She doesn’t dare to ask for dresses and jewels, as her sisters do. Instead she plants a tree on her mother’s grave, and waters it with weeping.
They laugh at her when they see her in front of the mirror, trying ribbons in her hair. It’s the reason for their jeering, their middling cruelties: if he wants to be a maiden, they say, then let him be a maid. She cooks and cleans for them, sorts lentils, fetches water, helps them dress. She sleeps in the kitchen, in the warm ashes of the hearth, where she needs not hear their mockery. Beneath the soot she can barely see her own skin.
There is no question of her attending the ball. She knows better than to ask.
But when she weeps under the tree that night, something falls from its branches: a dress of gold and silver, glowing in the light of the stars. When she puts it on her shoulders thin, her hips swell, her breasts grow round beneath the cloth. Her feet turn small and delicate, wearing slippers of silver stitched with gold.
They think she is a princess, when she comes to the ball. The king’s son dances with her all through the night. Her sisters see her, dancing with the grace of doves in flight, but they cannot see their kitchen boy in who she truly is.
When the king’s son asks her name she runs from him. She has no name, none that is her own. She leaves the dress beneath the tree and changes back into her soot-stained skin, and when her sisters come home they find her sleeping in the ashes.
She does the same the next night, and the next. On the third night the palace stairs are coated with pitch: her slipper clings to them, and she runs home without it.
The ball is over, then, but the dream remains. Someday she’ll find a magic that will last. She’ll find a name for herself, or she’ll make one, and she’ll have an answer when the king’s son asks her who she is.
He comes to their door, at last, holding a silver slipper stitched with gold. Her sisters run to try it on, but it is too small for them, too delicate; there is nothing for them but to admit defeat.
“Let me try,” she says.
They laugh, and then they scold, and they pray the king’s son forgive them for their brother – but she says it again, sure of her moment, and whether in fear of the strangeness in her or because it amuses them to let her walk into their mockery, they finally relent.
When she slips her foot into the shoe she changes. Her sisters are silent now, staring, but the king’s son knows her and gives her his hand.
When she takes it, she gives him her name.