(photo by Yviss)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
“A Myth of Ashes”
by Jennifer Diemer
Stories are like fire.
They fade down to embers only to be built up again—with different kindling, a different spark—the flames never flickering in the same shape twice.
Stories burn out, die, and are born again.
My story is no different.
They say that I, before the prince, slaved night and day on household labors.
They say that my stepmother, before the prince, worked me to half-starved, soot-cheeked exhaustion, commanding me to scrub the floors and sweep the hearth while my stepsisters primped for the village balls.
They say that I, lacking my own magic, was powerless to save myself from the drudgery that was my fate, a fate of dust and cinders, submissive solitude.
Princeless, parentless, they say I waited, wistful, for someone to discover the girl beneath the grime, to sheathe my rags with cloth of gold.
They say that I, bewitched, danced in disguise and wed an eager boy who carried my forgotten shoe.
They were not all wrong.
Here is the truth:
There was no prince, no stepmother, no pumpkin coach.
I had no sisters, and no parents I could ever recall.
But I had a hearth. A fire.
A cauldron full of glass.
And a girl named Midnight who transfigured me into something like a star.
Together, we changed the dark.
Together, we danced and blazed and burned.
I rarely spoke with those few who dwelled near my hollow in the mountain, but I overhead them whispering about me, the spirit in the cave, the gold-haired girl who no one could remember growing up, who no one claimed as family. Who had simply always been, as far back as anyone could remember, and whose cave flared brighter than daylight after the sun dipped below the peaks and night claimed the sky.
If they were brave enough to creep to the wide mouth of my dwelling in the dark, they saw a young woman in tattered skins seated beside a red, raging, roaring thing. They had no word for this thing, not yet, but they felt it—in waves of crackling heat, hot as the black rock they used for cooking their kills on sizzling afternoons. Hotter.
No matter how I smiled at them, gestured them forward, invited them to learn the secret of my light, they never ventured past the cave’s opening, as if they were afraid not only of me but of knowing. As if they knew how spectacularly the knowing would change them—from primal dwellers of the dark to an enlightened community of firesmiths and lightdancers.
Still, every night, I stoked my flames and waited, for I knew that, someday, someone would ask me what it was that burned before me, that cast the planes of my face in sharp, unsettling shadows—half cold dark, half hot light.
Alone with my inferno, my cheeks smudged with soot, I waited.
And each morning, after my fire had dwindled to embers, I slept, and in my dreaming time, the people left offerings at the mouth of my cave: meat and seeds and roots dug out from the ground.
And fistfuls of flowers—their petals small but yellow as my hair.
When Midnight came to me, she did not hesitate; she passed over my threshold as if she had visited me a thousand times before. Her feet were bare upon the smooth floor of my cave, and they left footprints of red clay dust upon the damp stone.
There was starlight in her sky-black hair, and when she shook her head, bits of gold scattered all around us, sparkling in the air. I held up my arm and watched my skin glitter with her castoff constellations.
“You are not like them,” I whispered, gesturing toward the mouth of the cave as I knelt beside my hearth and poked at the fire. She nodded her head and crouched, her hip against my hip, closing her eyes and leaning toward the flames.
“Nor are you,” she said, in a voice as rich as the gem-studded night. She turned her eyes toward me, and they gleamed dark blue. “They call me the godmother of darkness.” She smiled slowly, teasing me, reaching out to take a lock of my hair between her fingers, twirling it. “But I prefer Midnight.”
“Midnight,” I breathed. The word tasted new, as if it had never been spoken aloud before these moments between us. I cleared my throat—my voice was gruff with neglect—and said it again: “Midnight. Middle of night—when the sky is darkest and the stars are brightest.” My mouth curved up as I regarded her darkness, her brightness. “Yes, I see midnight in you.”
Pleased, she lifted her chin. “And you?” she asked, still twirling, untwirling my hair. “What is your name, golden one?”
