‘From Out of the Ashes’, Michelle Labbé

Illustrations © 2018 Fluffgar

 [ Dress, © 2018 Fluffgar ] When she received the invitation, she was careful how she held it, gripping it lightly between the few fingertips that were clean. If she left the faintest smudge on the envelope, Madame would notice, and be displeased. There was no mistake she could make that Madame would not see.

She carried the thing straightaway to Madame’s chamber and rapped on the door as lightly as if she had been a dormouse. If she knocked any louder, Madame would complain of a headache, and would ask her pityingly if she must always be so loud at all hours?—but then, of course, she had no idea of delicacy, or decorum. How could she? She was only a serving-girl, always filthy from sleeping in the ashes on the hearth—so filthy that Madame called her Ash instead of her own true name.

Madame bade her to enter. However softly Ash stepped or spoke or knocked upon the door, Madame always heard, for Madame was always listening.

Ash handed over the invitation and did not try to stay. Madame would not read it aloud in her presence. Ash returned to scrubbing the cold stone floor of the foyer as if the day were like any other, as if the page had not informed her of its contents, as if a plan were not already forming itself inside her head.

The floor always had to be sparkling by the time the young ladies awoke, so that she was ready to dress them and style their hair. Callidora and Brielle shrieked and giggled together about the Prince and the ball that all maidens in the kingdom were invited to attend. Ash listened and did not say a word.

In the afternoon it was time for their drawing lessons. Ash followed to sweep out the hearth and stoke the fire, as she always did. She swept meticulously, dusted every inch of the mantle, and listened with all her might to the drawing-master’s instructions. When no one was looking, she traced little patterns in the ash-heap with her finger, lightly sketching dense forests, roiling seas, a girl astride a galloping horse. When she had lingered as long as she dared, she swept-up her cinder-drawings before she left. Once she had not been so careful, and Madame had seen the designs left behind. Ash had been promptly punished for her idleness, and Madame had allowed the room to grow dusty and cold for over a month rather than let Ash back inside. Then Callidora complained of the chill and Ash had to be re-admitted, for she was the manor’s only remaining servant, and Madame would never have sullied her own hands.

Most days carried at least one tongue-lashing from Madame, but today Ash was fortunate. Madame was distracted by the designing of new ballgowns for her two darling girls. And for herself—why not? The three of them must make a favorable impression upon the Prince.

This was why Ash had to escape. The mere sound of Madame’s voice made her flinch; the tread of Madame’s foot on the stairs made her tremble. She could hardly remember the girl she had been long ago, before Father died, when she had danced and laughed and took drawing lessons of her own; when she had slept on a feather bed and silk sheets.

Now Father was gone, and Ash had to rely on herself. If she were lucky, she might charm some handsome nobleman. Of course, she didn’t seem to have much luck at present. But she’d marry a stableboy if it would free her from Madame.

She did not sleep half the night for concocting a plan, trying not to listen the echoes of Madame’s voice in her head telling her she was wrong, she was useless, she was a fool, she would fail.

“Father loved me, while he lived,” she muttered to herself. (She often talked to herself, having no one else to talk to but the mice in the walls and the birds at the windows.) “There must be something to me, after all.” The night was cold, but she wrapped the memory of her father’s love around her like a blanket. It was all that she had.

Over the next several weeks, Madame kept Ash busier than ever, and if Ash suspected the reason, she did not betray it in her face or on her lips, even as Madame shadowed her, observing. Ash had learned long ago never to do her chores perfectly, for Madame loved to find fault in her. If there was no fault to be found, then she was angry. It was better not to make Madame angry.

Though Ash was always tired, she kept herself awake at night. She hunted through scraps, found trimmings of lace and silk from Callidora and Brielle’s new ballgowns and old ballgowns and nightgowns and evening gowns and morning gowns and dressing-gowns. Piece by piece she sewed them together, with tiny seedlike stitches. As she sewed she tried to remember what Father used to call her. She had another name besides Ash, of course. But it had been so long since she had been called anything else.

Adelaide, she thought to herself, a name meaning “the noble kind.” Arabella, Averil, Agatha—oh, surely not Agatha—Alyse, Antoinette, Annemarie, Anastasia, Andrina. Abigail, which meant “my father’s joy,” or Ainsley, which meant “alone”… until at last she could not keep her eyes open, and had to stop, and stash her work away.

