A Birthday Present: Blanchefleur

Recently, I put together a PDF of my fairy tale “Blanchefleur,” based very loosely on Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat,” for a fairy tale class taught by a friend of mine. She said the class went well, and that the students liked my fairy tale, which is of course the best compliment any author can receive! Yesterday was my birthday, and I like to give presents on my birthday, so I thought I would give you (if you’re interested) a present . . .

This is the PDF of the story I prepared for her — it’s the story of Idiot (the boy no one trusted or cared about), Blanchefleur (the somewhat sarcastic white cat), and the mysterious Lady of the Forest. If you’d like to see whether or not you’re interested in the story, I’ve copied the first section below.

Here it is, with all best wishes:

Blanchefleur

They called him Idiot.

He was the miller’s son, and he had never been good for much. At least not since his mother’s death, when he was twelve years old. He had found her floating, face-down, in the millpond, and his cries had brought his father’s men. When they had turned her over, he had seen her face, pale and bloated, before someone had said, “Not in front of the child!” and they had hurried him away. He had never seen her again, just the wooden coffin going into the ground, and after that, the gray stone in the churchyard where, every Sunday, he and his father left whatever was in season — a bunch of violets, sprays of the wild roses that grew by the forest edge, tall lilies from beside the mill stream. In winter, they left holly branches red with berries.

Before her death, he had been a laughing, affectionate child. After her death, he became solitary. He would no longer play with his friends from school, and eventually they began to ignore him. He would no longer speak even to his father, and anyway the miller was a quiet man who, after his wife’s death, grew more silent. He was so broken, so bereft, by the loss of his wife that he could barely look at the son who had her golden hair, her eyes the color of spring leaves. Often they would go a whole day, saying no more than a few sentences to each other.

He went to school, but he never seemed to learn — he would stare out the window or, if called upon, shake his head and refuse to answer. Once, the teacher rapped his knuckles for it, but he simply looked at her with those eyes, which were so much like his mother’s. The teacher turned away, ashamed of herself, and after that she left him alone, telling herself that at least he was sitting in the schoolroom rather than loafing about the fields.

He learned nothing, he did nothing. When his father told him to do the work of the mill, he did it so badly that the water flowing through the sluice gates was either too fast or slow, or the large millstones that grind the grain were too close together or far apart, or he took the wrong amount of grain in payment from the farmers who came to grind their wheat. Finally, the miller hired another man, and his son wandered about the countryside, sometimes sleeping under the stars, eating berries from the hedges when he could find them. He would come home dirty, with scratches on his arms and brambles in his hair. And his father, rather than scolding him, would look away.

If anyone had looked closely, they would have seen that he was clever at carving pieces of wood into whistles, and that he seemed to know how to call all the birds. Also, that he knew the paths through the countryside and could tell the time by the position of the sun and moon on each day of the year, his direction by the stars. He knew the track and spoor of every animal, what tree each leaf came from by its shape. He knew which mushrooms were poisonous and how to find water under the ground. But no one did look closely.

It was the other schoolboys, most of whom had once been his friends, who started calling him Idiot. At first it was Idiot Ivan, but soon it was simply Idiot, and it spread through the village until people forgot that he had ever been called Ivan. Farmers would call to him, cheerfully enough, “Good morning, Idiot!” They meant no insult by it. In villages, people like knowing who you are. The boy was clearly an idiot, so let him be called that. And so he was.

No one noticed that under the dirt, and despite the rags he wore, he had grown into a large, handsome boy. He should have had sweethearts, but the village girls assumed he was slow and had no prospects, even though he was the miller’s son. So he was always alone, and the truth was, he seemed to prefer it.

The miller was the only one who still called him Ivan, although he had given his son up as hopeless, and even he secretly believed that the boy was slow and stupid.

This was how things stood when the miller rode to market to buy a new horse. The market was held in the nearest town, on a fine summer day that was also the feast-day of Saint Ivan, so the town was filled with stalls selling livestock, vegetables from the local farms, leather and rope harnesses, embroidered linen, woven baskets. Men and women in smocks lined up to hire themselves for the coming harvest. There were strolling players with fiddles or pipes, dancers on a wooden platform, and a great deal of beer — which the miller drank from a tankard.

The market went well for him. He found a horse for less money than he thought he would have to spend, and while he was paying for his beer, one of the maids from the tavern winked at him. She was plump, with sunburnt cheeks, and she poured his beer neatly, leaving a head of foam that just reached the top of the tankard. He had not thought of women, not in that way, since his wife had drowned. She had been one of those magical women, beautiful as the dawn, as slight as a willow-bough and with a voice like birds singing, that are perhaps too delicate for this world. That kind of woman gets into a man’s blood. But lately he had started to notice once again that other women existed, and that there were other things in the world than running a mill. Like his son, who was a great worry to him. What would the idiot — Ivan, he reminded himself — what would he do when the his father was gone, as we must all go someday? Would he be able to take care of himself?

