Blotched, craggy face, Anastasia’s eyes are grey and dull. Layers of tea dust screaming of sleep deprivation. Hunched by the candlelight, her shadow forms a wild boar on the dusty walls, creased forehead and narrowed eyes, flipping through a book she stole from the library.
Mam’s face had turned grim the first time she saw Anastasia under the linden tree with a book on her lap,
“These pursuits are not fit for a girl.” She’d said.
Thus, she hid her books and just like that, she started hiding parts of herself too.
Anastasia was keen, her mind wandered and hands calloused. She wanted to learn Greek and try her hand at new things, so she yielded to stealing now—books, food.
The throbbing in her feet continues, but her eyes remain allured by the stained pages.
“Keep going! Cut at the little toe,” Mam’s voice laced with desperation, “Close your eyes and do it. Think of everything we’ll gain from this sacrifice—a prince, a place at the castle.”
“I-I can’t,” Anastasia shook her head, tears blurring her vision.
“Anastasia, you are ugly. I have exhausted everything we have trying to find a cure for your disease, on all those pretty gowns, and even so, that old hag, the town’s master, also refuses to wed you. Outside, there is everything you could ever have. A prince, Anastasia, A prince! His castle and all you have to do is cut some useless toes.”
The pain had been unbearable, but she’d never learnt to refuse Mam. Her mouth bit down on a soaked cloth, and her forehead glistened with sweat as she passed between the state of consciousness and unconsciousness, filling the glass slipper with blood.
“Quick, stop the bleeding, place all your weight on the heel,” Pacing back and forth, Mam had been anxious, “Don’t make any noise. They’ll hear us. If you take a second more and the prince discovers Ella, we will be doomed.”
The sacrifice she made had been a futile one. Just like this, she had lost count on the number of times she’d cut pieces of herself to fit Mam’s clamour.
“What have I become? I’m turning into a wicked brute,” she’d often think.
Anastasia’s stomach grumbles, but she sits unhinged under the shadow of the flickering candle.
She’s used to this, having lived under a shadow all her life—one name Ella and hunger was a normative state her body was gradually adapting to.
They’d all heard about it, the clergymen, schoolmaster, the baker and even the stable boy, about the wicked stepsisters and their mother, about their attempt at swindling their beloved prince. The servants had all left, and their food was limited. The townspeople no longer welcomed them, and children threw stones at their windows. They hadn’t eaten a crumb of good bread for days.
“We’re wicked creatures, in heart and skin.”
“You’re so rotten. You deserve this,” Anastasia would hear her reflection utter.
You reap what you sow, but it sat bitter on her tongue. Like the taste of rotten kale leaves, it left a sour taste behind. It was a reminder, an itch, a voice, repetitive like a wall clock, thundering in big letters, “Pretty always wins.”
The mirror infallibly reminded her of this lesson. They’d lodged it into her, the town whispered, trees spoke, and birds chirped it into the air that “Ella was a pretty little rose.”
Ella’s voice trembled “Why, your f-feet, why sister?”
“Don’t you dare pity us, Ella, we got what we deserved,” Anastasia’s voice laced with poison, “go, you’ve got yourself the perfect ending.”
“Please,” Ella cried “let go of the hate, not for mine, but your sake.”
Ella hadn’t said much after that. This was farewell, and they were never going to see her again. She rode to a happily ever after on a pretty white horse with her prince. Ella’s story had just begun, and Anastasia was certain it had ended for them.
“Ella won,” Mam cried.
Anastasia on no occasion had seen her mother look so devastated, bitterly sobbing, losing all the composure she had meticulously fabricated over the years.
Anastasia was eleven, warding the monkeys off with a branch she broke off a tree. She swirled her chipped bamboo like a sword and picked insects off flowers.
She beat Gunther to the ground, her face mudded, and she smiled like a pirate.
“Get off him!” His mother came yelling, yanking Anastasia off him.
“But he threatened Tavi!”
Her face turned into a scowl, furious at being spoken back to.
“You hideous girl! Look at Ella. She’ll be a splendid wife one day. Your mouth and ugliness will never fetch you a husband,” she spat.
That day Anastasia had stood under the linden tree, clutching her chest. An indescribable melancholy seeped into her, making her heart sink. After letting it settle, she thought.
“Aren’t I good enough?”
“Isn’t being brave and fighting with a sword good enough?”
For the very first time, a sort of cognisance had sunk into her, that Ella was as pretty as a flower, and she was lacking.
Ella was sweet like nectar, tiny nose and roses blooming on her cheeks throughout the year. Her eyes sparkled with kindness, and Anastasia had been drawn to them. People, young and old, were smitten by her. Anastasia was too. They’d held hands, walked through the fields, and Ella would try catching up with her.
“Sister, I want to put flowers in your hair,” Ella would say, and every day Anastasia would return with tulips braided in her hair. Tavi never came. She huddled herself in a corner with books.
Every passerby and guest came bearing compliments for Ella, but they would mutter incoherent praises when their eyes fell upon Anastasia and Tavi. To this, Mam would cover up her resentful gaze with a smile.
“What a beautiful girl you will grow to be,” Mr Malcom once patted Ella.
“I have a son at home,” he said, looking at Mam.
Mam had reached the brim of her pent-up hostility. Fuming, streaks of red had spilled out of her eyes. Later that day, she had looked at Anastasia and Tavi with disdain and said,
“Ella will find herself a wealthy man, and what will you both do?”
She had conditioned, nurtured and infiltrated them, “A girl’s duty in life is to make a good marriage. Ella will have the finest man.”
Anastasia didn’t know when she’d started coming home with her hair bare of flowers and when she had first spoken to Ella with oozing spit. Her vision had taken the form of a monster, disastrous. She was drowning with envy. Envy that Ella would someday have everything she was conditioned to have as a girl.
Self-loathing had taken the shape of an ugly boar.
She hated Ella; she hated hated hated, Ella.
But more so, she despised herself.
Written by Chelsea D’souza for MTTN
Edited by Shranya Shrivastava for MTTN
Featured Image by R S Aruna for MTTN