Olivia

Olivia

29 January 2016,   By ,   0 Comments

This story was retold by Jesterbear from a Tuscan folktale collected by Italo Calvino Italian Folktales (1956), translated into English by George Martin (1980)

Once upon a time there was a wealthy nobleman. He lost his wife in childbirth and became so filled with remorse and bitterness he had to leave. He took his newborn daughter to be raised by a farmer’s family.

In the beginning, the farmer was reluctant to take on the burden. “I have children of my own,” he explained, “and we are but poor peasants with country ways.”

“It doesn’t matter,” replied the rich man. “Please do me a favor and keep her, and you will be repaid. If I’ve not come back for her by the time she’s ten, then you are free to do as you please, for that will mean I’ll never return and the child will be with you for good.”

So, the nobleman and his tenant farmer came to an agreement. He left some gold to care for the child during his ten years of absence and the right to till the land freely. The nobleman left to journey to distant lands, supposedly for business.

The baby was nursed by the farmer’s wife, who, finding the infant so gentle and pretty became as attached to her as if she had been her own daughter. Her foster-parents called her Olivia. The child learned to walk in no time, played with the family’s children like a sister, and did everything children of her age do. Now, this family, being simple and ignorant country folk, kept the old ways. Along with Latin prayers of the church, people recited charms for good fortune and muttered banishments against the evil eye of malignant witches and spirits. They talked to the moon, tied garlands of flowers to wells and trees, and watched for omens. Olivia learned these ways too.

As she neared ten, the farmer and his wife looked for the nobleman to show up any day and reclaim her. Her tenth year passed, and also her 11th year passed. Then the 12th, 13th, and 14th passed, without any sign of, nor even word from the rich man. At last, they concluded he had died.

By the time she was 18, Olivia was truly a fine girl. She could spin, weave, and sew. She could even stretch sometimes meager rations if the family farm’s harvest had been scant, and cook it into a filling meal. By now the gold the rich man had given them was gone–as the nobleman had left only enough for 10 years to support Olivia. But the farmer’s family still thought they had gotten the better part of the bargain, for Olivia was loving, beautiful, and cherished by all.

Olivia, herself, was quite content with her foster family. One morning of her 18th year, a knock was heard on the door. The farmer opened up, and there stood the nobleman. “I’ve come for my daughter,” he said.

“What!” exclaimed Olivia’s foster-mother. “You said if you’d not returned by the time she was ten, she’d be our daughter. Eighteen years have passed. What right can you possibly have to her?”

“I don’t care,” replied the rich man. “I didn’t show up sooner, because I couldn’t. But the girl is my daughter, my only daugher, and I’m taking her back.”

“Well, we’re not giving her to you. That’s for sure!” answered the farmer angrily.

A bitter quarrel ensued. The nobleman took the matter to court. The court granted him custody of the girl, since she was his own daughter. The poor farmer and his family, therefore, had no choice but to comply with the law. They all wept, the most heartbroken of all being Olivia herself, as this nobleman was a total stranger to her.

Her foster-mother hugged Olivia and said, “Never forget that you will always be in our hearts, and you will always be part of our family.” She slipped two small items into Olivia’s hands: a curious old key on a red ribbon and a small, red pouch filled with salt. “I give these to keep you in good fortune. I wish you much luck in your new household.”

The nobleman threatened, in Olivia’s hearing, as the girl parted from the woman, “You are not to be in contact with my daughter again or it will go very ill indeed.”

When they arrived at his home, the first thing the nobleman said to Olivia was, “I am master here, and you, like everyone else here, will do as I say. Heaven help you if you ever disobey me.”

Olivia bowed her head modestly, and said, “Yes, sir.”

The nobleman was pleased with Olivia’s attitude and hoped to arrange a profitable marriage for her.

Yet, he was not long pleased with her. Olivia, alas, had been raised with kind, country peasants, not a noble family. She did not know the ways of court, or how to act as one of the nobles. Though she was modest and kind-hearted, the rich man thought her very uncouth. When she first sat at table, she drank soup from her bowl. Indeed, all her food, she picked up with her hands, then wiping them on the tablecloth when the rich man scowled.

She tried very hard to please the man who was now her father, but it seemed no one ever gave her instruction on how to behave until after she had done something else wrong.

One day, she plied her hand at some spinning and weaving to show her father her industry. Though the thread she spun and the cloth she wove was very fine and even, the master of the house was not impressed with Olivia’s spinning and weaving skills. He told her any decent serving girl could do as much. He was very annoyed, however, that she never learned to embroider like a fine lady.

