“The Princess with the Lily-white Feet” by Ludmila Petrushevskaya
Once upon a time there lived a Youngest Princess, and everybody loved her. She had tiny little hands like rose petals, and her tiny white feet were like lily petals. On the one hand, this was pretty, but on the other hand, the Youngest Princess was almost too delicate and sensitive – she’d cry at the slightest provocation. She wasn’t exactly reprimanded for it, but the family certainly didn’t condone such behaviour, either. “You can’t let yourself fall apart like that!” her Mama, Papa, Grandma, and King-granddaddy used to say. “You have to keep yourself in hand. You’re a big girl now.”
This would only hurt her feelings even more, and the Youngest Princess would take to crying again.
Nevertheless, there came a time when a Prince came to woo the Princess, which is the way it’s meant to be.
The Prince was tall, handsome, and gentle. “A fine pair!” everybody in the kingdom agreed.
The Prince and the Princess went on lots of walks, they danced together, and the Princess – and for her this was totally unheard of – wove flower garlands on the meadow for the Prince and for herself, garlands of cornflowers every bit as blue as the Prince’s eyes.
The Prince and the Princess were betrothed, which is the way it was meant to be – that is, they were declared fiancé and fiancée. Then the Prince rode back to his own kingdom.
The Youngest Princess stayed home and started crying. Everyone disapproved of such behaviour; they even called the doctor. The doctor talked a bit with the Princess and unexpectedly prescribed not sedatives, which is the way it’s meant to be, but pain pills. Because it turned out that the Youngest Princess had overexerted herself with all that dancing and walking and chafed her tender little hands and feet till they were sore and bleeding.
Time passed, the wedding grew near, but the bride kept crying, sitting in bed and favouring her bandaged hands and feet. She couldn’t walk or hold a cup of tea in her hands: she was fed by her old nurse, who held her cup for her, too.
The doctor, however, optimistically predicted that everything would heal up before the wedding, and said the Youngest Princess was simply too delicate and too sensitive, a crybaby with no self-discipline, and that was the fruit of her improper upbringing in the family, but as soon as the Prince returned she would get up and dance and move her hands just the way she used to. “It’s all psychological,” said the doctor, and kept feeding the Princess pain pills.
Then the old nurse gathered together some photos of the Youngest Princess and set off to see a sorcerer. She brought back an enigmatic answer: “He who loves, carries in his arms.”
This phrase soon became legendary with absolutely everybody who had loved the Princess so much since she was a baby, when she used to smile blissfully, showing her first four tiny teeth and the two little dimples in her cheeks, when her little ringlets were like golden silk, and her little eyes like forget-me-nots.
And who didn’t love the Princess! Everybody loved her: Papa and Mama, Grandaddy and Gram, the King and Queen. They would remember what a wonderful baby she’d been, how loveable and cute, with her four tiny little teeth. When the rest of the teeth came in, the picture deteriorated a bit. The crying and the crankiness began, and things even went so far that, in response to the question “Well, are we now finished pouting at every last little thing?” the Princess generally didn’t even answer, which was impolite to say the least – particularly when it was the King and Queen inquiring, and on the palace telephone at that. After all, when people take the trouble to call you, you should be polite and say something!
Anyway, under the tutelage of the old nurse, they would come one at a time to pick up the Princess and carry her in their arms. Which, of course, was a really heroic feat, particularly when you consider that the Queen-gram, for example, was a lady with no experience in such things, who had never lifted anything heavier than a wine goblet. And the Princess-Mama didn’t even begin to know how to get a grip on her already fairly weighty daughter. Fragile or not, nevertheless the Youngest Princess was no baby any more – fifteen years old is nothing to sneeze at!
But, straining every muscle, they would lift the Youngest Princess. At first she didn’t understand what was going on, and even threw fits because she wanted to be left alone, until it was all explained to her by the old nurse. Even then the Youngest Princess continued to rain tears. She didn’t even appreciate the world record set by the Prince-Papa, who lifted her twenty-two centimetres off the bed! “Every tabloid journalist in the world would be here tomorrow,” announced the Prince-Papa, “if it leaked out that roses are red, violets are blue, our daughter is a crybaby and a wet noodle, too.”
