Once upon a time, there was a beautiful but surprisingly stupid princess, Ira, who had absolutely no idea of what to say and when.
For example, when guests gathered at her mom and dad’s palace, stupid Ira would blurt out:
“Is it true you’re all thieves?”
“And who told you that, young lady?” — the guests would ask, affectionately.
“Mom and Dad,” stupid Ira would answer.
And immediately a war in the newspapers would erupt, relationships would be torn apart, old debts would be called in, and so on, but the kingdom is poor, its revenues small, and its army consists of only fifteen people, fourteen of whom are generals.
Judge for yourselves, — what would you do under such conditions?
The king and the queen would personally apologize to everyone for their stupid daughter, telling them Ira’s nanny dropped her when she was a child, something in that fashion.
To make a long story short, they stopped letting her meet the guests. They fed her in the kitchen from that point on.
But even there Ira would think of various questions and stupidly ask the queen-mother, for example:
“Is it true Dad has another Mom?”
“Who told you that?” — the queen would ask, affectionately.
And Ira would respond:
“Some lady at the tram stop.”
“And who, I wonder, took you to the tram stop?” — the mother-queen would ask, all the more affectionately.
“No one took me,” — stupid Ira would answer again. “Our cook went there and saw it.”
It goes without saying that the cook, after a long interrogation, was fired, and the dad, after a long interrogation, was forgiven as kings cannot divorce – otherwise, they would have to renounce the throne, and that’s another thing this king cannot do, with stupid Ira looming in the distance as his successor: Don’t abandon the people to Ira, the fourteen generals, and the one colonel!
And so they would no longer allow Ira even to enter the kitchen, and they moved the poor stupid girl into an empty lodge at the very end of the park, where Ira would receive her food via royal post, and everyone seemed to give a sigh of relief.
But now new issues emerged: Ira picked up a sick dog, a puppy of an unknown breed, and the royal kitchen ended up working to feed this creature!
They immediately took the dog away and brought it to a dump in a neighbouring country — what else could they do?
Ira completely refused to eat and would not let the royal post in for three days.
What to do? The senate debated the issue and decided to buy a miniature poodle for stupid Ira, and to let it be.
They spent a fortune on this thing, procured it, and brought it to Ira’s door.
But Ira continued her hunger-strike, and so they had to go abroad again and sent a delegation to look for Ira’s doggy at the foreign dump amid the rotten sausage and ragged pillows.
They presented to the stupid but capricious princess a choice of three dogs, which had been cleaned, dried, and perfumed.
Ira chose all three and would not let go of the poodle either, and from now on, breakfasts, lunches, and suppers would pass in a merry atmosphere: all of her intimates (dogs) would sit on the floor, with napkins tied around their necks, and eat from plates to their heart’s content, including stupid Ira; and if someone visited her, in particular, her mother and father, then they would also have to sit on the floor like the dogs, otherwise stupid Ira would not deign to speak with them, though at times important state matters would arise, for example, where should the successor to the throne be sent to school.
At the very first school, Ira told her teacher that he was a fool if he asks his pupils what makes one plus one: he should know that himself!
They left Ira alone, especially as the number of inhabitants in her lodge increased — five puppies had been born. Ira also found in the basement a fat female cat and was now anxious to see if there would be kittens.
By now, the parents had lost all their patience and decided to send their stupid daughter to a veterinary school, where Ira soon moved along with the dogs, the puppies, and her pot-bellied cat, which was carried there in a separate wicker trunk.
They left Ira there, at the veterinary school, and nothing was heard of her until she grew up and opened her own veterinary clinic.
Her mother and father, king and queen, were not young anymore. The time had come to think about a husband for their stupid daughter, but all the bachelors, near and far, princes, counts, even merchants, master sergeants, and sergeants, even vendors, window cleaners and butchers – had all heard about the stupidity of Princess Ira and no one wished to marry her: You’ll marry her and then at some point she’ll blurt something out about you that will make you feel awkward in front of the people.
