Logo The Fabulist

Prince with Golden Hair

2
  • By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
  • Issue 19
  • FableJune 2017

There once lived a prince with golden hair. Of course, like most babies, he was born bald, and no one knew that twelve months later he’d spout golden curls. When that happened, the royal family (that is, his father’s relatives) was terribly miffed: Where could such hair come from? The mother’s side didn’t count—she had come from a third-tier coastal kingdom and was chosen on the basis of her portrait, as the most beautiful woman on the planet.

Royal chronicles and family portraits were combed, but no goldenheads were found, except for the king’s messenger who had once brought a battlefield trophy from the king to his wife: a pound of oranges. That messenger spent exactly one day and one night at the palace and then raced back to the battlefield, taking with him the queen’s reciprocal gift for her husband: a purse woven from her hair.

The messenger never came back from the war, but the king returned soon after the oranges, and an heir was born within an appropriate period of time. The scandal broke out on the prince’s first birthday, when he was presented to the guests and everyone saw his new curls—exactly like the messenger’s.

Nobody tried to hush anything up. The court ladies passed their verdict, and soon the young queen received a visit from another messenger, a bald one this time, who read to her from a long scroll with the king’s seal. The queen was nursing at the time, but nonetheless she and the child were promptly chucked out of the palace and then the city—good thing she wasn’t executed, the court ladies decided.

The king was nowhere to be seen, and the poor queen started walking away from the city gates toward the mountains—beyond the mountains lay the sea, and beyond the sea, the city N, where the queen’s old parents still lived.

When she grew tired from walking, she found a little cave with some dry hay. There the mother and her son went to sleep. The queen dreamed that some forest animals, hares or squirrels, scurried all around her. In the morning, when she was brushing out her son’s hair, she discovered that someone had hacked off one of his locks, very crudely.

Though only seventeen, the queen was a quick-witted girl. She said out loud: “Since you took three grams of gold from my son, you must at least give us something to eat.”

Instantly, a rock fell away from the wall and in the opening she saw a tiny bowl with hot lentil soup and a tiny spoon.

The queen thanked the cave’s invisible occupants, ate everything, nursed her son, and went on her way, across the mountainous passes, toward the sea.

She no longer looked for shelter in caves, preferring to sleep during the day and to walk at night, using her boy’s luminous hair as a lantern. She quite reasonably feared that next time someone might shave him for a bowl of soup. She sustained herself with berries and wild pears that grew in abundance by the road and fed her son with her milk.

They reached the shore at the end of the day. Gazing into the blue distance and listening to the splashing and roaring of the waves, the queen told her son about his grandparents, who were waiting for him across the sea, and the boy’s hair shone brighter and brighter in the growing dark.

The light attracted a fisherman in a small boat. He asked the queen where she and the baby had come from, and she replied that they were waiting for a ship to take them to N. The fisherman offered to take them to the nearest city, A, which at least had a port. If they stayed on that beach, he explained, they’d have wait till the fish started singing.

The queen agreed. The fisherman rowed for two hours without taking his eyes off the child and at midnight they reached the fisherman’s cottage, where the mother and child were allowed to sleep on a rug in the corner.

In the morning, the fisherman raced to the police station, screaming that he had found a child with a shining halo who must be detained along with his mother or else it would be like the last time.

The fisherman was referring to the unfortunate incident wherein some tourist had constructed a pair of wings, climbed on top of the city tower, and attempted to fly. The residents decided that he was an angel sent to announce the Judgment Day and, without waiting for the actual judgment, began lamenting loudly the behavior of the city judges and police and members of the king’s council, and then, crying and crossing themselves, crawled on their knees toward the city hall. The fisherman happened to be among the complainers, for which was sent to a prison camp for two years, where he reformed, because they had promised to hang him next time. He also signed an affidavit promising to run to the police station at the first sight of wings or anything like that.

