a fairy tale
based on the original European
folk version of
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The name of the place is of no importance; only its shape and textures need concern us. It was a small county laid out in a broad valley that had been farmed since Roman times. In large measure it was watered by a clear stream that flowed out of the mountains to the east. That stream ran around the south side of a low, flat-topped hill, turned north, and then veered west again just past the bridge. The Count's castle sprawled across the top of the hill, overlooking a village that spread around the south and west sides of the hill like an apron.
Vineyards spread over the land to the west of the village and, to a lesser extent, to the north and the south. Their wines were the county's wealth, their value derived from the pride and skill that the workers at the various chateaux put into their making. One such chateau, a small one, spread its vines south of the road just west of the stream. The house, with its enclosed courtyard, sat back from the road a half hour's walk from the village. On one particular day it sat empty, locked and enveloped in silence into which only the slow peals of a distant church bell intruded.
In the village, in the plaza, a horse and a cart stood before the church. Serving as pallbearers, six of the village's shopkeepers carried a coffin from the church and put it onto the cart. Then they joined the rest of the villagers in funeral procession as the priest led the horse out of the village and across the bridge.
Just past the bridge, between the road and the stream, the land made a low rise, holding up a small wedge of meadow that ran down to a grove of trees. By the roadside, where the meadow met the trees, stood a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a memorial to some long-forgotten martyrdom or miracle. Behind the shrine a stone bench sat atop the rise, a freshly dug grave at its foot. The shopkeepers carried the coffin across the grass from the cart to the grave and gently lowered it into place as the other villagers gathered around and the priest took his place at the head of the grave.
"From this humble earth, through our descent from Adam," the priest said, "we take these bodies. To this earth we must return them when our souls are called to a higher service in the house and the fields of Our Most Subtle Lord. Today we mourn the lost of this beloved vessel, through which our sister brought sweetness and beauty to lighten the burdens of our lives, and we console ourselves with the knowledge that we shall see her again, not as in a vision, but as in the flesh, when we ourselves are called to enter the Kingdom of God." With that he sprinkled holy water into the grave.
Singly or in pairs, the mourners paid their final respects and then wandered back to the village, some pausing to offer prayers at the little shrine, until two were left standing by the grave. The man, tall and well-dressed, reluctantly pulled the spade from the mound of freshly dug soil and slowly shoveled the soil back into the pit, throwing each spadefull against the wall of the pit lest it drum on the coffin. The girl, a pretty twelve-year-old with shiny chestnut-brown hair, wandered around the meadow and through the grove gathering flowers and binding them into a bouquet with twists of grass. As the man relaid the last piece of sod at the base of the grave's stone cross the girl laid her bouquet upon it. They sat, the two of them, father and daughter, on the stone bench for a long time in silence. Tears trickled down the man's cheeks and the girl put her arm around his shoulder and said, "Don't worry, Papa. I'll take care of you just as Mama would."
Summer's warmth was a fading memory, brought to mind ever more fondly by Autumn's first chills. One bright, clear day, in the little chateau a half hour's walk from the village, the girl had just swept all the accumulated dirt in the main room into a pile by the door. Her hair, tied back with a ribbon, was in some disarray and her face, dress, and apron were smudged with ash. With a smile of satisfaction, she opened the door, swept the dirt out into the courtyard, and then swept the last remnants off the steps. She had just finished that task when Father rode his horse into the courtyard and a once-ornate, now slightly dilapidated one-horse carriage came into the yard behind him.
Barely giving him time to dismount, the girl ran to greet her father with a kiss. She then saw a beautiful woman with blond hair alight from the carriage with a graceful aristocratic bearing. Two equally beautiful blond girls in their early teens stepped from the carriage behind her.
"Welcome," the girl said to them. "Welcome to our chateau."
"How charming," the woman said. "And who is this little aschenputtel?"
"I am the lady of the house," the girl said proudly.
"Ach, truly?" the woman said. Then she held up her left hand to display the golden band on its fourth finger. "And do you have one of these to testify for your claim?" she asked a little too sweetly.
Puzzled, the girl looked to her father, who took the woman's hand in his.
"This is your new mother," Father said happily, "and these are your new sisters, Elaine and Yvonne. We're a whole family again. Isn't that wonderful?"
"Yes, of course it is," the girl said, though she was dazed by the sudden change in her life.
"Well," Stepmother said, "let's not stand out here in the cold. Be a good child, Aschenputtel, and help carry the luggage into the house."
Muttering "my name is not Aschenputtel", the girl went to the carriage and began unloading it. "Helping", she discovered, consisted of her carrying all of the luggage into the house while Stepmother and the Stepsisters explored their new home.
She was just carrying the last valise up the steps when she heard Father arguing with Stepmother. Not wanting to intrude, she waited on the top step, only to hear that Stepmother intended to put her into the kitchen and put the twins into her bedroom. Father put up a valiant struggle, but for his every argument Stepmother had an effective counter-argument. She even made the new arrangement seem perfectly reasonable; it was, after all, meant to be temporary, a situation that they would correct as soon as they could manage their affairs to allow it. Father was compelled to admit that it made sense; nonetheless, the girl was shuddered by a chill that did not come from the weather.
Winter days are best enjoyed indoors, especially those days that have been begloomed by clouds graying the whole sky. Such days may also be well spent upon teaching and learning. It was toward that end that two gentlemen, one older than the other, rode into the courtyard, tied their horses to the hitching post, and knocked on the door.
Aschenputtel watched from the kitchen as Stepmother welcomed the men into the house and introduced them to the Stepsisters as Monsieur Perrault and Monsieur Fresnel. They had come, Stepmother explained, to teach the twins the graceful minuet. Then, while Monsieur Fresnel played the harpsichord, Monsieur Perrault demonstrated the steps and the gestures of the dance before leading Elaine and Yvonne through them in turn.
An hour later no discernible progress had been made. Stepmother's patience, frayed like an old rope by her continuous encouragements, criticisms, and finally carpings, did what frayed old ropes do when they are subjected to stress; it snapped. Muttering comparisons to crippled oxen, she stepped out onto the floor, shooed her daughters to the side, and offered Monsieur Perrault her hand. Inspired by the soft notes from the harpsichord, Stepmother danced with such angelic grace that the forced smile frozen upon Monsieur Perrault's face melted into an expression of genuine pleasure.
After watching for several minutes, Aschenputtel tried out the dance herself and discovered that she could mimic Stepmother's steps and gestures precisely. The better to remember all of its particulars, she practiced the dance, wearing it in, like new shoes, until it fit her perfectly. So intent was she upon her practice, she barely noticed the harpsichord falling silent. She was halfway into a curtsey when she noticed the sound of footsteps approaching the kitchen and she quickly transformed the curtsey into the motion of stooping down to pick something up off the floor.
"What are you doing?" Stepmother asked in an exasperated tone as she came into the kitchen.
"I thought I saw something on the floor," Aschenputtel said, "so I bent down to pick it up."
"Yes, yes, yes," Stepmother said, waving her hand to emphasize her impatience. "You've got the kitchen quite clean enough. Now I want you to prepare some refreshment for Monsieurs Perrault and Fresnel and for your sisters and myself as well. Be quick about it!" And with that demand delivered she turned and strode back into the main room, leaving Aschenputtel to lay out slices of cheese and bread and a bottle of the chateau's own wine on a tray and to carry the tray into the main room.
It is the promise of Spring that makes the discomforts of Winter endurable. So important is that promise to the world that the most powerful of Nature's forces has been given the perpetual duty of ensuring its fulfillment. Day by day the sun followed a path that rose progressively mor northerly and bestowed upon the land a blessing of increasing warmth that transmuted death-dealing frost, ice, and snow into life-giving water. Warm rains added more water to seep into the soil to re-emerge as new shoots and leaves. Enacting a faint pantomime of the Mystery of Easter, Nature resurrected from an apparently dead world a garden of life, glowing first with green and then with sweet-smelling colors.
The birds were warbling their morning hymns when Father brought his horse, already saddled, from the barn and into the courtyard. Stepmother and the Stepsisters strolled out into the courtyard to offer him fresh wishes for a safe and successful journey. Aschenputtel, carrying Father's saddlebags draped over her shoulders, waddled along behind them. Thanking her, Father took the saddlebags and draped them over the horse's back, lashing them to the saddle lest they slip off.
