and she couldn’t help but yearn for a world where there was as much kindness beyond as well as within books. How would Teapot have looked as a person? Rosy-cheeked, flirty, a bit on the plump side, an adoring friend and someday someone’s doting mother—or father. Isa didn’t want to make assumptions.
The Monster was thirsty for news of her world, too, for his was frozen in time. She told him of birthday parties, cozy coffee shops, beautiful parks, swims in lakes, and games on school grounds. As the years passed, her stories changed. She told him of soldiers who patrolled the streets singing slogans, of the yellow star pinned to her dress because she was her mother’s daughter, of a leader who preached intolerance and racial pride.
She did not tell him of the whispers she heard behind her back, whispers of how it was a shame that such a pretty face was marred by dark skin and tainted blood. Her skin was black, so her soul must be too. They said it was unnatural. Impure. “Rhineland bastard,” some people sniggered within earshot, and Isa would glare at them in fury and fear, hating both their ignorance and their cruelty.
Do you think you might ever visit me, in my world? she asked. It wouldn’t be as scary out there with a friend.
It’s not quite so simple, the Monster said. I’m not allowed.
It was for the best, she thought. If people thought her strange, they’d probably stone him on sight. Still, she wondered. Why not?
He snorted in frustration that he could not continue evading her usual questions. You know I wasn’t always this way. I’ve been cursed to stay in this skin, in this world, until the spell is broken.
He growled then, and the sound wrenched Isa’s heart. She extended a hand to clasp his clawed paw. Perhaps the spell breaks when you break free of the castle.
This place is better when you’re here. Perhaps I do not want things to change. As long as you keep coming back. He looked at her with a wolf’s amber eyes, eyes that haunted her with their loneliness when she was far from him. You will be back, won’t you?
A sigh shuddered through him before he could contain it. How are you not afraid of me, girl?
Why would I be afraid? You’ve been nothing but kind.
But I am a monster.
I know of monsters, she said, smiling at his lovely hideousness. You are not them.
When Isa turned nineteen, the Nazis stormed into the university’s library and removed those they deemed inferior. She did not get a chance to protest before they pulled her from the table. She clutched her satchel to her chest—it contained The Book of the Beast, and they could take whatever else they wanted but not that—as if she could pour herself into it by sheer will. They grabbed her friend Alys and two teenage boys, too, pushed together like a collapsing constellation made of the stars pinned to their clothes. Alys’ hands shook so badly that she dropped her books herself.
“You’re coming with us,” the officer said.
Isa could tell he was the leader because the other soldiers kept one eye on him for orders. He was short and cruel-eyed, cracked lips twisted in a perpetual grimace as if dabbed in lemon juice. He pointed his gun at the rest of the scholars, ignoring their cries of protest. “If you sit with those of impure race again, you won’t be treated as kindly. Anyone who defies orders is a traitor.”
Isa looked around, trying to stop the trembling of her body, trying to think of a way out. The scholars cowered, averting their eyes from her deep black gaze, her dark brown skin, her unsteady hands. She embodied the worst of both worlds, the mixed-race child of a Rwandan and a German Jewess, abruptly illegitimate and impure
Then the librarian walked forward slowly, age-spotted hands raised in supplication. “They have done nothing. They have never caused us trouble here.”
The officer laughed as the old man stepped between him and his four targets. “Out of my way, old man.”
“Please.” The librarian shook his head, hands still raised.
It happened quickly. The officer punched the librarian, dislodging his glasses and breaking his nose. The old man stumbled back and fell to his knees, cupping his face to stem the flow of blood. With a cry, Isa jerked forward—then lurched back as a soldier grabbed her arm. She felt the muzzle of his gun prod her ribs.
The officer’s boot smashed the spectacles with a loud crunch. “Your glasses couldn’t help you see the parasites. You’ll do fine without them.”
“You can’t do this,” one of the boys exclaimed. “Do you know who I am? My father is Provost of the university!”
The officer smiled humorlessly. The old Greek beheld blurry shapes that jerked and twisted, but he clearly heard the boy’s screams and the scuffle as two soldiers beat him. Once they deemed him properly subdued, the soldiers marched the four of them away, out of the university and into the street, leaving the old man crumpled on the floor of his library.
Beneath the weight of an overcast sky, the minutes it took to walk to the crowded station felt like eternity. Isa and Alys boarded a train at gunpoint along with dozens of other women. They sat side by side in one of the seats, the wintry landscape streaking and blurring beyond the windows as the train gained speed and bruised clouds wept rivulets of rain. They did not know what route the train would take; it was enough that all who boarded it never returned. Death waited at the final stop, licking its scythe lustfully at the incomprehensible malice of mankind.
“Down the rabbit hole.” Alys spoke as if entranced, caught between reality and a world of her own making, already in a liminal space. “There’s no way out.”
Isa thrust her right hand into her satchel and found the book. She opened it and riffled through the pages, feeling the letters come alive as they softly pricked her skin, then grabbed Alys’ hand with her left.
“There is a way through,” she murmured. Perhaps it wouldn’t work—not without reading the words, not with another person in tow, not beyond the sanctuary of the library. But what if it did? Perhaps, with her Monster’s aid, they would return to find and bring others. Or perhaps the book would be found instead, and burned, and the paper trees and charcoal castle would melt to nothingness, rendering all within to ash. “Perhaps.”
Alys turned away from the window, her mournful eyes suddenly bright with curiosity. She said she’d met a talking rabbit, once. She’d found a tunnel beneath a tree that led to an underground realm she’d never been able to locate since. Not for the first time, Isa wondered how much her friend faked madness and what she really knew of other worlds. She wished she’d had the courage to speak sooner.
Alys smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”