When my book of folktales, Deas and Other Imaginings, was published, a few stories didn’t make it in, either because they seemed different from the rest or were written right after it went to press. They have been sitting in a folder on my computer ever since, and I decided to share them here. If you have kids or grandkids of the right age or simply love children’s stories like I do, enjoy.
THE PRINCESS SISTERS
By Valerie Tarico
Once, two princess sisters named Ella and Wren went looking for their mother. They found her in the kitchen making cookies that smelled of anise and looked like lace. “We want to have a fairy tale written about us,” said Ella. “Like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.”
Their mother looked at the frog costumes they were wearing and thought about it while she poured them each a glass of cold milk. “Well,” she said, “You are princesses, after all. Why don’t you go and talk to the scribe?”
So they took off their costumes, scrubbed their faces and climbed up to the third office on the twenty-eighth floor of the southwest tower and knocked on the door of the palace scribe.
“Come in,” said a big solemn voice. The scribe was a big solemn man. He sat at a wide dark desk, surrounded by shelves of dark books, histories he had recorded. The princesses told him what they wanted.
“A fairy tale,” he repeated. “Like all those others.”
“Yes,” they said. “We are princesses, after all.”
“And whose idea was this?”
“It was mine,” said Ella. “But we both like it.” Her sister nodded.
The scribe frowned. “But this is all wrong,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well for one thing, you two are not dressed properly. You,” he nodded at Ella. “you could be mistaken for a page.” She looked down in dismay at her wooly grey sweater and leggings. “And you.” he tipped his head at Wren. “You aren’t nearly fancy enough. That dress needs petticoats and lace. It needs to be longer. And how about some shoes, maybe satin, with pointy toes and pearl buttons? Who ever heard of a barefoot princess!”
Wren hung her head and shifted uncomfortably. Usually she liked her feet bare, so she could feel the rough stones in the courtyard and the smooth stones in the hall and the scratchy-soft wool of rugs and the cool dampness of grass. But now bare feet didn’t seem so good.
“Go away,” said the scribe. “Come back and talk to me when your clothes are fit for a fairy tale.” The princesses left disappointed.
Still, they really wanted to be in a fairy tale. So they found their mother and they told her they needed real princess clothes. Their mother seemed doubtful, but she bought them dresses fit for fairy tales. They helped each other button buttons and lace laces and fasten necklaces, and then they hobbled back up the stairs in their pointy satin shoes and knocked on the door of the scribe’s office.
“You again,” said the scribe. “Back so soon.”
“Yes,” said the sisters. “Look, now we have real princess clothes.” They tried to stand straight and tall. Wren shifted slightly from foot to foot because the shoes were pinching after climbing all those flights of stairs. And Ella couldn’t resist scratching the back of her leg where her stiff petticoats were making her itch.
The scribe looked them over carefully. He scowled, and the scratching stopped. The sisters waited hopefully. But he shook his head. “Look at that hair!” he said. “You call yourself princesses?!” Ella had curly black hair that clung around her face, and Wren had soft mouse-brown hair bobbed at her cheeks. Both were slightly damp with sweat from climbing so high in so many clothes.
“What?” said Ella.
“To be in a fairy tale, a princess must have long hair. Don’t you have picture books? Jewels would fall right out of those little nubs of yours.” Wren had always liked the fact that tangles fell right out, too. And Ella liked the way that her hair looked pretty much the same after she took off her magician hat, or her witch wig, or her hood with furry rabbit ears. But he did have a point. The princesses in their books had long flowing tendrils of raven or auburn or golden hair. They went away sadly, because growing hair takes a long time.
But they were determined. They cancelled their next appointment with the court barber, and the one after that, and the one after that. They learned to make French braids tight so they wouldn’t come out, and how to pile their hair high in fancy formations, and how to keep from whimpering much when their mother tugged out the snarls. It took years. Finally, they decided they were ready.
They spent the night sleeping with their hair twined around lumpy rags, and they spent the morning weaving in ribbons and jewels, and they went to see the scribe.
“Ah,” he said. “I see you are back.” They both stood quite still this time, for they were much more experienced at ignoring pinches and itches.
The scribe looked them over from toe to head. The princesses held their breath.
“Who made those braids?” asked the scribe at last.
“My sister did,” said Wren proudly. “I mean she made mine and I made hers. We helped each other.”
“Ah ha!” said the scribe. “There is the problem.” The princesses looked at each other in confusion. “First, you came together. One of you had an idea and the other liked it. Now you are helping each other with your hair. In a fairy tale, that just doesn’t work. A fairy tale princess can’t like her sister. A princess must be the center of her story; there isn’t room for two. If she has a sister, her sister must be wicked and cruel.”
The sisters looked at each other again. “But we do like each other,” said Wren. “I mean, not all the time, but usually. My sister has good ideas. She is hardly ever wicked.”
“That will never do,” said the scribe. “Never. Not for a fairy tale. You must have one princess who is sweet and beloved of all, and one who is haughty or jealous or cruel. And ugly.”
“But we don’t want to have it that way,” said the princesses.
“Look,” said the scribe. “If you want to be in a fairy tale, this is how it has to work.”
“You have to be mean,” he said to Ella. “and get her to do your work. She needs to be sweet and helpful and innocent and steal your boyfriend.”
“I don’t like this,” said Ella.
“That is the script,” said the scribe. “Take it or leave it. The elder sister has to be mean and the younger has to get the prince. You decide if you want fairy tale lives or not.”
