It is black as pitch outside the old warped-glass kitchen window, the stars hidden from view by a growing mass of clouds that have been gathering since the earliest hours of the morning. There is no wind; the stillness presses heavy against the old walls. When Elle pushes the back door open with her shoulder, she can smell the metallic hint of rain-water and lightning. She scowls, tips the bucket of old dishwater into the grass with a touch of haste, and pulls back inside.
The fire has burned low again. Elle returns the wash basin to the counter before prodding at the cinders. When a flame leaps up, she returns the fire iron to its stand and takes a seat in the old wooden rocker to the right of the hearth. Thunder yawns in the distance; Elle nods sagely at the sound —
closes her eyes —
The low rumble of growing winds nearly masks the soft tread of bare feet on cobblestone floors, but Elle has sharp ears. She waits unmoving in her rocker, counting the steps until the girl hesitates at the hearth’s edge.
“Isn’t it time and past for you to sleep?” Elle asks at last without opening her eyes. A short sigh answers her. Then, “The storm is too noisy.”
“The storm has hardly begun.”
When the girl does not answer, Elle turns her head. Rae has hunched in on herself,
hugging her dressing gown closed over her gangly body as if in self-defence. Her hair, usually worn loose to bed, is braided and looped into great knotted piles in an unintentional mockery of a crown.
“It isn’t the storm that keeps you awake,” Elle surmises. With a subtle gesture, she invites Rae to sit with her; the girl immediately curls up on the floor with her head resting in Elle’s lap.
“Every night for a week,” the girl moans. “Every night, it’s ‘Rapunzel, let your hair down’ or ‘Rapunzel, let me up’ or ‘Rapunzel, you bitch, stop taunting me.’”
Elle tenses, her voice growing harsh. “He calls you that?”
The girl doesn’t answer. Instead, she lifts a hand to play with the tassels that hang from Elle’s apron. “It’s my hair. He says he’s never seen any as long as mine. It isn’t my choice to grow it out, you know.”
This time, it is Elle who does not answer.
“He’s been throwing rocks at my window for an hour. Why doesn’t the storm drive him away?”
Because he believes he’s entitled, thinks Elle wearily, Because he’s a man and that’s what men do. Because —
“Can’t you drive him away?” Rae asks.
Elle grunts and rocks back once, stroking the girl’s hair. She makes no response save a contemplative hum deep in the back of her throat.
There was once, you see, a young woman who grew up on the east coast of a very small and very poor island country. She had three younger sisters and a mother and, once upon a time, a father — but he was little more than a memory of indolence and alcohol now. Life was not easy for a family of five women on a poor island where there weren’t enough jobs for even the men-folk, but always the mother found a way to pull through even the most difficult of situations.
So when the mother grew ill, the eldest daughter did not worry — not until the long night-without-end when even the local medicine woman could do nothing to ease her suffering. At last, the mother sent the woman away, saying, “Leave us, that I may speak with my eldest daughter one last time before my passing.”
The young woman took her mother’s hand and shed many tears. But the mother told her, “Weep not, my child, for the night is long but my life is short and I have words for you. You are a strong woman with a mind and spirit of her own; use this to your advantage and you shall go far. But I fear for your sisters, who are still young and have yet to learn the lessons of this world. Promise to provide for and teach them until the day that even the youngest can stand on her own.”
To this, the eldest daughter solemnly swore. Soon after, the mother breathed her last, passing from this world to the next.
In the year that followed, the eldest daughter did all that she could to care for her sisters but, in those days, men and women alike wandered the streets in search of work. At last, fearful that she could not gain the resources to provide for her family, the daughter accepted an offer made by the government of this small island country: They would provide food and safe passage across the wide ocean, so she may gain employment in a wealthy house and send wages back to her sisters.
The girl wept when she returned home that night, for she could not bear to be parted from her family. But the youngest declared, “Sister, you are both strong and courageous. If anyone can flourish within a strange land, it would be you. Go with our blessing.”
And so it was that, when the sky blushed pink with dawn that next morning, the eldest daughter already stood at the rails of a great ship to watch her island home fall back to the horizon.
Employment in a great house was different than anything the eldest sister had ever experienced before. There were rules regarding what to wear and how to speak and when to leave a room, so many that at first she believed she could never keep them all straight. But with time, she grew more confident in her role as a kitchen maid until the end of the month approached almost without notice — and with it, her first month’s wages.
