(Author's Note: What happens when the "underdog" becomes the "top dog"? Hopefully not THIS! A dark satirical take on Cinderella's aftermath.)
Chapter I: The Wicked Stepmother
"Cinderella married the Prince and lived happily ever after."
Gentle reader, you might recognize this as the end of the tale of poor Cinderella, or Aschenputtel,
or whatever you call her. As for me and the people in our kingdom, we call her Zolushka,
and for us the above line is not the end of her story, but rather the very beginning. Let us start there, when all was well and Cinderella reaped her just reward for being so virtuous and pious. Think back with me...
When Cinderella wed her Prince, the entire kingdom was invited to the nuptials, of course. The royal family spared no expense when it came to the finest food and wine, and the future Princess's wedding gown. Decorators, chefs, musicians and even priests came from miles around to be the lucky few who would perform the ceremony and entertain us at the ball that would surpass all others. (Cinderella loved dancing, of course, though that was not her only talent.) As a child and young girl, due to her being a mere kitchen maid instead of the woman who would someday become Queen, she had none of these marvelous things to enjoy. By heaven, she would now!
Perhaps the wedding was the event that gave Cinderella her first true taste of royal power and privilege. For me, at least, it was hard to tell what she loved more: the Prince who would become her husband or all the trappings that surrounded him--the prestige, the fine clothes, the fawning servants who catered to his every whim. No one at the wedding seemed to notice this, however, or care much about it. They had found their darling Princess, a common girl who had risen to the heights of the kingdom, and nothing could tarnish that image. Why, if the lowly Cinderella could do such a thing, then by the gods, they could, too!
Cinderella and the Prince became husband and wife, changing both their lives forever, but the rest of us in the kingdom went on rather much as before. We slaved from morning till night at the work that would earn us our daily bread, and for those of us who could not work, we either slept in doorways and lived off of stolen scraps of food, or else we scrimped and saved our pennies as best we could. I was one of those frugal widows, living off of the bare bones of a fortune that had vanished years ago. My two daughters lived with me, and since they were both blind and could not see, they could not work either. Something horrid had happened to them--they had their eyes plucked out by angry flocks of doves and pigeons! What sort of witch made that happen?
Only one particular
sort of witch, but that is beside my point. My point is that Cinderella had fallen in love not only with her Prince, but with her role and high status as Princess. Before she became Queen, however, she gladly deigned to fulfill her destiny as the Prince's bride: she gave him an heir to the throne. What--are you saddened by this lack of romance, the absence of any mention of passion or even love in this hard facet of royal life? Alas! Such a thing is the true purpose of any Princess or Queen. If you think I lie, then so be it, but I cannot erase the tears in Cinderella's eyes, gossiped about throughout the kingdom, when she found out her child was a girl!
The Prince had wanted a son, obviously, but fortunately for the former little cleaning wench, he adored his baby daughter so much that he swore she would reign when it came time for both of them to abdicate the royal throne in her favor. He and Cinderella even gave her a beautiful name--a ridiculous name, in my opinion, pretentious and too long even for a Princess, but who am I to decide what the name of the most famous infant since the Prince himself would be? Her name was, and I jest not, "Exalted-Lovely-Kind-Compassionate-Gracious-Pious-Intelligent-Witty-Loving-Sweet-Glorious One." It took thirty seconds to say it. We only called the child "Princess", as Cinderella herself was now our Queen. Joy to us all, and to the whole world besides!
The lovely little girl with the hideously long name grew up, and she eventually reached the age where she began to look down upon our kingdom from the high windows of her luxurious tower bedroom and think.
"Mother? Who are all those people down there that I see, and who are we?"
Cinderella, I've heard from the most reputable of sources, responded:
"Those people down there are the common folk, our subjects who do the humble tasks that need to be done so that our kingdom can prosper. There are bakers down there, and butchers and candlemakers and horsemen. There are women who empty chamber pots and wash laundry. There are even some who make their living scrubbing steps, if you can believe that, so that no one will soil the floors with mud or animal droppings when they enter a building. They scrape their shoes on the steps first, which are washed diligently each day."
The little girl swiveled her head towards her mother: "And who are we?"
"We are the Royal Family, my dear. We are the ones who rule the kingdom! There are important decisions that must be made for the good of all, and for the good of all, someone
has to make them. We are those people, my darling, and that is why our work is the very hardest work of any sort!"
