a different cinderella


Story by Aleksandra Vrebalov

Once upon a time, there was a girl whose name was Xenia.  She was smart, strong and had a beautiful, good heart.  She was creative and funny, too.  She loved nature and people.  Her secret passion was to play chess – she learned it from her late mother and grew to be an excellent chess player.  In her free time she made little pieces out of clay, imagining they were her friends.  She was especially proud of a clay chess set she made using her late mother’s jewelry to decorate the pieces.

Her hunger for knowledge and beauty was huge, yet not satisfied.  She was disciplined and curious.  She loved math and astronomy, and often played with animals.  She lived in a home where she sometimes thought she was not understood.  She was expected to play the children’s games and engage in activities with cousins that she did not enjoy so much. Often, Xenia found excuses to play on her own, which made her seem a bit strange. 

One day she learned that there was a masked chess tournament coming up in her town.  She really, really wanted to go.  The tournament was open to everyone, but with two requirements – that 1) they come to play incognito and 2) they bring their own unique chess sets.  Her cousins wanted to go too, so they started private chess lessons to learn the game and to learn it fast.  They disagreed and quarreled on how to decorate the chess sets they got in a store.  Xenia kept quiet about her own original chess set, but often ran into her room to check on it, hidden under an armchair.

It was a weekend when Xenia packed the chess set and left for the tournament.  She put her blue-kitty mask on as she entered the tournament hall.  It was filled with most colorful masks and unusual chess pieces.  Xenia moved with her unique beautiful set through the space like in a dream, winning at all tables!  The figurines seemed alive. There was a sense of magic, of a beautiful order.  She played half a dozen games and finally there was the last encounter with another finalist – someone wearing a pink-bird mask.  They drew the queens to determine who was to play first and with which set, and Xenia’s set was chosen for the last game.

She knew she had to play fast as she needed to be home by dinner time.

The game was fun!  She won and was cheered by everyone.  Other players were coming to congratulate her and the trophy was to be presented to the winner.  But Xenia needed to run home.  She used the moment to quickly pack her set and sneak out as the MC was calling the finalists to get on the stage.  As she ran out, without noticing, she left behind a black bishop from her set.

For days everyone talked about the mysterious winner.  There were funny posters and many social media posts about the unusual clay bishop with a head made of black lava.  Who is its owner?  Where is the tournament winner hiding and why?  There was a prize to be given!  Xenia was shy.  She was so happy that she played so well and with so many good chess players that that in itself was a prize for her.  Her cousins kept talking about the tournament, about the mysterious winner with a blue-kitty mask, and teased Xenia for not participating.  Then one day they saw her clay chess set with a missing piece!  They looked up the black bishop online and yes – it was Xenia’s!  By the time the cousins broke the news, the entire town was already in awe of the secretive chess master.  Xenia’s school friends talked about the winner of the tournament with admiration and curiosity.  There was a sense of wonder and excitement around the stranger who played so brilliantly and then disappeared.  Xenia liked the buzz but thought it would be so awkward to be discovered.

So it happened!  The cousins posted a picture of her chess set with the unusual army of jewel-decorated pawns, knights, and rooks all in order and lined up — with one empty tiny square among them.   By then, everyone knew that it was where the bishop belonged.

The organizers of the tournament announced that the owner of the black bishop was found.  Congratulations poured in from friends, classmates, cousins, neighbors, and strangers!  The golden trophy and the black bishop were now in Xenia’s hands, but the greatest prize was that she learned that her biggest strength was in being herself: in pursuing with freedom and passion what she loved and did best!



Landed into my hometown, walking the long forgotten but familiar streets.  I know I belong, but the feeling of not being steeped into the fabric of that very reality is tangible.  Everyone’s busy, people passing by me with some destination in mind.  My attachments are few. I walk slowly and aimlessly in my new old life and for a moment pick a thing to do – I give blessings to everyone who passes by me.

Being Rooted

It would usually be on December 30th that on the way home from work my parents would bring in the Christmas tree. Strong and furry, it would be six to seven feet tall, so wide that my sister and I could not hold hands around it. It was always a little difficult to manoeuvre it into the center of the house and place it next to the stairs. My dad would handle it with his gloves on, with my mom moving behind him, helping him straighten the tree and sometimes trimming a few pointy branches. My sister Maja and I, sitting high up on the stairs, would be very close to the top of the tree, sometimes holding it, wanting to be helpful in making it stand straight, discussing the width or richness of twigs and needles on its very top. The main crownlike ornament would be placed there, often a special task: to fit it on without disturbing the tree’s balance, surround it by glistening smaller ornaments, and try not to overdo it.

The large old cardboard box was kept somewhere deep in my parents’ bedroom wardrobe – in it, hidden among cotton balls and felt cloths, were most wonderful ornaments. Glass birds on coiled little legs that once attached would rock on the tree, one glassy Santa with a powdery white beard and a furry coat drizzled with sparkle, a tiny perfect bike made of wire and little beads, an exotic dancer made of dark yarn wearing a straw-skirt, dozens of ancient, hardened salon-candy, in shiny, silky, pastel color wraps, that we children were always advised not to eat. Secretly, we would, with a renewed disbelief that something so pretty could taste so bad. Only once that I remember, we made a trip to an old fashioned confectionery boutique and replaced the salon-candy from my mother’s childhood with large, new sweets covered in bright colored shiny paper.

