Blanche and her Friends
The truth—if I can be trusted, even after all these years, to tell the truth—the truth is that I resented her as much as she resented me. Make no mistake about it. She resented my youth, my beauty, my vitality, my skills in the arts that she knew nothing about. And I? I resented the love she showered on my father that turned him not away from me—that I would have fought against—but indifferent to me. All the things I had done for years to keep him happy and content after my mother’s death—running the household, keeping him company in the evenings, listening to his stories—all these were suddenly nothing to him. No, it was worse than that. They had little value, but still had to be done, with no thanks.
And it was all because of her—my father’s second wife, my mother’s husband’s second wife. Even when she called me daughter to please him, I could feel, I could hear, the resentment in her voice.
So it was no surprise when life became difficult, even dangerous, for me.
It was my youth and beauty she minded the most. But I had heard stories of her youth, when she had been far lovelier than I was at the same age. Even when she married my father, she was considered to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. One day, my looks will be far more faded than hers will ever be.
It all began with matters so small, so trivial, that I have forgotten most of them. Lost trinkets, which turned out to be misplaced. Messages never delivered. “Surely I told you that, my dear,” my stepmother would say sweetly. How could I complain? I did not even know whom to question or blame. Minor annoyances began building. Lamps and candles that were unlit or went out when I needed them at night. Objects left lying on the floor in places where I was sure to stumble over them. My own things rearranged in such odd places that I could not find what I needed. Every few days something new, something annoying—but so small, so trivial that I would soon forget what had annoyed me.
After a time it occurred to me that these incidents were increasing, were happening more often. How many times could candles blow out just when I approached the darkest corner of a hallway? How many times could heavy objects fall just where I had been or was approaching? Eventually, I realized that I had been a fool to believe that everything was accidental. If this was my stepmother’s doing, I finally thought, she truly hates me. She was always pleasant to my face—never showing her dislike or resentment. We were both always polite and courteous to each other. After all, we had much in common. We were both considered great beauties and were a bit vain about it. We both loved my father and vied with each other to be seen as his favorite. He took it all as his due and enjoyed the extra fussing and coddling that our rivalry afforded him. I can’t really blame him. I have often thought that it would be nice to have people vie for my affection—offer me the finest portions at dinner, find me the plumpest, softest pillow to lean on, the warmest blanket to be wrapped in. Perhaps my own mother had done all that for me, but I have no memory of it.
Nothing made sense during that time: the exaggerated courtesy my stepmother and I showed to each other, the constant competition for my father’s attention and affection, the near accidents I almost got into.
And then I began to feel sick. Not all of the time: that would have been too crude, even for my stepmother. But every now and then I would get hot and cold at the same time. Sweat would run down my body as I shook with cold and bundled myself up as warmly, as tightly, as I could. I would vomit all night until my throat was sore, even as I continued retching.
The day I spat up blood I packed a bag and left. As I bundled up all that I could carry, my only thought was to get as far away from my stepmother as possible. I felt a pang of regret at leaving my father. I pictured him heartbroken, weeping uncontrollably when he realized that I was gone. Or not, said a contrary voice in my head. Suddenly I realized that my father might not notice my disappearance for days. My stepmother would be sure to continue spoiling him, showering him with affection. My world seemed to turn, and I saw what I had thought to be his love for me in a new light. He loved me for what I did for him—all the care and even protection I showed him. As, indeed, who would not? Love and protection, I thought, things I would have appreciated getting from my father instead of giving to him. That was enough. I grabbed a warm cloak and sneaked out.
I walked away from my father’s fine, large home, half-expecting that he or someone would run after me, begging me to return. But no one did. On and on I walked all night, carrying a small bundle, wondering what I would do when I reached wherever I was going. In the morning I stopped for a nap in an empty field, and then I continued on my way another night until I reached a town.
It was, I suppose, much like any other town in our country. I walked along, noticing the shops: the butcher, the baker, the cobbler, the tailor, the barber. It was too early for the shops to be open, and there was no one about. I found a grassy, comfortable spot and sat there, leaning against a tree. I must have fallen asleep and was perhaps dreaming when I heard men’s voices. I kept my eyes closed as I realized what a dangerous, foolish position I had put myself into. What had I been thinking? The unseen men could be robbers or murderers. And here I was: a young, pretty, unprotected girl, all alone, sleeping under a tree in the middle of town! What would they think? What would they do? I was too terrified to open my eyes, to say a word. And so I continued to sit there.
Gradually I realized that I heard different voices, talking and debating with each other. To my surprise they began by voicing concern about me and my situation.
“Is she dead?”
