After The Ball

Let me make one thing clear right from the start: there never was a fairy godmother. I’m sorry, it’s true. No kindly old woman with a magic wand. No pumpkin transformed into an elegant coach. No kitchen mice hocus-pocused into white horses. If I had moped around waiting for supernatural intervention, I would still be scrubbing floors in my stepmother’s house. No—the reason I am queen today is because I took matters entirely into my own hands, and now that my reign is drawing to a close, I wish to leave a truthful record behind. Yet as I sit in my tower on this star-filled night, a blank parchment before me, inked quill in hand, memory makes me pause…Perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.

I was ten when my father died and left me in the care of my stepmother Morgana. Until that time, Morgana had feigned affection for me and treated me as kindly as she did her own two daughters. But after dear Papa’s death, my lifestyle went downhill fast. You know the story: I was banished to the kitchen by day and the attic by night. My fine clothes were confiscated, my diet reduced to vegetables and coarse bread. From sunup to sunset, it was work, work, work.

“Cinderella! Dust the drapes, wash the dishes, scrub the floors!”

The minute Morgana saw me she barked commands. Then she would sweep away in her satin gown, her high pearl choker forcing up her chin like a horse in a bearing rein. My stepmother had always been what we term a handsome woman, strong boned and square jawed, but handsome quickly gave way to haughty, and with each passing day Morgana’s expression grew harsher and the prominent nose more beak-like. This phenomenon is well known—see Snow White’s doctoral dissertation, “The Physiognomy of the Wicked Stepmother,” for which I provided supporting data.

My stepsisters also did an about-face. Annabelle and Lucinda were fourteen and twelve, and though stupid girls, they had not previously been mean. Now, copying their mother, they made me their personal drudge. “Cinderella! Sew my dress, find my beads, fix my hair!”  Annabelle was the redhead, Lucinda the blonde, but since they soon became interchangeable you needn’t trouble to tell them apart. They preened before their mirrors and dreamed of snaring a charming prince.

So my happy life unraveled, and my childhood flew away. Yet despite the hard labor and poor fare, I grew tall, slender, and, as the storytellers say, exceedingly beautiful. I was ripe for a fairy tale, a maiden in distress. In one particular only did I fail to conform: I was practical. Have you ever heard of a fairy tale character possessing common sense? They may be clever, brave, lucky, sly. Practical, no. But as the only servant in a twenty-room country mansion, I had to be. Faced with endless sewing to make and remake my stepsisters’ gowns, I devised a new method of hemming that could be undone with a single pluck, thereby inventing the chain stitch. By doubling recipes and disguising leftovers with gravy, I cut my kitchen time by a third. Presoaking the laundry saved wear and tear on both my hands and the clothes. By my sixteenth birthday I had the household humming and took considerable pride in my work. But enough was enough. Having reached legal age, I sat down before the fireside one evening to consider my options, which were:

a) Wish upon a star

b) Marry a handsome prince

c) Find a magic lamp, ring, wand, sword, key, etc.

d) Wait for a fairy godmother

e) Consult a lawyer

H’mm, what’s a practical girl to do?

The next afternoon while Morgana and her daughters took their beauty naps—yes, that’s a joke—I set off for town to locate an attorney. Toby, the old stable hound, trotted at my heels. It was a long walk, and since Morgana had denied me use of the carriage I seldom made the trip. Now as Toby and I wound through the cobbled streets, my eye roved with dismay over the shops and houses, the civic monuments and public square.

“Really, Toby,” I exclaimed, “it makes you wonder who’s in charge here. Look at the peeling paint on the buildings, the litter in the street. With a little housekeeping, our town could be quaint and picturesque. Heaven knows what image this creates among foreign visitors.”

I scanned further, over the roofs of the town to the nobles’ mansions on the hill, and these, too, appeared in a general state of neglect. The few exceptions, I later learned, were all due to the elbow grease of mistreated stepdaughters like myself, and on becoming queen I naturally restored their inheritances. But meanwhile, the overall aspect did not inspire admiration or confidence.

“And why isn’t anyone setting an example up at the palace?” I asked Toby as my glance traveled to the royal residence at the summit of the hill. Even at a distance the once-white castle had a dingy, bedraggled look. The people around us were certainly well dressed—and several handsome young men cast looks my way—but no one seemed to apply similar effort or energy to their businesses or estates.

