“The King appointed a festival which was to last three days, and to which all the beautiful young girls in the country were invited, in order that his son might choose himself a bride… As Cinderella went on asking, the step-mother at last said, ‘I have emptied a dish of lentils into the ashes for thee, if thou hast picked them out again in two hours, thou shalt go with us.’” – “Aschenputtel,” The Brothers Grimm
After they married, the Prince had to tell her to stop cleaning. He found her punishing the bedroom rug with the racquet they were to use for a game of battledore against his parents that afternoon.
“It was dirty,” she explained, looking at him as though he were the one with the dust-sallow skin.
“We have people for that.” He took the racquet from her as he might take a toy from a naughty child, and guided her away with a gentle hand on her shoulder.
Ella had a strange habit of picking the lentils out of the black rice dish that was the Prince’s favorite dinner. She hoarded them, he was sure, but he never knew where they went after she swept them into her lap.
Over supper, she asked about keeping pigeons. “They are such pleasant company,” she said, dabbing her lips with her napkin. “And they would help me occupy myself while you tend to matters of state.” She chose her words carefully, the Prince could tell. This pleased him. The pigeon-house was built behind the stables.
Ella missed the next few battledore matches, three meetings of state, and a formal banquet held to honor the vice-chamberlain of the bordering nation. The Prince found her in the pigeon-house. He peered through the clouded window, holding his nose against the stench that snuck out from below the glass. He could see her grey gown and the birds perched on her long, thin fingers. She cooed at them, nuzzling her cheek against the purple-green feathers of the pigeon on her shoulder.
This is not my partner, the girl in the golden dress who I danced with on the first night of the festival, he thought, and when he returned after midnight, it was with an axe. The pigeons made their escape when they heard the wood splintering.
When he returned to his chamber, the Prince found Ella asleep in bed with an oil-lamp burning on the mantelpiece. She wore the pearl nightgown he had given her as a wedding present, and her face was scrubbed clean. He nuzzled her cheek with his and slipped in bed next to her.
At the next dinner, Ella left the lentils in the bowl, much to the Prince’s relief. “I would like a grove of pear trees,” she said, stirring the rice around with her spoon. “It would be a splendid place to pass an afternoon with my ladies-in-waiting.” The Prince imagined Ella surrounded by white blossoms and ladies in white dresses, sedentary, fanning themselves as they gossiped about members of the court. A deal was struck with the neighboring vice-chamberlain to import fifty mature pear trees into the country.
Ella only missed two gavotte lessons before the Prince went to look for her this time. He found her, as he expected, in the pear grove, but unexpectedly alone. She spun nimbly on her toes, grass staining the knees of her grey gown, hair whirling around her face. She sang to the pigeon-house refugees that perched in the trees. Pear juice dripped from her chin. Out of sight behind a tree, the Prince thought of her on the second night of the festival in a shining silver dress, her hair caged in ribbons and braids. After midnight, he returned with his axe.
Ella sent back her dinner the next night, asking that the lentils be taken out. When the bowl came back from the kitchen, she attacked it hungrily, one eye on the Prince. She knew somehow, he thought, that he had been in her wardrobe, had taken out the grey dress that smelled of the hearth and fed it to the kitchen fire.
“I got you a gift,” he said, beckoning for one of the servants to bring the pillow with the golden slippers on it. Ella glanced at the shoes and offered a small smile.
“They’re lovely,” she said as she put them on.
There she was, the Prince thought, his partner from the third night of the festival, when her dress had reflected the stars. The only girl he wanted to dance with. He got up from the table, watching Ella, who stayed, as though her shoes were coated with pitch.
Months later, the King fell ill and died. Dignitaries from twenty countries attended the Prince’s coronation. Ella walked behind him, wearing the golden slippers that made her toes and heels bleed but that the Prince insisted she wear. She followed him, pieces of black rice under her fingernails like the last pieces of ash.
Molly Lazer is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. She teaches high school, acts, and directs plays outside of Philadelphia.
Artwork: “Farewell” by Christian Schloe