Ash Princess
by Resident

My roommate gave me a storybook with penciled notes in Chinese. It’s just a kid’s storybook, Cinderella. Inside the front cover she drew a picture of herself on the toilet with the IV in her arm. She used to read the book while the medicine dripped. The book reminded her of the first time she read it, on the plane. She said she had a bad time on the ground, but in the air between Kwangtung and San Francisco she was happy. Today her bones are flying back there for burial. I’m going to read the book today. Her trip back will have the most important parts of the first trip: flying bones and her story. The first was the happiest day of her life. This will be the first day of her happiness dead.

On the title page she underlined Cinder and wrote a list of words. I look up cinder in the Chinese dictionary and find the first word she wrote: ash. The other words are grey and white and fire. Ashes are the cold remains of a fire. There are more words. At first I can’t find them, but then I look up the Chinese for ash. The dictionary has synonyms: a tree and a color of hair. Grey and white and hair; I find two more of the pencilled words: old mother. Cinderella, born to a mother with hair white as ash. There is a pencilled word in English: Ashen. The dictionary says pale as ashes, usu. from illness or emotional distress. One of the words she wrote is tree. Ash, a tree that springs up quickly in ground bared by fire. Ash: that which fire cannot burn. She wrote in English: Ash Princess.

Once upon a time is underlined. She circled once and time. Upon time, in the dictionary, is removed from time, on top of it. She wrote in the margin on time, at the right time. She was always on time. When we used to clean rooms, she finished every one ahead of schedule but she wouldn’t start the next until it was time. Once upon a time: the story happens when the story decides to take place. Once upon a time is a sound of power.

Beside stepmother she wrote two ideograms I know: not mother. The girl that fire cannot burn has a not-mother and two not-sisters. Not-mother: get on the plane and go, send home money, more money, more than that. Two sets of clothes, every night washing, every day wearing clothes not yet dry. One damp twin sister always clinging to the body, a second always dripping by the bed.

She thought wicked stepmother meant the past tense of wick. She wrote: to absorb, and then more in Chinese. I look up the word for evil. Soaked in the evils of the past. That must be the meaning of the word she wrote, but I can’t find it. What she wrote has a radical for speed. Speed to work crops all day and night while the season and the jobs last in Kwangtung, speed to work two ten-hour jobs in San Francisco. On a hunch, I look up counter-revolutionary. She said her mother learned words like that in school. Her mother went to her grandmother to ask for money. The grandmother made her sit on a bench outside the house like a beggar. I look up grandmother. That’s the word she wrote.

Next to Cinderella tending the fire in the kitchen, she wrote a word I know. She used to point to the cardboard signs in dirty restaurant windows: kitchen work. Free food, she read to me, and she would laugh, it’s like a slogan, liberate food! Liberate all you can eat! On the plane, she drew a little pencil picture labeled wick: a burning heart. Cinderella, the burning heart of the family fire.

The wicked not-relatives beat Cinderella. Under beat she wrote abuse and then heart. In English the heart beats itself to make the body live. If the heart stops beating itself for a moment, that is death. In California to say myself, you point to that violent beating heart. In China they point to the nose. We laughed about that. Home is where the nose is. Absence makes the nose grow fonder. Quit poking your heart in my business. Heart out of joint. Can you die of a broken nose.

At invitation to a royal ball she wrote down a lot of words that are easy guesses. Ball is a toy, a game, a testicle, a sexual act. She wasn’t allowed to look at a male then, but she wrote all the possibilities calmly. Working the street she told me was royal business; no nation accords privacy to the sex of monarchs. She wrote virgins dance ball under the picture of girls coming one after another to the handsome prince. She wrote: handy? Big hands? Many hands? They used to warn her about the boys in the new country and their hands. But she must have been astonished, she copied it right out of the dictionary: beautiful, of a male. The hands of a man are his greatest beauty. Or he attracts the hand, so people want to touch. She wanted a man like that. She would bring back a man to walk through her grandmother’s house and drag her out with her hands stuck to the soles of his feet.

Fairy godmother must have been a goddess. She wrote next to fairy in English lesser god. She wrote Mary Mother of God, children without men. Fairy Godmother disrupts the marriage plans of the prince, using magic. Cinderella dances on his ball. She laughed in Alameda when I told her a fairy is a man who has sex with men. She said the Mother of God must be a fairy-wife’s goddess. Wives of fairies practice Mother of God magic to free their husbands from the obligation to have sex. We played fairy wives circling her altars chanting, and swooned into one another’s arms to conceive.

The stroke of midnight is the end of the ball. I search a long time for what she wrote there: apoplexy. A blood vessel explodes in the brain. Also brush on paper. What is written may explode in the brain. And stroke is a motion of the hand expressing love, and the motion of a brush through the hair. A woman brushing her hair can make the heart explode. A motion of love at the wrong instant can shake down generations. She touched dangerously handsome princes in Alameda.

Cinderella flees the ball, leaving a shoe of glass. The shoe will fit only Cinderella. The picture in the book is supposed to be funny, but she didn’t get the joke. She wrote riot under the crowd of women trampling each other to put hands on the prince, not to touch him but to become the queen. In the picture one is cutting off her toes to fit the shoe. Another one is cutting off her heel. She didn’t recognize them, the two step-sisters who will never step again. She saw a crowd of mutilated women in the streets, hobbling towards the palace. The word she wrote is footbinding.

In Alameda girls wait in tight dresses by the curb. The doors to shiny cars open and the girls step in awkwardly on their high heels. Dates pay more in a night than the fastest worker can earn in a week of dirty offices. Cinderella’s date is a prince. She placed her foot in the shoe of glass and stepped out to earn a kingdom.

Resident is a San Francisco marketing object, of whom the 776,733 counted by the last US Census said they were: 50% European-American, 31% Asian-American, 14% Latino, 11% mix/other, 8% African-American, 1% Native American; 51% male, 49% female; median age 36.5, average household size 2.3. Personally 2% more female and 10 years older than the profile, Resident received an MFA in Writing from the University of San Francisco.
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