I turned down a lane and found a law office among the shops. A plump, flustered man in muttonchop whiskers, a pince-nez and a purple waistcoat welcomed me in. Beside the inkstand on his cluttered desk was a sign reading, “J.B. Worthington, Attorney-at-Law. Free Initial Consultation.”

I showed him the copy of my father’s will I had made from the original in Morgana’s bureau.

“I want my inheritance,” I explained.

“Oh, dear, dear, dear.” He blinked at the paper and shook his head. “I’m afraid not. This document leaves everything to your stepmother.”

“Only because I was a minor and my father expected her to treat me fairly. She hasn’t done that. I want to contest the will.”

“Oh, dear, dear, dear. I’m afraid it’s too late. Statute of limitations, you know.”

“Then I want to file a claim for six years of back wages.”

“Oh, dear, dear, dear. I’m afraid you can’t. You don’t have a union contract.”

“Then I want to bring a class-action suit on behalf of kitchen maids everywhere who have been exposed to unsafe working conditions at poorly ventilated hearths.”

“Oh, dear, dear, dear. I’m afraid—”

“What?” I leaped to my feet and slammed my fist on his desk so hard that the dust rose in a puff and the little man jumped.

“I’m afraid there’s no legal precedent. Class action suits won’t be invented for another two hundred years.”

I stormed out, Toby at my heels. “Did you ever hear of anything so ridiculous? And they call this the Age of Enlightenment!” I crumpled the will into a ball and tossed it into a bush, and Toby bounded after it in his favorite game of fetch.

When we arrived back at my father’s estate, a royal messenger was at the door, dismounting from his horse. He bowed, handed me a scroll, and requested me to deliver it to the lady of the house. Still grumbling, I took the paper up to Morgana with her four o’clock tea. She opened the royal missive and raised a cry.

“Annabelle! Lucinda! There’s to be a ball at the palace, and all the girls in the kingdom must appear. The prince will choose a bride!”

My stepsisters dissolved into squeals. Unnoticed, I lingered in the doorway to catch the details. I remembered my mother’s gowns, stored in the attic in chests, and the admiring looks I’d earned from the young men in town. Thoughtfully, I made my way downstairs.

“Toby,” I said, as the old dog rose from the fireside to greet me. “It’s time for Plan B.”

For the next two weeks Annabelle and Lucinda were in a positive frenzy, trying on each of their dresses no less than twelve times and fighting over feathers and gloves. For a few dramatic days it seemed Annabelle might not make it to the big event at all. Plagued with toothache from too many sweets, she lay in bed moaning, and only the thought of Lucinda usurping her place at the prince’s side inspired her to rally and begin selecting her jewels.

Meanwhile I sewed furtively in the attic, and no, I did not make clothes for the mice. The dress I had chosen was a soft white silk beaded with seed pearls, the style twenty years out of date, and at first I contemplated drastic alterations. But when I tried it on, it was so feminine and alluring, unlike the stiff bodices and starched ruffles then in vogue, that I quickly changed my mind. After all, I reasoned, how will I get the prince to notice me if I’m merely a copy of every other lady at the ball? I must emphasize my differences, set myself apart from the crowd. Years later, this strategy came to be known in marketing as the “unique selling proposition,” and I received several medals of honor for applying it to our tourism industry. Thus, the only changes I made to the gown were a few tucks for better fit and to lower the neckline. A little cleavage never hurts.

Morgana had appropriated most of my mother’s jewels, but in another trunk I discovered an overlooked tiara. Shoes, however, posed a problem. I had no ball slippers, no money to buy them and could find none in the chests. When I sneaked into my stepsisters’ closets, their footwear proved much too large. My old clogs would have to do. I let down the hem of my gown another inch and prayed my shabby shoes would stay covered.

Finally, the night of the ball arrived.

“Pity you can’t go, Cinderella,” my stepsisters sneered, their faces indistinguishable under a fashionable mask of powder and rouge. “But you didn’t finish your work in time.”

“Oh, boo hoo hoo,” I cried.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” said Morgana smugly. She pulled on her gloves and beckoned Annabelle and Lucinda to their waiting coach.