Well, the little Princess believed this for a while, but the older she grew, the less she came to believe it. She saw the kingdom down below and wondered why some came to live within it and others came to live above it. So, she asked her mother once again about this, and the good Cinderella replied: "My sweet daughter, in this world there is a place for everyone, and everyone lives in their place. If we were all kings and queens, who would bake bread? Who would clean the stables and scour the pots and pans after we ate? You would do well to remember how fortunate you are, my little one, instead of sighing and moaning and wondering why things must be the way they are."
Of course, you can imagine how the young Princess reacted, and finally the day came when she made a bold announcement: "I shall not become Queen."
Cinderella laughed. "What is this jest! Of course you'll become Queen! You're a Princess--the daughter of a King and Queen, so it's only natural that you will inherit the throne. Come, come! Let's have a smile, and not this gloom!"
The girl would not back down. "I have chosen to cast my lot with the others who live in this kingdom, Mother, those who do the work we will not do. I still do not understand why the world is the way it is, or must be so, yet I intend to find out. I surrender my right to the throne, and to marry a Prince when I come of age. When I have found my answer, I shall return to you, but not before then." She knelt before Cinderella. "Forgive me, but I must do this."
The Queen, who had once stoked kitchen fires and carried water herself, was absolutely furious. "You ungrateful wretch! Forsaking all that I have achieved for you, for the sake of absolutely nothing! Go, then. Join the subjects you say you love, and see how they receive you. You will soon discover how their adoration plays out, and when you're cold and hungry, you'll see the light! I expect you back on bended knee, my dear, within the week if not the day."
To the abject horror of everyone in the castle, the Princess left, wearing only her plainest dress and cloak, chopping off her hair to sell it if she needed money for food and shelter. When she reached the throngs of the kingdom and the common people asked her name, she merely answered, "Tysyacha. It is our word for 'thousand', and I am indeed one of thousands--one of you." Bless their simple little souls, they believed her, and one of them even bought her hair!
Within the day, however, the Princess's money ran out, and soon she was faced with the problem of where to spend the next few nights. An inn was too expensive by far, so she took her cue from the vagrants, drunkards, and vagabonds of the kingdom and slept in doorways like they did. Ah, to see a Princess fall, especially the exalted daughter of the even more exalted Cinderella! It brought great joy to my heart to hear of her utter shame.
One day, the young girl was caught sleeping on the steps of a shopkeeper, and he woke her up. Startled, she began to gather up her ragged bundle of rusty coins, but the shopkeeper stopped her, gesturing to his dirty steps.
"If you will wash what you have slept on, I will pay you two rubles." This was quite a bit of money for a newly-born beggar like her, and so she agreed. The former Princess worked very hard, singing softly all the while, and the shopkeeper was impressed. He suggested she hire herself out as one of the lowest of the common laborers Cinderella had mentioned, so Tysyacha did. Every day, the girl would wander to the steps of some building or other and work, and the shopkeepers and even nobles were quite taken with her kindness and due diligence.
She sang a song to entice customers. Let me see if I remember how it goes:
Ah, lesnitsiy! Ochen' grazdie!
Vymoyu ikh--tol'ko dvukh rublei!
Da, vsye vashi klienti khotyat
Vsye botniki--chistie. Smotryat!
Vy khotite mne pomogat'?"
No, no, her grammar may not be absolutely perfect, but since when do high-born princesses study its finer points instead of studying dancing, hostessing and looking beautiful? This song was meant to say, "Oh, the steps! They're very dirty. I will wash them for only two rubles. Yes, all your customers want all their boots to be clean. They're looking for that. Do you want to help me?"
Tysyacha eventually came to a blacksmith's shop to work, and the old man's son (who happened to be handsome even when covered in soot) fell head over heels, before his loins even caught up! The 'one of thousands' returned his feelings a thousandfold, and they were very soon married. Oh-ho-ho! Rumors flew like sparrows around the kingdom, and it was soon found out that the pious Queen was dressed in mourning even though no one had died! As far as I know, she still clothes herself in black each day, a vulture perched in the window of her disowned daughter's bedroom. What is she thinking?
Time goes on, and the throne was ascended by a male relative of the Prince. Cinderella continued to play the gracious hostess, humble, kind and good, and as for Tysyacha, she still scrubs steps and plays with her five strapping little boys when she returns home. They do not know of their royal heritage, but when the time comes, my two daughters and I will tell them everything. You see, there is a place for everyone in this world, but we
choose it, not some fairy godmother or petulant deity's plan. We make our own luck, and it is through Tysyacha, this 'one of thousands', that we shall have our revenge. I pay her far more than her normal wage for washing our steps, and soon I will tell her the whole truth about the beautiful one they call Cinderella.
We have paid for our transgressions, all of us--now Cinderella will pay for hers!