The senior Congressman from the great state of Alabama stood and sweated a little. “Alabama cast its vote for Mr. Donald Trump of New York,” he said at last.
“Alaska.” Continue reading Time to Choose
The senior Congressman from the great state of Alabama stood and sweated a little. “Alabama cast its vote for Mr. Donald Trump of New York,” he said at last.
“Alaska.” Continue reading Time to Choose
I’m reading a book called The Reflections of Queen Snow White, by David Meredith. It picks up the fairy tale thirty years from happily ever after, when Prince Charming is dead and their daughter is about to get married. Snow White, attended by her remaining Dwarf (who is now Chief Steward) muses on her eventful life. It’s pretty good – though not perfect – and inspired me to see what I could do with another well-known story. I hope you like it.
Once upon a time, in Wallachia many years ago, there was a wealthy farmer named George. As Wallachia was full of minor aristocracy, George was a Duke, and he lived a happy life. He had a beautiful wife, Hildegard, who was pregnant with their second child. And he adored his daughter, Ella.
But happiness is promised to no one, even good men like Duke George. Hildegard died in childbirth, and the baby died soon afterward. George was inconsolable.
This was very confusing to Ella. She understood death – after all, she was six years old! – and she knew that her mother was dead. She wouldn’t see her mother any more, and she would miss her. But she didn’t understand why her father would mope all day in his room. He wasn’t dead. And he still had Ella to play with.
One day about a year after Hildegard died, George brought a lady to the house. “This is my friend Rhonda,” he said to Ella. “You may call her Aunt Rhonda.”
Aunt Rhonda looked down at Ella. “Hmmph!” she said.
Aunt Rhonda had two daughters, Beulah and Bella. They were both older than Ella, and hateful. “Your mother dresses you funny,” said Beulah when she met Ella. That, Ella thought, was particularly mean.
After some time Ella’s father and Aunt Rhonda decided to get married. “Aunt Rhonda’s going to be your new mother!” Duke George announced with a smile. Ella was shocked and horrified. Judging from Aunt Rhonda’s expression, she was equally unenthusiastic.
After she married Ella’s father, Aunt Rhonda did all she could to diminish Ella in her father’s eyes, and to build up Beulah and Bella. It must have worked. Duke George grew more and more cold and distant to Ella.
Early one morning Aunt Rhonda woke Ella up with a loud knock on the door. “Your father’s dead,” she announced.
Ella felt like an outsider at her own father’s funeral, which Aunt Rhonda arranged with Bella and Beulah and without talking to Ella at all. Ella sat at the back of the Church while final prayers were said over her father’s body, and felt sad.
Afterward, Aunt Rhonda took Ella aside for a talk. “Things are going to be different here from now on,” Rhonda said. “You’re going to earn your keep.”
Soon afterward, Ella’s warm room was taken away from her and she was moved to a place out in the stable. The nice clothes her father had bought for her were replaced by burlap shifts. She became the scullery maid, scrubbing the walls and floors all days. Her collateral duties included slopping the pigs and milking the cows – tasks which she performed at five o’clock in the morning. Most importantly, she had to clean out the fireplace every night after everyone went to bed. She would get ashes and cinders all over herself and they were still on her when she came back from milking the cows the next morning.
Bella and Beulah called her “Cinder Ella.”
The one advantage to this horrible routine was that she got herself into really good shape. The constant scrubbing really helped her develop her biceps and lats. She had to sprint from job to job in order to do them all, and as a result she developed runner’s legs. As she grew she became lithe, athletic, and powerful.
One evening several years after her father died, as she was washing the dishes, Ella overheard a conversation between Rhonda and her daughters. It seemed that King Victor was throwing a grand ball for all the eligible young ladies in Wallachia, so that they could meet his young son, Prince Carl. Subtlety was not in long supply in the Kingdom of Wallachia.
“I hear he’s a real hottie,” Beulah said.
“Oh, no,” Bella replied. “He’s only six feet, built like a linebacker, blond with dreamy blue eyes and a silky voice like music. He’s nothing.”
Ella thought for a minute. They were living in the house her father built, and Ella was as entitled to go to the ball as they were. As anyone was. She put down her towel and walked into the great hall.
“I’d like to go to the ball.”
Bella gave her a look like she had just come down from the Moon and asked for a drink of milk. “Oh, like that’s going to happen,” she said.
“What are you going to do, freak?” asked Bella, screwing up her face. “Wrestle the Prince?”
That wasn’t fair, Ella thought. Although Rhonda hadn’t let her go to school she could read and she had familiarized herself with current affairs – enough, at least, to hold her own in a conversation with Carl.
Rhonda put her arms up in the air. “Girls, you’re too cruel,” she said. She attempted a smile, which was not a good look for her. “Ella, I have a proposition for you. I’m buying a bull and he’ll be here by the end of the month. I need someone to construct a good fence around about an acre of land next to the cow paddock. It will have to be sturdy enough to hold him in. He’s a big, dangerous animal and if he gets out there’ll be hell to pay.”
