September 30, 2011

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. 

She screamed. 

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."

"But—"

"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.

15 comments

  1. Fascinating new twist on a favorite old tale.

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  2. Thank you for such a sweet explanation of something that has always troubled me about this story--Cinderella's passive father. Well done!

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  3. I liked that the father turns out to be the fairy-godmother in his death: so bittersweet!

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  4. What a wonderful imagination to have seen this tale from the father's POV. Loved it.

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  5. Enjoyed Dad's involvement in a story where he's usually absent.

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  6. Great story! Loved the point of view. Wonderful.

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  7. So lovely, just amazing visualization, made me weep as a new mom to think of my poor dear sweet baby being treated like Cynthia.

    Great writer!

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  8. Thanks, everyone. It was fun to write.

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  9. I think this is very interesting way to express the fairytale of Cinderella. In the common fairytale, you do not hear much about her father. I think that this is a very unique take on the Cinderella story and helps you see the fairytale from another point of view. I feel that this was very well written and has been well crafted to make it seem as if it were coming from her dead father. I enjoyed how the author included, after the father tries to say things to his daughter, that he could not be heard to make it seem obvious that he was just a spirit watching down upon her. Overall this point of view of this fairytale brings you upon another level of thinking as you do not usually hear much about the father of Cinderella other than knowing he was deceased and not included in the story.

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  10. I have found that I really enjoy reading new tales that tie into familiar fairy tales that I already know. This post is by far my favorite one to read about Cinderella, or as in the story “Cynthia”. The imagination flows throughout the story as it comes from the point of view of her father. I really liked the idea of it coming from a male’s point of view because usually fairy tales revolve around women: the evil stepmother, three daughters, etc. I captured a piece of imagery involved in this post that really moved me. “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”. Cynthia’s father here describes his emptiness with his new wife as moonlight, something that really caught my eye. What a wonderful story, thank you for sharing!

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  11. Everyone who reads "Cinderella" is concerned about the absent father. In alot of the versions of the story the father is never described as dead. He just disappears never to be mentioned again. It is hard to understand a man who would just sit back and passively allow his daughter to be mistreated. So, I think alot of people like to imagine that he is dead. That seems to be the only reason why he wouldn't step in.

    The author of this story does a good job not only imagining how a father would feel to see the mistreatment of his daughter, but also in describing these feelings clearly so that any of us would be able to feel empathy. I love this story, because I always hated that there was no one on Cinderella's side. It seemed so unfair. In this story, Cinderella finally has her allie.

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  12. Thanks everyone! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  13. For me this is
    a new story about Cinderella.

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  14. It was a good story. Melinda Brasher, good job

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  15. These retellings of Cinderella are just too perfect; and this one is no exception. I have read a few that ranged from the step mother’s perspective to the fairy god mother’s perspective, but I had not yet considered there being a tale that was from the perspective of Cinderella’s father. What makes it such an interesting read is the fact that it involves the father at all. It is so commonplace for fathers to have little or no role in the life of their children in fairy tales. There are exceptions, like Hansel and Gretel, but stories like Snow White and Cinderella hardly mention a father figure at all. To see him so pained and so involved (taking over the tasks that we see as those of the fairy god mother) is most definitely touching. And I absolutely love that after having such a hard time becoming visible, Cinderella’s father can be seen by his grandson. What a great ending!

    -JP

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