The Unseen Princess

Once upon a time there was a little princess name Florence, and she was very shy. Whenever anyone talked to her, her heart thudded; and if they asked her about herself, she turned bright red; and if there were many people around who looked at her for any reason, she stared hard at the ground hoping it would open up and swallow her down into its dark comforting depths. Naturally, being a princess was a very hard job for someone so painfully shy. She had to attend many parties, where she was expected to greet everyone she met; she was often taken for rides through the city with hundreds of people staring and waving; and every day she spent with a long string of tutors and teachers, all of whom were trying to turn her into the perfect princess. This life was dreadful, and the older she got, the worse little Flor felt. She went around all day flushed red and stammering, not knowing where to look or how to stop her heart from pounding.

Of course, everyone whispered about her sad situation. She was so unsuited to being a princess, they all said. It was painful to watch her, many sighed. It was too bad the king and queen had no other children, some dared to say. Flor was so busy avoiding this people that she also fortunately avoided hearing these whispers until the day she turned ten. There was to be a big party that day, and Flor was dreading it so miserably that she went and hid in the giant room where she took her baths. The servants bustled around, laying out her clothes and warming up towels and gossiping about the royal family, never noticing the little princess lying in the bottom of the big empty tub. For the first time, Flor heard how everyone felt about their awkward princess. She blushed redder than she had every blushed in her life and lay there trembling and hoping no one would find her ever again. Eventually, the servants left to look for their little charge, and Flor slipped out of the bathtub. She could not face the party. She could not face her parents. She could not face anyone. Fortunately, in her constant desire to be unseen, she had learned all the back halls and secret doors in the palace, so on that day she was able to slip down and outside without anyone finding out.

Flor didn’t even know where to go, so she wandered around the town, looking down and letting her hair fall around her face so that no one would recognize her. She wandered and wandered until she felt quite hot and tired and was just about to look for a tree to sit down under when she heard a voice.

“Need a little help, dearie?”

Flor cringed and looked over her shoulder. In the doorway of a dirty old house stood an old woman with long grey braids. She was smiling a toothless smile. “I think I have just what you need.”

Flor knew that she should have been frightened, but for some reason she wasn’t. Instead she felt curious. Without even realizing she was doing it, she followed the old woman inside the dark house.

Once inside, the woman took Flor’s face in both bony hands and looked deep into her eyes. “So it’s being invisible you desire, eh? The art of not being seen is a very subtle one. We’ll have to be very creative, yes we will.” She cackled happily. “I like a challenge.”

Flor didn’t even ask how the old woman knew what she wanted. She didn’t ask how it would be possible to be invisible. She was never good at talking to strangers anyway, and now she was too busy watching as the old woman rooted around in a trunk tossing out strange items like knitted doilies, rabbits feet, and a floppy rubber chicken. Finally she gave a triumphant screech and held up an unremarkable square hand mirror. She scuttled over to the table, laid the mirror down, and quick as a wink smashed it with a hammer. Flor jumped back in surprise, but the woman took no notice. Instead, she scooped up a handful of the broken mirror pieces and tossed them into a pot that was bubbling over the fire in the corner. A few quick stirs with a long handled spoon, and then she scooped out a dripping chocolatey mess and poured it into a set of molds set on a shelf.

“Now to wait just a few minutes,” she said. “The chocolate is always more delicious when it’s hardened up a bit.”

Flor thought of several questions she would like to ask. Who was this woman? Why did she put broken mirrors into chocolate? How would any of this help Flor? Of course, she didn’t ask any of these. Instead, she sat quietly and waited while the old woman rocked in her chair and hummed an off-key tune. It was only about ten minutes later when she leaped up again and turned the chocolate molds upside down on the table. Six perfect little pyramids of chocolate fell out.

“Now, dearie, here they are. Just the thing you’ve been looking for. One a day for the next six days and the effect should last as long as you like. It’s the mirror that does it. Special mirror, that. With that inside you, anyone who looks at you will see only themselves. Believe you me, you’ll be the most popular girl that ever was, and still no need to worry about anyone seeing you. It’s the perfect solution! No need to look like that! The chocolate’s special. Those bitty bits of glass will go down like nothing.”

Flor felt a glow inside. It did sound perfect. If no one really saw her, she wouldn’t have to feel so worried. But if she was well-liked, her parents would be happy. She started to reach out for the chocolates, then drew back. “I have no money with me.”

The old woman cackled again. “Money’s not what I need. I’ll tell you what I tell all them as come my way. Some day there will be something I need. You pay me then.”

Flor was too young to be worried about this arrangement. Instead, she nodded and took the first chocolate in her hand. With a deep breath, she swallowed it down. The old woman was right. It didn’t hurt one bit. Flor didn’t feel any different either, but after all, there were five more chocolates. The old woman wrapped these five in paper, and Flor left the dirty house feeling better than she could ever remember feeling in her life.

That night, Flor’s party was a raging success, to the complete astonishment of absolutely everyone. No one was more surprised than Flor herself. No one was more surprised than Flor herself. When she first stepped down the stairs into the ballroom, she had a moment of panic as everyone looked up at her eagerly. Then she happened to notice that they were all smiling, and something about their smiles seemed faraway, as if they were all thinking about something else. A surge of hope got her to the bottom of the steps and onto the dance floor. Of course, all the boys came and asked for a dance out of duty, as they always did. This time, though, instead of awkward silence when it was clear Flor could not say anything, each of the boys chattered on about fishing or swords or wood carving or chess or whatever it was that interested him. None of them even noticed that Flor didn’t answer, and all of them returned her to her father at the end of the dance with a smile and a request for another dance later. Flor’s father, the king, was pleased by this change, and his eyes rested on his daughter as he thought how grown-up she was and how much she was becoming just like him. He seemed to recall that he had been a bit quiet as a child and then had outgrown it. Soon, no doubt, his daughter would have all of his confidence and joviality in company. Determined to set an example of this, he strode off into the crowd to have conversation with his subjects, and Flor found that a party endured without her father’s disappointed gaze was not really so bad. By the end, she was tired but elated. The chocolates were working.