“You want me to be on the fence-building crew.”
“I want you to be the fence-building crew. I’m having a labor problem and I need to maximize my resources.”
“You want me to build a one-acre fence myself,” Ella said. She felt cold suddenly. “Strong enough to hold a bull?”
“If you can do it by the end of the month, you can go to the ball.”
Ella looked her stepmother steadily in the eye. “Agreed,” she said.
“Good.” Rhonda stopped smiling, which was best for all concerned. “And, Ella….”
“You’ll still have your other chores, you know.”
“Understood.” And Ella went back to the kitchen, because she still had her other chores, you know.
The next morning, after milking the cows and collecting the eggs, Ella talked with some of the farmhands about how to build a fence. She learned everything she could, and then ordered some wood and barbed wire through the farm’s quartermaster. Soon she was building an enormous fence stretching a full acre from the cow paddock. She cut her hands on the barbed wire dozens of times, but she healed quickly and kept on working. On the sly, some of the farmhands helped her.
At the end of the month she had a sturdy fence to show Rhonda. Her stepmother was shocked, but she quickly recovered. “Measure the area in that fence,” she said to the surveyor.
He was gone for a little while. “One acre exactly,” he said when he came back.
Rhonda wasn’t pleased, but an acre was an acre. “All right, bring in the bull,” she said, and then, to Ella, “God help you if he breaks out of this fence.”
They brought the bull in on a horse drawn cart. They opened the card door and the bull came bounding out, tossing his head fiercely. He was mad. They got the cart out of the fenced-in area very quickly.
The bull looked around, snorting. Then he decided to make a run for the fence…
…right where everyone was standing.
“Look out!” Rhonda screamed and ran as fast as she could as far as she could. But Ella just stood there. She figured that if the fence gave way she’d be dead anyway.
The bull smacked a post, which held. He bounced away and then ran up against the barbed-wire fence, which scratched him in a dozen places, drawing blood. He gave way and grunted.
The bull looked around, and then started to eat the grass at his feet.
Everyone cheered from their hiding places. Rhonda came up to Ella and almost shook her hand. “All right,” she said. “You’ve earned your place at the King’s ball.”
On the night before the ball, Ella found an old dress of her mother’s, hidden away in a part of the castle that no one used any more. She tried it on. It didn’t fit too well, since Ella was tall and muscular and her mother, conforming to the fashion of her time, was plump and delicate. But Ella could squeeze into the dress, and she spent a pleasant hour or so dreaming of dancing with the Prince in the dress her mother wore when she danced with Ella’s father.
But when she showed up in the parlor the next evening, wearing her mother’s dress in anticipation of the ball, Bella and Beulah started laughing.
“Look who thinks she’s going to the King’s ball,” Bella gasped between wheezes of laughter.
Rhonda strode into the room, furious. “Get that ridiculous thing off and put your shift back on,” she barked. “You have chores to do.”
“But you said I could go to the ball!”
Rhonda’s eyes widened. “Are you deaf, girl? I said put on your shift and get back to work!”
Ella’s eyes filled with tears of rage. “You lied to me!” Without thinking, she balled her hands up into fists. “God will punish you!”
“In this house, I am God,” Rhonda spat. She took a step toward Ella, raised her hand as if to strike the girl, and then looked her up and down and thought better of it. “I have merely to say the word, and you will never live in this house again. My servants will pick you up and bodily carry you out to a cart. They will take you to the outskirts of town, find a pig wallow, and dump you in it. You’ll have no home, no money, no food. You won’t even have a name. You’ll be the little nameless one. Or…or the nameless one. The only way you’ll be able to live is on your back.” She gave Ella a contemptuous look. “Not that anyone would have you.” Abruptly, she turned her back on Ella and addressed her daughters. “Girls, let’s go. The Prince awaits!” They marched out of the room.
Ella watched, mouth agape. All that work on the fence, for nothing! She hoped that the bull would find a way to escape, and maybe gore one of Rhonda’s daughters in the process. She went to her room and took off her mother’s dress (which, truth to tell, was beginning to hurt a little.) She put on her shift, went out to the great room, and sat by the fireplace. I won’t do my chores, she said to herself, but she knew that she would. Suddenly she scooped up a pail full of dead ashes and poured them over her head. That’s me, she thought. Cinder-ella. Then she went to sleep.
A loud commotion woke her up some time later. There was a bright light in the next room and as she watched the light came into room. In the middle of the light was a man wearing a shiny black suit, somewhat threadbare. Fairy wings grew out of his shoulder blades.
“Good evening, Ms. Duke,” he said. “I’m Ralph Nader, your fairy godfather. I understand that there’s an injustice that has been done to you, and I’m here for an accounting and a remedy.”
