This isn’t a short short, but it is a favourite of mine. I don’t remember the contest it was written for, but it wasn’t a twisted fairy tale. I have a number of fairy tales twisted in a variety of ways. Some dark enough to make people worry about me.
Cindy dug the shovel into the large pile of manure left behind by Cleopatra. The strong odour of the manure surrounded her and she breathed it in. Her sisters, step-sisters actually, could hardly stand to enter the barn, never mind help to clean it. Cindy loved the barn. It was her refuge from the annoyances of life in the manor house. She dumped the shovel load into the wheelbarrow and dug in for another load. It was truly astonishing how much one rather elderly cow could produce, both milk and manure. To Cindy’s mind they were of equal importance. The milk paid for the day to day expenses of the manor while the manure went to fertilize the garden patch that would feed them through the winter.
It took several trips to the garden to bring Cleopatra’s contribution to the garden and properly dig it in around the vegetables, especially the large pumpkin. She was hoping to enter it in the fair. Cindy could have made just the one trip, but her step-mother didn’t think it proper for her to sling the wheelbarrow around like a common farm hand. Besides it took longer this way.
Yet no matter how much she dawdled over the work, the work got done and she had to put away the tools and go back up to the house.
“Cindy,” Anatolia looked up from where she lounged on the couch. “When’s supper? I am famished.”
“I will start it immediately,” Cindy said.
“Cindy,” Zetta wrinkled her nose, “You stink, I will simply not eat anything you cook before you wash.”
“But I’ll die if I don’t eat soon.” Anatolia rubbed her generous stomach.
“I doubt that very much,” the girls’ mother said, “Cindy go wash. You must learn to be more careful. A lady doesn’t reek of the barn.”
Cindy guessed she wasn’t much of a lady then, since she usually reeked of the barn. She knew better than to say anything. Her step-mother wasn’t too lady-like to wield a rod to chastise Cindy. Not that Cindy liked stinking to high heaven, but she saw it as an inescapable result of her efforts to feed the family.
Her family, such as it was, was otherwise completely incapable of caring for themselves. Her father had been a successful and comfortable farmer. When he died, his second wife and her daughters discovered that it took a great deal of work to be successful farmers. Work that they were completely unwilling to put in. The farm was sold off piece meal until only the large ‘manor’ house and barn remained with just enough land to plant a garden.
She would have liked to have soaked properly, but the threat of Anatolia’s complaints drove her out the water. She dried off quickly and put her cooking dress on. It was an older mode with tighter sleeves unlikely to catch fire from the old stove.
Cindy didn’t like the kitchen as much as the barn. She didn’t mind cooking but there were constant interruptions.
“Is there something I can eat while I wait?” Anatolia asked as she shuffled through the narrow door. Another year and she wouldn’t fit.
“There are some peeled carrots on the table,” Cindy pounded on the tough meat to tenderize it enough to meet her step-mother’s exacting standards.
“I don’t want carrots,” Anatolia whined, “Don’t you have any sweets?”
“No,” Cindy said, “You know your mother has banned sweets.”
“And with good reason,” Zetta walked in a sniffed to check on Cindy’s level of cleanliness., “if you get any bigger you won’t fit your dresses and Mother doesn’t want to take them out again.”
Anatolia picked up a carrot and heaved a great sigh. She sidled back out of the kitchen.
“Make sure you cut all the fat off my meat,” Zetta said. “You missed some last night.” She followed her sister out of the kitchen.
Cindy had no idea what they did with themselves through the day. They never seemed to be very far apart. Her step-mother spent her days plotting how to restore the fallen fortunes of the farm without actually going so far as to do any work. Cindy was content with the way things were. She couldn’t manage a large farm by herself. Right now she was just able to keep the balance between being busy and being able to finish her work.
She supposed some people would be upset by the demands of her step-family. But Cindy would be doing all the work anyway. After changing her dress for dinner and eating with the others she did the dishes. The last thing she did every night was milk Cleopatra.
It was dim in the barn and the old cow mooed a welcome to Cindy. She set the stool beside the cow and set the bucket in place. Cindy marvelled that this last remaining cow continued to give milk in generous amounts. When the milking was done she put the milk in the cool urn, then spent some time brushing Cleopatra. Then put down fresh straw for the cow and fill the manger with hay and the trough with clean water.