“Ha!” I said, throwing down my handkerchief the minute they were gone. I dashed to the attic and donned my dress, then hurried to my stepsisters’ rooms for makeup. Sparingly—in keeping with my plan to be different, I passed over the chalky powders and used only a coral lipstick and a dusting of pink on my cheeks. Similarly, I passed up the powdered wigs on the dressing table and let my honey-brown hair tumble free. I set the tiara on my head and faced the glass.

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Am I fairest of them all?”

For a moment, my heart swelled with hope. Let there be an answer, I prayed, just one token of magic on this fateful night. But the glass stayed silent, reflecting only a very pretty, very practical girl.

“Nuts to you,” I said, rising, as the clock struck eight. “I’ll do it myself.”

I took a scarlet cloak from Annabelle’s closet and hurried down the stairs. In the courtyard Toby got to his feet and trotted after me.

“Good dog,” I said, glad of his company. The sun had just set, and soon the roads would be dark. A wet mist was creeping in. Skirts lifted, I struck out for the palace in my clogs, undaunted by the five-mile hike. Thanks to my years of physical labor and my low-cal, high-fiber diet, I was up to the task. In fact, when I became queen, my penchant for physical fitness and vegetarian meals was much copied, contributing greatly to the health of our people.

But even without a midnight deadline, time was my enemy. Suppose the prince, rumored to be an impressionable young man, got carried away by the occasion and fell for the first virgin to bat her eyelashes? That scenario seemed only too likely, and as Toby and I reached the town and I surveyed the long climb still ahead, I began to fret. Please, you must wait until I arrive, I pleaded, clumping across the cobbles and nearly turning my ankle in my haste. A light rain began to fall, and I pulled the hood of my cloak closer about my face, trying to protect my tiara and preserve my curls. As we passed the closed shops and town square, the rain increased, but surely our progress would improve when we reached the avenue that wound up the royal hill. Instead, where the cobbles left off only a dirt road took its place, and puddles were already collecting in the potholes.

“Oh, this is terrible,” I wailed as I bunched my skirt higher to escape the mud. “What shall I do?” By now the rain was beating steadily, the water soaking through the cloak to my hair and gown. “My makeup’s washing off, too,” I cried, as the drops pattered against my face. “Oh, where is a fairy godmother when you need one?”

I struggled on, taking what cover I could beneath the eaves of the nobles’ mansions, heart pounding each time one of my clogs sank into the mud. Here and there in the great houses,  kitchen lights glowed, and I shivered with longing for my own warm hearth. Perhaps I should be content with my everyday life—but the very thought spurred me on.

“No!” I cried. “I won’t settle for less. I want a happily-ever-after filled with roses and champagne.” Rain streamed down my face as I raised my fist to the sky. “As God is my witness, I’ll never scrub floors again!”

At last, drenched and bedraggled, I reached the palace gates. They were open and unguarded, and I crossed into the courtyard. The rain had eased, and I gazed with awe upon the scene before me: a splendid fountain spraying into the air, a wide staircase rising majestically to enormous gilded doors, the castle tall and proud crowned with turrets and spires. The darkness obscured all the dirt and flaws, and though my head knew it was not the magical place it seemed, my heart yearned to be inside where lamps blazed and an orchestra played and beautiful people bowed and danced. I hurried to the grand staircase and saw at the top two bewigged footmen. In my sodden state, how would I ever get past them? Toby regarded me mournfully, the same question in his eyes.

I took off my mud-stained clogs. “Toby,” I bent and offered him the shoes to sniff, “want to play?” He panted eagerly, his old legs barely clearing the ground in stiff jumps. “Then, fetch!” I heaved the clogs into the bushes with all my might.

“Arf, arf!” In full cry Toby bounded into the shrubbery, scrabbling this way and that to penetrate the growth. His barks grew loud and frantic, the bushes shook. As the footmen rushed to peer over the steps, I hid behind a tree. The instant they hurried down, I dashed up, my bare feet slapping on the wet stone. Straight into the ballroom I ran, sighting the prince in his military uniform at the far side. Gasps and shrieks rose around me, and the crowd shrank back. I glimpsed Morgana and my stepsisters, their faces contorted in recognition and rage. Meanwhile, the prince started bravely forward to meet the danger head on. I ran toward him, and at the last minute my wet feet slipped on the marble floor and I cast myself into his arms.

“Oh, save me, Your Highness!” I cried, and then, overcome with chill and fright, I did a totally impractical thing—I swooned. But even as I fainted, excited whispers reached my ears.