Ella knew that it was surpassingly odd that a man in a shiny black suit should sport fairy wings, but all she could think of the name he called her. Miz Duke? It had been a long time since she had thought of her father as a duke.
Aloud, she said, “you look like a well-dressed dragonfly.”
Her fairy godfather peered over his squarish glasses. “You are Ella Duke, aren’t you? I’m Ralph Nader, your fairy godfather. I’m here to remedy the injustice done to you.”
“And I’m Martha Stewart, your fairy godmother,” a voice in the next room exclaimed. Ella’s fairy godmother materialized, dressed in an astounding Christian Dior. She also had fairy wings. “I’m here to remedy your fashion sense.”
“Not exactly a match made in heaven,” Ralph muttered, looking at his partner. Then he straightened up. “In consideration for building a fence which contained the bull, you have been promised a place at the King’s ball, and justice requires that you have it,” he said.
“First, let’s do something about the awful thing you’re wearing,” Martha said. “But before that, you had better take a shower.” Suddenly, a booth materialized in the center of the great room.
“What’s a shower?” Ella asked.
“I’ll show you,” Martha replied. “Ralph, will you excuse us, please?”
Ralph looked at his wrist. “Very well,” he said. “Meet me out front in fifteen minutes.” He left the room.
“Ralph’s very punctual, so we’ll have to hurry,” Martha said. “Take off that sackcloth, dear.”
Ella knew she meant her shift. “But I’m not wearing anything underneath it!”
Martha shrugged. “I know. I’m not one of those kinds of girls,” she says. “Just take it off and step into the booth.”
Ella did as her fairy godmother bid. The booth had a hook at the top, and some knobs on one of the walls.
“Turn the knob in the middle to your right,” Martha instructed.
Ella did so. “I’m being sprayed by water!” she yelled. The water was hot, but not too hot. Actually, it felt good.
“You’ll see a little tray with a blob of something on it,” Martha yelled back. “It’s called soap. Rub it around your body while the water is spraying you.”
Ella did as she was told. Eventually, Martha told her how to turn the water off and Ella stepped out of the shower. “I smell like lilacs!” she said.
“Well, perhaps,” Martha replied. “Now take a look at this!” All of a sudden, a dress materialized around Ella’s body, and two beautiful, comfortable slippers appeared on her feet. The dress was beautiful, and fit perfectly. In fact, it was exactly the same dress as Martha was wearing, except no fairy wings.
“Let’s see what your fairy godfather has in store for you,” Martha said.
They went out to the front. Ralph was holding a pumpkin, and Ella’s cat, Max, was sitting with four plump, very frightened mice cowering at his feet.
Ella loved Max. He was the only creature in the castle that was decent to her. When Ella was feeling bad, Max would plump down at her feet and show her his tummy for a belly rub. “Good boy,” Ella said to her tawny tom, rubbing his head.
“Your horse and carriage await,” Ralph said. In an instant, the pumpkin transformed into a beautiful four-in-hand carriage. The mice transformed into four handsome horses. And Max became a red-bearded, swaggering coachman.
“They will take you to the ball, where I’ve left instructions that you are to be admitted,” Ralph said. He looked at his wrist again. “Our jurisdiction ends at midnight, so you must be home before then. At midnight everything reverts to its natural state. Coach to pumpkin, horses to mice, coachman to Max. And your fancy dress…” Ralph seemed a little embarrassed, “disappears.”
“I understand,” Ella said.
“I hope you observe fair labor practices,” Ralph told her. “When you’re back in the castle, make sure that the four mice receive the finest cheese in the castle.”
“And, after that, make sure that Max receives the four plumpest mice in the castle,” Martha added.
Ella got in the coach. She was going to the ball!
“Duke, Ella,” she said once they were on the way. “It’s got a certain ting.”
“Duke, Ella,” Max agreed. Ella noticed he had kind of a scratchy voice. “I like it a ton.”
When they got to the castle Max let her out. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I brought a book.”
Ella found that her name was on the guest book and they let her in immediately. She walked up a broad swath of steps and entered the main ballroom.
The first person she saw was Lady Limpington, a cute, petite woman of about twenty. She seemed a little unsteady on her feet.
“You’re wearing high-heel shoes made out of glass,” Ella pointed out. “They must be uncomfortable.”
“You can see my toes,” Lady Limpington replied. It was true; they were all squished together at the bottom of her foot. “I’d rather look good than feel good.”
Well, she didn’t look good, and Ella could bet that she didn’t feel good, but it made no difference to Ella. She stepped into the ballroom.
It was brightly lit, and the assembled gentry were brilliantly dressed. Ella wondered what the aristocracy of Wallachia talked about. She imagined their conversation was witty, brilliant, profound.
