|Ash and Honey
Author: Gracious Anne PM
Cinderella's shoes are not at all what they seem. A dark retelling of Cinderella.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Mystery/Fantasy - Words: 4,496 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 2 - Published: 07-15-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6143618
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
I felt the coals burn between my hands in the bucket as I carried them to my stepsister's chamber. Unnatural cold had settled on the house since my stepmother came with these two bitter girls and every room needed more heat.
My feet ached, the backs of my heels raw from the constant rubbing of the hard cloth and leather remade and fitted again smaller and smaller to fill the holes as I wore them out. My stepsisters slept peacefully in their beds, snoring loudly. When awake they would stand in front of the mirror, preening, and grooming themselves to an ugly perfection, covering warts and fixing up their stark wiry hair with pins and ribbons. No matter what they did, they did not look beautiful. Not by anyone's standards least of all mine. They only had their money to secure a future for themselves. And still they deem themselves beautiful. The fools.
Yesterday they received a letter from the reigning prince for his little yearly winter solstice feast. They had shared wispy smiles and giggled at the flourishing signature, before handing it off to me.
I had half a mind to write a scathing letter back, but my stepmother lorded over me like queen or a stifling guardian angel as I wrote the reply, so to belay the weekly lashing I wrote a simple reply.
In the mornings leading up to the ball, I woke after a few hours sleep to the giggling caws of the sisters wanting their gowns hemmed up and their pearls laid out for them to try on, as they tried different hairdos and different heaps of old jewelry.
My hands by the last night before the feast were bruised from the switch cut from the willow tree I held my tongue though it shot pain my arms making my hair stand on end. Stepmother had come up with one pitiful excuse after another as if I could not see her evil heart and cunning smiles out of the corner of my eye. Though the heat baked my back as I pulled dry green weeds out of the garden, the house was still unnaturally cold but my stepmother brushed off the questions guests would have of the good air flowing through the house, rattling off about the its remarkable craftsmanship. The twitter and giggles of my stepsisters floated on the icy air, they never minded the goose bumps on their skin as they strung yet another gaudy bit of stepmother's jewelry just before they leapt into Father's old coach.
They were off to the feast, but not before stepmother went and sprinkled ashes over my head and smeared it on my cheeks. Behind her the stepsisters had stopped their fluttering, growing strangely silent. Stepmother then turned around, as I batted the ash away from my eyes, taking another handful of ash and flinging it at her daughters as they fled to the safety of the coach. My stepmother always smeared ash on me once a month, telling me when I asked her what it was for that it would keep me safe from enchantments, but she never did it to her own children. It was all superstition and hogwash to me, it made me seethe the way she thought I was as simple as the little milkmaid was.
Then straight after they had gone, even before I could curse the road to hold the coach in a rut until it rained and the horses run from fear, the female creature I called my godmother came. She appeared just inside the door behind me, tapped on my shoulder, and smiled at my shocked expression. She gave me a dress and precious stones that were hidden away in a coach in the woods, and a pair of the most extraordinary glass shoes. They fit almost perfectly, if a little tight.
I went to the feast. I don't remember much. I danced and smiled into my punch and ate the best-candied fruits in the cooling summer air. I watched the stars come out not through smoke and soot but in the open air of the kingdom's summer garden. My stepsisters glared at me and my unearthly beauty and I smiled. They were not laughing now. The prince was kind and gentle, though a little simple for all his majesty. Up close, he was a boy in a jacket with jewels pinned to it with glue and thread, and nothing more.
My glass shoes began to rub on my skin as I danced. I thought nothing of it until my heels began to blister. I began to wonder why my godmother gave me such shoes to wear. I clung to the boy-prince and asked him to bring me to a quiet place where I could sit and we could talk.
I sat down to relieve the pain, to take off a shoe and rub the cramps out. Nevertheless, while I grasped the heel of the glass shoe and pulled and yanked, the shoe would not come off, it seemed to only wrap and pinch the skin, crushing my toes. It shot another bolt of pain up my leg. I gasped at it.