Then the old nurse would carry the Youngest Princess around the bedroom for ten whole minutes, as in her childhood, to pacify her, but as she was walking around, the nurse began to remember her gripes: instead of a drumstick, the cook had left her some kind of hairy turkey elbow, and her grandchildren were running around the village alone without anyone looking after them. You live here, and you put yourself out like a plucked chicken, and you get no gratitude.
“But you do love me, of course, don’t you?” – asked the Youngest Princess, when the nurse, tuckered out from running around with her burden, put her precious little Princess back on the bed.
“And why shouldn’t I love you?” the nurse answered, grumbling. “If I didn’t love you, I certainly wouldn’t have hung around this long for the salary they pay me!”
So it happened that everybody was carrying the Youngest Princess around in their arms, but she wasn’t getting any better.
Then they began to say that the sorcerer was incompetent, or maybe the old nurse had jumbled something. “And what the heck is this, anyway?” asked the doctor, indignant. “He who loves, carries in his arms. We won’t talk about individual cases, but you don’t see me getting carried around! They don’t even carry the Queen!”
Everybody agreed with this, and started to say you had to understand the phrase to mean that the Youngest Princess herself didn’t have it in her to love anyone, that’s what it was hinting at.
Meanwhile the Princess sat in her bedroom, and the nurse kept nagging her to call the Prince, but the Princess wouldn’t do it. She just kept crying, “Why doesn’t the Prince call me himself?” Finally the Prince did call, and the receiver was held by the angry nurse, who was annoyed because the conversation went on for two hours and she missed out on dinner, and she was also ticked off that in the course of the entire conversation the Youngest Princess managed not to cry even once, and, in fact, laughed the whole time.
“You snotty little faker!” said the nurse, putting down the receiver after two hours. “You can too keep from crying!”
The nurse went off on her tea break and informed the whole court that things weren’t so bad with the Youngest Princess – she was laughing already. Everyone congratulated the doctor, they immediately raised his salary, and the Youngest Princess’s phone began to ring off the hook. The nurse would pick up the receiver and put it to the ear of her Little Miss Fussbudget but she answered all questions on the order of “Well, are we smiling yet?” with a downpour of tears, managing neither a “thank you” nor an “I couldn’t care less,” as the nurse put it later in the kitchen.
Of course, when the wedding was all set and the Prince arrived, the bandages came off and no word was said to the Prince or the Youngest Princess. They scheduled a ball for that evening, the way it’s meant to be.
Special thick gloves and boots were made ready for the Princess. Once she had been dressed for the ball, it goes without saying she stopped crying right then and there, and let them do her hair in a long plait with white roses braided in. “Well, what did I tell you?” asked the nurse, doing the circuit of the palace corridors, and the cook forked over a big piece of cake in celebration.
Everybody was smiling, except that the doctor promptly quit and left with his seventy new suitcases.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish!” said the nurse, savouring her victory by tossing down, somewhat ahead of schedule, three shots of vodka. “What do we need him for? Feh, you call that a doctor? Any orderly can give you a pill three times a day after meals, and I could have done just as well for the money he got.”
Anyway, the Prince invited the Princess for a walk. Everybody understood that after a walk the Youngest Princess wouldn’t be able to stand through the whole wedding ceremony, so they informed the Prince that the Princess preferred to go for a ride. The Prince understood this literally and sent the Princess his Arabian filly. They had just enough time to change the reins for silk ones. When she came out into the courtyard, the Princess asked the Prince to take her in his arms and put her in the saddle.
“There are servants to do that,” said the Prince, smiling.
“I want you alone to do it,” said the Youngest Princess.
“What kind of a whim is this?” asked the Prince, smiling, and summoned the servants, who lifted the Youngest Princess into the saddle like a piece of fluff and placed the silk reins in her delicate hands.
And off they rode.
The Prince was a manly and sporting youth who couldn’t stand slobbering, sighs, or sentimentality. Moreover, he was vaguely aware by hearsay that the Princess was spoiled and in general a big baby and he decided to begin her re-education from ground zero, even before the wedding.