"And now," Father mused as he turned away from his horse, "I wonder whether there might be something that I can bring back from the big city to brighten the lives of my loved ones?"
"Oh, yes, indeed there is," Elaine and Yvonne said more or less in unison. They then went on to describe in voluptuous detail the silk and lace that they wanted for the making of new dresses.
"We can afford the expense," Stepmother assured Father when he looked askance at her. "I think of it as an investment in the future. These girls are going to have to begin attracting the attentions of young men of suitably high station."
Father nodded in assent and then leaned down and asked Aschenputtel what she wanted.
"When you return home," Aschenputtel said, "bring me the branch of the first tree that brushes against you."
The Stepsisters chortled, but a hot glare from Stepmother stifled their laughter. Stepmother gave Aschenputtel an exasperated look, then shook her head and rolled her eyes heavenward. Father looked puzzled, but he agreed to fulfill the request, then he mounted his horse and rode out of the courtyard.
Elaine and Yvonne's bedroom looked very much as though it had been visited by a whirlwind. Both beds were in disarray and clothing was draped haphazardly over every piece of furniture in the room. Surrounded by such chaos as she had never seen before her mother died, Aschenputtel knelt by the room's little hearth and swept a pile of ash into her dustpan, which she then carefully emptied into a bucket. She had just stood up, broom, dustpan, and bucket in hand, when the Stepsisters flounced into the room.
"Look at this mess!" Elaine said. "Why you haven't even made up the beds yet!"
"And you haven't washed our laundry either," Yvonne added as she took off her dress and set about changing her underwear. "On what have you been wasting your time, anyway?"
"On unnecessary housework," Aschenputtel replied. "I could keep up with the housework if you didn't make so much of it, such as by changing your clothes more than once a day. You might even help out with the housework, at least by making up your own beds when you get up in the morning."
"What an utterly preposterous idea!" Yvonne said. "We are being raised to by Ladies of the Court. We shall not be sullying ourselves with servants' tasks."
"Why, you should be grateful for your position," Elaine added. "As far as we're concerned, you're only fit to be slopping pigs and if we could get a decent housemaid, that's exactly what you would be doing."
"I'm not a housemaid," Aschenputtel said, starting to cry. "I'm supposed to be your sister."
"Well, then, be a good little sister," Yvonne said as she shoved a pile of laundry onto her, "and get this washed and dried for us by morning."
Aschenputtel was still sniffling when she encountered Stepmother on the stairs.
Stepmother was not pleased. The mellow vintage of her demeanor quickly soured and words that usually flowed across her lips as smoothly as cream curdled into tight little clots. "Stop that infernal sniveling!" she demanded. "That's all I ever hear from you. Why can't you be more like your sisters? I never hear them whining."
"You would if they were treated as I am," Aschenputtel said.
"Nonsense!" Stepmother sneered. "You three have different responsibilities, but you are all treated alike. You have no reason to feel abused. Now, go and start preparing dinner: I want our food on the table on time tonight."
Going to the kitchen, Aschenputtel dumped the laundry bundle in the corner and carried out the tasks of making dinner, salting the food with her tears.
Father's horse strolled casually down the tree-shaded road while Father gazed around at the trees. He was looking for a suitable branch that he might contrive to have brush against him, seeking out the one that would best please his dear daughter. Wholly engaged in that search, he almost failed to notice the large coach overtaking him as fast as the four horses drawing it could gallop. He guided his horse to the side of the road, near a hazel tree with low-hanging branches, and half turned in the saddle to watch the coach pass. Thus distracted, he fully failed to notice the coach pulling a thick branch forward and then suddenly releasing it. He received only enough warning to throw his hand up to protect his face before the branch struck him a blow that knocked him off his horse and left him sitting dazed on a patch of thick grass while the branch swayed to and fro over him.
Moving slowly, making sure that none of his bones had been broken in the fall, he got to his feet and gazed ruefully up at the hazel. Heaving a sigh, he measured a portion of the branch as long as his arm, broke it off, and tied it to his saddle. Then he remounted his horse and resumed his journey.
It was late afternoon when he rode into the courtyard of his little chateau. He had barely enough time to dismount before his family came out of the house to greet him and Stepmother was quick to notice that he walked with a limp. To avoid spoiling the happiness of the moment, Father said simply that he had spent too much time in the saddle and then he presented to Elaine and Yvonne the packages he had brought them.
The girls squealed with delight and thanked Father profusely. They opened the packages, draped the lengths of the contents over their shoulders, and solicited each the other's opinions of the colors and patterns thus revealed.
Father untied the hazel branch from his saddle and apologetically offered it to Aschenputtel.
"Oh, thank you, Papa!" Aschenputtel said happily as she accepted the branch. Holding the branch in one hand, she hugged Father and kissed his cheek. Then she ran out of the courtyard while the Stepsisters stifled snickers with their hands.
She walked slowly, almost hesitantly, up the low rise to her mother's grave. Kneeling by the grave, she held out the branch and with a quavery voice said, "I brought what the dream said you wanted, Mama." She held the branch upright on the center of the gravemound and found that it slid easily into the soil, stopping only after a third of its length was interred. Clasping her trembling hands together, she bowed her head and prayed. "If this be an evil thing," she prayed, "please, Dear Lord, guide me away from it." And as she prayed the wilted leaves on the branch firmed up and flew again as life's proud little green flags in the evening breeze.
Again and yet again Jack Frost led his snowflake hordes into the land to despoil it and again and yet again the sun, like a good and brave king, returned north to counter-attack, spearing his enemy's minions with his rays and leaving their bodies to melt upon the fields of the ages-long battle whose war drums beat out the tempo of life.
Measuring her own life by a syncopation of that tempo, Aschenputtel had helped to tramp out four vintages since the hazel tree took root on her mother's grave. Now the grapes of a fifth were fattening on the vines and the hazel tree had grown large enough to give Aschenputtel ample shade when she sat on the stone bench by her mother's grave.
Aschenputtel herself had grown into a beautiful young woman, though she still wore a plain dress and apron, her hair was always in some disarray, and her face was smudged with ash more often than not; nonetheless, if truth be told, the young men of the village had already made clear to all that they were more attracted to her than to either of her overdressed, overprimped, and overcosmeticized stepsisters.
Indeed, she understood, if her sources had not fluffed up their information with otherwise useless warm air, that several young men had already approached her father to solicit his permission to court her. If such rumors were true, she assumed, then Stepmother must have somehow prevented Father from granting his permission. Was it because the Stepsisters had received no such solicitations? Well, that did not concern her; anyway, soon enough Stepmother would have no say in the matter.
That happy thought was the little sun that kept springtime ever blossoming in her heart. The thought of marriage that usually accompanied it, a thought once distant and strange, had a different effect altogether: it made her heart leap and flutter like a trapped moth, as she imagined it would do when she was actually standing at the altar swearing lifelong fealty to the man whose proposal she had accepted. She spoke often of these thoughts whenever she spoke to the spirit that resided in the hazel tree, which wasn't often enough to satisfy her.
That there was a spirit in the hazel tree was not in doubt, not since the day when she had come to her mother's grave in a state of near exhaustion. She had been working hard and eating little. Dispirited, weak, and hungry, she had come to her mother's grave to pray, but she couldn't concentrate and kept mis-speaking the prayers that she had been reciting since she first learned to talk.
"I'm sorry," she had said dejectedly, "I just don't know what to do anymore."
She had heard a rustling then in the leaves above her, the sound as of a bird caught in the branches struggling to free itself. Then a small, flattish loaf of bread with a thick slab of meat stuck through it had dropped into her lap. She had looked up wide-eyed at the tree then and crossed herself and her spirit had become like a bird that had been freed from a trap.
"Thank you, Mama," she had said with a broad smile as she had picked up the sandwich to eat it.
A holy day is a joyous time, a time in which to celebrate the sacred gifts that one or another of the Saints has bestowed upon the people through their sacrificial devotion to the service of He Who is Suzerain to All, Vassal to None. If it is also a summer day, then the celebration is made all the merrier by outdoor feasting and dancing in the streets. On this particular summer holy day a small band of musicians played in the square in front of the church and apprentices and housemaids, Aschenputtel among them, danced around the village fountain. Leaping and whirling, kicking up their feet and clapping their hands, they chanted as they danced, "Heaven is better than this, Heaven is better than this, so we will always serve Our Lord Jesus, because Heaven is better than this."
