Sunday, June 29, 2014

THE MAGIC PEACH TREE

A "Cinderella Story" adapted from 'Il Pentamerone' by Giambattista Basile

Zezolla was a very happy girl. It had been almost a year since her poor mother had died, and she still thought of her often, but apart from that, Zezolla wanted for nothing. Her father, too, was very sad to have lost his beloved wife, but Zezolla was so much like her mother that he consoled himself with his love for the little child. But, happy as they both were, they would always miss Zezolla’s mother.

There was, among the staff of servants in their home, a handmaiden who Zezolla favored above all others. She treated Zezolla with great love and affection, almost as a real mother would. And when they were together, she didn’t miss her mother as much.

“I wish you could be my mother,” she said one day.

The handmaiden smiled. “I could be. If you would ask your father to marry me. Then we would all be one big happy family. Will you do that for me, little Zezolla?”

Zezolla said she would, and after asking a few times, her father agreed and married the handmaiden. The wedding was beautiful; a joyous occasion in which the whole kingdom shared. And it was there that little Zezolla, more content than she had been since she lost her mother, staring out the window at the beautiful sunset, met the fairy.

A little green fairy landed on the windowsill and said, “I am very sorry.”

“Sorry?” said Zezolla, who apparently didn’t find the existence of the fairy at all unusual. “For what?”

“For the terrible fate that has befallen you. But know that my kind will always look after you. And if you ever want for anything, you will find us in Fairy Grove on the Island of Sardinia.”

“That’s kind of you,” said Zezolla, confused. “But what are you talking about? What terrible fate? I have a new mother. We are all going to be very, very happy for ever after.”

The fairy sighed. “Just remember what I have told you, child.” And without another word of warning, she flew away.

Well, for a few days at least, Zezolla was right. Happiness did reign supreme in the home of the prince and his new princess (Did I forget to mention that Zezolla’s father was a prince? Sorry, must have slipped my mind) and Zezolla felt sure she would love her stepmother just as much as her birth mother…but then the handmaiden’s…sorry, the stepmother’s true nature revealed itself.

All this time she had been pretending to be kind toward Zezolla in order to trick the child into asking her father if he would marry her. She didn’t really love Zezolla at all. In fact, she had six daughters of her own (whom she conveniently hadn’t mentioned to anybody until after the wedding) and though they, unlike Zezolla, were homely and nasty and spoiled, their mother doted on them endlessly. And to make matters worse, this wicked stepmother even turned Zezolla’s father against her!

So now the Prince and Princess and their six daughters were very happy…but Zezolla was ignored. Treated like dirt. Forced to wear rags and old hand-me-downs while her stepsisters wore silk and satin. Forced to clean and cook and keep house while her sisters lazed about in the lap of luxury. Forced out of her comfy bed and her cozy bedroom and made to sleep on a cot in a closet. Poor Zezolla had no one left…until she remembered the fairy!

What reminded her was the news that her father would be going to Sardinia on business and, before he left, he asked each of his stepdaughters what they would like him to bring back as a gift for them…what he should bring them each back…for what should each be bring…sorry, this is troublesome grammar. He asked each of the stepdaughters, “What would you like me to bring you from Sardinia?”

Is that clear? Good. On we go:

They asked for pretty new dresses, dolls, jewelry, expensive tokens and treasures. Finally, almost as more of a joke than anything, he asked the same question of his own flesh-and-blood daughter, Zezolla.

“You don’t have to bring me anything, Father,” said Zezolla. “But I do ask that you do me a favor while you are in Sardinia: Commend me to the Fairies of Fairy Grove and ask them to bring me something. Promise you won’t forget.”

The Prince said, sort of carelessly, that he promised and went on his way. He completed his business in Sardinia, bought the expensive junk his stepdaughters wanted and—as we all knew he would—completely forgot about Zezolla’s request. He boarded the ship bound for home, but when it was time to cast off and take to the sea…the ship didn’t move. The ocean currents should have carried it out to sea, but it didn’t move. They unfurled the sails but, though the wind was with them, they didn’t move. Heck, they didn’t even bob up and down in the water like other ships did.

That night, the captain of the ship slept, trying to figure out why they weren’t moving, when a fairy came to him in a dream.

“Captain,” said the fairy, “do you know why your ship will not leave port?”

“No, as a matter of fact I don’t,” said the captain. “We even tried pushing it with big sticks but that didn’t work either. Honestly, I don’t think it would even sink at this point. I have to say, it’s very disconcerting.”

“I’m sure it is. But actually, it’s the Prince’s fault.”

“Really? How come?”

“He made a promise to his daughter that he would visit the fairies before going home and he broke it. Until he does as his daughter asked, your ship will not budge.”

“Well, heck by the hatful!” said the captain.

(Actually, real ship’s captains almost never say “heck by the hatful”)

The next morning, the captain explained the situation to the Prince who, grudgingly, went to Grove of the Fairies. He didn’t know where it was, but, thankfully, the cabbie knew the way. When he got there he found himself in a small grove of trees which, while pretty enough, appeared entirely devoid of life. He felt silly but he had a promise to keep. So he cleared his throat and said, “I commend my daughter, Zezolla, to your good graces and ask on her behalf for a gift…or…something.”

