A short story this week. It started as one thing before deciding it really wanted to be a retelling of ‘Cinderella’.
They laugh at me, call me Ashey-elly because I’m always dirty. Always covered in soot, in ashes.
They think they’re better than me. They have beautiful gowns while I cover my thin body in the raggedy cast-offs they throw at me when they’re done with them. They have pretty shoes for their feet, but I go barefoot, the skin on my feet no longer soft but hardened. My hair used to be shiny like theirs; now it hangs like greasy string. Sometimes I don’t even bother to tie it up; instead, I let it hang loose, covering my face so they cannot see my contempt.
Every moment of every hour of every day… I know the litany by heart – “Ashey-elly, bring my breakfast”; “Ashey-elly, where are my shoes?”; “Ashey-elly, the stairs are filthy”; “Ashey-elly, haven’t you finished cleaning yet?” – and on and on it goes. From morning until night, no peace. Counting the hours until they are finally in bed; until silence creeps in, to blanket the house.
I am done with them. Done with being their drudge when I am the rightful daughter of this house. I suppose I can’t blame them for how can they know when Papa never told them. He hid me away as if I was a thing of shame, and I was too scared a mouse to speak for myself. He called me daughter once, but he is dead now.
I was going to leave weeks ago until I heard of the ball. The ball to celebrate the prince’s birthday; the ball where he will choose his bride. I decided then to wait until after the ball. I could endure this life a while longer.
The prince… I have no words to describe his beauty. I saw him once when he stopped by the house. I was the only one home. He’d become separated from his riding party and chose to wait and water his horse. I offered him a goblet of water. He drank. His companions rode up, and he left without even a word of thanks. He is the same as everyone else then – he sees only dirt and rags, he does not see me.
Finally, it is here, my last night in this house. Long hours are spent getting the stepmother and her twin beauties into stunning gowns, styling hair into the latest fashion, applying powder and paint which, instead of enhancing beauty, only serves to mar it.
When they leave, I stay in the shadows, watching them climb into the waiting coach to be conveyed to the distant palace, lit like a beacon against the encroaching dark.
I close the door and a cat slinks to my side. I laugh softly as I gather him in my arms. The stepmother thinks the cat is hers; how wrong she is. The cat belongs to no one. Black with eyes the colour of glowing embers, he is his own being.
In the kitchen, the cat jumps down to stretch and lie by the fireplace. Standing at the table, I break an egg into an earthen bowl, which already contains rose petals; I mix them together.
Kneeling by the fire with the bowl in front of me, I take the plain box tucked to one side and open it. I run my fingers lightly over the ashes contained inside. I don’t cry anymore when I look at all that’s left of my mother. I used to cry every night even after I learned of the power of her ashes. But now, I feel only a thrill that makes me tremble with exhilaration.
First, I sprinkle a pinch of ashes on my head. Then I cover my fingers with the mixture of raw egg and rose petals before dipping them into the ashes. I anoint my cheeks with the thickened paste. “Transform me, Mother.”
I jolt upright as what feels like a fiery spear lances through me. Sparks burst behind my eyes; I struggle to breathe; my blood freezes–no; I’m on fire. I refuse to cry out. I am strong. I am my mother’s daughter, not some mewling weakling.
Breathing hard, I open my eyes. I don’t remember standing, but I am on my feet. A gown of deep blue has replaced my rags. I slowly make my way to the great mirror in the hallway. Mother’s ashes have transformed me before but never like this.
My stringy hair now tumbles over my shoulders and down my back in glossy chestnut curls. No longer covered in grime, my honey-coloured skin seems to glow. The bodice of my gown glitters like stars in the midnight sky. But my feet remain bare.
The cat meows, drawing my attention. Next to him are a pair of sparkling slippers. My breath catches. Mother’s slippers; the ones Papa had burned with her. I slip them on and smile; they fit perfectly.
In the kitchen, I carefully pour what remains of mother’s ashes into a pouch and go outside. I sprinkle more ashes onto the ground. A small black carriage materialises along with a single black horse, but there is no driver.
