Something glittered deep inside the trunk. I reached for it, and shivering, drew it up from the bottom. “It’s a diamond necklace,” my mother said as she fastened it around my neck. I screamed. Its freezing grip terrified me.
Even when I wasn’t a little girl anymore, my mother and I played dress-up whenever my father was away from the castle. With him gone, my mother hardly spoke at all during dinner, and neither did my grandmother. My grandmother also banished our cat, Puss, from the royal dining chamber, which meant I couldn’t feed him scraps under the table.
Once the plates were cleared, my grandmother dismissed my mother and me with a wave of her jeweled hand. Puss, who’d been pacing outside the door, raced ahead as we climbed the stairway to the room high in the tower where the battered old trunk was waiting.
Taking a key from the locket she wore around her neck, my mother unlocked the trunk. She and I grasped the lid; she counted one, two, three; and we lifted. Rusty hinges creaked open, and we rummaged inside, until whirling around us were hats and gloves, capes, and satiny gowns.
My mother tended to the fireplace herself. “Some things you never forget how to do,” she said the first time she brought me with her to the drafty room and swept out the ashes before lighting a fire.
Whenever my father was away, my mother faded into the background like one of the servants. My grandmother pestered her about seeing to it that the garden was weeded, the kitchen knives sharpened . . . there was always something my mother was neglecting. “What are you waiting for, Ella?” my grandmother asked, giving her a sour look. “For it to happen by magic?”
Except for a pair of great-aunts who mostly kept their distance, my grandmother was the only family my father had left. That’s why we had to be nice to her, my mother said.
“He has us,” I said, furious at not counting.
“Yes, but there was a before us,” my mother reminded me. She was brushing my dark, unruly hair.
“For you too.”
She laughed at that.
The two of us kept quiet all day long around my grandmother, so she didn’t fall into one of her rages. But at night, we dressed up and we danced until we were dizzy and crazily giggling.
My father never tired of telling how he met my mother. About how she made her entrance to the ballroom wearing clothes so dazzling, they bewitched everyone, especially him. How on the final night of the ball the slipper she left behind in her rush to leave led him to her, almost unrecognizable, covered as she was in the ashes she slept in by the fire. She only spoke about it when we played dress-up. And she never said anything at all about her life before she wore those clothes for the first time.
“Mama,” I asked her, years ago now, as were tying a cape around Puss, “how come I only have one grandmother and everyone else has two?”
“I lost her,” my mother said, distracted. “It was careless of me, I know.” Just then, Puss dug his claws into her arm.
I grabbed a glove from the trunk to soak up the blood, but she pushed it away. “Nothing can ever be missing from that trunk,” she said between gritted teeth, and ripped the hem off her dress to staunch the glistening stream.
I didn’t get to ask her then about what I’d overheard earlier in the day during a rare visit from my great-aunts. Puss had gone missing, and I was looking for him under the rosebushes bordering the flagstone path to the castle.
Glancing up, I saw them. They’d stepped from their carriage and were heading up the path, their faces hidden beneath huge ribboned hats. I’d never had to talk to my great-aunts on my own. Panicked, I ducked under the bushes, thorns tearing at my dress. Through the tangle of greenery I saw their brocaded skirts as they passed, and heard their chatter. I caught my mother’s name and the words stepsisters, birds, peck, eyes, or at least thought I did.
My mother hadn’t ever said anything about stepsisters.
The following morning, I heard my grandmother through the door to the kitchen, scolding my mother for scattering crumbs for the birds in the courtyard. “That only encourages them!” she screamed at her. I kept walking past the kitchen until I was out in the sunshine.
That night my mother and I followed Puss up the torch-lit tower stairs in silence. As always, Puss crouched by the bolted door while we laced up our gowns. Mine was the color of sea foam, my mother’s bone white.
Clasping a bracelet around her bare wrist, my mother drew near the fire. I started to dance. My grandmother’s ravings echoed in my head louder than the tune I hummed to myself. I whirled faster and faster, and one of the glass slippers flew off my foot. It shattered against the smoke-blackened wall.
My mother crumpled to the floor. Ashes from the fire clung to her gown. “I’m so sorry,” I sobbed.
She said nothing but dragged herself within the glinting circle of splintered glass. Her raven-black hair draped her face. Gathering up the shards, her hands bled.
Puss padded over to her from where he’d been watching. His giant tiger eyes flickered in the firelight. Released from icy glass, magic bared its teeth. She was at its mercy.
And I lived bitterly ever after.