“But I don’t even have a boyfriend,” Ella said. She had never really wanted one.
“Sorry,” he said. “You’ll have to find one. That is what a princess lives for. To be swept off her feet. That is the point of her existence.”
She was thinking right then that she wouldn’t mind getting off her feet. The stairs and the pointy shoes really were a bad combination. But she tried one more time. “I don’t know any princes,” she said.
“He doesn’t really have to be a prince,” he said. “If you read the old stories carefully, he can be a brave commoner, or a beast or a simpleton. There are lots of options. Not very many men are princes, nor do they want to be. But a great many are looking for a princess.”
Ella began to cry. Wren felt in the side of her dress and handed her a handkerchief. Even in her fancy princess dresses, she hadn’t been able to give up pockets. Their mother opened the seams and sewed them in. She wished she could give her sister one of the chocolates in the other pocket, but she caught the scribe eyeing her, and she didn’t dare.
The two princesses turned to go. But Wren stopped and looked back at the scribe. “I don’t see how my sister could ever be ugly,” she said defiantly.
“Oh,” said the scribe. “That part will take care of itself, if you can take care of everything else.” But he was talking to himself, for the sisters had fled down the hall.
“Let’s not do this,” said Wren on the stairs. “I don’t want to live in a fairy tale and I don’t care if he ever writes anything. I don’t want you to be mean to me, and I don’t want any old boyfriend.”
“Shut up!” said her sister. “We have been working on this for a long time, and we are going to be in a fairy tale.” She felt crushed and sullen and mostly wanted to be by herself. They fought all the way down the stairs.
When the sisters went back to the scribe, their hair was piled high on their heads. It had been put there by the court beautician, who had worked on it half the day. It pulled more than ever. But it suited their organdy dresses, and the diamond-studded ribbons in their braids matched their glittering necklaces and the buttons on their shoes. They were on their way to a cotillion ball. Ella looked sour.
“There!” she said, glaring at the scribe. “We have done everything you said. My prissy little sister says I pick on her all the time. When she is not putting away our things or bringing me tea, or sewing jewels onto my new ribbons, she is sneaking off with that boy who used to be my friend.
“No matter what I do you are nasty!” said Wren. “It’s not my fault that no one likes you. You are snobby and mean.”
“Well maybe you would be snobby and mean too if you were as ugly as I am,” snarled Ella. “Everyone thinks you are so charming and cute!”
The scribe and Wren stared at her. Sure enough, she looked quite ugly, despite all of her finery. She glowered at both of them and then turned to the scribe. “I hope you have what you need!” she snapped, and, whirling around, she stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
“Is this over?” Wren asked the scribe. “Can we write this fairy tale now?”
“Do you really like the young man?” asked the scribe.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “I think about him constantly. He is my one escape from this awful place. We talk about running away together to some place across the sea where he says he will buy me a castle.”
“And does everybody else love you, the commoners, I mean?”
“Oh, yes,” said the princess. “They think I’m delightful. People recognize me on the streets and little girls ask if they can touch my dresses. Of course, I don’t go out in public much, because it is such a nuisance. Is that it? Are we done?”
“Well,” said the scribe. “There is one more problem; I hate to mention it.”
“What is that?”
“Your mother. She always seemed, ahem, loving. She helped you both . . . I know you had pockets in your princess dresses. That is not how it is in fairy tales. A loving mother needs to die young or . . .”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Wren. “She has turned into a complete witch and has long since given up on trying to make peace between my sister and me. She says she can’t stand to be around either one of us.”
“Perfect,” said the scribe. “I hated to ask, you know, but it was the final detail. A fairy tale must have its details in order. Yes, yes. I can write your book.”
“I see a problem,” said Wren.
“What is that?”
“It is the fact that we are all perfectly miserable.”
“Oh,” said the scribe. “That is OK. If you look closely at the fairy tales, you will find that the endings don’t have a lot of detail. There is room for great variation within the standard fairy tale ending. I’m sure yours will fit in nicely with the others.”
And they all lived happily ever after.
Wren walked out the door of the scribe’s office. As she started down the stairs, the pinching of her pointy shoes on her swollen feet felt unbearable. “Ever after,” she muttered to herself, looking down at her miserable feet. Abruptly she bent over and yanked off the shoes and heaved them through an open window.
Ella was sitting on the landing three stories down, crying angrily, when something went whizzing past the window, startling her to the point that she forgot why she was so upset. She stared as an organdy dress, stiff petticoats, stockings, a necklace and a diamond tiara sailed by.
Then Wren came padding down the stairs in her bare feet, dressed only in her underwear, which looked something like cotton pajamas. Her hair, half unpinned, was sticking out every which way. Ella blinked, then started laughing, a big out-of-control laugh that was quite different from the small mean one she had practiced in recent years. “You look very silly,” she said, when she could catch her breath.
“And you look beautiful when you laugh,” said Wren.
“Help me!” said Ella. Together they pulled off her satin shoes, and her layers of dress and slip, and the pins and ribbons and jewels in her hair. All went out the window.
“Here,” said Wren. “I saved these from my pocket before I tossed my dress.” She handed her sister a squashed piece of caramel fudge wrapped in paper, then opened one for herself. They plunked down on the landing and ate the fudge and licked their fingers clean. Then they raced down the stairs whooping loudly.
When the coachman came calling to take them to the ball, their mother found them together in the kitchen in their underwear, baking cookies that smelled of anise and looked like lace.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.