September 30, 2011

M'Lady, By Tahlia Merrill

Editor's Note: Tahlia has frequently written stories for EC since it began in 2008 and started this summer as the webzine's social media intern. She recently graduated from Westmont College and is currently in Sacramento trying to find an agent for her young adult science fiction novel. For more of her writing, check out her ongoing Victorian fantasy story at www.GuardianGhost.wordpress.com 

10 pm:

The hall clock has struck ten, which gives my pen a time to affix to this page, but I have melted half a candle rummaging through the corners of my mind for a date to enter beside it.  However, I seem to have misplaced it. A few minutes ago, I awoke out of a heavy sleep, clearly hearing Robert’s voice calling for me. Even as I sat up in bed and touched a hand to the empty pillow beside me, I heard one final time: “Dearest Margaret…” Then the frenzied sounds of a tempest crashed into my consciousness. The thunder shake the house’s foundation and the scent from my shattered perfume bottles hangs thick in the air. Perhaps I ought to check on the girls. Callista and Maeve don’t scare easily, for they are twelve, but little Angela is often haunted by nightmares.

11 pm:

When I shone the candle into my daughters’ room, I almost dropped it in astonishment. Two women slept in the beds and it was only when I saw their faces that I recognized them as eighteen year old versions of my girls and no sign of little Angela anywhere.  I staggered back a few steps, tears springing into my eyes. Had Robert’s death truly broken my mind so irreparably that I had missed years of life? I had wanted to be strong for them all—how had I failed? And where was Angel?

Amidst the sound of trees raking their branches across the house’s exoskeleton, I hurried downstairs to my study, only to find the door locked. All my spell books and ingredients were inside and hopefully my wand. When I first moved into the house, spare keys had been kept in the kitchen, so I made my way there. When I pushed open the door, I found the stove burning and a servant girl crouched in front of it faint glow. She winced every time the thunder growled. At the sound of the door opening, her eyes widened with fear.

“The storm, M’lady,” she explained in a rush, keeping her head lowered. “I couldn’t hear you call.”

Her voice was the only clue to her identity. Still breathy and childlike, even though she was now around sixteen.

“Angela?”

Her eyes flickered up for an instant, but snapped away before they could meet my own. When I stepped forward, she reflexively brought an arm up to shield her face. I faltered. Where was Robert’s dainty child who tied ribbons in her terrier’s hair and practiced piano while I experimented in my study? Why was she now sleeping in the kitchen, a faded servant’s dress slipping off bony shoulders? In the darkness, I couldn’t tell if the shaded patches covering her skin were large smudges of ash or bruises.          

“Angel?” I asked, using Robert’s pet name, hoping to reassure her. “Who did this to you?”

She clasped her hands behind her back and all vulnerability vanished with the movement, replaced with a dull, automatic politeness.

“M’lady?”

Not “Mama," not “Mother,” not even“Stepmother." My heart had stung when she cowered from me, but this unreachable blankness cut deeper. Deeper because her “m’lady” betrayed the truth:

Somehow, I had done it all.

Now, I am back in my bedroom, the storm outside a reflection of my inner torment. I barely had the presence of mind to ask Angel for the study’s key, but she said that “Lady Callista” kept all keys in her room. Sleep seems menacing for I cannot know how much time will pass the next time I succumb. If only I could glance at my spell books, I might attempt a potion to clear this madness from my mind. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to greet them tomorrow morning, a restored woman?  It is worth a quick search of their room…

2 am:

My heart is full of dread. I successfully retrieved the key to my study, but as I headed for the door, my feet tangled in a voluminous petticoat lying across the floor. The storm had quieted enough that the disturbance woke Maeve. Groggily, she craned her neck up.

“Mama? What—?”

Until my instincts urged me to lie, I had not consciously acknowledged that I distrusted my daughters. My feet froze like a naughty child caught awake past her bedtime. Behind my back, I rolled the key into the sleeve of my nightdress.

“I was just…Maeve, where is Angela?”

Maeve opened her mouth, but seemed at a loss for what to say. She glanced over at her sister and squeaked, “Callista?”

Always a light sleeper, Callista immediately rolled over and propped herself up on an elbow. “Callista,” Maeve explained nervously. “Mama wants to know where Angela is.”

“Mama,” Callista murmured, pursing her lips. “You should be in bed. Don’t fret yourself over Angela, she’s fine.” When I said nothing, she came over to me. “In fact, she’s spending some time with her aunt. You suggested it would be the best thing for her.”