The prince had left me on the balcony alone to get some refreshments for him and I. I had called after him for a bucket of ice with the wine.
I stopped trying to take the glass off, and rested my head in my hands, waiting for aching waves of pain to dissipate.
Then I heard a rustle, a tinkle of jewels hitting each other, and then a cough.
I looked up and saw Georgette one of my stepsisters. She looked different. In the half-light cast by the open door and the little flaming candles set on the balcony she was nearly pretty, no not pretty, quite beautiful. Her wiry hair upturned had found a graceful position and her half shadowed face had a freshness and brilliance to it.
I thought she would speak rudely to me; tell me how my feet scrunched inside the glass shoes.
Instead, she simply remarked on the time: "half an hour 'til midnight." She said, softly. Her voice was shockingly changed, more like a small bird's voice than an ostriches.
"You haven't much time," continued Georgette, "I know this might sound stupid to you coming from me, but those shoes on your feet will never leave them if you do not get them off by midnight."
"What?" I said. Another shot of pain went up my ankle, into my bones as I tried putting weight on it. I grimaced. Georgette came towards me further into the little pool of light on the balcony.
I forgot to breathe for a moment. Just a moment. The woman before me was not my stepsister. There was no ugliness, no wiry hair, just a plain short woman with too much jewelry on and a dress as bulbous as an orange and nearly as bright.
"Georgette?" I whispered.
"My name is not Georgette," she said adamantly.
She stared my feet a moment then glanced up at the clock standing in the bell tower six flights up.
"We need to get those shoes off now."
We fled to the kitchens before the prince or our stepmother could miss us. I limped most of the way.
Georgette shoed away the servants in the kitchen, and went immediately to the hot fire burning, taking a firm pail of milk and doused the fire with it. I sat down on the lowly kitchen stool, feeling a bit out of place as I looking at the mirror of the kitchen in my enchanted shoes and dress.
I tried propping my aching feet on the table, but my muscles were too tight.
Georgette was stirring the ashes with a soup ladle hunched over like an old woman over them as if she was about to divine a way to get the shoes off.
She stood up and peered curiously at the shelf of spices and sugars. She grabbed a lone jar of honey and poured them into the wet pile of ash, and began to stir the two elements together.
"She will be looking for us." She said. She glances at the clock mounted on the wall, massively gothic.
"The hour is running fast." Georgette whispered. She scooped up a little bit of the honeyed ash and began to rub it the skin of my foot, trying to divide the slipper from it with the strange substance.
I glanced at the clock. It was a quarter to midnight.
She kept rubbed away at the tightening shoe as quickly as she could, her face stony.
"Come off, come off," she whispered. My foot was redder than a coal now, covered in sticky honeyed ash, blotchy grey and red.
Then, echoing above us were the chiming bells of midnight. I stared Georgette as she suddenly pried the left shoe off, distorted and sickly green. She threw it into the embers.
The shoe cracked, splitting open like a nut. Georgette smiled down at me, triumphant. The Godmother's power was broken, though only a little. This was only the first step. It would take more than our simple deed, but if we held true we could free Georgette and her sister and the nightmare would become a flea on our backs, a distant memory to bat away.
I took few deep breaths, rubbing my foot as I tried to get the blood flowing again. It was still blotchy red. The ash and honey stuck to my hands.
Then Georgette looked up, frightened, her hands brushing wildly on her dress, smearing the ash over the front of it. I turned around and saw our stepmother at the foot of the stairs. Regal. A cold blue-lit fire raged in her eyes. She took the scene in, me with my glittery fairy dress, Georgette wiping her hands hopelessly on hers, the melting glass shoe in the embers— now hissing.
"Helena, dear Helena," she said, sweetly, too sweetly. "What are you doing here?"
She stepped down into the kitchen and started towards Georgette. Georgette screamed. Stepmother actually looked alarmed.
"Georgette, there is nothing to be afraid of. It is me."