One evening, the rich man found Olivia murmuring softly, almost prayerfully, in a chair sitting before the hearth fire. In truth, many of the servants had seen her do as much, but had never said anything to her, or the master of the house, about it.

The master inquired, “What are you doing?”

Olivia responded, “I am saying a good fortune charm, that my mo–that she-who-weened-me taught me.” Olivia was careful to never to refer to the farmer and his wife as her parents, as it put the nobleman in a rage. Olivia showed him the key on the red ribbon, and the red pouch with salt in it.

Now, this rich man viewed himself as very pious. He equated such charms with witchcraft and ignorant country superstition. Without a word, he grabbed both key and pouch and cast them into the fire.

Olivia was heartbroken that these two gifts from her foster-mother had been destroyed.

Olivia thought sadly, “Now, I may have no luck at all in this house. I wish he did not dislike anything connected with my old family. Perhaps, it would be best if I were married and away from him.”

Late one night, the rich man thought he heard Olivia speaking outside on the balcony, in the moonlight. The sky was clear and some stars could be seen shining faintly around the glory of the radiant full moon.

“Daughter, to whom were you talking at this later hour?” asked the master of the house.

“To the Moon,” answered Olivia truthfully.

“The moon?” he asked, incredulously.

“Yes, I asked Mia Donna Luna for some good fortune that I might find a suitable husband.” The name, Mia Donna Luna simply meant “My Lady Moon” and as a country girl raised among peasants Olivia viewed that name as synonymous with the Madonna. Did not her holy image stand upon the moon, surrounded by stars in the church where they attended mass?

The master became quite angry, for he now believed the girl was conjuring a husband through sorcery, using some diabolical spirit of the moon. He slapped her soundly on both ears and ordered her back to her room. Furthermore, he was furious that she would not wait as a modest maid should for her father to arrange a marriage.

Weeping, the girl went to her chamber, but as usual she was left in ignorance as to the nature of her error in the master’s eyes. She wondered if perhaps she ought not to have been out of doors alone so late at night.

Three days later, Olivia was walking in the garden beneath the balcony on which she had prayed to Mia Donna Luna.

To her surprise, there was a curious old key upon the ground. It was the exact twin of the one she had been given by the farmer’s wife, her foster-mother.

Joyfully, she picked it up and raised it skyward in both hands. She said:

Now have I gotten this key, which I came across,
I carry it with me, but not carry with me just a key,
However, the fortune I carry,
Who herself is always with me!

However, the master of the house was now quite suspicious of her behavior. Without seeming to, he watched her constantly. On spying her holding up the key, he ran forward and seized her. Upon seeing the master was so angry, she slipped the key in her bodice and dutifully followed her father, wondering what ignorant thing she had done now.

This time, without a word, he led her to a work bench, motioned for her to stretch out her hands and, with a sharp knife, cut them clean off. Then he ordered her to be taken to the woods and abandoned.

The unfortunate girl remained there, more dead than alive, and with no hands, what could she do? When she was a little girl, she thought she might make her way as a humble weaver, but with no hands that was not possible. Indeed, she could not even request work as a servant in a household. Who would take in a handless servant?

She set out and walked and walked until she came to a large palace. She thought of going in and asking for alms, but the palace was surrounded by a high, doorless wall, which enclosed a beautiful garden. Jutting out over the top of the wall were branches of a pear tree laden with ripe pears, yellow as the rising moon.

“Oh, if only I had one of those pears!” exclaimed Olivia. “Pear tree, would you bend down?”

The words were no sooner out of her mouth then the wall opened and the pear tree bent down its branches so that Olivia, who had no hands, could reach the pears with her teeth and eat them while they were still on the tree. When she had eaten her fill, the tree raised its branches once more. The wall closed back together and Olivia returned to the woods. She now knew the secret and went and stood under the pear tree every day at 11:00 and made a meal off of the fruit. Then she would return to the thick of the woods and rest until the next day.

These were fine pears, and a favorite treat of the king, who lived in the palace. One day he sent his servant out to pick a few. The servant came back quite dismayed. “Majesty, some animal has been climbing the tree and gnawing the pears down to the core!”

“We’ll catch the creature,” said the king. He built a hut out of branches and lay in wait every night. Though he lost sleep, the pears continued to be nibbled. He therefore decided to watch in the daytime. At 11:00, he saw the wall open and pear tree bend down its branches and Olivia bite into first one pear and then another. The king, who had been prepared to shoot an animal, dropped his gun in amazement. All he could do was stare at the beautiful maiden until the tree stood up and the wall closed behind her.

He scoured the woods for the thief. Suddenly, he came upon her, sleeping under a bush. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” asked the king. “How dare you steal my pears? I was about to shoot you down with my shotgun!”