Callista took my candle from my hand and led me away. I allowed my feet to obey her. We returned to my room. “The doctor said you must rest. Let me fetch you some tea.”

“Oh, no,” I said, trying to sound as tired as possible. “I feel so weak, I’ll just go back to sleep.” I sunk onto my bed to further my case.

She studied me carefully before nodding, pulling the door shut behind her.

I pulled the covers over me, but pinched myself to stay awake. Fifteen minutes later, I heard the door open.

I heard Callista whisper, “Alright, I think she’s asleep.”

Maeve whispered back, “Will she be all right at the ball?”

“I won’t risk it. We’ll tell everyone she’s sick. Let her stay here and keep an eye on the wretch.”

Then they left. After another twenty minutes, I sat up to keep myself from dozing. I intend to continue writing once I reach my study.

4 am:

The familiar lemony-mint scent of magic in my study still comforts and stimulates me simultaneously. All is not how I left it, though. My wand proved easy enough to find, despite its confusing placement atop my supply cupboard. More troubling, though, are the massive quantities of green walnuts and ash piled in untidy heaps across every countertop. Identical bottles of some pale blue liquid crowd every shelf. My open spell book lies on the floor, the outline of a torn page clearly marking where the simplest answer to this mystery once lived. Someone’s been busy in my absence, but neither Maeve nor Callista inherited my faerie blood, so unless Angela—no, I remember distinctly Robert telling me that her mother was full human.

I paced, trying to keep my mind moving, but when I wrapped my arms around myself for warmth, I felt a dull throb where my hand pressed. Rolling up my sleeve revealed a rather sickening sight: perfectly straight rows of scars running the length of my arm, starting above my elbow. Each was about a half an inch long at most and became fresher as they climbed to my shoulder. This is not the work of a physician’s bloodletting. He would have concentrated his efforts nearer to my wrists. Someone was trying to hide her work. Is using my blood to compensate for her own lack of magic? I’ve only heard of such things!

On the work table, I found a thick piece of paper. In fancy calligraphy, it invited every eligible lady of our household to a ball at the palace—the same ball my daughters were talking about. I finger the edges now, imagining how Callista will revel in attracting the prince’sattention. In fact, the walnuts and ash are probably part of some scheme to charm her way into his favor.  Imagine,my Callista a crown princess! Yes, my deceptively enchanting daughter whose jealousy has rusted her sparkle. And Maeve, as always, following in every game. And what will happen to Angela? Out of us all, shouldn’t she be the one to marry a prince?

And, why not? It’s the least I could give her after all the suffering we’ve put her through. She’s always had natural beauty—she’d only need a dress and a carriage. Oh dear, and a driver, and footmen, and a talisman to protect her from Callista. I’m not sure I could sustain all of those spells at the same time. And if I could, would Angela even accept help from the woman who has been nothing but a tyrant to her for over five years? I must try. It will require the entire day to prepare. I will carry everything to the tool shed on the edge of the estate so no one can find me.They will wonder where I have gone, but hopefully, they will be too preoccupied to search.

15 hours later (7pm)

Till midnight, I told her, but already I feel my energy stretched so tight I can barely walk. It will only get harder, though. Concentration is imperative, so after I’ve recorded these details, I will curl up and focus on preventing the pressure from squeezing me to death.

I came to her disguised by a glamour spell, looking dazzling and exotic. I told her I was her fairy godmother and she believed me. I had no time to gather extra materials from the house, so everything was created from objects surrounding me in the shed. I only had a raccoon to use for the footman, so he appeared a rather shady character, but her carriage, made from a large metal washbasin, looked quite respectable. The gown was woven from any golden leaves and flowers I could find along with handfuls of my own blond hair. With a sweep of my wand, I cleaned her curls and erased her bruises. I wove the protective spell into her shoes—which look like diamonds because they were forged from the shed’s windows.

11:45  pm:

My head pounds out the seconds. I clench my fists, concentrated on breathing. I must stay conscious until midnight.Angel must have her chance even if it means that I will not survive. Oh, Robert, I am watching over your child as best I can. If her happiness is secured, then I am happy to die for her. Spare me only if our fight must continue.Otherwise, I am ready.

Image by Simeon Solomon.

7 comments

  1. What an incredible story! We all know the Cinderella tale in so many manifestations. This caused me to stop breathing.

    Kudos to you, Tahlia, for leaving so much unsaid yet delineated! It would be tempting to over-write.

    Thanks for a really great short story, the best I've read this month for sure.

