Reality leaves a lot to the imagination – John Lennon
I am not a princess. I know this because of the story of the Princess & the Pea. For those who don’t know the story: There once lived a prince, handsome, brave, wise, good etc. In addition to all the royal cliches he was also stubborn as a donkey in his elitist resolve to marry a real princess. So he looked high & low (and why is it I wonder that no one ever thinks to look in the middle?) but in vain. There were no real princesses to be found. Only a handful of hopeful imposters. His mother, the queen (a real one of course,) began (in the manner of most mothers,) to grow increasingly anxious that her precious son would never settle down.
Until one proverbial dark & stormy night there came a knocking at the palace door. And when the queen opened it, she found dripping on her doorstep a much bedraggled creature who claimed to be Princess Yennithingkanbi (but to please call her Princess Yenni for short). Of course there was nothing to do but invite her in and offer her a dry towel and a hot cup of tea. And over tea the two of them began to talk about poetry and chocolate and the poetry of chocolate and by the end of it all the queen had decided in her heart of hearts that this was the woman her son must marry. Only there was of course this question of realness to be settled. Not quite the sort of question she could insert into polite conversation with a houseguest (royal etiquette eschews blunt forthrightness). So with the inventiveness born of maternal anxiety she devised a subtle if somewhat elaborate test.
The queen went down to her garden and picked a fresh pea pod. She split it open and surveyed the green pearl contents with an air of satisfaction. Four of the five peas she popped into her mouth (They were delicious. Fresh-picked peas always are), the fifth she took with her into the guest chamber and placed it carefully under the mattress of its fine feather bed. So far so simple. She then proceeded to pile on top of this mattress 99 of her finest spare feather mattresses. This unusual feat accomplished she then brought in the garden ladder, placed it on top of the kitchen stool, perched the kitchen stool precariously on an old dressing table and then stood back to examine the result. It was rather- unique. But she knew that if the princess were a Real Princess (and even if she was a passable Imposter) she wouldn’t raise so much as half a regal eyebrow at her sleeping arrangements. And she didn’t. When the time came to say Good-night, Princess Yenni thanked the queen prettily for her kindness before turning towards the bed. She paused for a moment mid-step and looked back- the queen held her breath waiting for what would come next. Then- “Sweet Dreams,” said Princess Yenni, before slipping off her shoes and climbing nimbly up the garden ladder placed on the kitchen stool balanced precariously on an old dressing table.
“Sweet Dreams, ” said the queen in a rather strangled whisper, before gliding out of the room and shutting the door. And for the record it must be said that once safely on the other side she closed her eyes and whispered a swift unspecific prayer for forgiveness. There are no rules in the Royal Book of Etiquette that explicitly forbid putting your houseguest in a bed on top of 100 mattresses resting on a single pea from your garden- but it struck the queen that the action might be deemed inhospitable in certain circles. A niggling thought, but the niggle passed. After all a hostess’s pride to a mother’s love is liable. And so the queen retired to her own bed, to sleep and dream restlessly of flying feather mattresses, thunderstorms and a wedding feast of chocolate and green pea salad.
In the clear light of morning the queen sat in the Royal Breakfast room twisting her table napkin in an absent-minded way until the door opened, and Princess Yennithingkanbi stepped in with a bright-faced, “Good Morning!” The queen was at once so relieved and so happy to see her that she stood up without her usual composed grace and sent the teapot flying. It was quite awhile before the mess was cleared up and the two were able to sit down to a by then slightly cold breakfast.
“And did you sleep well my dear?” asked the queen, as she poured the freshly made pot of tea, pretending polite interest. Princess Yenni laughed and said, ” Not a wink.” The queen with barely concealed delight said, ” I am so sorry to hear that- whatever kept you up- I hope your bed wasn’t uncomfortable?”. The alleged princess took a sip of her tea and pronounced it “Splendid” before saying, ” The bed was perfectly comfortable- a little bumpy but I didn’t mind that at all- a little bumpiness is always to be expected when you are sleeping in a new place- it is just that I am rather unaccustomed to sleeping so close to the ceiling, and since I have a rather uncontrollable tendency to roll over in the middle of the night, and have been known to roll myself right out of bed sometimes, I was worried about doing something of the sort here, and I knew if I did fall out of bed there was a fair chance I’d hit the garden ladder and send it and the kitchen stool and the old dresser not to mention all those mattresses tumbling down to the ground- and that would have made a rather frightful racket at some ungodly hour and doubtless woken you out of a sound sleep and I just thought that would be a rather ungrateful way of repaying your enormous kindness in taking me in for the night, so I decided the best thing to do was not fall asleep, and lay awake in the dark instead, telling stories to myself all night and I had a perfectly grand time of it- so really-you’re not to worry. May I have some more of that splendid tea please?”
Of course at the end of this charmingly delivered explanation the queen found herself in somewhat of a “situation”. Her first thought was that she really ought to confess to having placed that confounded pea under all those confounded mattresses in order to test the bonafideness of Princess Yenni’s princessness. Her second thought was that she ought to apologize for having ever held stock with such a ridiculous test in the first place and for robbing a tired traveller of a good night’s sleep for no good enough reason, and the third thought that arose was- Who Gives a Cat’s Whisker about royalty anyway? Because anyone considerate enough to tell themselves stories all night just to keep themselves from creating a ruckus loud enough to wake the household that had afforded them such hospitality- anyone like that was a real sweetheart regardless of royal status or lack thereof.