By way of reply, Olivia showed him her stumps, which were not yet fully healed.

“You poor girl!” exclaimed the king. “What villain has mutilated you so cruelly?” After hearing her story, he said, “I don’t care about the pears. Come and live in my palace. My mother, the queen, will indeed keep you and look after you.”

Olivia was presented to the queen mother, but her son mentioned neither the pear tree bending down nor the wall opening by itself, lest his mother think the girl a witch and detest her. Neither did he tell the queen that Olivia was of noble birth, nor the name of the father who had mutilated her. Instead, he said only Olivia had been ill-treated by a wicked master.

The queen mother did not actually refuse to take Olivia in, but she had no liking for her and gave her a minimum to eat. The king, in her opinion, was too charmed by the handless maiden’s beauty. To rid him of any foolish notions he might have, she said, “My son, it’s time you looked about for a wife. Any number of princesses could be yours for the asking. Take servants, horses, and money and travel around until you have found her.”

The king obediently departed and was away visiting courts in many lands. Six months later he came home and said, “Don’t be angry with me, Mama. There’s no shortage of princesses in this world, but I met none as kind and beautiful as Olivia. I’ve decided Olivia is the only maiden I’ll marry.”

“What?” exclaimed the queen. “A handless girl from the woods? We know nothing about her! Would you disgrace yourself like that?” The queen mother’s words fell on deaf ears. The king married Olivia forthwith in the palace garden courtyard.

Olivia kept the old key, which she had tucked in her bodice. Now she wore it on a satin, red ribbon around her neck. She had asked the king to string it on such a cord for her, as it reminded her of her foster-mother.

Incidentally, Olivia had applied herself diligently to learn the manners of a noble lady in her father’s household, so she was no longer an uncouth country lass. She made a most gracious queen. She became beloved of the people and the court.

Nevertheless, having a daughter-in-law of unknown origins was more than the old queen could bear, and she lost no opportunity to be petty and rude to Olivia, taking care on the other hand not to displease the king. Wisely, Olivia never made any protests.

In the meantime, Olivia expected a baby, to the great joy of the king; but certain neighboring kings suddenly declared war on him, obliging him to lead his soldiers to the defense of the kingdom. Before leaving, he wanted to entrust Olivia to his mother. But the old queen said, “No, I will not assume such responsibility. I, too, am leaving the palace and shutting myself up in a convent.”

Before he left Olivia at the palace, the king urged her to dictate a letter to him daily.
Thus the king left for the battlefield and the old queen mother for the convent, while Olivia remained at the court with all the servants. Every day, a messenger left the court with a letter from Olivia to the king, but at the same time an aunt of the old queen plied between court and convent to inform the queen mother of everything that went on. Upon learning that Olivia had given birth to two fine babies, the queen mother left the convent and returned to the palace under the pretext of coming home to help her daughter-in-law.

Yet, late one night, she called the guards, forced Olivia out of bed, thrust a baby under each of their mother’s arms and told the guards to take the young queen back to the woods where the king had found her.

“Leave her there to starve to death,” she said to the guards. “Your heads will roll if you disobey my orders and if you ever breathe a word of this.”

Then the queen mother wrote her son that his wife had died in childbirth along with her babies. So that he would believe the lie, she had three wax figures made, then held a grand funeral in the royal chapel. At the ceremony, she wore mourning and wept many tears.
Still at war, the king was badly shaken by this unfortunate event. He did not suspect any wrong-doing on the part of his mother.

In the meantime, Olivia, frightened by the queen mother’s actions, walked as far as possible from the palace. She thought, “Who knows what the queen mother might do to my babies if I am seen remaining near?”

She walked very far, dying of hunger and thirst with those two babies in her arms. At last she came to a pool of water, where an old woman was washing clothes.

“My good woman,” said Olivia. “Please squeeze the water out of one of your cloths into my mouth. I am dying of thirst.”

“No,” replied the old woman. “Do as I say. Kneel down and drink right from the pool.”

“But can’t you see I have no hands and must hold my babies in my arms?”

“That doesn’t matter. Go on and try.”

Olivia knelt down, but as she bent over the pool, the key on the red, satin cord suddenly dangled into the water. Since she had no hands to take the key off or put it on, Olivia had been wearing it when the queen mother banished her. The key’s sudden movement startled her and both babies slipped out of her arms and into the water.

“Oh, my babies! My babies!”
Without clear thought, Olivia plunged her stumps into the clear water, trying to grab them, screaming, “Help! Help!”

The old woman didn’t budge. “Have no fear. They’ll not drown.”

At that moment, Olivia’s hands grew back, sound and whole. She grabbed hold of her babies and pulled them out, no worse for having been in the enchanted pool.

