The Little Bird

There was a merchant with three daughters. One day, prior to a journey, he called them and asked which gift he should bring each of them home. As their father was very wealthy and traveled far, the family already had many fine wares.

One asked for a silk shawl with gold threads interwoven.

Another asked for a comb with jewels.

Yet, the youngest was a great cook and spent most of her time in the kitchen. She wanted no such ornaments. The youngest rarely walked beyond the herb garden. She asked only for a little bird in a cage.

Her sisters mocked her request. "A bird? Perhaps you would like it to keep you company when you stay at home?" They teased, "Ah, your bird can sing melodies to you while you dance by yourself."

"Will you promise to bring me a bird, Papa?"

"Yes," he said, "I promise, for I should be able to get one easily enough."

"Ah, Papa. Now that you have promised it, remember, you will not be able to come home without bringing it."

The merchant gave little thought to her words. He journeyed over the sea to a far off country and bought his merchandise. He also purchased a fine shawl and an exquisite comb for two of his daughters, and he intended to get the bird last. However, he got hurried on the day of departure and forgot the bird. He only recollected it when the ship he had boarded was preparing to cast off.

However, the captain found his ship would move neither forward nor backwards away from the dock. The ship seemed stuck fast.

At last, the captain said, "Someone aboard has an unfulfilled promise on him. Whoever it is, come forward."

The merchant spoke privately to the captain. He admitted he was the one, for he had forgotten to bring a little bird, which he had promised to his youngest daughter.

The captain smiled and replied, "That is easily set right," and sent him off with a cage to get a bird.

The merchant returned quickly with the bird. They sailed out with the tide and he returned home and presented his gifts to his daughters, who were each very happy with their gift and thanked their father. The youngest seemed happiest of all.

The two older daughters teased their sister about her silly little bird as they busied themselves with attending the theater and balls and such.

In time, the merchant was off on another trip.

Before long, it was carnival time. The two elder daughters announced they were going to a masked carnival ball. They called their sister, "Cenorietola, you mind the fire and cook and sweep up while we are gone." They left laughing.

So the younger sister stayed at home, and when they were gone, she set her little bird on the table in its cage. Then she went to the shelf of her mother's cookbooks and pulled an old book out from behind the others. She opened the book and read a whole bunch of words that didn't make much sense, and she tossed some dried herbs and lavender from the garden on the kitchen fire. She said to the little bird:

Da mi tu panni belli
Ed io te do i cencirelle!
...which meant she asked the bird to exchange her old, smutty work clothes for beautiful clothes for a dance.

Immediately, the little bird fluttered and sang a lovely song and there appeared a splendid dress, with a matching jeweled mask and golden slippers. Outside there was a beautiful carriage with prancing horses.

With these, the maiden traveled to the carnival festino at the king's palace.

When the king saw her, he was dazzled and would dance with no other. He noticed his dancing partner was very quiet. Most of the women he knew chattered like magpies--while dancing--about nothing interesting.

The king said to her, "I find myself wondering who you could be."

She answered, "You should know better than to ask that of a masquer."

Yet very early in the evening, the maiden chose an opportunity to withdraw before the time of unmasking.

When she returned home, she told the little bird all about the masked dance and thanked the little bird for helping her.

The next day, her two sisters talked of nothing but the king and how he had danced the whole night with one maiden, who they did not know was their sister.

The youngest daughter thought, Ha! Who never goes out? Who's just a Cenorietola covered with cinders and ash from cooking? Who dances all by herself? But she said nothing to them.

The next night was another festino at the king's palace for the carnival.

The second night, she did the same with her liber di commando. Only, this time the bird brought her a more beautiful dress and mask and the same pair of golden slippers.

The king again asked to dance with her. He asked her to tell him all about where she came from.

Being coy, "You must not ask your masquers such questions, for surely it is against all rules."

He would have danced with her all night, but she said, "Come now, there are many other dancers who await your attention." Thus, she put him off, and she disappeared so swifty that no one saw her leave.

When she arrived home, she fed her bird treats and told the bird all about the king and how nice he was.

