I was supposed to go to the ball, but I spent the night licking out my stepsister instead.
Bethesda moaned and rustled mulberry silk high up her thighs. “There, there, no, faster, come on, faster, please…”
The friendly mice put out their eyes and ran out in trios to join a different fairy tale.
Never marry a prince when you can eat a pussy.
Never ride a pumpkin when you can steal cab fare.
Never wear a ball gown when you can slink in snakeskin pants.
Never listen to a fairy godmother.
Bethesda and I went clubbing. Everyone gave her the oddball eye for wearing ruffled silk with fucking puffy sleeves. I laughed back at all of them.
I seduced some refugee from the eighties who had a rainbow mohawk. Bethesda glared at us and bought herself two shots of tequila, one of which she threw in my face.
Well, what do you expect from an ugly girl?
I danced until the eighties mohawk guy got tired and went home, and then I danced until the bartender tried to close everyone out, and then I danced more until it was sunrise, and the bartender still hadn’t managed to get away because I was dancing with him, our eyes locked across the room, him swaying like a hypnotized snake to the flute of my body.
Outside, it was pink and gray over endless city. I chose a street at random.
“Eat my body,” said a house that belonged to a witch.
“Look at me,” said a mirror with a voice.
“Do you want some boots?” asked a man exchanging new shoes for old.
I pulled off my heels and traded them in for knee–high go–gos.
“You look very intelligent,” said the man. “I bet you could scam an ogre.”
I grinned and gave him a dollar I’d stolen off the bartender.
The heroes of fairy tales are straight. And skinny, too, so they’re straight and narrow.
People think this is because of heterosexism and beauty standards. It isn’t. Snow White takes a cock in her scrawny cunt because she can’t imagine how to be twisty.
You start out with three tools. You’re pretty. You have small feet. And you can do housework.
Now become a princess.
Go on. Laugh. Shatter glass class ceilings? Yeah, right. There’s a reason they call it the American dream. It ain’t gonna happen while you’re awake.
I find a hotel all lit up neon even though it’s half past five a.m. Slip inside because why not? A place still partying through dawn’s likely to have someone in it who’ll try to pick you up by buying breakfast and staring at your tits.
Inside, it’s all tattered chiffon streamers and tumbled confetti glitzing up the rug. Martini glasses are scattered on ottomans, couches, in the pots of fake rubber tree plants, half of them smashed to shiny bits.
And there: the prince. What the hell? Thought he was throwing a ball not a prom. But you can tell he’s the prince on account of the epaulettes. He’s tongue–spelunking down some girl’s throat. Grope, slip, grope, they change angle, and shit — that girl’s face! Sharp and blunt in all the wrong angles. Hell if it’s not my other stepsister, Griselda.
Suddenly, the prince’s hangover pall goes from jaundice to chartreuse. His abdomen clenches. Then comes the retching. Griselda can’t jump back fast enough. He spews puce chunks of half–digested pâté all down her mint green frills.
She shoves him off — “Fuck! You got some in my mouth!”
But he can’t hear because he’s slammed on the floor, passed out like a pine board.
Griselda gives me the stink–eye when I go over to help which I can’t blame since I’m the one who just last night threw her over for her sister. But when I turn over His Blotto Majesty so I can rifle through his pockets, one of his epaulettes falls off, and underneath there’s a label for a costume shop on 44th.
“Fuck!” Griselda shouts. “A fucking fake!”
Her rant zooms off and I’d kiss her to shut her up except for the vomit.
“You’re uglier when you’re angry,” I say.
“Bitch. Where’s my sister?”
“Jealous snit. Stormed off.”
“You’re an entitled little slut, Cinderella.”
“You want this guy’s wallet or not?”
Griselda sets her mouth in an ugly snarl. Hard to describe the kind of ugly she and Bethesda’ve got. Everything in the right place, technically, but goes together nine kinds of wrong.
She stays all frozen grimace — can’t say no, won’t admit yes — till I take mercy and throw his billfold at her. He brought enough to play prince for another couple hours. Won’t set her up for life, but it’s not nothing. She glares at me as she rifles bills with her thumb.
“You’re still a bitch, Cinderella,” she says, but her bark is out of bite.
There’s this thing happens when you’re growing up, narrative an anvil on your shoulders, when you know you’re supposed to pull yourself up by the bootstraps of your Lucite stripper heels. And that thing is: you cease to give a fuck.
