All the Ash (A Cinderella Story)

This is the first fairy tale I ever wrote, inspired by the idea of the very European tale of Cinderella having originated in China. As the shoe size was so important, I guessed it had to do with the Song Dynasty practice of foot binding, but there’s a better researched version out there.

This was also conceived as part of this vast high fantasy world that included a retelling of Snow White as a vampire, but Neil Gaiman did that one better too.

I thought it would be a novel, but the simplicity of a fairy tale was at the time the only way I could get this story told at all. The worldbuilding remains a mess, this being a fantasy land that has a fairyland where the fay can still receive portents. The teenager who wrote this was more interested in the idea of economics and bad political decisions leading to civil unrest, and was far more resigned to racism and (hat tip to Elisabeth Fiorenza for this term, although I’m probably using it wrong) heterosexism. The familial abuse and gory dismemberment from some older versions of the fairy tale is preserved.

So please be warned.

ONCE UPON A TIME, there lived a merchant. He may have lived in a kingdom far, far away but because he was a merchant he might have stopped by here long, long ago. Through his trade, he became much respected, very wealthy, and even happy for a time. He lived at one end of the trade route, and married another who lived at the opposite end and had never traveled except to live with him. This bride worked as a midwife, although she could heal anything between almost-birth and almost-death and some needs sidewise of those. Her own lands was civilized enough to let her rest the study of medicinal plants, but her dearest friend was a fairy of the earth named Maya who was an expert. While Maya had a husband of her own in fairyland, he was royal and winged like everybody else in court whereas Maya was not. For this reason, Maya followed the couple to the merchant’s country and became part of the family, godmother to their daughter. They named the child Ciella, which means heaven, and the first nine years of her life she spent in the closest place on earth to it: a home full of love and kind instruction, even with the merchant so often gone; Material wealth that showed in pearl doors (made from leaving regular doors inside giant clams) and gold floor tiles (made by shaping gold into tiles,) and charity, the truest sign of affluence. Ciella even had her feet bound like a noble from her mother’s land, but none of this spoiled her because she was naturally good and unnaturally well-raised.

Ciella’s tenth year of life was no so good: the King knew too late that the kingdom had grown poor. People bought more imports than local products, and did preposterous things such as pearl their doors, and gold their floors, and privately own charities. So, the king declared Ciella’s mother’s land evil and all its people enemies of the kingdom.

In the riots that followed, people were injured, and Ciella’s mother would only think of those in need of medical attention. Her final patients recovered fast enough and well enough to drag her out to a garden pond and drown her. Ciella only survived thanks to Maya’s glamour, which made them both appear not so foreign. Ciella’s mother’s heart, so pure, transformed into a giant carp. Ciella would point it out often, but Maya disbelieved her out of grief and common sense.

Finally, the merchant returned home. From this his latest journey, his goods were heavily taxed and soon all trade with outside kingdoms would be outlawed. Maya left for her home in fairyland, leaving the merchant to care for Ciella.

The first thing the merchant felt he must do was remarry one of his own people. Of all the women in the land, though, and many were kindhearted and open-minded, he married the one that only seemed so, and had twelve wealthy prematurely dead ex-husbands already.

After her father died, Ciella went to the garden pond and consulted her carp about the situation. The carp advised her to treat her stepmother with love and respect, as well as her stepsisters whose names were Marra and Beatrix.

Ciella did so, and her stepmother responded by pressing Ciella’s face to the hot embers in the fireplace, and deciding that such a docile steppdaughter would be useful to keep after all. Marra called Ciella ‘cinder-clod’ and refreshed her burns, while Beatrix, who was kinder, called her ‘Cinderella’ and fed her table scraps in a dog’s dish.

They put her to work, doing all the difficult chores and some easy chores and all had to be done quickly, which pained Ciella’s bound feet. Still, she treated her stepfamily with love and respect, because if she did otherwise she would disappoint her carp. Table scraps were barely enough to survive on, however. Ciella particularly starved for kindness but would settle for (she told herself) a moment free from all the pains of her body.

One day she felt sure she would die from this, and on that day the carp said to her, “Cut out some of my flesh to eat.” She did so, and when she ate the flesh of the carp she became less hungry and lonely and the pains left her. This gave her the strength to return home and…continue to be starved and abused. Soon she felt sure that she would die again.

“Cut out some of my flesh to eat,” said the carp again, and Ciella refused because she could see that the carp’s wound had not healed from the last time she cut into it. Still, the carp insisted.

Time passed. The carp’s flesh never healed or grew back, but it was a very big carp. It took seven long years of hunger, misery, and injury for Ciella to pick it clean. When she saw this, she was sure all was lost.