"Yes, it is you," said Georgette, in a fierce whisper, "and I can finally see with my own eyes what you are. See!-Georgette pointed to the melting shoe.—"Yes, that is you. A snake, a crocodile with no claws, hissing in the fire." My stepmother made no reply, but the woman's mouth twisted in a strange shape for moment, whether in anger or fear I could not tell.
Stepmother turned to me and stared at the other glass shoe. She whispered in my ear, "Your godmother gave those shoes didn't she?"
"Then it was not I who deceived you." She said, "Look!" She pointed at Georgette, who was not herself now; instead, a simpering girl, my stepsister, stood in her place, the one who would keep trying to wipe honey off her dress and fail. She was near tears, an ugly orange creature with wiry black hair. I almost felt sorry for her.
"It's nearly midnight," said stepmother, "your godmother's powers will be waning. Quickly, run towards the gardens and leap into the bog. That will get this other shoe off. Bog water always proves bad for fairies and their magic…It hurts doesn't it?" She laid an almost kind hand on my shoulder. I nodded, trying to hold back the tears, my foot now trembling as I tried to staunch some of the pain.
"Leap into the bog outside the castle. The coach will pick you up and take you home afterwards. Then I will deal with you." She said. I dare not say a word; she seemed to be in better spirits tonight.
"What happened to Georgette?" I could not help but ask. "She was under the influence of a bit too much sherry wine," said my stepmother. "Wine softens us all. Well, most of us." She turned away from me and grabbed Georgette by the hand pulling her towards the door.
"I do not want to see that shoe or the dress when you arrive home tonight," she called back as she led Georgette up the stairs.
I sat a few seconds, feeling so very tired, staring at the twisting green glass as it wore away. Cracking and hissing. In my stupor, I thought I saw human flesh caught in the glass, in the heel. A girl's heel, oozing beads of blood. In a blind panic, I looked at my own heel, and it was still there intact, the ankle was swollen, but it all was still there, still attached. I laughed at myself, which sounded like a cruel echo of my stepmother's laugh at that moment. I looked back at the melting shoe. The imagined heel was gone. Yet even now, I could almost smell burning flesh. The thought of it sickened me and I shivered. I got up and hobbled my way through the kitchen up the stairs into the cold hallway that led to the ballroom where my prince surely had forgotten me and was now dancing with some other girl. Another bolt of pain up my ankle. I bit my tongue.
Bog water might at least sooth it some as my stepmother told me. I was never sure when she making a fool of me. Why the shoes hurt or whether she was good or bad was entirely up for discussion in my mind. Stepmother had been spiteful always because of my beauty, my father's praise. My Godmother could be putting me through a test for all I knew. On the other hand, my stepmother could be lying about the bog water anti-magical capacities.
Perhaps my fairy had been the wrong choice for me. Perhaps, I was one of those who could not handle fairy magic. People did say it drove some girls mad. I avoided passing through the ballroom to get the front hallway of the mansion estate where the ball was held. The prince would have to wait for me, or find another bride.
It was probably best if I did go, everything had turned out wrong so far. I had not eaten much earlier that day and my stomach was now reacting poorly to the creamy punch. I was getting dizzy from it. Perhaps they had spiked the punch and thus I saw visions of a girl named Not Georgette. The strange softness of Not Georgette and my stepmother tonight did not help the growing buzz and whirl-a-gig in my brain.
Another tingling root of pain shivered up my leg. I decided then I needed to find the bog. At the very least, the water would soothe my feet, magical finesse or not. Cold air hit my face as I hobbled down one steep stair of the front entrance at a time. It was too dark to find the bog without a light. I went and borrowed one of the carriages lanterns in the stables. After adjusting the light I realized I had no idea which direction the-bog-near-the-forest was. The estate was surrounded by the gardens and I had not looked outside the fairy carriage's windows on the way there.
Fate must work for me now, I thought. I turned about and picked at random a direction.