Soon, though, Aschenputtel and several other young women dropped out of the dance and, panting from exertion, walked to the shady side of the square while other dancers took their places. As she leaned herself against a cool wall Aschenputtel discovered that she had put herself next to the family carriage, which Elaine and Yvonne had driven into the square.
"Now if only she would put that kind of effort into her housework," Yvonne lamented to no one in particular.
"And if only she gained the same satisfaction from it," Aschenputtel replied to no one in particular.
Elaine's contribution to the conversation was a slight snorfling sound that she emitted as she finished eating a drippy plum. Regarding the pit with a look of disgust, she reached over the side of the carriage to drop it into the street.
"Here, give me that!" Aschenputtel said in exasperation as she reached out and caught the pit. "Someone might have slipped on that and gotten hurt."
"Yes, well, you may keep the streets clean," Elaine said haughtily. Ignoring the napkin spread across her lap, she grabbed Aschenputtel's apron and wiped her hands. "We have higher matters to which we must attend." She dropped the apron and it caught on the carriage's door, ripping before Aschenputtel could free it.
"Stupid," Yvonne sneered. "Now you'll have to repair that before Mother finds out about it." She flicked the reins and drove the carriage into and around the square, scattering the dancers. Seemingly oblivious to the turmoil that they were creating, the Stepsisters waved to the people as though bestowing a blessing upon them. Then they drove out of the square and homeward.
Aschenputtel's friends gathered around her as she examined the damage done to her apron. The rip was as long as her middle finger and would grow longer if it were not mended.
"Let me trade my apron for yours," one girl offered. "My mistress is well-disposed toward me and will not begrudge me the repair of a small rip."
Aschenputtel thanked the girl for her offer, but refused it nonetheless; Stepmother would certainly be told about the rip and would thus notice the switch. She would be facing trouble enough without adding what would follow the discovery of an attempted deception. Her day ruined, she begged her leave of her friends and set out on the walk home, hoping to think of some way to minimize the sting of the situation.
As she trudged along the road home, she gathered wildflowers and used a twist of grass to bind them into a bouquet. She laid the bouquet at the base of the hazel tree, on the side facing her mother's gravestone, and sat down on the bench. Slowly, hesitantly, she described what had happened in the square.
"I try to let the Saints inspire me," she said. "I know that they have suffered much more than I have, but sometimes I think that my 'dear sisters' are a trial that only the holiest could endure." Tears ran slowly down the sides of her nose. "Am I being tested? If so, for what? And what am I going to do about my apron?" she said, gesturing at the rip with her hands.
The leaves above her head rustled and a spool of thread with a needle stuck in it dropped into her lap.
She smiled in spite of her sorrow. "Thank you, Mama," she said as she picked up the spool and drew off a length of thread to begin mending her apron. Soon she was chatting gaily, describing the celebration in the village and reliving in her words the happiness that she had enjoyed with her friends.
Throughout the warm days of summer the vineyards are lonely, quiet places. But for the buzz of insects and the occasional calls of birds, the vineyards would have been completely empty of sound. Then one morning, as the sun's rays were beginning to fill the darkness with light, the silence was filled with the babble of voices, the rustling of leaves, and the soft pik-pik-pik of grape stems being pulled taut and cut. In a rhythm as timeworn smooth as a pebble in a stream, harvest time had come again to this part of the world.
Once picked, each bunch of grapes was laid into a basket. When the basket was full, the picker would lift it up and carry it to the chateau, there to dump its sweet load into a wooden vat in which other workers trod the grapes, freeing their juice to become wine. Amid the slow bustle of the harvest Aschenputtel circulated, carrying a tray of cakes and a wineskin and ensuring that all who worked on the harvest were well refreshed. This was a happy chore for her, one that made harvest an especially sweet time for her, one that filled her with such happiness that the workers drew as much refreshment from her smile and easy banter as they did from the cakes and wine that she offered.
The sweet milk of her happiness was quickly soured by the sound of Stepmother calling her. After pausing to set her tray on a wine cask and to hang the wineskin on a nearby peg, she went to find out what was going to spoil this day for her.
"You must go to the market and buy the pound of salt that your sisters forgot to buy this morning," Stepmother said. She held out a small basket and a clink and rattle betrayed the presence of coins under the napkin laid neatly across the bottom.
"May I take the horse?" Aschenputtel asked as she took the basket. "There's so much work to do for the harvest, I should come back as soon as I can."
"I agree," Stepmother said. "Unfortunately, your sisters have taken the carriage for a drive around the county. They'll not be back any time soon."
With a sigh, Aschenputtel set out on the walk to the village.
As she came into the village she was filled with a spooky anxiety. People whom she would ordinarily have seen were absent from their accustomed places; indeed, the streets were completely empty of people. Further, the doors and windows of all the houses were closed up. The village seemed deserted. She was only reassured as she walked further into the village by hearing the soft hubbub of voices, in their hundreds, conversing all at once.
The sound grew louder, as it usually did, the closer she came to the marketplace. She rounded a corner and came into the village square and saw why the village seemed deserted: the square was so full of people that she guessed that everyone in the village was gathered in it. She wove a path through the crowd toward the spice merchant's shop and her ears snatched up little pieces of conversation:
"When is he supposed to...?" one woman was asking. "How long will he...?" a man asked. "Is it true that he will...?" the candlemaker asked the silversmith.
Seeing her friends gathered by the fountain, Aschenputtel went to them and asked why everyone was gathered in the square. "What are you waiting to see?" she asked.
"The Prince," one girl said. "He's returning from his Grand Tour of The Nations," another girl added. "He will be staying with the Count until after the Harvest Ball. It's even rumored that...."
The girl's gossip was interrupted by the sound of cheering in the distance. The cheering seemed to be growing louder, as if its source were coming closer, so Aschenputtel and her friends looked toward whence it was coming. At first they saw only their fellow villagers, but soon they saw, over their neighbors' heads, brightly colored pennants held aloft on pikes. As the pennants came closer, the girls saw another flag, a field of blue with the image of a white dove ascending across it, following them. People near them were now stepping back, making a clear way for the procession, and shortly after stepping back herself Aschenputtel saw the Prince and his entourage.
The pike men and the flag bearer passed first. Then came two men astride a pair of beautiful black stallions; the elder of the two, a thin, middle-aged man with a somewhat pinched expression on his face, seemed to show more interest in the surrounding buildings than in the people before them, but the younger of the two, a handsome, black-haired youth only a few years older than Aschenputtel, was smiling, waving, and exchanging greetings with people as he passed by. And some distance behind the two men came the Prince's carriage and bodyguard.
Looking down the street as far as she could see, Aschenputtel noticed that people looking into the carriage seemed disappointed. A moment later she understood why: instead of riding in his carriage, as a prince was expected to do, the handsome, raven-tressed son of her king was merrily playing the role of a courtier in his own procession. Awestruck, she sighed, "What a wonder he is! If only I can find a man like that someday."
One of her friends, not recognizing the royalty before her, gave Aschenputtel a playful shove into the path of the Prince's horse. Startled, the Prince reined his horse to a halt and for a long moment he and Aschenputtel stared at each other.
"My Lord," Aschenputtel said, recovering her composure, "I apologize for blocking your way. I...I mis-stepped and stumbled upon a cobble."
The Prince smiled. "Dear Lady," he said, "it is I who must offer apology. I would never so much as feign riding down one of my father's subjects or striking fear into a fair damsel's heart. Now only you can cleanse me of the stain of my inattention. Will you accept my apology and forgive my sin?"
Aschenputtel remembered to curtsey. "Yes, My Lord, of course I will and hope that it please you." Then she looked up at him and asked, "And do you accept my apology?"
The Prince chuckled. "How could I do otherwise, O Generous Spirit? Yes, of course I do and pray that you be blessed." He doffed his hat and made a bow to her. "Good day to you, Fair Lady," he said, then he clucked to his horse, gently touched his heels to the horse's sides, and rode on.
Aschenputtel watched in stunned silence as the rest of the procession passed her and until the crowd began to disperse, then she gathered to herself the wits that had been scattered like startled birds by the Prince's smile and went to buy the salt for which she had been sent. She walked home in a daze, recalling over and over again the memory of her encounter with the Prince and reveling over and over again in the sweet story that it told her. So enchanted was she in her reverie that she barely noticed when she was nearly run down by the family carriage, which was being drawn at a mad pace by a horse that was being mercilessly whipped by the Stepsisters.
