Mama gave me the knife and made me do it myself. She said it would heal. She said that when I was queen, I’d never need to walk, that I would have servants for everything.
We have mirrors. We have mirrors everywhere, so I know. I’m not beautiful. Or pretty. My hair doesn’t shine, and I’m not all that clever with it—the current styles elude me. My chin is weak, a family trait. But I never thought myself so charmless as to require maternal intervention at every turn. Mama did, though, and we obeyed her, always. At every dance, every event, I was painted, corseted, dressed up like a French doll and presented to the men like a prize. What kind of prize I was meant to be, I’ve no idea, as Mama didn’t seem to think I had much to offer. I wasn’t to speak. “You must maintain the illusion of beauty,” she told me, and my voice, my words, would only sully that.
So, for Mama, I did it. I donned the dresses, spent hours on my toilette, smiled till my face felt stiff. Suffered the ugly fools and was most often ignored by the handsomer ones. And finally, when the greatest opportunity arose, spilled my own blood.
Later, there was nothing for any doctor to sew up. I’d cut the backs of my feet off, down to the bone, then wedged them into those tiny slippers, the shoes staunching the blood as I met the prince at our front step. He saw me turn my toe gracefully, this way, that, the blood in back hidden by my long gown. It was enough to convince him. He never looked me in the face.
He got on his horse, then bent to lift me up. I thought I might faint from the pain as I pushed up off the earth and blood rushed to the fresh wounds. But he just settled me in behind him, then turned to command the horse.
The animal clopped along, and with each jolt, my heels bounced against its side, spotting its silvery coat with red. There was nothing to say, and the pain had my breath, so I just looked. I looked at the cottage we’d lived in since Mama had remarried, the gardens, my bedroom window. Not anymore. Every step moved me that much further from what had been my home. And in that sense, it was my dream too, not just Mama’s.
She had been softer when Father lived with us. So my sister says. I don’t remember. After he left, her only desire was to find another husband. She was constantly powdering and primping, coming and going. To me, she always seemed just at the edge of something—tears, rage, collapse—and I learned to disappear into the furniture, fade into the tapestries. But once she married our stepfather, her attention turned to my sister and me. “His fortune will barely serve me,” she’d said, “so you’d best find your own, and quickly.”
She didn’t leave me to find my own, though. Everything—everything—was her idea, from the gowns to the hairstyles to the way I danced. It never stopped. If it wasn’t actual preparation, it was practice: the steps, the curtseys, the few witticisms she’d allow me to utter, in a carefully modulated tone. Just these words, said just so. No more.
I would have left that life for less than a prince. Far, far less.
It was the birds that gave me away. The birds from my stepsister’s tree, the tree that had sprouted on her mother’s grave.
“There’s blood on the shoe; the shoe is too small. Not the right bride at all.”
Talking birds, fluttering after us. Finally, he looked at me. He searched my face, frowning. Frowning at what? My imperfect visage? Or had he realized his mistake? Then his eyes fell to his horse’s side and he saw. Without a word, he returned me to the cottage.
I should like to see my own mother’s grave and her in it. I should think nothing would grow on it. But I won’t see it, or anything. The birds pecked my eyes out after my stepsister’s wedding. And now I sleep by the fire in her place. Mama will not speak to me, only nudges me with her foot when it’s time for me to sweep the hearth.
People in our village believe it was the prince, or perhaps my mother, who cut out my tongue after I was returned home. They’re wrong. I had nothing to say.