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.)