cruelty and glamour, between monstrosity and miracle.
* * * * *
In the old story there are two stepsisters. Folklore doesn’t give the two figures any depth; they are shadows wearing the stiff velvet of oppression over underskirts of envy. Their function is to be the not-princesses, the ones who are punished for their brutality to a poor scullery maid by watching their desires die in a moment of failure. But in the apocryphal book of stepsisters there’s an alternate ending, in which the glass slipper is replaced by the strangest of shoes, a creation that reshapes the arches into arabesques, elevates the heels to impossible heights, and gives the legs an erotic charge that’s greater than any ballgown.
In the revised ending of this story, the stepsister doesn’t find a saviour prince. This isn’t a drama of romance; it’s a drama of love – the pure love of obsession. She finds someone so devoted to her that he will follow her everywhere in her sky-high heels. He will follow her down sidewalks and onto subways, into underground dungeons and sterile offices, along paths lined with formal rosebushes and gutters rimmed with sewage, into taxicabs and kitchens. He will get down on his knees between garbage cans or beside beds clothed in satin, and he will bend down and press his lips
against the arch of a foot transformed by the vision of a mad designer.
* * * * *
After surgery she woke with her feet mummified in twin mysteries of gauze. When the surgeon came to her bed to change the dressings, she closed her eyes. She told him that she didn’t want to see his work until the swelling and discolouration had died down, until rejection had healed into love, and shame had been successfully grafted over with beauty.
“Don’t expect too much,” a nurse warned her. “There’s only so much that’s humanly possible.”
Who ever said this kind of desire belonged to the realm of the human, the stepsister wondered? The need to touch human skin, to feel the current of longing between one body and another, the hunger to be fed, the craving to be filled: none of this was beyond the realm of the stepsister’s experience. But none of that could compare to the desire to foul up the fairytale, so that the outsider’s deepest shame was forged into an object of gleaming beauty through the alchemy of love.
The hours, or maybe days, passed. The stepsister developed a fever that wouldn’t die down; maybe it was the heat of her need for this transformation.
Antibiotics dripped nonstop through
a port in her chest, and she imagined she could feel the clear fluid trickling straight into her heart. The dressings were changed daily, but in her medicated haze she saw her feet as smears of white and red. In a lucid moment she caught the word “osteomyelitis”, and one day when the gauze was peeled away she thought she smelled the sweet tang of rotting meat.
Another operation would be needed, the surgeon explained. This time, there would be no aesthetic agenda, only an effort to salvage the end of her story.
So transformation wouldn’t be possible?
Not now, the surgeon told her. Maybe never.
* * * * *
In the new story, the stepsister is not subjected to any tests. Tests are for fairytales; her story is a simple drama of obsession. Shame and desire meet in a deep, moist corner in the heart, where they create rituals that are never consummated.
The stepsister doesn’t find a prince; she finds a pilgrim. He crosses miles of space and time to find her, so that he can kneel at her feet and kiss the arches, up to the thin straps that crisscross her ankles, ascending the muscled hills and valleys of her calves, his mouth murmuring prayers against the sheer silk of her stockings. Then
down again, down, because a pilgrimage into obsession always leads down, his lips make a negative path across every part of her except the part he most wants to touch: the heels. The exquisite, brutal, merciful, unforgiving paradox of those stiletto heels, which have the power to stab him straight to the soft core of his heart.
Warp my legs into gorgeous weapons so that I'm not “pretty” or even “beautiful”, but murderously seductive, my backbone the final letter of an inhuman alphabet.
But the stepsister would never harm a pilgrim who loved her. Instead, she takes his shame and desire and matches them with her own, so that the stepsister and her worshipper are joined with an intensity that no Cinderella, in her ballgown and glass slippers, ever felt. The cruelly high heels of the stepsister’s magic shoes float beyond her lover’s grasp forever, as the lover and his beloved are frozen together in a beautiful gesture of longing.
And in the last line of the new story, the stepsister’s feet, which could never wear the forms of human beauty, are amputated under a green dream of anesthesia.