Here’s the stepmother watching them through a crack in the barn wall. Her eyes are wide. She’s dizzy still, from that moment ago when the prince stepped into her courtyard requesting water for his retinue, a carriage wheel having snapped just there on the road before this good burgher’s house, but she’s conniving too and so has recovered quickly. A prince, princely even when he’s coated with dust from his carriage spill, biggest fish in the sea, that sea that has offered those perfectly marriageable daughters of hers only prawns so far, but did he look at them, did he spare a glance, no. The noises from the barn are so loud now she’s afraid the farm hands will come check what’s going on. What’s going on stirs dusty vein memories, her dried-up loins clench.
No, the prince only had eyes for the sooty one.
Here’s the sooty one as she always is, garlicky-smelling, you don’t get that from a picture but let me tell you, with deep-caked dirt that has blackened the skin where it peeks through the holes in her rags. The sooty one has stringy mouse-brown hair, you could probably smell that too if you were there, a bulb nose, thin mouth. Spitting image of her dead daddy, poor thing. She’s nothing but rags, you would say, with a rag soul from being the servant all the time, so it was unsurprising that it was the sooty one who brought the prince water from the well when the others stood on their dignity, her head bowed, servile, while in the background the stepsisters smirked and oh but the stepmother—(because she is cunning, see)—the stepmother saw.
Saw the prince’s majestic nose twitch at the stench of the sooty one and yet seek it out. Observed his stately gaze wander over those rags. Noticed—as the others trooped mud into the great hall, promised a repast until the replacement carriage arrived—noticed that the prince chose to sneak away, follow the dirty servant girl into the barn.
Here’s what flashes into the stepmother’s eye pushed up to that crack in the barn wall, what flashes into her understanding, lightning in a conniving brain: the prince loves dirt. The prince hasn’t seen some underlying beauty in her stepdaughter. The prince—who is handsome beyond belief but balding, who has conspicuously failed to choose a bride for many years—has not been gallant in the barn, but rather has wasted no time in crowding up close to the sooty one there in the hay-dim light, as he murmurs in a low voice, forcing her back against the loft ladder (the stupid thing almost raising her hands to his chest to ward him off, balling them to fists at her sides instead at the last second, while he strokes the rags). Though she does not think in such terms, a part of the stepmother’s brain senses a physical law here: the way hot air rushes to fill a cool place; matter (in this case power) abhors a vacuum, that empty space that is the sooty one, so servile and ineffectual that she might as well not exist. He’s attracted to this utter lack of authority, drawn to fill it. It makes him feel—big? Solid? He’s certainly both now. And no, not interested in her face—that’s turned away by his bejewelled hand and shoved down into musty hay. Royal raiment falls. The sooty one gasps once, is silent. The prince’s noises are loud.
There are monsters to be found in the most astonishing places, the stepmother must concede. She, who knows so much of monsters and still finds herself surprised by them.
She’s got a monster for him, one she hasn’t called on in years, because it’s so frightening, like life ending, the drain on her soul, but oh what advantage she can wring from this, this prince of filth, if the sooty one will play along.
And here’s the sent-for carriage arriving afterwards, the stepmother—that monster of graciousness—begging the prince (his retainers unfazed by his sudden reappearance, his dishevelled robes) to employ the services of her house please should he ever find himself in such dire straits again. Only too happy etc etc. The prince’s eyes, not visible here, are smoky with languor, but you have to imagine how they light up when she says My entire household at your disposal.
This one shows the stepmother calling up her fairy godmother from the flames.
It’s been a month, two. The prince has returned, once a week, like clockwork, always alone. Once the schedule was established, the stepmother’s always made sure the farm hands have the day off, that the sooty one is waiting for him. That she hasn’t taken it into her head to bathe in preparation. The prince leaves gifts in the hallway, casually, as though in thoughtless gratitude for the tea he is served afterward: an ormolu chalice, its thin gold plate flaking off, a signet ring. Laughable. As if a few gaudy items will save the place falling to ruin, save the life the stepmother is accustomed to, her daughters’ futures. She needs more.