He had saddled his horse and was fastening a rope to his saddle so the new horse could be led, when he heard a voice he recognized from many years ago. “Hello, Stephen Miller,” it said.

He turned around and bowed. “Hello, Lady.”

She was tall and pale, with long gray hair that hung to the backs of her knees, although she did not look older than when he had last seen her, at his wedding. She wore a gray linen dress that, although it was midsummer, reminded him of winter.

“How is my nephew? This is his name’s day, is it not?”

“It is, Lady. As to how he is –” The miller told her. He might not have, if the beer had not loosened his tongue, for he was a proud man and he did not want his sister-in-law to think that his son was doing badly. But with the beer and his worries, it all came out — the days Ivan spent staring out of windows or walking through the countryside, how the local farmers thought of him, even that name — Idiot.

“I warned you that no good comes of a mortal marrying a fairy woman,” said the Lady. “But those in love never listen. Send my nephew to me. I will make him my apprentice for three years, and at the end of that time we shall see. For his wages, you may take this.”

She handed him a purse. He bowed in acknowledgment, saying, “I thank you for your generosity –” but when he straightened again, she was already walking away from him. Just before leaving the inn yard, she turned back for a moment and said, “The Castle in the Forest, remember. I will expect him in three days’ time.”

The miller nodded, although she had already turned away again. As he rode home, he looked into the purse she had given him — in it was a handful of leaves. He wondered how he was going to tell his son about the bargain he had made. But when he reached home, the boy was sitting at the kitchen table whittling something out of wood, and he simply said, “I have apprenticed you for three years to your aunt, the Lady of the Forest. She expects you in three days’ time.”

The boy did not say a word. But the next morning, he put all of his possessions — they were few enough — into a satchel, which he slung over his shoulder. And he set out.

In three days’ time, Ivan walked through the forest, blowing on the whistle he had carved. He could hear birds calling to each other in the forest. He whistled to them, and they whistled back. He did not know how long his journey would take — if you set out for the Castle in the Forest, it can take you a day, or a week, or the rest of your life. But the Lady had said she expected him in three days, so he thought he would reach the Castle by the end of the day at the latest.

Before he left, his father had looked again in the purse that the Lady had given him. In it was a pile of gold coins — as the miller had expected, for that is the way fairy money works. “I will keep this for you,” his father had said. “When you come back, you will be old enough to marry, and with such a fortune, any of the local girls will take you. I do not know what you will do as the Lady’s apprentice, but I hope you will come back fit to run a mill.”

Ivan had simply nodded, slung his satchel over his shoulder, and gone.

Just as he was wondering if he would indeed find the castle that day, for the sun was beginning to set, he saw it through the trees, its turrets rising above a high stone wall.

He went up to the wall and knocked at the wooden door that was the only way in. It opened, seemingly by itself. In the doorway stood a white cat.

“Are you the Idiot?” she asked.

“I suppose so,” he said, speaking for the first time in three days.

“That’s what I thought,” she said. “You certainly look the part. Well, come in then, and follow me.”

He followed her through the doorway and along a path that led through the castle gardens. He had never seen such gardens, although in school his teacher had once described the gardens that surrounded the King’s castle, which she had visited on holiday. There were fountains set in green lawns, with stone fish spouting water. There were box hedges, and topiaries carved into the shapes of birds, rabbits, mice. There were pools filled with waterlilies, in which he could see real fish, silver and orange. There were arched trellises from which roses hung down in profusion, and an orchard with fruit trees. He could even see a kitchen garden, with vegetables in neat rows. And all through the gardens, he could see cats, pruning the hedges, tying back the roses, raking the earth in the flower beds.

It was the strangest sight he had ever seen, and for the first time it occurred to him that being the Lady’s apprentice would be an adventure — the first of his life.

The path took them to the door of the castle, which swung open as they approached. An orange tabby walked out and stood waiting at the top of the steps.

“Hello, Marmalade,” said the white cat.

“Good evening, Miss Blanchefleur,” he replied. “Is this the young man her Ladyship is expecting?”

“As far as I can tell,” she said. “Although what my mother would want with such an unprepossessing specimen, I don’t know.”

Marmalade bowed to Ivan and said, “Welcome, Ivan Miller. Her Ladyship is waiting in the solar.”