In the meantime, on waking up, the fisherman’s mother, who didn’t know about her son’s nighttime adventures, found a beautiful girl with a bright-haired infant washing by the water barrel in the courtyard, and promptly sent them packing. She didn't want her son to marry some floozy with a child—the kid could easily grow up to be a criminal. Her own son grew up with a stepfather and as a result had spent time in jail.

The queen and her baby walked to the beach where they hid under a bluff. All day they slept, bathed, and played with sand. In the evening, the child’s hair shone brightly and the mother tried to hide him, but too late: a dinghy, attracted by the light, approached their beach and a uniformed navy captain came ashore.

He inquired politely about the little family’s plans—he’d heard they were trying to get to N—and offered his services.

Naturally the captain knew all about them: in A, every citizen was looking for the heavenly judge in the form of a luminous baby. Police, army, aviation, and the navy were all searching for him; the captain himself headed the navy’s search. However, on seeing the baby and his mother, the captain felt a little pity for them and decided to wait and not arrest them. People happen to be much smarter than we think, especially when money is involved.

The captain loaded the precious passengers into the boat and advised the mother to cover her son’s hair with a kerchief, before any of the sailors saw him. On the ship, the passengers were given a comfortable cabin, a servant, hot food, and a marine with a machine gun. After a short passage, the ship arrived in the neighboring port B. The captain, in full uniform, set off for negotiations with a local traveling circus, and in the evening a trailer with a sturdy cage, used to transport tigers, came to fetch the queen and her son.

Accompanied by the armed marines, the mother and her little boy were escorted down the gangplank and into the trailer. The dark cage smelled like a pigsty and the queen couldn’t grasp what was happening, but the boy’s hair began to shine in the dark and in its light they saw some hay on the floor and a big bowl of water. She sat down on the hay, the trailer started rolling, and a bizarre, incomprehensible life began.

At the circus, the mother and son occupied an elephant’s cage. They received hot soup twice a day. In the evenings, their handlers wrapped the queen in a white sheet, stripped the boy naked, put them in a closed trailer and rolled it into the arena. The orchestra began playing a mass; the queen got out of the trailer and slowly crossed the arena, offering her naked baby to the public. The lights were turned off, and in complete darkness the little prince shone weakly, illuminating his mother and part of the trailer. People cried and hugged their children.

Then they again were pushed into the trailer and transported back to their cage until the following night. The queen complied with every order, knowing that if she didn’t, they’d replace her with another mommy, better suited for the role.

The food was terrible, the same as the monkeys’ in the next cage, but better than the elephant’s, who was eating hay.

The queen forced herself to swallow saggy cabbage leaves and burnt crusts because she still breast-fed the prince.

The boy, incidentally, became friends with everyone: monkeys, parrots, even the elephant, and at night the circus zoo was calm and joyful. In the light from the baby’s hair the animals looked healthy and plump, and that’s how they looked in the arena, and the circus flourished.

But more than anything it flourished because of the closing number with the queen and the prince.

In the meantime, the show was getting ready to leave B. The rumor about the luminous child had spread, and the spectacle was attracting the wrong kind of visitor, who didn’t pay attention to monkeys or clowns but only waited for the mother and her baby. Then they began singing and crying; there were even attempts to form a procession and crawl into the arena—one can imagine how happy that made the circus administration!

People regularly camped outside the elephant’s stall, placed their sick by the wall and shouted “Bless us!”

The police installed one of its officers to guard the stall and he quickly became rich by allowing some of the fans to kiss the planks of the wall. That particular post became super popular among the city police, and officers changed guard every two hours—everyone needs to eat.

When the circus was ready to leave town, purple berets were hired to guard it, complete with machine guns and an armored truck.

The director and the ship’s captain paid a personal visit to the queen to ask her which towns she wanted to visit besides A and B, and whether she had any friends or relatives there who could help her.

The queen responded like a trained spy. She cheerfully informed them that her homeland began in the town C and continued all the way through the alphabet, and that in every town she had friends and relatives, except in N, where all her family had died and there were only some graves left, of her grandparents, which she longed to visit. But she also longed to find herself among friends and family, who remembered her and her son. The circus performances will be sold out everywhere, she promised, thanks to all the people who knew her. Everywhere, that is, except N.