Cindy took one last breath of the barn air redolent with smell of everything she loved, then closed up the doors and went off to bed.
She woke to the sound of the birds singing outside her window.
“Dratted birds,” she mumbled as she put on her barn clothes and went out to milk Cleopatra. She patted the old cow and went through the chores. After breakfast her step-mother sent her into town to buy a couple of things.
“I have work to do,” Cindy said.
“If I send Zetta, she will complain bitterly,” her step-mother said, “then come back with all the wrong things to punish me. Anatolia would just spend the money on sweets. Get on with you.” She put the few coins into Cindy’s hand. “You will take far too long with all your talking to people, but I know you will buy what I tell you.
So instead of working in the garden, Cindy put on her nice dress and walked into town. She didn’t mind much. She hadn’t seen her friends in a while.
“Morning, John,” she said to the dairyman, “Mother wants a cheese. You can deliver it to the house later.”
“Certainly, Cindy,” John said, “I’ll be going by that way later.”
She wandered through town picking up the few things on the list from the merchants. She greeted each one by name and they treated her well though she was only spending a few pennies. In the centre of town there was a crowd gathered by a poster. Those who could read were standing near the poster and announcing its contents to everyone else.
“Hey Cindy,” called one, “You going to the ball?”
“Do I look like I’m going to a ball?” Cindy said, “I doubt the Prince even knows I exists.”
“Says here that all eligible maids are to attend the ball.”
“Well then,” Cindy looked at herself, “I don’t look much like a maid.”
The crowd laughed and Cindy waved and headed off home.
The exchange unsettled her. She enjoyed the farming, but was it what she wanted for the rest of her life? She imagined herself married to one of Bill’s older brothers. They had a whole herd of milk cows and chickens too. She would be doing chores from dawn to dusk. She didn’t mind the work, but there would be nothing else. She thought of Bill’s mother’s eulogy last year was summed up in five words. “She was a hard worker.” Cindy found herself imagining what she would wear to the ball.
The prince stalked through the halls of the palace hoping that some servant would be foolish enough to get in his way; maybe that pert new servant girl from his mother’s wing of the palace. Imagining her heart-shaped face cowed with fear made him smile. He shook his head angrily. No smiles. The prince was a person to be feared today. No one feared someone prancing about with a silly grin on their face.
Reluctantly he pushed the thought of the girl out of his head and reflected on the recent conversation with his father, the King.
“So Father,” the prince had said, “Now that I’m twenty-one, are you going to make me your heir?”
“Humph,” The King glowered at him and tapped his fingers on the arms of his chair. “You’re too wild right now. You need to settle down and start producing heirs.”
“You make me sound like some bull at one of those tiresome fairs.”
The King looked the prince over and grunted, his fingers struck the wood like hammers..
“Those bulls have value,” he said finally, “all you do is cause trouble. I wanted to find you a nice princess, but you’ve scared them all away with your antics. So you will have to find someone from around here.”
“The only women around her are farmers and servants!”
“You don’t seem to find servants unattractive,” the King said, “In fact your constant attraction to them is costing the kingdom a fortune. At least a farmer would be able to explain the finer points of a prize bull.”
The prince swelled up to unleash his rage, but his father raised his hand.
“If you won’t choose a wife, then I will choose one for you. Be sure that I will have the future needs of the kingdom in mind.” The prince imagined the bride his father would select for him, some sturdy woman with a strong constitution and no grace. He shuddered.
“I am throwing a ball,” The King put his hand down and ran his hand across the arm of his chair. “for all the maids in the kingdom. You will choose one to be your wife. When your heir is apparent, I will consider making you my formal heir.”
The prince left the room very carefully not slamming the door. The King was not someone to be trifled with. As soon as he rounded the corner out of King’s quarters he let his boots slam into the stone floor and twisted his face into a scowl. He was no prize bull to be set out to stud! Though to be honest, he had…collected quite a herd. He leaned against the wall and went through their faces in his mind.
Cindy made it back home and took the small bag of purchases into the house. She discovered her step-mother running her hands over two bolts of fine cloth.
“What did you sell this time?” Cindy asked. “I know we didn’t have the money for that.”