Tucking the pouch into my bodice, I climb in; the cat jumps in after me and settles on my lap. The carriage flies to the palace. Surely we must be flying for I feel no jolt or bump, nor do I hear the sound of the wheels on the road.
Then we are at the palace. I climb out and turn to look at the cat. He blinks lazily but doesn’t move. Now that I’m here, I wonder if I have the courage to see it through. “I am my mother’s daughter,” I whisper, my rarely spoken battle cry.
My heart hammering against my chest, I walk up the great stairs leading into the palace. The guards incline their heads but none stop me. I stand in the entrance and stare, my apprehension forgotten. I have never having seen anything so wondrous. The vast hall is as bright as day. I never dreamt one place could hold so many candles. Music seems to fill every corner. And the colours… can there be so many colours in the world? Dancers twirl across the mirrored floor; they seem to be floating.
Then the prince is before me. He asks me to dance. I shake my head, not to be rude but because I don’t know how to dance; I tell him so.
Still, he takes me by the hand and leads me into the hall. The dancers gradually slow and stop to stare as we walk past. I see the stepmother and her daughters; they, too, stare at me. How is it that they don’t recognise me? They see me every day.
The prince leads me up wide stairs to a seating area, which overlooks the hall. As I will not dance, he sits with me and talks. He talks, I listen. He tells me how beautiful I am. He wonders why he has never seen me before; he asks where I am from.
When I say I am one of his father’s subjects, he cannot believe it. Where have I been hiding, he wants to know. I tell him we did meet once. He calls me a delightful liar. I describe the day to him; it takes him some moments to remember. He thinks I was in the house, watching him that day. He laughs when I tell him I was the one who gave him the water and begs me to stop teasing him.
Raised up from the other guests, I feel as if I am on display. This is not what I want; this is not how I want people to see me. I am aware of the stares, many of them unfriendly. My gaze keeps stealing to the great clock. I try to will time to move faster. The prince is beginning to bore me; can he not talk about anything other than my loveliness?
Finally, midnight draws near. I get to my feet and tell the prince I must leave. He grabs my hand and swears he will not let me go. Turning to the crowd, he demands silence. In that same instant, the clock strikes – the first booming chime of twelve.
I must go now. I look across the hall and see the black cat waiting at the entrance. Pulling free, I gather my skirt and run down the stairs. At the last step, I lose a slipper and almost fall. Catching myself, I hop and remove the other slipper before continuing to run; so easy in bare feet.
The prince shouts but no one stops me. I am almost at the door when I see the stepmother. I cannot resist; I stop. The cat meows loudly.
Suddenly, all is silent save for the deafening, stately chimes.
I look the stepmother in the eye and laugh. “Now you see me. I am not your dirty Ashey-elly. I am Eloise, the daughter of the house you believe is yours. Hans was my father before he was your husband.”
Her eyes widen; her fan drops from her grasp and she sways but doesn’t fall.
“My mother was his first love. But he didn’t understand her. So, he erased her and thought to erase me. And now that you have seen me, you will never see me again.”
Pulling the pouch from my bodice, I pour the ashes on my head. They swirl around me. I realise I am still holding the slipper. Soon, I will have no more need for slippers or gowns.
Agonising pain explodes inside me. I drop the slipper. A broken shard flies up to slice my cheek; I barely notice. Clutching my belly, I fall to my knees. I cannot stop the cry that escapes me. It is as if I am being squeezed into a tight ball on the inside. The pain… I want to scream; I have no breath. A million needles erupt through my skin. I want to die, to stop the pain. I am dying…
Finally, I can breathe. I swallow great mouthfuls of delicious air. I open my eyes. And blink rapidly. The world seems larger, wider, but the colours… the colours are dimmer yet some things are clearer; the people are taller, so much taller and bigger.
I turn to look straight into the eyes of the black cat. He touches his nose to mine then moves away and starts to run down the stairs, into the night. I jump out of the blue gown, lying puddled on the floor. I stare at my feet–no, my paws, my mottled, honey-chestnut paws. Then I, too, am running, running down the stairs, following the black cat into the night. Following my prince into the lively, dazzling night.