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Karen Duve
translation by Lucy Renner Jones

 

The Patient Prince

 

And so there was once a king and a queen who gave birth to a baby girl, and the queen decided to throw a magnificent christening party, the likes of which no one had seen for a long time. “I thought you didn’t want to throw big parties any more because all that’s getting too much for you,” said King Otto, but the queen couldn’t remember saying anything of the sort. So she invited five hundred guests and nearly every fairy in the kingdom – twelve in all – to be godmothers. Fairies were extremely popular godmothers because they always gave the best presents.

“Twelve fairies?” said King Otto when he checked the guest list. “Don’t you think that’s a little over the top? Don’t you think people might think we’re a bit grasping?”

“Ah, nonsense,” said Queen Augusta, “it’s not grasping, it’s majestic – and just think of all the presents!”

“Besides, if you invite all the fairies in the kingdom, then you have to ask my cousin Fanny too, else she’ll be the only one left off the list.”

“Absolutely out of the question,” the queen said sharply. “Your cousin dresses strangely and doesn’t know how to behave. Last time, she stole the umbrella from the King of Spain’s ice-cream sundae. And besides, she’s never given anyone a decent present. Remember what she gave Prince Alphons, King Corso’s son, at his christening? Oh, come, you must remember! It was only two months ago. Patience! I mean, really, what’s he meant to do with that? And apart from anything, we’ve only got twelve fairy plates.”

The king mumbled that Fanny was part of the family, they’d grown up together, had become older and fatter together…

“That’s more important than a paper umbrella,” he muttered, but he muttered it so quietly that she could barely hear him.

The christening party was truly magnificent. The tables were decorated in pink and the cakes were so sweet that they crunched between the guests’ teeth. At around midnight, the guests gave their presents. The queen accepted them with both hands and made sure that a crest hung on every one so she knew who she had to thank later. Finally, the fairies stepped up to the cradle. The first fairy waved her wand and gave the little princess grace. The second gave her beauty, the third, ability to reason, the fourth, lustrous fingernails and healthy hair, the fifth, good taste, and so it went on until almost all the fairies had made their wishes and only the twelfth was left. Before fairy number twelve could proceed, the door flew open and the thirteenth fairy, cousin Fanny, stormed in. She was dressed from head to toe in violet, and instead of a simple bonnet, she was wearing a headdress that tapered into two horns on the sides. Everyone gaped at her.

“Did you, by any chance, forget to invite me?” the fairy asked sharply.

“Ah, little Fanny,” said King Otto, “I wanted you to come. But Augusta … well, it’s her party, and I don’t have much of a say. And you know I can’t stand quarrels. But we could meet some time … at your place … without Augusta. Just because you don’t like each other doesn’t mean…”

“You’re an incredible wimp,” said the thirteenth fairy, “even worse than your bitchy wife. It’s over between us. Forever. And now I’m going to curse your daughter! What’s the brat’s name anyway? Ah, I see, it’s on her cradle, Florentine!”

Princess Florentine woke up, balled her fists and started wailing.

“But little Fanny,” shouted King Otto, “you wouldn’t really do that, would you? Not after we grew up together, and have become older and fatter together…”

“You have, perhaps, but I haven’t,” rasped the thirteenth fairy, and spread out her arms. Her violet coat unfolded with a cracking sound. Inside it was lined with bright red fabric, on which nothing but evil eyes were painted.

“Princess Florentine will prick her finger with a spindle on her fifteenth birthday and fall down dead,” cried Fanny, and at that, she swept out of the hall, glaring at the guests on both sides, her terrifying coat flapping behind. The mood, unsurprisingly, was ruined. The guests looked awkwardly at the floor. It was the twelfth fairy who spoke first.

“Luckily, I haven’t made my wish yet.”

“Yes, what a relief, dear godmother, “ cried the king. “Oh, please undo my cousin’s curse!”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” replied the twelfth fairy. “A curse is a kind of present too. And fairy presents keep for at least a hundred years. But I can tone it down a bit.”

“Yes, tone it down,” said Queen Augusta. “My daughter can prick herself on a spindle on her fifteenth birthday, for all I care, but she doesn’t have to fall down dead.”

“No,” answered the twelfth fairy, “instead, the princess will fall into a sleep for a hundred years.”

“But then my daughter will be terribly old when she awakes,” cried the queen.

“It won’t be a normal kind of sleep,” said the twelfth fairy, “but a state of preserved lifelessness – like the aestivation of a moss spore, which, after years in a herbarium awakes with a crispness believed to be long lost, and starts once again to germinate and grow as soon as it is set in moist earth.”

“Why does it have to be a hundred years? Why not ten? Or five? I’ll miss out on my daughter altogether if she sleeps that long. And when she finally wakes up, she’ll be completely alone in the world – no one will know that she’s a princess and they’ll pass her off as a poor goose girl.”

The twelfth fairy thought about this argument, and even though she didn’t let herself be dissuaded from a hundred years, she did change her wish so that all the residents of the castle would fall asleep with the princess.

“We’ll be robbed in our sleep,” cried Queen Augusta. “When we wake up, we’ll be stark naked and as poor as church mice.”