At last, the night before the ball, a gown emerged from the scraps and trimmings. A piecemeal ballgown, a gown made of all different kinds of fabric, all hues, all manner of poufs and tucks and flounces. Somehow they all combined into a thing of beauty. She allowed herself a rest and a smile, then began to wash her hair. She would not have time to let it dry the next day.

The day of the ball, Ash could not look at Madame, who stood before her like a high tower and smiled and spoke of how well Brielle and Callidora would look at the ball, how charming, how accomplished, how they would be sure to dazzle the Prince, be swept in his arms at first sight. Ash tried to act as if she looked away out of envy. It was not difficult.

Half the day was spent dressing Brielle and Callidora, washing their hair, piling it atop their heads, powdering their cheeks. Ash’s fingers were sore and striped with red, for Madame had her pulling the girls’ stays until she could nearly span their waists with her hands.

Then it was Madame’s turn. She had procured for herself a gown more elaborate and furbelowed than her daughters’ combined—she was, as she said, a widow, very eligible indeed, and had not time been kind to her? Did she not apply the finest creams to her skin each night? Her iron hair was teased into place, a liberal dousing of powders applied, even a pinch of rouge on each cheek, for it was no sin to help Nature along, said Madame. Ash began to eye the clock, calculating her own preparations, praying Madame would proclaim herself satisfied within the hour.

At long last—in considerably more than an hour—Madame declared it was past time to depart. Ash waited a full ten minutes after the rattling of the coach faded into the distance before she was sure Madame was really gone. Then she began her bath, washing in the kitchen with a clean rag—which turned into a series of clean rags—and a bucket of suds. Her practiced fingers hastily arranged her hair atop her head. Then she donned her gown. She could not pull the stays tightly, but she did not need to. Years of labor and a meager diet had made her small and wiry. She covered her rough, red hands and calloused fingers with a pair of long white gloves that had once been Brielle’s.

As for slippers, Ash had none. Her feet were too small for any shoes that made their way to the scrap-heap. Her own shoes were ugly things, made of hide and lined with fur, but they would take her where she needed to go. Her skirts were long, and if she was careful, perhaps no one would see.

It had been a long time since Ash had glimpsed herself in a mirror, though Madame had inventoried her physical faults and flaws at length. But when she dashed up the stairs to survey herself in Callidora’s room, she thought Father would have been proud.

No coach awaited her, nor a single horse or footman, but the kingdom was small and the manor was not so far from the palace. The streets were emptied, and Ash had strong legs and lungs. She picked up her skirts and ran all the way there, stopping only at the gates of the palace to catch her breath. Then she smoothed her hair, pinched her cheeks, and made her way up the stairs.

She was used to hunching her back, but her bodice kept her upright as she climbed the stairs, careful not to lift her skirts and show her shoes, careful not to trip.

By the time she reached the page at the door who asked for her name, that he might introduce her, she was ready.

“The Lady Astra,” she said. She did not know if Astra had been her name before. It would be her name now. It was a name meaning “stars.” It was a name meaning “hope.”

Astra was last to arrive at the ball, so of course all heads turned towards her, in her gown made of all-kinds-of-gowns, in her hidden slippers of fur. Of course she met eyes with the Prince. Of course he stared. No one had ever seen a a gown like her gown at so royal a function. But her joy that night in finding her name, in being anywhere at all that was not Madame’s house, radiated from her as if she were a star in the night sky, and so she was beautiful. And thus it was with her the Prince wished to dance.

With her feet safely hidden, Astra could appear to dance just well enough not to make a fool of herself. When she made a mistake, the Prince only laughed, took it for nervousness, a stranger so honored by a prince such as him.

They only touched glove to glove, but not since her father died had anyone so much as taken her hand. When the Prince held her in his arms, when the Prince met her gaze with his own, when he flashed his dimples or let out a gentle laugh, she felt a giddy joy she hardly knew how to name.

After the dance ended, he asked her for another, and yet another, and when the two of them grew tired—Astra tired first, but said nothing, for a lady would not have spent all day on her feet—the Prince suggested they move to a little balcony off the throne room.

“We can speak privately there,” he said, both of them knowing they would do more than talk. Arm in arm with the Prince she floated to the balcony, and when his lips met hers she felt she could fly through the air. She let his hands travel, but she would not let him touch her gloves, lest he remove them, nor her skirts, lest he discover her slippers.

When they did speak, she found clever things to say, things she might have said when she was her father’s daughter. And when the Prince spoke, the gentle sound of his voice made it easy to smile, easy to laugh at his little jokes, even when she hardly heard his words for the pounding of her heart. She had never guessed love would be so simple.

