Jackie’s hand shook wildly; it took three tries before the quill would spit ink onto the weighty parchment. Official Stepmother Registry, 1821, the form read. Several other names already filled the top quarter, though it was only February, and Jackie couldn’t help but feel nervous puzzling out the looping scripts. Margaret Sophia Longwood, Anna Borisovna Petrovik, Maria Teresa Ruíz Gonzales... just plain Jackie looked so small and lonely below these magnificent monikers.
But, nothing to be done—as the ink dried, Jackie oozed a faint orange glow as if carved into hot metal and sunk deep into the parchment. The first step was completed, and all that was left to do was wait.
No one ever spoke of what went on in the trials. The women that emerged held their lips tight as oyster shells, and those that didn’t emerge wouldn’t be spilling their secrets anytime soon, either.
Jackie had never heard of a man taking the trials, though. The law clearly stated that expectant stepmothers were to undergo the grueling ritual, so it followed that stepfathers were to be exempt. But, well, he wanted to do things right, and though Josef had begged him not to risk himself unnecessarily, he couldn’t help but feel it would be cheating to do otherwise. The thought of starting a new life with the man he had come to love, and his sweet daughters, only to have it be taken away on a technicality... it was too painful to bear much consideration.
The clerk gave Jackie a curious sidelong glance, but said nothing as she rolled the parchment back up and tied the official yellow silk ribbon into a neat bow. She gestured at the door behind her, barely looking up from her other work.
Jackie swallowed, wiped his sweating palms on his trousers, pulled open the weighty door, and ... almost walked straight into solid oak. Right.
Jackie pushed open the weighty door, nervous as hell.
Great start, Jack.
The fairy appeared after Jackie’s third trial.
He had already waded his way through a moat filled with sleeping crocodiles and balanced a stack of porcelain bowls ten high on his head. In all, Jackie was feeling pretty good about himself. But before him lay his nemesis, his downfall, the one test he had hoped he wouldn’t find in here: A needle, some brightly dyed thread, and fabric stretched across a wooden hoop.
Jakcie swore up and down. “It’s not fair, not my fault that I wasn’t raised on this stuff! Tell me to make a table, a chair, a tiny wooden soldier! Anything but this!” He eyed the embroidery hoop with suspicion, half expecting it to leap off the table and bite him.
As a child, he had watched his sisters mastering the art of embroidery; though it seemed interesting at first, he quickly disabused himself of any hopes of becoming a seam...ster? He had received such a tongue-lashing from his mother over the tangled thread and bent needles that he had been afraid to try ever again.
And here he was, facing the dreaded hoop once more.
“Need any help, dearie?” Jackie jumped, startled by the soft, high voice hovering right over his left shoulder. Turning, he saw her--the fairy godmother! Of course he recognized her, who wouldn’t? Petite blue dress, gossamer-thin wings elegantly holding her aloft, and that magic wand! The stories in the papers didn’t do justice to her golden locks and tiny cupid’s-bow mouth set between round apple cheeks. And she was so small, barely three inches tall!
“I, uh, hello!” Jackie couldn’t think of how to address a famous fairy, so he settled on a bow, almost holding his hand out for a handshake before realizing how preposterous that would look.
“Hello, Jack, darling! My, how fun. Do tell me, what is a man doing in here?”
Jackie relayed his short life story to her. How his mother suspected his feelings for other boys and bundled him off to become a carpenter’s apprentice. How he grew to love his craft, how he met Josef when he’d come in to have a beloved childhood toy repaired. How they fell madly in love, and how deeply he cared about Clarissa and Maribel. How he didn’t want to replace their mother, but instead bring his own love into the family.
“Oh, dearie, what a romantic story!” the fairy squeaked, literally glowing a bright, joyful pink. “Please, let me help you out! With a wave of my wand, I’ll have this task done in no time at all, and you can go home!” She flicked her wrist and the embroidery hoop sparkled with magic. Josef couldn’t help but gasp; a beautiful seaside scene stitched itself into the fabric, complete with tiny pinwheeling gulls and delicate shore-grass.
“Beautiful, no? Hurry up, we can’t keep Josef and the girls waiting!”
Jackie took a step towards a door that had materialized in the far wall, so tempted to pull (or push?) the handle and go home. He could see their happy faces before him now.
But no. No, that would be too easy, just like it would have been too easy to lay low and skip the trials entirely. If he was going to do this, Jackie would do it right.
“I’m, er, flattered by your offer, Mrs. Godmother, ma’am. But I think this is something I need to do alone.”
The fairy nodded sagely and waved her wand again, resetting the fabric to that daunting blank canvas.
Jackie picked it up and began, biting his tongue in concentration. He tried to channel the dexterity he’d learned carving tiny wooden figurines for the shop, imagining all the dollies he would carve for the girls once he survived this task. It was hard, just as hard as he remembered from his childhood. But he pushed away his doubts and fears, concentrating just on the task at hand.
After hours of cursing and struggling with the needle and thread, Jackie sat back to look at his masterpiece.
It was hideous. He had tried to recreate the view out of Josef’s front windows, of the towering Grandfather Mountain surrounded by his many grandchildren hills, but the stitching was uneven and the colors flat. More of a gray blob than a magnificent vista.
Jackie sighed and set down the hoop, looking up at the fairy godmother. “Well, that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. Is it enough, do you think?”
If you’ve never seen a fairy in a fit of giggles, just imagine a high tinkling noise and lots of somersaults.
“This is possibly the worse piece of embroidery I’ve ever seen,” the fairy managed, after calming her laughter.
Jackie sighed, palms sweating again. He knew what this meant—no one ever came back from the trials having failed. They were just never seen again. He waited for her pronouncement of doom.
“But... it is enough. You’re free to go to Josef and the girls, Jackie.”
Jackie looked up in wild surprise. “I, uh, what?” he stammered. “You just said it was awful!”
“Ah, I did,” she answered with a wink. “But you did it yourself. Tell me, what kind of a trial would this be if we let stepmothers—er, or stepfathers—wish away their problems? Step-parenting is a noble and difficult task, and those who would take the easy way out do not deserve the distinction. You passed, Jackie, not because of your embroidery skills—which are, I will repeat, the worst I’ve ever seen—but for your honesty and commitment to hard work.”
Still in shock, Jackie stood numbly and pushed open the door. This time, it gave, and he almost left before turning back.
“Can I keep this?” he asked, reaching back for his hideous creation. The fairy nodded, and he snatched up the embroidery hoop before continuing through the doorway.
Josef and the girls would surely get a good laugh out of it.
Written February 2021.
[WP] A vengeful Queen Cinderella makes it a new law for the future stepmoms to go through various difficult and dangerous tasks if they want to marry the widowed fathers, many have failed. A maid falls in love with a widowed knight with kids, the fairy godmother comes to help her succeed at the tasks.
I have always loved to write short fiction, and pursuing a PhD hasn't stopped me! Most of these stories below were inspired by writing prompts from various internet sites. One day soon I'll submit to an actual writing magazine. For now, just enjoy.