The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly

The Cinder Girl Burns Brightly
by Theodora Goss

Each night, her mother speaks to her out of the fire:
come to me, my daughter. Come into the flames.
And the Cinder Girl, the one they call Dirty Ella,
even the housekeeper, even the kitchen maid,
steps into the fireplace. She burns
brightly, hair flaring upward,
skin as white as the heart of the sun itself.
When she emerges, she is as clean as though
she had bathed in lavender water with castile soap.
She must rub soot again all over her body
to disguise herself as the Cinder Girl.

The fire is her mother’s arms, it is the love
in her mother’s breast, as hot as a train furnace.
If you have that kind of love, not even death
can defeat it.

When her stepmother says, sort these peas
from these lentils, the fire says
put them on the hearth, daughter.
She does, and out of the fire
fly two birds, one red, one yellow.
The red one picks out the peas,
the yellow one picks out the lentils,
until they are all sorted.
The Cinder Girl sits there, watching
with flames flickering in her eyes.

When her stepsisters say, mend these gowns,
the fire says again, put them on the hearthstone,
and out of the flames come small white mice,
squeaking, squealing, swarming over the kitchen.
They stitch the ripped hems, the torn bodices,
so neatly and evenly that the seams
are almost invisible.

On the first night of the ball, the fire says,
wear this — it is a dress
as red as passion. If you wear this, the prince
will want to dance with you all night.
The Cinder Girl puts it on, and now she is
a forest fire. She burns through the ballroom.
The prince dances with no one else. But at midnight
she runs back home to her mother.

On the second night, the fire says,
wear this — a dress as yellow as jealousy.
If you wear this, the prince will ask you to marry him.
He does, in the moonlit garden, but once again
the Cinder Girl flees. She does not know
if she wants to spend all night in the arms
of a man she has just met
who likes to play with matches.

On the third night, the fire says,
daughter, you know what to do. This dress
is as white as innocence. The Cinder Girl will shine
like no one else, not that the prince has eyes
for any other woman. Since he was a boy,
he has been attracted to danger and sharp objects:
swords and knives, court gossip,
the game of politics, like his father before him,
who preferred to imprison recalcitrant noblemen,
including the Cinder Girl’s grandfather,
in the castle dungeon. She herself
intrigues him — she is the greatest secret of all.
Who is she? Tonight he calls her
Princess Diamond. In the rose garden,
she accepts his proposal.

She leaves her shoe, covered with diamonds,
under a rosebush.

In three days, the prince and his retinue will ride
up to her door, where her stepmother
will laugh at the idea that Dirty Ella, imagine!
could be the mysterious Princess Diamond. But Cinder
will produce the other shoe out of her pocket.
Miraculously, she will be clean
under her rags, her skin as white as frostbite.
The prince will put her in his carriage, and the household —
stepmother, stepsisters, housekeeper, kitchenmaid —
will gape as they drive off.

She will be married in the white dress. That night,
while the prince is sleeping in a mahogany four-poster
with brocade hangings, she will kneel before the fireplace
of their cavernous bedroom, cold despite the tapestries
on which hunters trap a unicorn with the help
of a virgin, innocent, complicit. She will say, mother,
I am here. Out of the fire will fly two birds,
one red, one yellow, and perch on the carved bedposts,
above the snoring prince. Out will come
a swarm of white mice to scamper around the room,
over the oriental carpets.

The fire will hold out its arms, saying, daughter,
come into my embrace, and the Cinder Girl
will hold out her arms in turn, saying mother, come to me.
She will wrap the fire around her
like a shawl, red, orange, yellow, safe in its warmth,
and burn the palace down.

(The image is a illustration for “Cinderella” by Walter Crane.)

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Rabbits or Tulips

Rabbits or Tulips
by Theodora Goss

I told the tulips that it’s not spring yet,
but they’re not listening to me.
Instead, they’re poking green leaves out of the ground,
like the ears of rabbits,
and I wonder, idly, if green rabbits are growing
in my garden. When spring comes,
the real spring, in April or May,
will they poke green noses out of the soil,
dig themselves out with little green paws,
shake last autumn’s detritus off their green fur,
will they preen themselves, sitting among the crocuses,
and then proceed to eat the crocuses, as rabbits do?
Will they be, some of them, the color of jade,
some of them the color of malachite,
all different greens, with little green tails,
wreaking destruction in my garden,
just like their brown cousins?
But how could I blame them, if they sprang
from the soil of my garden? And then I think,
would I rather have rabbits or tulips?
And the answer, of course, is
that I want rabbits and tulips, both,
because I am greedy, because I want miracles —
beauty springing up out of the ground,
blossoming like the tulips, explosively,
into all the pinks of ballerina tulle,
and the deep purple of almost-twilight,
and pale yellow like lemon cake.
I want tulips as luminous and pearlescent
as the moon opening its hands
to gather clouds — and I want rabbits.
Green, brown, it doesn’t matter,
twitching their little tails amid a perfect
devastation of tulips.

(The image is Portrait of a Lady with a Rabbit by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio.)

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Feeding the Small Gods

Feeding the Small Gods
by Theodora Goss

Leave bread soaked in milk for the piskies,
those pesky little men in red hats,
little women in green skirts,
who pinch the cat and sign a treaty
with the mouse king, who never
help you clean, who leave the muddy prints
of miniature shoes on your kitchen floor.
But if you didn’t, wouldn’t it be worse?
Keep slices of cake and wine for the pale lady
who comes to your front door,
sighing and reading poetry
in Irish. Set out a dish of liver dumplings
for the banshee, dog treats
for the kelpie, that sopping mess of a water horse,
even when he leaves trailing
green weeds draped over the parlor sofa,
or she uses you as an unpaid therapist.

