I ventured into the forest to talk to my mother’s bones. I did not expect them to talk back.
Under the wide-spread branches of the chestnut tree I knelt, arms wrapped around my stomach as I cried. My muscles shook and trembled and I bent, lips parted in a low-toned keen. Tears leapt off my face, splattering the soft earth. “Mother,” I cried, “I am the worst thing that ever happened to her family.”
A great creaking rolled beneath my knees as the roots stretched and the rows of narrow chestnut leaves shuddered. In their whispering I heard, Why, daughter, would you say such a thing?
Flinging myself back, I crawled away, eyes locked onto the tree. I hunted for her, for any sign of her. But she was buried beneath the roots – I helped Father do it – how could she speak to me?
I sat, shoulders bending and head down, hands flaccid in my lap. Her whisper pulled through me and I was left with no resistance. Limp and shivering, I said, “She told me so herself.”
Dawn had burst over the orchard like whiskey, washing the pear-trees a fiery gold. I woke in my attic room, stretched against silky pillows, and watched the dance of light across my ceiling beams. The morning smelled sweetly, and promised crisp wind and later warmth. In honor of spring, I chose my favorite organdy dress, with sheer layers that billowed around my elbows and ankles. It fit snugly around my middle, but would need the final buttons up the back of my neck fastened by one of the maids downstairs. As I traded the slippers I slept in for day-slippers, I heard the bright puncturing rhythm of a horse and carriage.
Who came? I had not been told of any visitors.
Instead of tripping lightly out the back and into the garden for my morning walk among the bluebirds and pears, I hurried down the spiraling stair to the second floor of our home, to pause on the landing. Lady Irene stood in the center of the large-tile floor below, flanked by my half-sisters and all the house’s servants. Irene’s head floated regally at the end of her neck, over her best violet silk gown. Drips of pearls fell from her ears and a thick amethyst choker hugged at her collar. My half-sisters, too, wore their best, especially Raina. She clutched Novia’s hand.
Was it Father? I gripped the banister, a smile tugging at my mouth. He would chide me for my half-dressed appearance, but not harshly, for when my hair spilled down past my cheeks and shoulders it reminded him of my Mother. Besides, no one warned me to be ready!
One of the footmen swung the front doors apart and I leaned forward, a grin on my face.
But it was not Father who strode in. A young man in the grip of his own excellence arrived, flipped his half-cloak back over an arm, and bowed to Lady Irene and then to my sisters.
Stepping forward, Irene held out her hands and said, “Be welcome, sir.”
“Madame, your kindness is – ” he paused, for as he raised himself up, his eyes traveled beyond them all and found me where I waited with my dress loose and my hair curling and my face bare with confusion.
He did not look away.
I blushed and turned my face to the side.
“This, sir,” Irene demanded his attention with her firmest voice, “is my eldest daughter, Raina.”
But I felt his gaze upon me, despite Irene’s attempts to corral him. Raina spoke softly, and for one brief second I was free of his stare. I fled through the rear of the house, down into the kitchens where I knew Ebby would have coffee and toast, and could secure my gown.
“Oh, child, you are a mess. Come here,” she said, bustling around her chopping station. She reeked of tomatoes and onions. “I’ve got little time before I must stuff my peppers for the luncheon. Lady is ever-so concerned that we – ” she spun me around and popped my buttons into place “ – impress Sir Jarrad, which probably does not mean you running around with your hair all tumbled like you just got yourself out of bed. Why didn’t Sammy put it up for you? You’ve got that nice little coral pin that echoes the color this bodice quite – ”
I wasn’t listening anymore. I sucked at my lip, knowing I had not been awakened because Irene had not intended me to meet Sir Jarrad. Why didn’t she ask me these things? Why couldn’t she –
“Elinore, you selfish child,” Irene hissed as she swept through into the kitchens. “That is enough, Ebby, finish the luncheon.”
I couldn’t help backing away as my stepmother leveled her gaze onto me. “How dare you distract from Raina on a day like today!”
