Poissonnière

7

I see it in their eyes, those girls trapped at the high table.

I see their desperation to escape the handsome prince, to flee the happy ending imposed on them, to fold those three glorious gowns into a walnut shell and run far from the palace.

I see it all – their fear, their wonder, their regret.

And I drop the fish.

And in the chaos that follows, I help them slip away, help them exchange glass slippers for sturdy boots, help them veil their dangerous beauty in dust and ashes and rags, give them maps and food and advice, and hustle them out the servant’s gate.

Where is the princess-to-be? I’m sure I don’t know, sir. I’m just a fisherwoman, my hands so palsied with age that I can’t even carry a tray reliably, and it’s sorry I am, sir, for the waste. I hope you won’t let me go.

They do let me go. Every time. And then I move on down the river, drawn by the lure of the next enchanted fish, the next Prince in search of a wife, the next story that is about to begin.


It’s a long time since I was one of those girls.

My story is unimportant. There are so many of us, dragged from obscurity into the bright light of the court, the warm gaze of the prince.

Perhaps there is a fairy godmother, or a prophecy and a helpful band of robbers, or a talking animal or tree, who promise us a palace and servants and a prince and a happy ever after.

(Dreams of romance are not just for the wealthy, after all. And when you are worked from dawn to dusk, abused by cruel step-parents, and never allowed quite enough to eat, oh, you dream hard.)

Or perhaps there is an angry King, or a Queen anxious to save her dissolute son, or a Prince’s sister, who mistakes poverty for virtue, and fear of losing the little one has for courtesy and kindness.

(Most of us know when we are being tested. Poverty may not confer virtue, but if you want to survive it, you can’t afford to not notice things, like the good, strong shoes that the elderly beggarwoman wears with her raggedy dress, or the bent old man who moves with the vigour that only comes from a lifetime of good health and regular meals. Most of us know, but we go anyway, because when you are hungry and have no other way forward, it’s worth the risk.)

Either way, the story is the same. We come to the palace with our enchanted gowns. Perhaps we hide at first, work as a servant until our moment arrives, or perhaps we are brought straight to the ball in a carriage woven of art and air and vegetables.

We catch the eye of the Prince. We capture his heart. Perhaps he captures ours. We dance until dawn, and then we disappear.

We do this for three nights, because nothing fixes a powerful man’s interest like the feeling that he might not get what he wants.

The Prince offers marriage, and we gladly accept. The palace rejoices. Their beloved Prince and heir is to be married, and not to a noblewoman but to a girl from the same peasant stock as theirs. How humble, how down-to-earth their Prince must be, to love the Princess-to-be despite her common roots! How fortunate the kingdom, to have a Princess-to-be who will understand the hardships faced by those outside the palace!

How great a burden to place on a woman who was never trained for the job of ruling.

Some of us rise to this; others flounder. Some of us are so in love with the Prince that all other difficulties become unimportant; others are pragmatic, studying the rules of the court and the laws of the land with the same fierce dedication that they give to studying the Prince and his family, to ensuring that their position is secure no matter what comes to pass. Most of us are somewhere between. It’s hard not to feel affection for the man who will lift you out of poverty; hard, too, not to feel anxiety if that man is the only thing standing between you and the fate you escaped.

It doesn’t matter. No matter what we do, it goes wrong in the end.

It’s the ring that does it. The ring that proves our true identity; the ring that was in the Prince’s family for years; the ring that some sly courtier claims we gave to our lover; the ring that, come to think of it, is oh-so-symbolic of what the Prince wants from us, which only goes to show you that the fairies or the gods or the folklorists or whoever it is who continually weaves these stories have minds just as dirty as anyone else’s.

The ring is lost.

And so, in that moment, are we.


I have to wonder what it is about golden rings that attract fish. It can’t just be magic. Really, you have no idea how many fish I have pulled out of the river whose stomachs are filled with gold. There aren’t that many stories in the world.

Not all of the rings are for the Palace. The ones that aren’t, I try to give to people who truly need a little good luck – the kind that doesn’t come with strings, or with Princes. Occasionally, when times are tight, I keep a ring for myself. But times are rarely tight. Once two or three people have bought a fish from me that contained a golden surprise, others become eager for my custom.

I pretend surprise, of course, but in truth, I always know which fish have eaten gold. There’s a certain tingling feeling that goes all the way to my elbows when such a fish is caught on my line. It’s worse when it’s a Palace fish – a shock of pain trembling up to my shoulders as I reel it in. Sometimes, the pain is so bad that I lose the fish at first, but I have learned that such a fish will return to my hook again and again until I reel it in, and that I will catch no other fish until that one is in my basket.

I used to fight it. But I’m a pragmatist now, however much of a dreamer I may have been when I was young. Those fish will go to the Palace, and I will be the one who takes them there. I have no choice in that.

But I can stop them getting to the table.