That night, Flor’s party was a raging success, to the complete astonishment of absolutely everyone. No one was more surprised than Flor herself. Each night for five more nights, Flor ate more of the mirror pieces and each day she relaxed more and more as the people around her talked only of themselves and didn’t press her to say a word. This became the new pattern of her life, surrounded by people but noticed by no one. She was able to go her own way in peace, and whenever the time came to socialize she never had to ask more than one question to get anyone talking on and on about himself. Flor became known as an excellent conversationalist, which made her giggle to herself when she was alone but also gave her joy since she knew that her parents were pleased with her. From that point on, everyone in the kingdom loved their princess.

Many years passed this way, and Princess Flor grew tall and beautiful. Without the crushing burden of shyness to worry about, she also developed many interests and hobbies. She learned to play the harp and to draw beautiful portraits. She studied nature and could name all the leaves of the forest and the birds of the air. She read many books and developed a love for stories about adventure and daring. Unfortunately, she could never talk about any of these stories with anyone since everyone was too busy thinking of their own lives while with her to think much about imaginary happenings. Once in a while Flor would come across the author of one of her favorite tales and then she would get to listen to many thoughts about the book, but her own opinion, of course, was never asked. Much as she loved being unnoticed, this began to feel just the tiniest bit lonely to Princess Flor.

Many princes now came to the kingdom to ask for the hand of the princess in marriage. Each one was charmed with her, or at least was charmed with how important and handsome he seemed while he was with her. Flor’s father and mother were thrilled, and they considered each prince in the light of which would reflect the most glory on them. Flor found herself for the first time in years very dissatisfied. The princes were so much easier to endure when they talked about themselves, but it was appalling to think of marrying one of them and having him ramble on and on about hunting when she felt very strongly about how small creatures of the woods should be treated or listening for a lifetime to musical opinions of a stout prince who butchered every song he played on his mandolin. She knew her own thoughts would never be consulted. She tried to tell herself this was a good thing, that it would only be embarrassing, that she had nothing to say. In her heart, though, she knew that it wasn’t true. She did have things to say, a lifetime of thoughts and feelings hugged tightly to herself while others looked at her and saw only their own reflection.

It was just at this time that the old woman showed up at the castle to demand her payment. She had an inconvenient problem of her own, and she thought the princess would be the perfect solution. You see, a few years before the old woman’s sister had died and left a son behind. The young man was bright and healthy, and at first the old woman was happy to have his help around her house. Then his unfortunate abilities began to show themselves. It seemed he was more like his aunt than his mother, and he had the rare gift of seeing through enchantments. At the old woman’s house, this was disastrous, especially since this gift was coupled with an innate desire to speak his mind. He would see a plain girl and tell her she looked better without her beauty enchantment. He would deliver self-scrubbing pots and end up telling the housewives that these were not nearly as shiny as those polished by their own hard work. His ill-timed comments had driven away nearly all her customers, and the old woman was at her wits’ end. Finally she took him to the castle and demanded that the princess find him a job there.

The princess had no choice but to honor her word to help the old woman, but she really didn’t know what to do. Her father never allowed her to make any decisions at all, and even expressing an opinion about something as small as who the new stable boy should be would be nearly impossible with her condition. In all her years of being ignored, however, she had come to know everything about the castle and its occupants. That’s what happens when everyone you meet tells you all about themselves. So Flor knew that the gardener was losing his eyesight but didn’t want anyone to know. She also knew that his work was falling behind and he would soon be found out. She took the young man to the gardens and told him exactly what to say. To her surprise, he listened intently to her instructions and followed them to the letter. Later that day, he began his work in the gardens of the castle.

Just a few days later, Flor was out among the roses, reading a book, when a voice said, “What are you reading?” Flor looked up, startled. In all the long years she had been reading, no one had ever asked her that question. It was the new gardener. Leaning on his shovel, he continued to ask about her book. Flor was so surprised that she answered without thinking. They talked for nearly an hour, and when the young man went back to work, Flor realized that he had never once mentioned himself.

After that, Flor visited the gardens very often. The more she talked with the young gardener, the more she realized that she had lots of things to say and that she didn’t feel the least bit shy. It wasn’t long before she knew that she didn’t want to marry any of those visiting princes. She wanted to marry the only person in the world who really saw her. And now that she had some practice talking about her ideas, she knew just what to do.

Flor went to her father’s counsel room, knocked on the door and walked in to where he was sitting with all his advisers. As usual, none of them paid any attention to her. She marched straight up to her father, though, took his hand, looked him right in the eye, and told him she had decided who she was going to marry. Her father, looking at her, saw all his own confidence and decisiveness. He felt very proud. So proud that when she announced that she was going to marry the gardener, he agreed right away.

So Flor and her young gardener were married the next summer, and as a wedding present his old aunt gave Flor a special chocolate to remove the spell of the mirrors. And of course, they all lived happily ever after.

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