“I didn’t know,” I whispered, shaking my head.
“You always know.”
“It isn’t true.”
Her elegant hands turned into fists and she drove them against her hips. “I should have locked you in your room while you slept.”
“Or asked me to stay away!”
“I tried that last month, with the Earl of Adam, if you’ll recall.”
“That was an accident.” I’d wandered into him coming home with a basket of half-rotten pears to make into jam.
Irene couldn’t bring herself to make such an ugly expression as a sneer, but it was close. “Accident. As accidental as your mother’s snaring of my husband, I am certain.”
“I don’t wish to cause harm, especially not to my sisters!”
“My girls are not your sisters, you devil.”
My chin lowered and I glanced at my tiny feet. I couldn’t help it. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to them.
“You’re always sorry. It changes nothing.”
“I – ”
“Just stop.” Her voice cut between us like lightning. “Stop. Everything about you ruins us. You are the worst thing that has ever happened to my family.”
The silence was so complete, even the water in Ebby’s pot stopped boiling. I looked up at my stepmother’s face. Her lips trembled, and had I stayed I did not know what might have happened. I shoved out of the kitchen, exploding into the orchard, and ran and ran through the even lines of pear trees for the wild forest beyond.
When my mother died, I was left alone in the tiny cottage tucked into the center of an elm grove. Her body smelled of petals pinched off the stem, and as her skin sank against her bones, I noticed their sunny crystal glow. My days hardly changed. I swept and roasted acorns, I gathered berries and cleaned out my squirrel traps. I did it all alone, humming to myself and missing Mother.
And then Father came. His scream echoed through the forest and I arrived in a flurry of slippers and twigs. He clutched her sweet, rotting body to him and cried. I hid in the shadows. For hours he wept, kissing her as chunks of her hair fell off into his lap.
The sun set, and he wrapped her in her bedsheets. We walked close to the forest’s edge and buried her in the roots of her favorite chestnut tree. Then Father took my hand and kissed my cheek. His wet eyelashes stained my skin. “Ah, Elinor, you will be just like her.”
And I was – in the eyes of Father’s wife.
Irene glanced once at me, and then to Father. We three stood alone in their bedroom of grand paintings and a wide, heavy bed. “Why have you brought us this bastard thing?”
He hit her.
The crack sizzled up my arms, raising hairs on my neck. I’d never been afraid until that moment, with Father standing over us both, Irene sprawled in a pool of silky skirts. I wanted to run to her, to caress away the red welt spreading across her cheek.
But she lifted her head and looked directly at me. Her eyes found mine and I shrank away from the fury there.
Maybe, if not for my feet, I might have made her love me. Everyone loved me eventually. The maids and footmen, Ebby, even my sisters who were so lovely in their own right, graceful and kind and sweet. But at night, when I took off my slippers and stared at the horrid, malformed feet, I thought, Lady Irene speaks truth. I am a devil-child.
They are not twisted or blackened or covered in strange growths. My feet are only short, only two-toed and ending in thick, hard nails like they are trying to be cloven and failing. Because I am a bastard, because I should never have been born.
The whispering leaves of Mother’s chestnut tree said, You are perfect.
I choked up laughter through my thick, tear-filled throat. “Not quite.” Leaning back onto my bottom, I tugged at the buttons holding my slippers in place. Setting them to the side, I dug my tiny, malformed feet into the earth. “Look.”
Oh, Daughter. Don’t you know? Impossible beauty comes at a price.
“I do not want impossible beauty.”
It also comes with benefits – you can win anything, love anyone. Escape any horror, because you are impossibly beautiful.
“No,” I said, but I heard again the word escape. I hesitated, closing my eyes, as the wind played at the rows of narrow leaves, played at the tips of my hair, and with the ruffles of organdy at my ankles.
Dig up my bones.
Dig up my bones, Daughter. They will tell you what to do.
“Mother? Your bones?”
