Saturday, September 13, 2008

Aschenputtel Revisited. Draft 1

Having finished separating the peas and the lentils from the tray of ashes, she wiped her soot-covered hands across her tear-streaked face, smoothed her apron and, two tins in hand, rose to meet the stepmother. Hearing the clunk-clunk of tiny wooden shoes on the polished floor, the stepmother looked up from her tapestry and took in the scene from the doorway: a filthy, soot-covered girl dressed in smoke- and work-scented rags; heavy shoes on her small feet; bare leg showing through the tattered, nearly transparent scraps of long-ago cast-off clothing. Sooty fingerprints streaked her gray apron and where tears had washed the ash from her face, her fingers had replaced it so that the effect was of black-and-white carnival paint. This creature held in her hands two grimy tins, one of peas the other of lentils.
The stepmother removed her eyeglasses, rose gracefully from her chair, thought of her two daughters still preparing for the evening's festivities.
"What? Finished so soon? You must have taken fresh beans from the pantry!"
Briskly, she took the grimy tins from the bewildered girl's hands and shook the lentils and the peas together again and tossed them back into the hearth where they sank into the thick ashes.
"Now. Separate and clean them and do not mock me."

Sinking back into the ashes, she began again the task she had once completed. Her mind empty of all thought save 'lentil' or 'pea,' still somewhere at the bottom of her being - perhaps as low as her feet - was the promise of the Prince and the sure conviction of certain, soon and complete change.
With numb fingers and trembling hands, she once again approached the smooth, cool stepmother who, by this time, was flanked by her chic (but not pretty) daughters. The rage and hatred rose immediately in the stepmother and as she looked at the girl's reddened gray eyes, she felt her hand fly up to strike her temple. Imagine her surprise when she felt the powdery texture of the girl's hot cheek beneath her clean, long fingers. The girl's response added to the strangeness: she never flinched - not for the blow that was to come, nor for the caress she never expected. All that she could read in those younger gray eyes was resignation, acceptance and hope.
The anger rose again but this time the stepmother had difficulty locating its object. Not this utterly pitiable weak thing in front of her. Not the stupid peas and lentils. A new sensation - shame - flamed her cheeks as she recognized herself as the object of her anger. Forgetting the girl a moment, she took the tins from her cramped fingers and gently set them on the floor. Her daughters, confused and uncomfortable, flanked their mother, eager for the strings of witty abuse with which their mother was sure to soon festoon the girl. With an impatient, angry, terrible look, she dismissed her daughters without even seeing them.

With a brittle iciness, she took the girl's hand and led her to her own dressing room. While her servants drew a fresh, hot bath, the stepmother sat the amazed girl onto a stool of plush silk velvet and began to wipe the tears and the soot from her face with blossom-scented water. Ordering the girl's rags burnt, she eased her into the hot bath and, with gentle hands, cleaned her body with fine soaps and soft clothes. She washed the girl's long and matted hair, untangling every not as she massaged oil into her scalp. When at last the girl was clean, the stepmother dressed her in her very own wedding gown - her first one from her marriage to the father of her girls when she was but a girl herself. From a high shelf she brought down a gilded box never seen by any in the household. The girl's eyes grew wide as the stepmother revealed a pair of shoes made of pure crystal, clear as glass. The stepmother gently eased the girl's feet into the precious shoes and was delighted when they fit her foot perfectly.
In a quiet, halting but gentle voice, she spoke to the girl,
"Go. Fly. A wagon waits in the hall. It is crude - it carries our gourds to the market, but it will take you unseen tot he palace. Dance with the prince. Have this night. The wagon will return at midnight. Do not be late. I cannot answer for you if you are."
Wordlessly, the girl flew down the stairs and into the wagon and to the ball.
The stepmother, finding her daughters already gone without her, took herself to the hazel tree and wept while a pair of turtledoves looked on. Returning home, she struggled to do the girl's usual chores before dragging herself exhausted to bed.

The girl returned home breathless and exhilarated and terrified. Could the Prince love her? Was that she with whom he danced all night? And did she really lose the stepmother's priceless shoe? She carefully removed the rich garments and found waiting for her in a chamber in which the stepmother had indicated earlier a simple but clean, whole and new dress, a sparkling new apron and soft skin slippers. Her heart both full and heavy, she slept dreamlessly and, when she woke, she slowly descended the stairs, dreading the moment the stepmother would learn the slipper was missing.
To her great surprise, the fire was started and breakfast on the table when she arrived downstairs. Two new serving girls attended the family and there was an extra place set.
"Daughter, come take your place!" Her father's voice boomed, casual but with a cautious undertone of joy. The stepsisters traded worried, disgusted glances but said nothing. The girl silently slipped into her seat and allowed herself to be served, remembering, faintly, when this had been the norm.
"Well, sister, surely you know the latest? The Prince danced all night with an unknown princess. It is said he will marry her hte instant he finds her again, though she is fled. All that is left of her is a crystal slipper and he goes house to house to find her mate."
At this, the girl glanced cautiously at the stepmother in whose eyes she read an enigmatic look of wonder and - is it? - pleasure.

A flourish of trumpets and the Prince is in the great room. The stepsisters clamor to try on the shoe, each hoping the be the first. The stepmother slips out of the room for a moment and no one notices. When the first stepsister tries the show, her mother follows her to give her counsel. The shoe fits, though it is just a bit snug. No one would ever see. The stepmother tells her daughter,
"Your toe is cramped. Cut it off. You will not need it when you are queen."
And so by the blood in the shoe does the Prince know she is not his bride.
The second sister tries the shoe. It fit, but it is just a tad snug. No one would ever see. The stepmother tells her daughter,
"Your heel is so wide it will shatter the crystal. Slice it down. You will not need it when you are queen."
And so by the blood in the shoe does the Prince know she is not his bride.
The stepmother returns to the room and, casually, as though she'd rather not say so, reminds the Prince that there is one more daughter and she may as well try the shoe. As the girls steps forward, the stepmother slips the other shoe into her pocket. When she tries on the proffered shoe, she also wears its mate.


Bacchant said...

I like this, but it needs to be longer, with more transition between evil stepmother to shamed stepmother. You added a father, which I liked and wanted to know more about.

I'm also glad that you kept the "old way" of telling the story at the end and had the sisters cut their feet. Blood is the lubricant of all good fairytales, for it is what makes them human and true. We are so much closer to the blood than we think. And yet, the stepmother's cruelty toward her daughters is balanced by her volte-face to the stepdaughter. It is right that blood and benevolence derive from the same person. This sudden changing of alliances is not dissimilar to the capriciousness with which real tyrants operate, and makes one think that the arterial blood of all "true" fairytales (all true human nature) cannot be eradicated or reduced, but only ever redirected.

philosophotarian said...

so you aren't familiar with the german text of aschenputtel? the father is there. i also kept the hazel tree, the turtledoves and the cutting of the feet. that was always there.

Bacchant said...

No, I wasn't aware of any version in which there was a father. Needs more reading, I think... :)

Anonymous said...

Research St. Zita, the patron saint of maids/servants. Interesting stuff.