A Fairytale For Christmas
I promised to post a Christmas fairytale this season. It was written to commission, the brief being to twist a traditional story. There are certain styles you can adopt very easily, the Sherlock Holmes approach for example, and fairy tales have a rhythm all their own that dates back to their Victorian translators. And can I just say, if you’re ever looking for fairytale stock shots, virtually all you get online now is Disney-trademarked.
This is called ‘The Ash-Boy’. I wrote it in a single sitting and make no apologies.
‘Once upon a time in a far-off land there was a rich merchant who had two children, a boy and a girl born a year apart. The boy was called Peter and the girl was called Elizabeth. Their lives were happy, and they were as close as brother and sister could be. But a terrible sickness swept through the region and touched nearly every family. Elizabeth lost her mother and her beloved brother and watched in the town square as their bodies were burned, for it was the only sure way of stopping the plague from spreading. Then, with the smell of her loved ones’ cinders still in her clothes, she returned home to tend to her grief-stricken father.
Elizabeth planted a hazel tree in her mother’s memory, and its branches filled with ravens that kept watch over her. She returned to the market place and scooped up some of her brother’s burned remains, and took them to the scullery fireplace, where she fashioned an image of her brother from the ashes, so he would glow there in the grate and in her heart every time the fire was lit to warm the merchant’s house.
Just as Elizabeth was reaching maturity – which is to say that her body had changed and she could now be expected to perform all the duties of adults – her father resolved to find her a new mother, in order to provide her with the guidance that a man could not.
The unwed townswomen looked upon the merchant with fresh eyes, for they saw a fellow with a fortune and only a daughter on whom to spend it (for it was common in this town to have six or seven children at least), and although the merchant was fat and ungainly and rather dull, he soon acquired a great number of eligible women seeking his hand in marriage.
The rich merchant chose unwisely from their number, for he was no match for feminine guile. The lady he selected (or rather who selected him) was fair of face but severe in temperament, and she brought with her two plain daughters from her last marriage, her husband having died of exhaustion and disappointment brought on by his wife’s bitter ministrations.
The two daughters were versions of their mother, but with their most inherited features attenuated, so that they were shallower, more mean-spirited and more selfish. They had trouble following conversations that were not about themselves, and one had a pitch to her laugh that could shock birds from the trees, while the other spoke in such an uninteresting manner that she put listeners to sleep. They resented their new father’s beautiful daughter, who could charm the fruit to ripen, and took away the nice clothes she had made for herself, and sent out her down to work in the scullery, washing and cleaning and tending the fire, which she was warned to never let go out (for this was in a mountain region the sun hardly ever touched, where frost could bristle the skin even at the height of summer).
The sisters refused to call the merchant’s daughter any name other than Cinder-Ella, and promptly forgot about her, except when they needed her to perform some unpleasant duty. The merchant was busy working to maintain his fortune, and his new wife passed her days visiting other wealthy ladies in the nearby towns. The sisters did very little beyond brushing their hair, painting their toes, gossiping about the townsfolk, checking the local gazette for dinners and dances and screaming at each other over the perception of slights.
One day they heard of a handsome prince who was coming to visit. He was to be given a grand ball at the Mayor’s palatial mansion in the verdant green hills above the town, the only part of the valley that the sun ever touched. The Mayor was after political favours and the prince was still unwed, and as the town was filled with single women (too many beaux having succumbed to woodland overwork or plague) it was thought that a series of lavish parties might work to the satisfaction of both sides. Everyone who cared about such things was to be there, and the sisters begged their mother to petition for invitations. Gold-edged cards were duly sent out to every female between the ages of fourteen and twenty one, and the merchant’s family were able, through their connections, to obtain these coveted invitations, despite the fact that the stepsisters were visibly beyond the required age-range.
The ungainly pair could not resist bragging about the ball to Cinder-Ella. ‘Perhaps I could come too?’ asked Cinder-Ella hopefully. ‘After all, I am of an eligible age.’
‘You?’ laughed one of the sisters, batting the gold-edged invitation before her bony white face. ‘But my dear, just look at yourself, so filthy and ragged and uncouth. How could you possibly attend a ball held for a man so finely bred as the prince? Besides, you must stay here to ensure that the embers never burn out. There’s ice upon the windowpane, and you can’t allow the house to grow cold, for we cannot afford to appear before the prince with red noses.’ Laughing gaily, they went off to town to have their hair dyed and twisted into shapes that might please a minor member of royalty.
