Nobody’s Girl by Jennifer Howard

(published 2nd April 2018)

Hello from the coast, where we’ve settled into the prettiest little seaside inn. From our window you can see forever across the ocean, not a cloud in sight. It’s blue skies every day here, Daddy. Only the seagulls cry.

C., charming as always, sends his regards. He is the perfect gentleman. I don’t know what I did to deserve him. He’s out riding this morning – I told him last night I think he loves that horse more than he loves me – I’ve been idle here, watching the waves swell and the hummingbirds dart.

I’m a lady of leisure now. It takes some getting used to after all those years of staying busy.

It’s a soft bright evening, with a breeze that feel like a caress on your cheek. The cooks are making us a light supper to eat on the terrace. Three days into the honeymoon and it’s already our favorite spot.

There’s a trumpet vine that forms a bower, with a table just big enough for two, and a view of the ocean as it strokes the sand ever so gently. Nothing rough is welcome here. The hummingbirds, tiny feathered fairies, come and sip from the flowers on the vine.

As I’m writing this, the servant girl has come out to set the table. I had to stop myself from getting up to help her. But she looks so tired. C. laughs at me when I forget myself and begin to serve and clear. I’m not used to being waited on hand and foot.  The skin on my hands is already growing soft again, now that I don’t spend half the day up to my elbows in dishwater.

I only half-believe it still. C. says the wedding was a storybook affair, but I can barely remember half of it. So many people I’d never met before, and it was some job to get into that dress.

The dress was pretty, though, wasn’t it? And so clean – clean as a cloud, clean as a dream of mist. I looked perfect, down to the slippers. Glass isn’t all that comfortable to dance in, if you want to know the truth, but of course I had to wear the slippers.

Sometimes I think he married me just for the shoes.

The priest was so solemn he made us laugh. C. and I giggled most of the way through the ceremony. Did you see? If my in-laws noticed, they didn’t let on. They have such exquisite manners. That’s royalty for you.

Do you want to know what my favorite part was? When the palace guards made a tunnel of swords for us to run through. I’ll admit that was a little bit thrilling, those naked swords above my head, ready to cut me down if I hesitated the least bit. I pretended the clock was striking midnight and I had to run as fast as the wind, though I knew the coach waiting for us wouldn’t change back into a pumpkin, and the footmen and coachmen were just men, not mice and rats and lizards elevated above their station.

Those shoes pinched all the way. The dress, later, came off easy as a whisper.

I had so many dresses when I was small. Do you remember? Pinks and blues with matching ribbons, trimmed with lace the color of cream. Sun hats to keep my complexion all roses, gloves to protect my white hands. Nothing was too good for your little princess.

I’ve tried to imagine how lonely you must have been after Mama died, how you must have longed for someone to talk to. I missed her too, you know, not gently, the way the winter earth longs for spring sunshine, but the way you’d miss your right arm if it fell off.

And yet I don’t remember Mama very well, not the little things that really make up a person. I just remember her gone.

You probably want to know what I do remember – or maybe you don’t. It’s not a long list.

She was very pretty, I think.

She laughed often.

She liked it when I brought her peaches fresh from the trees in the orchard behind the house.

And I think that she loved me. It’s a great luxury, to be loved. You have to live unloved to learn that.

When you brought the other one home, the one you said would be my new mother, I said I was happy for you. I tried to be. She wasn’t Mama, of course. It would have been foolish to expect her to be, and she had two daughters already. Was it wrong of me to hope that she’d at least be kind?

C., who knows how to live in the moment, didn’t spend his formative years sleeping in the ashes of the kitchen fireplace. It was all featherbeds and fine clothes and the best tutors and the fastest horses for him, the golden child, always loved, always wanted.

I could hate him for that if he didn’t wear it so well.

His parents made sure he never wanted for anything. The poor boy couldn’t sew a button on or cook himself an egg if his very life depended on it. I’ll teach him.

But he does have beautiful manners, and he knows how to make a girl feel special, in company and alone. Handsome is as handsome does.

People called my stepmother a handsome woman, and I suppose she was in her way. She kept herself well, never a hair out of place. She was all smiles and soft words at first.

Did you notice when that changed?

I have made all the excuses for you. How I reminded you of my mother and you couldn’t bear to think of her. How you were distracted by the cares of business. How you were afraid of my stepmother.

You had reason to be.  No knife was ever as sharp as that woman’s tongue. I can still hear her, giving you a piece of her mind about one thing and another. She wouldn’t let you alone. She would corner you in your dressing room or at the breakfast table, until you locked yourself into your office. She would follow you and curse you through the door. I could hear her from as far away as the stables.

