I don’t sing while I work. Not because I’m too miserable, though I have to admit I don’t love being an unpaid maid for my stepmother and her two brats, but because I can’t sing. Nor do I have twittery little birds flitting around singing, as I find them quite annoying and think about it- in reality, they’d just make more of a mess to clean up.
So the only “music” around while I’m scrubbing the floor is my idiot stepsisters’ incessant chatter about the ball. Should they wear short dresses, or long? How should they do their hair? Isn’t the prince dreamy, wouldn’t it be amazing if he chose one of them to marry? Ooh, and however will they find the perfect pairs of shoes to match their dresses?
It’s not that I even really want to go to the ball. I mean, I dance even worse than I sing. But it’s a once in a lifetime occasion, I mean, there may be other balls but the prince will only chose a bride once, I assume. And I really do need to get away from this, to do something different if only for one night. So I start thinking about how to go. I don’t have a dress, but I could probably “borrow” one from one of my stepsisters. Celia’s two years younger than me, Ellen three, but we’re all close to the same size. They’d be livid when they found out of course, but hell, that’s part of the fun.
So a couple nights before the ball I sneak into their closets and shop through their dresses. I finally settle on a long red dress that Celia hasn’t worn in a couple of years and probably won’t even recognize. I take a pair of my stepmother’s shoes that go with it okay- she’s the only one with feet the same size as mine. The heels are higher than I’m used to, but if I walk to the ball barefoot- the castle’s not all that far- and put them on before going inside, I should be okay.
So I hide the dress and the shoes under my bed, and the day of the ball I get up really early and have all my chores finished by noon. The house is spotless, so as to give my stepmother absolutely no excuse for complaint. She hasn’t actually forbidden me from going to the ball, but I don’t plan to tell her my plans. She’s going with her daughters as their chaperone, so she won’t be home to see that I’m gone.
So I’ve finished my work, and they’re all out getting their hair done and I assume they’re going straight to the ball from there, because they’re in their dresses and everything. So I get cleaned up and put on Celia’s dress and am working on my hair when the door opens and all three of them come in. They stare at me in shock for a moment, and I think they’re about to start screaming, but they just burst into laughter.
“You think you’re going to the ball? In that?” Celia finally manages between bursts of laughter. She’s laughing so hysterically that her eyes start to water and Ellen has to remind her not to mess up her makeup.
I think I look fine, but their reaction makes me doubt. What if I enter the ballroom and everyone starts cracking up? But I really don’t care so I just stare them down. Finally, they stop laughing, and Ellen says to Celia, “We don’t have to admit we know her, do we?”
Their mother marches into the kitchen, probably trying to find some spot that’s not perfectly clean so she has an excuse not to let me go. I know she won’t find anything, and she doesn’t, but she comes back into the room with a whole bunch of sacks of grain. It’s actually a really funny sight, seeing her standing there in her evening gown holding them, and I have no clue what’s going on. She takes one of the bags and upends it, pouring rice onto the floor. She does the same with sacks of oats, corn, flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, wheat kernels, barley… all the grain in our house, and she mixes it together with her toe. She gives me a long, cold look and says, “You may, of course, come to the ball… once every grain of this mess is sorted properly.” Her daughters burst into laughter again, and they all leave.
I stare at the mess, wishing for once that I had befriended some twittery little birds who could sort it for me. It’s an impossible task, which of course was the point. I kneel down on the floor and push a few grains of rice away from the rest of it, when I suddenly feel like an idiot. Why even try sorting it when I can go out and buy some more grains already separated from each other. I grin at the thought of my stepmother’s face when she sees that I’ve succeeded at the impossible task she set me, and sweep up the pile. I don’t really want to waste it all, but I’m sure not going to sort it and most of the stuff in it wouldn’t be any good cooked together. So I take it outside, and sure enough, there’s some birds sitting in a tree. Not a flock of annoying little songbirds, either, but crows, seven of them. I toss the grain on the ground under the tree and sure enough, they swoop down and start pecking at it, so I go off to the market to replace our stores.
Maybe half an hour later I’m back with the sacks of grain. The pile on the ground is gone, as are all but one of the crows. I go inside and put the bags in the kitchen, then go back outside.
The last of the crows is gone. In its place is a man, leaning against the tree. The phrase “tall, dark, and handsome” is cliché, but it fits him to a tee. “Heading to the ball?” he asks me.
“I guess,” I tell him. It’s getting late, and it’ll be even later once I get there, and my feet are already tired from all the running around at the market.
“I was just wondering why someone all dressed up for a fancy dance like that was going around feeding the birds.”
“How’d you know-”
I break off when he continues, “Not that we’re not grateful.”
I gawk at him. “Are you saying... that you’re a crow?” I feel foolish just asking.
He grins at me again. “Only sometimes. My name’s Kay.”
“That’s not much of an answer.”
He smiles, but just says, "You’re going to be late, you know.”
“Meh,” I say. I don’t much care anymore. The ball no longer seems like such a once in a lifetime event.
“You could be missing your chance to marry the prince,” he says teasingly.
“Oh, yeah right.”
“He’d be a fool not to choose you.”
I blush, and don’t believe it for an instant, but I play along. “But why would I want to marry him?”
“He’s rich, powerful, handsome, famous?” Kay suggests.
“Famous schmamous. I prefer my men more mysterious.” I’m flirting shamelessly, and probably sound like an idiot, but he smiles.
“In that case, rather than waste your presence on fools who don’t deserve it, let me take you out to dinner?”
I agree, of course. By this point I don’t even remember why I ever did want to go to the ball. So we go out to dinner and have an amazing time, passionately discussing everything and nothing until we’re politely kicked out of the restaurant at midnight when it closes. We walk around town for another few hours, reveling in each other’s company. Our goodnight kiss is perfect, and we plan another date for the day after tomorrow.
My stepmother is too distracted by the fact that the prince proposed to Celia to notice how late I come in or be surprised about the grain. Celia waves around the enormous diamond on her hand and asks us, “Aren’t you just horrifically jealous?”
“Oh, yes,” Ellen breathes. But I’m not.