Yet it’s the sooty one who has speeded up the plans. She of the balled fists and the silence. Invitations arrived a fortnight ago (not shown to the servile stepdaughter but she guessed what they contained) and she sought out her cruel stepmother. (She doesn’t know what cruel is.) She begged for a dress.
He loves me, she tells her stepmother with perfect child innocence. If he could see me but once as I truly am.
The stepmother’s study is always hot. A fire crackling in the hearth even at the height of summer, ball season. The sooty one’s soot is running in sweat rivulets, seeping into her already pungent armpits. The stepmother’s magicks are stacked behind her: odd wood-bound books, purple vials. She comes close to her stepdaughter, the poor deluded thing, and murmurs, Love is blood, child. The blood pumped into a cock, draining away again as soon as it’s over. Do you think your father actually loved me?
The stupid thing has tears in her eyes, but her hands are balled to fists. I can make the prince marry me, she says. Her eyes rove the room. I know you study these things, forbidden arts. You can make me beautiful. Even if it’s only for a night.
He doesn’t like beautiful because it scares him, the stepmother almost says. This secret only she has understood, but then the girl’s words sink in and she realizes she can make it work. She imagines the prince, trapped for years now between duty and want, urged by the king to choose some spirited beauty he’ll never desire because he can’t dominate her. A sooty princess is what he needs and yet can never have. Royalty by daylight, a slave at night.
At the thought the monster she’s kept in reserve stirs. It’s time. Monsters are only as good as their maker’s understanding, and the stepmother understands now what she needs hers to do.
Something she’s never asked before.
The day of the ball arrives. She’s emptied the house. Sent the servants off, sent her daughters to their cousins’ home to dress with them, giggling. They’ll have fun. She’s called her stepdaughter into the study, who glides in so proud and expectant. Locked the door behind her, because what if the weak thing tries to run when it starts. (But don’t forget, balled fists.) Ordered her to strip naked. She takes from the sooty one the cloth she’s told her to save, so necessary, stained with the girl’s monthly blood so dry now it’s almost black, and procures the powders from the study’s locked treasure-box.
The shivering ash-smeared girl standing in the middle of the room reminds the stepmother of herself, the nothing she was born as, aching poverty and a club foot, before the witch who lived on the edge of her village saw the potential in her and introduced her to the fairy godmother. Her monster. It almost stays her hand, that memory.
She turns and tosses the cloth and powders onto the fire. Feels the drain begin.
Now this is a quick one, of the fairy godmother emerging from the fire. A blurry picture to start with, made indecipherable by your expectations. She’s tiny (you didn’t expect that), ankle-high, sharp and darting as a flame, yet made of mud and cankerous leaves, or maybe twigs clicking inside a dollop of humus. Eyes of bark fungus. She dances around the chosen one, examining, unimpressed, listening as the stepmother keeps the power up with the magick words and whispers what she wants done, that unusual request, then the fairy godmother climbs up the girl’s leg. The mud is hot; where it touches the girl’s bare skin it leaves smeared gray chunks that evaporate inward, taking the steaming skin with them, tunnelling to the bone. The girl is screaming, arms flailing to bat at the godmother darting here and there, but then she remembers its purpose, drops her arms to clenched fists and only screams to the wall. An infant sound, over and over, a Wah and ooh as chunks are steamed from her navel, breasts, neck. Mouth wide-open and wailing. Which makes it easy for the fairy godmud (oh how the stepmother remembers this part) to slip in, to turn about inside the girl’s mouth, filling it entirely, and peer out with those phosphorescent-mold eyes aglow, the bark face breaking into a smile because she really does love to ply her trade, this fairy, and when does she have the chance. So seldom called through the fire these days, the old art dying.