“Who is she?”

“How did she get here?”

“She has a tiara! She’s a princess!”

“She is my princess,” declared the prince, “and this is surely magic!” And carrying me to the throne, he brought me cup of hot cocoa and knelt adoringly at my feet.

*****

Looking back, I chuckle to recall how the component parts of my fairy tale came together. The glass slipper item began that very night. It was started by the wallflowers at the ball, who, peeping eagerly for a view above the rows of powdered wigs and unable to conceive of a lady appearing barefoot, imagined they saw dainty crystal shoes in place of my cold toes. When I tried to correct this impression, another half-truth inserted itself. Instead of losing my clogs en route to the ball, I had now lost one of my glass slippers, and a nationwide search was instituted to find it. No one ever did, of course, so the prince bought me a new pair for our first wedding anniversary. They are enshrined in a glass case in the castle’s reception hall today.

My method of conveyance to the ball also raised a considerable mystery. The footmen swore I had not arrived by coach, and since in those days neither ladies nor gentlemen walked farther than a turn in their garden, my transportation could only have been supernatural. Toby, flushed from the bushes along with several mice, was initially viewed with some suspicion as a sorcerer. But considering the felicitous outcome, he was soon reinstated as an ordinary dog, transformed for the evening into a coachman, while the mice earned supporting roles as white horses. The pumpkin carriage was simply a tall tale of the palace cook to amuse her children.

Of course, every fairy tale must have its villain, and Morgana and the wicked stepsisters were already in place. I’m told that as I lay in a faint in the prince’s arms they charged forward snarling and screeching and had to be restrained by the palace guards. Since a delicate princess alone could hardly outwit such an unholy trio, a beneficent agent was required to balance the scales. Angels, cupids and virgin saints were all proposed and debated. Finally the queen mother, a rather befuddled old lady, solemnly declared it must be a fairy godmother, and the explanation was happily seized upon as the most convenient way of tying up the plot threads.

As for the prince, it seems he had been pining for the chance to rescue a lady in distress, and presented with this golden opportunity, he rose magnificently to his part. Personally, I believe the deciding factor was the daring cut of my neckline as I lay draped in his arms. In any case, no sooner had I finished my cocoa than he proposed and I accepted. We were married soon after, and I never did scrub another floor.

But I have worked sixty-hour weeks for the past fifty years. You see, I awoke the morning after my wedding to find myself queen of a country even smaller than Liechtenstein, suffering from years of mismanagement and economic decline, losing our ablest young people in a brain drain to more prosperous kingdoms. Since no one in the palace seemed to have the slightest idea how to rectify the situation, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work.

To restructure the palace housekeeping and boost the servants’ morale, I instituted flex-time, job sharing and an on-site daycare center. I set quality control standards and checked the results myself—I was the original Inspector 29. I also took bids and hired a contractor, decorator and landscaper to restore the building and grounds. As the palace began to return to its former glory, I established a Continuous Quality Improvement program to ensure our performance never slipped. A woman’s castle, as they say, is her home.

The nobles, merchants and townspeople all rushed to copy my example. To assist them I created a historical preservation society complete with architectural consultants and a program of matching grants. On the business front, I established a chamber of commerce and a tourism bureau and used a unique selling proposition to tout our charming country. “Vacation in the Fairy Tale Kingdom” is still our slogan today, and it’s true that all a visitor will see is happy faces. Why not? Thanks to my efforts, we enjoy a favorable trade balance, full employment for all our citizens, and an enviable five-star rating in the Michelin Guide.

But sooner or later, all fairy tales must end. The king passed away some years ago, handsome and charming to the last, and our children and grandchildren are well equipped to carry on. Now I’m off for an extended vacation with perhaps a little management consulting and photojournalism thrown in. Yet as I sit here in my tower on this star-filled night, preparing to write the truth, I realize there was a fairy godmother in this story after all. It’s me, for who else is at the root of all this magic? And thus I set aside my quill, leaving the parchment blank. Like a good fairy godmother whose work is done, I shall exit gracefully—a puff of smoke, if you please—and  preserve the enchantment for those to come.

Did I live happily ever after? I’m not sure. But I did live usefully ever after, and perhaps that is as close to happiness as one gets.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1994)

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