Cinderella dreams of dying on the dunes as a cloud of ash comes over the shore. She’s choked by it, that’s how she dies.
She’d only ever been to the sea once, when her mother was ill. It was a two-day journey rocking them all sick in the back of a cramped little wagon, but the good doctors had insisted the salt and fresh air would do wonders. In the end if the sea airs helped at all then there was no way of telling — her mother continued wasting away and was gone in amatter of weeks. Every day she seemed to blink a little further out of existence, to shrink within the holdings of her skin. It was autumn, that short stretch they’d spent at the seaside. The sea was a frothy mess under a uniform grey sky. The sun was a burnt out hole, not shining, just — bright. One morning Cinderella walked along the beach to collect pretty shells, but could only find rotten things, or glass shards worn smooth. It all smelled horrible and she would not touch a thing.
“What do you think it means,” she asks the prince over breakfast. He moves things around with little taps: the cup onto its saucer. Fork onto the plate. Napkin to his lips. Tap. Tap.
“Does it have to mean anything?”
“It’s a dream,” she says, drawing a line on the table, emphasizing the severity of it. “It’s a wish your heart makes.” Then, “I mean, what do you dream about?”
“Heavens,” he says, puts his napkin over his lap. “I haven’t dreamt since I was a child. What did I dream about? I don’t know, Cindy. Silly things. Not being able to find my room. Or that I wanted to talk but couldn’t, I don’t know. Silly things.”
His words echo in her mind that the day. She’d assumed everyone dreamt, always. Every night. She assumed that sometimes you didn’t even have to be asleep to dream, thought that sometimes it was hard to tell dreams apart from reality. Sometimes a fairy godmother would turn your gourd into a carriage. Sometimes, shoes were made of glass. Sometimes your hands got really big, then really small. Who knew which was which.
That night she dreams of dying at the hand of a pirate. There’s a raid and she’s hiding under a tarp in a nook somewhere. The pirate finds her anyway, and pushes a small knife into her abdomen — right under her ribs. She feels nothing. He shushes her, says, “It’ll be over before you know it.”
It seems so real that she’s surprised to wake up at all. Surprised to be alive, surprised at her bed, her man asleep beside her. It’s still dark when she goes up to one of the western towers. There had been a fire there some years back and none of the kings had bothered with renovating it — it used to be a dovecote, a hobby of an old queen. The pigeons still gathered there, in the dust and the droppings, and sometimes Cinderella paid them a visit. Nostalgic for grimy attics? one of the pigeons asked, once. No, she’d said. Not nostalgic.
“What do you think it means?” she says, sharing a bit of a biscuit with a grey bird she calls Rover. He is missing his right claw. He has a stump for a foot. She’s made him a little boot from a bit of curtain but he won’t wear it. Castle birds are different from country birds.
“Maybe you’ve been eating too much before sleep?” the bird asks, rumbles a coo. “They say that gives you nightmares.”
She wants to say they’re not nightmares, exactly. Just dreams. But that doesn’t sound quite right so she hums in agreement. Throws more crumbs at him. He gurgles happily, pecks. Dawn is ticking up at the horizon, slivers of clouds thinning out all pink and orange.
She’s been given the task of picking out a new tapestry for the third reception room and a merchant from a nearby kingdom has come by the castle with a selection. A small collective of lackeys hold up the cloths with long sticks so that she can see what they might look like up against a wall. They’re all beautiful, golds and greens on dark blue fabrics. One shows the courting of a young maiden in a garden, shows her coyly turning away as a knight brings her silver fingers to his lips. Another shows a hunt, the death of a boar — lying on his back with a sparrow sticking out of his romp. The blood that seeps out is touched with golden thread. There’s one that shows a forest meadow with a deer. One of an angel coming down onto a town of frightened people.
She doesn’t know which one to choose. Her uncertain “perhaps this one? Ah no, wait, I’m not sure,” goes on for just a little too long and she starts feeling bad for the lackeys. She sees the strain in their arms, sees one with the sweat on his forehead. It’s hot inside the room, the fire in the hearth licking up a storm. Her lady in waiting has started inspecting the ends of her hair, bored of the scene.
Cinderella takes a breath like something exciting is about to happen, asks her lady in waiting, “Which one would you choose?” and reaches for her sleeve. The lady allows her sleeve to be caught. Her name is Rachel. She’s the youngest daughter of a large but low-rank family. She was sent to the castle as a young child and has been bored ever since.
“Your majesty,” she says, curtseying, “whichever one pleases you best.”
Cinderella does not like the curtseying. She’s gotten into arguments with the prince over it. He understands her position and her history but feels like her past should be in her past and that it has nothing to do with the castle staff. They’re getting paid good wages, Cindy, he told her one evening, frustrated over dinner. No one’s being locked in an attic, for heaven’s sake.