On the third night, it was the last night of the carnival and the last festino. The king told his servants that they must run after the carriage of this stranger and see where it went. He feared he would not see this mysterious and delightful stranger again.

Again, after her sisters left, the little bird brought another more beautiful dress, a matching mask and the golden slippers.

That night, when the king danced with her, he said, "Honestly, it's true, I cannot ask your name, but perhaps you will tell me something I might address you by."

Boldy she whispered, for she felt quite bold now, "Some call me Cenorientola."

He exclaimed, "What a pretty name!" The king was delighted to have gotten anything out of her, and he thought ot himself, Yes, the name Cenorientola is unique as you.

Again she tried to slip away, but the servants watched her so carefully that it was extremely difficult. Finally, she dodged out of sight onto a terrace and snuck around to her carriage. In a hurry to be gone, she lost one of her golden slippers.

This slipper the servants picked up and brought to the king.

The next day, the king sent a trusted servant to every house in the city, telling the servant to find the maiden to whom the golden slipper belonged. The servant was instructed to try it on each maiden. If the slipper fit, he was to inquire further and discover the name which the maiden whispered to the king, Cenorietola.

In the meantime, the youngest daughter sat in the kitchen moping. She had been relieved to sneak away from the palace, but now she found she missed the king terribly.

The servant with two companions went to each house, trying the slipper on any and all maidens who might have been the lovely, unknown masquer. Yet, the slipper fitted no one, for it was under a spell.

Last of all, he came to the merchant's house and tried it on the two elder daughters and it clearly fit neither one. Exasperated, the servant said, "There must be another maiden here. I have tried this slipper upon every maiden and it belongs to none, therefore there must be another maiden here."

The two sisters looked at each other and shrugged.

Then one said, "In truth, we do have a little sister, but it couldn't be her. She never goes out to amusements, such as balls or theater."

"Yes," said the other. "Our Cenorientola is a stay-at-home mousy sort, who minds the hearth."

The moment the servant heard that name he thought, Cenorientola--that is she! He gave orders to his companions to fetch a carriage for this maiden.

Her sisters, very puzzled, told her she must come out to see the king's servant. When she was alonge, she again asked the bird for one more beautiful dress, with a matching shawl, gloves, and a jeweled comb.

When the carriage came to fetch her, she looked like a queen. The servant fitted the golden slipper to her foot and she put the matching slipper on the other foot.

Her sisters were astonished that their little sister had actually gone to a masque and danced with a king.

When she came to the palace, she took her little bird and all her mother's old cookbooks with her. The king was overjoyed to see her again and their wedding was soon celebrated.

When her father returned home, he was overjoyed that his youngest daughter had become a queen. In fact, she had also found her two sisters husbands in the king's court, and they had amusements enough to keep them happy.

The book? No one knows what happened to it, but it is clear she never gave it to her sisters.

Myth's Notes

Clearly, this folktale is an Italian version of Cinderella, the story of a girl who finds happiness by losing footwear after meeting a prince or king.

There are numerous versions of the story scattered in many cultures, including Egypt and China. In some versions, the maiden receives gifts from a tree growing on her mother's grave or from a little bird living in a tree growing near her mother's grave. In other versions, magical animals helped her or a supernatural godmother assisted her in obtaining a gown for a ball.

I have retold this Italian tale from Rachel Harriett Busk's Roman Legends: A Collection of Fables and Folk-lore of Rome, 1877, titled, La Cenorientola. I have kept all the wonderful elements of the little bird providing the ball gowns, the three balls on three successive nights, the golden slippers as well as the father promising the gift of the little bird, and his ship being unable to sail home without fulfilling that promise.

However, since--as the old Tuscan saying goes--"The tale is not beautiful, if nothing is added to it," I confess to adding the element of the "old book" behind the cookbooks. I thought this legacy from the maiden's deceased mother seemed appropriate.

Something I hope is clear to my readers--the name of the Italian heroine was not Cenorientola, which was a taunting nickname hung upon her by her sisters. From working in the kitchen and cooking over a fire, the maiden was often covered with ashes, soot, and cinders.

I have also rewritten the two sisters so that they are simply thoughtless in their teasing rather than utterly spiteful and wicked.

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