The cold air filled my lungs as I half ran; half stumbled through the outer gardens on the estate towards where I thought the bog must be. My dress glittered dangerously bright in the lantern light swinging in my outstretched arm nearly blinding me. I heard the bells in the clock tower strike half past the hour and fear rose in my chest. One in the morning was a sacred hour to fairies when their power was greatest. The shoe might begin cutting into the muscles and the bones by then. I had little time between then and now. This was the last hour.
I ran faster, no longer caring if I found the bog or not. Somewhere in the garden, there must be water, and I would find it before the hour was up. I gasped for air, my stomach and shoulders clenched as another wave of sickening pain shot up my leg.
I stumbled blindly on; the precious stones around my neck made my head spin as they struck my eyes with blue and purple light.
The hem of my dress was filthy with mud now. I still could see no fountain or puddle great enough to cool my coal hot feet. My bare foot and shod one both bled from rocks and cursed fairy magic.
The hedges that marked the last of the garden gaped and smiled hideous tall shadows in the darkness at my feeble attempts to climb up them. I pushed my way through the branches, trying not to step on the low barbs of roses that lined the edge. Between my thrashing and my own sagging breath there was not a sound but the music drifting down from the ball.
As I pushed and pulled, a smell like rotting cabbage took over my over ripe senses, and I heaved, against my will, punch and bits of bread. I began to sob like a little girl, and thrashed at the tall impervious hedges hearing the bells once more call out for a quarter till one. I was lost, sick, and I wished to God that my feet would just fall off.
I closed my eyes and sank down into the mulch the edge of the garden waiting for cursed shoe to cut into my tendons or the royal guards lead me away to cut the foot off outright for trespassing.
The stinking cabbage smell hit me again, but I had nothing to retch. There was nothing like the smell of a rotten vegetable. Cabbage. Soup. Bog. My eyes flew open. The bog lay just outside the hedge. I thrashed at the hedges. I squeezed myself between the branches and finally made it through. I stumbled down the embankment to the bog, nearly several times falling over rocks and hidden holes. All I could think of now was water. Cold soupy water and mud. I nearly leapt in the bog and waited for it to ease the pain.
I stood knee high in the swamp, shivering. The bog or swamp stretched to the forest with small outcroppings of little trees jutting of mounds of tall grass. Just like my stepmother had said. Frogs chirped wildly to the moon, listening to the echo of their own voices riveting off the trees.
I waited in the swarthy water, trying to clench my toes inside the shoe, trying to wiggle it free, little by little. I took deep breaths to slow my fast beating heart.
I heard the bells chime new notes. The first morning hour had begun. I bent down, taking hold the muddy glass heel and pulled. Nothing happened. I sat down in the water, gasping as it lapped my waist, turning all the cold white beads on the skirt into glittery fisheyes. I pulled again, but the shoe bits into my skin, making me bleed. I gave up. I sat down in the water. My godmother had won, and so had in her own way, my stepmother. They were now equal with two scheming witches, sisters of black and bruising hearts. The window of time had closed. I stared at the clear sky; full of bulbous lights like night flowers blooming or sea fish I had seen in the tanks of water at the mansion.
Another light caught my eye, in the distance closer to the woods, deeper in the bog. A shadowy unearthly light had perched itself on a reed mound and pulsed steadily in time with the beat of my heart. It was her. My Godmother. Perhaps she wanted to imprison me now, in the dead of night before anyone would notice, or perhaps she wanted to speak with me, offer me a new bargain of roses and riches and dungeons and death by drinking bog water.
I clenched my hands and stood up slowly, letting myself drain, of emotions, of the pain, of the will to continue. I would be submissive now in this moment and this one only. I was hers right now. I took a few feeble steps further, water sloshing in the darkness around me. In those moments, I was no longer hers. I was Helena, human, not a thrall, not like Georgette. I let the pain rush back in my legs; I smelt the dead things in the water. I was myself, for now. She would have to take my blood and wrap it in fairy poison to make me do her will. I walked unsteadily through the water to the mound that I could see now was burning with a white blue pulsing fire behind which the fairy stood with her arms crossed, her white bundle of hair flowing freely upward like a fish's tale. She spread her arms in welcome to me. I slowly got to my feet, watching the shadows, and saw them for the first time, hugging at the edges of the water's banks. I shivered and wondered if my godmother was the only thing to fear in this lonely place. She beckoned to me, whispering my name across the water. She looked down at me, stone faced. As I waded through the murky water, the pain in my feet dull and throbbing bitterly with each step, my teeth set as I tried not to show my fear and my disdain for the very being who guided me to the festival that night.
