“That dress is much too heavy for you. Give it to me.” Deirdre snatched the violet silk gown from Cynthia’s arms.
“But it’s mine. My father gave that to me.” Cynthia made to grab the dress back, but Deirdre held it further away.
“Yes, and your father is a man. He has no clue about women’s fashion. There’s no way he could have known it doesn’t suit you.”
Cynthia’s gaze fell. “Well, yes, I guess you’re right.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting started on your chores? You don’t have time for dresses, there is work to be done.” Deirdre spun away from Cynthia to admire her reflection in the mirror, holding the gown up to her figure and fluttering the skirts back and forth.
“I don’t understand why I must do all the chores. Wouldn’t it be fairer if you and Alicia helped me? Then we would all have time to try on gowns!”
Deidre’s eyes slid to Cynthia’s reflection in the mirror. Her long blonde curls. Her thin petite frame. Her smooth pale skin. Deirdre clenched her teeth to hold back a scowl, her hold on the dress tightened.
Thinking of how perfect Cynthia was made Deirdre’s cheeks heat up. Her eyes moved back to her own reflection. Deirdre, like many girls her age, was not a stranger to looking in the mirror and hating what she saw.
“Alicia and I are older, Cynthia,” She hissed from between her clenched teeth. “We don’t have time for chores. Our time must be spent learning how to be proper ladies so that we might attract a husband.”
“I’m not that much youn--”
“You’re young enough! When Alicia and I have husbands, then you may learn to be a lady worthy of your own. Go begin your chores before I tell my mother of your disobedience.”
“Yes, Sister.” Cynthia bowed her head slightly and left the room.
“Stepsister,” Deirdre said to the empty room.
“Look at her. She’s talking to the chickens again. What a proper loon.” Alicia pointed out the window to where Cynthia was below. Deirdre glanced in Alicia’s direction but quickly went back to her needlepoint. “I think she’s even singing to them! Deirdre look! She really is a lunatic. Deirdre you’re not looking.” Alicia waved her hand wildly in Deirdre’s direction.
“I’m busy. Let me work.”
Alicia wandered over to the chairs where Deirdre was methodically stitching a line of thread and flopped down in the chair across from her. “But you’re only doing needlepoint. Needlepoint is so boring.”
“A man looks for a lady that exhibits quality skills like needlepoint and painting and piano playing. Mastery of the arts. If you want a fine husband, then you must hone your skills or no man will ever want to marry you.” Deirdre flinched as she stabbed her finger with the needle for what seemed like the thousandth time that day.
“But painting is smelly and stains my hands and playing the piano makes my fingers cramp. Don’t even get me started on the dangers of needlepoint. Whose idea was it to make something so tiny also so sharp?”
Alicia’s eyes wandered towards the window again. “I bet Cynthia doesn’t need to hone her skills. Any man would take one look at her and they would be begging Mother for Cynthia’s hand in marriage. She’s so beautiful, I bet even the princ--”
“Ouch!” Deirdre held her finger close to her face and saw the blood pooling on its surface. She stuck her finger in her mouth and looked down at her stitches. A single drop of blood seeped into the crisp white fabric.
Deirdre stood and threw her ruined handkerchief onto the floor. “I am so sick of you talking about how beautiful Cynthia is! I work and I work to make myself an acceptable wife, I don’t need you reminding me that I will never be able to compete with Cynthia!” Deirdre stomped out of the room slamming the door behind her.
Alicia jumped at the sound of wood hitting wood and stared at the door with lips turned down. “But Deirdre, you’re beautiful too.” Alicia wished her sister was still there to hear her.
Deirdre made it all the way to her own room before locking herself inside and collapsing against the door. She slid all the way down to the floor dissolving into a pile of fabric and tears.
When her mother had married Cynthia’s father, Deirdre had been ecstatic to gain a new sister and to have a new father, even if he wasn’t her real father. But Cynthia never shared the same interests as Deirdre and her father never had eyes for Deirdre and Alicia. He only ever cared for his own daughter.
When he would leave for his travels he would return with gowns and jewels for all the girls but the most beautiful always went to Cynthia. For Cynthia’s birthdays he always lavished her with gifts. For Deirdre and Alicia’s birthdays, he always seemed to be away selling his wares. Deirdre believed that Cynthia’s father could never love another girl as much as he loved his own daughter, not even Deirdre’s mother.
Deirdre wiped her tears away on her sleeve and stood. She walked over to her mirror and peered at her reflection.
She smoothed her hands down her stomach and rounded them out towards her hips. Waist is bigger than hers. Hips are wider than hers. She ran her fingers up her right arm. Skin is darker than hers. Her fingers danced across her cheeks. I have more freckles than her. My face is rounder than hers. She pulled a lock of her hair over her shoulder. My hair is thinner than hers, darker than hers.
Deirdre’s arms dropped to her sides; hands clenched into fists. Why did I have to be born so ugly?
“Deirdre! Alicia! Come quickly!”
Deirdre cringed at Cynthia’s voice. What now? She exited her room and wandered over to the top of the staircase. Alicia was there too, eyeing Deirdre warily. Cynthia stood at the bottom of the staircase panting heavily.
“It’s a letter from the palace! There’s going to be a ball! And every eligible young lady is to attend! Isn’t that just fantastic news?”
Deirdre’s stomach took up a new residence upon the floor, along with her jaw. Cynthia. At a royal ball. She would be snatched up by a man before they even made it to the palace doors. No one would notice Deirdre if Cynthia were there. She had to think fast. She slowly began to descend the staircase.
