The sing-song voice echoed through the corridors of the opera house, high and lilting and sparkling with the innocence of youth.
"Like raven's feathers is her hair, a great black hole serves where her eye once shined in brown. You'd best be always on your guard, or she will grab you, and she'll drag your body down…"
Maria was collecting bits and bobs left over from the afternoon's rehearsal, her quiet voice ringing from the catwalk high above her as her arms loaded with props and cast-off costuming. As a junior member of the ballet corps, the lowest of the ballet rats, it was up to her to clean up and organize the corps' castaways before the next rehearsal. Given the level of noise and chatter that filled the ballet dormitories after a rehearsal, she was grateful for the task. The quiet of the stage and the soft lights that gently illuminated the dark gave the young girl a kind of comfort that couldn't be found in the bustling sea of estrogen that she would be forced to return to once her task was over.
The girl was about to start the second verse of the rhyme that she's learned from the older girls in the corps – a song sung in the safety of their beds, bodies huddled under sheets and spines tingling with the excitement of a bedtime ghost story – when she heard a fluttering, like an angel's wing, high above her head.
Maria froze in place, fingers suddenly ice cold with fear, and she fought the instinct to look up into the darkness that hovered above her, terrified of the demon's eyes that she was positive would be gazing back at her. Instinct, however, is strong – it wasn't long before the trembling child turned her cherubic face skyward, her wide hazel eyes scanning the darkness above her, certain of her own doom.
"You know better than to sing such things, Maria."
The girl jumped and turned on her heel to face the stern voice in the shadows behind her, her small hands clutching tutus and feather boas alike to her small frame.
The figure in the shadows stepped forward into the dim light of the stage, a frame honed by decades of dedication and mastery of her craft and softened by the natural curves of female maturity. Blue eyes, no longer bright, narrowed as they regarded the girl before them. Blonde hair, once yellow as the sun and now touched with grey, was pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of the neck. Dressed in somber black, the woman carried an ancient silver-tipped cane, decades older than she.
To a nine year old, Marguerite Giry's countenance was positively terrifying.
Mlle. Giry walked forward until she stood above the girl, allowing her full height to tower above the child as she looked down her nose at the trembling creature before her. "You play a dangerous game when you sing that song in the dark. What has been keeping you?"
"I… I'm so sorry, Mademoiselle Giry, I didn't mean…"
The girl's excuses were cut short by a crash behind her, and she whirled yet again, her young dancer's body lithe and immediately responsive to her terror. No more than six feet away, one of the sand bags that had been hanging high above them now lay at her feet, split from the force of the fall with its contents spilling onto the stage like blood. Her mouth hung open, a scream trapped in her throat and her eyes wide as saucers.
"Foolish girl!" the ballet mistress hissed behind her, "Get out of here before you anger the ghost even further!"
Maria needed no further encouragement, and with a small squeal of fright, her tiny feet carried her as fast as they could off towards the noisy, bright dormitories – where the light, and the warmth and the bodies surrounding her would surely keep her safe from the wrath of the Opera Ghost. Giry shook her head as she watched the girl rush away, pieces of costuming trailing behind her and dropping like bread crumbs in her wake. She sighed and began to pick up the rest of the items that had been left behind on stage.
"You tire me with these games, you know."
"Would you take away the one true source of entertainment I have left, Giry?" The voice that replied to her was throaty and rich, like warm chocolate on a winter's night, and full of amusement.
Giry straightened and turned her eyes into the shadows in the wings to her side, regarding them carefully. "You terrify these girls for your amusement, and I am to be happy about this?"
"I seem to recall you being equally as terrified at her age, and here you are – all the wiser and more competent for it." The smile in the sultry voice was evident as the tone changed, "Besides, fear of the dark and unknown is healthy for these girls to have. The last thing I need is some adventurous rat exploring my catacombs and opting to swim in the depths of my lake or – even worse – to trigger one of the traps."
The Ballet's headmistress sighed and leaned on the old cane for comfort as she shook her head. "I tell you yet again, there is no reason for you to continue to hide down there, Chr—"
The voice cut her off in an instant, white-hot anger seething just below its surface. "You will not speak that name in this opera house, Marguerite Giry. Not now, not ever."
Giry's thin lips were set in a hard line as she considered the best way to respond without raising the ghost's ire. "Of course," she whispered, eyes glittering in a mixture of emotions. "Yet, it is true. There is no reason to continue to hide. It has been three decades. There is not one other person in this house that remembers, that cares about what happened back then. You can live your life in peace."
The voice in the shadows sighed, and Giry could hear the whisper of fine fabrics as the ghost shifted uncomfortably. The headmistress had a vision in the back of her mind of a young, pale woman standing at the back of the ballet corps, shuffling uneasily as her performance was being scrutinized by the head of the corps. Giry remembered those dark locks, bound in a tight bun behind her hair with loose curls framing a face glistening with perspiration and wide, beautiful eyes gazing at the floor. Giry listening to the momentary shuffling in the shadows and thought to herself, "Old habits die hard, don't they, old friend?"
