Dedicated to Jake, who through the inevitable march of time has reached the exalted state of Kindergartener, and so has moved from off-off-Broadway to brighter lights, leaving his long-running cast behind. The following is, of course, fiction.
The Royal Feet
Once upon a time in a land of very little consequence, there lived a royal family which had a bit of a problem: the youngest of the queen's brood, being the favorite & brightest, had somehow developed a need to be coddled at bedtime. Now, all the royal children had had much the same needs, being royal of course, so this was not a new thing. No, it was the extent to which the youngest had this yearning for a routine which would put him to celestial sleep without fear of the dark & terrors of the night. He had upon occasion become slightly hysterical, not overly so since he was an intelligent lad; no, only enough to warrant a bit of concern. He was still quite young; in fact only recently was he actually apart from his mother, who had paid much more attention than most regal mothers do to their heirs. The young prince was becoming more independent during the day, which made the night that more troublesome.
Some solutions had been tried: a singer was brought in the royal nursery to croon lullabies. As soon as the royal ears heard these sounds he put his little hands on his royal ears. 'Don't sing those words to me!' he cried. The singer was removed post-haste.
Thinking that perhaps it was in fact the lyrics that were the problem, a harp player was summoned. The royal ears were not pleased. Even a drummer with the most cunningly soft and rhythmic enchantments was hired. This grated on the royal ears almost instantly.
A light panic shuddered through the palace, since the prince was known to have less than optimal days when his nights were fraught with sleep deprivation. The queen thought it inappropriate to attempt regressing her precious son to the royal bedchamber; the king was in agreement, though for different reasons.
At last it came to pass that one day the eldest of the royal daughters, who was soon to be packed off to another kingdom as a new bride, besought herself some release from the tension of all the upcoming wedding plans by having one of her servants massage her feet before she slept. This was a rare pleasure since, in this kingdom, touching the royal bodies was exclusively reserved for bathtime. As the princess lay drifting off to sleep she was roused by a sudden inspiration: why not try this on her tiny royal brother?
No sooner said than done.
A dim light was set; the child was tucked into his luxurious bedding with naked feet peeping out, whilst the old servant sat on the edge of the mattress. She took several deep breaths and began. This was an ancient discipline: the finding of exquisite points on the tops and bottoms of the feet, where profound relaxation were to be summoned for the entire body, be it royal or common. Her training in this art had been from her own childhood with her mother, who had in turn learned it from her mother, and so on.
The prince was in heaven. He begged for her to continue. As soon as his lids would droop, the servant would adjust her pressure accordingly, waiting for the moment when the sleep would overtake him. Oftentimes this took quite a while, but she was eternally patient. She soon became his one and only gateway to slumber.
The palace was in awe of this result; the queen wept with happiness. The king rejoiced at his son's health and prosperity, and felt so encouraged that he left on fewer and fewer of his extended hunting trips.
Meanwhile, the young princess married and in her entourage, she expected to include her favorite old servant. The idea of leaving her behind was untenable to her. She raged and fumed and finally insisted to her young husband that he find a suitable substitute for the prince's nightly ritual, or their marriage bed might be a very unpleasant place indeed.
The young prince was unimpressed with all this fuss, but he made a desultory choice: a young girl in his staff who seemed ill-suited for the return trip to his homeland. She had strong hands. Why not leave her behind and kill two birds with one stone?
As the royal party made its way down the mountainside, the queen waved at her daughter, secretly relieved that this prickly young fledgling was finally out of the nest. It did not occur to her to notice that the caravan of servants indeed included a quiet old woman who had made it possible for her tiny son to dispel his nightly terrors.
She soon found out. O calamity! If the young prince's resistance to sleep had been bad before, it was now horrendous. Everyone ran in circles. The palace was in an uproar. No one saw a pale girl waiting to be given permission to touch the royal feet. At a certain point, when it seemed probable that the entire night was going to be spent in endless chaos, she knelt by the royal bed and reached out a warm smooth hand. At her touch, the prince fell instantly silent. The room was in shock. She instinctively pulled back, but the prince said softly 'Don't stop…'
One by one they all left the room as the pair began the ritual. The royal lids began to droop. The queen sighed imperceptibly.
The girl continued.
A Foot in the Grave
Once upon a time in a land of little consequence, a young prince found himself in dire need of someone to help him sleep. He was afraid of the dark and while he had found his short life pleasant in many ways, he did not like the approach of night.
His mother the queen was a clever woman; she bestirred herself and found the perfect solution: an ancient servant woman who had a middle-aged spinster daughter said to have almost magical powers of healing through the touch of her hands upon one's feet. The queen had to try it herself of course, and she was soon convinced.
Once the prince was introduced to this powerful ritual, his royal sleep patterns were soothed beyond measure. The occasional creaking of the bones or the sudden fart did not bother him; the woman's hands were all that mattered. As his dependence upon her grew, her instinctive care of the prince was refined; she found that many times he needed only the lightest touch; other times he required simply to breathe deeply with her. The queen found many ways to reward her efforts and her life was made much easier.
Amongst the staff deep in the castle, some grumbling was heard. The old woman kept a low profile, not wanting to cause trouble for her daughter, but this was hard, for her daughter was not the kind who would keep all for herself. In fact, the largesse of the queen was such that the daughter felt she must share with her mother, as well as the others below. Some saw this as fitting and were grateful; some were nonetheless bitter that this was not their good fortune, but scrapings of someone luckier.
As the weather grew harsh and cold, the castle hunkered down for the winter; the fires were banked upstairs, and hay was stuck into the cracks below. The daughter nursed her old mother through a short illness and then buried her. The royals continued unaware, since in fact they were more concerned that warring factions had recently been causing great expenditure for soldiers and armaments and the like. This caused them anxiety and fractiousness in the extreme.
One night the young prince was cuddled in his luxurious bedding, feeling the sleep beginning to calm him, yet the daughter felt a chill enter her heart. Something was terribly wrong, but it was so distant that somehow she could not get a fix on it…Stomach? Kidney? Bowel? Of course she didn't know many anatomical words to identify body parts; she only knew that areas of the foot told her stories about what the body was experiencing—for good or ill, a fluttering in her system responded to the boy whose feet were in her hands.
The queen chose this moment to enter the chamber where her only son lay with a light sheen of perspiration upon his forehead. The daughter caught her eye for only an instant, but could not disguise her dismay. Once transmitted, the thought could not be taken back and the queen reacted swiftly, as if she had found a snake in the room.
A guard was summoned and the daughter removed. As the queen sat with her son, gazing at him as though she might force his secret out of him, a weariness descended on her. Her husband, away these long months, would act without mercy.
At dawn, the daughter's head was taken in the courtyard. Another woman would do in her stead.