Listen with mother is a collection of short stories I wrote in April 2009:
“Granny tell me a story.”
Mrs. Boothby ran a nicely-kept nail along the hardbacks. She opened the Black Fairy Book and settled in the old nursery chair. How curious that Yolanda should so resemble her childhood self.
Truth folded her delicate legs and sat down to listen.
The Queen of Many Talents and the Ugly Princess
Once upon a time, a king and a queen lived in the wilds of the north. To their great sorrow, they had neither son nor daughter. The king sent far and wide for the greatest physicians. From the four corners of the world they came and took all his gold. They made the poor queen swallow terrible potions, eat foul-tasting herbs and woke her at all hours of day and night: all to no avail. The queen fell to weeping bitterly and would not be consoled.
At length, when the king had naught left but silver, an old woman came to the palace. She alone could soothe the queen.
“Why is it that you weep, my queen?” the old woman said in a voice as sweet as honey.
“I weep because I have no child to call my own,” the queen replied.
“Why, that is easily remedied,” said the old witch, for such she was.
“Do but give me your greatest talent and we shall see what we shall see.”
Now the queen had many talents. She thought what it might be the witch desired. Her eyes fell upon the sampler she had but lately made.
“Granny, what’s a sampler?”
“One of those, dear, and it’s ‘Grandma’. I made that not long after your mother arrived.”
The roses that she stitched were red as blood and scented like summer.
“Embroidery,” she said to the old witch.
“Nay, and twice nay, my queen. This you may keep in secret.” And so it came to pass that the poor queen could only sew in her private chambers.
The next day she thought again. Sweet music wafted from the court, and the queen began to waltz more daintily than a fairy, lighter than thistledown and blithe as the dawn.
“Dance,” said she.
“Nay, nay and thrice, nay,” said the witch in scorn.
“This you may do but once a year,” and indeed it was so.
Now painting it was the queen loved best of all. If she pictured a butterfly, you would watch to see its beautiful wings a-flutter; a star and you would make a wish. Her mother had been an artist and her mother before her and so on, all the way back to Eve.
With a trembling voice the queen said, “My art.”
“A fair exchange,” agreed the old witch.
“Lay not a brush to a canvas for a year and a day, and you will have your heart’s desire.”
So the queen consented and waited for the witch to return.
“Did the queen get a baby, Grandma? I should hate to give up drawing.”
“Yes, she did, Yolanda. It was very hard for her.”
The old witch was as good as her word, and after many trials and tribulations, the queen had a baby princess to rock in the cradle. But the witch was truly a witch, and the child was a changeling.
She snivelled and she bawled and nothing would make her cease. Not a soul in the palace could quiet the wretched child but the king. How hurt the queen was; she who had given up her most precious talent.
As the princess grew, matters grew worse. She would not embroider, she would not dance neither would she paint. She had bewitched the king and the courtiers so well that they saw lords and ladies when she brought trolls and ogres to call; they heard sweet music when she caterwauled, but the queen was not under her spell. Dutifully, the queen made exquisite clothes to suit a proper princess but the ungrateful wretch refused to wear them.
“She was a very bad princess, wasn’t she, Granny, sorry, Grandma?”
“Indeed she was.”
Truth smiled wryly.
The time came to find the princess a husband. The queen despaired. All the other queens had lovely daughters who rode horses, played the flute and looked quite charming. Where on earth could they find a prince to wed her? The witch had gone off cackling and was nowhere to be found.
At the queen’s entreaty, the king caused a great ball to be held. The queen’s many friends and relations brought all their perfect princesses. Heralds had been sent far and wide to every kingdom and all but one, the tiniest kingdom of all, had duly sent their princes. And a fine array of handsome princes they were too.
All the other princesses wore silks and satins, but not the ugly princess. She wore her rags and tatters as usual. She would not behave properly, even though the poor queen had spent hours trying to train her. Not a prince looked at her. Indeed, they much preferred to look at the queen for she was still beautiful. Just when the queen had given up hope, there came a loud knock at the palace gates.
The king signalled to the guards to open them up and in rode the strangest personage. On a goat sat a lanky lad clad in rags and tatters. He dismounted and bowed, his long hair sweeping the floor.
“Apologies, Your Majesties, it is a long way from the smallest kingdom of all.”
The scruffy prince paid no heed to all the beauties around him, but danced every dance with the ugly princess. Everyone tried not to laugh at his hop-skip-and-a–jump way of dancing. When he asked for her hand in marriage, the king and the queen were delighted. The wedding was held at once, with all the splendour the clever queen could devise.