That night the rest of the family set off for the Mayor’s palatial home, leaving their step-sister to tend the great fire. ‘It’s so unfair,’ thought Cinder-Ella as she gathered more logs. ‘Why should I be forced to work when they go to the ball seeking to marry a handsome prince? And under false pretences, at that.’
But then she realised that she couldn’t go anyway, for she had no invitation. The fire was growing low, and the burned logs had exposed the glowing shape of the Ash-Boy, her lost brother Peter, and she took comfort from his image. Her tears dripped onto his crimson form with a hiss, and as they did so she heard a voice that said; ‘But you can go to the ball, Cinder-Ella, for a ticket was delivered for every eligible female member of the household. Your stepsisters threw your invitation into the fire, but I placed my cold ash hand over it and refused to allow it to burn.’
And with that Ash-Peter raised his ash hand and revealed the unscorched card, and Cinder-Ella fished it from the fire intact.
‘Thank you, Ash-Peter,’ said Cinder-Ella, ‘but this is no good by itself, for I have nothing to wear.’
‘You made your own clothes before our father remarried,’ whispered Ash-Peter, ‘and although they were not made of silks and satins, nor covered in diamonds and rubies, they were as lovely as the trees, as flowing as the streams, as graceful as the breeze.’
And inspired by his words she went out to the little woodshed where she and her brother had always kept their meagre belongings and she returned with some bundles of cloth, some emerald grass and sapphire moon-dew, and her deft fingers darted so quickly that soon she had sewn a dress that shone with all the colours of the night. Cinder-Ella was good with a needle.
She quickly washed and dressed, and dared to admire herself in the looking glass; she was quite beautiful enough to dazzle a prince. She made herself a tiara woven from hazel twigs and pinched her cheeks to make them pink, and poured rosewater into her hair. She even carved a pair of dainty little shoes from bark, and painted them silver with the frost from the meadow.
‘Your natural beauty will outshine those painted, corseted slatterns,’ Ash-Peter told her. ‘Now you can go to the ball, but you’ll have to take the carthorse. You can leave him at the end of the Mayor’s drive.’
And so Cinder-Ella galloped to the ball. The great house in the hills was lit in every window like a great golden chandelier. When she arrived, her entrance, breathless and unaccompanied, down the winding stone staircase of the mayor’s mansion, killed all conversation in the ballroom below. Nobody ever entered alone – such a thing broke every rule of etiquette, and the townsfolk always insisted on doing everything by the book for they were in truth rather provincial – but Cinder-Ella’s natural beauty swept aside any possible complaint. Although she was quickly surrounded by suitors she refused them all until the prince himself, dressed in white and gold, approached her.
They danced so gracefully together that gradually the floor emptied out and the other guests moved to the edges, watching the couple in awe and admiration. The prince was light on his feet and loved to dance, and whirled Cinder-Ella around until she was quite exhausted. She knew that her sisters would return home soon after midnight, so she kept a watchful eye on the clock above the staircase.
Her own family failed to recognize her, such was her transformation into a beauty. The prince ignored every other girl in the room, and danced only with Cinder-Ella so that she lost all track of time. It was only when she looked around and saw her stepsisters leaving in disgust that she knew it was time to go. Breaking free of the prince just as he asked her name, she ran to the steps and beat them out of the door. But in her rush she lost one of the silver-twig shoes, and it was this the prince found after she had gone.
Of course nobody knew the identity of the prince’s dancing partner, and although the entire ballroom was agog with gossip they could not help the prince discover who she was. She had appeared from nowhere and had vanished into the freezing night.
The prince announced that he would search the town for her the next morning, and so it came to pass that he and his chief of guards began knocking on every door, asking to meet every female in the house.
When he reached the merchant’s home, Cinder-Ella’s stepmother answered the door and summoned her own daughters, but nobody else. The stepsisters simpered and mewled about the prince, while his guard produced the silver shoe. They each tried it on in turn, but it fitted neither foot because they were at least three sizes too big for such a pretty little slipper. The stepmother took her daughters aside and urged them to cut off their ugly toes to fit the shoe, so while their mother engaged the prince in conversation about the weather they went out to the woodshed and each took turns with an axe to hack off the toes of their right feet. Soon their stumps were bleeding so badly that they looked like bony nubs of butchers’ shop gristle, and they were in so much pain when they limped back that the prince was put off of letting them try on the slipper and sent them away, as he hated the sight of blood.