Astra did not think of time until the clock struck midnight. Between chimes, she calculated the time to get home, time to rip off her gown and take down her hair, time to cover herself in ashes and lie as if asleep on the hearth, all before Madame and the girls returned. It was time to go. It was time to run.

The Prince was out of breath when she sat up and cried that she must go, she must leave at once. By the time he stood, she was out the door and back into the ballroom. She did not heed the stares, the smirks, but she picked up her skirts as high as she dared—she hoped that she moved too fast for anyone to see the dreadful shoes—and she dashed out the doors, down the steps.

On the steps of the palace Astra nearly tripped over herself; she stumbled and felt one foot come loose from its slipper, but there was no time to retrieve it, so she hurried on with one shoe less. She burned to think of the shameful thing left behind, a secret revealed, but it was too late to go back. Down the dark city-streets she ran, faster and faster.

 [ Slipper, © 2018 Fluffgar ] It wasn’t until she reached home that she wondered how she would hide from Madame that she had lost one shoe. She had become good at thinking quickly. In Madame’s house it was a necessity. Perhaps there was a bit of fur she had overlooked in the scrap-bag. There wasn’t. How long ago had she worn out her last pair? No, those would not fit her; she had been a child then. Madame would certainly never allow her to go barefoot, tracking blackened soles across pristine floors.

Astra laid awake and let her thoughts race until Madame came home, Callidora and Brielle trailing behind. She laid awake until their snatches of song and laughter disappeared up the stairs. She still had no solution. She would pay for this night, this squandered chance after all. Her last thought before she slept was that the prince had never called her by name. Perhaps he had never heard it at all.

In the morning Astra was sober, her head pounding, her stomach roiling, her fingers trembling as she carried Madame’s breakfast tray to her room. No answer had come to her fervent prayer for inspiration, so she swaddled her feet in rags and hoped that in the dim light, Madame might not see.

When she opened the door Madame smiled at her, and she nearly dropped the tray. Madame went on to tell her that it was a fine morning, and that it had been a fine evening, and wasn’t it a pity that she, Ash, had not been able to attend?

Astra knew better than to make an answer. If she had possessed both of her shoes, she would have inquired whether Brielle or Callidora had danced with the prince, as they had avowed they would, and as she knew they had not.

Madame cracked open her egg with the edge of a small silver spoon. Between bites she noted that a number of eligible lords had sought the hands of Callidora and Brielle—and, of course, herself. She observed that at last, she might be able to replace Astra’s father. Astra had not, heretofore, thought of her father as someone to be replaced.

Madame suggested that upon a remarriage, Astra might really try to work a little harder.

It was well that Astra no longer held the tray. “Shan’t you—shan’t you have other maids, other servants in a bigger household?”

“If you are not capable, I suppose we may have to,” said Madame. “But let us discuss it later. I won’t have my day spoiled on your account.”

There was more that Madame had to say, and much work to assign for the day. As Astra made to leave, Madame murmured that she was really quite a wasteful and a stupid girl, to use rags in place of shoes. But that if she insisted on being careless, she might put on a pair of Madame’s old winter slippers. The ones that the mice had chewed. Astra breathed a sigh of relief as she slipped away. That had been, for Madame, a positive reaction. It might have gone much worse. And now she had new shoes.

Callidora and Brielle spent the morning rhapsodizing over the young men they had danced with—and there seemed to be several for each—until the announcement came, delivered by another royal page.

Madame deigned to answer the door herself, and Astra listened from the hall as she read the announcement aloud.

The Prince would marry the mystery girl from last night’s ball. The Prince had found her slipper, abandoned on the stairs. An unusual slipper it was, remarkably small and surely one-of-a-kind. The Prince would present the slipper at every household, and every young maiden would try it on. Whomever the shoe fit would be his bride.

Astra wanted to laugh out loud. The matching shoe was in her apron pocket. The memory of the Prince seemed to burn on her lips. He was on his way to her. He had spent hours looking into her eyes. He would recognize her through the rags, through the soot.

At last the knock came. Astra hid behind a door. There were several pages this time, and the Prince himself was with them.

He presented the slipper first to Callidora, then to Brielle. Both of them commented on the strangeness of this footwear, but did not recognize it. They did not have Madame’s sharp eyes.