I climbed up the steep moldy mound, clawing at clumps of grass. A hand shot down and grabbed my hair, pulling me up by their roots. I screamed and the sound, shocking me, rebounded off the mound and water skirting the trees. I was alone with that thing that was not my godmother, but a semblance of her. She held fast until I stood shaking on my feet, glass biting my feet, making me dizzy.
"Come now," she said, "show me how much better you are than all the rest of them. Those driveling talking heads with their bejeweled dresses". She pulled my mother's jewels out of my hair, one by one, careful to inflict the amount of pain she wished upon me. As they did, they turned into starfish that she threw into the bog. The last possessions I had of my mother's was gone.
She laughed at me and called to Georgette who had appeared at the other end of the mound out of the mist as the last of the starfish had been thrown into the bog. "See her Georgette?" asked Godmother, "she'll do all that I ask, and the prince will marry and all this little hamlet will be ours. Won't that be nice?"
Georgette wept silently behind my Godmother. I thought for a moment she mouthed I'm sorry to me but in my whoozy state I could not tell for certain. Then, quick and silent my Godmother swooped down on me and gripped my shoulders in her pincer-like hands.
The most awful pain I have ever felt shot up and down my body like tiny bites to every nerve ending. I heard myself cry out but I could not tell whether it was really me or something else did. Every thought was focused on pain and breath. Breathing could keep me calm. Terrified, my eyes shut because my feet were blown off or every bone shattered inside the cut skin. I fell to my knees, hearing through the webs and fog of pain in my ears my godmother cackling like a giddy schoolgirl. I could feel her magic already seeping into my veins up through my feet to behind my eyes where terrible images of death and cold and invisible strings tie me to her. I felt the panic rising.
Then I heard another noise, a noise like a dying animal struggling to get up one final time. Then it turned into a human cry unlike anything I had heard.
Georgette was fighting back.
My eyes snapped open and took in the scene; Georgette trying to refute her curse with a small stone and human rage, my feet bleeding but whole the glass shoes shattered into a thousand pieces and hissing. I could feel her spell getting stronger. I was running out of time.
Georgette had had enough. She was crying and moaning, and I saw for the first time, that her hands were cracked and bleeding, her struggle against her binding spell making them bleed. She was like me, and I was to be like her. An existence that lasted only a few hours a day when no else would see us. At least I would have a companion to share that lonely time in the darkness to do something, anything as I wished, to look like myself, even dirty with ashes and herbed earth.
Then my Godmother had Georgette by the throat, slowly choking her. She was going to die and leave me alone with this creature if I didn't do something.
I groped in the darkness for anything solid or sharp. One hand found a rock, the other, a larger piece of hissing glass. I grasped them both and stood up as quickly as the pain, and the curse allowed, gritting my teeth.
I launched myself at the white haired sprite and drove the glass shard into her back with the stone and my hand, cut and bleeding all over my fairy dress. I heard her breath catch, and slowly, as if time were a millennium in a second, she fell aside letting go of Georgette.
The creature rolled down into the bog and was consumed.
And Georgette, whom I had thought had looked so familiar when I first saw her tonight, smiled at me, genuinely for the first time since I've known her and I watched her reflection change in the water to someone I knew so very well. My mother's cracked hands, those which had been dead and buried in my heart with the rest of her for all those years, now grasped my shoulders, alive and real. I took them in my own and kissed them.
Together that night we were made whole, a woman without hands and a woman without feet gave each other their own. We set fire to the bog, and washed the wind blow its ashes in the morning breeze, and never again did we rely on another for our needs. My mother and I had each other now, and that was enough.