“Hello, I’m Ella,” she said, stepping forward to greet a well-dressed woman of about thirty-five. The woman astonished her by kissing her cheeks.
“The Duchess of Blunisano,” the well-dressed woman said. “I simply must know the name of your dressmaker.”
My dressmaker? “Martha Stewart,” Ella said after a moment of thought. She believed that was the name.
“Martha Stewart?” The Duchess of Blunisano rolled the name around in her mouth. “Of course, I know her. She’s very good. I must look her up.”
Ella had had a vague idea that the gentry of Wallachia would, by virtue of their education and wisdom, would have a special skill at the conversational arts. For that reason, she had practiced what she would say on the way over. But these people seemed to talk in nothing but clichés. What’s more, they kept calling each other darling, dear, sweetheart and kissing each other on the cheeks. Yet it seemed that they despised each other.
Perhaps they were being ironic.
Ella looked for the Royal family, but without success. There was no sign of Prince Carl – or King Victor or Queen Eleanor, for that matter. But Ella did see Bella twice, and Beulah and Rhonda once. She would have to be careful, she resolved.
Finally, the heat, the disappointment and the utter ennui of the event got to Ella. She resolved to step out of the ballroom and into one of the cool, dark halls. At least, she thought, she would minimize her chance of running into Rhonda.
At the other end of the hall, she noticed a figure, smoking a cigarette. She decided to find out who it was.
As she moved down further, he came into focus. Ash-blonde, with a cape, a dramatic set of boots, and a crown, set down at his side on the sill of the open window.
“Your Majesty,” she said.
“Oh, hi,” Prince Carl replied. “I just wanted to step aside for a while to get a smoke.”
Ella smiled. “I don’t blame you,” she says.
The Prince shook his head. “Jeez Louise,” he said. “I feel like I’m at a cattle call. All these – I don’t mean to be cruel – imbeciles auditioning to be my wife.”
Ella was curious. “So, what are you looking for?”
The Prince smiled, and gave a little snort. “Someone to tell me where to get off.”
Ella gave a smile in return. “Well, keep looking, your majesty.” Your majesty? she thought. Is that the term for a Prince? Should she call him “your highness” instead?
The Prince smiled. “Please, call me Carl. Anyhoo, this whole thing is driving me nuts. I mean, I love my parents, but a ball? I can’t find my future wife at a ball. Everywhere I go, I’m followed by paparazzi. I mean, I can’t even meet my friends at a bar without somebody running up and trying to sketch me. How can I possibly meet a life partner under those circumstances?” He looked at Ella. “You want a smoke?” He held out a pack of cigarettes.
“No, thanks. I don’t indulge.” Then Ella had an idea that made her smile. She pretended to rummage around in her purse. “Do you want a chaw? I think I have a plug somewhere here.” She looked up at the Prince’s horrified expression. “Psych!” she said.
The Prince’s grin looked a little relieved. “Yeah, I know it’s a filthy habit. But you wouldn’t believe the pressure I’m under. Show up at this charity, show up at that ball, give a speech at this organization. And everywhere, paparazzi.”
Ella scratched her head. “Carl,” she said, “Maybe you need some perspective. What did you have for dinner tonight?”
“Tonight?” The Prince appeared to search his memory. “Pheasant under glass, turtle soup, salade nicoise, and crème brulee. Why? What did you have?”
“Something very much like that,” Ella replied. She didn’t want to distract from the main issues. “But the peasants – the people who determine whether we have a nation or not – ate very much differently than we. They ate root vegetables, if they were lucky enough to find them. And if they weren’t, they ate nothing at all.”
“Woah!” Carl threw up his hands. “Um – what’s your name?”
“Ella,” she said. She felt shy, all of a sudden.
“Well, Ella, I understand that things are different between us and the peasants. And I’d like to explore those differences. But the difference between royal and peasant – isn’t that ordained by God?”
“I don’t know,” Ella said. She really didn’t, and the events of the evening confused her even more. “All I’m saying is, I know that it’s hard to be the Prince, with all the useless attention you get. But there are much worse things in life. I think if I were a Prince of the Realm, I’d be satisfied. Even if people were sketching pictures of me.”
Carl smiled. “I get that,” he said. “I think a lot of our conventions are wrong. Confused. I know that for generations we never thought that women could fight in our army. I knew that was wrong. I knew that women could fight alongside our men – as effectively, and as patriotically. I finally talked my father into changing the policy.”
Ella smiled. The Prince, she realized, was trying to impress her. He was – what? – twenty four, maybe, and he was making an effort to sound intelligent and progressive. What’s more, he was sounding intelligent and progressive. It didn’t hurt that he was good-looking: six feet, maybe a little more, square and muscular, with an honest, open face and ashy blond hair. He was a good guy, Ella decided.
The Prince looked at Ella. “You look like you’re in extremely good shape,” he said, and then looked down, as if he had said something he shouldn’t.