‘Are you sure there is no-one else here at all?’ asked the Prince’s guard.
‘No, there is no-one here,’ said the stepmother. But one of the ravens from the hazel tree alighted on the guard and clawed at his clothes, and as he was batting the bird away he glanced through the scullery window, and there he saw smut-faced Cinder-Ella tending to the burning grate.
‘What about her?’ he asked.
‘She is nobody, just a scullery-maid,’ sniffed the stepmother.
‘Nevertheless I must meet her,’ said the prince. ‘Bring her to me.’
Cinder-Ella shyly tried on the shoe and of course it fitted perfectly. ‘Wonderful!’ the prince cried. ‘You are surely the girl I danced with.’
‘I am, sire,’ she replied, lowering her head in his regal presence.
‘Then I shall return to the Mayor’s house tonight and we shall continue to dance merrily, and I shall marry you and dress you up and show you off to the entire nation, and you will be my pretty little dancing doll forever, a plaything fit for a prince. Until tonight, then.’ He shook her hand politely and rode off with his guard.
The stepsisters were furious. They hobbled toward Cinder-Ella, leaving a bloody trail, and shoved her back into the scullery, further and further, until she was on top of the roaring fire. ‘If we can’t have him, you shall not have him,’ hissed one of them, and grabbing a poker she brandished it at Cinder-Ella, pushing her into the flames. The other sister twisted her arm and bent her back over the roaring fire until she could no longer remain upright. They rammed her onto the burning coals and held her in place with pokers until the flames set fire to her clothes and her hair and singed her flesh until it was black. Lying below the burning logs, Ash-Peter could hear his sister’s desperate cries, but could not rise up to save her.
And so poor Cinder-Ella perished in dreadful agony. Her blood and her tears put out the fire and turned the embers to cold ashes as the sisters went off to prepare for another ball, where they hoped once more to turn the head of the prince.
There was nothing left of Cinder-Ella except her dainty right foot, which had been thrust beyond the edge of the grate. Ash-Peter roared with fury, and as he did so his anger ignited the coals again and he rose up, and the Ash-Boy stepped out of the great fireplace into the scullery. He stood before the fire and dusted off his grey ashes, and found himself whole once more, and swore revenge for his sister’s terrible death.
That night, the Ash-Boy waited for the rest of the family to leave the house. Being roughly the same size as his sister, and most alike in complexion and deportment, he donned her ballgown, gloves and tiara. Luckily the prince had left the other twig-slipper, so he still had a matching pair. Then he slipped out to find the carthorse and rode off to the Mayor’s house.
At the expected hour Ash-Peter arrived at the top of the grand staircase in his dead sister’s raiments. He was worried that the guests might spot the difference, but the room was lit with smoky candles so nobody noticed and indeed, the siblings were so very similar in height and bearing and even beauty that nobody thought it odd at all.
As soon as the prince saw Ash-Peter dressed in his sister’s finery he rushed over, and if he saw the difference he did not show it, for the moment the orchestra started to play he picked Ash-Peter up and whisked him to the dancefloor, and once again he waltzed the night away. This time, though, the prince’s partner did not rush off before the stroke of midnight, but stayed to dance until even the prince needed to catch his breath, and led Ash-Peter to his private balcony, where they kissed in shadows.
As the guests dispersed, the prince led Ash-Peter upstairs to the suite the Mayor had given him (for his own castle was several days’ ride away) and carried his bride-to-be toward his bed. He blew out the candles and undressed his prize and throughout that night he displayed all the manly prowess that might be expected of a prince.
The next morning his maids and servants brought him breakfast and found him in bed with a slender young man curled beneath him. They pretended not to notice and scurried from the room, but a whisper was started that became a scandal that quickly spread through the entire town, so that when the prince awoke and appeared at his bedroom door, ready for his morning bath, the Mayor and the Burgermeister and all of the town’s officials were there to point the finger of accusation at him, for this, as I mentioned earlier, was a very provincial town.
