"This is all your fault, you wretched creature." My stepmother's eyes flared at me, hot as flames in her haggard, tear-stained face. It was not in me to look at her with anything but sorrow in my heavy heart. Though she and I had much different ways of loving, still we had both loved him.
It was my fault. I knew what she meant. She had been driven to impetuosity, endangering my father's life in bad weather, by jealousy over a love in him that my presence had kept alive, a love that was unacceptable to her. Or perhaps it was his fault. He had never been able to get over loving my mother, and Regina knew that he knew, and was able to play him like a marionette, taking advantage of his guilt feelings.
However, I said the most sensible thing. "'Twas your stupid bonnet! You and your stupid vanity! You knew he would do anything for you, wasn't that enough? Couldn't I have had his attention for just one evening?"
It still rained. The same rain that had slicked the road beneath my father's carriage, driving it relentlessly over a bridge and extinguishing his life, still pelted the glass. It was like torture on my senses. I thought I would scream from the pain.
Portia and Melisande, my stepsisters, were crying prettily. They didn't really care. They had not loved my father. This was between me and my stepmother.
My vision narrowed as I looked at her. This thorn in my side was suddenly my lifeline. I felt my mother's locket burning in my pocket. They were dead, both of my parents. I had no one but this woman who hated me. For a moment, through my streaming grief, I felt the hell that my life was to become.
However, I had no idea, really.
My father's funeral necessarily must befit his station, and when it came time to arrange, it was suddenly found that there was almost nothing with which to pay. We had been living on borrowed money for some time. My head spun too much with grief for the truth to sink in totally, and it might have driven me beyond the brink to do so at the beginning.
My stepmother and stepsisters had cleaned him out. We had no inheritance and on his death we owed a great deal.
Our home, the family home which had belonged to my ancestors for generations, was immediately sold. Regina did it gleefully, with no sensitivity to my memories there, nor my right to it as my father's daughter. Everything that I had known was turned over to creditors.
"Of course," Regina said, "for Frederick's sake, and that alone, I am taking you in. You have not endeared yourself to me, Cinderella. You do not have the potential that my daughters have in the marriage market, either. Therefore I see no point in bringing you out. In you will stay. Below you will stay." She pointed to the door in the kitchen of our townhouse. It led to the basement.
I was still holding my bundle of things in my arms. It was all I had left. All of my dresses had been sold, all my trinkets, books and jewels. Except one jewel, about which my stepmother would never know. "What will my living in your basement accomplish?" I asked. "There are three spare rooms, in addition to the master bedroom."
"There are two bedrooms for my daughters, and a sitting-room between them, for their musical instruments, and their art. I will not have their talents stifled. You, Cinderella, may ply your work in the basement. In addition to cooking and cleaning, mending and making up all our garments from now on, I expect you to turn out a goodly portion of lace each week to sell at market. You must earn your keep here. If you slack from these duties, Cinderella, I will turn you out."
Though I was a headstrong girl, her words chilled my blood. To be turned out was an unknown thing. There was no place for me in the city fog, and I would vanish as though I had never been. I would become a gray, indeterminate thing. I would suffer and starve. I would lose my honor. My eyes filled with tears and I let her see how hateful she was, but she did not see. Even though my father was dead, and could not hurt her any longer with his love for Evangeline, my mother, she could go on punishing me. It was the closest she could come to Evangeline.
The first days were hard. It took a while for my new position to sink in. I had never been treated well by the three, but Regina had counseled her daughters carefully in their behavior, and they unleashed their demands with a vengeance. They delighted in watching me be brought low. They loved to see how it rubbed me raw to serve them. When I didn't think I could go on any longer, I would close my eyes and see the gray void outside our street. There was nowhere for me to run. I was trapped.
Portia, Regina's oldest daughter, loved to eat. She was a heavy girl, and I was brought upon to let out her gowns almost weekly. Regina disapproved of Portia's habits, but it only stressed Portia into eating more. She did not mind stealing my portions as well as Melisande's, who had no appetite at all, and languished anemically.
If I were a man, I thought hatefully, I would never, never marry them, or give them a second glance. They are ugly, through and through.
At first my hatred was extreme. It ate at me, damaged me. I did not feel how much less I was really eating, or my lack of sleep in the cold, damp basement. When I looked at myself in my stepsisters' gilt mirrors I was startled by the change. My expression changed my whole face. The light in my eyes that my father had so loved was gone.
They love what they are doing to me, I thought, and I hated them even more.
After a time, I knew I must make a compromise with my reduced circumstances. The shop girls who worked endless hours in factories bore this somehow. I had been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but it didn't mean I didn't deserve to work, too. I would work for myself, and for the memory of my father. This was a Cinderella he had never seen before. Indeed, it was one I barely knew myself.
One night I burned their dinner, badly. It was a mistake. I did not want to hear their harpy-like shrieks at me any more than they wished to eat burned food, but I had no natural cooking abilities, either, and the mystery which distinguished delightful souffle from sunken, brown souffle eluded me.
My stepsisters cried out loudly when they saw what I had done. "Mother, look! Cinderella's burned dinner. Now what will we eat? She will make paupers of us. Oh, it isn't fair."
My stepmother jerked me by the arm furiously.
"It was a mistake," I said.
"You make too many mistakes," Regina hissed. "It's time I knocked some sense into you." She slapped my face, and I went rigid. I stared at her, my back ramrod straight.
"If only he could see you now," I said. "If only my father would see you. Every last bit of love for you in his heart would wither and blow away."
Melisande threw the souffle face-down on the floor with a splat. Regina thrust a broom at me. "Clean that up, you fool. The only dinner you'll have 'twill be that."
At least, I thought, it might prevent Portia from stealing my food tonight.
In my basement room that evening, I wept. I was beyond despair. I had not the strength to bear up under this labor, and my pride was too great. I could not give up that pride. I sensed I would need it for more important things in my life, when this crisis was past. I must find some middle ground between destroying myself with hate, and losing myself entirely.
I cannot do this. My life has become unbearable.
I bowed my head and shivered beside the boiler. I felt a weight on my head, a caressing touch, like a hand stroking my hair. I shuddered.
"'Tis a rat."
But when I looked around, there was no rat. I was alone in the room.
I worked on my lace-making by the window. It was an arduous task, guaranteed to make me cross-eyed and pinched before I was thirty. When my back ached, I stood up and looked out of the basement window. The ground was at my eye level and looked out into a courtyard of a home that was slightly nicer than our own.
There was a young maid who spent a lot of time in the courtyard. She must have had a nicer mistress than myself, one who allotted her fresh air during the day to do her handwork. Her hair was black as soot, and upon her dead-white skin was a lively blush.
Whenever I got the chance, I watched her, for it made me feel less lonely. This maiden had a sweetheart who visited her often. Before my bewildered gaze they would move to the shadowed portions of the courtyard and caress one another.
I watched her cheeks crimson with pleasure as he took her in his arms, her lips grow swollen from his kisses, her eyes drift closed as his hands roved around her rigidly corseted waist, searching in vain for some means to unlock the trap.
I forgot myself and my miserable life as I watched them, and the matted pile that ought to have been a length of lace fell at my feet, forgotten.
Desire pierced like an arrow through my desolate loneliness. Beneath my decrepit little figure lay a maiden's heart which longed to love and be loved by a man. Please, God, I thought piteously. One day, before I die.