The fairy appreciated this point too and made one more improvement to her wish by promising that she would make an impenetrable undergrowth of thorns grow up around the castle, and with that, the queen was satisfied.

Princess Florentine grew up and became as beautiful and graceful as the fairies had arranged. By the time her fifteenth birthday was approaching, all the spindles had long since been removed from the country, and a competition had been announced for the best ideas on how to protect the princess. On this dangerous day, of course, there was to be no party. So it took place the evening before. This time, the table was decorated in light green and all eligible or particularly handsome young noblemen from the region were invited. Prince Alphons, King Corso’s successor to the throne from the neighbouring region, was there too. Wide-eyed, he watched Princess Florentine dance with one young man after the other, and with much exuberance. Alphons was rather shy and since the thirteenth fairy had blessed him with patience at birth, he held back at first and danced with a small, buxom baroness while waiting for the right moment to ask the princess to dance. Just before the stroke of midnight, when the king and queen arrived with the court marshal and interrupted the celebrations, Alphons hadn’t managed to dance with Florentine a single time, whereas his little brother had managed four times. An enormous glass ball was rolled in behind the court marshal. It was so big that the princess was able to climb inside it through an opening, then the door was shut again, and when she took a step forwards, the ball rolled around and under her, and she was able to walk out of the castle onto the courtyard without leaving the safety of her ball. The court marshal congratulated the royal glassblower on his invention and handed him the winner’s certificate for the “Contest of Ideas to Save the Princess” as well as a gold ducat. But then, some of the young princes began to roll Princess Florentine back into the ballroom – each one of them was trying to help – until it began to roll faster and faster. The princess laughed at first, then she screamed and suddenly the ball collided with a marble pillar and broke. In a flash, the princes gathered around Florentine and each one of them tried to remove the glass splinters that had dug themselves into her fingers. King Otto intervened.

“OK,” he said, “that’s it. The party’s over. You know where to find your carriages.”
Only Prince Alphons, who had sat at the side all this time, waiting for an opportunity to roll the princess through the courtyard, perhaps when the other princes had tired themselves out and weren’t interested any more, was allowed to stay.

“The boy is quiet and sensible. He can look after Florentine and be a good influence on her, “ said the king.

“Just let him try, the dullard,” hissed Florentine.

The court marshal swiped the winner’s certificate and the gold ducat from the glassblower’s hands and beckoned over the royal glove-maker – the second prizewinner in the ideas contest. The royal glove-maker asked the princess to stretch out her hands, dressed her in a pair of mittens that were so thickly padded that her hands looks like pancakes, then laced them up.

“Take these ugly gloves off immediately!” shouted the princess. “I know I’m not allowed to touch a spindle.”

“The gloves stay on,” said the queen. “You just had a glass splinter in your finger. And a glass splinter is one tiny step away from a spindle.”

“I don’t want them!” screamed Florentine.

“Come on, let’s leave the youngsters to themselves,” said King Otto, pushing the worried queen to the door, “Prince Alphons will look after her and if the worst comes to the worst, you can’t avoid destiny anyway.”

Florentine started to weep with anger. The patient prince tried to placate her – it was only for one day, then the danger would have passed and a day, well, that wasn’t long, it would be over in a twinkling, in fact the first few hours were almost over and the following twenty-three would go by just as fast, she’d soon see.

“One day,” cried the princess, who took after her mother in many ways, “one day, in these mittens! I can’t bear it! And besides, it’s my birthday.”

But Prince Alphons gave the court marshal a signal, who in turn gave the musicians a signal, and then the prince took Florentine by her thick mittens and began to dance. Alphons was a very good dancer because he had patiently learned how to do all the difficult and complicated steps that were popular at the time.

“Why didn’t you ask me to dance earlier on?” said the princess, astonished. “You’re the only one who didn’t. I thought it was because you didn’t know how to.”

And as morning broke, after the court marshal had long since sunk onto a bench and started snoring, Florentine lay her head on Alphons’ shoulder and whispered, “You have to untie the straps on my mittens. If you care for me even a scrap, you’ll help me.”

The prince didn’t care for Florentine just a scrap, he was head over heels in love with her. It seemed that the moment had come to kiss her. But should he really? Wouldn’t he be in danger of ruining everything? He thought he’d better be patient for a little longer until Florentine showed him a sign that she cared for him too. And as for the straps on her gloves, well, he wasn’t allowed to untie them.

So, with her teeth, the princess untied the mittens herself, threw them at Alphons and ran off. The patient prince woke the court marshal and together they searched the adjoining halls and rooms – in vain. The court marshal then ran to the west wing while Prince Alphons looked around the castle courtyard. The main gate stood open and the prince walked through it to look outside the castle. Princess Florentine was capable of anything. The sun was rising, the birds were chirping, a mild breeze was blowing, and it looked as if it was going to be a beautiful summer’s day. But just as Alphons had stepped outside the castle, a sudden, eerie silence fell. The birds stopped singing, even the wind died away and not a leaf stirred in the trees. Alphons watched a dove flying back to the castle. No sooner had it flown over the castle walls than it stuck its head under its wing and plummeted to the ground. Now the ground began to stir and rustle and all around the prince, stems began to gouge through the earth and form shoots that started to creep around his legs. He wasted no time in getting away, and only after he’d run a good distance, he turned round and watched the thorny hedge climbing up the castle until it finally encircled the walls so entirely that they disappeared and nothing of the building could be seen, not even the flag on the roof. The patient prince sighed deeply and said: “Now all I have to do is wait a hundred years.”