Instead of going straight home, as she had intended, she walked up the low rise to her mother's grave and sat down on the stone bench to rest. Dreamily she told the hazel tree of her encounter with the Prince, describing in detail everything that she had seen, heard, smelled,... until she noticed that she did not have the words she needed to describe what she had felt inside her. She sighed and wondered idly whether the tree, which had given her so many things, could give her a prince. The tree remained still and silent.
"No," she mused, "that's a silly question. A prince is not a gift to be bestowed by someone else. He's a man, whose heart must be won in the court of love. Ah, but I fear that I shall never plead my case in a court attended by any prince." She spread her hands and looked up into the tree. "But now my sweet felicity is dead: I killed it with my own tongue. I know that I must face the truth I proclaimed, but with such inordinate haste...?! How can I forgive myself for hastening my heart back to its daily misery?"
She heard a rustling among the tree's leaves and an instant later a sticky honeycomb plopped into her hand. She stared at the honeycomb uncomprehendingly for a long moment, watching the amber fluid ooze from several ruptured wax cells, and then looked up with a chagrined smile as understanding came to her. "Thank you, Mama," she said. She sat for several more minutes, licking honey from the comb, before bidding the tree au revoir. She continued licking the comb as she walked back to the road.
When she came to the little roadside shrine she saw that she had a dilemma; she had only half finished the honeycomb, but she certainly could not cross herself with a sticky hand. A thought came to her and whispered that she was not obliged to offer a prayer at the shrine, that she could simply walk on and continue enjoying the sweetness of the honey. She dismissed the thought and looked for the little mound that sat a few feet behind the shrine. Carefully she set the remaining portion of the honeycomb next to the mound and then told the ants that came to investigate it, "Here, folks, here's a treat for you. You work so hard that you deserve some sweetness." She thought of the ants as the Caretakers of the Shrine and, indeed, it was true that no seed sprouted near the shrine and no insect remained on it long enough to dirty it. After licking her hand clean, she offered her prayer of thanksgiving for the special blessing that she had received, crossed herself, and then hurried home.
As she approached the house she heard the all-too-familiar two-toned wail "Mother!" and quickly chose to go through the herb garden and enter the house through the kitchen entrance. She put away the salt and her basket and tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid hearing what was being tiffed in the next room.
"No, I saw him first, so he's mine," Elaine yelled.
"That doesn't count," Yvonne responded at a similar volume. "He looked at me first, so he's mine."
"He belongs to neither of you," Stepmother yelled at a volume that drowned out both girls, "and that fact will not be changed by any amount of your bickering." She continued more quietly, but not by much, "I'm not even sure that I can arrange an introduction, but if I can, you are going to ensure that one of you captures the Prince's heart by cooperating with each other...and with me. And to ensure that cooperation you are going to swear a pact, both of you, that if you are the one to marry the Prince, you will arrange for your sister to be given a Lord of the Court of her choice and further that you will inspire your husband, the Prince, to assure his brother-in-law's continued prosperity and social advancement. Is that clear enough for you to understand?"
Quickly and quietly Aschenputtel exited the kitchen and returned to the wine pressing. On her way through the herb garden she offered a little prayer of thanksgiving that she had managed to avoid hearing the Stepsisters' soppy reconciliation.
Hope aroused by faint possibility can drive otherwise rational people to strange behavior and the fainter the possibility, it seems, the stranger the consequent behavior. Give a person under such a spell at least one night to weave the ętherial thread of their hope into a fabric of fantasy and the behavior inspired by it can become truly bizarre. Thus it was that Stepmother decided that the house must be made sufficiently presentable to entertain a prince. It wasn't quite madness, though it came close, when Stepmother, in the middle of the harvest, demanded that Aschenputtel clean the house from attic to cellar.
By late afternoon Aschenputtel had reached the point in her cleaning at which she was dusting the furniture in the main room. Her labor was lightened by the fact that she had always taken pride in keeping the house clean, as her mother had done. She had just paused to let the dust that she had stirred up settle when she heard the sounds of a horse coming into the courtyard. A moment later she heard a rapping on the door and when she opened the door she saw a man whom she recognized as one of the Count's servants, a man often employed by the Count as a courier. She invited the man into the house and then, because Father was busy in the vineyards, went to get Stepmother to conduct whatever business the man had come to discuss.
Sent to the kitchen to procure refreshment for the Count's courier, Aschenputtel quickly laid out slices of cheese on a serving tray along with wine and sweetmeats. She brought the tray into the main room just in time to see the courier hand Stepmother a gilt-edged envelope that was sealed with purple wax.
"The Count and Countess expect that this year's Harvest Ball will be one to be remembered for many years to come," the man said. "His Royal Highness, The Prince, will be in attendance."
"Oh, what an honor this must be for our dear Count and Countess!" Stepmother said as Aschenputtel set the tray down on the low table by the chair in which the man sat.
"Indeed it is," the man agreed. "And my Lord and Lady look forward to carrying out the heavy responsibility that comes with it. To ensure the success of that endeavor they wish to know the number of guests to expect. Can you tell me, now, how many of your family will be attending the Ball?"
"Yes, of course," Stepmother said. Then, looking up as if noticing her for the first time, Stepmother told Aschenputtel, "Oh, do go and see that the gentleman's horse is being properly cared for."
Aschenputtel made a little curtsey of acknowledgment and went to the door. She heard Stepmother say, "Yes, now, as to the Ball. My husband and I will be attending, of course," and as she closed the door she heard Stepmother say, "and we will be bringing our two charming daughters."
"Is it true that I am no longer a daughter of this house?" she asked Stepmother after the courier left.
"No, it is not," Stepmother said.
"But if you are taking only two daughters to the Ball," Aschenputtel said, "then who is being left home?"
"Why, you are, of course," Stepmother said.
"Why?" Aschenputtel asked in bewilderment. "What have I done to deserve such punishment?"
"You misunderstand," Stepmother said. "You are not being punished. Your staying home from the Ball is a sacrifice that you must make for the betterment of your family."
"You're right," Aschenputtel said, "I don't understand. How can my staying home benefit the family?"
"By allowing your sisters to meet the Prince and make a proper impression." Stepmother put up a hand to forestall the expected complaint. "It's true that your mastery of the social graces and the ballgown that you inherited from your mother are adequate for a simple county harvest ball, but they are not suitable to be presented to royalty. Now, I am sure that you don't want to spoil your sisters' opportunity to meet the Prince. No, of course you don't. And you may bear in mind the thought that if we are successful, you will be attending balls in the King's palace. So staying home from the Ball won't be so bad after all."
"What's this I'm hearing?" Father said as he came in from the kitchen. He was holding a cup of wine in one hand and a half-eaten slice of cheese in the other. "One of our daughters not going to the Harvest Ball? No, I'll not hear of it!"
"But my darling," Stepmother protested, "if we are to make a favorable impression upon the Prince, we cannot present an unpolished gem to him, not at first meeting certainly. And it's such a small sacrifice to make compared to what we - and she - stand to gain."
"Small?" Father said. "Is that really for us to judge? If so, then I would judge differently. She has worked hard this harvest, when she has been free to do so. She deserves this night of pleasure and I will not allow it to be taken from her. And think further on this: if we cut off a member of our family, what else will we cut off? Are we not seeking to gain the world at the cost of our souls?"
Stepmother had no reply beyond a sigh of defeat.
"If you're concerned that I will make a bad impression," Aschenputtel told her, "then I'll stay apart from the family at the Ball."
Stepmother's mood brightened. "You would agree to that?" she asked almost incredulously. "You would agree to avoid us and to give no sign that you know us?"
"Yes," Aschenputtel said, "I do."
"Very well, then," Stepmother said, "this plan may succeed." Her mood darkened again as a new thought came to her. "Unless," she said, "one of the neighbors says something that forces us together."
"I think that is unlikely," Father said.
"And I, for my part, will discourage and deflect any such overtures," Aschenputtel said.
"Yes," Stepmother said, "well, one can only hope."