She still doesn’t know how to respond when it happens. She curtsies back, or laughs nervously. A few times she’s straightened the lackeys’ collars as they bowed for her. She’s gotten into trouble for it. Indecent, Cindy, the prince had called it. Simply indecent!
It’s worst when Rachel does it. It’s worst seeing her do anything like pick up Cinderella’s clothes — or bring in the luncheon, or throw away a browning core of an apple from where it’s been forgotten on a window sill. Cinderella oftentimes stops her mid-action, takes the tray from her hands — or the gown, or the apple — and says something like how pretty you are! Makes her sit down in a chair, try on one of her crowns, or one of her gowns. Rachel was uncomfortable with it at first, stood awkward as a doll while Cinderella dressed her, but these days she joins in the admiration and asks, How do I look?
Like a princess, Cinderella says, and Rachel bows her head in a blush.
She likes it best when Rachel tells her what to do. One time, when asked, Rachel hesitatingly suggested Cinderella could brush her hair, if she wanted to. A thrill ran through her at that, and she ended up brushing Rachel’s red hair for hours until it was shiny and frizzy and bright. She then pinned it up with pearled combs. How pretty you are, she’d whispered, touched Rachel’s freckled neck.
Sometimes, Rachel holds Cinderella close to her bosom, backed against the dusty shelves of an empty pantry. Then Rachel’s command would be touch me and Cinderella would comply, wildly, would let Rachel ride her fingers — pressing their cheeks together, panting. Rachel would call her Cindy, then — would sigh it out over and over on the crest of each wave, Cindy, Cindy, Cindy.
“We’ll go with the boar,” Cinderella tells the merchant, turning an apologetic smile about the room.
“Excellent,” he says, and has the other tapestries rolled up, whisked away with gold and silver threads trailing.
That night she dies in the back of a carriage. It tumbles off the road on a hillside and pulls the horses with. At first there’s just a mess of movement, of upside down, and then one of the horses’ legs kicks in through the window. That’s how she goes: a hoof to the face.
Rachel says, “Oh, but that’s awful!” but she’s not very serious about it. She brings her head to Cinderella’s heart to scold it, “Stop it at once, you.”
The prince is out for the day and Cinderella asks to go to Rachel’s chambers. It’s not allowed, not really, but Cinderella knows how to ask prettily and Rachel knows only to say yes. Later, in the quiet tumble of Rachel’s bed, Cinderella wonders aloud what she dreams about.
“Home,” Rachel answers, short and honest. “I’m always back home.”
“Oh. Nothing, really — having dinner with mother. Strolling along the garden. Visiting the horses.”
“And then what?”
“And then that’s it. I wake up.”
That night a fire takes her. There’s no reason or narrative — she wakes up in the dream and her room is engulfed. The curtains are pillars of flames, the darling mother-of-pearl tabletop gleaming, disappearing. She tries to move but can’t, her limbs are locked. She watches for a moment, trying to scream for help but unable to, and then she closes her eyes. Better not to see, she thinks, and wakes up with a start.
There’s a feast and she has a little too much to drink. Not on purpose at first, until she laughs too loudly at a joke and then has to hold herself for a moment — hand on her splotchy bosom. She excuses herself, goes to wash her face, and sees her wine-purple lips in the mirror. Her stained teeth. She puts her fingers in her mouth, staring at herself, then decides to finish whatever race she has begun. She downs another bottle before the end of the night. Starts making songs for the other people at the table, putting their names to the same tune. “So this is Rick, hmm hmm hmm, hmm hmm hmm,” she sings, slurs, “The one who likes his shoes.”
The prince has to carry her upstairs. She dozes on his shoulder and doesn’t quite hear what he says to her, only that he doesn’t sound very pleased.
“It’s all right,” she tells him as he takes off her shoes, starts to mess with the laces of her corset. “It’s all all right.”
He pushes her down the main staircase that night. She startles awake, throws up in a golden paper basket, then goes back to sleep. It’s Rachel next, sitting on top of her, choking her. Then it’s Drizella, pretending to be her maid and poisoning her food. That one strikes Cinderella as particularly outlandish. Drizella passed away several years ago, not long after the wedding. Pneumonia.
She goes to visit Anastasia. It’s an ordeal — for the princess to go anywhere is an ordeal. The royal guard has to be informed, personal servants need to be appointed. Carriages have to be prepared, cooks need to work through the night — an ordeal. It’s all but an hour’s journey. One that she once made with a pumpkin for a vehicle. When it fell apart at the stroke of midnight she walked the rest of the way, tired and sweaty and barefoot on the muddy road.