Other king’s sons were not quite as patient. The rumour of the beautiful princess asleep behind the thorny hedge spread quickly, and princes came time and again to cut their way through to the castle. They had sharp swords and their best gardeners with them but the thorny stems held fast as if they had hands, scratching the princes’ faces and entangling the legs of their gardeners. Each of them had to return home empty-handed. And finally, no one even tried.

Years passed and the patient prince turned into a patient man in the prime of life, who planted slow-growing trees in his park and did everything he could to live for as long as possible. Every evening he went to bed early, and every morning he got up late. He moved slowly and measuredly, stayed in bed if the stars were in an unfavourable constellation, and did not get upset about anything, out of principle – not even when his younger brother superseded him to the throne and nicknamed him “Prince Hasty” or “The Discovery of Slowness”. Every first Friday in the month, Alphons gathered the best doctors around him to prescribe a life-prolonging diet. The doctors in his youth had sworn by eating only things that were green so he had kept to a regime of dandelion salad, beans, peas, green blancmange, as well as the odd frog or a morsel of mouldy bread. Then, scientific views changed radically and green was considered highly poisonous – only white food prolonged life. From then on, the patient prince stuck to cream, sugar, salt, celery, skinned fish and chicken meat. But just as before, he made sure that he did not get upset, and never doubted that he would see Princess Florentine again. Doctors, after all, were in absolute agreement about the detrimental effect of doubt on the longevity of human life.

“That’s true, doubt gnaws at the heart, just as worry does when you’re treated unfairly by your own relatives,” said his old godmother, Fanny the fairy, who visited him twice a week. She had never forgiven King Otto and Queen Augusta for not inviting her to the christening and mentioned it at every possible opportunity. Prince Alphons was the only one who still had the patience to put up with her rants and tirades.

“Of course it was Augusta, that bride of Satan! Otto would never have done it of his own accord,” she said, and blew her nose long and hard into a turquoise handkerchief with red tassels.

“Certainly,” said Alphons, who had already spent decades debating the theme.

“Augusta always wanted to pull us apart, and now she’s managed to, she’s triumphed!”

“Oh no, Aunt Fanny, Augusta can never triumph. She is lying in a hundred-year sleep along with the rest of the family,” said Alphons and remembered he had to prune his slow-growing trees.

“But when she wakes up! When she wakes up she will triumph over me – you just wait!” cried the fairy.

“My God, Aunt Fanny, how long has it been? Forty-two years! Forget it once and for all! And by the way, you look remarkably young for someone who has spent the last forty-two years with worry gnawing at her heart. How on earth do you manage it?”

“I’d have to be pretty daft if I didn’t use my fairy talents on myself,” said the godmother, flattered, only to start up again with: “Otto might be a coward but it would never have occurred to him not to invite me. It was that devil woman.”

The patient prince proffered Godmother Fanny a fresh handkerchief and asked as casually as possible if she couldn’t use her talents on him too, and reverse the complaints and deformities that age had brought on – or at least slow down their progress. He’d become a little hard of hearing, he could still read but only if he held the book at arm’s length, unsightly flaps of skin hung around his throat and under his eyes, and hair had begun to sprout from his nose.

“Florentine won’t even recognise me when she awakes from her hundred-year sleep.”

“Do you really think I’m going to help you side with the enemy?” cried the fairy, flaring up. “No, no, you should wither away and die just as nature intended. Before Florentine awakes, you’ll be long dead.”

“Well, thank you very much indeed,” replied Alphons, “most charming. But how wrong you are. Don’t forget that you blessed me with patience at birth.”

“Patience won’t help in this case,” said the fairy. “Eighty years will pass before that sleeping clan awakes. You’ll never last that long.”

 

Excerpt from “Der geduldige Prinz” by Karen Duve. A story from the collection Grrrim, (© Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2012). Translation © Lucy Renner Jones

 

Karen Duve born in Hamburg in 1961, lives in the countryside near Berlin. Publications include Regenroman (1999), Dies ist kein Liebeslied (2002), Die entführte Prinzession (2005), Taxi (2008) and Anständig essen (2010). Her versions of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales take a witty view of these familiar stories giving them a modern twist.

Lucy Renner Jones studied German with W.G. Sebald at UEA, soon afterwards started a career as a fashion and reportage photographer in Barcelona, Hamburg and Berlin; returned to work with language and literature in the early 2000s. In 2008, she founded Transfiction, a collective of literary translators, with Karen Witthuhn (www.transfiction.eu) and was joined by Jenny Piening in 2012. She is the author of two book-length translations, Lyric Novella (2010) and Death in Persia (2013), published by Seagull Books and is currently working on the diaries of Brigitte Reimann.

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MadHat, Issue 14, Spring 2013