Then the girl is on the floor, thrashing, screams muffled now by the fireball that is in her mouth and then in her throat, as the bones of her face change, red everywhere, her skin the crust of a burnt pudding bursting open, the red moving down to her breasts that rise like bread, and then on to the waist, tightening. There is a noise of ribs cracking, healing. The screams are beyond sound, her whole body screams. The stepmother knows how much it hurts, it’s hard to watch, she keeps seeing herself there. Recalling how she arose a different person. How the hell preached from the pulpit on church day has never scared her since because she already knows what it feels like.
The soul scoured away.
The screams stop.
The thing that gets to its feet is beautiful. It has a tiny nose and enchanting cheekbones. Sharp, ruthless cheekbones, above blood-red lips. It wears a dress made of smoke that will feel like real silk to a prince, the stepmother knows.
Only the eyes are still in hell.
Every trace of steam or crisped flesh has vanished, every whiff of the godmud. The beautiful thing smells of freesia. It moves its satin-slippered foot and something rolls out from where its body thrashed only moments before—a chestnut or a desiccated squirrel turd, the stepmother is never sure, but she picks it up and flings it on the fire. Your soul, child, she thinks.
She can only hope that her special request has been met. The night will tell.
The thing wants to say something. It has to learn to work its pretty mouth, but the voice that comes out is refined, feminine, and very sincere.
It says, Thank you, dearest stepmother.
Here’s a panorama of the royal ball. They’re all monsters here. You can’t tell that from a picture. Pictures that show gowns and subtle candlelight, flower bouquets of hairdos. Violinists whittling away in the background as each hairdo is presented to the prince. You can’t peel back layers on a picture, dig down to the cankerous mud beneath flawless skin or tremulous smiles. You have to imagine.
The mothers hover near the presenting line. One mother has located her daughters with their cousins, all of them atwitter about the new girl, the stranger. The whole room saw the prince start and flush when the stranger was presented to him, his highness so obviously struck shy by her otherworldly beauty and when was this prince ever known to be timid. They’ve no chance now, the other hairdos, they’d scratch the stranger’s eyes out if they could.
It is only the stepmother who knows it was fear that made the prince start and step back, knows there was enough left there in the sooty one’s features for him to recognize his little barnyard maid. Saw his gaze teeter across the crowd, finding the stepmother and locking on her before she could turn away and pretend disinterest.
Now a game starts. The sooty one is elegance itself, old manners come to her with her new body, and she dances with each man, fairly, while the prince blocks her from his sight with careful moves that are remarked upon by all, refusing to dance, circling instead through the crowd in a pattern only he and the stepmother discern, the purpose of which is to get the old bitch alone. The stepmother sidesteps, lingers in large groups. The king at his raised table watches his son, troubled. The sooty one dances, dances, laughs, shines with her own light, envied, but if only they knew. This patchwork corpse, taken apart seam by red-hot seam and put back together.
It is almost midnight before the stepmother makes a mistake, a wrong turn down a hall after seeking out the facilities, and is caught from behind, shoved by a bejewelled hand into a deserted library.
This one here shows the ceremonial sword the prince wears to balls, never meant to be drawn, but drawn it is, as you can see, and kept very sharp out of a sense of duty. Uncaptured of course is the motion as he bears down upon the stepmother, lunging across the room in two strides, and places the well-oiled tip against her throat.
You mock me, witch, he growls. I could have you skinned alive, your lands seized.
Your father would never—
My father’s a fool. Did you think I would want that thing out there? That . . . lady? Created by your magicks, I presume. (He’s heard the rumors.) Or did you think to blackmail me? Where I hammer my nails outside the palace is of little interest, believe me.
It is if you can’t hammer out an heir, she replies. If your own magick doesn’t work when you’re with anyone of higher class than a pig-girl. That’s the truth of it, isn’t it?
The stepmother eyes his codpiece at this point, to emphasize her point, but he leans forward and the point of his sword nicks her throat. Everyone has a point. The wet warmth on her skin tells her she’s bleeding even before she feels the drip of pain falling inward.
No, wait, she croaks, I have a proposition.
