Ever After

Dec 20 2013

Jane’s gown that evening was as soft as the newest day, as gentle as the moon, and as shimmering as the stars. It suited her very well, and within it she shone. She could feel many eyes on her as she ascended the staircase to the ballroom. Her usual clothing was grey as mist and so difficult to see that she became invisible in it, and she was unused to this attention, so she pretended she was alone. She was a very delicate person and she felt that the gazes would crush her if she noticed them, so she did not notice them. She made herself straight and strong.

She was surprised when the prince asked her to dance. But it had not mattered to her who she came to dance with, only that she wanted to dance. She wanted to have her perfect evening. It would be the perfect time of her life. As she had been warm dozing on the hearth over the years she had thought that some people are allowed one perfect time in their lives. Many lives were a sequence of such moments, she realised. But for some people, like her, there would be only one chance, to shine with pure being, whether others saw it or not, and she knew that it would one day come to her. As the prince guided her to the floor, she noticed that he was kind; there was nothing in his hand or eye or voice that was designed to harm her. He was strong enough to kill her with his grasp if he chose to, without any trouble, but she knew that he would never approach her with violence.

As she danced her awareness changed. She was moved by the sounds of a music that resonated with the music of the hall and yet was an other music. It was a music that was sweet and strange. She saw through all that was around her into another realm and it was a frightening place but beautiful. She was weightless but inexorable. She was a celestial body guided on a cosmic course, not by the prince, but by a force beyond. She was also aware that none of the other guests had persisted in dancing, that they were only spectators, and that she and the prince were the only participants. The guests strained for glimpses of her very small flawless feet. Her feet could be seen to move like charmed white marble through the crystal encasing of the fragile glass slippers that were sometimes visible and were sometimes heard tinkling like raindrops through the music. They saw that she was in an other world, but did not understand; some of them adored her, some of them despised her, and most were confused or mesmerised by her – but she knew none of this. She floated like a feather and knew nothing else until the stroke of midnight compelled her to escape. As she fled the palace, one of the glass slippers was lost on a step, and the prince, hurrying after, retrieved it. But it was too late: Jane was gone.

That night she dreamed of her dancing and her dress that evaporated like dew with the morning, when she was awoken by the cruel pinching of her stepmother and her two gorgeous stepsisters. “Dear Cinderella,” said her stepmother, “You never told us what a glorious dancer you are.” Jane’s stepmother had been sidelined at the ball along with her natural daughters and they were each overwhelmed with deep feelings of embarrassment and inferiority and rage. “I hope you had a lovely evening, because you will never dance again. Girls, hold her down.” And her two stepsisters, who were much stronger and more robust than small delicate Jane, restrained her while her stepmother severed each of her lovely toes one after another with a hot kitchen knife and threw them in the fire. She cauterised the raw wounds with a hot metal poker, then sewed up the skin with a needle and thread. Jane screamed and screamed. She would have given her life not to scream, but she had no choice in anything. Nobody helped her and she was alone then.

After she cut off her toes, Jane’s stepmother was very kind to her, almost as though she loved her. Jane was permitted to sit in a comfortable chair before the fire in the great hall of the house and to do whatever she wanted while the other servants absorbed her regular duties. What Jane wanted to do was nothing and nothing is what she did. She looked into the fire and thought of nothing. Sometimes, fleetingly, as though she were dreaming, she remembered her father, and she remembered dancing, and she knew that she had experienced the times of her life that were important to her. Nothing was important to her any more, and so she thought of nothing. Sometimes she really did dream, since as she had no bed to sleep in and no reason to remove herself she slept in that chair by the fire, and she dreamed of dancing. She ate soup and hobbled to the chamber pot in great agony. She thought of nothing. In her own way, she felt happiness.

When the prince came with her slipper, she was even allowed to remain in the room and to laugh as her stepsisters attempted to fit their handsome hooves into a space that was only intended for her own little foot. “Who is that lady in the chair?” asked the prince. “She is no lady, your highness,” explained her stepmother, “Just an invalid relative it behoves us to support. Stay away from her please your highness, she has plague.”

The prince knelt before Jane and lifted the rug from over her feet. He carefully took one of her heels in his hand, and then replaced it, and then lifted the other, and replaced it. And he gazed at one mutilated foot, and then the other, and then he looked into her eyes. He saw that they were soft, and gentle, and shimmering, and good. “You are plain,” he said.

“yes,” said plain, practical Jane, “i am plain. and it will please your highness to be informed that you are a strong and handsome gentleman.”

He looked at her feet again and took them both into each of his hands. They were bandaged and swollen and some blood had come through the bandages and gone brown. With his right thumb he gave the back of her left ankle an almost imperceptible little stroke that could have been only a twitch. “Your foot is the wrong size for this slipper. How can I know that it is really you, if you don’t fit this slipper?”

“you will never know it is me, your highness. but if you try to put that slipper on me i will scream.” He picked her up and kissed her. And he carried her out of that evil place and put her in his carriage.

The next morning, after their wedding, the prince told Jane that her stepmother and stepsisters had departed the country and it was not known what ship they had boarded or where they were headed. He apologised that they had not been able to witness such an important event in her life or to celebrate such a great day for their country. But Jane knew that every night until they were all dead her husband would cut off a part of each of their bodies and throw it out for the crows to eat, and there was nothing she could do about it. The slipper was in her husband’s chamber, and sometimes in the early mornings while they lay in bed together he would hold it before his face and turn it in the light so that it sparkled. They would never talk about any of those things, and there would always be a silence between them, and a sorrow, and even sometimes an uncertainty. But they would give their children all the love in the world. And at times in their own way they would feel happy.

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