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Confessions of an Ugly Stepsisterby Gregory Maguire
The wind being fierce and the tides unobliging, the ship from Harwich has a slow time of it. Timbers creak, sails snap as the vessel lurches up the brown river to the quay. It arrives later than expected, the bright finish to a cloudy afternoon. The travelers clamber out, eager for water to freshen their mouths. Among them are a strict-stemmed woman and two daughters.
The woman is bad-tempered because she's terrified. The last of her coin has gone to pay the passage. For two days, only the charity of fellow travelers has kept her and her girls from hunger. If you can call it charity — a hard crust of bread, a rind of old cheese to gnaw. And then brought back up as gorge, thanks to the heaving sea. The mother has had to turn her face from it. Shame has a dreadful smell.
So mother and daughters stumble, taking a moment to find their footing on the quay. The sun rolls westward, the light falls lengthwise, the foreigners step into their shadows. The street is splotched with puddles from an earlier cloudburst.
The younger girl leads the older one. They are timid and eager. Are they stepping into a country of tales, wonders the younger girl. Is this new land a place where magic really happens? Not in cloaks of darkness as in England, but in light of day? How is this new world complected?
"Don't gawk, Iris. Don't lose yourself in fancy. And keep up," says the woman. "It won't do to arrive at Grandfather's house after dark. He might bar himself against robbers and rogues, not daring to open the doors and shutters till morning. Ruth, move your lazy limbs for once. Grandfather's house is beyond the marketplace, that much I remember being told. We'll get nearer, we'llask."
"Mama, Ruth is tired," says the younger daughter, "she hasn't eaten much nor slept well. We're coming as fast as we can.
"Don't apologize, it wastes your breath. just mend your ways and watch your tongue," says the mother. "Do you think I don't have enough on my mind?"
" Yes, of course," agrees the younger daughter, by rote, "it's just that Ruth-"
"You're always gnawing the same bone. Let Ruth speak for herself if she wants to complain."
But Ruth won't speak for herself. So they move up the street, along a shallow incline, between step-gabled brick houses. The small windowpanes, still unshuttered at this hour, pick up a late-afternoon shine. The stoops are scrubbed, the streets swept of manure and leaves and dirt. A smell of afternoon baking lifts from hidden kitchen yards. It awakens both hunger and hope. "Pies grow on their roofs in this town," the mother says. "That'll mean a welcome for us at Grandfather's. Surely. Surely. Now is the market this way? — for beyond that we'll find his house — or that way?"
"Oh, the market," says a croaky old dame, half hidden in the gloom of a doorway, "what you can buy there, and what you can sell!" The younger daughter screws herself around: Is this the voice of a wise woman, a fairy crone to help them?
"Tell me the way," says the mother, peering.
"You tell your own way," says the dame, and disappears. Nothing there but the shadow of her voice.
"Stingy with directions? Then stingy with charity too?" The mother squares her shoulders. "There's a church steeple. The market must be nearby. Come."
At the end of a lane the marketplace opens before them. The stalls are nested on the edges of a broad square, a church looming overone end and a government house opposite. Houses of prosperous people, shoulder to shoulder. All the buildings stand up straight-not like the slumped timberframed cottage back in England, back home ...
-- the cottage now abandoned ... abandoned in a storm of poundings at the shutters, of shouts: "A knife to your throat! You'll swallow my sharp blade. Open up!." . . Abandoned, as mother and daughters scrambled through a side window, a cudgel splintering the very door --
"Screeeee" — an airborne alarm. Seagulls make arabesques near the front of the church, being kept from the fish tables by a couple of tired, zealous dogs. The public space is cold from the ocean wind, but it is lit rosy and golden, from sun on brick and stone. Anything might happen here, thinks the younger girl. Anything! Even, maybe, something good.
The market: near the end of its day. Smelling of tired vegetables, strong fish, smoking embers, earth on the roots of parsnips and cabbages. The habit of hunger is a hard one to master. The girls gasp. They are ravenous.
Fish laid to serry like roofing tiles, glinting in their own oils. Gourds and marrows. Apples, golden, red, green. Tumbles of grapes, some already jellying in their split skins. Cheeses coated with bone-hard wax, or caught in webbing and dripping whitely-cats sprawl beneath like Ottoman pashas, open-mouthed. "Oh," says the younger sister when the older one has stopped to gape at the abundance. "Mama, a throwaway scrap for us! There must be."
The mother's face draws even more closed than usual. I won't have us seen to be begging on our first afternoon here," she hisses. "Iris, don' t show such hunger in your eyes. Your greed betrays you."
"Wehaven't eaten a real pasty since England, Mama! When are we going to eat again? Ever?"
"We saw few gestures of charity for us there, and I won't ask for charity here," says the mother. "We are gone from England, Iris, escaped with our lives. You're hungry? Eat the air, drink the light. Food will follow. Hold your chin high and keep your pride."
But Iris's hunger — a new one for her-is for the look of things as much as for the taste of them. Ever since the sudden flight from England ...
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