“I work out,” Ella said. She smiled to dissipate his bashfulness. She was liking this Prince.
“I mean – I’m sorry if I made a remark that was too personal. It’s just that – it’s impressive, that’s all. I mean, you’re living proof that I’m right. That women are physically and intellectually capable of contributing to the armed forces. Significantly!” He blushed. “Not that you’d – I mean, I wouldn’t expect a Lady of your station to join the Wallachian army. But – perhaps there are others with whom you work out, who, who’d consider….”
Ella really liked him, all tongue-tied like that. She took a step closer to him. “I like a leader who thinks beyond conventions,” she said. “And consider all the peasants who have the brainpower to really contribute to science and the arts and to commerce and we keep them out because they’re not well-born.”
Carl seemed transfixed. “Yes, of course,” he murmured. Then he leaned in and kissed her. Right on the lips.
Then he seemed to wake up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “That was inappropriate.”
Ella considered this. “Yes, it was,” she said. “But it was good inappropriate.”
Carl smiled. “Would you like to see the castle?” he asked. “We could be inappropriate in other parts of the building.”
“I’d like that, Carl,” Ella said, and she slipped her arm through his. Just then she heard a loud bonging.
“What’s that?” she exclaimed.
“Oh, that’s just the clock,” Carl said.
It made Ella realize what she had forgotten – her deadline for returning. “What time is it now?”
Carl waited until the bonging had stopped. “Quarter till,” he said.
“Quarter till what?”
“Quarter till midnight. The night’s still young!”
Horrified, Ella broke away from him and began racing toward the steps. “Can’t! Rain check!” she yelled. If she didn’t get back home by midnight, her coach would turn into a pumpkin, her horses into mice, Max into – Max, and her dress….what was she wearing before her fairy godmother Martha put this dress on her?
“Oh my God!” she screamed.
At the top of the stairs, she slammed into Lady Limpington, she of the glass high-heeled shoes. Lady Limpington went arse-over-teakettle and her glass shoes flew down the stairs. One of them shattered against the marble. Before Ella could make it out of the castle, Lady Limpington favored her with a smile that seemed oddly grateful.
Ella barreled into the coach. She had a horrible thought. If the coach turned into a pumpkin, and then turned pumpkin-sized, while Ella was still in it, it would be mighty embarrassing. But if it turned pumpkin-sized first…Ella didn’t want to think about it.
“Don’t worry, sweetie” Max said. “We have plenty of time.”
He cracked his whip and they were off. Ten head-spinning minutes later, they were in front of Ella’s house. She sprinted inside and barreled into the great room where her shift lay discarded by the fireplace. She managed to slip into in a nanosecond before her fancy dress dissolved.
She went back out into the yard. The coach was a pumpkin again. The horses were mice. And Max was himself.
“You drove at an unsafe speed,” her fairy godfather pointed out.
“Oh, give it a rest, Ralph,” her fairy godmother said. “She was driven by a cat, for heaven’s sake.” Max had flopped over on his back, giving his belly to Ella to rub. “Did you have a nice time, dear?” Martha asked.
Ella bent down and began to rub her cat’s tummy. Max purred. “I had a great time,” Ella said. “It ended too soon.”
“Many people say that,” fairy grandfather Ralph said. He looked at his wrist. “I’m afraid your fairy godmother and I are done for the evening.”
Martha took Ella’s face in her hands. “Remember, dear, you’re much better than you imagine yourself to be.” She blinked; Ella thought she was trying not to cry. “We all are.” Martha shimmered, and disappeared. Ella looked around quickly, but her fairy godfather was gone too.
Ella decided to go back inside and resume her regular functions. She scooped up the ashes in the fireplace and took them outside to the ash heap. She scoured the pick and the stoker.
Shortly thereafter, she heard her stepmother and her stepmother’s daughters as they staggered into the house. “I heard she left a glass slipper,” Beulah was saying.
“The Prince is in love with her,” Bella assured her. “Only he doesn’t know who she is!”
“Who who is?” Ella asked, but they ignored her.
“Pay attention, girls,” Rhonda said. There was a confident, even optimistic, note in her voice. “The Prince recovered one of the slippers and he is going to send his Chief Steward all over the country to find the woman who fits inside. It could be you.”
Ella stifled a laugh, remembering the tiny-footed Lady Limpington and imagining her stepsisters, with their enormous pedal extremities, trying to fit into that glass slipper. But then she thought, Carl’s in love with Lady Limpington, and felt sad. Lady Limpington was a dimwit, she thought – and then, in justice, I may have misjudged her. And then: I may have misjudged Carl.
She was in the scullery closet when the head steward came to her home. Ella came out briefly – she thought she might get a chance to talk with Carl – but when she saw that the Prince was not there she went back to work.
