She Wants, She Gets
Every night at midnight Cinderella turns to ashes. She lies down in the fireplace and turns to soot. At dawn, she turns into something else. Today she turns to fire. It’s a terrible life. She boils water for her stepsisters, she boils water for her stepmother, she boils water for her father when he comes home, and when there isn’t any water in the pot above her head, she simply heats the empty cauldron, so it’s hot enough to peel skin.
At midnight, Cinderella turns to ashes. She wafts out of the hearth and streaks along the hallway, along the tops of bookshelves and under the hallway rug. She spreads herself out thin. She waits.
At dawn, Cinderella becomes herself – if this is her self. She has knuckles and knees. She has lashes and lungs and is curled under a rug at the foot of her father’s bed, her arms and legs sooty. She feels her clenched heart pump. It’s a big heart. It’s heavy as anvils. In the morning her stepmother kicks her awake. Sweep the house. Yes. The eaves. Yes. The washing machine. Yes. She sweeps, she mops, she sweats so hard the droplets burn her eyes. Her stepsisters paint their toes and drink tea sweetened with seven sugar cubes. The barn cats catch a chicken and devour it. All day feathers float through the yard. The stepmother sits in a rocking chair near the bed of Cinderella’s father, and administers the kind of poison that doesn’t even prick you when it kills you, it comes in quietly, on socked feet, it touches you with gloves, and the soul of Cinderella’s father slips through his skin like water through a sieve. She should be surprised to see the soul, shouldn’t she? It floats out the window, pale purple, and vanishes: thin air.
This is a problem for Cinderella, turning into ashes every midnight. Every dawn she wakes as something new, sometimes a serving girl, sometimes a bucket, sometimes the water in the well, stagnant and dark and deep. One night there is a ball and Cinderella begs to go. She isn’t sure why this want. She wants to be someone. Maybe when she finds the right self the shape will stick. Maybe she’ll turn into a soul like her father and live formless and free. But her stepmother says no. Her stepmother says, Pick up these ten thousand lentils and maybe then I’ll think about it. Cinderella says yes. The stepsisters suck on lollipops and the stepsisters suck in their stomachs and suck down tart pink lemonade. They suck, the stepsisters suck. Outside, magpies gather on the laundry line, and pick the blue-gem buttons off of their clothes. The magpies duck in the windows and steal a safety pin, a bottle cap, a triangle of broken glass. They steal the lid of a lipstick tube, they steal a lens cap and zipper and a dinner bell. Cinderella picks up ten thousand lentils all on her own, and by the time she does the moon has risen and the stepmother and step sisters are whisked away in a carriage that came without Cinderella even hearing it. At midnight she turns to ash. She drags herself from the house and buries herself beneath a tree.
It’s not any tree. When she sneaks from the house and buries herself, the tree she’s buried beneath is the tree where her mother is buried. Her mother’s soul didn’t escape like her father’s. Her mother’s soul is clumped and rooted. Her mother’s soul took one form and grew. Cinderella, as ashes, begs her mother for something.
What do you want, she asks her.
I want, Cinderella says. Her mother gives her a dress, glass shoes, and under the moon Cinderella transforms.
She can feel the molecules of her body turning from ash to girl, from dirt to bone, like they do at dawn. Like they sometimes do, when she doesn’t turn into a mop. Go to the ball, her mother commands, and the dress and the shoes move her. Cinderella isn’t moving, it’s the clothes. She is fitful as ash in the wind, she is animatronic, she is moving but there isn’t a mind behind it. Or it isn’t her mind behind it. A carriage and horses arrive. They are glittering, their hooves click, they used to live in the attic and get caught, alive, in the mouths of dogs, but now they are silver-maned, stainless steel. The carriage lowers its steps almost electronically. The shoes prop Cinderella up.
You want, her mother tells her.
I thought, Cinderella thinks.
