In a land of grassy green meadows and thickly forested hills, not unlike upstate New York or Vermont, lived a little girl named Cheddarella. She was thin, with elbows that poked and a chin that jutted. Everyone agreed she was sharp.
Cheddarella lived with two older sisters, Lactette and Butterinda, on a farm with one hundred cows. Their father drove the cows out to pasture in the morning and back to the barn in the evening. He milked them twice a day. Their mother made the milk into skim and two-percent, cream and yogurt, and a certain kind of cheese. Cheddarella helped her father with chores in the barn, and her mother with chores in the house. She was stronger than she looked, so no matter how hard the task, she got it done.
Lactette and Butterinda never lifted a finger on the farm. They went to school, where they learned to read and write. When they were home, they complained about how hard school was. They watched cartoons, flipped through magazines, and talked about friends in an unfriendly way. Vain and idle, they believed that life should always be fun and easy as pie.
“When I grow up,” said Lactette, “I’m going to be a flight attendant on an airplane. Then I can travel to distant lands for free. And some day a handsome man in first class will look up from his device and ask me to marry him.”
“When I grow up,” said Butterinda, “I’m going to be a fashion model. Then I can wear fabulous clothes and jewelry. And some day a handsome man who owns a department store will clear his throat and ask me to marry him.”
Cheddarella never thought about what she would do when she grew up. She was too busy herding cows, carrying pails of fresh milk, and separating curds and whey.
“I guess I will always do chores,” she said. “It may not be as chic as air travel and modeling, but people will always need milk.”
One day, Lactette and Butterinda came home from school excited about a ball to take place in three weeks.
“There will be a live band and refreshments,” said Lactette. “Everyone will wear their best clothes, and girls can wear makeup and perfume.”
“But you can’t go,” Butterinda said to Cheddarella. “You’re too little, and you don’t even go to school yet.”
Cheddarella said nothing, because she wasn’t sure what a ball was. Up to this moment, she thought it was a round object that rolled and bounced. Fancy dresses and makeup meant nothing to her. She wore hand-me-downs, patched and faded, and hobnail boots.
For the next three weeks, Lactette and Butterinda talked of nothing but the ball. Yet they seemed to dread it as much as they looked forward to it. Naturally plump, both girls said they had to go on a diet. Nervous, they ate more than ever, especially the delicious cheese from their own farm.
Lactette felt that her skin was too pale, so she tried different shades of makeup on her face, and different colors of clothing to see what matched. Butterinda felt that she was too short, so she tried on high heels, and she piled her hair on top of her head.
When the date of the ball arrived, the two girls fussed and fretted all day. Lactette painted her face pink and purple. Butterinda wore heels so high she could hardly walk, and her hair was like a wasp nest. Their dresses looked hideous, and their perfume was overpowering. Cheddarella watched them leave and sighed with relief.
“I’m glad I wasn’t invited to the ball. Whatever that may be.”
She went to the barn to check on the herd. She knew all one hundred cows by name. She talked to them and stroked their flanks. The cows liked the little girl, and they talked to her in their way, mooing and puffing as they chewed the cud.
When every cow was accounted for, Cheddarella moved on to the cheese room. The shelves were filled with big round boxes called wheels of cheese, one hundred in all. The equipment was washed and neatly stowed. The concrete floor was perfectly clean. It was so clean, in fact, she could see her reflection as in a mirror.
As she was about to leave, Cheddarella heard a voice call her name. She turned and saw a strange lady in a long dress like a nightgown. The lady held a glittering stick.
“Who are you?” the little girl asked.
“I am your Dairy Foodmother.”
“I already have a mother.”
“Naturally. I’m extra.”
“Oh. I guess that’s okay.”
The overhead fluorescents in the cheese room were bright, but the stars on the lady’s stick were brighter. Cheddarella squinted.
“I’m here to grant you a wish,” said the lady, waving her stick.
“What for? I have everything I need.”
“Are you sure?”
Cheddarella considered her options. Should she ask for an end to world hunger? Peace on earth? A baby brother? Without meaning to, she blurted:
“I want to go to the ball!”
The Dairy Foodmother smiled and touched Cheddarella with her stick. In a twinkling, the little girl’s denim coverall turned into a party dress. Her hobnail boots became patent leather pumps. The rope around her waist was a sash. Her hair was brushed and held back by a ribbon. She was scrubbed so well she glowed from inside.
“We need a form of transportation,” the lady thought aloud. She touched a large stainless steel vat with her stick. It turned into a stretch limousine with white sidewall tires. She opened a door and beckoned to Cheddarella, who hesitated.
“I won’t know what to do when I get there.”
“Nobody knows how to dance these days. Still, just for good measure . . .” The lady tapped Cheddarella’s shoes as she sat in the back seat of the huge, silver-gray automobile. “Mind you, all this will disappear at midnight. You must return by then.”
The soles of Cheddarella’s feet tingled. The limousine purred and glided away. The lady shrank in the rear view window, until all that remained was a sparkle.
In no time, Cheddarella arrived at a grand entry to what she supposed was a palace. A man in a white jacket with a yellow flower pinned to the lapel opened the door and offered a hand. He escorted her to a vast room with basketball markings on the hardwood floor. It was crowded. So everybody would know who she was, he shouted at the top of his lungs.
“The Girl of the Hour!”
The man in white bowed and walked away backward.
Boys thronged to Cheddarella and requested the favor of a waltz or a mazurka. Girls smiled at her and murmured compliments. The music was lovely, and the leader of the band nodded in her direction.
Without knowing how she did it, Cheddarella danced and whirled. Her toes hardly seemed to touch the floor. She was light as a feather and much too excited to stop and rest. She never tasted the refreshments. She noticed her two sisters standing against a wall, unhappy that no boy would ask them to dance. They didn’t recognize her.
At last, the tallest boy at the ball asked Cheddarella for a foxtrot. Short as she was, she rose to the occasion. She enjoyed it immensely, until she happened to see the boy’s wristwatch. Time had flown. It was almost midnight!
Cheddarella ran. Her limousine waited at the grand entry, sleek and silver-gray. She threw herself in the back seat. The vehicle purred and glided away. In a reverie of bliss, the little girl closed her eyes.
The next thing she knew, she was back in the barn. The stainless steel vat was parked in its spot, and she was dressed in her denim coverall. She stared at the polished floor.
“The ball was in full swing,” she said to the cows. “I don’t know the name of the tallest boy. I don’t know what songs the live band played. I don’t even know what refreshments were served.”
Cheddarella was happy, though. The cows chewed.
“Someday, I’ll go back, in the ordinary way. Then I won’t miss the beginning and the end. I’ll remember everything and tell you all about it.”
About ten years later, considerably bigger but no less sharp, she did.
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review. In 2016, his one-act plays were staged in Concord, NC and Detroit, MI.