Ashes, Ashes

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

to dance.

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