Worse when everyone and her hairy–legged sister’s busy telling you what it is you mean. Smashing you with a hammer and turning the bits into symbols, grabbing a ballpoint and writing you into a hundred ink–stained girls in diamond ball gowns screaming bra–burning opposition to becoming passive, powerless, pampered princesses.
And what’s wrong with pampering? Sounds good to me. Better than wearing the daily jewels of five–fingered bruises bestowed by the cunt who calls herself mother. Better than inhaling bleach and ammonia every morning while you’re on your hands and knees scrubbing other people’s muck.
Better than the taste of coal, the real taste of it, when the char’s gone deep in your tongue, scorched every bud, turned all that supposed–to–be–pink into scalding black. After that, there’s nothing doesn’t taste of burning.
I tell you: when the whole world is charcoal, you take whatever bullshit they’re serving because even shit sandwiches are better than fire.
Deeper in the lobby, there’s a she–bear sitting on a loveseat. You can tell it’s a she–bear because she’s wearing a ruffled apron.
Beside her, there’s a passed out girl. Like last night’s champagne, she’s gone flat. Tongue lolls; limbs sprawl; hope she had a ball ’cuz today’s gonna be a long–ass haul.
She–bear opens her paw. Inside, there’s a tiny tea cup — on second thought, not tiny; her paw’s just enormous. Silver tray on the ottoman in front of her, bone–delicate porcelain tea service painted with pastel roses. She raises the cup to her snout and, I swear, her fucking pinky claw is raised.
“What are you at the ball for?” I ask. “You someone’s dancing bear?”
I shove the flat–champagne girl onto the floor and take her place. Girl grunt–snores as she tumbles onto the rug, golden ringlets flipping over her face.
She–bear rumbles disapprovingly at my incivility but won’t be rude in return. Gestures with her free paw to the other cups on the tray.
There are three. Obviously.
I grab the hot one and pour it down my throat. Hiss of steam as it hits my lips. Saliva boils. Flame sears down my gullet.
Like anything’s so hot I can’t take it.
I open my mouth so she can see the skin bubbling on my tongue. “Juuuuuust right.”
Her nose twitches with amusement. She sets down her just–so cup and grabs the oh–so–cold one. One long swallow and when she opens her mouth again, icicles glisten on her fangs. Her frozen exhalation blasts my face like frostbite.
“All right,” I say. “I grant you. That was mucho macho.”
She runs her tongue across her fangs to lick off the ice, regards me with an impatient what–do–you–want stare.
“It’s paper–thin. That’s what gets me. It’s always paper–thin. Was to start with. Well, I guess it was voice–thin then. Oral–tradition–thin. There you are, you’re an archetype, and you get to marry a prince who doesn’t even have a name, and does either of you exist at all? Or are you just epaulettes and glass slippers? Not even good costumes. Oh, what the hell do you know anyway? You’re a bear who doesn’t even have to shit in the woods.”
Her teacup slams against the tray. Reverberation sends the dishes crashing into each other. I startle–leap back, but much as I want to, I can’t run; I’m transfixed by the smoldering black glare. Her maw gapes open. This time, I’m not fooled by the flowers and ruffles. Those fangs can bite down on cucumber sandwiches, sure, but they can also tear out a moose’s throat, seize a salmon straight out of the river.
Glass rings as her growl crescendos.
She says, “You shouldn’t make assumptions.”
I shiver. “I didn’t know you could speak.”
“Let me give you some advice.” She leans closer, snout foreshortened in my vision, breath a humid mix of rotten meat and blueberry scones. “Female to female. From someone who’s been in the world longer than you have. Who’s borne a cub and met a thief and slept howling winters into spring.”
I rub the goosebumps on my forearms. Her ursine stare is all crags and glaciers and white water rapids.
Along the back of my neck, where the hairs are raised, I feel a sting — not just of fear, but of hope. Maybe she has the answers to questions I don’t even know how to ask.
Levelly, she stares at me. “You look stupid in go–go boots.”
Here’s the thing:
You can’t win.
You can’t win if you’re a princess. You can’t win if you rescue the prince. You can’t win if you cross–dress and become the royal huntsman. And heaven forbid you try to slip into another fairy tale by pricking yourself with a spindle — in the real world, the only thing a spindly prick gets you is up the duff.