With another small slice to her throat he lets her know he’s not interested.
The door flies open. Stop, says the stepdaughter.
The prince starts, but he still can’t look at his transformed lover. You dare command me, he asks over his shoulder. You. I know what you are, remember.
She’s my stepdaughter, that’s what. The stepmother’s voice still creaks, pinned, but she’s thinking fast, back in control. Of good name, sire. You could marry her.
Something’s come into the room with the stepdaughter, a shadow near the floor, that moves quickly against the baseboards, rustles away into the dimmest corner.
The stepdaughter is so poised, the soul of confidence, that her stepmother can hardly believe her own power created her. The girl knows the proposition, what special request the godmud fulfilled, though the stepmother doesn’t remember explaining it to her.
Tell him, the stepdaughter says.
The thing in the corner rustles.
The change is impermanent, the stepmother explains to the prince. Every night, from midnight to dawn, she will change back. Back and forth every day. For the rest of her life. (A voracious look has come into his eyes.) You can have your regal princess during the day and your ragged ash-whore at night and no one need ever know. Sire.
As she speaks, the chime sounds midnight. The prince turns in time to see it happen. Painless this time, a turning over of a playing-card, here’s the queen now here’s the joker. The rags are back. The scrawny wraith, who gasps and hugs herself, bows her head in shame, finally managing to look up at the prince, timid and pleading, and yet the stepmother’s veins are ice at the sight of the monster writhing behind those pupils.
You still love me, don’t you, the sooty one asks the prince, and the vulnerability in the voice is perfect. Even like this? Please don’t hurt me.
The stepmother has seen many men paralyzed by desire, has trapped some of them herself, but she has to look away from this heat, the prince’s breathless gasp and nod. So many monsters in the room.
From the thing in the corner, a hiss of air. Something is laughing.
He finds a long cloak to cover the sooty one, sneaks the two women out the back. There’s a proclamation the next day. The wedding soon after. The sisters are aghast to discover the stranger from the ball is their own sooty one, but they know of their mother’s studies, and other than howling unfair for a few days they say nothing. At the wedding (no picture, sorry) the happy stepmother drinks so much of the heady wine that she falls into a stupor, blackness descending on her sometime during the evening like an eyelid closing or a candle blown out.
This is the last one. It’s what the stepmother sees when she wakes up after the wedding. A little hard to make out. Darkness instead of the airy palace room they’d moved her into. A dank rot smell, over the crackle of a fire, and she’s upright, where’s her bed, arms numb above her head, no hangover could do that. See it now? The glints, here and here, are the chains she hangs from. Her bare feet scrape at the floor in panic. The two figures loom into view, bride and groom, her stepdaughter in her magick shape so it must be morning, but of course dungeons are always dark. The prince has just turned from the forge that provides the only light here, gripping tongs to retrieve a red-hot object from the flames, something like an iron boot, that he sets next to its twin on the floor beside the moaning stepmother.
You were funny last night, the prince tells her. Recalling for everyone how I was too timid to dance with my beloved at the ball that first time.
You seemed so happy that we thought you should have a chance to dance too, her stepdaughter finishes. Dance and dance, until you can no more. But then we realized, why use it all up at once. You can dance a little today, a little tomorrow. We realized we could keep you dancing for years.
That we could do all kinds of things for you, the prince adds.
People will ask where I am! she moans. The king, he won’t let you—
Papa’s dead. Drank too much last night. Took a tumble down the stairs when no one was about.
She twists until she can see her stepdaughter. I did it for you! she cries.
We know that’s not true, dearest stepmother. All that matters is that you did it. Introduced me to the godmud, showed me my power, no matter what form I’m in. Power that doesn’t depend on appearances. Arranged a marriage for me and—
The prince and his new bride smile at each other. They’re so in love.
—it turns out we’re a perfect match.
The prince clamps the tongs again and lifts the glowing boot. Sadly a picture doesn’t convey sound or you could hear the screams, something laughing in the corner.