Her arms were moving without her will. How she hated this. She had been so relieved when her stepsisters had gone off to the ball, and she could sink down on the floor in front of the fire, and think, and start a new story.
She wrote with charcoal, on the floor, and she would always wipe out what she wrote before her step sisters came home; she knew they would mock her for writing.
Sometimes she smudged her face with the charcoal, and if she forgot to look in the mirror before they came home, they would laugh.
Long ago, when they were younger, and she had just started to write and draw with charcoal, her stepsisters had put ‘cinder’ in front of her name, and for ever after, within their family, she was known, not as Ella, but as CinderElla. She had gotten used to it, and it no longer bothered her…much.
But tonight had not turned out the way she had hoped; there was no quiet time for creativity.
Tonight, the image of a woman had appeared in the flickering of the little flames in the grate. This flaming woman had stepped into the room and grown into a sparkling creature wearing a flame-coloured dress.
Ella had dropped her charcoal on the floor, and stood trembling, her mouth hanging open.
“Please don’t be afraid, Ella,” she said, smiling.
“Bu, bu, but….” stammered Ella.
The woman’s smile faltered, and her shoulders rose a fraction.
“What, who are you?” Ella managed to get out.
“I’m your fairy Godmother,” answered the woman. “Didn’t your Mother tell you I was coming?”
“My Mother is dead,” stated Ella.
“Yes, I know,” said the woman, “ but before she died, didn’t she tell you I would come to see you on your 16th birthday?”
“Is it my birthday?” asked Ella, surprised.
“Oh, you poor child, don’t they let you celebrate your birthday? Oh dear, are they terribly cruel to you?” And the woman who claimed to be a fairy, and who had stepped out of a fire, looked pityingly at CinderElla.
“Why, your Father and your awful stepmother and terrible stepsisters.”
“No, they’re not cruel at all, except that they keep trying to get me to go out with them to the mall and stuff, and keep pushing me to wear dresses and make-up.”
“Yes, it’s awful. I can’t climb a tree or chop firewood in a dress, it gets in the way, and doesn’t protect my legs.”
“Oh, you poor thing, they make you chop firewood?”
“No,” answered Ella, looking at the shining apparition standing in the living room. “I like it, it’s great exercise. And anyway, they’re hopeless. The girls are always playing on their iPads and watching the latest gossip. And Dad, well, he’s not very strong, and Mom…”
“My stepmother, I call her Mom, it’s easier.”
“But what about your own mother?”
“What about her, I already told you, she’s dead.”
“But what?” asked Ella, genuinely perplexed.
“Well,” the Fairy huffed. “I don’t know what to do now. This has been a very long time in the planning.”
“What has?” asked Ella. “And, you are just a figment of my imagination aren’t you? The girls tell me I spend too much time alone; maybe they’re right?”
“I am no such thing! My goodness, I never expected to be faced with, well, with you!”
“I know,” said Ella. “ That’s pretty much what everyone says when they meet me.” She pushed some unruly hair out of her face and smudged her nose with soot, smiling ruefully. “The girls think maybe I’m on the Aspergers spectrum, but really, now, I think it’s more than that…I mean I seem to be hallucinating.”
The fairy stamped her foot. “I am not a hallucination! I’m a fairy, and I have a job to do, and do it I will, despite…” at which point she looked Ella up and down in her old jeans and ripped tee shirt…”despite the raw material I have to work with.”
At this she touched the top of Ella’s head with her wand, saying, “CinderElla, you SHALL go to the ball.”
Ella’s remonstrations that she didn’t want to go to the ball were quickly muffled by swathes of silk and satin whirling around her, invisible hands applying make-up and doing her hair.
“There,” said the fairy with satisfaction, “now you look beautiful! You could be an internet star!”
The fairy conjured a mirror in front of Ella.
Ella scowled at her reflection, and then at the fairy. “I must subconsciously hate myself,” she answered, “hallucinating you into not only making me look like a cake, but just like every other cake out there. And my feet! They hurt so much.”
Ella looked down, and seeing nothing but frills, tore away layers of skirt to find her beloved Doc Martens gone, and her feet encased in see-through high heels. “Oh Gawd! Plastic shoes!!”
“Glass slippers,” corrected the fairy. “My own design, aren’t they sensational?”
“No, they hurt like hell.”
“You, little miss, have to stop giving me lip!”
Ella smiled, “Are you a fairy from the 1930’s?”
The fairy fumed. “That’s it! You will now speak what I want you to say and only that. And you will go to the ball and you will dance and you will be gorgeous, so there!”
And the fairy cast the most complicated spell of her life and sank down on the floor after, exactly where Ella had been, exhausted.
