Ethereal, By Melinda Brasher
Editor's Note: Melinda Brasher is currently battling the sun in Arizona, though she much prefers finding literary inspiration hiking in cool European mountains or watching perfect snowflakes melt on her gloves. Explore www.melindabrasher.com, her blog for people who like to escape the mundane though travel, reading, and writing.
I never thought too much about death when I was alive. After my beautiful wife died, I imagined her in a garden somewhere, surrounded by fiery blood roses. That's what I told little Cynthia: Mama's among the flowers now. Maybe that's why she never cared for them.
I didn't think much about death because a trade empire gives a man no time for frivolities. Besides, I never fell sick a day in my life. Not until I died, of course.
I remember those first disbelieving days in dream-like snatches: a goose my graceful new wife, Violet, reprimanded the cook for over-cooking, her words sharpened by grief; little Cynthia crying in the garden, fingers red with the pricks of roses she'd gathered; Violet's daughters laughing in their room over piles of silk and satin.
"Violet, love," I pleaded into my wife's thick hair, as she sat at her dressing table painting her lips. I tried to touch her pale skin, but my fingers felt nothing, as if she were made of moonlight.
Time passes strangely when you're dead. It seemed so short a time they wore black. Then one day I came upon Cynthia. When had she turned into a woman? Her hair fell in tangles down her back, almost to the strings of the apron tied around her waist. Why would my Cynthi wear an apron?
Astonished, I watched her clean the fireplace. Ash poofed into the room and she coughed.
"You've dirtied the floor, cinder-face," one of Violet's daughters laughed from the doorway. She'd grown too, but not into the beauty my Cynthi had. "Clean it up."
"Yes, Philippa." Cynthia picked up the broom without even a sigh and swept up the ash.
"When you're done there, I have a ruff that needs mending," Clarisse demanded, before they flounced off.
"Cynthia, what are you doing?" I asked. "Where are the servants?"
She only began to hum, a lullaby her mother used to sing her to sleep with.
I needed answers. When I finally found Violet, elegant as always, she was speaking with the cook. "Tell that ungrateful girl she shall have no supper until she's finished her chores."
"But My Lady, she works all day. 'Twasn't her fault the laundry piled so high today. Surely the master wouldn't have wanted his daughter to go hungry."
"You dare presume to know the thoughts of my useless dead husband?" Violet demanded, in a voice that made the cook tremble. "Do you value your position here?"
"Of course, My Lady."
"Then keep your uneducated notions to yourself. That girl needs to learn the benefit of hard work. Her father spoiled her. Now she'll earn her keep like anyone else."
Betrayal hurts, even when you're dead. For long black moments—or days maybe—I knew nothing but the echoes of her words. How could I have loved her?
Never had I washed a garment, or scrubbed a floor, but I was no stranger to hard work. Since my death I had done nothing but wander aimlessly, unable to speak to the living, rarely even able to touch the fine carved furniture and marble statues my wealth had bought. I'd banged into a new table once, however, a ghastly thing Violet must have acquired after my death, so I knew I could manipulate the world I was no longer part of.
Now I practiced, while I watched Cynthi work her stoic way through each day. I eventually learned to focus my concentration until I could touch the objects around me. If I exerted too much pressure, I lost my grip. Clothespins proved a fiendish obstacle, but once the linen came off the line, I could fold it, every day with more precision. I learned to lay fires and wash pots. Tedious, all of it, but the first time Cynthi discovered one of her endless tasks done for her, the happy surprise on her face paid me back hundredfold. She began to speak of me as her fairy godmother. I only wished I could do more.
The prince's ball was the answer. I knew it the moment I heard the cook gossiping about it with the gardener. Some young man would fall in love with my gentle, lovely daughter, and take her away.
"Mark my words," the cook said, "Mistress Philippa and Mistress Clarisse will try to outshine each other, and Lady Violet will pretend she's seventeen and try to catch the prince's eye herself."
