A nursemaid is something that should be chosen carefully, if you are a king. Even if you are a king of a not very sizable kingdom that tends to get too much rain and is chiefly known for its lettuce crop (in particular a variety of red lettuce known as ‘Julian’s Head’). You’re still in a position of power, and the nursemaid you choose for your son will spent more time teaching him politics than your wife. And as Julian is wont to say, a nation is only as strong as the feet it stands on.
I have been a nursemaid for a very long time, and I can assure you that the decision was not accidental. I was chosen from a family who had a long history of providing nursemaids to the crown. We were known to be unflappable (important as the red-headed royal line was wont to produce colicky babies), sturdy (lucky as a brief struggle with the neighboring country had resulted on an embargo on all shoes except for the locally made clogs), healthy (fortuitous in a country plagued by rain), and above all, absolutely cunning.
I am cunning.
I also provided a very fine view for those watching me leave, if you get my meaning, which is the real reason why I believe the young king took me on forty years ago. Julian, like all beautiful people, liked to be surrounded by other beautiful people, in case the ugly got on him. His wife, the Queen Ruth, had in fact died ugly, shortly after childbirth, and Julian had never quite recovered.
King Julian had a son, Bertrand, and Bertrand had grown up beautiful and red-headed like his father. Also like his father before him, Bertrand was to marry a girl of true royal blood at the age of seventeen. As his birthday approached, the court whipped into action. We all knew the ritual for finding a true princess; we’d lived through it before. Each time a male member of the royal house began to look for a spouse, a dozen potential girls would descend upon the castle grounds. Each of them would be led to a room that had been prepared exactly the same way: nothing in the room but a lantern and twenty mattresses with twenty feather mattresses piled on top of them. If there were twelve girls, they would sleep there for twelve nights, and each night, one of them had a pea placed under the mattresses. The true princess was the one who could not sleep with such an insult under her bed. The other imposters were killed.
I am kidding.
Of course we didn’t kill the other girls. Who has room to time to bury all those bodies? But the rest of it is true. The entire fate of the kingdom rested on some silly girl feeling some silly vegetable in her bedding.
This is why we all have to wear clogs.
Poor Bertie was feeling the pressure of his birthday week acutely. Seven possibly royal girls had arrived for the possibility of his hand, and he was wrestling with the crushing knowledge that soon he would be wed. What he would be wed to was not as crushing as the overall end to frivolity part.
“My poor lamb,” I said to him as I strangled a chicken for the first royal dinner (six more to go, there were to be one for each potential princess as I do have a sense of humor). And I did feel for him, it was a strange way to lose your independence, a pea. “There’s no use fretting. It’s all in good hands.”
“Peas don’t have hands, Gertie,” he said. “Don’t tell me that the Great One looks down at me from his castle in the clouds and plucks the spinal chord of the princess who lays upon the pea. Because I do not believe he cares what becomes of my social life.”
“Not many people do,” I agreed. “Still, I don’t see what point you have fussing over it. You have nothing to do with it. Go meet them all.”
Bertie did not want to meet them all, but he was so used to doing what I told him to do — I had been his nursemaid for seventeen years, after all — that he went and met them anyway.
There were all pretty largely terrible. Most people who claim to be royalty are. You’ll notice that in fairy tales, actually. The world’s chock full of stories of princes hiding themselves as paupers and princesses solving problems while their identities remain secret. No one quite cares about the other way around. Some sod born in a corn field while his mum spit cud into a can who then grows up and falsely claims to be a prince is just not sympathetic. I wished more people would realize they were making asses of themselves before they claimed to be royalty.
Also, seven beds made of forty mattresses each is a lot of bed-making to do, and it’d be useful if people would stop wasting my time.
Bertie, unlike his father, was less concerned about looks and more concerned with striking up a conversation with a potential princess who seemed to have a background in cobbling. That would be shoe-making, for those of you who were born in a cornfield while your mother chewed her cud. Shoe-making is not a particularly royal activity, but Bertie, fatigued as we all were by the clogs, was quite intrigued.
He was less intrigued by the princess who asked him why the lettuces were not called Bertrand’s Head lettuces. Also by the princess who followed him, composing poetry on the spot and singing him songs about him being her lovely summer boy. Also by the princess who spent so much time being beautiful she had no time left to speak to him.
I and the other members of the royal household could only watch the festivities for a few hours, however, because then we had to make ready the feast, and then, while they ate the feast, their bedrooms. Twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds times seven while I and the servants and the stable boys and the cooks and the seamstresses debated back and forth which princess we hoped would prevail and which would make our beloved Bertrand happy. It was not a clear consensus — it never is — but still, there was a general winner.
After the feast, I entered the great hall and stood in front of King Julian. Behind me, the princesses had accepted the tokens which corresponded with each room they would be staying in. Each token represented one of the great treasures of our land. Clogs, of course. The lettuce. A beetle that lived only in the mudlands near the castle. The Great Stickle-backed Dagger of Saint Paulie, one of our ancient heroes. King Julian’s face. And for the last princess, a trumpet, which was the only instrument played by none of Julian’s subjects. I eyed them all, particularly the songstress (she held the beetle), the beautiful girl (she had the dagger), and the cobbler (she had the lettuce). Bertrand eyed me. He looked nervous.
Then I accepted the pea from King Julian, with great ceremony. They all watched as I left the great hall (Julian more than any; some things just never change) to place the pea in one of the rooms.
Down through the corridors I went, past the door marked with the trumpet, the dagger, the beetle. No one was there as I opened the door marked with the lettuce. I went to the pile of mattresses — ugh, there would be so much washing when this was all done — and slid the pea underneath them all.
Then, because Julian’s kingdom is a democracy and a pea is a ridiculous way to choose a monarch, I climbed to the very top of the mattresses, pulled off the fitted sheet, and put one of my clogs in the middle of the bed. Then I remade the sheets and climbed back down, filled with the sense of fulfillment that comes from having voted.
The common prompt for this month is “Princess and the Pea (The Real Princess),” by Edmund Dulac