The girl kept two coins for herself and rolled the rest into a waterproof pouch along with a long letter to her sisters. Then, following the directions of the kitchen’s cook — who had taken to keeping an eye out for her — she walked down to the harbour to visit the bird master.
“What is this, then?” asked the bird master when she finally found him. “A girl with a penny for me?”
The bird master was old with a face like thunder. The girl spoke boldly to hide her fear: “A penny for the use of a bird.”
Everyone in the town had heard of the bird master’s falcons, which had feathers like rust and could fly twice around the world in the time it took the sun to set. The man regarded her with a keen eye and finally asked, “And what business would you have with one of my birds?”
The girl showed him the pouch and explained that she needed to send it to her sisters. When the bird master did not immediately respond, she offered him the second of her remaining coins as well. He grunted, took the payment, and gave a piercing whistle that echoed through the harbour.
Almost immediately, a muddy-red falcon dropped to his wrist. It was small but fierce, and the girl was almost more scared of it than the bird master, but she tied her pouch securely to its leg and then stood back. The bird master whistled twice and then raised his arm; the falcon shot out over the ocean and was soon nothing more than a pinprick in the sky.
The girl stood on the end of the pier for a long time. The ache in her soul that had mostly been covered by the unease at finding her way through a strange country now broke open into a cold and terrible longing for home. She thought of her sisters and the things that they might say to her if she could see them at this minute, and then of the promise she had made at her mother’s deathbed. She thought she might cry again, but the girl was keenly aware that the bird master was still watching.
At last, she made her way back along the pier to where he was waiting.
“If my sisters send a reply, might you hold it for me until I return?” she asked.
“Aye,” said the bird master.
Encouraged, she dared to add a second request: “And if you are not busy when I come
again, might you teach me the language of the birds?” “Aye,” said the man again.
It was dark by the time the girl returned to the great house, so that a number of the servants were resting in the kitchen by the time she slipped inside. The girl moved quietly to the hearth, where she stood for a time to warm her hands until the cook finally took notice.
“Your hem is a mess,” fussed the cook, “Were you playing in the mud outside?”
“Sure, but it’s only cinders,” muttered the mocking kitchen boy. And, quite unintentionally, the name clung to the girl like the ash on the bottom of her skirt.
The bird master was true to his word, whether it was from loneliness or boredom or, perhaps, the look in the kitchen girl’s eyes whenever she was with the hawks. On the afternoons of her days off, she would make her way to the pier and listen as the man spoke to his birds. After a time, he began to properly instruct her in the meaning of the falcon calls.
Sometimes, after her throat grew rough from echoing screeches, the bird master would make her a cup of honey tea and speak with her of other things.
“I don’t know what it is I do,” she confessed one afternoon, “But the other servants never treat me quite the same. And now they call me Cinder, though I work harder than ever to keep my skirt and face clean!”
“Not the skirt, but your skin,” said the bird master, who had experience in such matters, “Dark as my own, it is.”
The kitchen girl had grown up in a country where everyone’s skin was the colour of clay. While she had felt odd in this city of light-skinned people, the girl had until now harboured the hope that it had been nothing more than her imagination that felt she’d been set apart. Now, returning to the great house that night, she took note of the way the other servants looked at her. She felt ashamed and betrayed — although by whom, she wasn’t quite sure — and wished more than ever that she could return to the island that was her home.
With the morning came news that sent the whole of the house into gossip: The wealthiest family in the town would be hosting a ball in the next fortnight for which all eligible women were invited to attend. The kitchen girl had little interest in this, but the other servants and ladies of the family alike were so excited that they could speak of nothing else.
It was only two days before the ball when a letter arrived from the girl’s sisters. The news it carried was very welcome, for it began by stating that the second-eldest sister had taken a position in this very town and ended with the assurance that she would be among those serving at the ball. The eldest sister longed to see a familiar face and so, that night, she went to the cook and asked if she might attend the event after all.
“Not in those rags,” scoffed the cook. “Besides, this isn’t a ball for kitchen maids.” The girl was dismayed, for she had believed every woman was eligible to attend. “Every woman that’s rich,” corrected the cook. “Every woman that’s white as snow.
Every woman with privilege.”
