Cap O' Donkey Sorrow
A retelling of Cap O' Rushes... or Donkey Skin... or Sapsorrow
Once upon a time, there was a king who knew that the time had come. When his queen had died leaving him with three daughters and no sons, he began to dread the day he'd have to select only one of them to take the crown from his head. He had delayed, he had hemmed and hawed, but now, years and years later, he knew that his ministers and advisors were right- a successor must be named.
He felt the burden of age weighing heavily upon him, and longed to disperse the equal weight of leading the kingdom. If he mentioned his advancing age to his oldest daughter, she never hesitated to agree, pointing to the ever-deepening lines on his face and the fact that his white hairs were outnumbering his black ones, making him feel even older than before he'd said anything. When his advancing age was brought to the attention of his youngest daughter, she would superciliously concur, then proceed to suggest a trip to somewhere with healing waters or refreshing air- always somewhere far, far away.
But the king's second eldest daughter would laugh at such notions, and dismiss them with a wave of her strong, square hand. She would kiss her king's cheek and embrace him quickly about the shoulders. Then, inevitably, she would remind him of the difference between being old and simply being older than one has been in the past. He could remember the fastness and strength of his younger self, but that did not mean that this current version of his body was decrepit, only that it was different than it had been. Then she would take his arm, letting him lead her on a perambulation about the castle grounds until he felt the dust blown from his bones and beard and found himself laughing in the renewing sunshine.
Truth be told, the king dearly wished he could simply name his second daughter his heir and have done with any other blustering. But traditions must be kept, even when they are being established as one goes along. No one could remember or even find account of any previous king suffering a lack of male heirs; everyone understood that naming a female heir apparent would have to entail much pomp and ceremony. It was the king who had to decide the method, and he spent much time contemplating before arriving at a solution that he was certain would yield positive results.
It was announced that a great ball was to be held (for if one wished to stand upon ceremony, a ball offered the best footing). Preparations took months and all in the land were atwitter, knowing that this must be time of some sort of trial, sorting the princesses according to which was most deserving of the crown.
The oldest daughter, whose name was Rose, spent weeks designing her dress and thinking of new ways to wear her hair and jewels, ways which would speak to her queenly bearing- she was determined that all would look upon her and think her the only sister who looked the part. The youngest daughter, named Adeline, spent weeks studying the history of the land and its laws, determined that her knowledge would help her win out over her sisters. She knew she was smarter than either and this would certainly win her an edge.
But the middle daughter, Irene, refused to change one thing about herself. Her father knew her, and knew whether she would make a good queen. He knew her heart as she knew his, and she could not believe he would allow an arbitrary measurement to separate them. For, in truth, she cared not whether she was queen, princess, or even a peasant. Irene cared only for the comforts of home- she relished spending hours in the kitchen, loving the feel of raw dough shaping itself into a loaf of bread beneath her hands; or she would spend all day curled up in a corner of the library, forgetting where she was, losing herself in the words of another; or she would take quill to paper and write languid yet clever letters to relatives in the neighboring kingdoms, letters shedding light on the comings and goings of the royal family and all who shared their household.
And so the time of the ball arrived, and all from the kingdom were gathered. The ladies wore gowns of such richness and luxury none could decide who was richest and finest until Princess Rose entered, and easily eclipsed them all. Her luxuriant brunette hair was gathered into twists and braids and curls, piled upon her head but still spilling over her peaches and cream shoulders, brushing just barely against the deep blood-red velvet of her gown. To describe her loveliness and regal bearing past this would be useless, but some of the assembled there that night felt an almost unavoidable urge to kneel and hail her on sight. She drank it all in with a satisfaction that never showed on her carefully smiling lips as she floated about, greeting all the dignitaries in the proper order and making all feel welcome and valued.
Adeline entered shortly thereafter, dressed in an austere raiment of slate gray which some at first found lacking and plain. But then they noticed that she had instead been wise, knowing she could never compare to the beauty of her older sister. Instead she had dressed sensibly and demurely, which allowed her to slip into a group of visiting philosophers and law-makers almost unnoticed. But soon her words and arguments had them all entranced to the point that they forgot to consider her appearance and instead allowed their thoughts to be swayed by her intelligent, well-reasoned, and eloquently spoken arguments. In the space of ten minutes, half of them wanted to cede their positions of power to her, secure in the knowledge that she would be a better judge and teacher than any of them ever could.
The gathered crowds began to crane their necks; all were curious to see Irene's entrance. She was already in their midst, though those who had noticed this previously quite forgot in light of her sisters' arrivals. She had quickly yet with a friendly manner greeted nearly everyone in the room. She had ensured that the servers were circulating properly, and everyone had everything they could desire in the way of refreshment. She had danced a single dance with her father, making him laugh and enjoy himself far more than he had expected on so serious an evening as this. When her sisters entered she was occupied in a corner of them room where the children of the important grown-ups had been sent. She encouraged them to dance and to laugh as she had done with her father. To the non-dancers among them she had told jokes and stories, then sang some songs, until everyone was so happy they'd attended, they quite forgot that earlier that night they'd begged their parents to leave them at home.
Finally, the king knew he could delay no longer, that after years and years, the moment of truth (or moment of doom, quite possibly) had arrived and must be faced. He gave a signal and a gong resounded through the hall, silencing all within hearing. All eyes turned to the king as he strode to the dais at one end of the hall and ascended the steps. With a grand gesture, he began to speak.