At the ball, Cinderella’s shoes take her to the Prince, who is handsome as chestnuts, or a pony, or just-installed Italian faucets. At the ball, Cinderella’s dress veers her towards him. She spins. She falls against his arm. The Prince is delighted, smiling like a squeezed lemon. They dance and dance and dance and dance. Before dawn, Cinderella’s dress rushes her out of the castle, and she transforms into a piece of paper, has to flutter her way home. She doesn’t return to the ball that night, the second night, or, she returns to the ball crumpled up, a paper ball, rolling across the floor and into the Prince’s shoe. He kicks her away. He is waiting for The Lady. The door at the top of the stairs is propped open with a doorstop, and nothing edifying floats through. The paper ball rolls under the punch table, is batted about by a cat, is deposited by a serving maid into a heap of garbage outside the palace gates.
At midnight, ashes. At dawn, something else.
At dawn she turns into a girl, naked as daylight, and runs home quickly, clinging to the shadows. She eats worms and cleans herself with rocks. She turns her eyes into large dark circles. She thinks, I am back to being me.
In the morning, when the magpies are up and stealing the nails from the rooftop, Cinderella drags a bucket out to the well when—there her father is, the soul of her father, stuck like a kite in a tree. The tree is her mother’s tree, looking spiked and proud. Her father is upside-down and tangled, transparent as a curtain.
Dad, get down from there.
I need a minute, says the soul. I need a thousand.
Cinderella gets a ladder.
The soul of her father twists in the wind. The soul is pale-grey, pigeon-white, and Cinderella pokes her Dad with the handle of a rake. A wind comes along and he shakes free. He goes pinwheeling. He’s lighter than anything.
The tree that her mother is blooms, sprouts apples, sprouts pears.
That night, Cinderella goes back to the tree, is turned back into a glittering girl. Her eyes are large as owl eyes, her hands silk-soft, her dress like the first fell snow. Her glass shoes motor her into the carriage, tell her which way to walk. It is just like they say in the stories. The Prince waxes the floors with her. The shoes follow his voice. It is enchanted, and enchanted just means magic, magic that makes something happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen, it makes Cinderella’s mouth unhook, it makes the Prince’s dancing bind.
Near midnight, the shoes get antsy. It’s 11:54, 11:55, the shoes take off with Cinderella in them, Cinderella who still feels like ashes, Cinderella who doesn’t know if she’ll turn into a woman or a mop by morning, Cinderella who is basically asleep when the shoes, running, catch in pitch, when the Prince says something romantic in that dark-chocolate voice of his, the swans in the courtyard balking, terrorizing the geese on the lake. Her glass shoes snapping. Dawn like fire behind the trees. Cinderella changing, thinking, This is it, this is me, I am about becoming.
Cinderella turns into a bird. She can’t tell what kind. It’s hard to see yourself inside your body but what she can sense are wings, the edge of feathers, the pace of her heart picking up. Is this the shape, she wonders. I want the truth, she thinks. Oh darling, the Prince cries. He lifts her and sets her in a birdbath. Who can change her? he asks, fluttering about, his princely hands waving. He insists, We need to change her back. Cinderella, the ever-changer, sits and feels the new smallness of her mind, her bones, her organs. She isn’t ash. It’s emptier. It’s more airy and blue like sky.
She drinks. She alights and picks a seed from the earth. She alights and lands on tree branches. It’s too dark to be singing but a song is whirling its way up her throat. Her wings start beating – is she beating them? Will the dawn destroy her or beam her up? The Prince rushes to his room for a cape, for a net, for a cage – and by the time he’s back downstairs, the bird is gone. It is so much lighter than before. It comes with a built-in compass. At dawn Cinderella doesn’t know what she’ll be, if she’ll be a who, or how permanent. At dawn a cloud turns black for a moment, then rains.
Melissa Goodrich lives in the desert with a lazy holland lop rabbit. Her fiction has appeared in PANK, Passages North, Word Riot, American Short Fiction, the Kenyon Review Online, and others, as well as her poetry chapbook, IF YOU WHAT. Her first collection Daughters of Monsters is forthcoming in April from Jellyfish Highway Press.