The words struck hard but the girl was not yet ready to give up. The next morning, she
slipped out of the house and found the bird master at the docks. “Isn’t there some way I could go?” she asked him. “Surely, if I could only find a dress.”
“You’d need more than a dress,” stated the man, but he regarded her carefully for several minutes before whistling. As a number of the falcons settled down around the two of them, he said, “Ask your friends and they might just have a gift for you.”
So the girl whistled and shrieked until the birds rose in a great flapping. Frightened, she covered her face, expecting them to attack or fly away. Instead the falcons settled again; when she lowered her hands, there was a dress made of russet feathers laid out before her.
The bird master had told her enough stories about his falcons that the girl did not question the origin of this gift. Instead, she knelt on the dock and thanked each of the birds before taking the dress into her arms. It was then she discovered a pair of green sea glass shoes that had been hidden beneath the folds of the skirt. When she tried them on, they fit as though molded to her feet.
“Friends,” said the girl, blinking away tears of gratitude, “This is a great gift.”
The dress was as much a wonder to wear as it was to behold. It was softer and lighter than the girl had expected, and its feathers gleamed in the candle light. She entered quietly through a side door, hoping to stay away from the main swirl of people in order to better search for her sister, but stopped in amazement at the sight of the ballroom that met her eyes.
There was a young man watching from the side of the room, his eyes lidded as he surveyed the scene. “Dazzling, isn’t it?” he asked. “Do you know why the family hosted this ball?”
The girl had not thought much on the matter.
“The prince lost his bride,” the man continued, oddly gleeful. “She left without warning one night and disappeared into the woods — could you imagine? There are all sorts of stories on where she went. My favourite is the one with the dwarves.”
“Dwarves?” repeated the girl, who was very much lost in this conversation.
“Seven of them,” confirmed the man with satisfaction. “I rather think she made the right decision; the prince is rather horrible, in my opinion. I pity any girl he takes a fancy to tonight.”
“Which one is the prince?” asked the girl.
But the prince was not in view, so the man was unable to point him out. He assured her, however, that the prince would be impossible to miss.
There was something odd about the bitter way the man spoke of this prince. At first, the girl had believed jealousy was involved but, as they spoke, she began to pay closer attention to the man’s scrawny build, recently-shorn hair, and secretive mouth twitch.
“You,” the girl said suddenly, cutting the stranger off. “You’re the missing bride.”
For an instant, the smile widened before dropping away entirely. “Don’t spread it around,” warned the man, “I’d much rather that they don’t find where or who I am. Marriage isn’t for me. Besides, I quite like the version with the dwarves.”
He winked at her so quick she nearly missed it, and then pushed away from the wall. The girl watched him weave into the crowd before setting off on the search for her sister.
The girl had barely completed a circuit of the room than she was intercepted by a handsome man dressed in the white and gold of the wealthy.
“My lady,” he said to her, bowing so deep that the girl began to blush, “It would honour me to have this dance.”
The girl did not wish to dance, nor did she know the steps. Despite her protests, the man steered her to the centre of the room and placed a hand on her waist. She did not know how else to refuse and so, awkwardly, she did her best to follow his movements. As soon as the music ended, the girl made to move away — but the man caught her arm.
“Another dance,” he insisted.
Not wishing to cause a scene, she told him quietly, “I am not one for dancing.”
He laughed as though she had told a great joke. “I am the prince of this house and host of this ball. What reason would you have in coming here if not to dance with me?”
Afraid that this prince might turn her away from the ball if she did not comply, the girl said no more. As song after song played, the prince jealously guarded his dance partner as though she were a great treasure he had won. If she claimed thirst, he accompanied her to the refreshments. If she wished to rest her feet, he would wait at her side. If any other man came forward to ask for a dance, the prince would tell them: “No, she is my dance partner.” Twice, the girl caught sight of her sister among the servers of the ball, but the prince gave her no opportunity to leave his side.
By the time the clock struck the midnight hour, the girl was weary and frustrated. She longed more than anything to speak with her sister, but the fear of what might happen if the prince’s attentions turned the other girl kept her still.
“Please,” she told him at last, “My feet do hurt. Might I sit down again once more?”
The prince led the girl to the side of the room, where she made a show out of relaxing into the seat; beneath her skirt, she carefully removed her sea glass slippers. She watched quietly until the prince was distracted by the swirl of conversation around them — and then leaped up, her shoes in one hand as she ran barefoot towards the nearest exit.
