The Dress: A Fairytale…Or Is It? – A Short Story by Shreya Manna

Author’s Note: In childhood, it’s possible for us to see, even believe, in the magic of fairytales. But as we grow older, there’s no reason why we can’t take our grown-up problems and laugh at them, thanks to the superpower that being human gives us: the power to tell stories. This fairytale is really a story I wrote for myself, to capture the circus of our minds that only we can hear. The truth is that even grown-ups need fairytales to realise that it’s possible to smile – even in the mess of our everyday lives.

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One morning Damsel Dolittle slumped her shoulders against the window and made precisely this sound through her pursed lips: 


‘Princess, are you hurt? Are you safe? My lady, I lay down my life for thee, I’ll – I’ll climb this tower for thee!’ 

‘How does it matter anyway?’ she mumbled. She flipped open the mirror in her hand: in its cracked surface, she saw her eyelids, which were painted up to her eyebrows in the dark blue and purple eye powders she always wore these days. 

‘But you aren’t safe!’ 

Octavius the Knight felt his armour echo with a tinny sound. Dropping on his head, and beneath the tower, there was a slowly forming puddle of purple colored tears. 

‘My lady, what makes you weep so? You must be in danger! Let down your hair!’ 

‘For heaven’s sake, get the stairs.’

Octavius the Knight hesitated. ‘That’s not how fairytales go. Are you sure?’ 

The Damsel let out a huge wail and at this, the Knight jumped, then hurrying went up the spiraling stairs to the Damsel’s chambers. However, he was not to be disappointed by the Damsel’s refusal. Her hair appeared to have exploded into a storm cloud of red curls, and in it were scraps of a letter. Octavius picked up the scraps of letter tangled in her hair and put them together. It read: Her Majesty Queen Gloriana invites the Fairest and Most Deserving Duchess Dolittle to the royal ball to celebrate her fifty years of rule over the kingdom. Do come, said a note at the bottom. If you are there, the townspeople are certain to admire and make my celebration my most successful yet. I have high expectations! 

To understand why this made our Damsel so upset, you have to hear from the village elders who remember when Damsel Dolittle was only a merry young girl – but with an extraordinary talent. It all started when one of the queen’s servants, a jealous old witch, demanded the Damsel to make her fairer than the Queen. Or else, she threatened she would curse the Damsel for all eternity. The young girl, afraid, began combing her grey strands and wove them with her delicate fingers. She worked with such care that a larger and larger circle of townspeople gathered to watch the witch’s transformation. By the time Damsel Dolittle finished her work, the witch had fallen asleep. And when the Damsel woke up her up with a tug on her braids, and she saw how beautiful her hair looked, she fell backwards off her chair from shock. The townspeople cheered, and ever since, every maiden and dame called upon her for fashionable advice. Word reached the Queen, her Majesty Gloriana, who praised her talent with an award of gold bullion, the magnificent castle where she now lived, and a new title. She was from then on to be known as ‘The Fairest and Most Deserving Duchess Dolittle’. 

And how could she disappoint the queen, when she had met her every expectation for so long? She felt that nothing she had done was worthy of the title. She must do more. 

Meanwhile, Octavius the Knight felt it was his duty to at once ensure the Damsel’s safety. The Damsel lifted up a weak finger and pointed towards the wardrobe. And so, the Knight’s hunt began. By nightfall, not an inch of the floor was left uncovered by ball dresses of every colour, shade, material and texture. From her bed, the Damsel made it clear that none were good enough. 

‘How about this yellow one?’ 

‘Possibly,’ said the distressed Fairest and Most Deserving Duchess Dolittle. 

‘But it might remind the Queen of bananas, and you know how she hates bananas,’ 

‘Oh yes. How could I think of it?’

He whispered close to her ear. ‘What if you upset her? What if she thinks you are the worst damsel she has ever met?’ 

The Damsel began sobbing. ‘What if…’

They chimed in together, eyes widened: ‘What if she thought I was the greatest traitor in the kingdom and t-then should feel that she must send me to the dungeons immediately?’ They both screamed at each other in panic until the Damsel’s voice tapered into that glum sound she often made: ‘Bhrrr…’

‘Hmph,’ said the Knight, ‘I know!’

He picked up the telephone and called for an old relative of his, Cinderella’s fairy godmother.  

‘Hello, Fairy Godmother speaking.’ 

‘Yes, Aunt Ella? We’re in an emergency and we need your urgent help. My lady, Duchess Dolittle, has nothing to wear to the royal ball!’ 

