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The Housemaid's Lament
The young woman sat by the hearth, idly stirring the ashes. The low fire flickered, sending glowing, golden highlights over her lovely, unblemished face. She sighed audibly.
"There you are, you lazy, good-for-nothing cretin!" A middle-aged woman stormed into the room. "I swear, I don't know why I even keep you! If it weren't for the promise that I made to your late father, God rest his soul, I swear I would throw you out into the street!"
The beautiful woman looked up. "What is it, Stepmother?" She brushed a wayward strand of hair from her face, streaking it with soot.
The harsh lines of the older woman's face turned downward. "Your stepsisters and I are ready to leave for the ball! I want to you stop dawdling and finish cleaning this kitchen! I will check it when I get back!"
Two giggling, homely young women ran into the room. "How do we look, mother?" whined the stouter of the two.
The matron broke into a broad smile. "Oh, lovely! Just lovely, my dears! Although, it is difficult to tell when you are standing next to 'Cinderella', here."
The three woman turned toward the still-seated woman at the fire and began to laugh.
"Come, let's go. I can't wait to see which of you the prince will choose for his bride!" The stern-looking woman led her two daughters through the back door into the yard.
Cinderella stood and walked to the window. She watched as the three approached the stable, and her stepmother called shrill orders to the young man who stumbled around the pair of horses at the waiting carriage. Her stepmother was particularly proud of her set of black horses and checked them in excruciating detail before departing. The teen, looking relieved, ran through the gate seconds after the women were out of sight. A young colt, bought as a future replacement for the older of the two horses, emitted a shrill whinny at his departing stablemates. He would be gelded as soon as he reached full maturity. That thought depressed Cinderella.
"Oh, why am I stuck here? Why can't I be somewhere where I don't have to work all day? Will I ever find happiness?" Cinderella turned and lowered her head, somewhat surprised that she had actually spoken aloud.
"Perhaps you will, my dear. Yes, perhaps sooner than you think!"
Startled, Cinderella whirled and saw a smiling, old woman dressed in a glittering robe. Snow-white hair crowned her head, and her round face radiated an openess that removed any fear Cinderella may have at first felt.
"I am your fairy godmother, dear. You will go to the ball tonight, never fear!" She grabbed Cinderella's hand and pulled her toward the door. "Come! Out to the garden! I have much work to do!"
Cinderella watched in awe as the old woman mumbled a series of non-rhyming incantations, transforming a pumpkin into a gilded coach, some mice into horses and a dog into a footman. Cinderella then felt her clothing moving on her body as her plain, worn garments were changed into a full-length ball gown. Finally, the old woman looked around, and smiled as she again chanted and gestured toward the barn. A dazed young man, dressed as a coachman, stumbled through the now-open door. He stopped and smiled as he recognized Cinderella, showing white, even teeth. His straight, coal black hair rustled in the almost imperceptible breeze and his brown eyes stared at Cinderella with trust and intelligence.
"Tonight you may ride, my beautiful young stallion!" the godmother nodded with approval. Turning to Cinderella, she warned, "You must be home by midnight! All of this will fade then. I will check back on you in three days. I have a feeling something may happen then!" She winked, and vanished.
Three days later, in the parlor of the house where Cinderella lived, a stern man with a drooping face asked, "Are there any other women in the house?"
"Only Cinderella!" tittered the uglier of the stepsisters.
The stepmother rolled her eyes. "Oh, her!"
The thin, elderly man became impatient. "Well, bring her out then! We must try this glass slipper on everyone in the city!"
Cinderella meekly emerged from the kitchen, where she had been listening. "Excuse me, sir. I do not really want to try on the slipper."
The cadaverous man blinked, and asked, "But why ever not? All of the women in the kingdom wish to be the bride of the prince!"
Cinderella stared at the floor. "But why? I mean, if they all know that they are not the one that the prince met at ball, why do they want to try on the slipper? Are they hoping that it fits, so that they will take the place of the one that the prince truly desires?"
The prince's servant looked perplexed. "Well, when you put it that way, I suppose that they are. Still, don't you want to try on the slipper?"
"No, thank you, sir." Cinderella curtsied and exited the room.
In the kitchen, she met her fairy godmother.
"What are you doing?" The normally kindly, old woman appeared both perplexed and angry.
Cinderella looked down guiltily. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"
"Well of course I do! That's the point of all of this. You and the prince were supposed to fall in love with each other! Don't you love him?"
"No, ma'am," Cinderella whispered. "I love another."
"The coachman!" Cinderella's eyes glistened.
The fairy godmother gasped, "But, my dear, that is a horse! I transformed him for the evening, but a horse he was and a horse he shall be!"
"Nevertheless, when I saw him, I knew that he was my love. He is good and kind. It is he that I love. Not only he, but the simple life and freedom that he embodies, even in his captivity here. I don't want to leave this prison for one of another type!"
The godmother sighed, reached into her sequined handbag and withdrew a silver horseshoe, which she held against the sole of Cinderella's bare foot. The horseshoe began to glow. "I'll be damned! It fits!" she exclaimed, as Cinderella's body began to swell and distort. The young woman fell to her hands and knees as her rapidly expanding body burst her clothing into shreds. Cinderella tossed her head up and down, as it lengthened with each movement.
The godmother threw the shoe back into her purse, muttering, "Well, you really won't be needing this where you are going." She opened the door and followed the running mare into the yard, where she could see the young black stallion rearing in his stall. The mare skidded to a halt in front of the stable door, as the godmother waved her arms and chanted, "To a far off land, take this loving couple, away from all cares and danger, to the land of faery..." The horses faded from sight. The godmother sighed. She had given up her charge, but at least she was certain that Cinderella and her true love would live safe and full lives...
...happily ever after.
Epilogue: The emaciated courtier sat the velvet cushion on the ground, then sat the sparkling, glass slipper on top of it. He leaned heavily on the gatepost, wondering what his next move should be. The panicked stablehand emerged from the barn, his eyes darting nervously from side to side, looking for the missing colt. He stopped as he spied the slipper. "How pretty," he thought, as he was drawn toward it.
The prince's servant turned and his jaw dropped as he saw the young man effortlessly slide the slipper over his foot. "Oh my! That explains why the prince has never shown the slightest interest in any of the women in the kingdom!" His thoughts raced. "Well, at least I don't have to continue this stupid assignment."
"Come with me, boy!" he snapped. "We're going to the palace. I have a feeling this is going to work out for the best."
The Housemaid's Lament copyright 1998 by Paul Exton.
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