“Cinderella,” Madam Malvolia says, sneering at me as I step through the door. “where have you been? It’s almost time to eat and here you are, standing in the doorway like an insolent little girl. Get to it. What are you waiting for?” Instinctively, I cower in on myself. Her shrill voice and hateful manner have always gotten to me no matter how hard I try. I try to focus on my breathing as much as I can.
I walk around her with my basket and head straight to the kitchen to begin the evening meal. I quickly wash up and get to work, bustling around, grabbing pots and pans and everything I had gotten for tonight at the market a couple of days ago.
It was time for me to go again. That would be something to get me out of the house tomorrow.
For now, I carefully cut everything up and put it in the desired pots and pans. The smells waft over me, leaving me warm and happy if only for a moment. The kitchen was the one place I could count on being alone for the majority of my time. After Malvolia rid the entire household of help, it was up to me to complete everything that needed to be done. But it also meant I had a good amount of time to myself, which meant I was at least away from my step-mother and sisters.
The kitchen was my only place of solace. There were no step-sisters trying to tell me how outdated my hair and clothes looked according to the new fashion booklets they received by coach every week, or how no one would ever want to paint my portrait to hang in a home. As much as I tried to tune out their vain comments and stories, sometimes they got through my walls anyway.
But in my kitchen, my mother’s kitchen, I was free from them. I can still remember days of my mother dancing around the kitchen with the cook and kitchen maids, helping to make dinner. I ached to be like her, make her happy and proud of me even if I wasn’t the little girl she knew anymore.
As I quick-step around the room, stirring and adding ingredients, I hear small little squeaks and scuttling coming from below me. I smile before I look down to see a handful of little mice scurrying around, looking for bits of food. Not-so-little Gus and Jack, Genevieve and Lola, and of course Pip. After being around the little fellas since I was demoted to live by the fireplace or in the attic, I have become quite acquainted with them. They always come around when I’m alone, and especially when there’s food. I like to think of them as my little friends. Not that their size made them any less of a friend to me.
“Hello you all! I’ve got a surprise for you!” Not surprisingly, they all look up at me and squeak, as if they could indeed understand what I was saying. I like to think that they can. On the table opposite of the one I was cooking on, I grab some old cheese that would have been thrown out otherwise and tear it into smaller pieces. Grabbing a tea cup plate, I set the pieces on it and place it on the ground by the fireplace, out of the way of my cooking and close to their little escape hole in case it was needed. “There you all go! Eat up now!” And they happily do.
I smile and return to my work, more at ease now with these guys around. Their only nemesis is the large cat, Lucifer, Madam Malvolia brought with her when she first arrived. Lucifer was a pesky thing, but I always caught him before any real trouble could be made.
Finally, everything is finished. I wipe the sweat off my brow and busy myself with carrying the cups and utensils into the dining room before it gets inhabited. Anastasia and Drisella don’t let me live it down if they get there before everything but the food itself. I fill up my sister’s cups with water and Malvolia’s with the best wine the kingdom offers and we can afford. I scurry back to the kitchen and wait for the sound of their heavy footsteps descending the grand staircase. Within moments I hear their shrill laughter and snide comments on what so-and-so wore or something as trivial and unimportant. It was only a matter of time before they tried to pull me into their conversation by insulting me. My hands start to sweat at the thought of it. I strain my ears to hear them pull out their chairs and plop themselves down for dinner. Immediately, I pick up each completely filled plate and quickly carry them into the dining room.
My step-mother looks up from her daughters for only a moment, just long enough to give me a look saying I shouldn’t linger, and returns to Anastasia’s story about some girl in the village. I lay down each plate according to everyone’s pre-mentioned portion sizes and then make haste back to my place of solitude. I curse myself for keeping my eyes down the whole time, like the servant they think I am.
I sit on my stool and pick around at the measly amount of food I was able to save back for myself without them noticing. I eat quickly and quietly, hoping to get it all down before one of them comes in looking for more. Luckily, I hear them leave and go back up the stairs to their rooms, only to ring for me soon enough to bring up something else I’m sure.
“Cinderella! Clean this up this instant. I will not have my home looking like filth.”
I hurry to get up, and rush out to the dining room. My step-mother stands in the entryway, making sure I do as she says. I avert my eyes, carry the plates and utensils to the sink, throwing the scraps of whatever they deemed inedible into a sack that I would hopefully be able to feed to the dog. All the while, Madam watches me. I feel my heartrate pick up against my will under her watchful eyes. I know she’s waiting for me to drop something or clean up on a way that displeases her. I can feel my hands getting sweaty as I walk in front of her. I have to remind myself to breathe. I can’t count on myself to do it alone. No matter how hard I try to calm myself down, my mind has its own idea. My heart feels like it’s going to burst through my chest. And oh, my chest. So tight I can’t think of anything else. My breathing is quick and shallow; a deep breath won’t come no matter how hard I try. As I take back my last load of things back into the kitchen she says, “I expect a better meal tomorrow. That was practically a peddler’s meal.” Then, she promptly turns away and leaves me to my own.