And just then, the grove sprang to life and fairies appeared all around him. They were just like the one Zezolla had seen: Tiny, beautiful, colorful and they actually kind of put him in a good mood just from being around them.

(Some years later, a fairy would fall in love with a mortal man and turn herself into a human in order to marry him. But her children all had that same gift: of being able to make people happy just by being near them. So the next time you meet someone who makes you happy for no reason, they might just be descended from that same fairy…this has nothing to do with Zezolla’s story, but it’s pretty neat, huh?)

The fairies gave the Prince three gifts: A silver spade, a golden pail and a single peach pit. They explained to the Prince that she must use the spade to plant the peach pit and water it with the golden pail. The Prince took these home and, after giving the fancy, expensive gifts to his stepdaughters, gave the pail, spade and peach pit to Zezolla, telling her the same thing the fairies had told him.

Excited by the gifts, Zezolla immediately went out into the garden and dug a hole with the silver spade. She dropped the peach pit in, covered it with earth and filled the golden pail to water the plant. When she awoke the next morning, the peach pit had grown into a beautiful peach tree! With peaches and everything!

All this talk of peaches makes me want to eat a peach. I’ll be right back…

Okay, I’m back. (That was a good peach)

Anyway, after his trip to Sardinia, the Prince went back to his old self, neglecting Zezolla in favor of his six wicked stepdaughters. Possibly if the family had paid more attention to Zezolla, they would have noticed the peach tree springing up literally overnight. They also would have noticed Zezolla herself stealing away to sit in its shade as often as she could. Somehow it made her feel…loved. The way she had felt those first few days before her stepmother stopped pretending. The way she had felt before her mother died. Sitting under that tree was the closest thing to a hug poor Zezolla had received in years.

Then came the King’s Annual Festival. For three consecutive nights, there would be fantastic feasts at the palace and the whole kingdom was invited! Obviously, that included Zezolla. Even more obviously, her stepsisters were not about to let her go. She had nothing nice to wear, her hair was a mess and did she even own a pair of shoes?

On the first night of the festival, Zezolla stayed behind and waved to her stepfamily as they rode away to the king’s feast. Once they were out of sight, Zezolla ran outside and hurled herself under her peach tree and cried and cried and cried. Her tears landed in the soil around the tree, seeped through to the roots of the tree and as soon as that tiny molecule of moisture touched the tree itself, something magical happened. Several peach blossoms opened to reveal, not peaches, but fairies. They flew all around Zezolla and raised her spirits the way they had done for her father back in Sardinia.

“We tried to warn you that the wedding of your father to that horrible woman would bring you only misfortune,” said the fairies.

“You were right,” said Zezolla. “I just wish they had let me go to the festival.”

“All you have to do is ask,” said the fairies. “Ask the tree and you shall have anything you wish.”

“Okay…but I kind of did ask. Didn’t I? Just now when I said ‘I wish?’”

“Oh, I guess you did. Okay, here we go!” The fairies flew all around her. They were fixing up her hair, cleaning her skin, doing her nails and turning her ragged clothes into a beautiful gown. Meanwhile, several fairies had taken a large peach from the tree and were turning it into a coach. The fairies themselves took the form of the horses and soon Zezolla was off on her way to the King’s festival.

(By the way, in case it’s not clear, this king is not Zezolla’s father’s father. He’s a prince from a small kingdom, and the other is king of a big kingdom, so they’re not related or anything. Sorry, it’s just that this is going to be important later in the story and I wanted to make sure you understood.)

Well, when this mysterious, but beautiful, stranger arrived at the feast she created quite a stir. All heads turned wondering who she was…okay, the women wondered who she was. The men were wondering if she had a boyfriend or a husband. Even the Prince and his horrible stepfamily wondered who she was. It had been so long since any of them had seen Zezolla without dirt caked on her face from hard work or ragged clothes on that they didn’t recognize her.

Then the King saw her. And he fell instantly in love with her beauty. He ignored his hosting duties all that night and spent all of his time with Zezolla. And the more time he spent with her the more in love with her he fell. Everything was going very well until Zezolla saw her family leaving the party. She knew she had to get home and changed out of these fancy clothes before they got home, or else they would want the magic of the peach tree all to themselves. She apologized to the king and ran to her coach.

“Wait!” cried the king. “I don’t know who you are. Where are you from?”

Zezolla smiled, “I floated to your majesty in a golden pail.” With these enigmatic words she fled, beat the others home, asked the peach tree to change her back and was inside, pretending to sleep on her cot when the family arrived.

All that next day, the mysterious maiden was all anyone could talk about. Who was she? Where was she from? Would she be back the following night? Zezolla did her best to ignore all of these questions, but had the family paid her more attention, they might have seen her accidentally smile once or twice.