"My most humble and true thanks to all of you for attending this very auspicious event! I hope you are all having a splendid time and enjoying one another's company, for that is largely why I have called you together. But, then, there is another purpose to this evening. I know you've all guessed it, though I've said it aloud to no one.
"As you all know, my beloved Queen-"
As the custom demanded, all present lowered their eyes and murmured in unison, "May she rest in peace."
"- has been gone for many years, and with her any hope of a son to whom I can leave my kingdom at the time of my passing. But I have, instead, three wonderful daughters. This land would be well cared for if any of these three beautiful women were declared the head to bear the crown."
The king had to pause in the midst of a chorus of "Hear hear!"s that sounded around the room.
"But tradition states that the job of ruler can be assumed by only one of them. And so it is up to me to decide which of my princesses shall one day become queen. And so, let them come forward!"
Rose seemed to glide up from the assembled crowd, and stood before her father. Adeline somehow appeared to melt forward from her flock of intellectuals, to stand at her sister's side. Irene had a child in her arms, but set the girl down so that she, too, could stand with her sisters.
The King gazed at his daughters, saddened in his soul that he was about to force them to turn on each other, and once more thought a small curse at his forbears for not setting precedence which included some sort of system whereby siblings might rule together. He considered Rose's dark beauty, Adeline's pale beauty which set off her eyes which seemed to nearly glow with her racing thoughts, and Irene's rosy brand of happiness which flushed her cheeks and seemed to emanate love and peace.
"Daughters mine!" He spoke directly to them, yet his ringing tones carried to every corner of the rather large room. "Tell me: how much do you love me?"
Rose's face never moved, she did not react to the question, though it seemed out of place given their audience and the entire setting. Instead she knelt at her father's feet and, likewise, spoke loudly enough for the room to hear. "Father, I love you more than my own life."
He nodded his head the slightest bit, as if the answer was merely adequate, and moved to stand before Adeline. She bowed like her sister had done, but turned her face up to her father's from her lowered position. "Father, I cherish you more than I do my own blood."
The King smiled slightly at her, and moved to stand before Irene.
Every nerve inside of Irene was screaming, a thousand thoughts crowded through her mind, racing about each other until they seemed to create a whirlwind. She resented this ceremony, whatever it was. She wanted to scream at them all to cease pretending that love was something which could be measured in such terms, and whether any princess's love for her king was the best way to assess her suitability as a ruler of thousands and thousands of subjects. She wanted to refuse to take part of this silliness, and she wanted to ask her father what he though he would accomplish by doing things in this way.
Instead of fleeing, instead of refusing, instead of screaming, she reached into the whirlwind of her thoughts and hit upon one breath in the storm. That breath held the truth of everything about this moment, and she spoke it in a hurried, though assertive, voice.
"Father, I love you as fresh meat loves salt."
She did not kneel, she stood facing him. In that moment he saw only her defiance, her refusal to play along with the necessary games of court. He tried to reason out her answer, but his mind only burned with frustration that she would not acquiesce to the way things must be done. Her lack of obedience quite wiped any possible translation of her answer from his mind, and he heard only her defiance. His head felt warm, his breathing came quicker, and he felt an anger and anguish like he had seldom known overtake him. When he spoke it was not as a loving father, but as an angered king.
"If that is the best answer you have to offer, then I can say only one thing in return: leave this place and never return!"
She heard the turn of his voice (and the shocked gasping of the crowd), and saw the confusion and anger in his eyes. Something about him made her want to flinch, to shield herself from the horror of his declaration, heard by all and sundry. He was casting her from her home, her family, all that her life was.
But Irene did not cower and beg for forgiveness. She did not scream and cry. She only nodded her head and said in a voice that was so, so calm, "If it be your will, my father and king."
She turned and left the room, left the castle, left the kingdom, and kept walking. The crying and mourning for what had passed overtook her one the road; but she did not stop walking. She did not stop until she was many, many leagues from her homeland.
Then, by the light of the setting sun (for an entire day had passed as she put distance between herself and all she had known), she saw something odd on the side of the road. At first she thought it was a slumbering animal, but it did not stir as she noisily approached. She thought it might be a dead animal, but she got ever closer and noticed no meat beneath the expanse of fur. She finally touched it, picked it up, and realized that it was the skin of a donkey. It had been cleaned and dried, and the head was still attached, but there it was in her hands.
A cool breeze crept around a nearby hill, and she had one of those moments when suddenly one realizes one is cold, and has been cold for a while without noticing. Being a sensible young woman, she wrapped the donkey skin about her, its head fitting like an odd cap over her own. She knew she must look odd, but she did not care one whit; for it felt like the warmest, loveliest things she'd ever put on her skin.
And so it was that Princess Irene left things of royalty behind in another land, arrived at a richly appointed estate, and found work as a scullery maid in the guise of a donkey girl.
Author's Note: As I said, this story is to be a mash-up of Cap O' Rushes, Donkey Skin, and Sapsorrow (Sapsorrow being the episode of Jim Henson's Storyteller which is, apparently, based on a story by the Brothers Grimm called Allerleirauh- but as my closest acquaintance with this story is via Storyteller and the amazing writing of Anthony Minghella, I'll stick with that). They're the same story, but they're different, and I'm making them all even more of both by mixing them up, adding and subtracting. Some changes to the versions you know will be intentional, some accidental- but I tend to appreciate such distinctions as being par for the course in the tradition of storytelling and hope any of you die-hards will like what I'm doing and go along. Feel free to review, as I do appreciate encouragement. Thank you!
P.S. I don't know how I feel about that title... For now, I'll keep it, but it might well change if something else strikes me as better.