Ivan expected the white cat, whose name seemed to be Blanchefleur, to leave him with Marmalade, but instead she followed them through the doorway, then through a great hall whose walls were hung with tapestries showing cats sitting in gardens, climbing trees, hunting rabbits, catching fish. Here too there were cats, setting out bowls on two long wooden tables, and on a shorter table set on a dais at the end of the room. As Marmalade passed, they nodded, and a gray cat who seemed to be directing their activities said, “We’re almost ready, Mr. Marmalade. The birds are nicely roasted, and the mint sauce is really a treat if I say so myself.”

“Excellent, Mrs. Pebbles. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to those birds. Tailcatcher said that he caught them himself.”

“Well, with a little help!” said Mrs. Pebbles, acerbically. “He doesn’t go on the hunt alone, does he now, Mr. Marmalade? Oh, begging your pardon, Miss,” she said when she saw Blanchefleur. “I didn’t know you were there.”

“I couldn’t care less what you say about him,” said Blanchefleur, which a sniff and a twitch of her tail. “He’s nothing to me.”
“As you say, Miss,” said Mrs. Pebbles, not sounding particularly convinced.

At the back of the great hall was another, smaller door that led to a long hallway. Ivan was startled when, at the end of the hallway, which had been rather dark, they emerged into a room filled with sunlight. It had several windows looking out onto a green lawn, and scattered around the room were low cushions, on which cats sat engaged in various tasks. Some were carding wool, some were spinning it on drop spindles, some were plying the yarn or winding it into skeins. In a chair by one of the windows sat the Lady, with a piece of embroidery in her lap. One of the cats was reading a book aloud, but stopped when they entered.

“My Lady, this is Ivan Miller, your new apprentice,” said Marmalade.

“Otherwise known as the Idiot,” said Blanchefleur. “And he seems to deserve the name. He’s said nothing for himself all this time.”

“My dear, you should be polite to your cousin,” said the Lady. “Ivan, you’ve already met my daughter, Blanchefleur, and Marmalade, who takes such marvelous care of us all. These are my ladies in waiting: Elderberry, Twilight, Snowy, Whiskers, and Fluff. My daughter tells me you have nothing to say for yourself. Is that true?”

Ivan stared at her, sitting in her chair, surrounded by cats. She had green eyes, and although her gray hair hung down to the floor, she reminded him of his mother. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said.

She looked at him for a moment, appraisingly. Then she said, “Very well. I will send you where you need not say anything. Just this morning I received a letter from an old friend of mine, Professor Owl. He is compiling an Encyclopedia of All Knowledge, but he is old and feels arthritis terribly in his legs. He can no longer write the entries himself. For the first year of your apprenticeship, you will go to Professor Owl in the Eastern Waste and help him with his Encyclopedia. Do you think you can do that, nephew?”

“It’s all the same to me,” said Ivan. It was obvious that no one wanted him here, just as no one had wanted him at the mill. What did it matter where he went?

“Then you shall set out tomorrow morning,” said the Lady. “Tonight you shall join us for dinner. Are the preparations ready, Marmalade?”

“Almost, my Lady,” said the orange cat.

“How will I find this Professor Owl?” asked Ivan.

“Blanchefleur will take you,” said the Lady.

“You can’t be serious!” said Blanchefleur. “He’s an idiot, and he stinks like a pigsty.”

“Then show him the bathroom, where he can draw himself a bath,” said the Lady. “And give him new clothes to wear. Those are too ragged even for Professor Owl, I think.”

“Come on, you,” said Blanchefleur, clearly disgusted. He followed her out of the room and up a flight of stairs, to a bathroom with a large tub on four clawed legs. He had never seen anything quite like it before. At the mill, he had often washed under the kitchen spigot. After she had left, he filled it with hot water that came out of a tap and slipped into it until the water was up to his chin.

What a strange day it had been. Three days ago he had left his father’s house and the life he had always lived, a life that required almost nothing of him: no thought, no effort. And now here he was, in a castle filled with talking cats. And tomorrow he would start for another place, one that might be even stranger. When Blanchefleur had taunted him by telling the Lady that he had nothing to say for himself, he had wanted to say — what? Something that would have made her less disdainful. But what could he say for himself, after all?

With the piece of soap, he washed himself more carefully than he had ever before in his life. She had said that he smelled like a pigsty, and he had spent the night before last sleeping on a haystack that was, indeed, near a pen where several pigs had grunted in their dreams. Last night, he had slept in the forest, but he supposed that the smell still lingered — particularly to a cat’s nose. For the first time in years, he felt a sense of shame.