Ella was furious but when she tried to scowl, her face smiled. When she tried to tell the hallucination what she thought, her mouth said, “Thank you, Fairy Godmother.”
Ella wasn’t even angry anymore, she was scared. She had no control over her own body. This thing she was, primped at the mirror then swept out of the cottage and into the waiting carriage. Ella had to admit, the carriage and the four white horses were beautiful, and she quite liked the dark visage of the driver, and when he smiled, a gold tooth gleamed in his mouth.
But not being in control of herself was terrifying. What must it be like, she thought, to have Tourette’s? Or Parkinson’s? She had never given these things the time of day...but now, as she was being this other person, she was very mindful of them indeed.
And so, she was swept off, through the woods and out into town, to ‘The Palace’. The most sought after, upmarket club in the city.
They were all there, celebrities and stars, her stepsisters and stepmother, their boyfriends and schoolmates. Everyone who wanted to be anyone, and here SHE was, making the entrance of the night. The paparazzi were clicking their cameras, and the other guests had brought out their phones to video the most beautiful woman in the room.
“I don’t want to be this,” Ella tried to say, but what came out was, “Good evening, everyone.” And the disdainful sneer of her mouth became a dazzling smile.
The driver, having delivered her to the ball, slunk back out to wait outside.
A young man approached her. A Ken to her Barbie. He asked her to dance and they stepped out onto the dance floor. Her arms were moving without her will. How she hated this. Her stepsisters were gazing at her with envy as she danced with the total hunk, the most desired piece of man candy of the year. They did not recognise her, nor see the desperation in her eyes, how she longed to be at home drawing her pictures, writing her stories, climbing trees with her cat, and relishing her time alone.
A tear ran down her cheek. Even the fairy’s magic couldn’t keep her from crying it seemed.
Twelve o’clock struck, Ella felt the tears pouring down her face, and her hair came adrift.
Her dance partner looked horrified as her tears smudged her make-up. She felt the floor beneath one foot; the shoe had dissolved. Ella stepped out of the other and without her body heat to dissolve it, it stayed intact on the floor. Feeling her bare feet connecting with the ground, Ella ran, and as she ran her dress became an old curtain, and the smudged mascara became soot. She hoped and prayed her boots would be at home. She didn’t like this barefoot running business.
She ran past her step-sisters, and heard them hiss in surprise, “Ella, it’s Ella!”
“Yes, it’s me,” she cried as she ran past them. “I’m me again! See you at home.”
But any thoughts of quickly getting home and getting cups of coffee ready for them quickly disappeared as she ran out to discover that in place of her carriage there was an old wilted pumpkin in the gutter, four white mice nibbling on it. As she gazed hopefully at the pumpkin, a homeless man got up from the shadows and gathered the pumpkin and the mice to him.
“You won’t be needing us now, Ma’am,” he said with a grin, holding the pumpkin and mice to his body. His white teeth shone against his dark skin. “But you might need these.” And with his free hand he tossed some objects in her direction, and turned to leave. The objects were her boots! Ella’s mouth quirked with pleasure, then her eyes flicked to the man.
“Who are you?” she asked, puffing from her exertions, and pulling on her boots.
“I ain’t nobody at all.” the man replied, smiling briefly, a hint of gold flashing from his mouth, before disappearing into the shadows.
Ella began the long walk home, her mind filled with the weird events of the evening, and returning again and again to the strange man.
He dressed like a homeless man, but Ella knew from personal experience that looks belied what was true about a person.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover…” she hummed the tune from a crazy 80’s musical her Mother had liked. She was in the forest now, not far from her home, and had just begun to sing the first song…”There’s a light, over at the Frankenstein house…” when her blasted hallucination appeared in front of her. The fairy was small this time, hovering in the air like Tinkerbell, a small furious fairy.
“You!” The fairy sputtered, her voice high and light due to her size. “You are the most ungrateful ragamuffin ever! I SO wish I had never made this stupid deal with your Mother.”
“What deal?” asked Ella suspiciously as she reached her front porch and felt for the spare key under the mat.
“Nothing. Never mind,” muttered the little apparition.
“Meow.” Ella’s Siamese cat greeted her, then upon seeing the fairy, Bosco the cat’s eyes grew big and black and he started to chitter and hunker down ready to leap at the tantalising toy in the air.
“Blasted cat!” snapped the fairy. “This is far from over, young lady!” And she disappeared.
Ella breathed a huge sigh of relief, gathered her cat in her arms and went into her house, the house her Mother had left her.
She checked on her Father who was unwell, but he was asleep, then she resuscitated the open fire, put the makings of coffee on the bench next to the microwave for her sisters and sank down in front of the hearth to draw in the charcoal dust.
