My life is bittersweet these days. Now that Ella, Anastasia and Drizella are married and living in their own castles, it’s quieter, even a bit lonely at times, though I’ve learned to cherish my solitude and enjoy special moments to myself like Sunday afternoons in my chamber, stretching out on the couch with the New York Times. The dogs snore on the hearth, their feet twitching as they dream of chasing rats. Lord Tremaine’s in his turret and won’t descend until suppertime. The peacocks have wandered down to the pond, far enough away so their screams are muted. It’s a lovely time for me, sipping my tea, nibbling a scone, alone with an excellent newspaper.
But today, when I pick up the Book Review (leaving it for last, like dessert) I see, to my disgust, that the front page is devoted to my stepdaughter Ella’s memoir, Out of the Cinders. Bile rises in my throat, burning and sour. Yes, the story’s a classic: an inscrutable beauty, distant father, abusive stepmother, two ugly sisters. Rescue by a Prince, happily ever after, blah blah blah.
I am appalled that the NYT Book Review has given credence to her pack of lies.
I wanted to love her. She was cute as a button, and motherless. She needed someone to pick the lice out of her hair and feed her something other than roast pigeon and watered-down mead. Her father is a dear man but the silent type, not one she could talk to. He spent most of his days in the southwest turret trying to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem. If she’d given me half a chance we could’ve been friends.
It wasn’t easy being Lady of the Manor. The castle was a crumbling wreck: tottery staircases, broken windows, a rat infestation that even our swarm of flea-ridden Jack Russells couldn’t control. It was cold, and leaked in the rainy months. Blue fuzzy mildew grew on the tapestries. Drizella coughed all winter, and Anastasia had migraines. The servants weren’t being paid and most of them had left, except the gamekeeper, a one-armed good old boy who made a tidy living selling the salmon out of our stream. The Lord and he nattered on for hours about nothing. It drove me crazy. To say I was disillusioned with my situation is an understatement. But as a wife and mother — my role, my lot, my choice — I did my best to make everyone comfortable and happy. I didn’t complain, I tried to be fair.
The whole cinders thing is a complete fabrication. Ella had her own room, with a fireplace. On windy days a gust would come down the chimney and blow the cinders around. So she woke up with a dusting of ash now and then. We all did, but only Ella had the imagination to turn it into a pitiable moment.
She whined about her clothes. Well, there was too much to do, and no money. The girls had to pitch in, and that’s where Ella and I clashed. She wouldn’t do her chores. She slept late and mooned into mirrors and wept under the trees. So she didn’t get her allowance. And, honey: no allowance, no dress! I couldn’t afford a new ball gown every week! And the girl was mad for shoes. She wouldn’t patronize the shoemaker — no, they had to be gold and copper and glass. I told her, you want shoes, you work for them. She screamed at me, called me a four-letter word. It wasn’t “Lady”.
The incident of the Prince’s ball is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I spent the day helping all three girls with their hair, easing their jitters, reminding them about knees together. At suppertime Ella pitched a hypoglycemic fit, accusing me of poisoning her with the mushrooms in the stew. As her shrieks bounced from the rafters, Anastasia turned greenish like she does before a migraine. When I told Ella indoor voice, she dumped her stew on the floor. No ball for you, I said, go to your room. Don’t you know she hitched a ride with a neighbor and went anyway? Mice, pumpkins and fairy godmother — what an imagination! Guess it sells books.
She pranced into the ballroom and, not wasting a second on mere counts or earls, latched onto the Prince like a tick on a hound. Tugged her neckline a little too low, fluttered her lashes, and whispered something (dirty, no doubt) in his ear. When they disappeared to walk along the moat, the Queen was furious. She’s still not speaking to me, though by now she’s well aware of the futility of anyone’s trying to manage that girl. In Out of the Cinders Ella writes that she left the ball at midnight, leaving behind a glass slipper. Hah. More like dawn and her knickers. Chastity was never one of her virtues.
When the dogs struggle to their feet and nose me with a whimper, I realize I’ve been moaning epithets out loud. I can no longer trust the New York Times. Shouldn’t a book reviewer check out the facts? Readers deserve the truth. Pick one: a hard-working mother, trying to teach responsibility, feed her family and keep up a disintegrating castle? Or a surly borderline sucking all the air out of the room?
By the way, aside from his eighty thousand acres, the Prince is no catch. He’s a puffy-faced dissolute with bad teeth. And I hear he’s tired of Ella’s tantrums. He’s sealed her into the tower and won’t let her out until she agrees to therapy. She paces the ramparts in a frenzy, intermittently screaming. Or is that the peacocks I hear? From this distance, they sound the same.
Karen Pullen‘s short stories have appeared in Spinetingler and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Her mystery novel COLD FEET will be published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.
This story is sponsored by
Hydra House — Publisher of Pacific Northwest science fiction and fantasy, including K.C. Ball’s collection of scifi shorts “Snapshots from a Black Hole & Other Oddities” and Danika Dinsmore’s middle-grade fantasy “The Ruins of Noe,” sequel to “Brigitta of the White Forest.”