The kitchen is cold, the fire a warm glow of embers. Cold fingers of draught enter through the slits in the wooden shutters and the doorway, wrapping themselves around my neck and shoulders, making me shiver.
“Cinders, where are you?”
“What have you been doing all day? The kitchen is a mess, the dishes unwashed and the fireplace full of ashes.”
My stepmother slaps me. She is a hag, with waxy yellow hair, cruel eyes and thin lips pursed in a snarl.
“I swear you will send me to an early grave,” she yells.
My stepmother’s tendency to hold her long thin arms in a prayer clasp, with her skinny legs planted squarely, and hips tilted forward, makes her look like a praying mantis. I watch her out of the corners of my eye, teasing her hairdo into a beehive, adorning it with a silver clasp.
Elena, the elder of the two stepsisters, flounces into the kitchen. Her hair is her crowning glory. It masks her square jaw and close-set eyes.
“Style my hair,” she commands, as she spreads her rotund buttocks on the wooden stool.
She looks comic, because her ample rear mushrooms over and hides the legs of the stool. Although, I must admit, she has sensuous lips that curl over her buckteeth. Unfortunately, she looks and sounds like a horse neighing. She is bad-tempered and uses her raptor-like fingers to dig her nails into my skin and draw blood.
Rosie, the other stepsister is an imposing figure with her tree-trunk legs and thickset arms. She sounds like a lumberjack as she plods around in her wooden clogs. No need to worry about strangers in the wood because one look at Rosie and they are off.
Life is excruciating in a household of women who envy my beauty and gentle nature.
The old hag and my stepsisters are preparing for the grand ball at the palace. The rumour is that the queen is to hand over the crown to the prince when he finds a princess befitting the role. My stepsisters and mother actually dream they have a chance of being the next queen.
I am summoned to apply a mask of avocado, egg-yolk and almond paste to cleanse, purify and tone their skins. It is followed by a soak in a tin tub with lavender oil and goat’s milk.
The beauty schedule is punctuated with groans and a sharp intake of breath as flesh is pulled into whalebone corsets or manipulated with stays and padding. They look quite presentable with the trickery of make-up and foundation garments. Candlelight hides a multitude of sins.
I am jealous. Why can’t I go to the ball?
Like Narcissus, I stare at my image in the mirror, at the violet eyes and corn-gold silken tresses framing my oval face. My strawberry lips glisten against my porcelain skin. Life is so unfair. I blame my father for my pitiable state. If he had not remarried, I would not have had to suffer the indignity of being a servant in my stepmother’s house.
I stare at the dying embers and wonder what life would be like if it were a fairy tale. Oh, how I wish I had a fairy godmother.
“Oh stop, feeling sorry for yourself. I’m so tired of this generation of youth who are so narcissistic!”
I see an old woman standing in front of me.
“Who are you,” I ask, suddenly afraid.
Had she escaped from an asylum? Am I hearing voices? Is this what comes of spending time cogitating on the unfairness of the world?
“I’m your fairy godmother,” she replies. “I’m rather tired. Be quick. Usual protocol is the granting of three wishes which, once granted, cannot be rectified. Be careful what you wish for. I suggest you consider an independent income and lifestyle. Princes on the whole can be a mite boring. As it is the night of the grand ball, I only have one wish left to offer you. What is your wish?”
“I wish to marry the prince,” I reply.
“Too much of an ask,” Fairy Godmother replies. “I can give you the means, costume and airs of a princess. Whether he will marry you will depend on your charm and persuasion.”
“Whatever!” I say, in exasperation. “All I want is to go to the ball.”
Fairy Godmother smiles a tired smile. Will they never learn, these young girls with their dreams of princes and castles? Her hypnotic voice intones, “Close your eyes. Go deep within and visualize the colours of a rainbow.”
I enter the world of fairy tale. There is no magic wand. A silver shower and the kitchen is a hue of gold, indigo and pink. My fairy godmother has metamorphosed into Aphrodite. She arranges my blonde tresses into ringlets, adjusts my ivory satin gown beaded with pearls around my breasts and vigorously shakes her head at the red Prada dancing shoes on my feet.
“The shoes are all wrong,” she says.
She snaps her fingers and taps my feet, and the red shoes metamorphose into an exquisite pair of crystal stilettoes.
“The stilettoes will be a devil to wear all night. It will feel like a thousand glass fragments every time you dance.
“Be back by midnight,” she says, “because everything reverts to Greenwich Mean time.” She looks apologetic. “The glass coach is a bit over the top. But it will impress the prince.”
With that she gives me a quick peck on my cheek and is gone.
I open the front door to find a liveried coachman waiting to take me to the ball.
In the grand hall, I feel gauche, afraid, like a sixteen-year-old at a grown-up’s party. The prince is dancing with a woman in her fifties. Her silver-blonde hair is swept off her face and rolled into a fashionable chignon. He is resplendent in his white naval uniform starched to perfection. They gaze into each other’s eyes.
The prince looks up and sees me. He strides towards me. His mother, the queen, watches avidly. He smiles and I find myself drowning in the whirlpool of his grey-blue eyes. We dance all night. Every step is a knife wound radiating through my very being. I am reminded of the story of the mermaid who forfeited her life in the sea for life on the land in order to be with the man she loves.
The midnight hour chimes loud. Startled, I run like a madwoman down the long winding stairs, tripping over my crystal shoes, which I kick off in my haste to get away. It is scary running through the woods, hearing the sound of wolves and hobgoblins.
It is two in the morning, and I sit in the kitchen bathing my blistered feet in Epsom salts. All that remains of my magical night at the palace is a large pumpkin parked outside the cottage door and my tattered ivory dress.
Dear Reader, my story does not end here. My stepsisters and stepmother return at dawn. They guess I was at the party because of my attire, my ridiculous hairdo and blistered feet. They are too tired to pick on me.
Sleep does not come easily. There is a loud banging at the door. The prince’s manservant holds a red satin cushion with my ridiculous crystal shoes, the sight of which makes me want to scream. I don’t want to wear those shoes ever again.
In a pompous tone, the manservant declares, “The royal decree is that all women between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five must try on these shoes. The prince is adamant the beautiful princess he danced with last night is to be his queen.”
I am ecstatic. Who would not wish to be queen and live happily ever after with her Prince Charming? As is proper, I refuse to try on the shoes but, after much persuasion, slip them on as easily as if I had always worn them. My stepmother and stepsisters are not surprised. They are not stupid. They had always said I was a trickster. They are happy because it would mean living in a palace and having a dowry.
As for the fairy godmother, I never saw her again after the wedding.
Life was a bed of roses for the first few years, with the babies, charities and gala balls. Then the fairy tale tarnished. Life got in the way of my dreams.
Fairy Godmother was right when she said be careful what you wish for. I had wished to become the Queen of Hearts and, now that I have become one, all I can think about is the mermaid who forfeited her soul to be with the man she loved. I sit in my chamber, looking out at the star-studded sky and wonder where my prince is tonight.
Bhama Daly was born in Kuala Lumpur. New horizons beckoned and, in the 1970s, she pursued a career in nursing in London. She migrated to Cairns with her husband Simon in 1978. They have two sons. Bhama’s career has embraced not only nursing but also academic work at the University of Queensland and the James Cook University, Cairns. Her research and writing are informed by stories, myths and legends and the way in which they provide explanations for being in the world. Bhama’s interests include writing, reading, Yoga, Tai Chi, Zumba and, a topic of endless procrastination, how not to write the best-selling novel.