This Sicilian fairy tale is a Ruth Manning-Sanders retelling taken from A Book of Princes and Princesses, and begins ominously enough with a king gathering his children so that he may lay down the law one more time before he dies. He has three daughters and one son. The son, according to either birth order or political misogyny, is to inherit the crown. Definitely due to political misogyny, he is then to arrange the marriages of his sisters by the most absurd means available. According to his father’s instructions, he must pluck roses from a bush on the terrace and toss them into the street. Whosoever catches the flowers will win a royal bride. And so the king dies peacefully in the knowledge that his daughters’ lives will be safely screwed up.
The new king keeps his promise. The first rose is picked up by a passing duke, the second by a handsome lord on horseback – the elder princesses are pleased enough with their luck. There is still the youngest sister to go, however, and when the king throws her rose it is collected by a water-carrier called Rags and Tatters. If it’s not bad enough that she is to be married off against her will based on a floral lottery, the princess can’t even bring her husband to live with her in the palace; she is instead sent off to live in a straw hut as a water-carrier’s wife.
Her days are now a grind of unfamiliar work, cooking and cleaning as best she can, while Rags and Tatters is off transporting water around the city. When he returns home, she’s obliged to remove the rags he wears around his legs and wash his feet. It’s kind of a culture shock. The princess spends much of her time in tears.
This upsets Rags and Tatters, who is genuinely fond of her. Not fond enough to wash his own feet, though, or in fact do anything else to alleviate her distress. One night the princess dreams herself into a palace,where she is waited upon by respectful servants and a golden coach stands ready to pull her away. When she wakes up on her familiar lumpy straw mattress, she tells her husband about it. “What should a water-carrier’s wife be doing in a palace?” he laughs, entirely unsympathetic. The princess cries some more. It’s really the only gesture of protest she has in her arsenal.
The next night she goes to bed as usual. When she wakes she is back in the palace, lying among silk sheets. Maidservants draw a bath of fragrant water and produce a delicious breakfast. Afterwards, a velvet-clad lackey brings around her coach, and she is driven in style to call upon her brother. He is astonished to see her and inquires after the whereabouts of her husband; the princess is all, ‘don’t know, don’t care’, and offers dinner invitations to all her siblings. They return with her to the palace, where an impressive feast is set out. All goes well until one of her brothers-in-law happens to glance up and sees a hole in the ceiling, with Rags and Tatters peering down through it. All the guests exclaim their surprise. The palace collapses, the royal siblings disappear, and the princess wakes at home in her sackcloth apron.
She cries all day. Rags and Tatters handles the situation with the same level of grace as before, telling her to stop dreaming and wash his feet already. “Say that you love me a little,” he adds. “For I love you so much I would gladly die for you.” Providing a sympathetic ear is more difficult than dying, it would appear. When the princess dreams again of the palace and the feast, the scene ends the same way, with her husband’s sudden appearance. She is furious. It’s his fault.
This time when Rags and Tatters gets home, she accuses him of deliberately wrecking her life. He tells her he can hardly be held accountable for her dreams, and offers a hug, which is a marked improvement on his treatment to date and softens her dislike a little. His looks change with her affections; over the next month, as she comes to care for him, he grows positively handsome and she reflects that he might make a passable prince with the appropriate outfit. One night she actually kisses him, seemingly the first time she has done so. Later she returns to the palace of her dreams and this time she has a plan. Her dinner invitations come with a stricture; should her husband happen to appear through a hole in the roof, no one is allowed to comment on the fact. It would be discourteous.
He does appear, and they do ignore him, and this time the palace does not collapse. Instead, a handsome prince in robes and a coronet appears and the princess recognises him as her husband. He reintroduces himself as Alfonso, prince of Spain, condemned by an unusually creative witch to be a water-carrier until a princess could love him. Now that the curse is broken, they can go home to Spain and start their real life of fabulous wealth and privilege. For three days the whole family parties, which I suppose is a fitting way to celebrate a happy ending. When at last they set out the palace disappears for the last time, replaced by a beautiful garden and the most magnificent roses.
Disposable palaces – ideal for the cursed, homeless royal, discretion guaranteed! But here’s what I find interesting: both ‘Rags and Tatters’ and ‘Unfortunate’ are Sicilian tales that inflict misfortune on specifically Spanish royalty. Did Spanish princes and princesses have a habit of disappearing in mysterious circumstances, or is this a geopolitical rivalry preserved for the ages in local folk lore? On the other hand, they generally return for magnificent weddings and the restoration to a rightful throne, so Sicilian storytellers can’t have disliked them that much.