I caught her scent, then, separated from the odor of burnt wood: cold and sharp and quenching, like deep-cave water drunk on a blistering day.
Breathing deep, I whispered, “My name?” My eyes moved from Midnight’s cool glinting to take in the heated shimmer of my stone-licking flames. And then I knew, as if I had always known, what my true name was.
“Cinder,” I said, with the conviction of a blaze.
“Cinder,” she repeated, making the name real. “And this?” she asked me, nodding toward the hearth. “What do you call this beauty you coax from the dark?”
“This,” I said—finally, after centuries of waiting, after an eternity of aloneness, of holding close the ember—”is my fire.”
We were both light creatures, Midnight and I, and we shed long shadows against the walls of my cave as we drew together, hearts flickering.
When we kissed, sparks arced from our tongues and fingertips, and Midnight cast her stars like a spell upon me, robing me in a shining garment of light.
“The time has come,” she said.
I drew her luminosity close—closer. “Yes,” I said, and red light and blue light clashed, flashed, and illumined our skin with violet radiance.
In the morning, dressed in brilliance, Midnight and I strode from my cave, and the people dropped their clubs and stones and gazed in mute wonder as I, in careful, cool words, told them the secret of fire, as Midnight taught them how to read hours in the movements of stars.
“Now it’s begun, the changing,” I told Midnight at midnight. We watched small fires come to life all across the plain—the first fires that the people had ever created. Excited voices carried on the smoky air.
Midnight pressed her heart against my heart and whirled me around, laughing and bending down to make a star-shaped mark upon my neck.
I took her hand and led her back to my cave, to the cauldron swinging in the hearth above my flames. “I’ve made you something,” I said, and I lowered my fingers into the pot and brought out a pair of foot coverings fired of starbright glass. Bidding Midnight to sit down on a large stone, I placed the slippers upon her red-stained feet. She leaned forward, admiring my handiwork with a soft, shifting smile.
“They’re charming,” she said, drawing me down to her for a kiss. “And I’ve a gift for you, as well.”
I watched, eyes full of stars, as she twisted her fingers in the flickering darkness and pulled from the air a silver circlet set with stones that glowed with a deep inner fire.
“I crown you princess of the hearth,” Midnight teased me, placing the circlet upon my head. When she removed her hands and stood back to gaze at her adornment, a shower of stars fell all around me, and I looked down at myself to find my body clothed in a gown studded with those flame-cored stones.
We left the cave, then, and we danced, lighting up the dark, and the people watched us until they, too, hand in hand, danced around their fires, as if in worship of the new-claimed light.
Stories are phoenixes with words for feathers.
Our story was reborn, at last, as a fairy tale of dust and glass, of dancing and magic, of changing and love. True at its heart, its hearth, and so true enough.
I am not a princess but a handmaiden of fire. Midnight is not a godmother or a prince, but a creature of stars.
Once upon a time—a time long forgotten—we were.
And we blaze brightly still, and ever after.
If you liked “A Myth of Ashes,” you’ll love the stories from past months’ collections for your eReader:
You can now enjoy entire collections worth of stories in Project Unicorn, Volume One on your eReader or in person in paperback form (I’m a real book!), and support the project at the same time!
eReader edition on Etsy (all proceeds to authors)
Signed paperback on Etsy, PLUS free eReader edition!
(all proceeds to authors)
How can I support the project?
If you love what we’re doing with Project Unicorn, the two greatest things you can do to support it is to talk about it on your social network, blog or web site, and purchase each eZine as it comes out.
Project Unicorn is a very large undertaking, but we’re deeply dedicated to giving queer-girls stories they can identify with. Thank you so much for being supportive, and please consider purchasing an eZine to help us continue with this project! ❤ (You can also show your support by buying our other books, or simply donating to buy the authors a cup of tea. <3)
Please sign up for our newsletter to stay in touch and be the first to know when we release anything new! ❤