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The Persian Slave and the Powder Puff Bitches

My latest short story, "The Persian Slave and the Powder Puff Bitches," will be published in the Literary Lab's upcoming anthology Variations on a Theme in a couple of weeks! But you don't have to wait--I'm also posting it below as a free sample of the book, which will be for sale shortly. (See literarylab.blogspot.com for details.)

Our assignment was to read two short stories (both modern fairy tales), one by Anton Chekhov and one by Hans Christian Andersen, and write something inspired by one or both stories. I noticed right away that both stories involved gender and power dynamics, but Chekhov's was about those dynamics whereas Andersen's seemed to assume them without much analysis. This made me curious about the personal lives of the authors. Unsurprisingly, I quickly discovered through Wiki-led internet searches that Chekhov was a brilliant ladies' man with precocious skills in the ways of love, whereas Andersen was a pathetically lonely man unlucky in love with both women and men and something of a misogynist after a particularly harsh rejection by a lady.

This prompted me to begin a story about young studly Chekhov and old dying Andersen having a connection through a mutual friend (entirely fictional), but the story became so sad and felt like I was bullying poor pathetic Hans, who should be resting in peace. I decided that the story that really itched at me--though I liked it less--was Andersen's tale, so I should deal with the tale itself and leave the lonesome author's personal life out of it. I did, however, feel comfortable exploring Andersen's cultural assumptions and prior literary influences.

What I ended up writing is not so much original fiction as a mashup based on Andersen's tale The Tinderbox. I kept the basic story intact, as well as much of Andersen's own phrasing, but I replaced each character with a similar well-established stock character of the opposite sex. The evil witch in the forest became the evil wizard in the forest, who haunts many a Grimm tale. The overprotective father-king became the overbearing queen-mother. The silly damsel princess became a silly dallying prince. Instead of just switching out the pronouns and having the males behave like Andersen's female characters and vice versa, I sought to preserve the gender stereotypes of the time (if not the Northern European culture or the original author's own tastes) and also preserve the familiarity of the characters while holding a mirror to the psychological and emotional motivations of the characters and readers' reactions to them. Even objects within the story (articles of clothing, weapons, containers, etc.) associated with one sex are switched for an object associated with the other sex.

The main character was a tricky one to swap. In the Western European folklore most of us know well, there is no stock female heroine who swaggers through life murdering people on a whim, overthrowing governments, and sexually dominating her enemies' children. Instead of making up such a character, who would simply be "acting like a man" (in Andersen's worldview at the very least), I borrowed the character of Morgiana the slave from the Arabian Nights tales, which Andersen knew and loved. The Morgiana figure (whom I have simply called "The Persian Slave" in my story of nameless characters), is not motivated by the same things as Andersen's soldier. She does the same basic things (killing the evil magic person, etc.) but for very different reasons, which don't have to be explained when the players' genders are swapped. We as readers enter the scene with entirely different assumptions about motivations and power dynamics. We might accept that a cocky soldier could kill a witch in the forest just because she's ugly and "evil," but a woman traveling alone would be presumed to have very different reasons for stabbing an intimidating man in her path.

The Persian Slave's mannerisms and speech patterns are as feminine and coquettish as Andersen's soldier's are masculine and aggressive. She thinks and feels "like a woman" would be expected to think and feel, and yet she starts and ends in the same positions as her male counterpart--from royal castoff to usurper of the throne. She travels the same road as a woman consistent with established literary types, and it is a very different journey.

Then there are the bitches.

Just the word "bitch" sets off so many triggers. I changed the "dogs" in Andersen's story to "bitches" simply because, in ye olden times, the word "dog" referred to a specifically male animal most of the time, whereas "bitch" just meant "female dog." Both "dog" and "bitch" are also words used as insults. Philandering men are often called "dogs," and aggressive women are called "bitches." In a double insult to women, weak men (who apparently are equivalent in strength to unnaturally aggressive women) are called "bitches" too. But only "bitch," not "dog," is considered a naughty word when used derogatively, showing that the female-gendered word has much more power and danger associated with it.

It's one thing for a soldier to have a pack of magical dogs at his beck and call. When a foreign slave-woman is served by a pack of enchanted bitches, it's downright saucy.

