[Author's Note: I'm trying to turn this into a full-length novel. It is based upon a fairy tale I love even though I'm 30 years old! It's called "Donkey Skin", by Charles Perrault. Please enjoy this preview. I hope it has a chance...]
...gagnerai et perdrai...(I'll Win, I'll Lose)
Chapter One: Opening Moves
MY STEPFATHER BECAME RICH from a donkey’s humble gift of dung.
I kid you not—that is the source of his wealth! When Mother married him (not that I approved), he was a mere donkey-herder. Even then he was a complete failure, because his animals were as scrawny and flea-ridden as donkeys could ever be! It wasn’t until he received a healthy gray mare as a charity gift from our village church that his fortunes changed. You see, Goldie, as he called her, has the extraordinary talent of turning golden hay into golden excrement. Again, that is no joke! Her waste is solid; thus, so are the nuggets that tumble from her long-suffering rear. Poor creature! Relieving her bowels must be very painful indeed, but do you think my stepfather cares?
My name is Remy Aurore d’Argent, known in these parts as Remy Silverdawn. I still bear my father’s last name, for now and always, because he’s the only man I'll ever call mon pére. It displeased Mother when I refused to take my stepfather’s last name and become his legally-adopted daughter, but why would I ever take off a mantle of silver in order to wear that of a fool—le Fou?
His first name is Auldric, from the ancient words auld
meaning “old ruler”.
That’s what he is, for sure. He lords himself over everything and everyone...
Mother said he wasn't always this way. Back when he was trying to win her hand, with her being a widow for five long years, he was kind and modest, always lending a hand on the homestead—and any coins he could spare—whenever she needed them. When my stepfather proposed, Mother graciously accepted. I knew she didn't love him, or at least not as much as she'd loved Father, but I guess there comes a time in a woman's life when she's willing to marry a man with steady wages instead of the man of her dreams! I haven't reached that point quite yet, but—
Maybe that's my trouble. Auldric is very wealthy now because of Goldie, and—
Still, I'll never marry him! He's my stepfather, and such a union would be wicked. Mon Dieu
forbids it, or at least I'm fairly sure He does. As for Auldric, he himself could care less. He's had his eye on me ever since Mother passed away two years ago. Maybe even before then, which is strange indeed! It's not that I'm beautiful, or even pretty. My hair is a dark copper-red, but it's thin and gets easily tangled. My eyes are blue, yes, as clear as the mountain lake not too far from us, but they're rather too large for my face. I'm also very plump. Some impolite people call me “fat” behind my back, and I try to pretend I'm not listening. What's worse, the men in our village are partial to slender women like my (betrothed) sister Elise. Above all, I am lame and cannot walk well, or do hard farm work. I fall down at least once a day—more than that if I'm unlucky. My clumsiness and unsteadiness have earned me the title of village laughingstock, second only to my stepfather!
Because of these things—my many flaws—a husband (who is not my relative!) has not been found for me. However, all is not lost. Father made Mother swear upon his deathbed that he'd let Elise and me decide for ourselves whom we'd like to marry. Mother promised, and that has saved me thus far from Auldric.
I say “thus far” because now Mother is gone, too. Her vow has expired.
That's why I have to think quickly. Every day at mealtime now, my stepfather leers at me, trying to engage me in small talk about this and that. There's always a smile on his face, to be sure, but it never reaches his piggish brown eyes. They remain as still and bottomless as our well…
Let me tell you a bit more: Auldric’s head is the shape and size of a giant potato, and the years that he's spent in the fields as a farmer have turned his skin to leather. His hair, however, is snow-white, billowing in feathery tufts above his sunken ears. It's as if they've been taken off, folded in half, and then put back on his head! My stepfather's appearance would be comical if he weren't so shrewd and cunning. His eyes betray the lack of humor in his soul, except the glee a braggart feels when he humiliates his opponents. Auldric plays the fool in order to make people like him. Everyone loves a clown—even me. However, I do not love this clown. He hasn't even earned my respect, and he never will—especially if he wants to marry me. Taking one's stepdaughter as a wife is asinine!
Not to mention immoral. No one will ever have a high opinion of him after this...
Auldric could have chosen to marry my sister as well, but three months ago, Elise became betrothed to a good man named Daniel. He works as a carpenter's assistant in our village, setting to rights even those broken things that are thought to be beyond repair! Many consider him a miracle worker, though his are not of the saintly sort. When it comes to earning a living and putting food on the table, a working mill or loom is far more important than a weeping statue anyway! I am so glad that Elise is marrying Daniel (and not just because it keeps her from marrying our stepfather, even if Auldric wanted her instead of me)! Before she met Daniel through a close friend of hers one year ago, she had been rather lonely. I knew that Elise had long dreamed of meeting her future husband, a godly man who would provide a loving home for her and the children they would raise together. I myself am not so keen on having children, but I do wish that a dear, lifelong companion would come into my life and “checkmate” my quivering heart!
