A Counter-fable by Marco Dallari
Translated by Martin Guy
The kingdom of New Fableland was prosperous and happy, and there was enough work for everybody. The stepsisters, Genoveffa and Anastasia, had full-time jobs and the stepmother, since the death of her kind husband, received a comfortable pension. In short, nothing lacked in that house, and they could even allow themselves some fun from time to time.
The only one who didn't work was Botherella, or rather, she worked herself to death, but at home. She spent every single day waxing the floors, polishing windows and door handles, washing and ironing carpets and curtains. And she was so excessively engrossed in this role as a cleaning lady that she neglected her own appearance and came to look plain, untidy and almost ugly.
"Come out with me on Saturday!", invited Anastasia.
"Come to our friends' house. There'll be music and dancing...", said Genoveffa.
"Have some fun, my love", said her stepmother, "think more about yourself and less about the housework. It's not the end of the world if the house isn't spick and span. We can make short work of what little is necessary if we all chip in. It should be the house that serves us; we don't have to be slaves to the house!"
Even so, in spite of the wise words of her saintly stepmother, and her stepsisters' invitations, Botherella kept on saying that no, she couldn't, that she didn't want to, that there were things to clean, that she was tired, that she had a headache, that she didn't like music. And that was that. And not only did she refuse to go out but, pig-headed pain in the ass that she was, stopped her stepsisters from inviting their friends home. In fact, as soon as one of them thought of sending out invitations, cooking a meal for their friends, or holding an intimate party, it would be a tragedy for Botherella that seemed to bring her to the brink of a nervous breakdown. "What?!", she would cry, "I drudge away all the blessed day to keep the house tidy and then you call in a load of ruffians that make everything dirty, throw dog-ends on the floor, make the carpets all dusty and cover the walls with fingerprints? And you make such a racket!" And then she added, underhand nuisance that she was, "Aaah, but it's easy for you to send out the invitations, isn't it? It's easy for you to turn the house into a dance-hall, after all there's always Botherella who'll clear up afterwards, there's your stupid sister who irons your clothes and does the dishes. Eh? Eh?".
And that was that.
However, the greatest victims of Botherella's mania were not her stepsisters who, at least, could do more or less as they pleased away from home, but Jack and John, two mice.
These friendly rodents, who had been living in the house for years, were in fact tormented by the traps that this fanatic spread all the time and everywhere. "Mice are dirty. They strew the house with mouse-poos, they carry diseases and they leave little pawprints everywhere", screamed Botherella, distributing little cages and poisoned pieces of cheese, "they've got to go!". The two animals lived in fear and had managed to survive so far not only thanks to their shrewdness and intelligence, but also to the help of Angel, a meek white cat who, partly out of the kindness of his heart and partly to get even with Botherella, who made him wear felt bootees indoors so as not to scratch the parquet floors, had sided with them and, together with the good stepmother too, had saved them more than once.
Even so, their life had become impossible, and surely wouldn't have lasted much longer if one day a miracle hadn't happened.
Jack and John were busy discussing their sad fate with great apprehension when suddenly, in a flash of blue light and accompanied by the sound of a harp, Bunnykins, the fairy godmother from the M.S.P.P.A (the Magical Society for the Protection of Persecuted Animals) appeared. While the two rats stared at the unexpected apparition in amazement and also a bit afraid, she addressed them kindly and asked them what the problem was that troubled them.
Excited and hopeful at the same time, they told her about their misadventures and the wretched existence to which they were condemned.
"Now, what can we do for you? Errr... Ummm...", pondered the fairy, deep in concentration, then suddenly exclaimed, "Of course!", and disappeared, leaving Jack and John nonplussed.
New Fableland, being a kingdom, had a king, a queen (the king's wife) and a prince (the king and queen's son). The latter was a handsome young man, good-looking and very elegant. He had done lots of sport, always wore white, skin-tight clothes and big blue capes and, being rather vain, loved to be seen riding round on beautiful white horses. So, as far as his appearance was concerned, he was greatly admired, but not at all for his intelligence. In fact, like many Prince Charmings in fables, he never said anything, never took any initiative that hadn't been suggested by his parents, didn't have a job, and just strolled about with his blond hair blowing in the wind, the white horse, the blue cape and that's about it.
And so the fairy Bunnykins, having turned herself into a fortune teller complete with a huge owl on her shoulder and crystal ball in hand, presented herself at court, asking to read the royal family's fortune. Once she was in the presence of the king and queen, and after having made a deep courtsey, she set to, gazing into crystal ball and looking worried, and the more she gazed the more she frowned. "What can you see, my good chiromancer?", asked the queen anxiously. "Oh, nothing serious, your highness, but your son...", and she broke off, continuing to stare deep into the ball.
"What do you predict for him? Illness maybe, or misfortune?"
"No, no, my queen", said the fairy reassuringly, "but you know that the lad is absent-minded, not used to looking after himself, untidy..."
"Well, I see that if he doesn't find himself a wife soon to look after him, then when you disappear, and may that be in a thousand years' time, he'll have a lot of trouble".