The captain and director exchanged a glance and nodded simultaneously.

A few days later, the circus left its customary spot, leaving behind pilgrims, holes where the pillars used to be, and heaps of garbage. The mounted purple berets escorted the armored truck, cages with animals, and trailers with the artists to the port, where they sailed directly for N.

There, the queen was hastily shoved into a windowless stall, but she already knew that they were in her hometown: from the gangplank she caught a glimpse of the beach strewn with semi-precious stones—black amber, amethyst, and agate; such a beach existed only in her beloved N.

Here her ancient, forty-year-old parents lived. They had shed many tears when the former king from beyond the sea threatened to bring war and destruction to their flourishing little kingdom unless they gave their daughter for his son’s wife, because she was rumored to be the greatest beauty on the planet. This, after all, was what all kings want: to improve their bloodline to perfection, aiming to sire the most beautiful, smart, and rich children.

And the queen’s parents happened to have such a child. The result of that was the golden-haired prince.

And now the queen returned to N in an elephant’s cage.

Once again, our ragged beauty found herself on a pile of filthy hay, in a cage, eating twice a day a stew made from cabbage leaves and dry crusts.

The baby, in the meantime, shone sweetly, talking to parrots and monkeys in their own language, which greatly amused the janitor, a mean, ignorant crone who laughed only when someone fell carrying a basket of eggs. Also at “retards,” to which category she assigned the young prince. “Look at that retard,” she liked to say, “just like a monkey.”

She spent her entire salary on wine and ate what she could pilfer from the animals, preparing her dinner at night in the pot over a stinky fire.

All day long she grumbled and cursed, and smiled only at the sight of the little prince in his cage, wagging her finger at him and occasionally giving him a carrot or turnip from her stores.

The hag’s dream was to be transferred to the next barn, where they kept tigers. The tigers’ keeper, she suspected, took home bags full of meat. That’s why she regularly dropped by the director’s office to complain about the tiger’s keeper, who herself was no fool and had befriended the director’s secretary, who felt obliged to supply the tigers with meat every day.

Such were the behind-the-scene intrigues in that circus. The queen, who had to listen all day to the keeper’s mumbling about the husband who’d left her and the three grown children she visited in jail, formed an escape plan. In the arena, she knew, no one was going to recognize her under a white sheet and garish makeup. Her hope was the only human who came in contact with her—the disgruntled keeper. One day the hag received an offer to make enough money in one stroke to last her a lifetime if she agreed to bring the queen a sheet of paper and a pencil and then post a letter.

The hag was torn for days. She even tried to denounce the queen to the director but wasn’t admitted by his secretary. That decided the matter. With her own money the keeper bought some writing paper, a pencil, and an envelope, pushed them into the cage and then proceeded to cook her watery soup, salivating at the thought of punishment that was coming to the director, his secretary, and the tiger’s keeper.

Soon after the letter was posted, the circus was invaded by the king’s guard who instantly arrested the queen and her son, shoved them into a truck that said BREAD and took them to an unknown destination, while the janitor was squalling in vain about the money she’d spent on paper and pencil.

Instead of the royal palace the queen and her son were deposited in a prison castle, in a windowless cell.

And the janitor was immediately fired—not a single good deed ever goes unpunished, especially if it is performed grudgingly.

The jailer who was now attending to the queen and her son brought them food only on the second day, due to laziness and the fact that they weren’t yet on the list of food-receiving prisoners.

When he entered the stony space he was shocked—the cell was full of light! The jailer put the bowl on the ground and stared at the fantastic pair. The girl, thin to the point of transparency, didn’t surprise him—he had seen such girls in droves. But the golden-haired boy impressed him deeply, especially since he was very drunk, as usual.

