Once upon a long time ago, before our mothers' time, and their mothers' time, there lived a beautiful Princess in a kingdom on the edge of the world. This Princess lived a very solitary life, with only scores of moonfaced, silent servants and no playmates except her Shadow. Her own dear mama and papa, the Queen and King of the land, had both passed away when the Princess was just a baby. She hadn't thought much about this—it was just a vague, dull ache of confusion—until she heard the whole story whispered in the hallways of the palace.
Her parents had hosted a large, sumptuous dinner to celebrate the Princess's first six months of life. All of the nobles from around the land attended. and merriment went on far into the evening hours. But all was not well. The door knocker banged—one, two, three. And then there was one unwanted guest, a disgruntled fairy who had been overlooked for the Chief Fairy position one too many times.
“Bumps!” she had shrieked without preamble. “Bumps will end your lives...all of them—and doom this kingdom forevermore!”
Well, no one wanted to upset the fairy further, to be sure, but, as far as curses went, this one wasn't exactly menacing. So first a footman grinned, then a lady in waiting giggled, and before long, the room was engulfed in helpless laughter. Even the King and Queen smiled, wanly and carefully, as they had the most to lose. The infant girl on the Queen's lap paused in her nursing to clap at the tumult.
The offended fairy might have forgiven the servants in their witless merriment, but the sight of the King and Queen smiling sealed their doom. She turned red, then blue, then green, then striped (very difficult for a fairy, unless in a right fury). And then, she vanished without another word.
She was as good as her word. Every single person who attended that dinner fell victim to some bump or the other. The Queen perished from an infected bee sting. The King tripped over a bump in the royal carpet and bled to death. Only the small Princess was spared, because in her infant wisdom, she had merely clapped, not laughed.
After the endless time of tragedy, the people of the kingdom grew deathly afraid of bumps of any kind. Carpets were smoothed ritually every hour. Bees were kept under strictest supervision. The mashed potatoes were stirred until they were smooth as milk, to say nothing of the gravy.
Thus, the Princess grew up in a world as wide and flat as a piece of unlined paper. The horizon stretched endless, like the monotony of her days. She sat with her Shadow where the garden had once been. It was now a patch of perfectly even dirt.
They were bored.
“You know,” she said to her Shadow one day, “I'll bet if we rode hard for three days, we could reach the end of the land. Maybe we could find the fairy and beg for her clemency.”
“At the very least, we'd see a few shrubs.” agreed Shadow. They packed food and water, and set out.
On the evening of the third day, as the Princess drowsed by the (perfectly level) lake, she heard a scream. Her only friend, her faithful Shadow, was gone!
Immediately, she mounted her horse and rode after the abductors, but to no avail. Her Shadow was gone. The Princess fell to the ground, weeping. By the by, she heard a soft voice. “I can return her to you...for a price.”
Instinctively, the Princess knew the Fairy's voice.
“I'll do anything.”
“Are you sure about that?” The Fairy asked again. “Seems you didn't lose all that much. You could go on, much as before, without your Shadow.”
“I don't want to.” the Princess whispered. “Tell me.”
“I get cold in the winter.” the Fairy said. “Make me a quilt that contains one patch of fabric from each peasant hovel by the border. You must earn them—they cannot be given to you. You've gotten enough handed to you. And don't forget...one bump will spell your end.”
With that, she vanished.
For the first time, the Princess knew real fear. The peasants lived underground, as any dwelling they built after the curse would be considered a “bump” on the land. She ruled over them, but had never seen them.
But then she remembered her poor Shadow, lonely and terrified. She couldn't bare to think of that utterly even palace without her Shadow there. So she rode off towards the border.
When she arrived, she knocked on the ground until one of patches of earth slid open. “Who goes there?” A deep voice asked.
“And what does she want with our humble abode?”
“To cook and clean—do whatever it takes to earn a small patch of fabric from each of your houses.”
“That could take a long time.” The voice sounded amused now.
“I have nothing but time.” The Princess replied.
Finally, the voice rose up and became a young man, covered with dirt and dust and the occasional bruise. He was not handsome, but his dark eyes glowed with intelligence and good humor.
“Come on in.”
He took her down into the Under-kingdom—dark, dank, but...not flat. At all. The hovels went down into the bowels of the earth, and rose up almost touching the perfectly smooth lawn. They were ugly, but individual.
The Princess was fascinated. And the peasants were, as well. By her.
“But...we're just give you the fabric, your Majesty!” they said, bewildered. “Is this some sort of loyalty test?”
“No, no...and thank you for the offer, but the Fairy stipulated that I needed to earn them.”
After a long silence, one of the woman said, hesitantly. “I...I could use some help with the pigs.”
And with that, the Princess lived among the peasants. Hours turned into days turned into months. She slopped pigs, swept floors, tended babies. She also became bruised, dirty, scratched. But miraculously, no bumps marred her smooth skin.
In between her work, she got to know the young man who had opened the Under-kingdom to her. He shared his most secret dream with her—to build dwellings like those he had created underground, but that touched the sky. “We all want to see the sun again.” he confessed. And she told him about her loneliness, the vast emptiness of her life without her parents. He was the only person who understood exactly why she needed to rescue her Shadow, without asking.
“I'm not beautiful anymore, but bruised and dirty.” She said to him, ruefully.
He shook his head. “Before you were merely beautiful. Now you are beautiful and interesting. You tell a story.”
She blushed at all she felt at that, and could not say.
Soon, the Princess had all of the necessary patches to make a glorious, if somewhat grimy, quilt. But she didn't know how to sew.
“I'll teach you.” The young man said. And he did. They stayed up for three days and nights until it was done. When she triumphantly unfurled it, the young man took her into his arms and kissed her. And a million butterfly wings batted in her stomach, and she shivered with her first ever case of goosebumps.
“Now I will surely die.” she said. “But...I die knowing love. I must thank you”
He held her close as they waited for the curse to be fulfilled. “There are many ways to be dead,” he whispered to her. “Take me with you.”
And they waited. And kissed. And waited.
Instead of the death, the Fairy appeared, hand in hand with the Shadow. “You have pleased me well, my child. You've always shown great promise, even as a baby. And now that promise has been fulfilled. The curse is lifted.” The Princess and the Shadow embraced, weeping. Then the Princess introduced her young man. “This is the man I will marry.”
At that, the hovels rose out of the earth and became splendid houses, and the thrilled peasants were suddenly rich landowners. Music sounded in the background, and the Princess and the Builder became King and Queen.
The King fulfilled his dream of buildings that scraped the sky. The Queen ruled compassionately and well. And the Shadow enlivened them with story and song.
And they all lived happily, and bumpily, ever after.
For more tales that go (goose)bump in the night, go here.
Labels: story time, sunday scribblings