What the queen did next was to confess, apologize, and say, Who Gives A Cat’s Whisker about Royalty anyway? Because whenever she found herself in any sort of “situation” she tended to go with the first three things that came into her head just like that. Princess Yenni laughed so hard hearing the story that she upset the freshly made pot of tea and a second mess had to be cleared up before she could keep a straight face for more than fifteen seconds. And by the end of it even the queen couldn’t help grinning a little. Because you’ll have to admit there was a decidedly ridiculous angle to the whole affair.
“Oh but you absolutely must write this up as a short story,” said Princess Yenni finally. “It is exactly the sort of thing the public would adore!” ” Do you really think so?” asked the queen with a shy light of happy hopefulness in her eyes (she had always wanted to be a writer- because the being a queen thing did get old after awhile). “Oh absolutely,” said Princess Yenni. “I’d say do it right away while it’s all still fresh in your mind, don’t bother about clearing up the table, I’ll do that- you go write the story now.” And so the queen rose from the table and excused herself with girlish excitement, while Princess Yenni began piling up the dirty dishes to take back to the kitchen.
It was while she was carrying a particularly high stack of them towards the door that the tired prince came home after another futile excursion into the world in search of the elusive Real Princess of his dreams. He wondered briefly through his tiredness who the new help was and how on earth she managed to carry so many dishes at once, before ordering her in an amiably exhausted sort of way to bring him a strong cup of coffee, fresh toast and some red currant jam. Princess Yenni turned in some surprise. A teacup tottered dangerously at the top of the stack and then fell with an air of fatality onto the big toe of the tired prince. ” Oops,” said Princess Yenni with a friendly smile. The prince picked a few painted fragments off the floor, surveyed them closely for the first time and decided he didn’t much care for old china. ” You know I don’t think you have to carry in everything all at once,” he offered mildly. ” That’s probably true, ” said Princess Yenni, as a couple of saucers slid towards the floor and shattered cheerfully. The prince looked up in some alarm, ” I do believe that teapot is about to fall,” he said with an anxious crease between his brows. Princess Yenni looked up, ” I do believe you are right,” she said pleasantly, “And that will be the third one this morning- which would be rather a shame don’t you think?” “Indeed,” said the prince uncertainly, he was not used to morning conversation being punctuated by falling china, it was really all rather – unnerving- “Maybe I should take that from you,” he offered, and just then the teapot dove towards the floor and would have come to an untimely end, but for the prince who threw off his tiredness and dove after it to make a rather brilliant save. When he stood up again, bearing the teapot all in one piece, he felt rather strangely invigorated. It was such an intriguing feeling that he continued to help with the clearing of the breakfast table. “I’m Prince Charming,” he offered, picking up the butter dish. “Yennithingkanbe,” she said, throwing him a quick smile over her shoulder.
Prince Charming ended up doing most of the dishes that morning and by the time the last dish was dry the queen had typed up her story and sent it off to half a dozen publishers, and the prince had decided in his heart of hearts that he didn’t care a Cat’s Whisker for royalty because it was just realness that mattered, and he’d found it this morning in a manner most unexpected watching a strange young woman clearing the breakfast table and breaking the breakfast china….
I didn’t mean to cut such a short story long here. I just remembered the story of the Princess & the Pea today in a very different context –thinking of how as we become more attentive to ourselves we become more aware of all the rough spots within…the little green pea irregularities we don’t feel through the feather-down of the one-hundred mattresses because we are not real enough to strip away their comforting untruths. etc etc :-)), but also thinking about the truth of the imagination and where does one draw the line between fiction and falsehood? This question too can be a little green pea sometimes, keeping us awake at night.
All I really know is that when I first read the story of the Princess and the Pea, I placed a raisin (for lack of fresh garden peas) underneath my mattress that night. And slept like a baby to wake to the bearable if slightly disappointing-at-the-time truth: I was not a princess. And when I started to write this it was about reality and the imagination that I meant to talk about. Because I think I am just beginning to understand the prose and the cons of it all. And it can all be quite an adventure if you’re inclined to see it that way (and I am so inclined). But maybe we’ll talk about this another day.
In the interest of tying up loose ends and popularizing the queen’s version of the story, I will have you know that she found a publisher right away- only of course the editors changed the ending. They maintained the public wasn’t ready yet for something as radical as the truth. And so in their version the princess comes down to breakfast and complains bitterly about the bumpiness of the bed that she claims has left her black and blue. In their version the delighted queen jumps up and rushes out to order the wedding cake and print up the invitations. And the prince shows up at the very end for the – “and then they were married and lived happily ever after” part and then they say (as they always do) “The End”.
Except it never really is- is it?
The queen’s ending (since you ask and since I am inclined today to tell) went like this:
The rest as they say (and if they don’t they should) is- mystery.