On top of all that, gossip had it that at her clinic every owner of a sick animal could also be hospitalized, that is, he had the right to stay at the hospital along with his sickly pet. similarly to when they put a mother in the same ward as her ailing child to look after it to the fullest.
And so all sorts of charlatans, loafers, and crooks would invade/overrun Ira’s clinic, bringing with them any half-suffocated wood bug and lie down with it in a separate ward for a year.
Someone would come with a cockroach that was missing one feeler, someone, a little more seriously, with a frog that was suspected of having dropsy of the middle ear, and someone else — complaining about a field mouse: it doesn’t eat meat; it must be the plague!
And so, one fine day, Ira, out of breath, was receiving patients when she saw before her a limping donkey and its owner, the gloomy and wicked Piotr, who announced that the donkey’s name was Bachelor.
Piotr asked if he could have his donkey cured here within half an hour as he urgently needed the donkey to carry water.
Ira responded that it wasn’t possible and, quite the contrary, that it was urgent for the donkey to stay at the clinic.
“No,” — said the gloomy and wicked owner, stubbornly. “Then I’ll shoot it, skin it, and sell it, and from the meat I’ll prepare baloney and then sell that too. And from the tail I’ll make a bobble for a tubeteika, and the hooves and bones will go into an aspic! And I’ll make two golden coins for it!
That is what this gloomy and wicked Piotr announced.
Being stupid, after all, Ira suggested that if the honourable owner wished, she would buy Bachelor the donkey from him for two golden coins.
Wicked Piotr, on the contrary, would not agree and demanded from Ira two thousand golden coins for the donkey.
Then Ira left and returned with necklaces of precious stones.
She said they were worth much more than two thousand coins but there was now no time to sell them, so let the respectable Piotr go and sell these precious stones, and bring the change when he could since the animals don’t have much to eat.
Malicious Piotr didn’t take the stones and instead replied:
“How really stupid you are! I heard you’re stupid, but I didn’t believe it! I have your picture from a newspaper on the wall; I would look at it and think: it’s not true, a girl like that should have a very bright mind! And now I see that you really are as stupid as a goose! You believe everyone! And I paid only three kopecks for this limping donkey; it was already on its way to the knacker’s! Rogues are living here with their supposedly sick fleas and bedbugs, and you feed them all!
“And how much will an insect eat?” — objected stupid Ira, “a drop of honey, a breadcrumb! Is it that much? And how much will its owner eat? Especially as some of them have to carry the sick ones in their bosom and even feed them, for example the bedbugs and fleas. Not everyone would want to do it! They sacrifice themselves! And all this for a mere three meals a day! I do the laundry in the washing machine, do the dishes in the evening, clean the floor in the morning, prepare supper at night, and all according to a schedule. And the horses and hens just graze on their own.”
“See how dumb you are!” — shouted Piotr again, “everyone takes advantage of you! And when you become a queen? Any crook will marry you if he only makes up a fairy tale about his love for cockroaches, and you’ll believe him! No. I won’t accept it. I am hiring myself as a guard here, period.
And Piotr quickly put the clinic in order, discharged all the spiders, frogs, mice, cockroaches, and mosquitos, announcing that they are for all practical purposes — recovered.
As for the owners of these patients, one of them, who objected at being discharged, clutching his beloved bedbug to the chest, received a slap on the neck from Piotr; and others quickly understood everything and took off, visibly staggering, seemingly out of grief.
Some others were loudly singing mournful songs.
The princess was now living the easy life; she would now sleep at night, and during the day she would work only from morning til lunch, as all doctors do; moreover, Piotr came up with the clever idea to begin charging the owners for treating their animals; before long, the clinic grew richer, except for the fact that Ira went to the city and bought en masse from the burgermeister — stray dogs, both those wandering the streets and newborns lying by a fence — squandering all the money they earned.
All these beauties were brought to her the following day in a dog van, and for the whole week Ira and Piotr would clean, comb, and cure the new batch, and then set them all free to live in the park.