You must have noticed, though you said nothing, when she drove most of the servants off. That left only me and old Cook, who slipped me a scrap of food whenever she could–more than you did for me, Daddy, though you fed the old hound under the table when you thought my stepmother wouldn’t notice.

I noticed how tired you started to look, how distracted. I tried not to blame you for not seeing how I got the smallest portion, the burnt end of the roast, the last bits scraped out of the pot. If there was a cracked glass or a chipped plate, it found its way to my place. Not the place I used to have, next to you, but at the other end of the table, in the smoky dimness near the kitchen, where you couldn’t see how my stepsisters pinched and kicked me under the table. My stepmother, proud in my mother’s chair, smiled through it all.

I told myself that it was because you were so tired that you couldn’t see how my dresses began to fade, along with the roses in my cheeks.

“Not you, shabby miss,” she said to me one evening as I tried to slip into dinner after the rest of you. “You can eat in the kitchen if you insist on looking like that.”

“I will ask my father for a new dress,” I said.

“You’ll do no such thing,” she said. “My girls will be coming out this season, and your father has enough to pay for already. Make do or do without.”

“I will be glad to have a hand-me-down from one of my stepsisters,” I said. Their wardrobes overflowed with dresses, most of which I’d made. They could have spared one for me.

“Their dresses would never fit you,” she said. “Scrap that you are. They’re healthy girls.”

“Feed me more,” I said, “and I’ll fill out nicely.”

She caught me by the arm and squeezed so hard there were bruises the next day. “I will tell your father you are not feeling well and that you will eat in the kitchen,” she said. “Among the cinders is the place for you.”

Once you came into the kitchen to ask Cook about a dish you thought was particularly fine. You didn’t notice me on the wooden stool among the ashes. The dirty creature crouched there couldn’t be your daughter.

I have to ask you, Daddy: Did you wonder why I no longer sat at the dinner table? Why I never sat with my stepsisters when the tutor came to teach what young ladies ought to know? Why I slept in the garret?

You never saw my little room at the top of the back stairs. My stepsisters had taken over my old bedroom, the one down the hall from the master bedroom, to house their dresses and their finery.

Once – only once? – I heard you ask my stepmother why I no longer slept among the family. You told him I liked the view over the rooftops to the spires of the castle in the distance. “Always dreaming, that girl,” she said. “Head in the clouds.”

Most of the time I was too tired to dream. Do you know how many plates your household goes through in a day? I’ve scrubbed them all, every one. Before and after the dishes came the washing and the sewing and the scrubbing. My raw hands hurt all the time.

Then came the ball – well, you know that story. When my fairy godmother appeared and told me she would send me to the palace, I could only think how much I wanted to be clean, not to feel ashes in my hair and under my fingernails. I begged her for a simple, pretty dress, cut to let me move freely. I didn’t need ruffles down the back and ribbons to match. I only wanted to be clean.

But fairies have a sense of occasion, so a ball gown it had to be. It was enchanting, that dress the color of moonlight. It slid on like water, and when I wore it I felt like I was swimming in the night sky. Fairy cloth dances with you like no human partner, even the most charming one, ever will.

I wish you could have seen me at the ball, Daddy. You’d never have recognized your girl. They all stared, even my stepsisters, their big mouths open wide like fish about to be hooked. But it was C. who was hooked. I didn’t have to do a thing but dance and smile, dance and run away and be caught again.

No more crouching in the ashes, Daddy.

The servants have brought a light supper – summer fruits, fresh bread, cheese made from the milk of the fat goats down the lane – and C. is back from his ride, hungry. The sun and the wind have made his cheeks a rude healthy red and his eyes sparkle even brighter than usual. He’s a fine man, isn’t he? We won’t sleep much tonight.

He doesn’t remind me of you at all.

I suppose we’ll see you when we’re back. Did you know that C. wanted to forbid you and my stepmother and stepsisters from coming to see us at the castle? He even talked of punishments – he has dark fantasies about making them dance in red-hot iron shoes till they drop dead, or shutting them into barrels studded inside with iron spikes.

Awfully grim, don’t you think?

Time to go, Daddy. Time for this girl to eat.

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Jennifer Howard

Jennifer Howard’s fiction has appeared in The CollagistVQRBlue Moon Review, the anthologies “DC Noir” and “Amazing Graces,” and elsewhere. She has published reviews, essays, and features in The Washington Postthe TLSHumanitiesSlateThe Chronicle of Higher EducationMcSweeney’sThe Boston ReviewBookforum, and other publications.