The Princess and the Peas

The Princess and the Peas
by Theodora Goss

It was raining.
It had been raining for four days
and you were as wet
as a wet pig, as your mother would say.
Water was dripping from your hair
down to your collarbones
and to your dress, already sopping,
rags, really — regulation wear for a pig girl.
At first you didn’t realize
it was a castle, and when you did,
what of it? A castle was as good
shelter as any other.

When you knocked on the door, the footman,
to your surprise, said, “Are you a princess?
They’re looking for princesses in here.”
His smirk, you realized, was not for you,
but them in there, intent
on a princess hunt.

“Sure,” you said. Why not?
What is a princess anyway?
You were the princess of a hovel,
a field of mud, a pigsty, a herd of porkers,
daughter of the pig-queen of a village
too small to have its own name,
Lesser Something.

What is a princess, anyway?
Someone who sleeps on a feather bed, evidently.
Make that fourteen feather beds.
The queen looked at you askance
of course, with your rags and hair dripping,
bare feed muddy from trudging
through what the rain had made of the roads.
But royalty, once they’ve given their word,
seldom go back on it, seemingly.
You said you were a princess, so
you got the feather beds.

Of course it was a test. What isn’t, in this life?
You had known that
as soon as the footman looked at you sideways.
You knew it twice as surely
when the prince looked at you sideways.
He was a scrawny kid. The pigs would
have made quick work of him.
But what was the test?
It had to be about the feather beds.
That was the only strange thing
in the room, which was otherwise
perfectly ordinary — for royalty, that is.
Bigger than your hovel, about as big
as your hovel and the pig field,
but with no pigs in it. You didn’t miss them.

The water in the bath was hot and scented.
You emerged from it hot, scented, and as pink
as a newborn piglet. You were surprised to find
that your hair was blonde, and actually rather pretty.
It was nice not to be quite so muddy, for once.
The nightgown was soft and white, pure linen.
You had never felt anything like it
before, never having had a nightgown.
You quite liked it. So what was the test?
It took you a while to find the peas,
but not too long. You were used to finding
bits of carrot under muddy straw,
turnip ends, cabbage leaves,
any other vegetables that had not rotted,
trodden on by the pigs.
You would put them back in the troughs.
No use wasting good food.
You could root out anything the pigs could.
They would have found the peas, easy.

It was not until the next morning, when the queen
asked, “How did you sleep, my dear,
were you comfortable?” with a certain
look in her eyes, a significance,
that you figure it out.
“Terribly,” you said. “Excuse me,
your majesty, but I thinking someone
accidentally left rocks in my bed.
I am of course grateful
for your hospitality, but I could not
sleep a wink.”

There was something in the way
she looked at you, a small, satisfied smile,
that clued you in to what was going on.
The weak prince, the queen
who was looking for, not a princess,
but someone clever enough to solve her riddle.
The right girl for her son, the right girl for her throne.
What is a princess, anyway?
A girl that people bow to and call princess.

They gave you fine clothes, silk of course, and ermine.
They gave you a crown with a pair of matching earrings,
diamonds and pearls. You considered, for a while,
whether to stay or abscond with the jewelry.
But the queen, looking at you approvingly,
after the ladies in waiting had finished their labors,
said, “You know, my dear, before I was queen,
I was a shopkeeper’s daughter.
That’s why my son insisted, in his wisdom,
on a true princess.”
“Of course, your majesty,” you said in your best
princess voice. “I understand completely.”

Anyway, why shouldn’t you be queen?
Ruling a kingdom
was probably no more difficult than ruling a pigsty,
keeping the peace among a bunch of hogs,
keeping the sows from sleeping on their young.
By and by, you would inform your mother
that she was now the queen of a faraway kingdom
called something like Porcinia.
You would bring her to court, give her the comforts
she’d never had. Yes, Ma would like that,
especially the baths.
Your children would be heirs to the throne,
and by the look of the prince, you would be the power
behind it, eventually regent.
Not bad for a pig-keeper’s daughter
who had set out into the world
to make something of herself, saying to her mother,
give me your blessing, Ma. I’ll be somebody
someday. Watch me.

(The image is The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac.)

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