Anastasia doesn’t seem surprised to see Cinderella, but then against she was preceded by five horsemen and a barking cloud of dogs. Anastasia stands by the doorway, leaning on her cane. In the first year after she cut off her heel her limp was barely noticeable, but after her mother died Anastasia took to walking with the cane that she’d left behind. Her limp got pronounced.
She watches blank-faced as the whole if the royal court spills into her front yard.
“Cinderella,” she greets her step sister, steps aside to let her in. The five men in wigs who follow Cinderella into the house look disapproving. Anastasia has stopped calling Cinderella her majesty after her mother’s passing. When Drizella went, Anastasia stopped calling on Cinderella altogether. The court had always been more Drizella’s thing, anyway.
They sit in the drawing room in silence for a good while. Anastasia looks so much like her mother already. She sits in the velvet chair her mother always occupied, holds her cane with two hands on the bulbous golden head. There’s a streak of grey in her red hair, from her temple to the neat bun atop her head. The house is exactly the same as it’s always been. Cinderella notices the mantlepiece hasn’t been properly dusted and wonders who Anastasia has taken on to help around the house. She wonders if Anastasia is nice to her. Whether she makes her sleep in the attic.
Cinderella takes a breath like something exciting is about to happen, says, “So I’ve been having these dreams.”
“I’ve had dreams about dying. I — dream that I die.”
Anastasia’s gaze is steady. She leans her cane against the arm of the chair, takes her tea cup in hand. Stirs it with a little spoon. The clock in the back of the room chimes the hour.
“I guess what I mean to ask,” Cinderella continues, “I guess what I want to know is whether — If you dream that?” A beat, then, “Like that?”
Anastasia doesn’t answer, just stirs her tea round and round and round. And then, as though she’s already tired of what she’s about to say,
“I dream of mother and of Drizella. They come to me. Every night.”
“I’ve dreamt about Drizella,” Cinderella says. Anastasia’s gaze focuses on her for a moment, then dissolves.
“Yes. Well.” She clears her throat. Taps the spoon to the saucer, takes a sip. “You know what mother used to say about dreams.”
Cinderella tries to think back to anything her stepmother used to say and comes up empty. Her memory is only one of an angry person. A vessel of misery, no specific words that remained.
“No,” she says.
“She said, a dream is a wish your heart makes.”
Cinderella straightens her back. “I don’t remember her saying that.”
“She said it all the time,” Anastasia says. “Every morning. Ella and I would come down for breakfast and she’d say, Mind, girls! Hold on to the night’s dreams. They’re a wish your heart makes when you’re asleep.”
Cinderella folds her hands in her lap and stays quiet for a while. One of the men in wigs breathes in something that bothers his throat and he gets a cough that won’t stop. Anastasia has a water pitcher brought in for him. She tells Cinderella that if she’d like, she can stay in Drizella’s chambers for the night. It’s gotten dark outside, fast and sudden, and Cinderella watches the garden fall into shadows. She says she’d like that, and thank you.
That night she dreams that she wakes up exactly where she is but the room looks drawn and not quite real. She gets out of bed and everything feels like paper: the sheets, the floor under her feet. The cool glass of the window. Outside the world doesn’t exist. There’s nothing out there, not even darkness — just nothing. She doesn’t feel frightened or upset. Tired, perhaps. Her limbs start feeling like they’re paper too, light and dry, and so she sits back on the bed and lets the emptiness swallow her back up.
The next day she goes by the stables to say hello to the animals. She doesn’t know any of the mice anymore — it’s a whole new generation. Some of them still wear their parents’ clothes but most of them have gone back to naked. A few have heard of her and politely accept the chicken feed she offers them.
She sits on stone bench under the willow. It’s a sunny day and the light dapples through the leaves, blinks in and out the corner of her vision. The men in wigs stand at a discreet distance, backs straight. The fountain babbles and splatters and the water sometimes sounds like it might be a vague song, a distorted voice. She wonders if the fairy godmother would come if she’d cry right here right now. But the tears don’t come and she doesn’t know what she’d ask for, anyway.
She looks down and her hands seem very big, then very small. She looks away, her shrinking fingers balled up, and waits for the moment to pass.
My name is Yael van der Wouden and I’m a writer, editor, and a mixed-bag diaspora child situated in Utrecht, the Netherlands. In my off time I water plants and walk into rooms only to immediately forget what I came in there for. My words can be found in places such as Split Lip Magazine, Barrelhouse Magazine, and Cheap Pop Literature. I review for Platypus Press’ The Wilds and occasionally take on the fictional voice of Sir David Attenborough for Longleaf Review’s advice column, ‘Dear David.’