The ghost's voice echoed in the wings of the theater, soft and fraught with meaning. "I remember, Giry. I care… and I will never know peace."
Marguerite sighed, restraining her instinct to walk forward into the shadows and offer comfort to the figure waiting there. She knew from decades of experience that it would never end well – the girl that she had known and loved as a child no longer existed in any meaningful way. Her innocence, her beauty of spirit, and her generosity had vanished the night she'd returned to the catacombs to find the withered corpse of her mentor waiting for her. While they never truly knew how long it had been between the time she'd arrived at the house by the lake and the time that Antoinette and Marguerite Giry ventured down to find the missing girl, it had been long enough for her to reach levels of madness that no one had anticipated from the loving, quiet Soprano.
…and she had certainly never anticipated the sight that awaited them when they arrived – the young woman in her bridal gown, curled up next to the corpse of the opera ghost in their marriage bed, a glittering diamond ring adorning the hand that clasped the corpse's fingers, and her bridal veil and dress covered with the rich red of long-dried blood. Meg had fainted at the sight. When she came to, the Opera Ghost's body was nowhere to be found, and Antoinette was tending the young singer's wounds with trembling hands, her face contorted in a mixture of revulsion and abject pity. The beautiful brunette before her had transformed herself at her own hand – her right eye plucked like a berry from her face, and deep cuts and gouges ravaging the once perfect flesh there.
"Oh, my child…" the older woman whispered in a mixture of sorrow and understanding, "My poor, dear child…"
She refused to return to the surface with the mother and her young daughter, growing increasingly violent as Antoinette attempted to insist and then force her to join them back on the surface. "I will not leave my husband!" she cried, her mutilated face twisting so violently that her wounds began to seep anew. With tears in her eyes, the elder Giry finally acquiesced and instead encouraged the girl to care for her wounds appropriately, and to eat, for god's sake. "After all," she said, her voice catching with emotion, "What would He think if his bride were to throw herself on her sword for him?"
The next time Meg had seen the young woman, she bore the regal posture that Meg had seen Him carry in the two times she'd been in his presence. Her back was straight, she wore men's trousers, carefully crafted to hang perfectly on her frame, a man's blouse cuffed neatly at her wrists, and a cravat at her throat. Her brown locks had been cut, shortening them to shoulder length, and on her face, covering the myriad of wounds that would almost certainly twist and bloom as they healed, was a carefully preserved white porcelain half-mask.
It was not long after that that the tales of the Opera Ghost began again, in earnest. The demands stayed the same – use of Box Five, twenty-thousand francs per month. Occasionally, the odd demand about casting and instrumentation or complaint about the corps de ballet, but nothing that could be considered outrageous, given the circumstances. After Piangi's corpse was found backstage and Christine's disappearance during Don Juan Triumphant, the opera management was finally willing to take heed and quietly respect the ghost's wishes.
The headmistress' voice was quiet. "…and to think I once envied you."
The ghost snorted in derision. "We all make mistakes. Speaking of which…"
With an echoing thud, a leather-bound manuscript fell to the floor at the ballet mistress' feet. She bent over to pick it up. "What is this?"
"I have written you an opera." A cold shiver ran down Marguerite's spine as the voice echoed the words from the past.
"You… you wrote this?"
"I didn't know you composed."
A wistful sigh emerged from the shadows. "I don't have his talent, of course, and it takes me far longer to perfect my work, but it's true. I do. After all, I cannot possibly spend all of my free time terrorizing your rats."
Marguerite allowed herself a small smile at this. "To hear them speak, you lurk in every corner, every shadow, at every moment."
The smile of satisfaction was evident in the ghost's reply. "As it should be. There is a letter to the manager included. I recommend following its direction carefully. However, if he chooses to be difficult, he can be assured that I will be happy to entertain myself with his exceptional discomfort."
The ballet headmistress shivered at this, knowing that all of the newest ghost's tales of mischief were not innocent pranks. There were the stagehands who had left employment without a word with the telltale sign of rope burns around their neck, and then the poor seamstress who had quit and was seen leaving the opera house with nine fingers instead of ten…
Marguerite Giry swallowed her nerves, resolving to educate the opera's manager as much as was required when she turned the score in for the next season's planning, and she regarded the bound score for a moment before looking back into the cold white mask that now loomed in the shadows before her. "Does it have a happy ending, at least?"
There was a pause as the ghost considered its answer. "No," it responded, "There are no happy endings, Meg." And, with that, Mademoiselle Giry could sense that was alone on the stage, the large leather-bound manuscript held tenderly in her hands. She ran delicate and weary fingers across the gold embossing of the title and read it in a whisper. "La Belle et la Bête."