The carp said, “Now make a wish on my bones.”

Ciella did so, and did not feel better, and returned to her chores.

Unburdened by flesh, the carp slipped easily through the pond, swam between worlds, and appeared to the fairy Maya in a dream.

Maya left fairyland and returned to her old home to see how the merchant and her goddaughter fared. Time moved slow for the fair folk, and the changes surprised her. She hid from the strangers that inhabited her old home, the four women, and listened to three of them brag about who would catch the eye of the Prince at the royal banquet that evening. They’ve been doing it wrong, (or so one said) marrying and murdering for money could never work for long, while marrying for power would last as long as you let your husband live. Mother was getting old, and their last kill had been so long ago that they were becoming quite poor.

Maya privately disagreed with the three. Poor would be their servant, covered in rags and tatters, bruises and burns, and whom Maya took a while to recognize as her own goddaughter Ciella.

Finally the strangers left, and Maya reunited with her goddaughter.

It was difficult, because Ciella was hurt most by Maya’s abandonment (at least her parents had the very reasonable excuse of being dead) and pretended not to know her at first.

It didn’t matter. Maya had a plan, a plan so brilliant and urgent that she didn’t have the time to explain it, or even the time to properly convince Ciella.

First, Maya produced her gift of a pair of silk slippers, white as death and sewn with crystal beads. The fairy cast a powerful glamour upon them. She bade Ciella step into the slippers, and then sent her off to the banquet on a pumpkin wagon drawn by a mousy-brown mule and driven by an old farmer wise enough to not see glamor and to always do the earth fairies favors.

Later tales had it that a flawless, breathtakingly beautiful noblewoman in a grand gold carriage drawn by a team of lightning-white horses arrived, that she had impeccable manners and such a fine gown… but all of it, all of it were merely the glamour of the shoes.

Maya would never understand why Ciella ran. It wasn’t as if the glamour failed in the middle of the night or anything. It didn’t even fail when Ciella lost one of the slippers at the first stride, and hobbled away as quick as she could instead of running. Ciella calmly explained to Maya that she wanted to solve her own problems instead of so easily marrying out of it to the son of her mother’s murderer, and she only wished for some love and support.

Maya couldn’t understand it. Marriage to the fairy prince had solved all of Maya’s problems before.

Ciella expressed her gratitude, knowing that Maya would be bound by fairy laws never to do the same favor again to one who thanked so profusely. Ciella also apologized for losing the shoe. Maya said that the loss of the shoe wouldn’t be a problem, and Maya was wrong.

The prince was so taken by the lady at the banquet that he barred all the exits from the kingdom, and with the one shoe to guide him he searched every house, one by one, foot by foot, for his true love. He found nobody even close to his true love’s shoe size.

With Maya’s companionship giving her renewed strength, Ciella faced her stepfamily and told them what had happened to her the night before. She received no beating, but neither did they become one shiny happy family by the magic of reckless trust and honesty. Instead, when Ciella showed her stepmother the remaining shoe, her stepmother took it from her and told Ciella to continue with her chores. The stepmother’s face was stony, but her hands shook with anticipation.

When the prince arrived, Ciella made herself scarce before her stepmother ordered her to do so, and nobody complained. Out in the garden, Maya urged her to run away to fairyland.

“I could never,” said Ciella, “There must be a way to get through to them, and besides, my carp is here.” Maya finally asked to see it.

“She has its pair,” exclaimed the prince, from inside the house, “How much more sensible it would have been to look for that!” He was sure Marra was not his princess, however, and asked her to put the slippers on anyway. He knew the shoes wouldn’t fit, because he also looked at the ladies’ faces and tried to match them with a glamour-addled memory of a face.

The stepmother (birth mother, in this case, to Marra,) took both slippers and her daughter to her room.

“You won’t need your toes when you’re princess,” she said, and sliced off Marra’s toes. Marra neither struggled nor cried.

Out in the garden, Maya shook her head disapprovingly at the carp bones and said that it was a stupid reason to stay.

“Wish on me,” commanded the carp, and Maya was unfazed that a carp should speak. If its bones were clean and not so brittle, she would believe it was competently magical.

“Wish on me,” pleaded the carp, and Maya was scornful. If it were whole of flesh, with scintillating golden scales, she said, she would worship it.

“Wish on me,” invited the carp, and Maya almost believed it was her dear friend’s heart but wouldn’t show it.

“I wish for wings,” said Maya, who never had any. The pond rippled, and darkened.