“No, no. See, she’s breathing.”
“How long can she have been out here, all alone?”
“Maybe all night. We would have seen her yesterday if she’d been here longer.”
“How could she have stayed here all night without anyone hurting her?”
“Maybe she’s dead.”
“No, not dead. But maybe sick.”
“Or perhaps dying.”
“If anything happens to her, they’ll all blame us. I know it. Lady, lady, wake up. Please don’t be dead.”
At that I finally opened my eyes and found myself staring at five remarkably short, remarkably ugly men.
“Ah, she’s alive. I told you!”
Then they started to argue with each other, interrupting and finishing each others’ sentences until I realized that I could make no sense out of what they were saying. I started to stand up, but suddenly felt dizzy and sat down again. The men had stopped speaking as I rose, but now they all began speaking at once again.
“Don’t get up. Sit until you feel better.”
“Get up, walk around. You’ll be as good as new.”
“She’s cold. She needs a warmer cloak.”
“She walked too far in those shoes. She needs sturdier boots.”
Finally one of the men held up his hands. The rest of them fell silent. “It may be all of these. Come, let’s help her up and see what she needs.”
And so, without even asking my name, these five strange little men helped me to my feet and led me, one by one, into their shops. First the baker, then the butcher fed me. The tailor found me a thick warm cloak and the cobbler a pair of warm boots. The barber washed my face and hands with warm, flower-scented water and then patted me with a sweet-smelling cologne. He combed out my long hair and braided it. In the middle of the day, when the sun was shining brightly and the air was warmer, the tailor found a light dress for me to wear, the cobbler appeared with sandals and then the butcher, then the baker fed me. I returned to the barber’s shop, sat in one of his chairs and fell asleep again.
Once again I was wakened by their voices, all speaking at the same time.
“Now what? What can we do with her? We can’t leave her here!”
“Why not? The shop is as safe as anywhere.”
“Where can she be from? We don’t even know her name.”
“She must go home. Let’s find out where she’s from and take her home.”
At that I woke up and found my voice. “No,” I said.
The five men just looked at me for a while. Finally one spoke. “No what?”
“No, I won’t go home. Thank you all for your kindness, and I’m sorry to have worried and disturbed you. Now I must be on my way.”
“And where’s that?” asked one of the men.
“There, over there,” I pointed.
There was more discussion, more arguments, with the men trying to figure out if I was ill or lost, confused or running away. In the end, when I refused to say anything, they took me back to their home—a small, cozy house. After much discussion, they moved some furniture around. The tailor picked up my bundle and led me to a tiny room, which was to be my bedroom. The butcher and baker cooked dinner, while the barber and shoemaker found linen for me, set the table, poured wine. We ate in silence, but after the meal no one moved.
Finally the barber spoke up. “Since you won’t tell us your name,” he said, “we’ll begin and tell you our names. I’m Robert Barber.”
There was silence again, and I realized that I had to say something. “Messieurs Barber, Baker, Boucher, Taylor and Shoemaker, I’m Blanche. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to go to sleep now.” I got up and left the room. I hoped that I had not hurt their feelings, but I was too confused and even frightened to say much. If I told them who I was, where I was from, would they force me to leave? As I lay in bed, I heard them talking, asking each other questions, trying to imagine who or what I was. They came in to check on me every now and again: Taylor to cover me with a warm blanket, Baker to bring a warm drink, Barber to be sure that I had removed all the pins from my hair. I fell asleep listening to their voices.
I woke the next morning hearing their voices again, but I lay in bed pretending to sleep until I heard all of them leave. They were kind and trusting men, all five of them, but not the best housekeepers. I spent the day washing and sweeping, polishing and wiping, until the entire house seemed to shine. I rummaged in the larder and found enough ingredients to bake bread and a simple soup. By the time they returned from their labors, tired but still talking nonstop with one another, I had set the table, cut some flowers from their garden to put into a vase and changed into a clean dress. I greeted them at the door and, after they had washed, led them to their own table for supper.
And so the days went—many days and weeks and months. I took care of the small house, and the small men took care of me. Boucher brought home good cuts of meat for me to cook for our meals. Baker brought bread and cakes. Shoemaker made me new boots and slippers and shoes, and Taylor sewed me a complete wardrobe of dresses and cloaks. Barber trimmed my hair and brought me a brush and ribbons and combs.
I don’t know what they told the townspeople—if I was a niece or cousin or their new housekeeper. People were polite and courteous when I met them, but no one was curious about me or even very friendly. The men I lived with didn’t really care about the townspeople. They had themselves for company and were content to live that way. They spoke with their customers and other merchants, but their affection was for each other—and now, it seemed, for me.