He dried himself and put on the clothes she had left for him. He went back down the stairs, toward the sound of music, and found his way to the great hall. It was lit with torches, and sitting at the two long tables were cats of all colors: black and brindled and tortoiseshell and piebald, with short hair and long. Sitting on the dais were the Lady, with Blanchefleur beside her, and a large yellow and brown cat who was striped like a tiger. He stood in the doorway, feeling self-conscious.

The Lady saw him across the room and motioned for him to come over. He walked to the dais and bowed before it, because that seemed the appropriate thing to do. She said, “That was courteous, nephew. Now come sit with us. Tailcatcher, you will not mind giving your seat to Ivan, will you?”

“Of course not, my Lady,” said the striped cat in a tone that indicated he did indeed mind, very much.

Ivan took his place, and Marmalade brought him a dish of roast starlings, with a green sauce that smelled like catmint. It was good, although relatively flavorless. The cats, evidently, did not use salt in their cooking. Halfway through the meal, he was startled to realize that the cats were conversing with one another and nodding politely, as though they were a roomful of ordinary people. He was probably the only silent one in the entire room. Several times he noticed Blanchefleur giving him exasperated looks.

When he had finished eating, the Lady said, “I think it’s time to dance.” She clapped her hands, and suddenly Ivan heard music. He wondered where it was coming from, then noticed that a group of cats at the far end of the room were playing, more skillfully than he had supposed possible, a fife, a viol, a tabor, and other instruments he could not identify, one of which curved like a long snake. The cats that had been sitting at the long tables moved them to the sides of the room, then formed two lines in the center. He had seen a line dance before, at one of the village fairs, but he had never seen one danced as gracefully as it was by the cats. They wove in and out, each line breaking and reforming in intricate patterns.

“Aren’t you going to ask your cousin to dance?” said the Lady, leaning over to him.

“What? Oh,” he said, feeling foolish. How could he dance with a cat? But the Lady was looking at him, waiting. “Would you like to dance?” he asked Blanchefleur.

“Not particularly,” she said, looking at him with disdain. “Oh, all right, Mother! You don’t have to pull my tail.”

He wiped his mouth and hands on a napkin, then followed Blanchefleur to the dance floor and joined at the end of the line, feeling large and clumsy, trying to follow the steps and not tread on any paws. It did not help that, just when he was beginning to feel as though he was learning the steps, he saw Tailcatcher glaring at him from across the room. He danced several times, once with Blanchefleur, once with Mrs. Pebbles, who must have taken pity on him, and once with Fluff, who told him that it was a pleasure to dance with such a handsome young man and seemed to mean it. He managed to step on only one set of paws, belonging to a tabby tomcat who said, “Do that again, Sir, and I’ll send you my second in the morning,” but was mollified when Ivan apologized sincerely and at length. After that, he insisted on sitting down until the feast was over and he could go to bed.

The next morning, he woke and wondered if it was all a dream, but no — there he was, lying in a curtained bed in the Lady’s castle. And there was Blanchefleur, sitting in a nearby chair, saying, “About time you woke up. We need to get started if we’re going to make the Eastern Waste by nightfall.”

Ivan got out of bed, vaguely embarrassed to be seen in his nightshirt, then reminded himself that she was just a cat. He put on the clothes he had been given last night, then found his satchel on a dresser. All of his old clothes were gone, replaced by new ones. In the satchel he also found a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese, a flask of wine, and a shiny new knife with a horn handle.

“I should thank the Lady for all these things,” he said.

“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since you got here,” said Blanchefleur. “But she’s gone to see my father, and won’t be back for three days. And we have to get going. So hurry up already!”

To read the rest, download the PDF:

Blanchefleur

the-white-cat-illustration

(The illustration is from Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book.)

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7 Responses to A Birthday Present: Blanchefleur

  1. lylealmond says:

    Happy (belated) New Moon Birthday, Theodora!

  2. Freyalyn Close-Hainsworth says:

    Thank you for my lovely birthday/unbirthday present. I have just read it all and it was lovely. I shall re-read later. It is so splendid to feel Ivan coming out of his depression and Blanchefleur unlearning her arrogance. I do hope Tailcatcher found his happiness too.

  3. Martin says:

    What a wonderful tale – especially; “The world has a use for us, tasks we must fulfill. And we must fulfill them as best we can, finding happiness along the way. But we usually get what we need.”
    Words to live by. Thank you.

  4. helen says:

    Happy (belated!) birthday. Here in Belgium, the birthday celebrater gives everyone else cake, so you are doing the literary version. πŸ™‚ It’s a lovely story – I bought Once Upon a Time just so that I could read it. Thank you!

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