After a few minutes’ deliberation, and despite a rather unbelievable plea of total ignorance from the prince, the Mayor’s soldiers took their guest out to the courtyard, blindfolded him and shot him.
While all this commotion was occurring, Ash-Peter slipped out of the grounds, found his horse and returned to the merchant’s house. It was snowing hard when he arrived, and the family was starting to freeze because Cinder-Ella’s blood and tears had put out the fire, and nobody could make it stay alight. The merchant tried burning newspapers, and his wife tried lighting twigs, and even her daughters tried blowing on matches, but nothing would make the fire catch, so they crept off to their chambers to cover themselves in blankets and huddle together in the deepening cold.
Ash-Peter saw himself in the looking glass and knew he could not stay in human form for much longer, so he took the cold ashes from the fireplace and smeared them all over his face and body, and said; ‘Now I must once again be what I became before, an Ash-Boy’, and it was true for he was already losing the softness that made him human. He looked like an angry warrior that had risen from the grate to take revenge for his sister’s cruel fate.
He told the ravens in the hazel tree to peck out his stepsisters’ eyes but they stared at him blankly, for they were just birds and had attacked the prince’s guard because they feared he was threatening their nest. The only magic in the household had come from the fireplace where Cinder-Ella had lovingly tended the flame that held her brother’s form.
So Ash-Peter took the axe from the woodshed, and sharpened its blade on a stone until it had a razor-edge, then went upstairs to find his stepsisters. They were wrapped in blankets in their bedchambers, shaking with the cold, and when they saw the fearsome Ash-Boy walking toward them dragging his axe so that it sparked against the uneven flint floor they screamed in terror.
‘So you would cut off your toes to win your prince, would you?’ he said. ‘Perhaps you would have a better chance if you fitted Cinder-Ella’s gloves.’ And he chopped off their fingers one by one until their hands were just trowels of bloody flesh. The stepsisters screamed and howled and shook, but nobody came to rescue them. ‘And perhaps the prince would marry you if you fitted Cinder-Ella’s dress,’ Ash-Peter cried, hacking pieces of flesh off their sides until their limbs were lopped from their bodies and their pink innards fell from beneath their ribs. ‘And perhaps you would have been wed if you had worn Cinder-Ella’s fine tiara,’ he said as he brought the sharp blade of the axe down across their pates, and with their silly skulls split they expired in dreadful agonies.
He was about to head for his father’s room when he heard Cinder-Ella’s voice in his ear. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘do not punish our family any more, for they have no children left to comfort them in their cold old age and surely that is punishment enough.’
Ash-Peter saw that she was right. By now the house was freezing. The bread and meat in the kitchen had turned hard as rock, so there was nothing for the merchant and his wife to eat. The water had solidified in the taps, so there was nothing for them to drink. The floors and the doors were crusted in thickening ice, and warmth would never come here again. And so he left the selfish merchant and his shrewish wife and returned to the scullery. Scooping out the remains of his sister’s ashes, he took them to the little woodshed at the end of the garden and lit a fire with them the very first time he tried, and he stayed warm in the wooden box while the frost cracked the windows of his father’s house, and icicles like great glass spears formed along the edges of the roof.
He waited. Soon enough, his father and stepmother spotted the glowing light of the woodshed from their window and hurried shivering from the house. He heard his stepmother say, ‘Someone is warming themselves on our land, and they shall pay. We’ll kick them out into the cold and take the fire for ourselves.’ But as she slammed the front door behind them, the icicles hanging from the roof cracked loose and fell, spearing each of them clean through the heart.
Ash-Peter emerged from his woodshed and saw that there was nothing he could do for them. Then he returned to his fire, and climbed into his sister’s flames and danced and danced, quite mad in grief and victory, until the furnace consumed him and there were only his ashes left, and they mingled with his sister’s ashes, and the icy wind blew them away to the farthest corners of the kingdom, where they warmed the deserving and froze only those with bitter hearts. The End.’
He closed the book and lowered it, studying his daughter’s face. For the last five minutes she had hardly stopped crying long enough to draw breath. ‘So you see,’ he said, tenderly wiping away her tears with the sleeve of his cardigan, ‘there are fairy tales where the beautiful girl gets the prince and there are ones like real life, where nothing ends as you expect it.’
And as his daughter started to cry once more, he threw aside the book and went downstairs to have another fight with his wife.