And, just like the night before, after the others had left for night two of the festival, Zezolla got dolled up by the tree and arrived in the magical peach coach. Again she spent the whole night with the king and again she left in time to beat her family home, but not before telling the king “I dug my way to your majesty with a silver spade.”

The third night of the festival was the grandest of all. And, once again, Zezolla was the center of attention. The King, however, was determined that he would not lose her this time. He had his guards posted at every exit and they were given strict orders not to let her leave. So when the time came to run home, he let her go. Knowing that his guards would soon have her. And, indeed, when she was only a few steps away from the coach, she was set upon by the guards, who ordered her to stop. But, foreseeing just this kind of contingency, Zezolla had prepared herself. She had asked for something extra from the peach tree tonight, and as the guards advanced on her she took them from her pocket and scattered them all over the stairs.

Diamonds! Pearls! Precious jewels!

The guards knew these were valuable and not to be thrown away so they began to pick them up, giving Zezolla plenty of time to get into her coach. And as she pulled away, she called back to the guards, “Tell His Majesty that my love for him grows like a peach tree!” and, for the third time in as many days, she made it home just in time to get changed back into her old rags by the peach tree. But this time, she noticed that she was missing something. In the commotion caused when she dropped the precious stones, her left slipper had come off. She took the other one and hid it under her cot where it would always be there to remind her of this wonderful adventure…which she thought was behind her forever.

The festival was over. The mysterious maiden was gone. The king was despondent. Until his guards showed him the shoe. It was the most amazing shoe the king had ever seen. It seemed to be woven of pure gold. Sturdy as leather but soft as silk. And intricate designs had been embroidered into it. Along the left side, water flowed from a golden pail. Along the right, a silver spade dug through the earth. And on the toe, a peach tree with shiny fruit and fairies all around.

The King smiled. He knew he could find her again!

The next day, there was a knock on the front door. Zezolla, of course, answered it, and was surprised to see the King himself standing there. She recognized him, of course, from the party, but he didn’t know her because of how different she looked…still, she thought there was a glimmer of recognition when he saw her…but that may have been her imagination.

“Good afternoon, miss,” he said. “May I speak to your master and/or mistress?”

He had assumed (as who wouldn’t) that Zezolla was a servant. Still, she showed the King and his attendants in. One of the attendants, she noticed was holding a pillow on which rested an object hidden under a fine cloth. She had a hunch she knew what it was. Soon the entire family was assembled in the sitting room with the King.

“I’ll get right to the point,” said the King. “You may have noticed that I spent most of my time at the feasts these past few nights with a certain young woman. She, sadly, has fled without a trace…or, rather, almost without a trace. For she left behind the shoe which my associate, Tomas, has on the pillow he is holding. So I figured…”

“That you would have every maiden in the kingdom try on the shoe,” interrupted Zezolla’s stepmother, “and whoever it fits you’ll marry!”

“What? No, of course not!”

“What?”

“I’ll bet lots of women fit that shoe. I could end up marrying anybody if I did that. No, that won’t work. Luckily, the shoe is very unique. So instead, I’ll just ask you all if you can describe the shoe. I figure only the person who lost it would be able to do that in any kind of detail. So, who wants to try first?”

The King went down the line of Zezolla’s stepsisters, but of course none of them could describe the shoe. They had seen them, and admired them, along with the rest of the partygoers, but none had seen them close enough to be able to say for certain what was embroidered on them. None, that is, except the very youngest sister, who had been trying to remember any detail she could while her sisters were being questioned.

“There was…something…on the toe,” she said, straining her memory. “It was a tree…an apple tree!”

“No it wasn’t.”

All heads turned. Zezolla had been nonchalantly dusting the furniture during this entire interview, without saying a word or even looking up from her work until now. She still had not lifted her head and had made the comment conversationally as if her stepsister had misquoted a book or something.

“Zezolla!” scolded her father. “You have no right to speak before the King!”

“Excuse me,” said the King, sternly. “But I will decide that for myself, if you don’t mind.” Then to Zezolla he said, “What did you say, miss?”

“Just that it’s not an apple tree. They’re peaches. And,” she carried on talking even though she had turned and gone into the next room, “on one side there’s a golden pail pouring out water and on the other side there’s a silver spade digging the soil. In fact, it looks…kind of like this.” She had returned from her cupboard with the other shoe, which she held up for all to see. The King was flabbergasted. Without really knowing why, Tomas took the cloth off the shoe on the pillow in his hand to prove to the world that they were a matched pair.

And, of course, they fit Zezolla’s feet perfectly.

You may be wondering whatever happened to the prince and his wife and her six horrible children? Well, I actually have no idea. Because after marrying the king, Zezolla never saw any of them again as long as she lived. Though I think, privately, in her own heart, she forgave them their cruelty. All I know for sure is that Queen Zezolla lived happily ever after.

THE END


This is just one of the many stories throughout history and from all over the world which eventually became the story of Cinderella which we all know today. I have collected and adapted several of them in my book The Glass Slipper Project. Buy it today from the Amazon Kindle Store and learn a little something about the evolution of fairy tales whilst (and at the same time) enjoying some happy endings.

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