January 31, 2011

The Pig Who Would Be Prince by Roxanna Bennett

Desperately uncomfortable when a maidservant entered the room to clean and sweep the hearth, Ella snatched the broom from the maid's hand and dismissed her. "I'll be damned if I let another person clean up after me," she thought, clearing the ashes from the marble fireplace, realizing, as she worked, that she felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.

After the initial awe at the size of the palace and the luxury of its furnishings wore off, Ella became gradually more disturbed by her new husband's treatment of the serving staff. It wasn't unusual for the Prince to send back several courses during dinner, giving the servers explicit descriptions of how the chef had, yet again, screwed up his meal. The first time she witnessed this, Ella burned with embarrassment at her husband's litany of insults. Thinking it was an isolated incident, she kept quiet, her eyes fixed on her plate as she finished what was certainly the most delicious meal she had ever eaten. The first week had been the most difficult, Ella kept trying to dress herself, to clean up after herself, to assist in the kitchen, to polish the silverware. Initially her husband was amused but that quickly dissipated. "Damn it, Ella, you're royalty, you're humiliating both yourself and me every time you try to help the help. You're not a goddamn scullery maid. Now go wash yourself, you're covered in smut." That was the first time he yelled at her. The second time he wasn't so polite. "Are you deaf? Didn't you hear me when I said to keep your hands to yourself and stop cleaning up around here like a common parlour maid? How many times do I have to tell you not to speak to them?"

But Ella couldn't help herself. They weren't furniture. They were people who silently scurried about the palace, picking up after the Prince who behaved as though they didn't exist and only spoke to them to abuse them or demand something. They curtseyed, bowed, "yes sir," "yes, your Lordship," "yes, your Highness." Ella fidgeted when they tied her stays, drew her bath, combed her hair. She couldn’t help but speak to them, attempt to learn their names. But they would have none of it. “No ma’am,” “no, your Lady,” “no, your Highness,” they replied to almost any question, fearful of their livelihood.

Her husband kept busy hunting and carousing with his brothers and cousins. That was the only other time he noticed the servants, as Ella discovered by accident when once, awoken by a strange moaning in the hall outside her room, she opened to door to see her husband rutting against the parlour maid, who was patiently bent over, her palms flat against the wall as the Prince thrust into her from behind. Several of his brothers were waiting in line for their turn at the young girl. Silently, Ella retreated to her room, and cried herself to sleep. Thereafter whenever she heard groaning from the other side of her door, she steadfastly ignored it.

Ella was lonely, bored. She was expected to embroider, entertain and oversee the running of the palace, an act she refused to do. The Prince didn’t notice at first. He was a pig, Ella noted, thinking that even her step-siblings were tidier than he and they had deliberately tried to make her life miserable. His clothes stayed where he dropped them, if he emptied a glass he had another poured until the table would be littered with sticky, filthy goblets. He spilled his food so often that, by the time a meal was finished there was a ring of crumbs on the floor beneath his seat. The bathroom was disgusting; Ella was convinced he didn’t even flush the toilet himself, but had a servant do it for him, and none too often, either. If he knocked something over it stayed on the floor, if he had mud on his boots he tracked it through the entire palace. Heaven help the servant who didn’t keep the wine flowing. In short, he was a drunk, a lout, a royal snob.

Her own quarters were spotless. Late at night, after her husband left her rooms, she rose and cleaned, polishing furniture, wiping away dust, folding bedding and laundry, and with especial care, swept the hearth. It was the only way she could relax, and feel she was not debasing another person by allowing them to clean up after her.

As Ella refused to discipline the servants, reasoning that if she was not to speak to them she was also not to tell them their place, service began deteriorating. Laundry piled up in the Prince’s room, dirt stayed on the floor. Most intolerably, his goblets slowly emptied. He hadn’t taken notice of cobwebs or dust but the empty goblet caught his attention. En masse, he fired the entire staff, who shuffling past, glared at Ella, muttered curses at her under their breath as they exited in a long line.

“This is your fault,” the Prince screamed, jabbing Ella in the chest with his index finger. “You have one job to do, manage the house staff and you can’t even do that right. I should have left you in the dirt where I found you. You’re not fit to be a princess.” He pitched the empty glasses against the walls, splinters of glass flew through the air, lodging in Ella’s arms and face. Terrified when he lunged toward her, Ella raced from the room and locked herself in a place she knew he’d never venture, the servant’s attic quarters. She hadn’t meant to have the staff fired. Leaning her forehead against the small window she watched her husband rage around the grounds, tearing up flowers, shoving over statues, leaving a path of destruction behind him.

Crying, she pried tiny glass shards from her skin with her fingernails, placing them in a neat pile on the window sill.

Suddenly her fairy godmother appeared beside her.

“What is the matter, dear child,” she said. “Why do you cry so bitterly?”

“I wish,” Ella choked, then could not finish speaking for her tears.

“You wish that the servants were not fired, don’t you child?”
Sobbing, Ella nodded.

“And you wish that your husband was not a filthy, cheating, bastard, don’t you?”

Again, Ella nodded.

“Well,” said her fairy godmother. “Even though I have already made all of your wishes come true, even though you broke the one rule I gave you, to return home before midnight, you do mean well. So do as I say and I will grant your wishes.”

Ella did as she was bid. She made her way to the stables, plucking a squealing pig from its dirty trough. Gingerly, she approached her husband and out of arm’s reach she called to him that she was surely sorry, very stupid, and from now on would do exactly as he wished. Mollified he followed her back into the palace, unmindful of the squirming hog in her arms. She carried it into the dining hall, where her brothers-in-law were gathered with their cousins, the table buried beneath mountains of cards, crusts of food, filthy plates. When her husband took a seat at the head of the table, she placed the pig carefully in the cold hearth of the great marble fireplace.

“Now,” said her fairy godmother, stepping from thin air, “you shall have your wish.” The old lady tapped the pig thrice upon the snout with her magic wand, spoke an incantation at the group of men, then folded her arms in satisfaction as she watched the results of her magic.

The Prince began to shrink and squirm, his expletives rapidly becoming squeals and oinks as his skin turned pink, his clothes fell from his now squat body, his little tail a curl of outrage. The group of men quickly changed form, becoming muscular, small maids, their gentlemen’s finery replaced with aprons and skirts. The pig in the hearth grew and lengthened, his filthy flesh changing into that of a pristine man, his hooves became manicured hands, his snout retreated until he had the face but not the manner of the Prince Ella had met at the ball. Smiling he stood, brushed the dirt from his clothes, stooped to kiss the hand of first the fairy godmother, then Ella before making his way to the great hall where he flung open the doors. One by one the former servants entered the palace, only now they were as grand as any Lord or Lady. Graciously they nodded at
Ella, greeted her by name, and took places at the dining table as the former gentlemen raced to clean up the mess, shoo away the dirty pig and serve their new masters and mistresses food and drink.

The former pig returned, fell upon his knees begging Ella’s pardon. She raised him up and kissed him, forgiving him with all her heart. And they lived happily ever after.

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