I had paused in the corridor, faltering
in my crystal shoes, my gut flipping with
a cold sense of unbelonging.
The floor was lucent gold and smoother
than my young nephew’s infant cheek,
and I, whose soot-stained kneecaps creaked
with age and smudged black even
the dark, tired stones in my father’s old house,
what was I doing here?
(I dreamed of this once, long ago—
when one stepsister had first kissed her count
and the other was laughing with her duke,
I thought of the prince, yet unmarried,
and a silent dance sparkling like
stars at midnight—but he
weathered the decades alone, and
so did I.)
Again, before I turned on the curve
of the staircase, I hesitated.
My bare hand on the ivory railing trembled,
crudely wrinkled leather against
the polished white, knuckles scraped and raw
from the years’ washing.
(No gloves, she said.
I want them all to see your hands, your
scars, your callouses: this is
the honor you have earned.
She saw my girlish look, shy
beneath the creases on my weary face,
and laughed, kindly.
As for your beauty tonight, she said, beauty
is always a gift.)
The wide window, then, reached out
to me, when the blaze of chandeliers
and braziers had thrown itself into the glass and
hauled out the image of myself
breathtaking, like I had never seen,
my hair bound up in a silver crown
of moonlight, shoulders pulled back
and standing tall, free from work at last,
a long gown of deep blue silk
slippery beneath the roughness of my fingers.
When I looked down at the people,
the room grew thick with a hush.
I lifted my head and found the king, rising from
his throne, and there his eyes
caught me, somehow ancient and somehow new;
he came to me through the parting crowd
and took my weathered hands in his,
warm and strong and silent—
(I thought of you
once, I said.)
—a smile split the lines on his face, and he bowed
with creaking spine, and asked me