Late afternoon brought its warning chill to the land. The sun's light flew low over silent forests and meadows before splashing soft rosy and golden over a landscape settling down in preparation for the coming darkness. Creatures of the day had returned to their homes and creatures of the night were just beginning to stir. One of the day's creatures, though, often encroached upon the near fringe of what should have been the alien realm of the night. On this particular afternoon a large contingent of those creatures was preparing to invade themselves especially deep into that dark territory. Already, as day's last light drained out of the world, the soft glow of candles was becoming visible in those places already in shadow.
In the main room of the little chateau Father, dressed in his finest suit of clothes, waited for the women of his house to make their entrances. Aschenputtel, wearing her mother's ballgown, entered first and Father's enthusiasm over her beauty was accompanied by a catch in his voice and a wetness in his eyes. Elaine and Yvonne came next and Father assured both of them that they would be ideal adornments on a prince's arm. Stepmother entered last, making the grandest entrance of all, and Father lavished upon her his most elaborate expressions of delight at her beauty and charm. Satisfied that his family was ready for the Ball, Father went outside to harness the horse to the carriage.
"You know, that dress is just right for you," Elaine told Aschenputtel.
"Do you truly think so?" Aschenputtel asked warily.
"Yes, of course we do," Yvonne said. "It's the perfect thing for you to wear when you're slopping hogs in the King's palace."
"Unh huh," Aschenputtel grunted sourly. "And do you also think that I should introduce myself to the Prince as your hog-slopping sister?"
"You wouldn't dare!" Elaine said in wide-eyed horror.
"You promised," Yvonne added.
"Did I?" Aschenputtel asked innocently. "It's so hard to remember when I must worry about all of those hogs I must slop."
"Enough!" Stepmother said in irritation. "I will not hear one more word of hogs or slop tonight. We are going to be attending an elegant event," she continued, aiming her remarks more at the Stepsisters, "and we will therefore keep our conversation on a plane suitably elevated that we may thus present an agreeable countenance to our fellow guests. And you," she said to Aschenputtel, "will remember your promise."
"Yes, of course I will," Aschenputtel said. "I was merely jesting with my dear sisters as they were jesting with me."
"Well, we've had quite enough peasant jests for tonight," Stepmother said. "We shall soon be associating with royalty, so only the most refined behavior will be acceptable. Now I must go get the wine for the carriage." She took a candle in a holder and went to the kitchen only to let out a little cry of dismay as soon as she opened the door. She beckoned Aschenputtel to her. "The bag of lentils that I put on the table has fallen onto the floor and spilled some of the lentils," she said. "Pick them up before the mice get to them."
Aschenputtel came into the kitchen and took an empty crock from a shelf as Stepmother selected the bottle of wine for which she had come. Setting the crock on the hearthstone, Aschenputtel said, "You'll wait for me, won't you?"
"Yes," Stepmother said, "but you must hurry. We dare not be late." She went back to the main room, leaving Aschenputtel to pick up what appeared to be a minor spill of beans.
Aschenputtel knelt down and gripped the bag by its torn end. In the dim light from the candle she failed to notice the thread that extended from the bag to a snag on a nearby table leg. As she lifted the bag toward the crock the thread pulled taut and then pulled out of the fabric, thereby allowing a seam to open and spill the entire bagful of lentils across the kitchen floor. Frantically she scooped up lentils by the double handful and put them into the crock, but as she did so she saw the many of the lentils were falling into the cracks among the bricks that paved the kitchen floor.
Before she could worry about how she was going to retrieve the lost lentils, she was distracted by a soft rustling, like the sound of someone gently shaking dried leaves. She looked toward the sound's source and was horrified and dismayed to see a long black column oozing under the kitchen door. Thousands upon thousands of ants were invading the kitchen, a place that they had never, to her recollection, entered before. She raised her hand to shoo them away but paused when she saw what the ants were doing. Horror sublimed into awe as she watched the army of ants split into corps, which split into divisions, which split into brigades, which split into regiments, which split into battalions, which split into companies, which split into platoons, which split into squads. Before her astonished eyes the kitchen floor was transformed into a parade ground upon which the ants marched out their drills with all the perfection of a human army. She could almost hear tiny trumpets squeak out the charge as the ants advanced across the floor and picked up every last lentil. Without moving from the spot upon which she knelt she was able to reach up onto the table, pick up the breadboard lying upon it, and set the board against the crock as a ramp. The ants swept toward the breadboard and marched up it in single-file columns. Each ant came to the top of the board, dropped its lentil into the crock, and then turned and marched back down he board. Aschenputtel was fascinated by the sight of the descending columns alternating with the ascending columns on the breadboard. Soon she saw the squads melt back into platoons, thence into companies into battalions into regiments into brigades into divisions into corps and finally into a single broad, black column that marched back out of the kitchen.
"Thank you," Aschenputtel whispered. "Thank you, dear friends." She put the lid on the crock, carefully set the crock on the table, and then quickly washed her hands. She went into the main room and found it empty. She blew out the two candles that had been left burning and went to the door. She opened it just in time to see the family carriage turn onto the road and head for the village. With only a moment's hesitation, she heaved a sigh, closed the door, and set out walking.
Torches filled little flickering pools with light around the grand courtyard of the Count's palace and provided enough illumination for the unloading of the carriages that were arriving. Voices and laughter accompanied by soft music spilled out of the palace's entrance along with the light from hundreds of candles. After Father helped her and the Stepsisters alight from the carriage, Stepmother stood and gazed in rapture at that entrance, inhaling deeply as if savoring the sweetest of perfumes. The Stepsisters stood with her as Father went to speak to the valet in charge of the horses.
"Do you believe that your lentil trick succeeded fully?" Yvonne asked.
"Of course, I do," Stepmother replied. "Think on this: if you had just spent an hour or more on your hands and knees picking up spilled lentils, would you want to climb that hill?"
"I wouldn't want to climb it in any case," Yvonne said.
"And you know how lazy the Aschenputtel is," Elaine added, "...always trying to get us to do her work for her - so you must certainly know that she would not even consider climbing the hill. No, I believe that we will not see her tonight."
Stepmother put an arm around Yvonne's shoulders. "You worry too much, my dear one," she said. "I assure you that nothing will spoil this night for us."
Aschenputtel paused at the little roadside shrine and offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the help that the ants had given her, then she went up the low rise to her mother's grave. Standing before the hazel tree, she spread the skirt of her ballgown and displayed it. "It fits perfectly, Mama," she said. "And it's so pretty.... I know I'm going to have fun at the Ball, even if I don't get to dance with a prince."
A gentle breeze came up then, rustling the leaves in the tree and lifting her hair. She heard a crackling, like the snapping of dried twigs, and saw sparks flashing around her. Caught in the breeze, the sparks were swirled into a haze of silver-white light that enveloped her as a whirlwind might. She stood perfectly still, not daring to move, and watched in wide-eyed fascination as the haze brightened and the crackling became a loud hiss and then both faded away completely as the breeze died. Daring to look down at herself, she saw in the last glow of twilight that she was wearing a ballgown made of a smooth, lustrous fabric that she had never seen before. And though the new shoes on her feet appeared to be made of pure gold, they were not cold and hard as a metal would be, but were warm and comfortable.
"Oh, thank you, Mama!" she said excitedly. Unable to contain her enthusiasm any further, she bid the tree au revoir and set off walking toward the village at a brisk pace.
She followed a carriage bearing other latecomers through the gate to the Count's palace. As Stepmother had done, she paused to savor the light and the sounds emanating from the entrance and to feel excitement warming her against the evening's chill. She walked up the steps behind the late arrivals, through the entrance, and down the hall toward what appeared to be the entrance to the ballroom. The late arrivals turned to enter the ballroom and Aschenputtel heard a voice announce their arrival and then a soft crackle of applause. Thinking to find a less conspicuous way to enter the ballroom, she tried the handle on the first door to which she came, found that the door opened for her, and went through it.
The room into which she came appeared to be the Count's library. Between one and two dozen people were in the room listening to an oration given by the pinch-faced man she had seen riding with the Prince. She stayed to listen for a time and came to understand that this learned man must be the Prince's tutor.
"Thus we have learned," the tutor said, summing up, "that our world system - or, more properly, our solar system - is all Mechanism, like unto a great clockwork."
"My goodness," an older woman said. "Now I am quite bewildered by all of this Natural Philosophy. It's all suitably impressive, but can you tell me, Monsieur, why our Dear Lord God would create such an elegant mechanism and then make it appear to us as something totally else?"