This is more of a social-literary experiment than an original piece of writing, but it was a very interesting puzzle to put together. With gender roles switched, the same story has a completely different feel. Funny parts become scary, and ugly scenes become funny or even sexy. The traditional "happy ending" marriage arrangement becomes a precarious, kinky tango with the "bitches" having more presence and portent in the newlyweds' relationship than the soldier's eerie dogs.

And with the conclusion of this lengthy preface, I present to you the short story...

The Persian Slave and the Powder Puff Bitches

A Persian slave came walking along the high road with bells on her ankles and a fringed scarf around her hips. Jingle-jangle! Swish-swash! She carried a bundle of all her belongings on her head. She had been given to the queen as a gift, but the queen had taken away all her jewelry and turned her out into the street alone, at the mercy of the highwaymen.
Along the way, she met an old wizard who was so squat and ugly, his chin and neck were hidden behind his drooping lower lip. “Good evening, Persian!” he called to her, and saliva ran down onto the stained butcher’s apron that covered his large belly. “What nice bells you have, and how gracefully you carry your pack. A fine woman like you should be adorned with jewels and never have to carry her own things.”
“Thank you kindly, great wizard!” said the Persian, and she took the pack from her head and bowed. “Would you be so kind as to help me carry this heavy bundle a little way?” Her things were
not heavy at all, but the wise Persian thought she would be safer on the high road accompanied by this frightful man—with his hands full. Besides, there was nothing of great value in the bundle for him to steal.
But the wizard chuckled and said,“I have a better idea. Do you see that big tree beside the road? It is hollow inside! Climb up to the top, and you will see a small hole into which you can let yourself down, right down under the tree! You are slender and lithe, my dear, and you will fit inside. I will tie a rope around your waist so that I can haul you up again when you call!”
The Persian considered this carefully, for she had heard the story of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp. She knew that an evil wizard might need a hapless bystander to fetch an object hidden deep inside an enchanted chamber.
She put a finger to her lips and asked, “What am I to do down under the tree?”
“Fetch jewelry!” said the wizard. “When you get down to the bottom of the tree you will find yourself in a side passage. You won’t be frightened, my dear; it’s quite light there, for there are over a hundred blazing lamps. You will see three doors which you can open, for the keys are there. If you go into the first room you will see a big chest in the middle of the floor. A hound bitch is sitting on top of it, and she has eyes as big as saucers, but you needn’t mind that. I will give you my leather butcher’s apron, which you can spread out on the floor; then go quickly forward as the dog comes to sniff the apron, open the chest and take out as much jewelry as ever you like. It is all copper, but if you like silver better, go into the next room. There you will find a bitch with eyes as big as millstones; but never mind that, she will sniff the apron while you take the jewelry. If you prefer gold you can have it too, and as much as you can carry, if you go into the third room. But the dog sitting on that chest has eyes each as big as the Round Tower. She is a bitch, indeed! But don’t let it trouble you; with my apron, you can take as much gold out of the box as you like!”
The Persian smiled and clasped her hands. “Oh, how wonderful! And what am I to bring you, great wizard, for your generosity?”
“Nothing of the jewelry,” said the old wizard, “for it will give me the most pleasure to see it adorn a beautiful young lady. But be a darling and bring me the old snuffbox that my grandfather forgot the last time he was down there!”
“Certainly, sir! Give me the rope, and I will tie it round my waist,” said the Persian.
“Here it is,” said the wizard, “and here is my butcher’s apron.”
Then the Persian climbed nimbly up the tree, let herself slide down the hollow trunk, and found everything just as the wizard had described. The terrible-eyed bitches cared only for the bloodstains on the butcher’s apron, and of the jewelry, the Persian cared only for the gold, which was set with precious gemstones of the greatest size and finest quality that she had ever seen. There was enough to adorn her like a queen and enough besides to trade for all the honey cakes, china dolls, ribbons, and lace in the whole world!
She was careful to pick up the dusty old box she found lying on the floor in the third room, but when she opened it she was surprised to see not snuff inside but ladies’ face powder with a little puff on top. She stowed it carefully in the top of her bundle, which was now very heavy with gold and jewels.
“I have found your grandfather’s snuffbox!” she called up through the tree. “Haul me up, great wizard!”
The wizard did, and there she was standing on the high road again with her humble pack stuffed with riches and the dusty old box.
