Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast
Birds can represent the fluttering, darting thoughts of intuition. This is why little birds helped Cinderella help herself.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cinderella #196 The Old Woman's Hide (Calvino, 1956)

Illustration from
The Real Mother Goose
Arbuthnot & Wright

 Note: Contains violence. Once upon a time, in Montale Pistoiese, Italy, "there was a king with three daughters. He was going to the fair, and before leaving home" asked each daughter what he could bring back for her. The eldest asked for "a kerchief, the next a pair of high top shoes, whild the third asked for a box of salt." When the man questioned his elder daughters what the youngest could possibly want with such a quantity of salt, those bad girls said, "For no other reason than to pickle you." And the foolish man believed them, and turned his youngest child out. With "only a nursemaid and a purse of gold" the girl wandered, until the two of them passed a gravedigger." It turned out that a one hundred year old woman was being buried, and the nursemaid now enquired, "Would you sell us the old soul's hide?" And after much bargaining, "the gravedigger picked up a knife, skinned the old woman wrinkle by wrinkle, and sewed her whole hide together with face, white hair, fingers, and nails." Then the nursemaid lined it with cambric, and made the girl a dress of it. Once she put it on and went out, "people couldn't get over her spry gait and her voice as clear as a bell." Just then, the king's son rode by, and heard the old girl chattering. He stopped and asked,"Just how old is that old soul?" And the girl in the granny-skin answered saucily, "Me? I'm a hundred and fifteen!" When the king asked where she came from, she replied,"From my town." And when he asked who her parents were, she simply said,"I'm my own mother and father." "What is your occupation?" demanded the king's son. And when the old girl said,"Having a good time!" the prince laughed aloud. Now he decided to take the old lady home with him, as a source of entertainment, at least as long as she managed to live. This he did, and when he was not attending to his royal duties, he would go in and visit with her. "One day the queen said to Rotten Eyes (they called her that because of the blear eyes of the old woman's hide),'What a shame you can't do any more work, with those eyes." And when that one answered that she had been a fine spinner as a girl, the queen said,"Try spinning this little bit of flax, just to be doing something." The minute the queen left, the girl locked the door, jumped out of her old skin, and sat down to spin the flax. The thread she made "was a marvel to behold". Everyone  was amazed at how steady the old woman's hands still were Next, the queen had her make a blouse. The moment she was alone, she locked the door, jumped out of the skin, and "cut it out, sewed it up, and embroidered the front with the daintiest gold flowers you ever saw." Now everyone became suspicious, and the king's son "peeped through the keyhole the next time the old woman locked her door." That's when he saw her transform from ancient one to "a maiden as beautiful and radiant as the sun." So the prince "broke the door down and embraced the girl, who was quite embarrassed, and tried to cover herself." He demanded to know why she had disguised herself in that way and "the girl confessed that she was the child of a king, who had cursed her and turned her out of his palace. Now the prince went to his parents and told them,"I've found a king's daughter, mind you, to marry." So a grand wedding celebration was held, "and all the kings and queens from near and far were invited." Of course, the girl's father was one of the guest kings, "but he didn't recognize her beneath her veil and diadem." She had ordered the cook to prepare her father's food separately, and "after one spoonful" he did not eat anther bite. Not of the boiled meat, nor the fish, nor the roast, When the bride came round and asked what was the matter with his meal, he told her that "the roast had been so tasty and everything else so tasteless." That's when she said,"So now you see how awful food is without any salt in it? That's why your daughter asked for salt when you went to the fair, and those wicked sisters of mine said it was to pickle you." So the father embraced his child, "begged her forgiveness, and punsished the envious sisters."
From Italian Folktales: Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino (1956)
Notes: So very interesting to have another story in which a gown is made from a person; quite gruesome, until we remember that fairy tales are never meant to be taken literally. The girl simply assumed the form of the old lady, by dressing in her clothes. If we understand that the girl was "trying on for size' what it is like to be old, it becomes less macabre. Quite a variation of Catskins. 
Montessori Elementary Connection: Fundamental Needs of People/Clothing/Italy pre 20th century
1. Read this story. Try not to be grossed out by the idea of a dress that is actually made out of an old lady's skin. Really, the story means that the girl dressed up and looked exactly like an old lady.