The tree decoration day was a special day. The moment when the cardboard box was empty and we finally pulled the string of tiny lights out and spiraled it around the tree felt like some big time Ownership. Our tree. Our ornaments. Our lights. Our house. Our life. Every year we would add one or two new pieces to the ornament collection. Replacing old, damaged ones was never easy. Each came with a story, and history, some were reused for decades and were handed to us by our grandmother. There was one big golden hollow banana made of the thinnest imaginable glass, probably in the 1950’s, that lost its lower third. Its inside was like a tunnel of mirrors with my eye and nose reflecting in liquid shapes while I explored it losing track of time. We tried to hang those old ones at the back of the tree or turn them so that cracks would not be visible. We would examine them endlessly before we would decide, and usually it was my mom’s call, that we were ready to part with them.

After all was done the living room would be vacuum cleaned, outside was already dark, and the lights on the tree would be on, slowly pulsing. The tree was alive.

Its roots, in a pot filled with soil and yarn, were surrounded by a string of holiday cards. The arrangement of holiday cards was a creative way of covering the pot, but also a display of my family’s ways of being rooted across time and place – in friendships, family ties, and professional relations.

December of 1987 was different, although the whole family really tried hard to keep the usual structure of holiday times. My mom had already been in the hospital in another city for two months. I remember thinking that the hardest thing over the holidays when all families gather was to have your loved one away and ill. But, we got the tree, Maja and I decorated it just like every year, and we cleaned the house as our mother’s recovery depended on it. This was the first time ever that with her on the phone guiding us from the hospital, we made a variety of truffles and cookies that came out great. She insisted we do it without her.

It was before the time of digital cameras and smart phones, so my mom never saw that tree and our neat, decorated house. She tried and praised the sweets we made though, as we packed them and sent them to her with our dad who spent the New Year’s Eve in the hospital. Mom died on January 4 and we buried her two days later, on the eve of Serbian Christmas.

Our tree. Our ornaments. Our lights. Our house. Our life. Everything had gone into pieces that night of January 4. Maja and I dismantled the tree fast and like in a trance the same night, with still fresh needly branches hurting our hands. We buried the box with ornaments back into the depth of our parents’ wardrobe, hugging bundles of our mother’s clothes that were in our way. The sweets we made were served to whoever came to see us after hearing of our mom’s passing.

I don’t remember several holidays after that. I believe that, like it happens when tragic loss hits unexpectedly, we survived on dragging along the happiness and stability of others. Unable to recreate the life as we’ve known it, we were going to other people’s houses, to friends and cousins, whose lives seemed whole, unbroken. And for a while life, comfortable and safe, seemed to be happening elsewhere – in neighbors’ houses that I knew well, but never before longed for their kind of domesticity, or behind lit windows of strangers that I would pass by on my way home from school. Several years later, in my early twenties I moved out of the family home, and soon after there were New Years in San Francisco, and then in Prague. I arrived in both places not knowing anyone. A foreigner, an immigrant, an artist, I was finding strength in solitude, in not belonging, in being exiled from domestic happiness, first by my mother’s death, then by a string of wars involving my home country and then, internally – by feeling different and inadequate. Between 1995 and 2002, I lived in more than a dozen places, in four countries, on both coasts in the US, as well as in Michigan. For most of the time during those years, places and friendships were stimulating and exciting, but too new for me to feel rooted. Moving around freely and not establishing deep ties, I became something akin to The Traveler described in the Book of Changes. Not attaching and keeping away the symbols of stability and belonging were ways to survive emotionally. And then the point had come when another thought from the Book of Changes’ Traveler started to ring true: “Though being the wanderer offers you a certain freedom from being judged by your history, you also have no history to fortify you.”

It was 2001 in Ann Arbor when my landlady Melanie McCray showed up one day with a Christmas tree and decided to decorate the house that I shared with her. She was somewhat of a stranger in her own life, traveling often, not having a steady job, and without a family. She would run into the house in the middle of the day, sit on the edge of a chair and eat lunch still wearing her coat. And then after the meal, realizing that there was no reason to leave the house soon again, she’d take it off. We were family to each other. There was snow, there was a wood stove in the living room, there was a large glass wall overlooking the backyard and flickering lights on neighbors’ roofs, there was our big Christmas tree, a little aslant and very unique, visible from the sofa, from the dining table, from the piano bench, from the front room, from the chair on which I used to sit while composing, and visible at all times from my heart’s core — when in classes, or walking home tired late at night in Michigan cold. I knew what it meant: the garlands of light and pine branches all over staircase and on coffee tables, waking up to the scent of evergreens in the morning, still dark outside, and plugging the little string lights in while the coffee was being made — I felt at home again. Melanie felt at home again too. We were having guests over, we rushed home for meals, spent evenings tending a fire in the woodstove, or were warming up by our tree after shoveling the snow.  

Starting with Melanie and over the last fifteen years my holiday routines have become less discriminating and healthier. Traveling over holidays meant enjoying the privilege and freedoms of an outsider – very few or no gifts to give or receive, no excessive shopping, no holiday nesting. With the rest of my family being overseas, staying at home in New York by myself still meant feeling cozy and warm, with a cheerful tree in the apartment and another one out in the park right in front of my window, meals with friends, reading, watching films, being often in solitude, productive and comfortable in all ways.

In socialism, Christmas tree was simply called the pine. It had nothing to do with Christ or religion. It was an object in a ritual ushering a new year, and a marker of well being and normalcy.  

I do not see the world through the eyes of the I-Ching’s Traveler any more. As a testament to stability desired and regained over time, after the years of wondering I am settled in two cultures, with double citizenship and homes in two countries. Still, I am very aware of the fragility of that feeling of being rooted, of belonging, and creating happiness with others.

To celebrate, to create a ritual, to greet life with enthusiasm, adding lights, and color, to infuse life and yes, death, with love, with something festive and why not foolish, to wake up to a different look, making it special, making anything special, making everything special, to move on and be thankful for it, to experience it at one’s own home and heart instead of living it vicariously, to love life and breathe it fully, to keep it going so that it can keep going…this is what our last December you taught me Mom.