No one else is doing better. The mice always wondering if they’re supposed to walk on two legs. The prince so vapid he can only recognize the chick he’s fallen in love with by her shoe size. Your poor, ugly stepsisters who half the time are hobbling on chopped–up feet.
Animators can come in with fake smiles and truckloads of bleach and Zip–a–Zee–Do–Dah away the blood and eye–pecking birds. Post–modern lit grads in ironic t–shirts can tear you up and stitch you into Frankenstein’s femme fatale.
Still there are a thousand girls resting their heads on fireplace stones. Still a thousand streaked with ash and spit.
Still a million going to sleep each night with the knowledge that no one gives a fuck whether or not they wake up.
Little cinder girls, we’re raised in fire.
Either you melt and become the simpering thing you’re supposed to.
Or else you temper into something calloused and unbreakable.
Ditched the hotel to search for Griselda. Was hoping I could wheedle a cut of the cash, but before I can chase her down, someone’s grabbing my arm and dragging me down the sidewalk, and she–bear is right, I am stupid to be wearing go–go boots because if I’d chosen something else — something with steel toes maybe — I could kick this fucker in the shins and get away.
Instead, I’m shoved into a swarm of people. My assailant shouts, “What about this one?”
More people grab my arms. There are women in black sheath dresses and pink pearls, and men in ponchos and eyeliner, all talking rapidly over each other. “Could be the one! Could be her! She could work!” Hands push me down onto one of those folding chairs people take camping, and there’s some guy at my feet —
Oh, look. Epaulettes again.
Gently, he tugs on my left go–go boot. Leather slips down my calf. His tongue brushes the side of his mouth as he pulls, slow–as–slow. He pants, quick and shallow. Saliva pools in the corner of his mouth. His lids lower with creepy–ass pleasure as my heel pops free. He reveals my arch and then my toes. His index finger traces my sole. “Mmmmmm.”
Whole crowd’s eyes on my bare foot. The prince’s eyes. The eyeliner–and–pearls attendants’ eyes. The eyes of the encircling ranks of morning commuters in business casual who cinch in closer so they can get a better ogle.
The prince passes off the go–go boot, and holds out his hand, impatiently. Sheath–dresses and ponchos confer. “Blue doeskin?” suggests one.
“Blue doeskin!” shout the others. “Blue doeskin!”
A ponchoed ponce presents a shoebox. Sweeps off the lid with a flourish. “Blue doeskin!”
Prince lifts out a four–inch sling–back heel. “Doeskin. Mmm.”
He leans forward to slide the shoe onto my foot. I surprise him with a kick to the stomach.
He doubles over. The pearls–and–eyeliner people flutter their hands in alarm. “Five–bow wedges?” “Studded cowboy boots?” “Gladiator sandals?”
I lurch to standing, awkward with one foot bare and the other go–go heeled, and grab Prince Droolface by the collar. “I always figured a fucker that obsessed with shoe size had to be a fetishist. Look, fine by me, okay? You want me to wear stilettos and walk your spine like a runway? Skippy. But first you tell me what you’re offering in exchange.”
He sputters. I grab one of his epaulettes.
Patty’s Party World. ’Nother fucking fake.
It’s all so clear the day before you’re supposed to go to the ball.
Walk away and they can’t make a real Cinderella out of you.
But once you’ve washed the taste of your stepsister’s pussy out of your mouth with a tequila shot… What then?
Now you’re hungover, and your eyes are bloodshot, and you haven’t slept in thirty–six hours — and still, everything you do is heading toward some kind of meaning.
All you wanted to do was run off so you could say, “Her? That’s not me. I’m someone different.”
But Cinderella’s still the center. Everything you do is bound to what she did. You’re her marginalia. You’re the commentary on her body of work.
Everything you do is going to be read in relation to her. You can’t ever really be your own.
I’m still running — well, hobbling, given the one–shoe thing — away from Creepy–Ass McFootFetishist when suddenly I spot Griselda. She’s sitting on the curb, taking coins out of the wallet once possessed by Faux Prince #1, and flipping them one by one into the gutter. They make a lonely ringing sound as they clang into the sewers.
I pause, wondering if I should set myself up with a catcher’s mitt — because wasting cash? What? — when shifting clouds change the light, and my shadow tumbles over Griselda.
She looks up. Tears streak her ugly face.
“Oh,” she says, looking sadly back toward the gutter. “You.”
