By Aimee Bender
After dropping down dresses for Cinderella’s ball, and discovering the stepsisters’ feet mutilation, and some active eye-pecking at the wedding, the birds are listless. They have been so central, and now all Cinderella wants them to do is sing sweetly from the oak trees. Trees? They have built dresses and shoes from clouds and air! They have picked lentils from ash in seconds! They have spoken to princes in songs understandable! These are birds with ambition and she has relegated them to ordinary. In the wee hours of the night, they fly into her bedroom via an open window to remind her, as she sleeps, that they put their beaks directly into the wet eyeballs of her sisters and then pressed until they heard a pop. “Do you know?” they sing, gently, “do you know what kind of fortitude that takes?” She tosses in her sleep; in the morning, she tells her handsome husband that she is sleeping poorly because she just is not used to such a soft bed. She takes to sleeping on the floor. Sometimes, just to feel normal, she dresses in rags. It’s hard to change so quickly.
Her sisters live downstairs, in the blind quarters. They hear the birds and know better. “Evil beasts,” they mutter. “Demons.” But the birds don’t like that either. “We’re not evil,” they chatter to one another. “We just want a role.” Weeks go by, and Cinderella has taken to helping out in the kitchen, which is causing some friction with her mother-in-law, and the birds just leave, because they are birds, with wings, and can fly. They fly to the next castle over, where a little-known queen and king are trying to figure out a conquest of the territories. The birds consult. They fly over blueprints and reveal all the secrets of Cinderella’s castle and moat. “Go here,” they point, with their beaks. “And here.” Then, as soon as the new queen and king head out on horseback to take over Cinderella’s castle, the birds flap back to tell Cinderella. She’s making pea soup in the kitchen, wearing a sack. She listens with big eyes and runs to tell her husband, who makes an announcement to all the inhabitants of the kingdom, who arm up and summon their horses. The birds, faster than any of them, fly back to the other king and queen and with fine aim and diving skills, swoop in and peck out their eyes. Turns out eye-pecking is somewhat addictive for birds. The horses balk and courtiers cry and the whole thing stops and the courtmaidens and soldiers rush to aid their weeping leaders.
At home, the birds get medals, which they cannot wear, so hang from tree branches. The king is disappointed that he did not use his new sword.
The birds continue to cause trouble only to solve things in the nick of time over the next ten years until they are old birds and have had baby birds with lower expectations.
Aimee Bender is the author of four books, including The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, The Paris Review and more, as well as heard on This American Life. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches a course on fairy tales.