“Don’t be scared,” the queen told him. “It’s just the boy’s hair. It’s made of pure gold. If you have a knife, let me cut off a little strand—you can have it tested at the jeweler’s tomorrow.”

Though drunk, the jailer didn’t trust the knife to the woman, and crudely sheared a thick lock of hair, shoved it into his pocket, and staggered out, without forgetting to lock the door.

That night he drank away all the money and in the morning came to work in a foul mood. He chopped off all of the prince’s hair, and because the mother was wailing and protesting he chopped off her braid too, for good measure. He threw the braid on the ground and turned toward the door, swearing. “You think you have long to live, eh?” he shouted. “Tomorrow you’ll be executed, that’s right. Together with your fatherless brat. Down in the lions’ pit. You think you were jailed by mistake? Oh, no. Very important people, the grand duchess and her sonny, saw to it. He happens to be the king’s nephew, twice removed, and the only heir. Your mother and father are ill, they live at the rate of one year a day, because of special medications—our prison physician has told us. So tomorrow you’ll be dead, and what’s the point in wasting gold? I’m trying to finish college. Who can live on one salary these days? A cursed life!”

“You, student,” the queen replied. “Are you out of your mind? You’ve got a golden goose here. The boy’s hair is pure gold, you’ve had it tested.”

“Fine. I’ll keep the boy, put him on a chain in a cellar. I’ll just grab some random baby from a stroller, who’ll pass for yours. Not the first time,” the drunken jailer replied proudly.

“What’s wrong with you, idiot? My son drinks only my milk. That’s why his hair is golden. We are royals!”

“You’ll answer for the idiot. I’m just a failing student now but when the time comes I’ll be a king’s judge. As for your being a royal, it must be true. The entire coast is talking about you, and some are even plotting a revolution, but their leader is a dropout like myself. But who knows, maybe that dunderhead will get the upper hand and will rule instead of the duchess’s son. Then your bones will be excavated from the lions’ pit and a memorial will be erected to you and your son…”

At this, the jailer, who was flailing his arms and swaying on his unsteady feet, dropped the torch, and it went out. The shorn prince gave out a tiny light, like a distant constellation in the MiThe jailer was feeling around the floor for his torch, mumbling something, then collapsed suddenly and let out a loud snore.

The queen grabbed the child, took a handful of golden hair out of the jailer’s pocket, and tiptoed down the hall. People walked past them, the guards were snoring on the ground, it must have bholiday or the new normal in that city, where the king and queen no longer ruled and the duchess and her son hadn’t officially ascended the throne.

The prison gate was half open, and the queen with her son walked out into the city square. It was late at night and very dark. The only light came from a small but bright star that hung low in the black sky like a safety light at the tip of a giant crane.

The queen set off toward the sea. The star followed her; stars always follow travelers no matter where they go.

They ran into a small procession: two completely drunk soldiers leading a man and a woman to the prison castle. The little star illuminated their faces: they were the queen’s parents! They moved like two silent emaciated shadows.

The queen walked up to the guards and addressed them boldly: “You boys look like you may be needing a drink.”

The guards stopped and appeared embarrassed.

“I can see you are good lads,” the queen continued. “Why don't you run over to the pub for a nightcap and I’ll guard these two?”

“What about the money?” one guard mumbled.

“Money’s no problem. Here’s a bit of gold. Go,” and the queen produced a golden lock. The guards exchanged glances, grabbed the gold and staggered off for the pub.

“Mama, Papa,” the queen addressed her parents, “it’s me, your daughter, and this is my son. I came back for you. Let’s get you away from here.”

They resumed their journey toward the sea and the star followed them. The father and mother said nothing. Their eyes were open but they moved as though in a dream. They must have been thoroughly drugged.

On reaching the shore, the queen knocked on a fisherman’s hut and requested shelter for the night. She promised to pay in the morning. The yawning wife took them to the hay shed.

At dawn the prince woke up. The shed was full of animals: sheep, a cow, a horse, and some chickens. The young prince addressed them in the language he’d learned at the circus, and the shed’s population stopped chewing and bowed to him.