"Of course I can, dear Lady," the tutor said. "The intent is clearly to cloud men's minds."
"That seems an awfully harsh indictment of the Deity," one man protested.
"True," the tutor said, "but I think it justified. After all, given what we have learned, what else can we believe the world to be but a deception?"
"A riddle?" Aschenputtel ventured to guess. Suddenly everyone in the room was looking at her. "Perhaps the world is a riddle that we are meant to solve," she said to elaborate her suggestion. "We have minds that enjoy solving riddles and we are forever asking questions about the world, so riddle-seeking and riddle-solving seem to be part of our nature. But surely our Good Lord God made that a part of our nature so that we could solve the great riddles that He presents to us."
"What a delightful answer!" the older woman said. "Yes, I find it most agreeable with my way of thinking." The others added comments of assent and the woman asked the tutor, "Do you find that it accords with your thinking, Monsieur?"
The tutor bowed to the woman and said, "Indeed, I believe that I do, Milady." He then bowed to Aschenputtel and said, "You have devised a truly clever answer to my question, young Lady. A riddle it is, then." He then resumed addressing his remarks to his audience in general. "And who have been the great riddle-solvers? We hear the names of Copernicus, of Galileo, of Kepler, and of Newton. These are the bold explorers of the New World of Thought. And why is it, we may well ask, that we do not hear the name of one of our countrymen called out in that illustrious company?"
"Is it, perhaps, God's punishment upon us for the irreverence of our philosophes?" a man asked.
All, including the tutor, laughed at the witticism. Aschenputtel took the opportunity of that moment of merriment to leave the library and enter the ballroom.
Outside the church, she had never seen one room so large and so beautifully decorated...or so well lit. Elaborately made crystal chandeliers splashed the light of what she guessed to be hundreds of candles around the room, filling the room with enough light that she could see clearly everything and everyone in it. She saw Father talking with half a dozen men, several of whom she recognized, and she saw Stepmother talking earnestly with two women whom she did not recognize, and she saw the Stepsisters sitting against the far wall, looking befuddled and not entirely happy. In one corner of the room a small band of musicians played their instruments, producing a soft, sweet melody that made her smile. Still feeling warm from the exertion of climbing the hill and from the excitement, she walked to the doors at one end of the room and went out onto the balcony for some cool air.
What she failed to notice was the Prince coming out of the library behind her. He paused to watch whither she was going, then strode to the refreshments table, procured two goblets of wine, and went out onto the balcony himself, deftly avoiding an encounter with Stepmother on the way.
Aschenputtel turned when she heard the Prince approach, recognized him, and made a deep curtsey. "Good evening, Your Highness," she said and then rose to face him when he offered a greeting of his own.
"Please pardon my presumption," he said as he offered her one of the goblets. "I thought that you might desire some refreshment after traversing the arid terrain of Monsieur Poisson's discourse."
"Yes, thank you," she said as she accepted the goblet. "I was indeed in need of refreshment, though I must say that I did not find Monsieur Poisson's discourse to be all that dry. I regret that I came late to it and missed hearing so much more of what he had to say."
"You enjoyed what you heard of his talk?" the Prince asked in a lightly incredulous tone.
"Yes, I did," Aschenputtel said. "I have never heard of the things that he described and hearing of them for the first time has quite tickled my fancy. He has planted his ideas as seeds in my soul and they have yielded a bumper crop of questions."
"Will you share part of your crop with me?" the Prince asked.
"Certainly," Aschenputtel said. "I trust that your knowledge will mill my questions into the food of wisdom." She pointed toward the full moon just rising above the wall at the far end of the Count's garden. "Monsieur Poisson said that the planets and the moon are worlds like unto our own. But to what extent is that true? Surely there must be differences?"
"Oh, indeed there are," the Prince said. "We may consider the moon as an example. The moon is smaller than is our Earth, so it gravitates more gently; thus, a body would bear down upon the moon with less weight than that with which it bears down upon Earth. For that reason, many believe that the people who live on the moon have wings and can fly."
"Like unto the angels," Aschenputtel said, delighted by the thought.
"Indeed so," the Prince said. "And I believe that I know the reason for that likeness. I believe that on rare occasions Lunarians are caught in tempests and are thus blown to Earth, where they are mistaken by the untutored for angels."
"Yes," Aschenputtel said, "that makes good sense. But even if the Moon People are not truly angels, they would surely be interesting to meet. Has anyone contemplated the possibility of going to the moon to meet them?"
"Some have," the Prince said, nodding, "but they speak of techniques that seem fanciful at best. As for me, I believe that a voyage to the moon could be accomplished by means more or less available today."
"Oh, please do tell me about it," Aschenputtel said and then she followed in her imagination as the Prince described his concept of a lunar voyage:
The Explorer (who looks just like the Prince) inspects his vehicle, a large, lightly built carriage fitted with broad wings clothed in giant feathers. He has designed his space-carriage to be as light as possible, even though it must carry food enough for himself and for the birds that are to draw it through the sky. A team of strong flyers, geese or swans, is harnessed to the carriage's drawbar and a second team is shackled to the roosting bars atop the carriage's roof. Because the flight will be longer than any Earthly migration and because the carriage cannot be allowed to stop until it reaches its destination, two teams of birds will provide propulsion, one team resting and feeding as the other flies.
Halfway to the moon to Explorer must once again perform the dangerous task of changing the teams of birds. If the birds were to become entangled in their harnesses, each team with the other's, then the carriage might fall thousands of miles out of control and the Explorer has no guarantee that he will be able to make the carriage glide to a safe landfall. He tethers himself to the carriage with a climber's rope and steps outside, pausing only to look back at Earth in wonder: showing itself in a thick crescent, the home world glows in silvery-white and gray, looking very much as the moon does.
Days later the little space-carriage glides over the lunar landscape. The Explorer looks down on fields, meadows, streams, and forests. Here and there he sees villages laid out in a circular plan. Soon he sees that he is approaching a city, one whose circular ramparts comprise a crater that is marked on his map. He turns his carriage away from the city: it would be a mistake to contact the lunar authorities before he had learned to speak the Lunarian language. He flies onward until he is flying over a region with large fields and widely spaced chateaux. Choosing one of the latter, he begins his final descent, coming down toward a road that is lined with some kind of slender pine trees that seem to rise as much as a thousand feet above the ground.
Once the carriage has come to a halt some distance from the crater-shaped chateau, the Explorer sets the brake and then turns the crank that makes the carriage fold its wings, in the manner of a roosting bird, lest a vagrant gust of wind lift the carriage and smash it or carry it away. His vehicle thus secured, the Explorer sets off down the road to the chateau, his gait soon becoming a bounding lope in which every stride carries him six times as far as it would do on Earth. As he approaches the chateau he hears the sound of a woman singing: using her voice as a shuttle and a harpsichord as her loom, she weaves a strange, haunting tapestry of melody to hang in the lunar air. He discerns that the singing is emanating from behind a pair of open doors at the rear of a balcony on the chateau's second level. He increases the force of his strides and then leaps, soaring over the balcony's railing to land on the threshold of the chateau's music room. Offering what he hopes is a universal gesture of peace, he removes his hat and, sweeping it before him, makes a deep bow. The woman, dressed and coiffed much as any lady in an Earthly court would be, approaches him, lifts her skirt, and makes a deep curtsey, gracefully spreading her snowy-white wings as she does so.
"...and she would be as beautiful as you are," the Prince said.
"Oh, Your Highness, you don't know what I look like," Aschenputtel said. "You can't see me clearly in the dark."
"I don't need light to know that you are beautiful," the Prince replied. "The wit of your soul illuminates you clearly enough."
Aschenputtel giggled. "Well, I know that your wit is tickling my soul," she said. "I count it as a blessing."
"Then perhaps I can ask you to grant me a blessing?" the Prince said.
"If I may, certainly," Aschenputtel said. "How may I please you?"
"Would you give me the pleasure of dancing with you tonight?" the Prince asked.
Aschenputtel felt her heart pound the inside of her chest and she felt slightly dizzy. "Yes," she said. "Yes, I will." She laid her hand gracefully upon the Prince's proffered arm and allowed him to lead her back into the ballroom.
The room went silent as they entered. The Count and all of his guests looked to see who the Prince had chosen to be his partner. Only slowly did conversations resume and most of them were concerned with one topic.
