Step (and Turn)

by J. C. Runolfson

Let me tell you a story, child
while they prepare those shoes.
Once I danced all night
with my sisters
and we wore out our slippers.
Cloth of gold, damask,
embroidered linen --
the royal cobblers never thought
to try iron.
Ingenious of you, I must say
did the prison of your glass
give you the idea?

Sand at a high enough temperature
becomes glass
cinder shines
do you think iron will purify?
I am pure, child
but not what you wish
and at the end of this I will be bone
another mother dead --
but I was telling you a story.

We'd wait for nightfall
my sisters and I
then take the secret stair
behind the wardrobe.
Down it wound into the underworld
down to the wine-dark river
where golden gondolas waited
to take us to the marble dancefloor.

You think your ball was grand
with its one prince
its mirrored hall?
We waltzed amid jewelled trees
under fairy lights
with the sons of fallen angels
demi-gods our suitors.

We dined on plates of diamond
drank sweet nectar from sapphire cups
and yes, we wore our slippers to ribbons
but never think we were not willing
we loved to dance
and there are no boors among angels.

But now I see you're curious to know what changed.
The answer is, nothing much.
A man. A soldier home from war
and our father's temper.
He was promised the hand of whichever of us
he pleased
if he could learn the fate of our slippers.
He was clever
and that pleased only me.
He was cunning
and he found his way down with us.
On that marble floor I dared him
to dance with me
so that he knew I knew he was there.

It was dancing with the wind
the wild storm.
No god or angel could match that.
They said he broke a spell
but I knew he'd cast one.
He caught me in it.
I went home with him
bore two daughters
then buried him not seven years later.

Now we come to your part of the story, child.
I'd caught the wind
and been caught in it
but the wind carried no treasure
no gold or jewels to exalt my babes
no nectar to feed them
no slippers or ballgowns to clothe them --
I had no choice but to marry again
and my new husband had a daughter.

I never hated you, child,
not I nor my daughters
but you hoarded for your dead mother
like you could bring her back to life
with it.
There were the living to think of,
so I banished you to scraps
in the hopes some self-preservation
would bring you to your senses.

And here we are.
The shoes are nearly done, I see
put them on me and I'll dance
I'll dance as you have never dreamed
wild as fire and wind and love --
but first, the curse.
Of course I curse you.
You cursed me.
Or perhaps I should curse your children
for what you've done to my daughters
who can no longer dance.
Yes, I think that's the way.

You'll have a girl who loves to dance
who loves to wander
and her wandering will bring her to a monster.
She'll love that monster
enough to put on iron shoes
and wear them out in finding him.
She'll love that monster
enough to ride the wind's back
though he might throw her off
child who stole his granddaughters.

Ah, you're crying
but are you crying for your poor girl's feet? Her fear? Her death?
Or because she'll love a monster?
What if I told you the monster was a demi-god
a fallen angel
who'll turn to gold and nectar in her mouth?
What if I told you a curse is merely protection
for the only granddaughter you'll let me have?

No matter, the coals are red
the iron is hot
and you want to see my flesh turned to cinders.
You may even burn my tongue
if you like
I've no more use for it.
My story is told.
I only ask
when all is done
cast my ashes out the castle doors
that they can dance with the wind
at last free of shoes.

J. C. Runolfson's work has appeared in Goblin Fruit previously, as well as The Sword Review, Lone Star Stories, Aoife's Kiss, and Sybil's Garage, among others. She is also an assistant editor for Flash Me Magazine. Her work often plays with faery tale tropes, and this particular poem is the result of considering what a difference it would make to the narrative if a faery tale heroine's "evil" stepmother was herself a former heroine.

If a mask were to choose her, it would be a mask of the sea; goddess, pirate, mermaid, corpse, it would shift as she dreamed.

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