Once upon a time, there lived a rather rotund, somewhat homely little princess. She spent all her days in a country manor on a hill and though the king and queen lived with her, she hardly ever saw them. They were too busy administering their kingdom to really spend time with such a girl and they knew that she would never attract a good match.
She was also rather odd, spending her time playing as she did in the forest, roving the summer fields, and imagining herself speaking with all manner of creatures. Once, the queen had thought to herself that the princess was really quite daft and thought to dismiss her entirely from the throne’s ambitions; however, since she had only one other child, another princess, she thought it wise to keep this to herself.
Thereafter, the days went by, and because she was odd and was nothing to her parents, she was excluded from most of the kingdom’s celebrations and even, their nightly feasts. Thus, the people of the land, who watched their royal family with interest, came to hold her in contempt, seeing her as the royal family did, which is to say nothing. Even the servants began to see her this way, their hearts shrouded by the dark impressions of their masters.
One bright warm day, the little girl wandered to her favorite spring. The spring bubbled so full of cool, crisp, clean water that she was ever surprised that her people had left it untapped. It also created a quite tiny, easily forgotten creek that seemed always full of little minnows and other miraculous things. The rocks grew hotter in the sun, the lizards glowed emerald. The rich clay bottom was full of minerals that seemed to shine the very air she breathed and the trees surrounding the spring were greater than all the others of the forest, their leaves more green and golden in the sunlight, and the sky, even on a rainy day, was bluer.
It seemed a magical place indeed.
It often inspired her to sing happy little tunes as she tossed her toes in the little currents and rushes. She loved watching the armies of tadpoles swimming and growing fat before sprouting little legs. Sometimes, she would take a stick and dig for the plentiful earthworms that tunneled below the spring, bringing them up to play with her as dear companions. One day, as she dug through the wet clay, it occurred to her how very lovely the clay might feel as she pressed it through her fingers, how easy it might be to mold, and how nicely it might keep its shape. She stood awhile on a warm rock, molding a little in her hands until a great idea came to her. She needed more clay, and the very best clay that the stream had to offer.
She looked warily down at her newly sewn white dress, bunched up around her thighs, bits of hem lace already dotted with small splash marks. Oh, nobody would notice those after it dried. But she shouldn’t, under any circumstances, ever get her dress dirty.
Yet, the clay was so inviting and she knew she had to make something with it – a gift or a magical charm, something uncommonly beautiful. And she had to do it on this day and this day alone.
Yes, she would make the queen a gift, offer it as thanks for the queen’s patience in suffering her and her dirty white gown.
She knew the queen was fickle, knew that her heart could occasionally be warmed by such a small thing. She also knew the queen was very unhappy, that she no longer wished to suffer the king, and seemed to despise even the royal manor in which she lived. Perhaps a gift like this would do her well. So, the princess set to her task with the blessing of the sun rubbing her back, consoling her.
Grown heedless of the gown, she waded into the muddiest part of the stream and began picking through the clay bands to find the very best material with which to make her gift. It was a time consuming and sweaty task for the good clay was mixed with lower quality clays. Yet, she entered her project fully and joyfully, completely immersed in reaching her goal. Finally, she had gathered enough clay to make her gift and she, after long thought, decided to make a heart.
Now, this heart, as she molded it, fit perfectly in her tiny hands. And it was no quick affair either. Even though a heart was a simple design, she had to make sure it was perfect, that every line and every small detail pleased the eye, drew one closer, and invited one to fall in love with its aspect. To finish the heart off, she carved into in an H, which meant either heart or home or happy.
It seemed to mean all three at once.
Finally satisfied, she lay the heart to bake on a rock. Every morning, with her own heart drumming in her ears with concern and anxiety, she rushed to the stream to find her heart still lying undisturbed on the rock. Sometimes, she guarded it, even creating little protection spells to aid her when she was away and little rain spells to drive the rains away while her heart cured under the sun. Finally, at long last, the heart seemed done.
She wrapped it carefully in some leaves and carried it in secret to the manor for painting. Of course, she painted it red. And she knew without a doubt, that this heart, this gift, would make the queen love her, and if the queen loved her then the king and all his people would love her, so fine it was, so full of her very own love, that she had kept bottled up inside all these years.
One afternoon, as she mixed the paints, looking for the perfect red, she glanced over to a dark, hidden corner of her room. There, under some baskets, she had hid her filthy dirty gown and replaced it with a similar one. No one hardly noticed, busy as they were with their own tasks. She was collecting small bits of lace to sew a look-a-like hem onto her clean dress as soon as she could but until that time, she had to be careful for she could still be discovered.