But there was no answer. The leaves shivered, but did not speak. The wind rushed over the ground, tossing up old, cracking leaves. But there was no voice.
Kneeling, I stared at the earth. Escape, I heard again and again in my mind. My fingers sank into the dirt. Below the surface it was cool and wet. Drawing in a sharp breath, I clawed at it, scraped and dug and threw myself into it. Sweet, wet, rotting wood-smell assailed me and I thought of Mother dying, I remembered the way the scent clung in my hair until Irene dragged me to the bath and scrubbed and scrubbed until my scalp bled. That is when she saw my feet, and knew me for the devil I was.
Mother’s bones shone as though they were made of candlewax and flames glowed in their hollows. I drew them out, sweet and smooth, and lay them in a pile beside me. Ribs, collar, the great bowl of her pelvis, thighs, knee-caps, shins, and –
Instead of foot-bones, instead of toes: wide, dark cloven hooves. As though ankles and feet had been those of a giant goat.
I held one hoof in my hand. It was light, almost weightless. Smooth and black, as delicate as glass.
It fit over my foot, just pinching slightly. Gathering her bones in the folds of my skirt, I ran home with my feet tucked inside Mother’s hooves.
Weeks I spent pulling the sinews and bits of her bones into thread. I willed it so, and the bones spread out, winding around my spindle in glistening white strands. Her hooves warmed my feet.
I ate little, drank almost nothing – but I only needed my work. I felt my own skin tingle and when Ebby knocked on my attic I ignored her. She pushed open the door and gasped. I saw in her eyes the reflection of my impossible beauty. The entire attic glowed with it. And I was alive in the center.
The gown was complete in time for the Midsummer ball. For the first time in a month, I walked downstairs for breakfast, in my slippers and old nightgown. Lady Irene had not forgiven me for distracting Sir Jarrad from Raina, from burning my face into his dreams so he would never offer for her hand. I had not expected her too. But as she lifted her chin, I knew again that were it not for my Father she’d have me scrubbing the hearth to ruin the softness of my hands.
I would leave her. I would go to the Midsummer ball and capture the prince. Irene could not touch me there. She could hardly complain if I were out of her way. “I am going to the ball tonight,” I said.
Raina touched her lips, and Novia smiled. “You’ll be perfect,” she said.
Irene smiled, too, but it was empty. “It would be fitting, I suppose, for all the sons of our land to love you at once. Then we will be over with this charade.”
“Be glad, Lady Irene.” I picked at the boiled egg on my plate. “I shall be whisked away, and you’ll never see me again. Father will be unable to blame you.”
I heard Mother’s voice in the brushing ruffles of the bone-gown. So lovely, so impossibly beautiful.
Ebby put up my hair, and Raina gave me diamond earrings. Novia offered a necklace and said, “You need no color to your lips or cheeks. You are so beautiful.”
I looked at my half-sisters, at their graceful necks and charming faces, and thought, If you had ugly feet, you would be as impossible as me.
And my delicate hoof-shoes tap-tapped upon the marble of the castle stairs.
Airy music danced through the doors and out the windows. Laughter, conversation, the trill of announcements wafted toward me and I paused at the top of the wide entryway, closed my eyes, and waited for silence.
First the dancing halted, then the laughter, then conversations, and finally the music. In the silence, I heard the rustle of my blood. I opened my eyes and looked directly into those of our Prince.
They were green as new leaves, and as young. His cheeks were rough with the scars of childhood disease, and I wondered what they would feel like beneath my fingers, under my lips. I offered him a smile and he offered me his hand.
Gliding down to the ballroom floor in my magnificent bone-dress, I held my head high and imagined it floating as elegantly as Lady Irene’s. I put my hand into his, and he whisked me into a dance as the music instantly began again. The two of us, alone, danced in the center of the crowd. All eyes were upon us, all thoughts and imaginations dancing with us. My skirts whispered to me, and the Prince never glanced away. When the first dance ended, he leaned in and tasted me with lips to mine. The ballroom erupted into applause and he whispered, “You will be my wife, beautiful girl.”