A big coin that looks like it might be a Susie B. clamors its way down.
“Could you stop that?” I say.
Her face snarls up. She pulls out a fistful of change and it looks like she’s going to throw it all in the gutter at once, but then she turns and hurls it in my face.
“Take it then!” she shouts.
“Um,” I say.
I can’t help glancing at the passersby who are now giving the crazy chicks wide berth. For dignity’s sake, I probably shouldn’t bend ass to collect a few dollars in change, but I pull off my second go–go anyway and start scooping quarters into it.
Griselda grunts disgustedly. “He wasn’t even a real prince. I let him feel me up and everything. And he wasn’t even a real prince.”
She bares her teeth.
“Should have known,” she says. “Thought maybe I could get some royal nookie even if you got the veil. But no. With you around, everything’s fake.”
She throws the wallet smack at my chest. It hits me then bounces to the ground. I bend down to get it. When I stand back up, she’s gone.
You’re an astute reader. So let’s cut the bullshit. You’ve read enough metafiction to think you know where I’m going. And you probably do know because basically what I’ve been saying this whole time is that everything that happens from here is going to fall into one category of commentary or another.
You’ve probably become aware that I’m not exactly Cinderella. I’m not bricked up behind the fourth wall, but I’m not driving the bulldozer either… I’m going to go with the charitable angle and call my identity complex. But I won’t argue if you want to call it confused, ill–defined, or pretentious bullshit.
For the purposes of this story, you may consider me to be any one of the following, or any combination thereof. Feel free to switch up at any time.
• The metafictional compilation of Cinderellas
• A prop for anachronistic jokes
• A stand–in for the author
• The pissed off ghost of the chick who told her story to some asshats named Grimm
• A caterpillar with sixteen feet wearing sixteen glass slippers, dreaming of smashing its cocoon and metamorphosing into the black hole that will devour the universe
Not sure if wandering the streets is such a good idea given my luck so far, but I keep pounding the pavement anyway, walking barefoot, with the wallet in one hand and the coin–filled go–go boot in the other.
Come upon a dried–up patch of grass trying to pass as a park. Asleep on a bench, there’s Bethesda. Mulberry skirt torn into a mini that makes her legs look uglier than usual.
“Hey,” I say, looming.
She wakes up. Her breath smells like the bear’s but without the trace of sweet. “Shit.” She rubs her eyes to get a bleary look at me. “I should slap you.”
“Yeah. But you won’t.”
“Nah,” she agrees.
That’s the central difference between Bethesda and Griselda. Piss off Griz and she’ll punch a motherfucker. Beth runs hot for an hour or two but can’t keep grudging.
She presses her hand against her head and moans. “The fuck did you let me drink so much?”
“I’m not your mother.”
“Fuck my mother. Where’s Griz?”
“Sulking because she made out with some dude who wasn’t a prince.”
“Fuck her too, then. But not like I fucked you.”
“Speaking of,” I say, “That’s over. No offense. Was just a one–time kind of thing.”
“Figured. After mohawk guy.” She shrugs. It turns into a full–out stretch. “So what the hell’re you going to do now?”
“Been thinking about that.”
“Not coming up with much.”
“What happened to your shoes?”
“Sold ’em for some boots.” I lift my change purse cum go–go. “Then lost one.”
“So you’re a streetwalker who can’t even keep her heels on.”
“And you’re a recently dumped, hungover ugly chick wearing a ball gown miniskirt.”
“So you done yet?” she asks. “This all weird enough for you finally?”
Cuz it’s not, is it? Not twisty. Not really.
Even if I could somehow break us out of this place where we started… chew us free from the bear trap of our story… go someplace no had ever heard of glass slippers and running away at the stroke of midnight… how would we even recognize ourselves then?
I shift foot to foot. Sun’s making the asphalt hot. I’m regretting not having made off with the blue doeskin slingbacks.
“One idea,” I say. “We should go home.”
“So you can grab some shoes?”
“Yeah, but also, I bet if we toss the place, we can figure out where your mom keeps all her valuables before she even wakes up. Live hog–high for a week or three.”
Bethesda smirks. “Kick the figuring out what to do next thing down the road a while.”
You know what? Never mind all that shit I said before. I’m none of those things.
Unless that was working for you. Then go for it. Far be it for me to tell you what to think.
But here — this is my theory. I’m not just Cinderella. Not just. Not metaphorically.