You see, I'm an odd girl. In my spare time, I play a wild, complex game called les echecs,
known as chess. It's Man's attempt to create order out of chaos, and in this respect, Man has done very well! Chess is a game of war—one king and his army against another, White versus Black. I prefer the white pieces, for then I have the privilege of making the first move. White always begins the game.
In the case of myself versus Aldric, I'm glad that I'm the White—innocent—one...
When I do meet my future husband, I wonder who will start our courtship—I, the often-wayward “black pawn” of our family? I have always had to ask a gentleman to accompany me to any sort of social gathering, such as a festival. Or will it be he, my “white knight”? I honestly don't know.
At this point, I see myself as having three choices. One: I could yield to my stepfather's wishes and marry him; two: I could keep waiting and yearning for the phantom of my heart's desire, who has shown no sign of arriving; or three: I could enter a convent, and the service of God and humanity. The third option seems far better than the other two, but I would definitely have trouble taking the vows of chastity and obedience! Poverty I can endure, because our family has been poor before. When he was alive, Father had been our village schoolmaster, and the wages he had earned were never high. He could have tried to cadge a position as the tutor of our manor lord's sons, but he believed that everyone could—and should—learn. He taught even the youngest and most ragged peasant children their letters and how to count. I'll always be grateful to my father—my real father—for respecting everyone as his equal, even the very least of us.
As for Auldric? He respects no one but himself, if that's even true. I think that pride's his problem. Because of his Goldie-begotten riches, he's growing more arrogant by the day. Perhaps he thinks to buy himself a noble title! Before that, though, he thinks to find himself a bride. Guess who?
At lunchtime today, I finally confronted him: “Stepfather, why do you want to marry me?”
Auldric chuckled. “Why not, my dear girl? I'm an old man, and I'm lonely.”
“Not only am I your stepdaughter,” I continued, not believing him, “but I'm not even pretty. Many in the village deem me ugly and fat, and they laugh at me behind my back. There are so many other women who would gladly have you, who are lovelier and more graceful than I! The way I walk—and fall down on my prat—is a joke, and as for having children? I could never have them with you.”
“Beauty is only skin-deep,” answered Auldric with a small smile. “Really? Never?”
“The thought of sharing your bed gives me the shivers.”
“Remy!” That was Elise, taking a shocked and hesitant bite of her salad greens.
“I'm sorry. It's not proper table talk, I know, but I have to tell the truth before it's too late.”
“Do you despise me that much?” asked Aldric. “Even after all this time?”
“I do. I can't believe you'd even entertain the idea of marrying me.”
“The truth is, Remy,” he said, “if you want the truth, is that no one else in the village knows where our sudden wealth is coming from. No one knows it's from Goldie. Not even the elders at the church were aware that her—leavings—are made out of pure gold! I'm surprised that they didn't, but maybe she started blessing me as soon as she came to this very house!” Auldric's chest puffed up with pride. “Maybe God laid His mighty hand upon her—rear—and transformed her foulest waste into the most valuable thing on this Earth! If so, then He has been good!” His eyes gleamed.
stepfather, but I'm trying to eat,” said Elise with a frown.
“I do apologize,” replied Auldric, “but my point is this: Remy, if the source of my wealth becomes known, I'll be ruined! People will either try to kill me in order to get their hands on Goldie, or kidnap her for themselves. No one will ever leave me alone! What's worse, if they don't believe me, the citizens of this village will laugh at me even more than they have before! Whoever heard of a donkey whose dung was made out of gold? They'll simply say it was covered with straw in her stall, and, being the fool that I am, I believed it was made of gold! I can't bear it, Remy. You must have me, for better or worse, because you and your sister are the only two that know our family secret!”
“It seems a selfish, petty reason to marry someone,” I said, “especially the eldest daughter of your late wife—my mother. However, if it means so much to you, I promise I will not reveal a thing.”
Auldric's face brightened. “So you'll marry me?”
“No. I simply gave you my word that I wouldn't tell anyone about Goldie.”
He blinked back his disappointment. “Did you think I was lying to you when I said I'm a lonely old man?” He pushed his empty pewter plate away and leaned forward at the table.
“Not at all. It's just that I don't—!” I sighed. “Monsieur,
you're related to me.”
“Not by blood. Only by marriage, and your mother is gone. She's been in her grave these two years, and I—!” My heart suddenly lurched as he wiped away a tear. It wasn't a false one, either. “Since that fever killed her, longing has done the same to me. Can't you understand? Can't you see?”