At her exit, my breathing continues to wage a war against me. I take a seat and try to remind myself to take slow, deep breaths. Finally, I can feel my heart return to normal. I still feel a little shaky, but I know in a few moments, with some deep breaths and a glass of milk, I’ll be calmed down. It’s always the same. Anytime Malvolia is in the room my body reacts against itself. Her daughters are no better to my racing heart and jumbled mind. I can’t think straight. It takes everything in me to keep going like it’s nothing. Eyes down, head high, and keep moving forward. It’s a constant mantra repeated in my head over and over. But, oh, how I wish for one day where my heart stops trying to jump out of my chest and the words I’ve been achingly holding back for years come pouring out. I would look them each in the eyes with the authority I should have never given up so easily, and I would walk out the front door.
But that’s just a fantasy. I could never stand up to them. Not with the way my body takes over. And this home, my home, my parent’s home. How could I leave it here to these awful people?
I can feel my body start to react again, the tear ducts starting to fill my eyes. I quickly shake it off and finish my duties for the evening so I can get to sleep. I take the scraps out to the dogs and feed the other animals I see milling about. I quickly wash off as much as I can and hurry back inside to the warm fireplace where I curl up with my little pillow and favorite old blanket and quickly fall asleep.
I swear the sun rises earlier than it ever has.
I feel like I just went to sleep, but there the sun is, streaming in through the kitchen window onto my face.
I slowly get up, rub the sleep from my eyes, and store away my bedding. I put some bread and some other pastries in to bake for breakfast and get some milk and tea ready. I quickly assemble some plates onto the dining table and arrange the flowers I had picked yesterday into a vase in the center of the table. The yellow daffodils bring some cheer back into the dreary room. I open the curtains to let in the morning sun and then return to the kitchen to fetch the baked goods. I arrange all but one around the table, picking it up and putting it into my apron to eat on the way to town. Before anyone has a chance to wake up and demand more from me, I slip out the back door and walk to the marketplace.
Market days are my favorite days. It gets me out of the house and away from my step-family while seeing the friends that my step-mother fired, and I get to breathe. I always walk, unless the weather isn’t very good or I have to hurry back. But today, I can take my time. The sun warming my face and the birds chirping make me smile. I can hear squirrels and rabbits running around the brush, enjoying the nice sunny day just like I am. I get to the opening of the market square and see our old kitchen maid, Daisy, standing at the entrance. We had grown up together at my house before Malvolia had fired Daisy and her mother who was our cook. I learned everything I know from them. Daisy and I always met on market days so we could catch up and I could have some kind interaction.
“Oh, Ella! I’m so glad you’re here! I was afraid Madam was keeping you away.”
I can’t help but smile. “I guess I tried to enjoy my walk here a little too much. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. Ready for some shopping?” And with that, we stroll through the gate and into the square. We quickly slip into our usual conversation of catching up and Daisy’s gossip. We take our time examining the ripeness of this and that, the quality or amount we would be getting for such and such a price. It was so easy, so relaxing. I could stay in this moment forever. We walk away from our favorite fruit stand and enter the part of the square closest to the palace.
It stands magnificently tall and beautiful in the morning sunlight. The glass sparkles, the stone court shimmers, and its garden and trees in full bloom take over the smells of the market. Guards stand their ground around the perimeter of the castle, dressed in the blue of the royal court. On the top of the stairs which lead into the palace grounds, a trumpeter is setting up and a herald stands with a scroll. The trumpet sounds and the market goes quiet as everyone instantly turns their attention to whatever decree is coming from our beloved King.
“Here ye, hear ye. By order of King Thomas and his heir the charming Prince, a Royal Ball is to be held in a fortnight. This ball is dedicated to his Royal Highness and the Crown Prince as the Prince will be taking a bride. All eligible maidens of the land, royal or common, are invited to attend this gala by order of the Prince. In two weeks’ time at the stroke of eight, the doors to the palace will be open to all who wish to enter and enjoy in its marvels.”
The trumpet sounds once more as the other man rolls his scroll up and the two return to the castle. The market instantly erupts with cheers and whispers, everyone wondering what to wear and if even the servants would actually be allowed to attend. I look at Daisy who is practically squealing in delight at the prospect of meeting the Prince himself.
“Ella, what can I wear? I have nothing that will make the Prince think I should be his bride. Oh, this is marvelous Ella, truly spectacular. It will be the best night of our lives.” She continues on as we finish our rounds at the market and hurry back to our homes to tell our households the good news. Daisy even had me wandering home with a starry look in my eyes, for once excited to be going home.