"This woman is right!", exclaimed the king. "We must find him a wife, especially seeing as he is so foolish that he'll never manage to find one on his own.
"But Agenore", interrupted the queen, "he must choose her himself! We are a modern couple, aren't we? You wouldn't want to be the one to choose your son's wife, would you?"
"You might consider this", intervened the fairy, "organize a great fancy dress ball and invite all the girls in the kingdom, and who knows, he might fall in love with one of them..."
The monarchs liked the idea, and so it came to pass.
The next day the invitation arrived at Botherella's house for a great fancy dress ball to be held at the palace, organized by the king for his beloved son.
Anastasia and Genoveffa's joy was great.
Predictably, however, Botherella didn't want to know about it. Neither the wise considerations of her stepmother nor her stepsisters' enthusiastic invitations made any difference. She insisted on staying at home.
The fateful evening arrived. Excited and emotional, mother and sisters prepared themselves for the ball. While they got dressed and made themselves up, they kept on trying to convince the tiresome girl to come with them.
"It'll be great fun!".
"What a bore", she replied.
"The royal family will be offended".
"They won't even notice my absence...", she parried.
"You'll get bored at home".
"I'll finish cleaning the silverware", asserted the wretch.
The sisters and the kind stepmother had just gone out when, bathed in the usual blue light and accompanied by the, by now familiar sound of a harp, the fairy Bunnykins appeared.
"What the hell are you doing here? Why didn't you go to the ball?", she asked testily.
"And who are you...?", asked Botherella, wonder-struck.
"I'm a fairy! What do I look like? Now you answer my question". "I've got this cleaning to do...", ventured Botherella. But she hadn't even finished saying the final word when the fairy waved her wand, and magically the the whole house glittered, all the silverware shone, the windows were like mirrors, and the carpets were without a single grain of dust.
"I... I haven't got anything to wear...", ventured the squallid girl.
There was another wave of the magic wand and in a trice Botherella found herself as elegant as a princess, made up like a model and with her hair dressed as if she had just stepped out of Vidal Sassoon's.
"But how do I get to the royal palace...?", she said in a small voice. The magic wand circled in the air again, the door flew open and a wonderful pink carriage appeared in the street, with two mice dressed in livery at the reins and drawn by four enormous white cats.
"No more excuses. Go, and don't make a fuss!", said Bunnykins with polite firmness. And Botherella went.
Her entry at the palace was sensational. The ball had already begun, but the orchestra stopped dead, enraptured by her stunning beauty. None of the men could help but look at her with admiration. Someone whistled softly. The old king's eyes bulged, and he was immediately repressed by his slightly irate wife, even though she too couldn't help but admire.
The prince, who was dancing with Anastasia at the time, dumped her in the middle of the dance floor and headed with a dreamy gaze towards the extremely beautiful Botherella.
The music started up again, then stopped, then resumed again.
The prince never left Botherella.
After some time, trying to overcome the timidity and embarrassment due to his lack of practice in speaking and to his fundamental obtuseness, the prince was about to ask Botherella to marry him.
But lo, bang on the stroke of midnight, the wretch was suddenly struck by a sudden thought: she hadn't put out the traps for Jack and John.
"The whole house is clean", she thought, sick with worry, "who knows what tremendous damage the horrible beasts will cause".
And she ran off, leaving the prince standing there like an idiot.
In her haste, however, as often happens in these cases, she lost a slipper on the steps of the courtyard of the royal palace.
So many tears did the prince shed over that little slipper! He was visibly withering away, seemed extremely ill and wailed that he would die unless he found the girl with whom he was madly in love.
His parents could only think of one solution: to send the royal messengers with the slipper to every house in the kingdom, and the girl whose foot the slipper fitted perfectly would be the prince's wife.
Needless to say, many girls hoped in vain that the shoe would fit them so as to be able to marry the handsome prince, and many others feared this possibility since they considered him rather a foolish dandy. However, neither the former nor the latter passed the test.
In the end, the messengers got round to Botherella's house.
Genoveffa tried the slipper on but it was too tight. Anastasia put it on but it was loose. At last the girl herself, Botherella, was called. She hadn't even noticed the arrival of the prince and his retinue as she was busy furiously rubbing down the heads of the nails that held the pictures up about the house.
The slipper slipped onto her foot and fitted like a glove. The prince almost dropped dead. Seeing Botherella all scruffy and shabbily dressed and with her beautiful hair hidden away in a revolting headscarf, he hadn't recognized the fascinating young girl of the evening of the ball.
But the fairy Bunnykins, with a timely wave of her magic wand, restored her marvellous appearance of a few evenings before. And if everybody's amazement was great, the prince's joy seemed limitless. He leaped all over the place shrieking and seemed to have gone quite off his head.
The marriage was held the following day with sumptuous celebrations and Botherella went to live at the palace where she busied herself tiring her husband, the courtiers and the in-laws with her mania, but her stepmother, Anastasia, Genoveffa, Jack, John and Angel, the meek white cat, lived happily ever after.