He noticed immediately, of course, and gave chase at once. But perhaps the speed of the falcons was on the girl’s side, for soon she outpaced him. She did not tire as she ran, nor did she stop until the familiar great house rose up in her path.
It was only then that the girl realized how many of the feathers had blown off her dress, leaving a trail all through the city. Worse: in her haste, she had dropped one of the sea glass slippers. The whole evening, she concluded, had been one unfortunate misadventure.
The prince arrived at the house much sooner than the girl had expected. Barely had she changed from the remains of her red feather dress than all the staff were summoned to the front hall.
“It is the lady that fits this shoe who will be my bride,” the prince declared, holding aloft the sea glass slipper that had been lost during the girl’s frantic run home. “I implore you, lady of my heart, to step forward.”
The girl hung to the back of the room, hiding behind the taller servants. Silently, she watched as the prince first tried the slipper on the daughters of the house, even though neither had the slightest resemblance to her — but of course, they were the rich white ladies of the household. Next, various maids all lined up to try the shoe. No one had feet quite as small as the kitchen girl.
“I don’t want to be your bride,” she said into the silence that followed, once she had again removed her foot from the slipper.
“This is just what you want,” said the cook. “The prince will provide for you — and your sisters. Of course you will marry him.”
The prince was watching her with an expression of arrogant triumph. The girl thought again about how the prince saw her only as property that he had now won. Then she remembered her mother’s words from what seemed a very long time ago: that she was a strong woman with a mind and will of her own. Yes, thought the eldest daughter, I’d forgotten, but I can be that woman again.
Aloud, she said to the cook, “I shan’t marry the prince. I can provide for myself and my family just fine.”
The prince’s mouth twitched in amusement. “A sense of humour! As if anyone would believe she would turn down my proposal.”
The girl — the woman — was so fed up by this point that not even fear could still her tongue. “My,” she said impetuously, “What a big ego you have.”
“As if,” continued the prince, “She had not spent the entire evening flirting and flattering to engage my attention for this very purpose.”
“My, what a big imagination,” she observed.
The smile dropped from the prince’s face. “I swear to you, there won’t be any place that would hire you if you refuse me.”
“And my,” she mused, “What a big promise that is.”
“A big promise, indeed,” huffed the cook, looking very cross.
“And that’s the cook to whom you apprenticed,” finishes Rae, raising her head suddenly. “And now you are the cook and not married to the prince at all.”
Elle hums quiet in her throat again. “Nor would I want to be,” she says firmly.
The patter of rain is beginning to slow already, the worst of the storm passing the little stone tower that makes their home. “What happened to the prince?” asks Rae.
“If this were a just story, the falcons would have pecked out his eyes.” Elle pauses, then adds slowly, “But he married another woman eventually. It was only the support of the cook and the other serving women that prevented him from carrying out his threat to have me fired.”
Little Rae is quiet for a long time as she considers Elle’s words. “So my prince isn’t going to go away easily, either.”
At this, Elle makes a sound of disgust. “Not your prince. A prince. You — what are you doing?”
The girl has leapt to her feet with a sudden idea, and now scurries across the kitchen to the little basket of assorted threads and scraps of fabric. Briefly, she searches through it until with a cry of delight she draws out a pair of silver shears.
“He likes me for my hair,” she explains, dashing into the corridor.
By the time Elle joins her up two flights of stairs at the little bedroom window, Rae has pulled her hair loose. It frizzes around her face, hanging about her slender frame like a golden waterfall.
“Do you really feel this is the best course of action?” asks Elle warily.
“Probably not,” Rae admits, “Others won’t like it at all. But I think that’s why I need to do it.” She stares resolute at Elle and then adds, a little more defensively, “It’s not just him, you know. It’s all of this. Long hair isn’t me, and I’ve had enough.”
With this final declaration, she steps in view of the window, calling down to the prince. She meets his eyes and raises a fistful of locks before waving the shears in his direction. Startled, the prince gapes upward. Without glancing away, Rae opens the blades and slides them around a thick curl.
“You want my hair?” she calls down to him.
Snip, go the scissors, and a strand of hair slips loose to float out the window.
“I said, you want my hair?”
Snip, snip. Elle rests her hand on Rae’s shoulder as, down below, the prince chokes in
And carefully, deliberately, piece by piece, Rapunzel lets