About a half hour later, Bella came staggering into the room. “Get me bandages!” she screamed. “Immediately!”
Ella saw that her right foot was bleeding profusely. She rushed over to her sister. Bella’s little toe was missing! “What happened?” she asked.
“Mother cut it off so I could fit into the glass slipper,” Bella cried. “It hurts like a sonofavitch! Wrap it in some rags!”
“Maybe I should wash it out first.”
“Do as I say, you silly cow!” Bella bellowed. So….Ella did as she said.
“Did your scheme work?” Ella asked.
Bella, face clenched, shook her head. “It was the wrong foot,” she said. “The steward had the left slipper. Beulah’s going to give it a try.” Just then they heard an unearthly scream. “Mother’s cutting off her heel now.”
These people are stone morons, Ella realized. It was one thing to live under a tyranny. It was quite another to be tyrannized by nincompoops. Why, they’re going to lose our home, she realized.
She decided to get out.
That night, with her stepmother and her stepsisters in troubled sleep, Ella prepared to leave. She would join the army, she thought, newly opened to women as a result of Prince Carl’s perceptiveness. She packed lightly, knowing that once she was admitted to the army they would supply her worldly needs. She was about to leave when Max ran up to her and threw himself on his back.
Ella bent down to rub his tummy. “Thanks for taking me to the ball, Max,” she said, and then, to her utter surprise, she burst into tears. Since her father died, Max was the only creature in the palace that had ever shown her affection. And she would never see him again.
Max stood up, rubbed against her ankles, and took off.
Ella showed up the next day, along with eight other women recruits. The physical was challenging – running in full combat gear, with a short sword and a kirk; climbing a thirty-foot wall; a timed race through wheels, and a snatch-and-jerk – but Ella made it. She – and one other woman – was in the army.
She did well, advancing quickly. Physically, she proved herself the equal to all but the largest men. Intellectually, no one exceeded her. She developed an expertise in engineering, and a specialty in the quick construction of bridges. When firearms became popular, she made it a point to become an expert. There were plenty of wars to occupy her attention, too. She became a lieutenant, and then, in short order, a captain, a major, and a colonel. When she established herself with the rifle, she was put in charge of a rifle brigade, and shortly afterward was promoted to General. She was the first female General in the army of Wallachia, and she became known as “the Feneral” – the female General.
Eventually, King Victor died, and Prince Carl became King. Wallachia experienced a flowering of the arts and sciences, and a breakdown of the class system – peasants became wealthier, and even took positions in government. There were still plenty of wars, though.
Ella’s personal life was also pretty good. She was popular and well-regarded; and joined a book club. She was a big fan of detective stories and thought maybe one day she might even write one. She took classes and became interested in economics. She was even engaged at one point – when she was a Captain, to the company quartermaster. He was a good man, kind and considerate, and the sex was good, but he was no Prince. They broke up.
Wallachia prospered, but at one point Ella noticed something was wrong. She overheard two soldiers. “I thought I would live like a prince on fifty thousand kroner a month when I signed up in January,” one was saying. “By August I couldn’t pay my rent.”
Victor, and later Carl, had financed their military ventures, by issuing paper money – fiat money, the economists called it. But the value of that money went down the more of it that got issued. So they issued more of it. And it went down further. And so on and so on.
They paid Ella a million kroner a month. They issued it to her in a suitcase, which she then took to the bank. This can’t be right, she thought. So she decided to write an article on one of the economic journals she read regularly.
“Wallachia should peg its dollar to some known and quantifiable commodity, such as a precious metal,” she wrote. “We should store up our supply of that commodity in a well-guarded palace, and assign a unit of that value to the kroner. For example, we could say that the kroner was worth one tenth of an ounce of gold. And since there would be a finite amount of gold in the kingdom, the value of the kroner would remain stable.”
Ella knew she was proposing something which was much different from what the King and his advisors were doing, but she didn’t think she was being unpatriotic. After all, she was the Feneral. And the King was broad-minded.
The next day the police came and took her to jail.
“But I’m the Feneral!” she wailed. It did no good. They tossed her into a cell with three other women. They made them all wear uncomfortable shifts and work at menial tasks.
I’ve gone full circle, she thought – and smiled, a little bit. She was good at the menial tasks – better than most economists, she thought. Most Generals, too. She should be grateful, she supposed, to Rhonda for preparing her for this predicament.
She wasn’t, though.
After about six months, one of the guards came into her cell. “The King wants to see you,” he announced.
Ella tried to get her old uniform back for her meeting with the King. But it had been turned into scraps. They did let her wear an old set of fatigues.
“Well, Feneral, they tell me you’re full of treasonous ideas!” King Carl said brightly when she walked in to her audience with him. He took her hand in his and smiled.
“Please, your majesty, don’t call me Feneral,” Ella said. “I never liked it, and besides, I’m no longer a General. Just call me Ella.”
