The Clever Serving-Maid
by Theodora Goss
Here are the things your mother did not give you:
a chest filled with linens for your marriage bed,
a casket of jewels to wear on your wedding day,
a handkerchief spotted with her own red blood,
a talking horse named Falada.
Here are the things she did: your life, of course,
a tendency to get in and out of trouble
since you were a scullion. And now here you are,
so grand, a lady’s maid, but you are thinking
you could be grander still. So you tell the princess
to put on your plain brown linen while you dress
yourself in her sky-blue silk. It suits you better
anyway. And then you get on Falada.
The prince doesn’t even noticed the substitution.
Why should he? You’ve been in service since you were twelve.
You can sound as articulate as a duchess,
or more so, the way the butler is somehow always
more impressive than the king.
But you have to shake your head when you look out the window
and see her in the courtyard — the princess is hopeless
at tending geese. She’d make a terrible queen.
If she can’t control a flock of geese, how can she
control a household, a diplomatic mission,
troops sent into battle? Queens have to know
these sorts of things, not just embroidery.
And look at the stable-boy pestering her! You would stick
your knife into him — then he’d stop being obnoxious!
You’re sad when Falada dies, which wasn’t your doing.
He was an old horse — what did anyone expect?
But the princess is inconsolable, cries all day,
her soft white hands are developing blisters, her nose
is getting freckled. All right you say, let’s end
this charade. I’m not the princess.
The problem is, the prince has already fallen
in love with you, but he has a weak chin and eyes
like gooseberries. So you decide there’s adventure
out there somewhere, countries you have not heard of,
seas that have not been sailed, another future
than either the one reserved for serving-maids
or princesses. As you walk through the castle gates
(the king is threatening to put you in a barrel
filled with nails and have you dragged through the streets
as punishment, the prince is begging you
to stay, the princess is looking confused, as always),
the head of Falada calls from above the gates,
“Where will you go, false maid?” You answer, “Anywhere
I please, and nowhere in particular.”
The air is cool, the way it usually is
after a night of rain, the birds cacophonous.
The road winds through the town, then into forest.
Where should you go? East, you decide, where ahead of you
the sun has risen and shines on the dusty road,
making it seem, just for a moment, golden.
(The image is by Hermann Vogel.)