Ludmila Petrushevskaya :The Princess With Lily-White Feet
Translated by Jane Taubman
from Fairy Tales for Grownup Children,Glas 13
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 behavior, either. "You can't let yourself fall apart like that!" her Mama, Papa, Grandma, and King-grandaddy 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 fiance and fiancee. Then the Prince rode back to his own kingdom.
The Youngest Princess stayed home and started crying. Everyone disapproved of such behavior; 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 favoring 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 centimeters 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. ...
Ludmila Petrushevskaya, born in 1938, a Muscovite, was originally known as a dramatist. Her sombre and unusual plays were highly popular among dissident-minded intellectuals in the 1970s and 80s.
In 1992 her novel The Time Night was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize and later translated into many languages and included in college courses as one of the best novels of the 20th century. It was followed by a collection of short stories and monologues, Immortal Love, also translated into many languages.
Today Petrushevskaya's plays are produced around the world while her stories have been published in more than 20 countries. Petrushevskaya was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Prize by the Toepfer Foundation in Germany. She has also received prizes from the leading literary journals in Russia.
The Time Night, published by Northwestern University Press, is her magnum opus, describing the life of three women — a poetess struggling to make ends meet, her wayward daughter and her senile mother.
In this collection we offer three tales for adults, her favorite genre of the latest years.
"Told in an intimate, loose, over-the-back-fence style, this is an alternately funny and desperate book — a welcome introduction to a strong talent." — Kirkus Review
"The Time Night is one of the most powerful books on poverty that has ever been written." — Amazon.com
"One of the finest living Russian writers... Her signature black humor and matter-of-fact prose result in an insightful and sympathetic portrait of a family in crisis." — Publishers Weekly
"The writing is beautifully controlled and the spirit large... She deserves a wide readership." — TLS
"Petrushevskaya takes the reader on an unforgettable journey into the domestic hell where there is too little of everything: too little food, too little space, too little love. The Time Night provides a memorable glimpse into the dark side of life. Written in a stark, naturalistic style, the book brings the reader face to face with the harsh reality of life in Russia. It is not often a pleasant site, but it is one well worth the trouble." — The Moscow Times