It was perfect. All I’d expected. I laughed and promised him yes. I did not pull away when he led me into another dance, and then another. After our fifth, he took me to a balcony and sat with me there. His hand never left mine, his eyes barely watching his step. I wished to drink the exquisite punch, and he walked with me. He touched my wrist, my neck, my skirt. I could not turn away. He was there, breathing into my ear, smelling the petal-smell of my hair. My heart pounded. I had to get away. I said, “Let me dance with your cousin, highness, let me show your generosity.”
“Let me greet your mother.”
“No, you must stay by my side.” His green eyes never glanced away. His hands were a cage.
We danced, alone on the balcony, inside with the crowd. The colors turned to heat and my head spun. I tried to focus on the tapping of hooves on the marble tiles, but it only reminded me of my fearful, dizzy heart.
And then – the clock tower chimed.
The hard ring of the silver bell shattered the cage of color and warmth and touch. I jerked away. “I must go!” I cried.
He clung at me, at my bone-dress, at my hair, at my fingers. But the chime rang again and again. It drove me home into my body and I shoved away, through the crowd and up the wide steps. I ran and ran and did not notice when my one of my hoof-shoes fell from my ugly feet. I did not stop until I reached the end of the main street and took the road to our orchard.
Irene waited in the hall when I slammed open the front door, panting and harried. My hair spilled awkwardly down past my face and the hem of the bone-dress was ragged.
“Dear Elinore. How was the ball?”
Tears distorted my vision and I shook my head. I fled upstairs to my attic, where I threw off the bone dress and climbed into bed.
I did not emerge the next day. Nor the next.
On the third, a great commotion of clattering hooves and yelling drew me to the window. The Prince was there, leaping from his charger, my hoof-shoe gripped tightly in his hand.
He strode to the door below and pounded. I heard all manner of scurrying from Irene and my half-sisters, from all the maids and footmen as they prepared to greet the Prince. “Open your doors!” he yelled. “I would see all the daughters of your house!”
I crept to the second story and hid against the grandfather clock. The floorboard creaked as Irene passed me. She glanced down and her eyebrows twitched up. I did not know how to beg her not to give me to him. I only shook my head and said, please, with my lips.
“Why?” she asked. “He would take you away.”
My dry throat burned as I said, “I am terrified.”
She frowned just as the door flung open, and then hurried down the curved staircase to join her daughters and maids and footmen.
“Here,” said my Prince. “Here is her shoe. I will find my missing wife-to-be. Give me your daughters.”
Raina and Novia, trembling, stood forth. I cowered. He was graceful as a lion and his power radiated as he paced from one to the other. “No,” he declared. “And no. Where is your third daughter?”
Irene’s back straightened. Now it would come.
“I have no third daughter.”
I had to cover my mouth to keep quiet. It was, after all, only the truth.
“Wench,” he said, coming to tower over her. “We see the hoof-pattern in the dirt of your path. She is here. Where is your third daughter?”
Irene said, “I have no third daughter.”
“Do you not understand? I will take her, for I love her, and you will all be greatly rewarded. Your other daughters will lack for nothing, and your husband will be glad.”
“I have no third daughter.”
“Lies!” The Prince drew his sword and grabbed Irene by the neck. The tip of the blade hovered over her stomach. “Tell me. Tell me, for I need her. She is so beautiful.”
“Mother,” pled Novia, gripping Raina’s hand.
Irene was silent.
The Prince’s sword arm moved and I shot from my shadows. “Wait!”
The blade pressed into her bodice, but stopped. I tumbled down the stairs. “Don’t hurt her, I beg you.”
His sword fell to the tiles with a clatter like the ringing of the silver bells. Irene’s face was tight and pale. She found my eyes, showing me pity there, and sorrow. She knew. She knew the price of my impossible beauty.
I faced my prince.
“My love,” he said, throwing open his arms.
image by sometimes drywall