“Be on your way now,” said the old woman. “You no longer lack hands to do for yourself.” She was out of sight before Olivia could even thank her for her fine deed.

Wandering about the woods in search of a refuge, Olivia came to a small villa with the door wide open. She went in to ask for shelter, but no one was there. A kettle of porridge was boiling on the hearth, next to some heavier foods. Olivia ate something and nursed her children, then went to a room where there was a bed with two cradles. She put the children to bed and lay down herself. The next day, she discovered there was a spinning wheel in the villa, as well as a store of carded wool and flax. She thus lived in the villa for three years.

Victorious at last, the king went home with his soldiers, and found the town still in mourning, for the young queen had been beloved by many. His mother tried to comfort the king. She urged him to remarry, but he was more and more unhappy as time when on. At last, in an effort to break his depression, he decided to go hunting alone. In the woods, he was overtaken by a storm and it looked as though the earth would split and break open from all the thunder and lightning.

“If only I might die in this tempest,” thought the king. “What reason do I have to go on living without Olivia?”

Through the trees, he spied a faint light and moved toward it in search of shelter. It was a small villa. He knocked, and Olivia opened. He did not recognize her. Olivia was astonished to see the king standing there, wet and cold. “Does he even miss me?” she wondered silently. She welcomed him cordially as a stranger and invited him to the fire to warm himself while she and the children bustled about to make him comfortable.

The king watched her, thinking how much like Olivia she was, but noticing her perfectly normal hands, he shook his head. As the children jumped and played around him, he said aloud, “I might have been blessed with children like that, but they died, alas, with their mother, and here I am, all alone and miserable.”

Olivia went to prepare the guest’s bed and called her children to her. She whispered to the three-year-olds, “Listen. When we go back to the other room, ask me to spin you a story as I sit at the spinning wheel. I’ll refuse and even threaten to slap you, but you keep begging me.”

“Yes, Mama. We’ll do that,” they answered, delighted with the game. When they returned to the fireside, they began saying, “Mama, tell us one of your stories!”

“What are you thinking of! It’s late, and the gentleman is tired and doesn’t want to hear any story. Besides, I have wool to spin.”

“Come on, Mama. Please? Spin us a story!”

“If you’re not quiet, I’ll slap you!”

“Poor little things,” said the king. “How could you slap them? Go on and make them happy. I’m not at all sleepy and would like to hear a story too.”

With that encouragement, Olivia sat down at the spinning wheel and began her tale. “Once there was an infant girl who was given by a nobleman to a tenant farmer…”

The king gradually became serious, listened more and more anxiously, asking repeatedly, “And then? And then?” Because it was the life story of his poor wife. He didn’t dare get his hopes up, for the mystery of the hands was still unexplained. Finally, be broke down and asked, “And about her hands that were cut off? How did that turn out in the end?”

Olivia, therefore, told about the old washer woman and the enchanted pool. Then she took out the curious old key, which the king, himself, had put on the red, satin cord around her neck.

“Then it is you!” cried the king, and they hugged and kissed. However, after they had given vent to their joy, the king’s face darkened. “I must return to the palace at once and punish my mother as she deserves.”

“No, not that!” said Olivia. “If you really love me, you must promise not to lay a hand on your mother. She will be sorry enough as it is. Send her back to the convent to live her life in penitence and prayer, if you wish, but do not raise a hand against her. To harm blood kin is a nefarious sin. Anyone who does so will be pursued by a furious spirit to the end of his days.”

Thus the king returned to the palace. His mother greeted him. “I was uneasy about you, my son. How did you get through the night, alone out in the storm?”

“I passed a good night, Mama.”

“What?” said the queen mother, growing suspicious.

“Yes, at the home of a kind-hearted family who kept my spirits up. It was the first time since Olivia’s death that I felt cheerful. By the way, Mama, is Olivia really dead?”

“What do you mean? The whole town was at the funeral.”

“Perhaps I should open her grave to lay flowers upon her breast and see with my own eyes…”

“Why all the suspicion?” asked the queen mother, flushed with anger. “Is that any attitude for a son to have toward his mother, doubting her word?”

“Go on, Mama, enough of these lies. Olivia, come in!”

In walked Olivia, leading their children. The queen, who had been crimson with rage, now turned white with fear.

Olivia said, “Don’t be afraid. We’ll do you no harm. Our joy over finding one another again is too great to feel anything else.”

The queen mother returned to the convent. The children of Olivia and the king grew up rosy and white. Olivia felt it was safe enough to contact her foster-family at last, to the joy of everyone.

Thus the king and Olivia lived in peace for the rest of their lives.


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