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  2. I would first like to say that you have written a wonderful story. Though I do not read too many fairy tales, I thought this was a great rewrite to Cinderella. Tahlia Merrill portrays a nice contrast between the struggles Cinderella faces and the successes she encounters towards the end of her night, as “the girl whose foot fit the slipper”. Because of all the different creations of Cinderella, we have a preconceived notion of what to expect. I like how Merrill has formatted this version so we know exactly the time of day Cinderella and her family is experiencing their emotions. In the end Cinderella is the one who steals the heart of the prince and it makes an interesting story along the way!
    As in many fairy tales, this goes to show the real life examples of how people’s actions and behaviors can both benefit them and destroy them. I hope to read more of Merrill’s remakes in

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  3. Molly G.
    This is one of my favorite fairy tales I have read recently! The tale takes a popular original like Cinderella and transforms it into a new but improved version. This story gives the stepmother an actual heart. Although she is portrayed as awful for some time the way she changes herself is remarkable. I think it was a great twist to have the stepsisters as the villains in the story. I presume that the two older daughters are the birth children of the mother, but yet they show such hate for her they put her under some sort of spell for five years. I would have liked to know what happen to the Angela after the ball; in order to see if the mother could accomplish her goal. The story says that the mother disguised herself as Angela's fairy godmother, and I immediately thought of the Disney movie and thought of the evil stepmother loving Cinderella enough to be her fairy godmother. I love that the godmother is the mother in the story it shows her love for the daughter despite her past actions. Great story, I hope you continue to write more fairy tales. Your story is amazing!

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  4. This is my favorite post I have read yet. At first I thought this was Cinderella that was the real daughter of the step-mother. It was not until Margaret reached her daughters room, that I realized she had turned Angela into the servant. The twist of the mother being, essentially, the fairy godmother was perfect. It took the widely known thought on step-mothers and showed that they can care for their step-children. In fact, she cared more about Angela than her own. But was that because she felt bad for having turned her into the slave? I’m not sure, but I love that you can feel her feelings hour by hour as she is watching this unfold before her. Margaret saying that she would happily die for Angela is a great picture of remorse and love for the girl. This is beautifully written! I plan on reading more from Merrill on my own time because she kept me wanting more as each “hour” came and went.

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  5. Wow! This makes another favorite for me. What a nightmare this woman must live! I almost want to say this is a psychological horror story. If this tale is derived from another fairy tale (I would guess Cinderella?) then I have to say that I have never read a fairy tale that has kept me in suspense like this before! This was like reading Stephen King meets Alfred Hitchcock meets Brothers Grimm. Coming into lucidity just long enough to realize how sick you are and that you have no control over it, and then realizing that your going to slip back into that condition really creates a nightmarish reality. I can imagine her sorrow. Given her circumstance she handles it very well. If it were me, I would probably crack during times of lucidity, but she takes those moments as an opportunity to do good. This is a pretty suspenseful story, I really liked it. I think a lot of the old fairy tales, especially those like "Red Riding Hood", "Bluebeard" or "Hansel and Gretel" could do with some of this kind of psychological horror given that they have elements of horror in them. However, they are written simply so that it lacks some descriptive imagination. I believe some imagination like this, could really enhance those stories.

    Adam B.

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  6. I loved this submission. The story of "Cinderella" told from the stepmother's point of view. No longer is she the evil stepmother of tradition and stereotype, but a misled and unaware pawn of evil machinations! The beauty of this story is that it is believable. (As far as fairy tales can be believable.) Alternate versions of fairy tales often contradict and must exist as separate entities from the original. This version however could easily fit in and nestle alongside the original Cinderella. They could coexist and live as one, instead of two diametrically opposed forces. Instead of parallel universes; two views of the same universe.

    The other reason why this is such a good story, is that the reaction of the heroine is also believable: True surprise, horror as realization sets in and then finally the desire to set things right, to atone and fix and make the world right again.

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  7. Never did I think I would read a tale that would make me sympathize with Cinderella’s step mother, but this story did. I am assuming this is a rendition of Cinderella, so for the sake of my own understanding, I will refer to the child as Cinderella. I guess Cinderella was not the only person who had her demons. We are so used to seeing the antagonists of fairy tales have a singular dimension where when they are bad, they are bad, and there is no redemption for their character or explanation for their actions. This is obviously not the case in this story. To know that the step mother struggled with the death of Cinderella’s father, as well as with how she treated Cinderella for so long is really quite refreshing. I neither expected the step mother herself to have powers nor did I expect her to pose as the fairy godmother. What made this story even more interesting was the way it read. It read as suspense and horror. Brilliant.

    -JP

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