“O dear, wizard,” she said as she peered into the box, “I must have made a mistake. This is not a snuffbox at all; it is a ladies’ powder puff!”
“That’s no business of yours,” said the wizard. “You’ve got your jewels; now give me that box!”
The Persian lowered her eyelashes and teased, “Of course you will have it, but won’t you just tell me what you want with it first?”
“I won’t!” shouted the wizard, and he took a step toward her.
The Persian hopped backward with a jingle of bells, smiled, and cast her kohl-rimmed eyes at him.
You shall have it, but play a game with me first,” she said. “I have never danced for a wizard before. Let me dance, and if it is the most wonderful dancing you have ever seen, you must tell me why you want this box. And if you have seen better, I will give you the box and go on without asking again.”
The wizard sighed and folded his arms on his large belly. “Dance, then,” he said, “but first put on some of the jewelry you have brought up so I may admire it on you.”
The Persian obeyed and put on so many necklaces and arm-bands that she glittered like the sun and jangled like a sleigh. The wizard was greatly pleased and leaned back against a stump to watch. She performed with grace and agility and at length drew a jeweled dagger from beneath the scarf at her waist, and dancing with it in her hand, she surpassed all that she had yet done, in her light and graceful movements, and with the wonderful attitudes which she interspersed in the figure; sometimes presenting the dagger as if ready to strike, and at others holding it to her own bosom, pretending to stab herself.
The wizard grinned, and saliva ran freely over his belly. He put his arms behind his head and chuckled at the Persian’s jingling feet. Then with courage and promptness, she raised the dagger above her head and plunged it down into the wizard’s heart, so deep that the life-blood streamed from the wound when she withdrew the weapon.
She ran as fast as she could into the nearest town without being accosted again. It was a beautiful town, and she went straight to the finest hotel and ordered the grandest rooms. The people of the town thought her dancing costume and silk slippers very odd, but she invented a story that she was an Egyptian heiress whose family had died in a fire. The next day she bought new clothes of the latest fashion, and she was well received into society.
Presently she learned all about the town, and about the king and queen and the strange but handsome prince. “He is enamored of the East,” a society lady said, “but the queen disapproves. She
once received a Persian slave as a gift and turned her out on the street the moment the prince asked to see her dance. You know how mothers are with their firstborn sons. She keeps him busy inside their great copper castle to prevent him from dallying and traveling to heathen lands.”
“I should like to see this prince who was the cause of my exile from the palace,” the Persian thought, but there was no way to do such a thing.
She led a merry life; went to theaters, drove about in fine covered carriages, and gave money to the poor, for she remembered how disagreeable it was to be alone and penniless in the world. But as she went on spending money and giving it away, and as she refused all the marriage proposals from the old gentlemen who did not mind her foreign looks and mysterious background, she at last found herself in poverty again. She had to take a tiny little attic up under the roof, mend her own stockings, and wash her own clothes. None of her friends went to see her, because there were far too many stairs.
One dark evening when she looked in the mirror and wondered if one of the old gentlemen would still consider taking her to wife, she opened the old powder box she had brought out of the hollow tree.
She said to herself, “This powder puff must possess fearsome magic, and it is dangerous for a woman to use magic lest she be called a witch. But poverty is also dangerous for a woman, and I have nothing else.”
She took out the puff and dusted her nose. Piff poff! A great glittering cloud billowed before her face, and when it settled, the bitch with eyes as big as saucers from down under the tree stood before her and said, “What does my lady command?”
“By heaven!” said the Persian.
“Get me some money,” she said to the bitch, and away it went.
It was back in a twinkling with a purse in its mouth. Now the Persian found that if she tapped the powder puff once, the bitch which sat on the chest of copper came; if she tapped twice, the bitch from the silver chest came, and if she struck three times, the one from the box of gold.
She moved back to the grand rooms and dressed herself in finery again, and all her old friends knew her again and liked her as much as ever. But she could no longer think of marrying an old gentleman and said to herself, “If I can wish for anything I like, I will see the prince who was the cause of my misery and find out if he is as handsome as they say.”
She puffed her powder, and poof, came the bitch with eyes as big as saucers. “It is the middle of the night,” said the Persian, “but I am anxious to see the prince, if only for a moment.”
