Only As Strong As the Feet We Stand On

King Julian never knew his kingdom was a democracy, and had been for three generations.

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

72 thoughts on “Only As Strong As the Feet We Stand On

  1. Oh, WONDERFUL. I do love clogs.

    We used to have a parade in my hometown called Klompenfest, and the very last float was a giant wooden shoe, and the Fall Fair Ambassador would ride in it.

  2. HA! I’ve always liked the versions where someone put another object like a bowling ball or clog in this case between the beds so the girl would most definitely be uncomfortable. Though I don’t see this as being democratic unless you squint, close one eye, and tilt your head a little.

  3. Oh that’s so cool. Lovely twist on such a weird fairy tale. I especially like the first and last lines and the narrator’s voice.

  4. “Also by the princess who followed him, composing poetry on the spot and singing him songs about him being her lovely summer boy.”


    Lovely and droll! This felt as if you were channeling a bit of “Stardust”-era Gaiman, which is NEVER a bad thing.

  5. Giggling over β€œher lovely summer boy.” (-: Nice touch with the chickens and the killing of the imposters. And as always thanks for the great story!

  6. I like it a lot. πŸ˜€ I’ve always liked that someone puts something under the first sheet so that girl can win. πŸ˜€

  7. Well, that’s simple enough to explain. It’s “one person, one vote”, you see, and she’s the one person and that’s her one vote.


    Β«running away very fast nowΒ»

  8. β€œNot many people do,” I agreed. β€œStill, 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.

    This is what it is like to be the mother of a fairly well-behaved teenage boy. Hence, my lawn gets mowed. I sincerely doubt I will have any influence over the girls my sons choose, but I rather like your fairy tale take on the whole thing.

    Thank you for the Monday morning laugh.

  9. I have to say, this is probably one of the funniest things that has to do with Princess and the Pea that I have ever read.

    Love it! Love it! Love it! I can see you being the nursemaid pigtails and ‘ask me about my shape shifting’ shirt to boot!

  10. oooh, I didn’t realize that there were other versions (the story never exactly gripped me) but it makes sense. I mean, c’mon, peas . . . they SQUISH. Well, maybe not uncooked ones.

  11. *grin* Thanks. There is really not too much to work with with the original story, once you break it down!

  12. Oh my. I loved the first and last lines, and the detail about her strangling the chickens, and the whole idea of it. Delightful!

  13. I live in my clogs. Now they have another possible use. Of course, that means a girl would be spending the night and that is SO not going to happen. πŸ˜‰

  14. This is great! Yay clogs! I had to look at the title again after i read it too see if it was called the princess and the clog. I like your title much better. πŸ™‚

  15. Also by the princess who followed him, composing poetry on the spot and singing him songs about him being her lovely summer boy.


    Also, I absolutely loved this. LOVED IT.

  16. This is possibly one of the best retellings I’ve ever read of this, right after the Gail Carson Levine version, which will probably stay firmly in it’s spot, with this one spot under it. (I love your democracy. Is this how it’s going to be once you’re Queen of America?) (And I would suggest the Gail Carson Levine book, The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales. All of the stories are really good, and warrant a look, if nothing else.) I love this. I just love this. Democracy *snicker*. Love this.

  17. Hee hee, thanks. (And notice, I did promise to write something more cheerful in the coming weeks, and there is absolutely no death and destruction in this story). Have you read Fractured Fairy Tales?

  18. No, but I’d love to try it. It sounds (either good or interesting, take your pick) by the title.

  19. That was great! I think you should do a book of fairy tales done the “Maggie Way”. It would be hilarious!!

  20. I kept myself from reading this before, so it could be a reward after taking my final exam today in Women’s American Lit. And what a reward it was! Not only was it really fun and original and just what my tired brain needed right now, but it also made me laugh with this: “…and singing him songs about him being her lovely summer boy.” I do so appreciate your self-directed humor. πŸ™‚

  21. After so many days of working on FOREVER, Sam needed a little poking fun at. πŸ˜‰

    I hope you did well in Women’s American Lit. Final exams! Whoo! A time I always loved and hated.

  22. Just like I get a short break after finishing my class today, I hope you get some relaxation soon too after all of the power days you’ve been pulling on FOREVER lately.

    And FWIW, I’m pretty sure I kicked arse in my Women’s American Lit class. Yay! I thought going back to school this summer would seem hard, especially with no English classes to my college credit, but I’m been kicking undergrad booty so far in my three classes I’ve finished this summer. I guess there is some benefit to being old and edumucated in other fields already. πŸ˜‰

    Finally, my other reward tonight is that I’m about to sit down with my Lover and discuss his reaction to LINGER. He came in the other night while I was pulling my all-nighter to tell me that he had finished it. Then, being a tease, he told me that refused to talk about it until my class was over so I couldn’t be distracted. He’s so practical….

  23. This is why we all have to wear clogs.

    I will not start on how much I LOVE this line because I’ll never stop. I’m getting myself a pair next time I’m at the mall. This was the awesome. Thanks, Maggie πŸ™‚

  24. This was funny, especially the first and second and third and fourth and fifth and… Since I’d have to count the number of lines to be accurate in this one, I’ll go with all of it.

    But I liked the nursemaid, for he voting, partiality, and for her good sense…
    And I liked Julian’s Head (and not Bertram’s head, why?) lettuce, and, of course, clogs!

  25. Bertram’s head is difficult to type, did you notice?

    And I am very glad to be amusing. πŸ™‚

  26. Hahah — what a tease! Also, how dreamy, sitting down and discussing Maggie Stiefvater books over romantic foot rubs . . . (I’m obsessed with foot rubs since I just went barefoot into the lawn and picked up a thorn).

  27. If only I had known to include foot rubs in the mix. I’ve cheated myself. πŸ˜‰

    Hope you got that thorn out!

  28. i love the princess and the pea, cant really remeber when i first read it. theres a sky tv advert of princess and the pea, but the peas not the reason she had an awful night the bad connection was. and she says, ‘oh and another thing. stop putting vegetables in my bedding! its perverse!’ cracks me up every time. but to be frank so does yours, a clog in a bed, lool!

  29. I’ve read most of the recent stories posted here, and i gotta say, this one was definitely my favorite πŸ™‚

  30. This is why we all have to wear clogs.

    haha! perfect humorous timing. and the last sentence, of course, is genius.

  31. Awesome story! I love slightly condescending narrator voices.
    This story reminded me of a particular musical called Once Upon a Mattress (a joker instead of a clog), which I also happen to love.

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