Sometimes I wonder why I don't run away. My stepmother – I refuse to call her my mother! – has turned me into a slave in my own house, and my father doesn't care. It's not fair! He used to like me at least a little bit! But that's not the worst of it. My stepsisters are demons from Hell. At least my stepmother ignores me most of the time, but my stepsisters torment me every waking moment, telling me "do this," "do that." And then they wreck my work, spilling ashes on my clean floor or strewing lentils in the hearth, sneering "pick it up Ashgirl, you're so dirty already. A little more dirt won't hurt you." And I don't say anything, because to answer them back would mean a beating from my stepmother.
"Pious and good" my mother wished me to be, since I never was during her life. Instead I was a little whirlwind, spinning here, spinning there, always in motion, always outside, tumbling through the orchards and meadows. Ironic, how her wish is being fulfilled. Yes, I'm pious and good, but just because that's my only choice. I think she's sorry, a little, for her wish, because I know she's the bird that helps me. Everything I wish for, (if I pray beneath the hazel tree on my mother's grave), the bird brings me. But I only wish for small things, like a blanket or a new broom, so my stepmother won't notice. Sometimes I wonder why I don't ask for something more: a new set of clothes, sturdy shoes and some money. I'll carry a basket with some fresh loaves of bread – my stepsisters' breakfast, hah! – and run away after dark. I'll travel all night, far enough away so that no one from my village will see me, and then I'll rest during the day, readying myself for another night's travel. I'll run away – far away – so far that no one will ever find me again, and there I'll make a living for myself. I'll become an inn-girl, or a maid in someone's home, and make enough money to support myself. I'll meet a man who admires my strength, and we'll marry and make a family of our own. And I'll never, ever treat my children the way I'm treated now.
But those are only daydreams, making me pause in my work, ignoring the rest of the world for a precious minute. And then my stepsister sees me stopping and grabs the bucket of water I'd just brought in from the well, throws it over me and snickers "Oops, I tripped on it. Well, at least you got a bath Ashgirl." And I'm jerked back to the real world that's full of dirty floors and nasty people just waiting for you to slip up. So I murmur something indistinct and get back to work. That's when I wonder – really wonder – why I am crazy enough to stay. Why do I act good all the time, why must I pray so much to stay sane, why do I live in this miserable place?
But I know why, and it's because of another dream of mine. It wouldn't be possible without the bird and the hazel tree – and without them I would take my chances and run away. But with them it's just in reach.
The prince of this kingdom is of my age; he's handsome and clever and above all kind. And it's possible, just maybe, hopefully, possible, that I can marry him. But to marry him I must stay with my stepfamily and endure their horridness. And this is how I could marry him.
His one weakness is beauty: he loves all things beautiful and wants to acquire them. And in this kingdom there is a traditional way for the prince to choose a bride: when he comes of age, the king holds three festivals and invites all the eligible women in the kingdom and neighboring kingdoms to attend. Since I am highborn, no matter my status now (as many outside my family don't know of my position as a slave,) I will be sure to receive an invitation. With the help of my bird and tree I will have beautiful clothes, enough to look the part of a princess. I will have the most elaborate dress, the best attire, and will surely look the most beautiful. (My mother was known for her beauty and I am told I take after her. So I do not think this is just false bravado.) As long as I act polite and kind I am sure to be chosen—I hope and pray to be chosen. And this is my goal – to marry the prince. Imagine how my stepsisters would look, groveling to me, begging forgiveness, wishing to gain power because they are "family". But I shall be free of them, no matter what they try.
And this I promise to myself: if I do not marry the prince, if he does not like me, or he is not as nice as he seems, then I will run away. I do not like to abandon my home, which I inherited from my mother, or my mother's grave. But if my plan fails then there will be no reason for me to stay, living in slavery. I will run away and make a life for myself in another village, far from here, and know that my mother would not want me to stay just for her sake. But right now I am living for the future, just waiting for my dreams to come true.