The next part is all about water. Salt water, for the tears of the girls who weep and swear that the ring was lost, stolen, no fault of ours. Fresh water for the place where the ring was dropped – the well, the river, the ornamental lake near the castle, the spring deep in the woods where we went to seek advice from our mentor.  Bitter water, captured slowly in thimbles and cups as it drips down the walls of the dungeons where so many of us are incarcerated.

We all weep, even those of us who lost the ring deliberately. It is wise to weep when you are escaping your fate. Even the kindest of Princes – and some of them truly are kind – does not like to think that the young woman he has rescued from poverty is leaving him on purpose.

Why would we leave? Many reasons. Being a Princess is hard if you aren’t raised to it, or even if you are. Some of us are simply not suited to life at court, and if we weren’t absolutely desperate before we came, we are ready to slip back into obscurity. Some of us are bullied by the Queen mother, the servants, the courtiers, until our lives seem more unbearable than what we left.

Some of us just want to escape the Prince.

Look, think about it. Would you want to marry someone who would take a lost ring as proof of your infidelity, and rage at you or lock you up for treason? Even once the ring re-appeared, that would only prove your virtue on this particular occasion. What would happen next time? Most of us don’t get a fairy-tale ending twice.

Or would you want to marry someone whose love for you vanished when it seemed that you were not the wife he was prophesied? Or when the ring he gave you at your engagement, a family heirloom, far too big for your finger, fell off when you were walking in the palace grounds or talking with a frog in the well?

Some of us use this as a test. Does he love me, or does he love what I represent? How does he react to disappointment? These are important things to know about the man you may marry.

(And yes, of course we have the right to test our Princes. They test us – again and again, and not just with rings that are too large or peas placed under our mattresses. Turnabout is fair play, and you should not let anyone tell you otherwise.)

Sometimes, the Prince passes the test, and then I bring the fish I have caught and prepared to the high table, and the fish is carved and opened, and behold, the ring is found, and we are vindicated, and the Prince squeezes our hand and whispers in our ear “I’m glad we found the ring. But it doesn’t matter. I would have married you anyway.”

And we all live happily ever after.

Sometimes, the Prince does less well, but we have weighed our options and decided that a Prince who feels terribly, terribly guilty for doubting us even once is actually going to make quite a good husband, for all practical purposes, and we smile with vindication when the fish is opened and our honour is restored and the Prince falls at our feet with tears of regret, and we all live pretty happily then, too.

Sometimes the Prince fails, and we slip away from the table while the hapless, clumsy fisherwoman is still wringing her hands and bewailing her own foolishness for dropping the fish. Nobody sees us go, and that is the happiest ending we can hope for. The hapless fisherwoman often finds us afterward, and gives us the ring salvaged from the fish, and tells us to bury it deep, deep in the ground, where no fish can find it again. And she gives us a good price for our dresses that are as beautiful as the sun and the moon and the stars, and we take that money and start a new life in a far off kingdom.

Of course, sometimes it isn’t a test. It’s just what happens, and that’s when I have to be careful to study the faces at the high table. Is the girl in love with the Prince? Is the Prince cruel, or kind, or just a little weak and self-involved? Is the girl going to manage in this new life?

I hobble around the kitchen, preparing the fish I have brought and which I insist on cooking with my own hands – for who knows better how to prepare such a fine, large fish than the fisherwoman herself? – and I listen to the servants. I listen to what they say of the Prince, of the girl, of the King and Queen, of the court. Often, the girl has worked in the kitchens herself. But even if she hasn’t, there isn’t much of petty cruelty or court politics that the servants miss.

Like us, they are dependent on the whims of our betters to survive, and like us, they become observant.

Sometimes I fail.


Sometimes the story changes.

Sometimes, it is the girl who is the enchantress, the Prince who is the victim, and the ring the shackle that he cannot escape.

Sometimes the girl is a boy who was a girl deep down, and even a golden ring cannot placate the King.

(Sometimes, the prince loves her anyway, and I help them slip away together, and the King must find a new heir. I may be compelled to bring the fish that heralds the fairytale ending, but there is nothing forcing me to uphold the monarchy, nor yet the heteronormative narrative, once the story is ended.)

Sometimes the ring tries to choose me.


The story chose me the first time, of course. I said before that my story was not important, but that is not true. Every story is important. Even the ones we don’t like to tell.

Especially those, perhaps.

And yet… I have almost told it already. I was poor, I was desperate, I was offered a way out and I took it – need I say more?

My Prince was not so bad as some. Though I still say that if a family heirloom means that much to you, you should either get it re-sized to fit your betrothed’s finger, or give her a different ring. It’s not so hard to figure out.

I was naïve enough to be shocked at his anger. He had so many gold rings – why was the loss of this one so enraging? But that was an especial foolishness on my part. One does not become the possessor of many gold rings if one cares not what becomes of them.

His sister protected me. She was something of an enchantress, and fond of me. I loved her nearly as much as I loved the Prince, and she thought I would be good for her brother. I do not know if it was she who enchanted the fish so that it would swallow the ring, and then the hook. Once that was done, of course, it was inevitable that the fish would come to our table – such a large fish was rarely seen, and who better to sell it to than the palace kitchens?