“O.K….Ella,” the King said. He looked at her so strangely that Ella blushed.
“We met before,” she said, and looked in a different direction.
“Well. To business.” King Carl clapped his hands. “They tell me you’re trying to undermine the kroner,” he said.
Ella explained her views, which were similar to the views of other economists in the Kingdom. “I say these things because I love Wallachia,” Ella explained. “I would never say something unpatriotic.”
King Carl seemed to wave her off. “I know that,” he said. “You’ve risked your life on many occasions for the Kingdom. It’s just that…” and here he seemed to shrink in his chair. “This inflation, as you call it, seems to benefit the Kingdom. A farmer might borrow a million kroner to buy seed for his field. And come harvest time, he realizes a yield of twelve million kroner, He pays back his loan and has a fortune to spare – all because of this inflation”
“I understand, Majesty,” she replied. “But next year, he can’t get financing, because no bank is going to take the risk of dealing with a wildly inflationary economy. And in the meantime, his twelve million dollar profits don’t look that great when a loaf of bread is twenty thousand kroner.”
They argued into the night. King Carl had an uncanny recollection of a ball he attended many years ago. He met a woman there who had filled his heart with longing and his head with ideas. For some reason, she bolted shortly before midnight, leaving only a glass slipper. Carl was so taken with her that he had ordered his Head Steward to go through the countryside, trying the glass slipper on the feet of potential life partners. The only woman they had come up with was a petite, bubble-headed blonde who was obviously not the person he had met.
But this Ella…could she possibly be the Ella he knew, all those years ago? She stimulated him in the same way he remembered the other Ella doing.
Carl stole a look at her feet. Sensible shoes, military issue – they seemed a little larger than the glass slipper he remembered. “What would you think of a combination of gold and silver?” he asked.
“Bimetallism,” Ella said, shaking her head and smiling. “It might work.”
Ella stayed as his guest in the castle. That night, Carl took the glass slipper from the display case and slipped into Ella’s room. She was asleep, as he had hoped. He snuck to the foot of her bed and tugged the blanket up, revealing her bare left foot. This is creepy, he thought. As gently as he could, he tried to fit the glass shoe on her foot.
I wouldn’t fit. Not nearly.
Crushed, Carl took the shoe back and quietly exited. Then he began to think. It’s been years, he said to himself. People grow older, change the shape of their feet. Especially in the military! All that marching, tromping… even though it was past midnight, he decided to call the royal glassblower.
“Assume that this slipper was worn by a woman of sixteen twenty years ago,” he told the glassmaker. “Assume further that this woman has for most of the ensuing twenty years has been engaged in hard physical labor, requiring that she stand and walk for much of the day. I want you to adjust the size and shape of this slipper to accommodate the possible changes in the woman’s foot.”
“I have no idea how to do that without seeing the woman, Your Majesty,” the glassmaker replied.
“I will instruct you,” King Carl said. He then described, to the extent his memory permitted, the size and shape of Ella’s foot.
The next morning, when Ella came down for breakfast, the King was waiting for her.
“Ella, I know this is going to sound weird, but would you please remove your left shoe and sock?”
It did sound weird. But he was the King, after all. So Ella took the footwear off her left foot. The King knelt down and put the glass shoe on it. “What’s going on, Your Majesty?” Ella asked.
“Please, call me Carl.” The shoe fit perfectly and the King – why, the king was crying! “You are the woman I’ve been looking for all my life.” He reverentially kissed her foot, in front, at the part where it meets the ankle.
He stood up. So did Ella, after first discreetly kicking the uncomfortable glass shoe under the table. “It’s good to see you again, Carl.”
He put his arms around her. “I propose to make you my Chancellor of the Exchequer,” he said, “and also my Queen.”
Ella put her arms around him. “The two positions do go hand in hand,” she said. Then they were inappropriate again, for about seven or eight minutes. When they finished the King called in his Chief of Staff.
“Max!” he bellowed. “Come on in and meet my bride! We’re going to get married!”
A large, roguish-looking fellows with red whiskers bounded into the room. “Congratulations, Majj,” he said.
“Max, this is the Fen – this is Ella,” King Carl said. “We want to get married, like, tomorrow.”
“Pleased to meetcha.” Max extended his paw and engulfed Ella’s hand in it. “My friends call me Max the K.” He gave her a wink.
We’re going to have to look into educational standards in Wallachia, Ella thought. But she only said, “pleased to meet you, too.” And then she gave him a wink.
“Tomorrow’s booked,” Max told the King. “But we could put something together for April 15, if you’d like.”
“April 15 is fine,” Carl replied. “Oh, Max, I need you to go to Carpathia to negotiate water rights with the Duke. Could you do that right now?”
“I’m on it.”
“I can have Vlad saddle up some horses. They should be ready in half an hour.”