These dogs, even though they were strays, began very zealously to protect the territory, that is, they fully earned their bread, keeping the crafty townspeople from cutting wood in the park, picking flowers for sale, and digging out their favourite shrubs.
Of the permanent employees of the clinic, there now lived only dogs, mice-hunting cats, and the formerly limping donkey, Bachelor. The donkey got better and would now carry hay that Piotr cut for the needs of the antlered patients of the clinic.
It is no wonder, then, that when the aged king and queen came again to convince Ira to meet with eligible bachelors (after all, even among men, there are some fools who could be convinced with a portrait of pretty girl), Ira said:
“I already have a bachelor!”
“Where is he?” — asked the surprised parents.
“Come with me” — said the stupid princess, proudly, and led the king and the queen to the meadow, where Piotr was putting hay on Bachelor, the donkey.
“Here, let me introduce you. This is Bachelor,” said the beaming Ira and left.
And the deceived king and queen approached Piotr, made his acquaintance, explained that he was now a duke after the father and a marquis after the uncle, rejoiced and left the clinic particularly pleased, accompanied by a pack of wildly barking dogs.
And the contented king and queen decided to set the wedding date right for the very next morning, to avoid any postponement, just in case.
On that very evening, a tailor came to see Ira and brought her white clothes – a dress, hat and gloves, and at the same time shoes, veil, and a bouquet; and for Piotr he brought a white tuxedo and shirt, and a bow tie; stupid Ira was giggling all evening as she sat next to Piotr. She thought she had cunningly deceived her parents.
The following morning, Ira, still laughing herself to tears, led the donkey Bachelor to the burgermeister to get married; Piotr, in his new outfit, was walking next to his donkey, serious, as always.
But when they brought the book in and ordered them to sign it, Ira wrote her signature, but the donkey Bachelor wouldn’t, no matter how hard she tried to convince him.
Then Ira suggested that Piotr sign for Bachelor.
Piotr signed, everyone drank champagne — the guests from the goblets, and the donkey Bachelor from a small wooden bucket.
Then Princess Ira offered her bouquet to the donkey and the donkey had it as an appetizer; and Dad and Mom congratulated Ira and kissed both her and Piotr.
And then stupid Ira burst into a hearty laugh:
“But Mom, Dad, my husband is an ass!” “Kiss him!” And the unsurprised parents rejoiced:
“Like wife, like husband!”
And they left.
And the serious Piotr said to Ira:
“It’s so good, all in all, that you’re such a silly fool! You get bamboozled like a kid! And it’s good that it’s actually me who bamboozled you and not some crook; and I am your husband now, and not some rogue! And it has turned out so well, I’ve loved you for a long time now and I’ll not give you away to anyone!”
Stupid princess Ira was surprised:
“You’re my husband?” “But what about Bachelor?”
“Bachelor is Bachelor, the donkey is the donkey, and I am your husband.”
And Ira fairly quickly put up with the news, literally within a minute.
“I didn’t even dare to hope that you could love me, and so, out of sorrow, I decided to get married to your donkey.”
And so our story has come to its happy ending, as predicted.
By Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
Translated, from the Russian, by Izabela Zdun
Izabela Zdun is a doctoral candidate and a Russian language instructor at the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University. Her research interests encompass the intertwinement of oral tradition and literacy and the presence of folklore in contemporary Russian literature, specifically within the context of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s fairy tales. She is also a certified English/Polish translator.
Lyudmila Petrushevskaya (b. 1938) is a key figure in the literary scene of post-Soviet Russia — at first censored and repressed, now (inter-)nationally celebrated. She is the author of numerous short stories and plays, as well as fairy tales for children and adults. Additionally, Petrushevskaya performs with her cabaret, paints, and draws. Her writing style is often referred to as naturalistic and absurdist, depicting often cruel quotidian life. Her fairy tales, however, differ quite significantly from her prose and drama, providing, along with a good deal of humour, a sense of relief and hope.