“Don’t be impertinent,” her step-mother’s eyes took on the glare which preceded a beating., “Someone must look out for the welfare of this family.”
Cindy went looking through the house trying to think of what was missing that would have paid for that cloth.
“Well, at least she won’t always smell of the barn.” She heard Zetta say.
“But I’ll miss the fresh cream,” Anatolia said.
“Cleopatra!” Cindy ran out to the barn. Sure enough, the old cow’s stall was empty. She stormed back into the house and interrupted her step-mother measuring the cloth against her step-sisters.
“How could you?” Cindy said, “Cleopatra’s milk was the only thing keeping us from starving.”
“With a daughter married to the prince, I won’t have to worry about starving.”
“Every girl in the kingdom will be at that ball!”
“Which is why I had to buy the fabric; I need to give my daughters an edge.”
“You could at least have bought colours that would suit them,” Cindy said and ran up to her room.
She refused to come out to cook or clean. Her step-mother gave up on her and even went as far as to wedge the door closed with a chair. Anatolia came and begged her to cook. Zetta came to sneer and complain. Cindy ignored them all. She pulled out an old dress of her mother’s that had hung in the back of her closet for as long as she could remember. It used to smell of her mother, now it just smelled musty.
Cindy aired the dress out and tried it on. It was loose in some places and tight in others, yet fit surprisingly well. She spent some time altering it as best she could while she tried not to hear the steady tramp of feet in and out of the house. They would never be able to pay for all this fuss. Her step-mother was going to put them out on the street. There wasn’t much left to sell.
The day of the ball came and Cindy carefully rolled the dress up and fit it into a pillow case. She held the case as she climbed down the trellis outside her window. The only place she could think to change was the barn. She put on the dress and tried her best to tidy herself.
“Well it’s good to see that you can make yourself presentable,” her step-mother said as she walked into the barn, “but there’s no need for you to go to the ball. You have a fiancé already.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Farmer Jones needs a new wife. He’s had his eye on this farm for a while. Since you like farming so much, it is a perfect match. He doesn’t care about this ball since he only has sons.”
“Farmer Jones is old enough to be my father! I won’t marry him.”
“You may not like me, but I am your mother and you will do what I say.”
“I won’t,” Cindy tried to run past her step-mother, but the older woman was faster and stronger than the she expected. She caught Cindy’s arm in an iron grip and pulled her close.
“You will do what I say, girl, or some sad accident will befall you. I did it before; I can do it again.” She pushed Cindy back into the barn and slammed the door closed. The bar outside dropped with a bang. All the other doors would be barred too and there was no trellis to climb down.
She felt like she was going to burst. She kicked and pounded on the door, but though it was old it was still all too solid. The sound of horses pulling a carriage came through the door and she collapsed into tears. This really was it. There was no escape from her future life as Bill’s step-mother. She was younger than he was! If it had been someone else it might have been funny.
The barn was very silent without Cleopatra in it. Cindy sighed and leaned against the door. It was going to be a long night.
She wasn’t sure how long she had sat, huddled against the door before she noticed a strange light coming from Cleopatra’s stall. Cindy got up to investigate. She walked to the stall and peeked around the door. Busily cleaning the stall with a tiny broom was a women who didn’t stand as tall as Cindy’s waist.
“Well come in, dear,” the woman said. “It isn’t polite to stare.”
Cindy reluctantly walked into the stall. Somehow as she entered it, the cramped space grew larger and she found herself eyeball to eyeball with the strange woman.
“Don’t fret about it,” the woman said, “It will just give you wrinkles.” She waved her hand and a ball of light floated up above them. “Now, let me get a good look at you.” She made spinning motions with her hand and Cindy slowly turned around.
“I know that dress has sentimental value, but it just won’t do.” She waved her hand again and the sudden weight of a beautiful gown draped from Cindy’s shoulders. She struggled to breathe.
“Small breaths, dear, a corset takes some getting used to, but you’ll be fine.”
She made the spinning motion with her hand again and Cindy turned again.
“Better, better.” She waved her hand and Cindy’s hair crawled and tugged until she thought it would pull right out.
Finally it stopped and she lifted her hand to feel.
“Ah, ah,” the woman said, “don’t fuss.” She led the way out into the barnyard. The moon was just rising and gave the place a magical glow. The woman walked over to the garden and peered at the pumpkin.