She knew they were lucky to live in the forest as they did, and be able to have an open fire. She found gazing into the flames so soothing. She had heard that the ocean could give you a similar feeling. Ella had never seen the ocean in reality, only on T.V.
Her sisters and stepmother tumbled in about an hour later. They were all a little tipsy and chattered loudly, scraping chairs on the floor and sitting at the kitchen table.
‘Shhh,’ said Ella emerging from the living room, “Dad’s asleep.”
The younger of the two sisters said, ‘There you are!”
Ella smiled. ‘Here I am,” she said as she put the coffee maker on. “Real coffee?” She asked.
“Of course,” said the mother, “your barista skills are very good, Ella. You should work in a café.”
“Yes,” said the younger, “you won’t believe what we saw!”
“No?” replied Ella, putting down two lattes and one regular. She herself hated coffee, much preferring tea.
“No!” replied the flushed girl. “We saw a Star tonight. And CinderElla, she looked like you!”
“We thought it was you,” chimed in the other sister, “we even called her Ella, and she played along, she said, “Yes, it’s me.” Wasn’t that witty?” she asked her sister.
“Oh yes,” agreed the other girl. “She was as witty as she was beautiful!”
“Witty?” asked Ella. “To say you’re someone you’re not?”
“We wouldn’t expect you to understand,” said her stepmother. “Only those ‘in the know’ would get it.”
Her two daughters nodded their agreement, although they had no idea what their mother might mean.
“She lost a little plastic shoe,” her stepmother went on.
“Glass,” corrected Ella.
“What was that?”
“Oh nothing,” answered Ella.
“Well, that hunk, Prince somebody or other, he’s a rapper I think.” She looked at her daughters for confirmation who nodded enthusiastically. “He picked up the shoe.”
“”Slipper,” corrected Ella.
“What was that?”
“Oh, nothing,” answered Ella.
“You seem to have a lot of nothing to say tonight. Zip it!”
“Sorry, “ apologised Ella, “please go on.”
The younger sister took up the story:
“He held it to his heart, and said he would marry the woman who fit it best! Isn’t that romantic?”
“No, it‘s silly,” answered Ella. “Stupid, in fact. There must be thousands of girls who fit into it.”
The younger sister looked at Ella and shook her head. “You just don’t get it. I’m going to bed.” The others followed, still twittering about their exciting night.
The silence in the house deepened, Ella had almost fallen asleep, when the fairy flew out from the dying embers.
“Well,” she piped, “you almost ruined it, but you saved the night at the last moment. That was very clever, to leave a shoe like that.”
“Slipper,” said Ella automatically.
“Yes, to be strictly correct, slipper, but whatever you call it, it was a clever ruse to leave it behind.”
Ella tried to remonstrate, but the fairy was changing size. The larger version continued to speak. “Now, we must plan our next move,” and the fairy sat in a chair. “They will advertise, of course. And you must reply…”
“Yes?” The fairy raised her eyebrows.
“My Mother wanted you to send me to a ball?”
“Well, not quite,” answered the fairy, annoyed. “She asked me to find you the man of your dreams. I guess she wasn’t that happy with your Dad, he is…”
“I know,” interrupted Ella. For all his failings and weakness, she loved her Dad and hated it when his addictions and odd behaviours were voiced.
“Well, I guess she just wanted you to have a better life.”
“But why you?” queried Ella.
“Oh, that was chance. You were so lucky I just happened to be passing while your Mom was dying…I saw the emergency light first, that’s all.”
“Look, I can’t just go spilling the beans about our ways, you know,” snapped the tired fairy.
“Anyway, it was just luck that it was me. Most people organise a magical being beforehand, leaving it to chance is very risky, she could have attracted a goblin or even a grinch!” The fairy looked suitably horrified. “But I saw the light and went, she was my last call for the night.”
“So the ball and the carriage…and the driver?” asked Ella.
“Ah,” said the fairy archly, “you liked my rat?”
“The other things were from here. The pumpkin and the mice from your garden…but the rat I brought with me. I found him in the street looking for food, so I caught him, it was easy as he was so hungry and a bit slow, and changed him into a rat.” The fairy caught herself…”I mean, a man.”
“A homeless man with a gold tooth?”
“Yes,” answered the surprised fairy, relieved Ella hadn’t noticed her magical transgression of turning someone into an animal for ease of transport.
“He threw me my boots.”
“Hmm. There must have been a transformation lag. Rat to man, man to driver, yes, the others only had the one transformation, he had two, hmm, interesting. Anyway, your golden boy will come to the house after you or your sisters reply to the advert, and as soon as you put your foot in the slipper, your dress will come back and he’ll recognise you, and hey presto, happy ever after!”