"Who in Hell is that?!" Stepmother asked.
Father, who was standing slightly behind Stepmother on her right, widened his eyes in astonishment as he recognized his daughter. He caught her eye for a short moment, grinned broadly, and raised his goblet in salute.
Stepmother half turned, jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow as she did so. "That girl looks familiar," she said to him, "but I can't put a name on her. Do you know her?"
"For an instant there I thought that I did," Father said and then he shook his head. "But no," he continued, "now I am quite certain that I truly don't know her at all."
Just then the Count announced that dancing was about to begin and couples, including Father and Stepmother, lined up behind Aschenputtel and the Prince to promenade through the stately minuet. For an hour and more the ballroom resembled a small, bright piece of Heaven, filled with sweet music and graceful motion, and Aschenputtel and the Prince were the most beautiful and most blessed of its angels. For an hour and more, virtually oblivious to the people around them, Aschenputtel and the Prince seemed transported to a more ętherial realm, the two of them moving as elegantly as if they were of one mind, one soul, receiving for one brief moment the faintest glimpse of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. And for an hour and more, in spite of a slight chill in the air, Aschenputtel felt the gentle warmth of summer, tasted honey, and smelled the aromas of spring. She should have been tired, but she felt as light as if she had indeed been dancing on the moon.
Eventually, though, the Count was obliged to call for an intermission to give the dancers and the musicians an opportunity to rest and to refresh themselves. As a dream fades in morning's light, the dance evaporated as couples wandered off the dance floor, going either to the refreshment tables or out onto the balconies for some fresh air. After obtaining fresh goblets of wine, the Prince led Aschenputtel back out onto the balcony where he had met her.
"You have granted unto me a blessing more sublime than any I might have anticipated," the Prince said. "You have my gratitude at your service," he added with a bow.
Aschenputtel curtseyed in response. "You are ever welcome to any such blessings as I may offer," she said. "I feel that I, too, have been specially blessed this night and my gratitude is also at your service."
The Prince smiled. "Shall we thus forever be in each other's debt?" he asked. "I find the thought of such an endless pas de deux perfectly appealing. You display a profound grace that bespeaks a great nobility."
A clammy dread sweeping over her made Aschenputtel shudder. "Surely Your Highness knows that grace can be feigned," she said.
"Yes, I do," the Prince said, "and though I yet lack a graybeard's wisdom, I have seen enough feigned grace to know that it is quickly betrayed by the evil desires for which it is nought but a mask. Your grace is no mask, dear Lady."
"You can't know that," Aschenputtel protested. "You know not who I am nor whence I come. For all that you know of me, I could be a mere child of the dust."
"The Lord of Creation deemed dust suitable to bear His image," the Prince said. "If we are wise, we count the dust as nothing and account only what has been impressed upon it. I assure you, dust or not, you will be welcomed into my father's house as a princess."
Aschenputtel was trembling now and she felt a tightness in her throat. "Oh, what a blessing that would be!" she said in a quavering voice. "How could I not want to be granted such happiness? But how can I swear to be true to you forever if I am false to you now?" She began to weep, then turned and ran toward the stairs at the end of the balcony.
Stunned, the Prince stood and watched her run down the stairs before he thought to run after her. His pursuit was brought to a halt almost as soon as it had begun: the Countess, coming out onto the balcony, happened to step in front of him and was nearly bowled over. As he exchanged apologies with the Countess, the Prince could do nought else but watch Aschenputtel open the gate to the entry court, pass through it, and close it behind her.
"I do hope that I was not intruding," the Countess said. "I was merely hoping to learn whether Your Highness might introduce us to that delightfully elegant young Lady with whom you have been dancing."
"The pleasure of an introduction shall indeed be mine," the Prince said, "if only I can catch up with her and persuade her to return with me. It seems that the opulence of your hospitality has overwhelmed her."
"Oh, my goodness!" the Countess exclaimed as she stepped aside to let the Prince pass. "Well, then, let my wish for your success be as wings upon your feet!"
The Prince thanked her and ran to the gate. He saw nobody in the courtyard and ran to the outer gate. Again he saw no sign of Aschenputtel. He ran to the stables and asked whether any of the stablehands had seen a woman leave the palace. None had. He then asked whether a horse was available and was told that one could be saddled for him in a few minutes. He shook his head. "She would be lost to me in the village by then," he said. He gave a last wistful look at the outer gate and then returned to the palace.
Running down the road that became the village's main street, Aschenputtel struggled against the tendency to run too fast, lest she trip and fall. In her headlong flight she wept and thus half blinded by tears she failed to see a wide gap between two cobblestones. The heel of one of her shoes slipped into that gap and the shoe was yanked off her foot. She ran on for a considerable distance before she could bring herself to a halt. She started to go back to retrieve her shoe, but stopped when she noticed a lantern's light bobbing against the wall of a house. As quietly as she could she turned and ran on.
"Who goes there?" the night watchman called out. He saw the shoe gleaming gold in the middle of the street and went to pick it up. He looked in the direction in which Aschenputtel had run and saw nobody. He looked in the direction whence she had come, up at the Count's palace, then he heaved a sigh and began the long trudge up the hill.
Aschenputtel was still awake and her cheeks were still wet with tears when she heard the family carriage being driven into the courtyard of the little chateau. Moments later she heard Stepmother and the Stepsisters come into the house.
"He didn't even come back to the dance after she left," Yvonne was complaining.
"He was with the Count and his tutor and was not to be disturbed," Stepmother said. "Oh, I have never been so frustrated in my life!"
"I can't believe that no one knows who she is," Elaine said.
"Yes," Stepmother agreed. "I keep thinking that she looked somehow familiar, that I have seen her somewhere before tonight, but I simply could not put a name on her or place her in clear memory. I must confess, though, that I may have taken a little too much wine; for one brief moment I thought that she resembled our own dear Aschenputtel."
The Stepsisters howled with laughter.
"Oh, Mother," Yvonne said through her guffaws, "a thought like unto that one would drive me all the way through the Land of Temperance to the Convent of Abstinence."
"Yes, it's a silly thought," Stepmother said. "It shows how the wine has befuddled me. Well, in any case we don't need to know who that girl is: she ran out on the Prince. Tomorrow, when I am thinking more clearly, I will see what kind of contacts I can arrange."
"That may not be an easy task," Elaine said, suddenly sober. "I heard that a night watchman found one of the girl's shoes in the village and brought it to the Prince."
"So what's he going to do," Yvonne sneered, "drive it around the county and try it on every woman he can find?"
Indeed, that is precisely what the Prince did, though first he was obliged to ford a stream of protest from his tutor.
"You have more important matters to which you must attend," Monsieur Poisson had said.
"They can wait," the Prince had replied as he paced the floor of the Count's library and contemplated the golden shoe in his hand. "She touched my soul," he had mused, "with a grace that transcended her beauty and sublimated all Earthly desires. Could such an angel truly have been put upon this Earth for the benefit of my soul? How dare I not seek the answer to that question?"
"You are due back in the Capitol soon," was another argument that Monsieur Poisson had presented.
"My father is a patient and generous man," the Prince had replied. "He will forgive my tardiness when he learns its cause."
Monsieur Poisson had offered other, weaker arguments, but soon sighed, shrugged, and suggested that they begin their search with the guest list from the Ball.
Thus it was that several days after the Harvest Ball the Prince's carriage rolled into the courtyard of the little chateau a half hour's walk from the village. Father was away on an errand, so Stepmother greeted the Prince and Monsieur Poisson and invited them into the house. Once formal greetings had been exchanged, the Prince brought out the golden shoe and stated the purpose of his visit while Monsieur Poisson opened the County Registry, which he had brought with him. Stepmother excused herself and went to get the Stepsisters.
When she returned with her daughters following coyly behind her, she introduced them to the Prince and Monsieur Poisson. Again the Prince stated the reason for his visit and held up the golden shoe.
"Oh, you found it!" Elaine said happily. She reached out and took the shoe from the Prince and then sat down to put it on.
Monsieur Poisson felt a spooky chill slither up his spine. As it had done for him over one hundred times before, the shoe seemed to shrink ever so subtly between the time that Elaine touched it and the time that she slipped her foot into it. Based on the knowledge that he had gained from handling it himself, he would have sworn an oath upon all that he held sacred that the shoe would have fit Elaine's foot, but it didn't and no amount of tugging by Elaine would get her foot all the way into it.