I never learned much about them—where they had come from, how they had met or even how long they had lived together. These were not things that my companions liked to discuss. I can’t now remember what we did talk about in those evenings after they returned from work and finished eating the meals I prepared. Sometimes we all sang together, but I can’t remember the words or the tunes of those songs. We must have talked about something, because I can still hear their voices—interrupting one another, finishing one another’s sentences. Sometimes I would join the conversations; other times I just sat and listened, letting their words, their voices, wash over me. I didn’t really care what they said or didn’t say. It was enough to sit there at night and stay in their small cozy house—caring for these five strange little men and being cared for by them.
But I had not been totally forgotten. Had my father woken up after months of sleep and realized that I was gone? Did my stepmother miss having no one to compare her beauty with? No matter. Word began to spread throughout the town that the daughter of a minor knight was missing. Where could she be? Rewards were offered, and my description was sent throughout the land. Skin as white as snow, cheeks and lips as red as blood, hair as black as coal. Well, it had been my description. But I had planted a small garden in back of our house and spent hours every day tending it. My lily-white, snow-white skin had gotten darker, more tanned by then. The roses in my cheeks and lips had faded a bit. Fear and dread had washed the color out. Being in the sun so often had added a faint reddish tint to my hair.
Exactly when my new friends figured out who I was, I never knew. But it was clear they had guessed correctly. Of course, it wasn’t that hard. They knew when I had appeared, so they figured out when I had left home. Taylor and Shoemaker recognized the workmanship of my original clothes; Boucher and Baker knew the dainty tastes of those raised in well-to-do homes. Even Barber could tell from a hairstyle where a woman had been born and raised.
At first I feared that they would turn me in for a reward, but they were perfectly content with their lives. No reward could bribe them to lose my love and care. My father—finally alert and awake by now—sent more and more messengers out to scour the country, looking for me. Once or twice I thought I recognized the face of one of them. But no one seemed to know me. There were a few house-to-house searches, but I always hid successfully. I would stay in my bed, and my friends would declare that I was ill or asleep—too sick or too worn out to be disturbed. And then the strange tales began. A mysterious woman visiting different towns, befriending dark-haired young beauties. As often as not, these young girls would sicken or even die after the mystery woman left town.
There was, of course, only one person that woman could be, and I was surprised that she bothered to travel looking for me. I had known that my stepmother didn’t love me, but I had assumed that she was as indifferent to me as my father appeared to be. It came as a shock when I realized how much she hated me. For the first time since I had left my father’s house, I was truly afraid. And now I feared also for my new companions.
I wanted to leave my friends, but they were reluctant to let me go. At first I thought they were being selfish—that they enjoyed having a well-tended garden, a cleaner house and hot meals ready for them when they arrived home. I could hardly blame them if those were the reasons they wanted me to stay. I enjoyed our quiet, simple routines—the jokes we told every day and still laughed at, the stories we told and retold so often that any one of us could tell any one of them. With all these repeated, homely routines came peace, ease, even enjoyment for all of us. If one were to leave—even me—a new routine would have to be put into place.
But there was something else in their reluctance, and I soon found out what it was. My new friends were afraid—afraid that I would be hurt, afraid that they would be accused of something, afraid of losing me, afraid that I would forget them. As if I could! The only people who had cared for me, taken care of me, loved me. How could I, how would I, ever forget them?
But life changes. Nothing ever stays exactly the same, exactly the way it was a year ago, a month ago, even an hour ago.
My stepmother’s persisted in her attempt to find me. Though really, I often thought, what use could she have for me, if she found me? With her elegance, her grace, her beauty—why did she think that my youth and inexperience could ever be compared to her graceful loveliness?
There came a time when I was always tired—oh, so tired!—and sleepy—oh, so sleepy! No matter how early I went to bed or how late I stayed in bed, I was always tired. My friends didn’t know what to do, and I could hear them at night discussing the situation.
“She needs more meat,” said Boucher.
“More bread,” said Baker.
“A new warm cloak,” said Taylor
“Studier shoes,” said Shoemaker.
“Perhaps some perfume,” suggested Barber. “In my experience—”
“Well, in my experience—”
And I would drift off to sleep, listening to their voices. My energy began to come back slowly, although I still had slow, listless days. One day we heard that the city fathers had decided to hold a fair in town. The excitement could be felt all over. There would be singers and dancers, jugglers, merchants bringing wares from all over the world. I was as excited as anyone and certainly as busy. I helped Boucher make meat pies and Baker bake breads and cakes. I sewed hem and buttons on the cloaks and capes and scarves that Taylor created. I polished leather for Shoemaker. Barber had decided to try his hand at making more perfumes. I picked and dried flowers from the garden and tested everything that he made.