“This will do fine.”
“But that’s going to be my prize pumpkin.”
“Listen, Cindy, I promised your mother to look after you, not to rescue you from your own stupidity. You can either go to the ball and marry the prince; or you can stay here, grow prize pumpkins and marry Farmer Jones.”
Cindy shuddered and turned away from the garden. The woman waved her hand and the pumpkin exploded into a fine coach. Two unwary rabbits became horses to draw the coach, another became a driver.
“Here are the rules, child,” the woman was taller than Cindy now, “You have until midnight to capture the prince; no later, not one second after midnight. At the fading of the last stroke of midnight the spell will end. Don’t worry about leaving early; I’ve given you a little advantage. The poor boy won’t be able to resist you. Just leave before the last stroke of midnight and you become the next princess. Stay any later and I won’t be responsible for what happens.” She smiled brightly. “But I know you will follow the rules. Now get your pretty glass slippers into the carriage and go.”
Cindy climbed into the pumpkin carriage and the rabbit horses dashed away. She pulled up to the palace much sooner than she expected. More magic probably. She wondered briefly about how her mother might have met such a strange person, but she didn’t have time to dwell on it. The guards helped her out of the carriage and sent it off.
“I’m supposed to leave at midnight,” she said.
“That’s your driver’s problem,” the guard said and pointed into the palace.
Cindy walked through the hallways in a daze. Torches lit the way and highlight gold framed portraits and marble sculptures. Her glass slippers clinked faintly on the stone. What would it be like to live here? She finally arrived at the doors to the ballroom. Bill stood by the door pulling at the neck of his uniform. His eyes widened when he saw Cindy.
“You look good.”
“And that’s a surprise?”
“No I mean you always look nice, but now you look like a princess.”
“All the better to catch a prince.”
“I’m not sure he’s that much of a catch,” Bill whispered. “Most of the girls here are terrified of him.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“My father is getting married again, probably to some widow who will do nothing but complain about how the place is run. My brothers are farmers, but I want something different. This is the first step.”
“So some glowing lady came and offered you the chance to change your life?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing, never mind.” Cindy took a deep breath. “You’d better open those doors and let me in. By the way, I’m supposed to leave at midnight. Let me know when it gets close.”
“Sure thing, Cindy.” Bill threw the doors open and Cindy walked into the ballroom.
The room looked like something out of a fairy tale. The walls were draped with fine cloth, a long table groaned beneath the weight of more food than Cindy’s farm grew in a year. Musicians on a balcony played a sprightly tune. Though the floor had been polished to a mirror-like shine, the glass slippers gripped it comfortably. In this setting magic was easy to believe in.
Then she noticed the reek of desperation. The huge room was filled with young women who wore grim faces and glared at each other, while they shot fear filled glances at the prince. He was dressed in white and was surrounded by other men in shades of grey and black. They danced with young women while the prince lounged on the throne that had been set at the far end. He was making no attempt to hide his boredom and contempt.
It was shocking how ugly a beautiful room could be made by the presence of the wrong person. The women who should have been laughing and enjoying themselves were dressed more by their fear or avarice than their fine clothes. The men wore their lust like finery. She shuddered. Cindy was almost ready to turn around and take her chances with Farmer Jones, when her eyes met those of the prince.
The prince was inescapably bored. The women hovered around him. They giggled nervously or tried to act like they weren’t just farmer’s daughters overdressed for the night. There were two girls who wore hideous dresses, one was stuffing her face at the buffet while the other scowled at everyone who approached her. Another girl curtsied in front of him and he twirled his fingers, she stared at him.
“Turn around,” he said, and rolled his eyes. She gulped and attempted a pirouette slipping and falling to her knees then ran off weeping. The door at the far end opened to let in some cow who couldn’t tell time. He glanced up to see what new torture was to be visited upon him and his eyes met hers.
If you had put a sword to his throat he couldn’t have told you the colour of her dress, but her eyes were the incredible blue of those flowers his horse ate on the side of the rode. He would never let his horse eat them again.
Without thinking about it he got up from his seat and went to greet this vision of loveliness.
