‘Cinder-Elver’, Mary Alexandra Agner

Illustrations © 2016 Laura-Anca Adascalitei

 [ Eels, © 2016 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] Mama warned me they’d be slippery.

I’d prepared for that, having to slip out early in the morning, still full dark, down the hallway past papa’s room, past the closed door and the sounds of his slumber, of the snores of his new wife. I am silent, shoeless, eschewing the stepsisters’ glass stilettos. I step outside, into the chill and the dew waiting to blossom into drop, then burn off minutes after sunrise. My skin is the color of this hour before dawn and, invisible, I make my way toward the run.

When Mama was a girl there were festivals, flags. Now there are fences. I scramble them. I reach one rock formation, familiar from her stories, and put hands to holds, feet to shelves, climb. Dawn colors the stone orange and pink, grey with fine threads burning red that scorch my fingers. My shoulders ache, the big muscles around the bones. I breathe. I pull. Finally, my chin juts over the top, plateau, never so beautiful a horizontal surface in all my days.

My tears still the dust my feet kicked up: Mama stood here. Mama stood here, listened for them wending the winds. I hear them too, susurrus that doesn’t end, overlapping sighs from mouths that could swallow me, rippling bodies moving like cloud formations toward my pillar. They come on like a storm front, the white tips of their fins curling like lightning limning the edge of cumulonimbus.

I find her mounting space, trace my fingers through the rivulets in the rock which spell out her initials. She got as far as Ele Oasis, stayed four years before her father found her, hauled her back, married her off.

The rock doesn’t pulse but the air does, sweeps of pressure buffeting me and I lean into them even on my knees, hands in her story. My prologue. But my eyes look up.

The eels swim on, swarming, calling to each other with lights and sparks. I look for the special ridge, divot just large enough for a girl, before the caudal fin.

Suddenly I am among them, their broad bodies replacing the sky. So swift, all I can see are their thin, metallic streaks, their dark weight dragging the air along, wind whipping my eyelids shut. No longer afraid I will jump and miss, I laugh out loud. Grit in my teeth. Heartbeat up, I count the time it takes one to pass me by, squinting through flying silt. A second comes, mouth to the other’s tail. The wind spirals, bodies above me, alongside the far edge of the pillar. Dizzy, I look down. In the rising sun, my future is gold and auburn.

I step off the ledge, my legs jarring against the eel’s head, pain making me cry out, sudden realization of stability turning it into a whoop of joy.

I scoot back to the fin, one foot and one hand at a time, failing to concentrate only on the eel’s width and wrinkles: the sky yawns above me so large I reach my hand out to touch it. I overbalance to the left, begin to slide, hands without purchase, lack of traction against this life sleek and oily.

I fumble for my pocket, bag begged from the fairy godmother, finally worn down to grant my wish bereft of prince, pumpkin, or ring: gecko setae, willingly shared just this once, better than any magicked mice. Palms and soles sticky, I crawl to the divot, slip down into safety. The eel pivots over. I look up, ribbons of sky between the sinuous shapes.

Better air and the last of the bright stars than bangles and flounce and ball gowns. Better these raucous calls, like giant crows, than the string quartet. I’ll do better than four years before I am forced into a family I didn’t choose. So many role models for how to swim against the current.

© 2016 Mary Alexandra Agner

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