The young queen left her son to talk to the animals, said goodbye to her parents who held hands even in their sleep, and ran over to the money-changer’s shop, where she sold one golden hair for a handful of small coins. Then she bought bread, cheese, and milk. What happiness it was to shop freely for the first time in her life, knowing that her son wasn’t alone! Never before had she felt so free as she did that morning. Roses were blooming everywhere, the sea was roaring, she was home, her son and parents had a shelter—a wood-plank shed, but still much better than an elephant’s stall or a prison cell or a cave.

The queen had long forgotten the time when she had a hundred rooms and fifty servants.

She quickly bought a basket of tomatoes, eggs, and apples. Then she paid the landlady and told her that they were waiting for a boat that should come any day and after that stopped leaving the yard. She spoon-fed her parents; her son grew fond of playing with his grandfather’s long beard; in the prison hospital, her parents were supposed to die in a few days and weren’t given razors, food, towels, or combs—just drugs.

In the city, things were topsy-turvy. Different parties fought for the control of the palace; the prison emptied out and then filled up again; no one worked and everyone looked to buy a gun. People roamed the streets drunk, shooting randomly. There were explosions everywhere, the cottage had already lost a couple of windows, and soon, the landlady feared, someone could come and take everything—the cow and the horse. One evening, the landlady came home more upset than usual and informed them that in the city everyone believed that the end of the world was at hand, because day and night a star could be seen in the same spot and it kept getting brighter as though it were descending. This caused a serious uproar among the residents; a priest came out to the crowd and read a sermon about Sodom and Gomorrah, promising that sinners would be punished.

Throughout all these disturbances the young queen and her family stayed in the manger.

Her parents were recovering little by little but still made no sense of their surroundings.

One night the landlady ran out of the house and declared that the star was descending and would soon burn the house down. So she had to ask them all to leave.

The young queen picked up her son, led her parents out, and once again began walking toward the water, away from the city and people. She heard screams. On a bluff overhanging the beach, a small crowd of people had gathered and were all looking up at the sky. The queen looked up too and right above them she saw the little star. It came down so low that its light touched the sand and traced a path across the water to the horizon.

Immediately out in the sea a ship responded with all its lights; a boat was lowered; someone stood motionless on board while the sailors rowed.

The poor queen remembered the treacherous captain who had sold them to the circus, but running away was out of the question—there was nowhere to run and she had no strength left.

Do you know who jumped off the boat?

It was the young king, the little prince’s father.

The king lifted his son, knelt before the queen, and told her that he didn’t care whether the boy’s hair was gold or green; the boy was his son and he wouldn’t give him up for anything. He told her that when the queen’s fate was decided he was literally locked in a room, and then he searched for his family everywhere and finally found a magician who agreed to help. The magician told him that it would cost him his kingdom, and the king agreed. The magician lifted the star off the tip of his wand and sent it to look for the queen, while the king sailed after the star.

“I don’t think I have my kingdom any more. I have nothing left except for this ship and the purse you gave me, but I beg you to forgive me.”

Thus spoke the young king, and the queen forgave him and kissed him on the cheek. They all got into the boat and soon N disappeared beyond the horizon.

Needless to say, when they reached their kingdom they weren’t even allowed to come ashore: power had changed hands and the city now belonged to a band of vigorous young men in leather jackets, and the young king was delighted that no one was arrested and they managed to get away.

Afterwards they sailed through many seas and even founded a new little kingdom whose only ruler was the gold-haired prince.

They sold their boat and bought an apartment in a leafy suburb, and the coronation of the new king took place in the nursery. The grandfather made a crown from a piece of cardboard and a shiny candy wrapper, and the silver foil shone brightly in the precious hair.

 

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a playwright and fiction writer who lives in Moscow, where she was born in 1938.

 

Anna Friedrich Summers is a teacher, scholar, and translator. She teaches at MIT.
 
Photograph by Holly Andres