"Aye," said the gardener. "And they'll use the master's gold to do it."
"Lady Violet's gold now," scowled the cook. "And will she buy Mistress Cynthia so much as a clean petticoat? No."
"The invitation says 'all eligible young ladies,'" Cynthi said sweetly, but I heard the steel in her voice and loved her all the more.
"'Eligible' hardly includes cinder girls," Clarisse said, with a disdainful survey of Cynthi's patched gown.
"Father was well-respected. I—"
"You're father's dead," Violet said, "and with him his business, his income, his status. Royal ball? Not for you."
But Cynthi began sewing herself a gown, pieced together from silken scraps discarded by her step-sisters, and bits of old sheets from the storeroom. Late into the nights she toiled, pouring her heart into that gown. I worked to exhaustion, just to give her time for her one labor of joy.
The night of the ball she looked as beautiful as her mother once had.
"Foolish child," Violet exclaimed, the moment Cynthi went downstairs. "You look like a street urchin. You can't wear rags to a ball." She grabbed at the frilled neckline and ripped, so hard Cynthi stumbled. The gown's ancient cloth tore, forking like lightening past her waist. Violet grabbed her wrist and flung her into the cloakroom, then with the help of her giggling daughters, pushed a moaning, scraping cabinet in front of the door. "Come girls, let's find us a prince."
Cynthi pounded on the wood while I shoved in vain at the cabinet, falling through each time I strained too hard.
"Hold on," I called, but she couldn't hear.
I darted to the kitchens, where the cook was still cleaning.
I grabbed at her sleeve, but couldn't catch it. Clutched ineffectually at her hair. I scanned the room. A kettle. Carefully I took hold of it and waved it in front of her face.
I poured the hot water in a thin stream onto the floor, drawing one letter, then another. "H-E-L-P."
Her eyes popped open wide. "Who's there?"
Things went fuzzy. Such precision, so close to a living being, took too much concentration. The kettle dropped from my hands and burst open on the floor.
She screamed again and shot out the door and up the stairs.
I dragged myself after her. She'd heard Cynthi's screams, and was straining to push aside the cabinet. I took hold of the other end and pulled. Together, we managed it. The cook wrapped Cynthi in her arms. "Hush, dear."
"The ball," Cynthi wept. "I only wanted this one beautiful thing. Fairy Godmother? Please help me."
I hurried to the basement. There, in a long-forgotten crate, I found it: the ball gown Cynthi's sweet mother had worn the day we met. I carried it upstairs and lay it carefully on the bench, then retreated into the darkness.
Cynthi's laughter brought me back to her world. "Candles and crystal and fountains of wine," she sang to the cat, as she whirled with him in her arms. "I danced and danced." Her face glowed in the firelight. I'd made her happy. If just for a moment.
Her joy crumbled as the door slammed. "Wicked girl," her step-mother shrilled. "The prince was smitten with my Clarisse until you ensnared him with your outdated rags and your artful ways and your tiny slippered feet."
"Enough!" Violet's hands closed around Cynthi's neck. "You will learn your place." Cynthi struggled, her hands ripping at the vice on her throat, but Violet's rage knew no weakness, and Cynthi, despite her work-hardened muscles, couldn't loose the deadly grip. I flung myself at the monster I'd married, but my hands slid right through her. The living stir up too much energy. I couldn't take hold of anything, not even the heavy silver candlestick I'd once paid so much for. I moved as far as I could from their struggle and finally caught hold of a chair. I flung it across the room, to crash at Violet's feet. She startled. Cynthi wrested herself free and shoved her step-mother away.
"I tasted life out there tonight," Cynthi said, her voice raw but exultant. "That is my place." Then she ran out into the world.
I emerge so rarely anymore from the mists of death. Cynthi's bright-eyed little boy smiles at me as if he can see me, and today, as she told him the story of her fairy godmother, I put my lips to her ethereal forehead and murmured my goodbyes.
Image by Edward Burne-Jones.