“And the carriage?” asked Ella softly.
“Oh yes! I guess the whole spell will return, there’s no helping that. You’d better make sure there’s room out front. So,” said the fairy briskly, “that’s my bit done! I must say, it’s quite a relief, you haven’t been the easiest client.” And with that, and a puff of smoke, she was gone. Ella, alone, let a small smile touch her lips.
Only a week later, the house was in an uproar; the rap singer was coming that very afternoon. The sisters had wasted no time in answering the ad online and booking in their time to try on the see-through shoe. They were so excited, and ran around the house with their hair and make-up half done, trying on each other’s clothes and giggling, constantly giggling.
The Prince arrived with his entourage, which included security, of course, their earpieces in their ears, their eyes darting this way and that, and there were other pretty people and an obligatory photographer, his digital camera better than the ubiquitous phones.
Upon seeing the security attachment Ella thought, “Bosco might get them,” and smiled to herself. The Prince caught it, thought the smile was for him, and returned it.
“Hi,” he added. His teeth were so straight and white, his mane of blonde hair gleaming in the sunlight.
“My, my,” thought Ella, “being silly and star-struck must be catching.” Still, despite herself, she felt her smile grow into a gift solely for him. She turned away and went out the back door to look at the trees, and breathe; she was deeply embarrassed. It wasn’t like her to simper. She stayed outside until she heard the excitement from indoors subside, then slunk back, her heart still beating just that little bit faster than normal. She was leaning on the doorjamb, regarding the tableau: The Prince, kneeling in front of her step mother, his pretty features marred by a very slight scowl, his retinue around him.
“Maybe if I scrunch up my toes,” her stepmother was saying.
“But Ma’am,” said one of the Prince’s aides, “we understand you’re already married.”
“And old enough to be his mother,” rejoined the older sister. “Mum, you’re embarrassing us.”
The stepmother jerked her bunioned foot away and jammed it back in her own shoe.
“It was just a bit of fun,” she retorted angrily, her face colouring. The Prince was handing the glass slipper to his friend, and the others were shifting, readying themselves to leave, when Ella heard herself say, in a shy voice she barely recognised, “Can I try?”
“Of course!” beamed the Prince, “it’s a free country.” He motioned for her to sit, reclaimed the footwear, and once she was settled and had unlaced her dear Dockers, he held the little confection of glass out. She slipped her bare foot in, and the beautiful little dancing slipper molded around her foot. It was perfect. Ella held her breath, waiting for the dress, the hairdo, the carriage…the driver.
Nothing. Nada. Not a thing.
The fairy must have been wrong. The only thing that was different was something lumpy in the back pocket of her old jeans. She pulled the something out, and there it was, the matching glass slipper, sparkling in hand. Her fingers closed around it convulsively.
“Huh?” she thought, bereft of words even in her own mind. Ella stared stupidly at the Prince kneeling in front of her.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Ella,” she answered automatically.
“We call her CinderElla,” frothed the younger sister. “You don’t want her, trust me. She’s always climbing trees and drawing, and never combs her hair!”
“Really?” asked the Prince.
“Yes!” clamoured the step-family.
Ella nodded dumbly.
“Sounds perfect,” said the Prince. “While I’m down here, then,” and he held out his hand to the aide behind him without taking his eyes off Ella. The aide put a small box in his hand.
“Ella,” he said, and opened the box. “Will you marry me?”
The attendant photographer captured the moment, and that was the image broadcast across the internet and later, the magazines. Two horrified faces looking at each other across an open ring box.
For, in the box sat not a ring, but a gold tooth.
The moment attenuated until, like an overextended elastic, it snapped, and things descended into a jabbering uproar. Through the noise, Ella slipped on the other shoe.
It happened. The commotion dwindled, she was wearing the big dress, her hair was up.
And she was surrounded by white rats; the human hubbub had faded to squeaking.
There was a brief knock on the door, and in strode the driver from her first enchantment. He handed Ella an old pumpkin, and picking up the tooth from where it had fallen, he put it in his mouth.
“Ah,” he said. “That’s better.”
The white rats streamed out the open door chittering in confusion. The man smiled at Ella, the gold tooth glinting. He held out his hand to her, introducing himself, “I’m Raff.”
As their hands met, there was a soft explosion. The old pumpkin had fallen apart in Ella’s other hand, her hairdo had returned to her uncombed tresses, her dress to jeans. But Ella and the handsome driver’s eyes were locked, and they ignored the failing magic.
“You’re real,” said Ella, smiling at the man.
Still holding her hand, the man said, “So are you.”
And they laughed.