Certainly, it was the Prince’s sister who clapped her hands with delight when the fish was opened and the ring appeared; it was she who ordered that I be brought from the dungeons, bathed and clad in silk and jewels and set before the Prince so that he could apologise.

And he did apologise. He went down on his knees before me and begged my forgiveness for his cruelty, and I gave it gladly. I did not want to think ill of him. He told me that I should have a waiting woman whose sole task would be to follow behind me as I walked the palace grounds and pick up anything I dropped. He brought in a goldsmith who worked a cunning lock for the heirloom ring, so that it could not fall from my finger. And once I was a Princess, I would never leave the palace grounds except in a royal carriage, to visit another of the royal castles.

We would be wed, and he would love and protect both me and my jewels, as long as I should live.

I left that night.

His sister followed me. I had made it too easy for her, perhaps. An enchantress can do much with a mere three drops of blood, and I had left more than that behind me.

(I was no thief, and the goldsmith was truly a master of his art. A finger was a small price to pay for my freedom.)

She bound up my hand, and she kissed it, and she asked no questions. I had told her before of my stepfather, of his rages. I would not marry an angry man, no matter how well he apologised.

“He would have been good to you,” she said, as she rose to leave.

“And I would have had no way to escape if he had not been,” I replied.

I have seen her again, the Prince’s sister, more times than I can count. She is the start of every story, as I am the end. She waits in the woods, disguised as a talking tree, or a ghost, or a fairy, or an elderly woman. She whispers prophecies into the ears of those who need to hear them, and weaves dresses of silk and magic and hope and places them into walnut shells and gives them to young girls who have few options. She rains down silver and gold, turns rodents into footmen and servant girls into princesses-in-waiting.

She sends them on their way, full of wild optimism, to the Palaces where they will find their true love, their heart’s desire, their fate, good or bad.

I used to wonder if it was she who I met under that ash tree by the well in the very beginning. If it was she who wove the gowns I wore on those three magical nights. If it was she who sought a wife for her brother all along.

Or perhaps I simply met a fairy in the woods and began a pattern that has no end.

It hardly matters now.

I used to resent the fact that she forced me to be the denouement of every one of her wild tales, but I’ve come to accept that I’m needed here.

She means well for those girls, I know she does, but she has a blind spot about Princes. Perhaps that’s what comes from growing up in a Palace. She can never truly understand the risks we face.

But I do.

She never says a word, when I appear in the woods outside the palace, hand in mutilated hand with a girl who was to wed the Prince. But our eyes meet, and when they do, our pursuers lose our trail, turn to each other in confusion, and begin to forget, even, what it was that they were pursuing.

And I send the girl onward, knowing that her fate is in her own hands, now, and that no story will capture her, except for the story she chooses. The Princess will watch over her until she is safe, and no harm will come to her in these woods. Nor will the Prince ever find her, or even know that he lost her.

As for me, I go back to my cottage by the river, and begin to gather my things. The next river will call me soon enough, and I have fish to catch.

 

station

Poissonnière is a station on the border of the 9th and 10th arondissements, serving line 7 of the Paris Métro.  It is situated north of the Seine, and not far from the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est, the big regional stations from which trains depart for London, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as smaller towns in the north and east of France.  Poissonnière station opened in 1910 and is named for the Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, which follows the route of an old Roman road used to bring fish caught near the Channel coast to the markets of Paris.

Poissonnière is the feminine form of the word poissonier, both of which translate to fishmonger.  And there are just so many stories in which someone loses a ring and it turns up in a fish at a feast that I couldn’t resist writing about the woman who keeps catching all of these fish.  And then, because I’m a bit cranky at the moment, it turned into one of my slightly grouchy feminist deconstructions of a fairy tale, but really, I do think it’s warranted.  It’s all very well when the King repents of his jealousy now that the Queen has been proven, conclusively, not to have been unfaithful, but is he really going to behave differently the next time?  Well, maybe.  Or maybe not.  But the stories tend to assume that it will all be just fine, and meanwhile I’m sitting here thinking that maybe the Queen could do better.

(Yes, I watched A Winter’s Tale again recently.  It shows, doesn’t it.)

But it was also fun thinking of all the reasons why someone might choose not to marry a Prince.  Or why one might choose to go for it even if one were a bit clumsy around wells and the Prince had a thing about rings.

The images I have used in this story are both available from Wikimedia Commons.  The ring is – by pure chance, since I really just wanted a public domain image of an old-fashioned-looking solid, golden ring – a 15th century ring with a coat of arms representing a fish that was found in the Seine river.  It is also gilt silver rather than gold, but who am I to quibble?  You can see the original in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, and the photographer is Jastrow, who has released it to the public domain.  The fish is a drawing of a rainbow trout from the US Fish and Wildlife Service which is in the public domain.

 

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Cadet fleur7left Poissonnière
fleur7right Gare de l’Est

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