Years before she tried on the glass slipper, and failed the test that would have proved she was worthy of being wanted, this is what the stepsister heard at night:
Not the slap of nurses’ shoes, not the whisper of nuns’ shoes. Not the soles or the souls of the living, but a staccato so light and delicate that it could only belong to someone who’d never existed. Not, most definitely, to the girl who wore a bizarre brace between square black shoes, or who had feet like blind roots, with bone spurs that twisted into horns at the heels. Only the most unlikely of princes, a surgeon in a blue mask, could desire a woman with feet like hers. As his scalpel sank into the stepsister’s flesh, her anesthetised unconscious floated over the blue table, watching the drama of her own transformation from deformity to something between a monstrosity and a miracle.
Like all fairytales, the stepsister’s story began in childhood. She collected each slight, each sidelong glance of repulsion like beads on a gleaming strand of exclusion.
“We don’t have any shoes that will fit you,” said the woman who sold elegant pumps and slippers to princesses. Her
lips and eyebrows formed a frozen Kabuki smile as she stared at the lumps with the curved spurs poking from the stepsister’s heels, stretching the young skin to exquisitely painful lengths. “You’ll have to have them specially made.”
And oh, the shame of it, the choking rage and envy! As a girl at parochial school, the stepsister choked through the heat of her own loss, her own longing. In the back hallway, the other girls would surround her – the jury. While dust motes circled their heads in a common halo, they would demand that she take off her corrective shoes and show them her feet. What choice did she have? She craved adoration, but in its absence she accepted horror, its shadowtwin. As the other girls stared, shame filled her from below, starting in the dark crevice between her legs, flowing from some sweet, hidden aquifer that she could never tap into except when her feet were exposed to cold-eyed strangers. When are we more naked than when our weaknesses are bared to eyes that don’t love us?
“I don’t know what you expect,” huffed her exasperated mother. “You should be grateful for what you have.
Not every girl has a pretty foot.”
“Pretty” her mother had said. As if “pretty” had anything to do with the high, heart-stopping theatre of hookers and dancers and drag queens! In her mind she saw herself dressed in a red leather skirt no longer than the width of a bandage, revealing bare marble legs that tapered in carved perfection down to heels as heartbreakingly thin as the sheer precipice before an orgasm or a crime of rage.
Speaking of rage…
The stepsister used to pore over the books in the public library to find images of rage that matched her own. Her favourite was the illustration of Kali, the gloriously eight-armed goddess, in a book of Hindu deities. Kali’s black foot was bare when she raised it over the prone Shiva’s head, but in the apocryphal book of stepsisters, the goddess’s heel terminated in a blade that speared the prince’s heart.
Which is why the stepsister told the surgeon, years later, about an epiphany she had: that the bone spurs in her heels shouldn’t be chiseled down, but reshaped into staggering high heels, like the heels of the shoes she could never, ever wear, not even in a fairytale.
More than this, the stepsister said. Give me something more than this – give me the sweet clasp of custom-tailored leather around my foot, and with it the hand of some intangible, demonic gratification around my heart. Warp my legs into gorgeous weapons, the calves arches like quivers, the distortion extending all the way to my spine so that I'm not “pretty” or even “beautiful”, but murderously seductive, my backbone the final letter of an inhuman alphabet.
…a surgeon in a blue mask, could desire a woman with feet like hers.
Under anesthesia she dreamed she was a centaur, standing on her hind legs, wearing Ferragamo pumps instead of hooves. The metal pillar that gave rise to the original stiletto would become a pillar of bone, and the delicacy and strength of that vision would belong to her, the stepsister, the ungainly girl who could not fit in any shoe. Her feet would stop being symbols of a dislocated soul, and would become her entrée into a sphere all her own, somewhere between