Marra hobbled to the carriage, but she did so oozing the glamour of the slippers, and the prince wondered how he ever could have doubted that she was his princess. Of course his true love had hobbled away from him the same way, and he had not pursued because running to grab a lady was beneath him, no, he was a prince who would write new laws to capture her.

Off they rode, and the prince saw a beautiful white bird with long wings. He thought it might be a dove, but it was really an albatross. To the prince’s surprise, the bird flew down to be nearer to him, and spoke.

“She probably won’t kill you,” said the albatross, “But if I could do it all over, I would not have married so hastily.”

The prince reflected on this, and because glamor can’t hold to a mind in a state of reflection, when the prince turned to Marra he saw an ordinary girl writhing in pain as blood seeped through her slippers. He called for the carriage to turn back.

The carp skeleton returned with bits broken off of it, and looking as terrified as something without flesh could most look. The pond regained its clarity and lustre.

“No wings,” said Maya, sounding much less disappointed than she really was.

“There are rules,” explained the carp skeleton, “and terrible things are done by those impelled to follow them, who get caught where rules cross, and there must make their own. Or maybe it’s just me. One more wish.”

“Then let’s leave,” said Maya to her goddaughter.

“I only wish that wherever I go, you’ll be with me,” said Ciella to her carp.

The stepmother apologized for trying to trick the prince. She continued to say that she did so only because she didn’t want to lose her youngest, who was really the one he fell in love with at the banquet. She loved her youngest, but would do the right thing.

“You won’t need these when you’re princess,” said the stepmother (birth mother, in this case, to Beatrix,) as she sawed Beatrix’s heels off. Beatrix struggled and cried, which made the wounds sloppier.

Ciella heard the screams and grieved, because Beatrix had been the kindest of the three to her, and might have grown up sweeter if circumstances had been different.

Maya insisted that, by the same rule, we all come to deserve our circumstances, so the best thing to do would be to leave.

“I wish that Beatrix would stop being hurt, that the slippers grow to fit her feet, and that she marries the prince and lives a good long life,” Ciella intoned, walking towards the courtyard. Beatrix’s screams escalated. “I wish that my stepmother listened more than she expected people to listen to her, and that she loved her daughters as people rather than love them for whatever status they bring her,” Ciella continued, watching her stepmother force Beatrix down the stairs. Under the glamour, the poor girl was bleeding to death. The stepmother only gave Ciella an icy glare.

“Mother,” said Ciella finally, “I would cut out my heart now with you inside it if that would let me change my final wish. Everyone’s parents die, perhaps never completely because we still live by how they’ve shaped us. I think I can live like that, like everyone else, and I’m sorry that I took things literally because I do not need your ghost to haunt me when I have your ideals. The wish was granted before I wished it. Please take it back, and heal my younger sister.”

As she spoke, she walked closer to her younger stepsister, ignoring her stepmother (whom Marra pulled close for an angry, private talk) and the prince (who was still immune to the glamour, and he and the albatross looked at each other and shook their heads disapprovingly.) Ciella caught Beatrix as the younger girl fainted.

The fish granted the wish, and returned to the pond, where Maya managed to pull its bones back onto the land the same moment that all the carp bones turned into light and burned away.

The prince saw Ciella. Bad enough that she was a servant, worse that half her face was hideously burned, worst of all that the other half of her face was that of one of the evil foreigners—and he knew that she was his princess, because her misshapen feet would fit the flippers perfectly.

“Of the three, this one is the easiest to learn to love,” said the albatross to the prince.

Long ago and far away, that was already a lot to have in a marriage. The prince decided, “I always did disagree with my father about the embargo, and marriage to this girl could force good terms between nations again.”

So, they were married, and Ciella was put in a position to take revenge on her stepfamily if she wished it. She did not wish it, because the only revenge she needed was that her stepfamily abuse one another to the point of slicing off body parts… and the reason Ciella would want revenge in the first place was because this revenge was fulfilled.

Before she could puzzle this out, and flock of twelve crows flew down and pecked her whole stepfamily to death. It would have been thirteen crows, but Ciella’s father had learned to forgive. He flit his wings in a loving good-bye to Ciella, and went off to explore the world, which he loved most.

This left Ciella to gape at the remains of her stepfamily in horror. She reflected that a person can do twelve times a deed that would merit death once, but cannot die twelve times herself. This left the flock unsatisfied, and they flew away, to seek somebody else who deserved to be pecked to death, and this would rob one other or so many others of their vengeance who were not part of the flock…yet. So, the flock would grow, and the flock did grow, and perhaps it will grow ever after.