The fitting was taking some time; Callidora and Brielle were quite determined to contort their feet into the slipper’s small dimensions. The Prince began to tap his feet. Finally he excused himself, made a sign to one of the pages to take over, and made his way to the corridor. The same corridor where Astra had concealed herself.

She smiled to see him so close again, and that smile made her radiant again, even in her rags. The Prince smiled back.

“It’s me,” she tried to say, but the Prince had taken her chin in his hand.

“You’re a pretty thing,” he said, flashing his dimples. His gaze darted back towards the door. “Fancy a little easy money?” he said, pulling out a coin. “I think we’ve time, don’t you?” His hand traveled somewhere on her body it had been before. It had been welcome then. It was not welcome now.

Astra tried to jerk away from him but she was already against the wall. She did not have time to wail or rage or weep, that what she had thought was love was so much less than that; that what she thought she had given him the night before meant nothing; that the Prince had looked at her but had never seen her.

But Astra had learned to think very fast indeed, and she knew what she must do. How to secure her freedom. Something sparked in her eyes when she said the thing she had meant to say. “Let me try on the slipper.”

The Prince laughed in surprise. “You?” he said. “Well, why not?”

It was with no sense of triumph that Astra sat herself in Madame’s fine parlor-chair and placed her small foot neatly in the slipper.

“I’ve the other one as well,” she said, drawing it out of her pocket, not heeding the gasps all around her, for inside her there burned a furious flame where there had once been nothing but a smoldering ash heap.

The Prince stared and tried to smile and did not quite succeed. He took the other slipper from her, unable to hide the flinch when his glove brushed against her calloused fingertips, and examined it closely.

“It is a match,” he said at last. His eyes darted to the pages around him. The witnesses.

Madame had a string of barbed words ready, but Astra did not hear. Her escape was close at hand.

“You don’t want to marry me,” she said, stating the obvious.

“I am a man of my word,” the Prince said uneasily.

“I will release you from your promise,” said Astra, wanting to spit at the relief that spread across his face. “I will bargain with you for it.”

“What bargain?” said the Prince, nervous again. His eyes drifted downward, below her neck.

“Money,” Astra said. “That is something you understand,” she could not help adding.

“How much?” said the Prince. “You shall have it—within reason, you shall have it.”

Astra raised her chin. “A loan.”

The Prince stared, and for the first time, she knew he saw her for who she was, saw her quick and ready mind. She no longer cared. When Astra named her price and her conditions he nodded, and said it would be done. But that was not enough for Astra, who bade the nearest page to set it all in writing. And then she made to leave Madame’s house.

She had no things to gather. The dress she would leave in its hiding place; whatever magic it had worked was ended for her. She left without without a word of goodbye to what remained of her family. Madame had too long pretended that she was Astra’s mistress and not her mother, that Astra was not her own flesh-and-blood daughter, the eldest of three. And although she thought she heard a little sigh from Brielle, her sister Brielle, it was too late to drop that fiction now.

The Prince was as good as his contract. With the sum of royal money, Astra departed from that kingdom to another, far away. There she set up shop as a dressmaker. It was not easy work, but it was of her choosing and her direction, and she was good at it, so she did not mind. She had nowhere to call home, and so at first slept on the hearth as she had always done, but she woke when she wished and she ate what she pleased, so she did not mind that, either. What she had done so well with scraps, she did better with yards of fine silk and lace and ribbon.

Astra repaid her debt to the faraway prince in full. It was in time for his wedding. Not long after that, she had a house and a soft bed to call her own. Little by little, she filled her shelves with histories and dictionaries and encyclopedias, which she studied by night when she was not busy at a canvas. Astra was better with charcoal than with paints, but perhaps that was to be expected. She was not a great artist, but she was good enough to please herself.

Sometimes Astra kept her home spick-and-span; sometimes, she let the dust pile on an inch thick, just because she could. Some nights she laid awake with Madame’s—Mother’s—voice echoing in her ears; other nights she slept soundly, curled with a cat under one arm and a dog under the other. She found friends—though each one seemed to her a great surprise—among her neighbors, her customers, the folk she met in the market. She had always been Astra to them.

And sometimes, when her heart ached from old hurts and even the dog and the cat could not soothe her, she picked up her skirts and ran, as she had once run through the streets of the old kingdom. She ran through back alleys and past city limits; she ran until she came to dirt roads and meadows and clear streams of water, she ran until her body sang with exertion. She ran with her hair streaming behind her, with her face turned towards the sun. She ran, but she did not run away, for she was always where she wanted to be.

© 2018 Michelle Labbé

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