‘Nothing to wear? Why, she’s a duchess!’ 

‘But there is something the matter with every one of her dresses,’ he responded solemnly. 

‘In that case, you’ll have to wear nothing to the ball, like the Emperor who wanted new clothes!’ 

‘Aunt Ella, this is not a laughing business,’ the Duchess said in between sobs, taking the phone, ‘what if you cast a spell to make everyone forget that there was a ball at all? I am sure we can find some pumpkins for that somewhere in this mess…’ 

‘No, no. This is not a case for magic, and certainly not my area of expertise at all. Why, I turn peasants into princesses, not the other way around!’ 

‘Then what kind of fairy godmother are you?’ the Duchess snapped. Octavius saw her lower lip began to tremble. 

‘Oh Damsel!’ he exclaimed. The princess bawled into her pillow and slowly turned it from white to a soaking purple. 

She shook Octavius by the shoulders and said, ‘You see! I am a terrible person! I spoke most cruelly to your own aunt this last moment, why, I shook you by the shoulders! Whoever heard of such a shameless princess? Why alas do you try to keep me safe? A wicked death I shall die, I am sure of it.’ 

‘That sounds well and good, Duchess Dolittle. But there is only one hour till the royal ball, dearest, and you may as well solve this dressing dilemma,” said the Fairy Godmother. The princess and the Knight started at her sudden appearance. 

‘I am sure you shall make the best dress ever seen for the Damsel?’ ventured Octavius. 

‘Certainly not.’ 

‘It’s ruined! It’s over! From now on I will be known as the Most Wicked and Cursed Damsel Dolittle.’ 

‘Or,’ the Fairy Grandmother smiled, ‘you could just wear any one of these ones,’ a white gown held in her hand. 

‘Perhaps. But…it’s so plain!’ 

‘Yes, Aunt Ella. There can be no question of it if the Damsel is not pleased.’ 

Clearly, the Fairy Grandmother thought, they would need some additional help. She waved her wand and the dress slipped straight over the princess. The Damsel, who was running in wild circles around her chamber, stopped mid-track when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. 

‘It’s – it’s – perfect!’ 

‘Really?’ Octavius worried at this sudden change in his ladyship. 

‘Well, that’s grand then, I suppose I can bugger off,’ said the Fairy Grandmother.

‘Aunt Ella! Look! Help! The dress!” the Knight whispered, “it’s r-r-ruined!” 

‘Whhhhhyyyyyyyyy,’ the Damsel cried. ‘The ball,” she pointed to the clock. They were late by “a whole, unforgivable fifteen minutes,” as the Damsel put it herself. Her tears streaked her dress, so it looked like they were covered with long purple rivers. 

Once again, the Fairy Godmother decided to take matters into her own hands. With a firm wave of her wand, she sent both Damsel Dolittle and Octavius the Knight, out of the castle doors straight into a high-speed latest model carriage. She waved from the window, tears of laughter coming out from the corners of her eyes at the sight of the two holding onto each other for dear life as they sped away to the ball. Before they could complain, servants hurried them into the ballroom. 

At midnight, when the Queen gave her Golden speech, she praised the fairest and most deserving Duchess Dolittle. For, she said that the Damsel had a ‘most exquisite appearance that evening, and indeed, it made her realise that for long she had made a mistake. She thought the Duchess would never stand the test of a true royal artist. Her art was far too afraid of the unknown, and ever possessed by her desires to perfect. But that was no longer to be. 

Duchess Dolittle looked, her mouth wide open, at the dress, at the Queen, then at Octavius the Knight. The hand of clock struck one minute past midnight. Octavius, half expecting the dress to turn into rags and Damsel Dolittle to break out in fury, heaved a sigh of relief.

Later, on the ballroom floor, Damsel Dolittle stopped in the middle of her waltz. 

‘What’s this, milady?’ he mumbled, grinning. 

She moved her arms around to the beat of the music like she never had before. 

‘It’s – it’s – a bird! A plane! I mean, I suppose it’s a sort of…dance I made up right now!’ 

The whole night passed in goodwill and cheers, as Damsel Dolittle skipped and stopped and punched the air, teaching her avant-garde dance moves to the citizens who had come from near and far to the ball.  Even the Queen could not resist. 

“Say Octavius?” Duchess Dolittle whispered into his ear after a full night of dancing. “I suppose I won’t be known as the Most Wicked and Cursed Damsel after all.”

— The End —

Write, rejoice, repeat,