“But Cynthia, it says every eligible lady.” She reached the bottom of the staircase and reached for Cynthia’s hands. “And you’re not eligible.”
Cynthia slid her hands out of Deirdre’s grasp and took a step back. “What do you mean?”
“I told you this morning, you’re not old enough.”
“But surely that doesn’t matter all that much. I--”
“It most certainly does.” All three girls whipped their heads up at the sound of Mother’s commanding voice. “It would not be fair to your other sisters if you went out into society with them. Imagine the embarrassment if you were to be engaged to a man before your sisters? No, you will not be going.”
Cynthia’s face crumpled and she dashed out of the foyer, flinging the royal invitation onto the floor behind her.
Deirdre’s heart zinged a tiny bit at Cynthia’s displeasure, but it didn’t keep her from stooping to pick up the invitation and reading it with awe. A royal ball. Everyone will attend. Surely, I can find one man there who will want to marry me.
The night of the ball Deirdre prepared herself as though she were entering into battle. A dress weighed down with thousands of little jewels that sparkled in the light. Layer upon layer of skirts that flared out at her waist and swooshed around her legs. A corset done up so tight she almost couldn’t breathe. Heavy earrings and an elaborate hairstyle adorned her head. Still, as Deirdre looked in her mirror, she couldn’t help but think of how much prettier Cynthia would look.
At the ball, Deirdre danced with many handsome men and even saw a glimpse of the prince. Of course, the prince didn’t give Deirdre the time of day. He didn’t even know who she was. Probably didn’t even see her.
Deirdre heard whispers that he spent the entire evening dancing with a beautiful blonde woman. When Deirdre heard this, she couldn’t keep the picture of Cynthia dancing with the prince darting to her mind. No, she’s at home.
Deirdre, Alicia, and their mother arrived home just as dawn was breaking the horizon and Deirdre flopped into bed as soon as she was freed from her fabric prison. She did not awake until well into the afternoon when a loud knock sounded from the front of the house. It jolted her out of her deep slumber, and she stumbled about her room clumsily getting dressed.
When she was presentable, she exited her room and crept to the staircase. When she peered down to the first floor, she saw Alicia being fitted with a shoe, a shoe that was obviously much too small for her foot. What’s going on?
“Deirdre, there you are. Come here.” Deirdre’s mother motioned her to come closer.
Deirdre descended the stairs and stood by her mother. “What’s all this, Mother?”
“These men are from the palace. They’re looking for a girl who danced with the prince.” Deirdre’s mother leaned closer and whispered, “Apparently she left in such a hurry that the prince didn’t even learn her name. She left behind a shoe in her haste.”
“Oh, but I didn’t--”
Deirdre’s mother gripped her arm tightly and then spoke loudly, “I know, I was just about to tell them that you didn’t get to say goodbye to the prince. Such a shame. Why don’t you try the shoe?”
Deirdre’s mother forced her down into a chair and Deirdre watched frozen as the palace guard held a small violet shoe up to her foot. A violet shoe that she had seen mere days ago. A shoe she knew was much too small for her because it was Cynthia’s shoe.
“May I try the shoe?” Deirdre’s head shot to the left where she heard Cynthia’s voice. Cynthia stepped into the light, a small smile on her face.
Deirdre shot up from the chair, tottering on the too small shoe. “But...but you weren’t even at the ball!”
“Please, Sir?” Cynthia asked, ignoring Deidre.
“Of course. All ladies of the house must try the shoe.” His expression was tight, his eyes ringed with dark circles. Deirdre watched in horror as Cynthia sat and the shoe, tailored for her petite foot, slid into place, fitting perfectly. Deirdre couldn’t breathe. No. No, no, no.
The next moments passed in a flurry of motion. Palace guards were swarming the house helping to pack all of Cynthia’s things. The prince wanted to marry her. Deirdre felt as though her head was full of water. She continued to stand there, in the middle of the foyer wondering why, of all the people in the world, did the prince have to marry Cynthia?
“Deirdre? Deirdre?” Cynthia waved her hand in front of Deirdre’s face. “I just...I just wanted to say goodbye.”
“Why are you so beautiful? Why am I so ugly?” Deirdre’s eyes filled with tears. The water in my head is pouring out, she thought.
Cynthia gripped Deirdre’s arms tightly. “You’re not ugly! Deirdre, sister, what ever made you think that?” Cynthia gathered her up into a hug, squeezing hard.
“I could never be as beautiful as you, skinny, pale, blonde, perfect.” Deirdre’s tears dropped onto Cynthia’s head.
“You are beautiful, Deirdre. Curves like the rolling hills, skin kissed by the sun, hair as soft as silk. You are unique and talented, and I am proud to call you my sister.”
Deirdre pulled back and looked into Cynthia’s eyes. “Really?”
“She’s right.” Alicia stood off to the left. “I never understood why you said you were ugly that day when you were sewing. I understand it now. You were too focused on how much you didn’t look like Cynthia that you couldn’t see that you are beautiful in your own perfect way.”
“Time to go milady.” A guard stood at the door waiting for Cynthia.
Cynthia looked back to Deirdre. “You are perfect the way you are. I’m lucky that the prince saw me first. For if he saw you first, he surely would have married you on the spot.”
Cynthia hugged Deirdre one last time and then walked out the door. And Deirdre, for the first time in a long time, was sad to see her go.