Celestia Pearl was made of rags and scraps. Her strings were frayed, her limbs were splintered. Her winter white hair was matted and knotted on top of her head, glistening like frost from old spilt glitter. Her grey-white dress was stained and threadbare and there were holes in her striped tights. From her perch on the dust-sprinkled shelf, she would watch the other ballerinas dance; their steps guided to precision, their firelit shadows twirling on the ceiling, their lips stretched into pretty smiles and chaste kisses.
Her makers had forgotten to paint on her lips. She had oversized, arctic blue eyes ringed with smudged black, but she couldn’t smile, and she wouldn’t kiss.
When she was torn from the shelf, though those times were rare, they would disentangle her strings and force her stiff limbs. She wanted to move with the ease and elegance of the other dancers as much as she wanted to rip off her strings. She wanted lips to smile and kiss, lips to hiss and spit. When they were tired of her failures, they would throw her back on the shelf, into the dust and shadows.
They did not love her, but they would not free her.
Time passed in a blur of light and shadow, light and shadow, until the day she saw her.
Every year, Celestia Pearl had watched as the towering green tree was brought into the room. It was draped with blinking lights and golden baubles, silver bells and shimmering snowflakes. There was always a sweet robin, who seemed to wink at her with his little black eyes, and eight silver-blue reindeer twisting up and around the branches. There was a golden-haired angel with feathery wings and a red-suited nutcracker with a slim moustache and staring eyes.
Then one day, there was someone new. Someone lovely and exquisite. A wonder. She had delicate, translucent limbs and butterfly wings, and she cast flickering colours across the room. Her head was carefully carved, with indented eyes, a sharp little nose, and full lips. She swayed on an upper branch, one hand stretched out, and she turned to Celestia Pearl’s melancholy shelf.
Their eyes found each other, and Celestia Pearl’s painted little heart flushed, her rigid, wooden limbs itching to reach out. She watched the firelight glinting across the fairy’s wings, the bright light piercing through her chest, the slight twitch of her reaching fingers. The fairy brought her fingers to her lips and blew a kiss across to Celestia Pearl.
The room shuddered with life. The marionettes on the shelf below laughed as they stretched their legs and twirled. The robin shook out its wings and took flight, spiralling through the air, joined by the golden angel. The reindeer nudged and chased after each other, the tree branches shaking as they ran.
Celestia Pearl watched them each in awe before looking down to see her own hand move, her strings still lying limp. She stretched her legs, and stroked her dress, her face, her hair, each movement chosen, deliberate, entirely her own. The fairy beckoned her, and she rose to her feet. If only she could smile, for inside she was beaming. She savoured each step, light with freedom, heavy with hope.
She readied herself to dive from the shelf when she felt a sharp tug and fell back in a flurry of dust. She writhed and thrashed as she was dragged away by her strings, her eyes burning and her heart in fury. The nutcracker twined her strings around a loose nail on the far end of the shelf, and, as she struggled, he knotted them around her. Her arms were pinned to her sides, her legs twisted, and she had never hated her strings more. The nutcracker looked back at her with an arrogant, toothy smile before nimbly springing from the shelf and onto the tree, climbing up and up the branches to the dismayed fairy.
Night after night, Celestia Pearl wrenched and pulled at her tangled strings, straining against them, and cursing the carefree laughter and dance of the others around her. No one tried to help her, and she did her best not to wonder whether it was from fear of the nutcracker, or indifference to her. Only the fairy cared, spending each night reaching for her. Sometimes she edged as far as she could to the tip of her branch, her wings quivering as the branch drooped low under her weight, but her glass wings were much too fragile to survive the flight. The nefarious nutcracker would skulk over to her, his staring eyes hungry and his toothy grin greedy.
Soon, the fairy could bear it no longer. As night fell and the room awoke, and Celestia Pearl toiled, and the nutcracker prowled, the fairy balanced on the end of her drooping branch. She leapt into the air, her wings ringing as they clashed together. She reached for Celestia Pearl’s outstretched hand, their fingers barely an inch from each other, when her wings collided again and shattered.
And she fell to pieces.
Celestia Pearl’s frayed strings finally snapped, and she tumbled to the ground after her fairy. Her large, arctic eyes spilled over with tears as she gathered the pieces, trying to place them back into order, and cradling the fragments.
Around her, the marionettes began to slow, dropping like wilted petals. The robin flew back to his branch, and stilled Everything around her quietened, and she turned around to see the nutcracker frozen behind her, his mouth gaping, his eyes glaring, his hand reaching out.
Celestia Pearl tucked a little glass heart into the folds of her tattered dress.
In the morning, when they came for the pretty marionettes, they would wonder how the fairy came to fall to the ground, and they would find the charred remains of the nutcracker in the embers of the fire. Perhaps, in time, they would also wonder what happened to the ragged and splintered Celestia Pearl and why all that was left on the dusty shelf were frayed pieces of string.
a short story by Holly E.E. Garrow