“I can’t marry you. After all, you—were—her husband. God would frown upon us both.”
“In this case, Remy, who really cares besides Him?” asked Auldric, perturbed.
“I care,” scowled my sister Elise, “and I will never approve of such an unholy union!”
“Did I want your opinion?” asked Auldric. “I don't recall that I did, and so unless you have something worthwhile to say, I suggest you shut your mouth.” Elise took a sip of water, and her soft green eyes became two poisoned daggers. She wasn’t used to being silenced like this.
“Now, then. I beg you, Remy, be reasonable! Our Father in Heaven may disapprove, as well as your sister, but think of the wealth we will have as a household! Goldie is still young, and she's never even given birth! Imagine how much gold she'll give us throughout the years, and if she has a foal...oh, Remy! We'll be the richest people in all the land. Over time, even the King himself will be in our debt! He won't be able to go to war, muster a proper army, or even build additions to his giant palace unless we say so and provide the finances! True, he’ll have the power of the throne, but if it's also true that money equals power...Are you sure you're willing to forsake this literally-golden opportunity? All for the sake of protecting your virtue, which is soon to be lost?”
My face turned hot. “What makes you think that I'll lose it soon, cochon?"
I had called Auldric a pig. He shoved himself up from the table, pushing his stool back and making our dishes rattle. “Trust me,” he sneered, “you're ripe and ready! If you won't have me as your husband, then I'll find a husband for you.” He suddenly clapped his hands and laughed. “Ah-ha-ha! In order to break your proud spirit, I might even marry you off to the smelly farmhand who cares for our pigs! Then you’ll learn what a cochon
is by and by, my haughty little princess!”
“I'm no princess,” I said, “but I'd rather marry him than you.” I meant every word.
Auldric's head, which was now as red as the shriveled beets in our garden, looked like it was going to burst. As he knocked his pewter plate off the table and stormed away, he turned to glare back at me. “Do you believe this is some kind of game, jeune fille?”
I hate it when he calls me “young girl”.
I answered confidently, “et je serai la gagnante.”
I had just told him “yes,” and that I would be the winner...
“Sister,” Elise said softly, coming to stand beside me at the table, “do you really think it's safe to goad him like that?” She put her hand upon my arm to steady me. I was wobbling a bit.
“Honestly,” I answered, “ever since he married Mother, I've been afraid of him. I used to think that Auldric was an honorable man, if not a likeable one. Remember how he used to help us harvest our crops and take care of the livestock?” Elise nodded. “What changed? It's like his heart has been eaten by a great worm with curved, sharp teeth, and now only the worm is left dangling in its place.”
“Greed can do that to people,” Elise said. “Ever since we received Goldie from the church...”
I smiled ruefully. “We thought she was such a blessing. She's become a curse.”
“She's still a blessing, no matter if our stepfather's turned into a disgusting pig because of her! Without Goldie, the crops we have wouldn't earn enough money to feed us for a week.” Meekly, I nodded. “The two of us don't go around bragging about our wealth, and we tithe what we can to the church. After all, the elders are the gracious men who gave us the donkey that saved our lives!”
I sat back down again. “Elise, do you think they would have done so if—?”
“If they had known of her 'talent' beforehand? Probably not. They would have taken good care of Goldie, for sure, but they would have kept her and given out her—golden droppings—equally to those who were most in need. We would have been among the families lined up to receive them, but we wouldn't have gotten all of them. We wouldn't have been able to afford hired men to help us work the farm, nor maids to clean the house. Remy, we've been blessed by God. That's for certain.”
“Still, if I have to be our stepfather's wife...are those blessings worth keeping?”
Elise took a step backward. “You're not going to marry him, are you?!”
“Of course not, but what if he throws me out of the house because I refused him?”
“Are you willing to be thrown out, Remy?” She paused. “Are you willing to lose everything, even your place here at home as a wealthy man's stepdaughter, if it means keeping yourself safe and pure in the sight of the Lord? Please tell me the truth.” Her lips trembled with sisterly concern.
“I am willing,” I said, “but I’ll come up with a plan to keep my home and my pride.”
Elise didn't like the sound of that. “Be careful,” she said. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
Don't make a bargain with the Devil. Right now, he has our stepfather in a chokehold.”
“I won’t,” I replied, “and I never will. However, fools like Auldric beg to be outwitted…”
Just then Capucine, one of our maidservants, called out to Elise happily. She was a very skilled seamstress, and she was the one sewing Elise's wedding gown.*“May I see it?” I asked.
Elise smiled. “Only if I try it on, Remy. It’s not much to see when Capucine has it on her lap, embroidering one part or another. Once I wear it, though, of course you can. You’re my sister!”