On the way to the forest, the Youngest Princess told him, as her closest friend, the whole story of her illness, up to and including the words of the sorcerer. So it was not a whim of hers, but actually a method of treatment, to pick her up in his arms.
The Prince didn’t believe a word.
“Old wives’ tales!” he said.
Then the Youngest Princess brought the filly to a halt and with great difficulty drew the glove off her little hand.
The Prince took a look, recoiled, and asked loudly: “But why? Why didn’t they warn me that you’re sick? Perhaps you’ll bear sickly children! Sickly heirs – that’s unacceptable! The fate of the state, the fate of the kingdom, and, in the end, of the whole nation is at stake!”
Frightened and upset, the Prince gave the reins such a tug that his horse reared, threw him, and galloped off by itself. The Prince lay unconscious on the forest path, white as chalk, a trickle of blood flowing from his mouth.
The Youngest Princess climbed down from her horse. By petting and persuasion she got it to lie down, and then, as best she could, she picked up the Prince and plopped him on the back of the intelligent filly. Then the horse rose, carrying the lifeless Prince on its back, and the Princess took the reins in her hands and led the horse back to the castle.
At the gates of the castle the sentries took away the Prince and took away the Youngest Princess, and serving girls came running to sweep off the forest path on which the Princess had left the bloody prints of her little boots.
The Prince soon recovered and was getting ready to clear out of the castle where they had tried to palm off a defective bride on him.
As he was leading his spirited horse out of the stable, he met a priest he knew, who was heading for the gate with portmanteau in hand. The priest congratulated the Prince on his recovery and said:
“You’re not staying for the funeral?”
“Somebody died?” inquired the Prince.
“Our Youngest Princess,” answered the priest. “I’ve already given her the last rites, she has only a few minutes left.”
“She was really sick,” sighed the Prince, “they say even the doctor threw up his hands and left.”
“You, too, were gravely ill just now,” said the priest. “If she hadn’t picked you up and plopped you on her horse, it would have been you they’d be burying today.”
“Yes, for all I know I could have been left a cripple! The Princess saved my life, of course. But she deceived me. When we were talking on the phone, she should have been crying in pain, but she was laughing! Whenever I remember those hands of hers I shudder.”
“Yes, it’s possible she’d have died long ago, if she hadn’t loved you. It’s only for your sake she’s remained among the living.”
“Yes, I really ought to say goodbye,” the Prince muttered in confusion, leading his mount back into the stable, and heading up to the chambers of the Youngest Princess.
He entered the bedroom of his former fiancée, looked at her, and his heart quivered with pity. The Princess was lying there, small as a sleeping child, and next to her sat the nurse, purple with tears.
The Prince pretended he knew nothing, strode decisively to the Princess’s bier and said:
“Hey, there! So I’m all recovered! What are you doing lying there, malingering? Come on, get up, they’re treating you like some kind of invalid. You need sunshine, fresh air, sport, exercise!”
He pushed aside the infuriated nurse who leapt to bar his way, and scooped up the Princess. She turned out to be light and slender, and he carried her as fast as he could to the window, while the nurse ran after him tugging at his jacket:
“She’s dead! What are you, deaf?”
Balancing the Princess on one arm, the Prince drew aside the heavy curtains, quickly opened the window and saw that the Youngest Princess was looking at him with her eyes wide open.
“What are you jiggling her for, they’ve already closed her eyes!” hissed the nurse, reaching to the Princess, but the Prince shielded his burden with his back and quickly kissed the Princess on the lips – somewhere he’d read that was the way to revive Princesses.
“It’s too late, too late!” wailed the nurse, “You should have done it sooner, you fool. You’ve let your happiness slip away, the girl was so affectionate and obedient.”
The Princess looked attentively at the Prince, her eyes wide open, then winked and burst out laughing.
And the nurse, behind the Prince’s back, sighed and whispered:
“He who loves, carries in his arms, he who loves, carries in his arms.”
It goes without saying they celebrated the wedding that very evening. The Princess danced at the ball, as it was meant to be, ate with a knife and fork, and did not need any gloves at all.
They sent the sorcerer a huge cake, a barrel of wine, and a colour photograph of the Princess putting the wedding ring on the Prince’s finger.
Translated by Jane Taubman