The day the fair opened, my friends set up stalls along with the other merchants in town and those who had traveled. I walked all around the fair—looking at all the goods, tasting the different food, listening to music, laughing at the jugglers. That night when I told my friends what I had done and seen and eaten and heard, they listened quietly, not saying a word. This was so unlike the five men that I finally asked what was wrong.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Have I hurt you—any of you—in some way?”
“No, not exactly.”
“No, not you.”
“Not just you.”
All of the townspeople, it turned out, and most of the out of town guests had done what I had: admired and bought and eaten the wares of traveling merchants. But not of my friends. And so the next day in the loveliest dress and cape that Taylor had made me, wearing the daintiest boots that Shoemaker had made me, sprinkled with the most delicate of Barber’s scents, I again set off for the fair. I took one of Boucher’s most aromatic meat pies and walked among the booths, taking small bites every now and again, savoring every bite. I was clearly enjoying it so much that several people asked where I had gotten it, and I waved them over to Boucher’s stall. Later I did the same with one of Baker’s sweetest small cakes. I was sure to wave my arms when I pointed and even tossed my head so that people would notice and ask about my scent. I lifted my skirts now and again as if to check that my boots were laced; I unbuttoned and re-buttoned my cape. By the end of the day, Boucher and Baker and Barber had sold out their wares; Taylor and Shoemaker had enough future orders to keep them busy for months to come.
With my friends busy and happy, I too felt relieved. On the last day of the fair, I started walking around again—looking, listening, smelling, tasting. So many sights, odors, sounds—I hardly recognized the small town I had been living in for the past few years.
And then I saw her. I saw both of them actually—my stepmother and my father. She was as beautiful and elegant as ever. Was she even lovelier than I remembered? My father was thinner and grayer than before, but he looked happier than he ever had. The two of them were strolling together—pointing things out, smiling and laughing.
I backed away, then I turned and ran straight to the first stall I saw. I pushed past the merchant, ducked down and hid behind the piles of cloth he had neatly stacked up. I heard footsteps ad the sound of three voices. The footsteps receded, and I heard a voice call out. “They’ve gone now. You can come out. You’re safe.” I waited a bit more and crawled out from behind the stacks of cloth. Sure enough, there was no one around but the merchant—a young, pleasant-faced man.
“They did leave something for you, however,” he said, pointing to a large cake, quite elaborately decorated. It was nothing like anything my friend Baker had ever made.
“I have a knife and a dish,” the man continued.
I looked at him again and went back to studying the cake. In all my wanderings at the fair I had seen nothing like it. Why had my stepmother brought this from home? To remind me of all the riches—in pastry as well as other goods—which I had left behind? To show how sorry she was? Perhaps to lure me back?
“Shall I cut the cake?”
“Not just yet,” I said. “It seems perhaps too—”
“Rich to eat?”
“Yes, that must be it.”
The young man sighed. “Well, that’s just as well, you know. We must not start our life together with things you’ll never have again.”
This time I turned and looked straight at him. “Our life together?” I asked. “I don’t know you. I don’t even know your name.”
“Weaver,” he said. “Jack Weaver. You don’t know me yet, but you will soon. You know my cloth already. You were hiding behind it, so you know that I’m a fine weaver and do excellent work. I noticed that the tailor over there,” he pointed to my friend, “has taken quite a few orders and will need all sorts of material to sew up. I even noticed a small vacant shop when I first entered the town. So you see, Mistress—”
“Blanche,” I said.
“Well, Mistress Blanche, we’ll have all the time we need to get to know each other.”
He was right, of course. We did have all the time and we did get to know each other—very well indeed. My friends were sorry when I told them that Jack Weaver and I were to wed, but our lives did not change very much. They eat supper in our house as often as we do in theirs. I have learned some of all their skills, though I will never be as proficient as Baker, Boucher, Taylor, Barber, Shoemaker or even my own Jack Weaver in what he does. I shine the most, they all agree, at our annual fair, when I stroll around the grounds, showing off the goods made by my five friends and my husband.
Susan Phillips, a Boston area writer, has had work published in many newspapers and magazines. Her short stories have been printed in Poetica Magazine, Literary Brushstrokes, Living Text, Eunoia Review, Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination, Red Wheelbarrow, Wild Violet, IdioM, Perspectives Magazine, and All the Women Followed Her. She is currently working on an historical novel about King Agrippa I.