The bitch was out of the door in an instant, and before the Persian had time to think about it, the bitch was back again, dragging the sleepy prince by the sleeve of his nightshirt. There he was, standing half asleep on her carpet, and he was so handsome that anyone could see he was a real prince! The Persian could not help kissing him. But she thought to herself, “If I were on his carpet in his room, I would be his slave. I should treat him the same way.”
And so she stood up, pushed him away with her foot, and said, “Slave, take off my slippers.” He obeyed, and afterward she ordered him about, forcing him to move her heavy furniture and serve tea on his knees. He obeyed her every wish.
Then the bitch ran back again with the prince, but in the morning when the king and queen were having breakfast, the prince said that he had had such a wonderful dream about an Egyptian and her magic hound. The dog had dragged him away, and he had kissed her and done her bidding.
“That’s a marvelous tale,” laughed the king. But after this an old servant had to sit by the prince’s bed to see if he were quite well.
The Persian longed so intensely to see the prince again that at night the bitch came to fetch him again. She took his nightshirt sleeve in her jaws and ran as fast as she could, but the old servant put on his boots and ran behind them; when he saw that they disappeared into a large house, he made a big cross with chalk on the gate. Then he went home and lay down, and presently the bitch came back too, with the prince. When she saw that there was a cross on the gate, the clever bitch took another bit of chalk and made crosses on all the gates in the town.
Early the next morning the king, the queen, the servant, and all the court officials went to see where the prince had been.
“There it is,” said the queen, when she saw the first door with the cross on it.
“No, my dear wife, it is there,” said the king, who saw another.
“But there is one, and there is another!” they all cried out.
They saw they had no hope of finding it.
Now the king was a shrewd man. He filled the prince’s night slippers with buckwheat and cut slits in the soles so that the prince would leave a trail wherever he went. At night the bitch came again,
took the prince, and ran off with him to the Persian, who was so fond of him that she longed to be a princess so that she might have him for her husband. In the morning the king and queen easily saw where their son had been, and they seized the Persian and threw her into the dungeons.
Oh, how dark and fearful it was, and one day they said to her, “Tomorrow you are to be burned as a witch.”
In the morning she could see through the bars in her little window that people were hurrying out of the town to see her burned. Among them was the dressmaker’s girl in her checked apron. She was in such a hurry that she lost one of her slippers, and it fell close under the Persian’s window.
“If you please, girl! Don’t be in such a hurry,” said the Persian. “Nothing will happen ‘til I get there! But if you run to the house where I used to live, and fetch me my powder box, you shall have this copper bracelet on my wrist.”
The girl was dazzled by the bracelet and skipped off to get the powder box and gave it to the Persian.
Outside the town a pyre had been built, and the crowds gathered around it. The king and queen sat upon a beautiful throne opposite the judge and councilors.
The Persian mounted the pyre, but when they were about to tie her to the stake, she said that a lady must be granted a harmless wish at her dying moment, and she wanted very much to powder her nose and pass from this world with grace. The queen, who understood vanity, would not deny her this, so the Persian took out her powder puff and dusted her nose once, twice, three times, and there were all her bitches.
“Help me! Save me from being burned!” cried the Persian. And the bitches rushed at the
councilors; they took one by the legs, and another by the nose, and threw them up into the air so high that when they fell down, they were broken all to pieces. The queen screamed, but the biggest bitch took both her and the king and threw them after all the others.
The people became alarmed and asked, “From whence come these hounds of hell?”
But then the prince appeared. He had been detained on false business in the copper palace, kept as dumb and useless as a damsel locked in a tower, but when he heard of the witch burning he had come straight away. He called out, “They are no hounds of hell. They are my royal hunting dogs who have come to save an innocent woman and rid the kingdom of its despots.”
“Oh!” cried the people, who had never loved their old rulers. They bowed to the prince and said, “Hail to the king!”
Then the prince, who was very pleased to become king, took the Persian’s hand and led her to his chariot, and all three bitches danced along in front of them and shouted, “Hurrah!” Even the rough-and-tumble peasant girls who had come to see a witch burning swooned at the romantic scene.
Within a week, the prince wed the Persian and made her his queen, and all the bitches had seats at the table and wore collars of gold and jewels. The prince vowed to love his wife to the end of their days, but just in case he someday forgot, the Persian made sure to keep her bitches at her side day and night, staring with all their eyes.

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