The Orphan Maids: A Fable

As you know, today I was gonna discuss something else, but I can’t hit publish on it. There is so much hurt in my home country right now that pretending I’m thinking of anything else is…disingenuous, and does not honor the people I love. Instead, here’s a story.

Millie was an orphan who lived with her stepmother and stepsisters. She was smart and goodhearted. She was dutiful, hardworking, and very, very trapped. You see, she had no money, no living kin, no carriage to get away, and a family that wanted her to work constantly, for nothing. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that the stepmother worked Millie to the bone. Millie scrubbed floors and cooked and did laundry, and at night got maybe some stale bread and a bed among the ashes. Millie knew the neighbors knew, and said nothing.

She’d been friends with them in happier times. She’d ask her old friends “let me stay with you,” and maybe they would for a night. They’d put a cot in their kitchens and call it charity. But no one told the constables, because “it was a family matter,” or “they must have a reason,” or “it’s embarrassing.” And some had thought this was a great idea and had orphans of their own sleeping in the ash. Aside for some ungrateful orphans who got a home out of the bargain, really, everybody won.

When Millie was 21 the king decreed that orphan maids must be compensated and work only as often as any other laborer. Millie’s stepmother was livid, but the law’s the law. So, she gave Millie enough money that she could eat, stopped feeding, clothing and sheltering her, and made the whole of Millie’s day miserable, criticizing everything, sending food back, sometimes even hitting her. But she was free again and had a little money, so Millie took it. She and the other orphans set up a little community in the nearby woods. The sheriff didn’t recognize their community for political purposes, or infrastructure, but did make sure they got taxed. Because they were not technically on the king’s land anymore, very few laws applied, and many people angry that orphans were noticed by power would come shout during the night, or rob them during the day.

Eventually the stepmother died. Millie’s stepsisters prided themselves in how much more humane they were than their mother. They only spoke about their stepsister like she wasn’t there, worked her twelve hours a day, and made sure all their criticisms and rebukes implying their superiority had “please” and “thank you” attached.” Millie asked for her dowry, now that the last of the older generation was dead, and the girls laughed at the presumption. “The law only recognizes…citizens,” they reminded her gently. They did not give her the lump sum of her inheritance, or past payment for work she’d done for them, or more money now.

Millie was poor, cold, always on the verge of starvation, and bitter. And constantly people would ask why she didn’t leave, even as they silently refused her shelter or a job. They would ask why she was so angry. “At least you’re not getting hit like you used to,” they’d say, as if this was an accomplishment. “At least you get paid.” But what could Millie say? The law only recognized her while she was of benefit to the king’s subjects. If she no longer had work in the kingdom, or if she brought too much attention and with it the backlash of public opinion, she could make it so much worse for herself and everyone like her. The real benefit of being one of the king’s subjects was the right to be taken as an individual. Millie could not be that.

It wasn’t until the pitchforks and torches were outside the little community the orphans had built that Millie really got angry, though. Mad at the workers for another mandate from the king entitling orphan maids to higher wages and roads to their community, the king’s subjects gathered to make it clear that no law was enough to drive out the hate in their hearts. Millie and her friends hadn’t done this. In fact, they’d done everything asked of them with no complaint and very little confrontation, thinking that things were slowly getting better, and progress is a long game.

Nothing was good enough. So they fought back against the people who came to do God knows what, and ended up in the stockades for attacking people, though none of the instigators were similarly punished. And that was the sight Millie’s step-nephew saw on his fourth birthday. Millie looked at his wide, uncertain eyes and knew that now he, too, would grow in a den of contempt for people who wanted a chance at as good a life as anyone else. How could he not?

And the biggest question, even if things slowly got better, how many generations before the contempt was bred out, and how long would they punish Millie and her friends for it?


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