It is important to feed the small gods,
the gods of ponds and caves and the darkness
under the roots of oak trees. Because if the banshee
went away, who would memorialize the dead?
Who except the fair or unfair folk
would make the blackthorn bloom in spring?
Who would steal socks?
Leave a pot of tea and biscuits for the small gods —
the toadstool people, the ones
with butterfly wings, the ones that look
like worms, the impkins and pookas,
the ones that dance in rings or live under hollow hills,
or in your attic.

The beautiful ones, the annoying ones
that make the world magical. You would miss them
if they were gone.

(The image is an illustration by Arthur Rackham.)

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She Speaks Her Mind

She Speaks Her Mind
by Theodora Goss

I am too old
to fall in love for the first time,
to scrape my knee on the slide or break my ankle
roller skating, although I once did these things,
too old to sit on the swings
in the playground failing to properly smoke
my first cigarette, or spend summer afternoons
lying on the grass in the back yard, staring
alternately at the sky and the veined insides of my eyelids,
dreaming of things that haven’t happened yet.

I am too old
to save my money for the popular brand of blue jeans
or long for the actors on the movie screens
of my childhood, for Peter Pan and Robin Hood
and the Scarlet Pimpernel, for the heaven and hell
of adolescence, too old for acne,
for making cassette tapes of my favorite bands.
Time slips like a slinky through my hands
and I can count the years I have left like the rings in a tree
core sample studied in biology class.

I am too old for bubble gum ice cream,
too old to scream on the roller coaster, although
this amusement park ride called life still frightens me.
Too old to believe in Santa Clause or Tinker Bell,
coins thrown in fountains. I grieve
the passing of each year, I have seen so many,
green and gold and brown, having lived
in the country and the town, having watched the leaves
change and fall, and violets spring again,
unfolding their bruised petals after a harsh rain.

I am too old, now, for my first kiss,
whether from fairytale prince or beggar,
too old to get any taller, although I may still,
I fervently hope, grow wiser — and I am
a damn sight too old for this.

(The image is a self-portrait by Mary Cassatt.)

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The Tooth

The Tooth
by Theodora Goss

In summer, I chipped a tooth
on something — a seed, a small piece
of grit, a tiny stone
in a bag of green beans.
The dentist fixed it with that stuff
dentists use to fix teeth.
In winter I chipped it again
in exactly the same place,
biting into a dried apricot that was supposed
to have been pitted, but wasn’t.
Which is no big deal, really.
The dentist can fix it again.

Except that it reminds me
of my grandmother, who by the end of her life
had lost all her teeth, Soviet era dentistry
not having been, let us say, ideal.
There were cavities in the worker’s paradise.
She chewed soft food with dentures,
living principally on chocolate
that she hid under her pillow
in case it might be stolen by, I don’t know, soldiers?
A habit she learned during two world wars.

That was the year she left us,
going wherever they go, the ones
who leave us irrevocably.

When I wonder where that is,
my tooth, the one that has been chipped
twice now, says, don’t worry.
You’ll know soon enough.

(The image is a Victorian advertisement for tooth soap, which I assume is an early form of our modern toothpaste.)

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All Night Long

All Night Long
by Theodora Goss

All night long the snow falls down,
covering the buildings of the ancient town —
the central square, the benches in the park,
the lamps that remain shining in the dark,
the silent fountain, the abandoned trees
whose leaves have fallen, whose birds have flown.
Slowly, slowly the snow falls down
over the streets of the ancient town,
which resembles a woman in her wedding gown.

The moon shines through its clouds and sees
battered walls and broken electrical towers,
a river once spanned by a fallen bridge
flowing through darkened neighborhoods
between banks as white as an empty page —
while snow covers what lies written beneath
in the frozen churn of boots on mud.
The cathedral looks like a wedding cake.
The snow continues to fall for hours.

An empty page, a linen cloth,
a wedding veil, a moth whose wings
are dusted with icing sugar, like sweets
that children dream of on Christmas eve —
the snow resembles all of these things.
Beneath snow and moonlight, the ancient town
stays awake all night, holding its breath,
waiting. What can it do but wait,
while generals send bombs and the children sleep?

(The image is an illustration for “The Snow Queen” by Edmund Dulac.)

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In the Vitrine

In the Vitrine
by Theodora Goss

I gave you myself, and you set me
on the shelf where you put all your precious things,
your father’s watch, your mother’s wedding and engagement rings,
the figurines of Harlequin and Columbine
from some famous porcelain manufacturer in, probably, Spain?
Framed ancestral photographs, looking so solemn,
and an ashtray inscribed with your initials
in honor of something or other. What, I’m not certain.

There I was, in the vitrine, important enough to keep
in such a prominent place. But somehow, I became dusty,
faded by sunlight, like the embroidered fan your grandmother
carried for her presentation at court. I began to feel
shoddy, cheap, like a gimcrack prize you had won
at a fair called life. No longer myself,
no longer something I could give freely, confidently,
except perhaps to a second-hand shop.

I hopped down from the shelf,
dusted myself off. Oh, I was not the same as I had been
when I was bright and shining, when I had known my own name.
And yet there I was, not made of porcelain
that would crack or break — no, I was more resilient than that.
I scooted past the sleeping cat and headed out the door . . .
a little worse for lack of wear,
but not broken.

(The image is The Chinese Statuette by Richard Emil Miller.)

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