"I don't understand what's wrong," Elaine said with some chagrin.
"What's wrong," Yvonne said as she snatched the shoe off Elaine's foot, "is that we do not wear the same size shoes." She gave the Prince an apologetic smile. "We are forever misplacing shoes," she said, "so when we find one we must try it on to see whether it is mine or hers." Having bared her own foot, she tried the shoe and found that it was too small for her as well. She took the shoe off and handed it to the Prince. "I've had a swelling in my feet these past few days. Perhaps we should try this a few days hence when the swelling has subsided?"
"Perhaps," the Prince said as he accepted the shoe.
"According to the Register," Monsieur Poisson said to Stepmother, "there is a third daughter in this house."
"Alas, yes," Stepmother said sadly. "A tragic child. She ran away several years ago. She was never able to get over the death of her mother, it seems."
At that moment Aschenputtel came in from the kitchen. "Excuse me," she said to Stepmother. "Shall I prepare refreshments for you and the gentlemen?"
"GET OUT!" Stepmother shrieked.
"No! Stay!" the Prince commanded. He then added, "Please."
Aschenputtel stood as if frozen on the spot, trembling and looking from Stepmother to the Prince, not sure whom she should obey.
"Your Highness," Stepmother said, quickly regaining her composure and making a deep curtsey. "I regret this unfortunate embarrassment and I assure you that this dirty scullion will be beaten to within...." She sputtered into silence when she saw the Prince, gazing at Aschenputtel, hold up his hand to her.
"I have met you before now," the Prince said to Aschenputtel.
Aschenputtel remembered to curtsey and said, "Yes, Your Highness. I stumbled in front of your horse on the day that you arrived in our village."
The Prince smiled. "Yes, I remember," he said. "And I have danced with you, haven't I?...at the Harvest Ball."
"Impossible!" Stepmother snarled.
"Yes, you did," Aschenputtel said. "You made that night the happiest of my life. I count it as a great blessing."
The Prince bowed and said, "The pleasure was mine. And now it will please me," he continued, holding out the shoe, "to return this to you. I presume that it is yours."
"I lost a shoe that night," Aschenputtel said, "one that looked very much like unto that one."
"Very well, then," the Prince said, "let us, as Monsieur Poisson is wont to say, put the hypothesis to the proof." He bent his knees to kneel.
"Your Highness!" Monsieur Poisson protested. "Surely you are not going to kneel before a mere serving girl!"
The Prince half turned and gave his tutor a quizzical look. "My own Lord and Savior knelt before the humble," he said. "Am I truly forbidden to follow His example?"
"Ummm, no," the tutor replied, flustered by the rebuke. "No, I suppose not."
The Prince turned back to face Aschenputtel and knelt before her. He raised one of his hands to take one of hers to steady her, then removed one of her sabots and slid the shoe onto its place. He thought for an instant that he felt the shoe itself wiggling to get onto her foot, but then he thought that it was merely the wiggling of her toes that he had felt. However the shoe got onto her foot, it fit perfectly. The Prince rose and took Aschenputtel's hand in both of his. "Now," he said, "I have a question and a blessing to ask of you."
"I will grant what I may offer," Aschenputtel said.
"First," the Prince said, "I would know your name."
"I am called Aschenputtel," she said.
"Truly?!" the Prince said, his eyes widening in astonishment. "Surely your parents did not give you such a name!"
"No, they didn't," Aschenputtel said, "but I have been called by this name for so long that I have quite forgotten my own."
Monsieur Poisson sniffed loudly. "If you are the tragic girl who fled this house several years ago," he said with a sidelong glance at Stepmother, "then your name is Ellanora."
"That name sounds familiar to me," Aschenputtel said, "but is it not my mother's name?"
Monsieur Poisson consulted the Registry and then closed it with a snap. "It is not," he said. "It is certainly yours."
"Well, then," the Prince said, "sweet Ellanora, now I ask of you a blessing. Will you come with me to stand before Our Most High Lord and celebrate with me the Sacrament of Matrimony?"
"Yes," Ellanora said. "Oh, yes, I will."
The crackle of snapping twigs filled the room and a flock of silvery-white sparks, like migrating birds, swirled around Ellanora. To his credit the Prince stood his ground and watched in amazement as the hissing, luminous haze enveloped his bride-to-be and then faded to reveal her dressed and coiffed as she had been at the Harvest Ball. Then, without a word exchanged between them, the Prince and Ellanora strode briskly to the Prince's carriage with a flabbergasted Monsieur Poisson hastening along behind them, leaving Stepmother and the Stepsisters to stare after them with their mouths hanging open.
The Prince's carriage turned onto the road to the village, heading for the Count's palace, but as it passed the little roadside shrine Ellanora cried out in horror for the coachman to stop. She leaped out of the carriage and cried out, "It's gone!", as she hurried up the low rise.
Indeed, only a stone bench and a headstone marking an undisturbed grave occupied the top of the rise. The large hazel tree that had stood on the spot for half a decade had vanished, though not without a trace: a dried-out, much-weathered branch lay across the grave.
"Thank you, Mama," Ellanora said when she saw the branch. "I love you and I will never forget you. Au revoir until we meet in Heaven." She crossed herself and went back to the carriage and to a somewhat bewildered Prince.
The Count needed a week to make the necessary preparations for the wedding, but at the end of that week the Prince and Ellanora were married in the village's church. The serving girls and housemaids whom Ellanora had befriended in the marketplace were her bridesmaids and the old priest who had ministered to her all her life performed the ceremony. Rain the previous night had washed the village clean, as if the forces of Nature had been commissioned to help with the wedding preparations, and the sun shone warm and bright on the wedding itself. All day and far into the night the villagers and guests invited from around the county enacted and then celebrated the pageantry in which the son of the kingdom's First House was united with, never to be separated from, the daughter of a humble vintner.
The newlyweds took their leave of the village the next day. Accompanied by the Prince's entourage, they rode their carriage on the road that led to the King's palace. As they left the village they passed a house that adjoined a walled yard.
For a very good reason that house and its yard were located on the edge of the village, on the side of town that was most often downwind from the rest of the village. At that moment Elaine and Yvonne were discovering that reason. Standing on the edge of a narrow cobblestone walk, they looked out across a puddle-dotted expanse of mud to a long trough and several families of pigs waiting by it to be fed. Each girl held two large buckets heaped full of garbage and neither seemed eager to set her bare feet into the muck that lay between her and the trough into which the garbage was meant to go.
"I am not walking through that," Elaine said.
A big ruddy-faced woman who had come quietly up behind them while they stood doing nothing lifted her foot, placed her boot against Elaine's sitting muscles, and shoved. Unable to drop her buckets fast enough to use her hands, Elaine fell face-first into the mud.
"If yuh don't wanna walk in it, yuh kin swim in it," the woman growled.
Shocked, Yvonne turned around and said indignantly, "You can't do that! We are related to royalty by marriage!"
The woman responded by putting a beefy hand on Yvonne's face and pushing, sending Yvonne sprawling onto her back next to Elaine. "When yer through with that load, come git more!" she said and then went back into the house.
"Well, of all the nerve!" Yvonne declared as she sat up and tried to brush mud off her back. "I believe that we should write to our dear sister and let her know what's going on here. After all, she has always helped us before."
Rolling halfway onto her side, Elaine scooped up a big gob of mud, held it up as if to contemplate it, and then shoved it into Yvonne's face, thereby precipitating a brawl so ugly that even the pigs recoiled in disgust.
So did Princess, later Queen, Ellanora live happily ever after? No, of course not: nobody does. But she gained so much happiness that she was able to bear the disappointments, ills, and tragedies that this world inflicts upon all who pass through it and she still had enough left over to create more happiness for others. And always she reaped more than she sowed. When the day came for her beloved husband to ascend to the Ętherial Court of his Lord and Master, someone told him that he had been acclaimed the greatest king in the history of the kingdom. He was able to resist the final call just long enough to say, "It was a blessing from my wife." And then the day came for her to lay down the burdens of the flesh and to seek her own fulfillment of the Ancient Promise. Then, and only then, could she begin to live happily ever after. On that day she came before the King of All Kings and, remembering her manners, made a deep curtsey, gracefully spreading her snowy-white wings as she did so.
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