Take my situation — you could apply it all around.
Listen. We’re all trying to escape archetypes. I’m trying to be me, not just a girl who grew up with a mouthful of ashes. I don’t want to be someone that everyone thinks they already understand. Someone everyone wants a piece of.
Bet you’re trying to escape, too. Trying to be more than just mother, wife, daddy’s little girl, big sister, little sister, baby sis, granny, daft old biddy, crone, trophy wife, castrating bitch, conniving cunt, skank, vixen, hoebag, virgin, Madonna, sweetiepie. Trying to navigate the hairpin turns between bangled bikinis, apple–pie aprons, and power–bitch pantsuits.
I bet you manage it, too. Bet you’re an ice queen exec who bakes cookies on the weekends, or a demure little preacher’s daughter who takes it up the ass, or the marathon runner who’s going to smoke the world record that dudes think belong to them by right of chromosome Y.
Feel free to fill in the blanks with whatever it is you actually are.
But all that aside, at the end of the day, where do we stand? The archetypal feminine, the ur woman with a capital W, she’s this fire we can’t run from. She’s burning constantly, devouring bits of us, turning them into herself.
Here and there, we don’t burn up completely. But even our ashes are her creations.
We always exist in relation to her, no matter what we do.
So anyway, Bethesda and I head home.
We pass the dude trading new shoes for old, and I shout at him that his products are crappy. Bethesda makes faces in the magic mirror until it begs her to go away. We break off pieces of peppermint windowsill to eat for breakfast, and when the witch shouts at us, we flip her the bird and grab extra fistfuls of pop rocks from the driveway.
Last night’s bartender is still in the back alley, smoking a clove. In a flash of remorse for stealing his tips, I toss him the go–go full of change.
Outside a salon, we run into she–bear with ringlet–girl in tow. She–bear’s smirking. Blondie’s definitely too zonked out to choose her own haircut. Wonder if she’s due for a knee–length weave or a pixie cut.
At the coffee shop next door, the sheath–dressed women and men in ponchos are lined up for lattes. His Royal Foot Fetishist stands outside the door, licking the blue slingbacks.
“What the —” Bethesda begins.
“Don’t ask,” I say, guiding her quickly past.
Couple blocks later, we see a couple on the other side of the street, gropeslurp groping. Sure enough, they change angle, and there’s Griselda. This time, she’s making out with a drag queen in six–inch stilettos, a sequined slink of a dress, and epaulettes made from the shards of disco balls. Least she knows this one’s fake.
We tiptoe on past so we won’t disturb them.
Not too long later we reach home. Bethesda grabs her key out of her bra.
She toasts. “To home sweet home.”
“Cheers,” I agree. “Let’s rob a bitch.”
And we slap each other high five.
And some of you are saying, oh look, I know what this means, it ends with female–on–female violence which pigeonholes women as jealous backstabbers, and what the hell is with the unquestioning perpetuation of the evil stepmother stereotype
And some of you are saying, oh look, I know what this means, it’s a tale of female friendship because Cinderella and her sister are forging a bond through petty theft and how often do you see stories focusing on positive female–female relationships
And some of you are saying, oh look, a wimpy ending that refuses to say anything decisive, I could tell from the beginning this was going to be pretentious bullshit.
And some of you are wondering whether there was any point to the bear scene or whether the author just thinks bears drinking tea are funny.
And look, whatever, okay? You just go ahead and take whatever you’re thinking and go think about it on your own time. Because Bethesda’s searching the house, and I’m the lookout, and I really don’t need your noisy–ass ruminations waking up my stepmother before we’re finished.
OK, fine, I’ll tell you this one thing for sure. Right now, a thousand Cinderellas are going to steal back our childhood dignity in the form of an old lady’s life savings. And then we’re going to spend it on booze and clubbing and high–priced high heels.
And when we pass out drunk, we’re going to keep on dreaming of becoming that black hole that will swallow the universe.
“All That Fairy Tale Crap” originally appeared in Glitter & Mayhem, edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas (Apex Publications, 2013).
Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop and graduated from Clarion West in 2005. Her short fiction has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld and Subterranean Magazine, and been nominated for a number of awards, including the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the World Fantasy Award. In 2010, her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” won the Nebula Award. As a kid, she watched too much Fairy Tale Theatre and memorized the score to Sondheim’s Into the Woods.