On the day she was ready to present the heart to the queen, something terrible happened. The queen broke habit and visited the princess’s room. Until now, she had only had to contend with the servants but she was sure she would falter under the queen’s withering stare. She was dreadfully afraid the queen would discover the dirty gown.
What are you doing so long in your room, princess, asked the imperious queen.
Nothing mam, but getting myself presentable to begin the day.
Yet, you spend much time in here. You are usually out playing your odd little games by now. Yet, every day you are instead in your room.
The queen looked sharply around the room, then back at the princess.
So, what is holding your attention so mightily princess? Will you share it with me?
I am well mam, the princess stammered. I just wish to get less sun is all. As she said this she allowed her eyes to drift ever so slightly to the far corner of the room. The queen, seeing this, walked over to the corner.
What is over here, little liar? What are you hiding? The queen began to look around more vigorously, as the princess felt her eyes well up with hot, shameful tears, for she was a liar.
Nothing mam, I promise. Please, please just . . . what I say to you is true . . .
The queen turned around then, the soaking wet, filthy gown overflowing in her hands.
If what you say is true, then what is this? Is this the gown I lately gave to you? The gown of a princess of the realm?
Reduced to sobbing, the princess could not even find the strength to explain herself. Fear, the flashing heat of fear, radiated through her body. Her skin pricked with the memory of past welts and bruises, all of which she had to hide with her specially made gowns, with their full sleeves and skirts – they even covered her neck so fully that no person could ever lay eyes on her skin.
Then HOW did this come to be! the queen shrieked, rushing towards the princess. How did you manage to filth up a good gown, which I had my best seamstress make for you? Do you think I am stupid? Do you think I have all this gold to waste on you girl! This gown was a very treasure and you its keeper, so what have you done!
The queen reached quickly beneath her skirt for the leather strap she secreted there. It uncoiled in her hands, a snaky, biting whip of a strap. She struck the girl quickly and hard. The girl screamed out in agony, giving into her instinct to run away, which only maddened the queen further.
The queen gave chase through the stone halls, quite beyond herself and her usual habit of self-control — Why do you run girl! For you know there is nowhere to go and you only brought this on yourself you filthy little liar!
As the princess rushed past the servants, she could feel their black dart eyes on her, then quickly focus on the task right in front of them, never to glance up again.
Ashamed to be seen like this, she tried to double back to hide in her room. The queen finally cornered her near her bed and forced her down, giving her the severest of beatings and abusing her with words as well. It was better not to fight back, as this only enraged the queen more and she would tire soon enough, spend her rage like a little purse gold at market on a once-worn trinket. As the belt struck, the princess felt pain blaze up, erupting in great welts on her skin. Tears pouring down her face, she felt like the very fool who should be punished in this humiliating and painful way. She was a liar, a filthy little liar, and nothing she ever did, no gift she ever presented, no thing she ever made would ever change that.
In the sight of her mother, she was nothing but a hated thing.
She used her tears and the emotional storming within her to drown the pain out – like a whirling hurricane within, the pain battered her organs, her hair, her bones, her very heart, destroying everything in its path.
At some point – she did not know when – the pain subsided, as did her crying out. She looked up from the bed and her room was still and empty, empty of the queen, the strap, and the hurricane as well. The sun was still shining and she could hear servants at their work. She rose slowly, fearing she would faint, and looked at the dirty, dripping mess of a gown discarded on the floor.
What was the secret she endeavored so hard to keep? She had forgotten.
Tears continued their silent march down her cheeks – they would not stop. Disoriented, she walked the perimeter of her rooms, trying to think of what to do next. She looked hopelessly at the window sill and saw the heart she had crafted. Yet, it seemed as if someone else had made this, someone more daring, someone more cherished, more loved. Who was she, to make such a thing? She felt enough for the object to pick it up and hide it, afraid it would be broken or taken during another rage. But she would not allow herself to look again at it, burying it deep within her blanket chest.
She stayed in her room for several days, neither summoned by her parents or any friends, nor calling on anyone herself. Only one maid entered during that period, a bleary-eyed girl who had surely witnessed her humiliations. Carrying a burlap sack and a water jug, she walked to the corner where once the gown had laid and gently put the sack down.
You better put it in ere miss. You best forget about what happened. She glanced at the gown, still lying where the queen had dropped it, then locked eyes with the princess, who laid on her bed and wished for death. And you best get about now, and wash yer face. She handed a clean white rag to the princess, filled a clean basin with warm water, and left.
The princess did as she was told, washing her face and placing the gown in the sack. She carried it to the spring, where she quickly buried it, never to return. And she slowly resumed her daily routines, mercifully forgetting all about the heart, lying at the bottom of the blanket chest.