Love & the Underdog

By

Nancy Brewka-Clark

The little dog trembles at being so far above the flagstone floor. With a pair of tongs, Mistress Meat plucks a coal red as the eye of a dragon from the fire and flings it into the metal wheel. He begins to run. The wheel spins, rattling the chain connecting it to the spit on the blazing hearth. Blood from the haunch of venison sizzles. He has no idea he is meant to repeat his futile flight day after day until he dies.

***

“Poor little dog. What do they call him?”

“Oh, he has no name. He’s just a turnspit dog. And from this moment forth you are just a scullery maid.”

“Yes, Step-mama.”

“Call me Your Highness, you stupid girl.”

“Please, Your Highness, I would like to have my book. It was Father’s. Every night before I fell asleep, I would translate the tales of Ovid from Latin for him.”

“What need does a scullery maid have of books? Give me your slippers and your stockings. Now, your frock. Henceforth you shall be barefoot and wear only these rags, as befits a girl who has nothing.”

***

Mistress Meat never notices that the roast is flavored with the salt of the girl’s tears. But far above the kitchen in the great paneled dining hall the prince who has been sent by his father to woo the girl’s step-sisters finds the taste tantalizing. Observing him with slightly crossed eyes beneath modestly lowered lashes, the two step-sisters toy with their forks. One dreams of sprawling naked in a featherbed sprinkled with rose petals, the other of a gossamer gown as easily shed as a snake slithers out of its splitting skin. Their mother, thinking she can use a strong young arm to bolster her rule and a hard, lean body in her bed, leans forward in her low-cut gown of purple velvet trimmed with ermine to tempt the prince with her majestic bosom. The pressure crushes her skin to crepe, but she believes herself irresistible.

***

“My lord and master, I heard a most disturbing tale down in the town. The king’s legitimate heir, a lovely young girl, vanished after his death. ”

“Vanished, Will? How could a princess vanish without a vast hue and cry?”

“Unlike the deceased king, who was dearly beloved, the widow who sits upon the throne is roundly loathed and feared in equal parts. She has ordered the tongue ripped out of anyone who questions her rule.”

“Then we shall hold our tongues, my valiant servant, until we can get to the bottom of this matter.”

***

The little dog lies panting in his dark corner long after the scullery maid has wept herself to sleep. Her feet are blackened and blistered from walking upon errant cinders as she went about her hellish work. What if he could creep out of the kitchen and hunt for the slippers taken by the evil-eyed woman with the golden crown on her head? Surely they would be better than nothing.

***

“Forgive me for waking you, my liege. From the looks of this slipper I believe the missing princess might be within the confines of these very walls.”

“My word, it’s very dainty. Wherever did you find it, Will?”

“I was standing guard outside your door when the largest rat I’d ever seen came scampering down the hall. I drew my sword and prepared to run it through. Then I realized it was a little dog. It had a pair of slippers in its mouth. In its haste to escape, it dropped one and vanished down the staircase.”

“Well done, Will. Now we have a plan.”

***

The little dog scurries into his corner, ashamed and grieving. What good is one slipper? Growling softly so that he won’t waken the slumbering scullery maid, he chews savagely on the soft blue leather until there is nothing left but scraps.

***

“Come, girls, and claim your slipper from the prince! It must fit one of you.”

“Mama, it’s mine! Oh, but it’s far too tight. It must have shrunk when I went walking in the dewy garden.”

“Here, sister dear, give it to me. Ugh! Unh! Yes, it must have shrunk.”

“Tell me, Madam Queen, are there any other royal damsels within these walls?”

“Oh, dear me, no, none that I can think of, my dearest prince.”

“That’s most peculiar. You see, my loyal servant paid a visit to the castle kitchen this morning. Oh, don’t bother to ask why, Madam Queen. But, he found a young girl whose foot fit perfectly into this slipper.”

“Oh, no, no, no, that is quite impossible, my precious prince.”

“Is it, Madam Queen? Why don’t we go down to the kitchens, then, and see for ourselves what mischief might be afoot.”

***

Taking the golden crown from the old lady’s head, the handsome young man puts it on the scullery maid’s raven locks. Smiling radiantly, she points toward the little dog. “Canis Vertigus,” she calls. He creeps forward humbly to lie at her feet. Putting his nose between his paws, he stares at her with eyes as bright as her own. She scoops him up to whisper one word into his ear. “Gus.” And he knows he will be hers not just in name but in heart, body, and soul forever.

 

Nancy Brewka-Clark is a longtime published author of short fiction, poetry, drama and creative nonfiction who lives on Boston’s highly romantic North Shore. She’s delighted that “Love & the Underdog” is the second story of hers to appear in Paper Butterfly Flash Fiction.

(You can find Nancy’s first story, The Invitation, here!).

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