“No need.” Max jumped up to the sill of an open window. “The stable is just round the back.” He turned and leapt through the window.
Carl shook his head. “Most agile man I ever met. He showed up on the castle doorstep about a week after the party. He said he had some political intel for my father and me. He had overheard that some of our nobles were planning a coup. We were able to surprise them and…well, you don’t want to know what happened next. But he’s been part of the royal household ever since. It’s amazing what he…”
But Ella wasn’t listening. Instead, she was thinking thank you, Fairy Godparents.
You may well wonder how two people, on the basis of two widely-separated conversations, could successfully mate with each other for the rest of their lives. Here’s the answers: big house, and plenty of distractions.
For example, one day Queen Ella was travelling about the city with her retinue when she spied a one-legged beggar woman. Something about her seemed familiar to Ella, so she went up to the beggar.
It was Bella!
Bella bowed deeply, staggered, and then grabbed on to Ella for support. “Good afternoon, Your Majesty,” she said. She did not seem to recognize Ella at all.
Ella looked off her alarmed security detail, and then looked at Bella. “Bella, it’s Ella,” she said. Bella frowned and shook her head. Memory’s gone, Ella said. “What happened to your leg?”
“Toe got cut off in a farm accident,” Bella said. She straightened herself up, let go of Ella. “Gangrene set in. Lost everything up to the knee.”
“How’s your sister? How’s Beulah?”
“Beulah? Hah! Dead these five years! She thought ‘sweetmeats’ were candy, ate a bunch of them, and died.”
“How? Sweetmeats aren’t poisonous.”
“These were. We had filled them with mercury and left them out for the rats.”
Ella shook her head. “What about your mother?”
“She’s been dead for twenty years. Took to drinking after she found out that Prince Charming, there, had married Lady Limpington.” Bella blinked her eyes as though she were trying to wake up for a dream. “Or…somebody. Anyway, bad for the diabetes.”
“And what happened to your farm? And your palace?”
Bella sighed. “Oh, that. Well, you know how we used to have inflation every year until the King pegged the dollar to precious metal? Well, we borrowed heavily in the spring, expecting that with inflation it would be easy to pay the loan off in the fall. Well, when the King stabilized the kroner, we couldn’t pay off the loan. And we lost everything. Now can you give me your blessing?” Awkwardly, Bella dropped to her one remaining knee.
Awkwardly, Ella blessed her.
As she rode away, she tried to feel sorry for Bella. But she couldn’t. She called me a silly cow was all she could think.
So instead she thought of a detective story. In this story, a homeless beggar was found dead in the street. No one could figure out that the real killer was the King, who was secretly the beggar’s brother – until her fictional detective cracked the case. When she got home she wrote the story and sent it to Wallachia Detective Magazine.
A few days later the editor of Wallachia Detective Magazine was in the throne room, on his hands and knees. “Oh, Your Majesty, we dasn’t publish your detective story,” he wailed.
“Get up, and stop acting like a buffoon,” she said. “If you didn’t like my story, that’s fine.”
“I loved your story,” he said. “But we can’t publish stories written by Ella the Queen. People will think you’ve got spare time on your hands. They won’t like that.”
Ella snorted. “That’s an easy fix,” she said. “I’ll just change my name a little and no one will know it’s me.” She took the manuscript from him, crossed out her name, and put in a slightly different name. And she sang I don’t care about glory, I just wanna tell my story, which is the writer’s anthem everywhere.
Her story was marvelously successful, prompting enormous demands for more stories under her pseudonym, which she was happy to provide.
Her reign, and Carl’s, were marvelously successful too. They had two sons and a daughter, all of whom were bright and good-looking. Under bimetallism, Wallechia prospered and the arts and sciences flourished. Carl died on his fifty-third birthday, but by then Stephen was old enough to rule, and he did. Ella lived to be seventy-three, which would be a hundred and eight in today’s years.
Although Wallachia was a happy land, it eventually got absorbed by other countries during the endless European wars of the 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. But even today, despite the fact that Wallachia no longer exists as a political entity, it is fondly remembered for its famous exports – big bonging clocks, Ellery Queen detective stories, and also vampires.
(Author’s Note: The Ralph Nader and Martha Stewart who appeared as Ella’s fairy godparents are not the actual Ralph Nader and Martha Stewart who are known to us today. They were, instead, fakers who used the names of Nader and Stewart to give them credibility, just as I sometimes use the name of author and lawyer Tim Treanor in order to give myself credibility. Please don’t sue me.)
Mayor Tanko McSwain of the McMurto District ran a pretty tight ship, but he could never come to grips with the problem of homelessness. Since the 2008 recession homeless people had overrun the District. Some were schizophrenics and other folks with mental health problems, and some were people who refused to work, but many were families in which the breadwinner had lost her job in the latter part of the last decade and had never found work after that. Continue reading The Wrath of McSwain