Somehow his greeting turned into the first steps of a dance. The orchestra sat up straight and started playing the music for his dance. There was a collective sigh and the other girls started eyeing up his attendants in grey for possible dancing ability. Whatever dance he began she followed, she laughed at his jokes and not just a nervous titter either. He filled her plate with food and her cup with wine. As the evening progressed he paid less and less attention to the other people who inhabited the room.
One of his guards started making odd gestures at them. He glared at the man, someone who had just joined up that day, he’d have him flogged and cast out, but only after he had finished with this most enchanting woman. He led her out to the patio where they were out of view of the crowd.
The music was quieter here, but he was content to just hum along. No conversation was necessary with those extraordinary eyes on his. He heard the clock begin to strike midnight, time to end this farce of a ball. He would marry this woman and they would rule the kingdom as soon as the old man had the decency to die.
For some reason she was trying to pull away from him, but he was used to dealing with reluctant women and he just tightened his grip. The last stroke of midnight was fading when she shrugged and blinked.
The whole evening had been very strange, as if riding to a ball in an oversized pumpkin wasn’t strange enough. From the moment their eyes met the prince hadn’t left her side. Cindy had watched as desperation faded to resignation and the other girls started looking for matches not quite as lofty as a prince.
He insisted on feeding her and plying her with wine. It was probably the wine that made her forget about the time. She was feeling quite tipsy by the time he pulled out onto the patio. At least there was a pleasant breeze blowing out here. The prince was humming along to the music with a fatuous grin on his face.
The clock was striking twelve. She had to leave.
Unfortunately the prince was considerably stronger than her, and very determined that she not leave. As the clock hit the final stroke she gave up and shrugged. He would have to see what he was getting sooner or later.
The dress faded away as the sound of the clock vanished. She felt her hair tumble down to its usual tangle about her shoulders.
“What is that smell?” the prince asked.
“That would be the barn,” Cindy said, “I was locked in it before all this started.”
“Oh great,” said the prince, “I suppose it would have been too much trouble to take a bath?”
“My step-mother locked me in the barn.”
“Of course she did,” the prince rolled his eyes. “Well at least let me get a decent look at you. Turn around.” He waved his hand at her.
“You’ve been doing nothing but stare at me all night.”
“But now I want to look at you.”
Just her and the prince out here. The pleasant breeze of a moment ago turned chill and raised goosebumps on her arms. She crossed her arms to warm herself.
“Blast you stupid cow!” the prince shouted, “I will see what you have.” He grabbed her dress and wrenched at it. Cindy heard the fabric of her mother’s dress tear and the chill wind blew across her breasts. He grabbed at her and twisted her flesh.
Cindy didn’t know whether to curse herself or her mother’s friend. She settled on kneeing the prince between the legs. He stopped fumbling with his pants and went a little cross-eyed.
“Guards!” he screamed. “Guards, arrest this woman!” His fists clenched and he looked like he wasn’t going to wait for the guards before doing more damage. Cindy sighed and gave him a proper kick. His eyes rolled up into his head and he fell to the ground. She gathered the remnants of her dress about her and looked for an escape.
Too late. A guard approached her and stepped into the light surrounding her and the prince.
“I tried to warn you about the time,” Bill said, “If I’d known what a dastard he was I would have dragged you off myself.”
“So now I guess you have to arrest me.” Cindy held her hands in front of her. The wind caressed her skin. Bill’s eyes widened and he whipped off his vest and wrapped it around her.
“Come with me,” he said his voice breaking. He put his arm around her and pulled her into the darkness as other guards came running past. None of them paid them any attention.
“Did you think the night would end like this?” Cindy said, “You throwing me into the dungeons?”
“Don’t know where the dungeons are,” Bill said as a familiar smell filled her nose. “I rode Blackie here when I came to work. I expect he’ll be glad to carry me away again.” He held her gently by the shoulders. “I’m no prince. I’m just the youngest son of an old farmer.”
“Youngest sons are supposed to be lucky.” Cindy put her finger on his lips. “And right now I’ve had my fill of princes.” She helped him get Blackie out of his stall. Bill lifted her up, then jumped up behind her. Cindy could hear shouts approaching.
“I think it’s time to go.”
Bill kicked Blackie into a gallop and they rode out the gates. Cindy laughed and kicked the slippers off her feet.
The tinkling sound of breaking glass followed them as they rode away into the night.