“Did they live happily ever after?”
“Yes, darling, and the queen never had to put up with the ugly princess again.”
“Will you read me another one tomorrow – please?”
“Not tomorrow, I’m afraid. You have to go back to your mother’s.”
Mrs. Boothby snapped the book shut, almost catching one of Truth’s gauzy wings.
“Mummy – can you read me a story?”
“Can’t you read one yourself? I’m a bit busy.”
“Please – I’ve got this book from Grandma.”
“Just a short one.”
Hilary picked some acrylic from her fingers. It was a while since she’d seen this one.
The Princess in Britches and the Haughty Queen
Long, long ago there lived a king and a queen. They had everything they could wish for except a child. The king sent abroad for the very best doctors of medicine but none could help. The queen’s heart hardened and she would not be denied. Against his better judgement, the king allowed the queen to send for an ancient crone, famous for her cunning. At length, she came and spoke alone with the queen.
“What ails you, my queen?” the old woman asked.
“I have no daughter to dress in silks and satins,” the queen replied.
“Why, that is soon cured,” said the old witch,
“You must rest and behave as a true queen.”
Now the queen had many pastimes. The witch’s eyes fell upon a sampler the queen had worked.
“Sew and sew, my pretty queen. Sew and sew in secret.”
And so it came to pass that the queen would only sew in her private chambers.
The very next day the witch came again. There was music in the court, and the queen began to dance.
“Dance and dance, my elegant queen. Dance and dance alone,” said the witch.
Despite the king’s entreaties, the queen no longer went to balls. The king could not go unaccompanied, and so the whole kingdom became quiet and sad.
The third day the witch came; the queen was in the garden painting among her ladies.
“Go in, go in, my graceful queen. Leave these minions behind you.”
And from that day on, the queen would not speak to anyone of lesser rank.
“What a horrible old witch!”
“The queen didn’t have to do what she said, Yolanda, did she?”
Truth nodded unseen.
One day the witch embarked upon a journey.
“Keep all my counsels,” she made the queen promise, “and you will have your wish.”
So the queen consented and waited for the witch to return. But the witch was in fact a child-snatcher. She had stolen a baby from a poor woodcutter’s cottage to give to the queen.
The poor baby cried and grizzled for her home. The king sang to soothe the child but the queen stayed silent. This brat was not what she wanted.
Time passed. The tomboy princess was always in trouble. She climbed trees when she should have been embroidering. She would not wear the clothes her royal mother had had laid out for her and she was far too loud for true royalty.
The queen tried forbidding her to talk with the servants. She tried locking her daughter away. At last she sent her far, far way to live with the old witch.
“We will have nothing more to do with her until she is wed,” the queen declared. The old king cried but would not gainsay his wife.
“Not a very nice queen, Mummy.”
“You can say that again.”
With a sigh, Truth put her head in her tiny hands.
One midsummer morning, the princess decided to go out and seek her own fortune in the wide world. The old witch was dead, so she travelled the seven seas in disguise. She found the love of her life in the smallest kingdom of all. She visited the old king in secret, though she never found the woodcutter’s cottage again.
When the princess was of an age to marry, the king caused a great ball to be held. The queen was content for she could wear the gems and jewels that the king had lavished upon her. She made sure only perfect princesses and proper princes were invited. All the others were bedecked in beautiful gowns, but the princess still wore her shipboard masquerade. She would not look at a single dull prince. As for them, they much preferred to look at those ladies clothed in great riches. The princess had almost given up hope of seeing her true love again when there came a clamour at the entrance to the court.
The king gave word for the guards to fling open the gates. In rode the oddest sight: a tall youth bestride a goat, smiling and waving at the princess. He led a cavalcade of minstrels, acrobats and fire-eaters.
The queen screeched.
“He is no prince worthy of my daughter. Guards, remove this commoner!”
The king held up his hand and helped the young man alight.
“Allow me to present The Prince of The-Smallest-Kingdom-of-All.”
The cheerful prince paid no heed to the queen’s disapproval, but danced every dance with the princess. When he asked for her hand in marriage, the king was delighted. The wedding was held at once, with all the spectacle the prince’s friends could conceive.
“And what happened to the nasty old queen, Mummy?”
“She locked herself away in her room and never came out again.”
“Are these fairy tales true?”
Truth just shook her gilded head, laughed and flew away.