Beauty is like the eels our old cook, Mathilde, would purchase at the market: slippery, sinuous, but delicious, when contained. As a girl, before life and my own ugliness had pressed me into the resentful shadow I am now, I would sneak down to the kitchen in late morning, when she’d return with a basketful of them.
“Miss Ana, you’re not supposed to be down here, yeh know,” she’d gently chastise at me. “Yeh’re missing yer lessons, letters, numbers, pianoforte.”
“They’ve finished,” I’d respond, pressing my thumb into the still glistening round of one the lamprey’s eyes, so smooth and slightly yielding. “Mama and Drizzy are with Papa and the doctor. They are bleeding him again.”
Mathilde rolled out hot water crust pastry for pies. Her eyes landed, heavy with their pity, on my heart, pressing, as I pressed. I ignored them as well as I could. I leaned closer to the basket with its half dozen river worms, some onions, some fresh herbs. Breathed in the scent of them, rich and salty with fresh death, but cleaner and less foreboding than the smell of my father’s sickroom.
He was dying. The cook’s hand reached out, brushed my forehead, leaving a dusting of flour behind. I resisted the urge to lean into her touch. Instead, I pressed harder, until the eye burst with a satisfying pop.
Jealousy surprised me, the way it held me close, bent me.
I honestly do not know if it came at once or gradually. Mama’s grief after Papa left us for heaven was the largest thing in my life. It ate holes into everything, every day. Drizzy and I tiptoed around it, lest we fall in ourselves, never to return to life as we knew it.
I do remember that Sunday, however. Drizzy and Mama were at church services. I had feigned a headache of grand proportions to avoid going, having no patience for the dullness of our neighbors and sanctity itself.
Instead, I swept my rust-colored hair up and rolled dough with Mathilde, working in quiet harmony with the cook, my plump forearms and her slim ones working in tandem. We both looked up in surprise and mild chagrin as we heard my sister’s and mother’s mingled voices heading downstairs, towards us.
“See, Mama? I knew she’d be here,” Drizzy exclaimed.
“Oh, Ana, this is not the place for you,” Mama sighed. She’d not even removed her bonnet. She looked lovely in the moment, despite her mourning black. Our hair was the same shade, as were our golden eyes, but her prettiness surpassed mine tenfold.
I braced myself for a verbal thrashing, but it never came. Mama was happy. She spoke of a suitor, a gentleman from the congregation, new to our part of town. He was kind, he was in respectable trade, and he was widowed himself, with one young daughter.
I rolled out pastry, glad to avoid her ire, even if only for the time being.
“Leave it,” Mathilde muttered, taking the dough from me. “It will toughen, yeh won’t like the taste of it then.” She handed me the cleaver and the basket of eels.
“Her name is Ella,” Drizzy said, chewing on a stray piece of raw pie crust.
“She’s very beautiful,” Mama added.
“Mmmm,” I responded, chopping cleanly through the first fish’s head.
Mama’s grief was replaced by Ella’s beauty. The largesse of it! At first, it was impossible not to stare at her, drink in the richness of it.
It was too much. It sickened me, eventually, like raw dough.
And grew fetid, after her father’s death.
We no longer could afford staff. Mathilde stayed as long as she could, but eventually had to find work elsewhere. She left me her small cleaver and took my decency with her.
I never cooked again, in that house. Ella did everything, thereafter. Our cruelty, our jealousy, our abuse, merely crafted her into something more refined, more beautiful, like grit to pearl.
And like sand into glass.
I live well, now. By anyone’s standards, I have a respectable, no, a desirable life. I am sister to a princess, am I not? To a woman who will, eventually, become queen?
Drizzy married a nobleman; Mama died. One took advantage of Ella’s situation, the other could not live with it. Then there is me: I never made a choice, one way or the other.
I spend more time than I should wandering the markets, the cobblestoned streets, beyond the castle gate. It’s as unseemly as my visits with Mathilde. I saw her earlier today, our old cook, my old friend.
We met at the fishmonger’s stand, chuckled to see each other. She had heard of our family’s “extraordinary good fortune” but did not seem surprised to see me wandering about like a common peasant in the street.
“Miss Ana, ‘twas grand to see yeh,” she grabbed my gloved hands in her chafed ones, squeezed. “Yeh are looking very well, yeh are.” She laughed as the fishmonger handed me a basket of eels. “What’s the likes of you doing a’buying them lampreys?”
“I miss the taste,” I shrugged, thinking of one last place I needed to go. The apothecary’s.
Mathilde’s eyes pressed into me, as always. “Well then, remember not to fuss over the crust too much, right?”
I nodded, and she embraced me before I could think to stop her.
The two pies turned out well, the crust golden brown, the salty smell of the filling wafting through my home. Ella will be here soon; she visits me like clockwork. Despite her overwhelming beauty, she’s quite an ordinary person, no more or less interesting than the next woman.
She’ll be pleased with them, I believe. A bit of nostalgia for us both. When our parents first married, I introduced her to the satisfaction of the kitchen, of Mathilde, of the glassy-eyed lampreys.
As I lay out the table, I wonder which pie has the draught I purchased earlier in it. I’ve disremembered.
I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.