The King’s Daughter and the Skull

Once upon a time there was a king who had three daughters. One day he went out riding on his horse and rode past a palace surrounded by a moat. The horse got one of its legs stuck in the mire and could not extract it. A number of people happened by, but no one could help. As nighttime approached, the king swore, “I will give my eldest daughter to anyone who can get my horse’s leg out of the moat!” The moment he swore the oath, the horse was able to extract its leg, though there was no one to be seen around them. The king rode home and told his daughter that she was to be married. He was quite sure that someone from the palace behind the moat had freed his horse and therefore took his daughter there.

The maiden entered the palace and waited a moment in the hall. A horrible Moor came out, opening a large door. And what did the poor girl see through the door but a skull! She went in trembling feverishly and the Moor said to her, “This is your husband. You must spend the rest of your life with him.” The poor maiden was in the depths of despair and began to weep. What a sorrowful life with a skull!

The next morning, the father sent the old governess to the maiden to ask her how she was. When the maiden saw the governess, she threw her arms around her, weeping and begging to be taken home because she could not stand another minute. So the old woman took the daughter back to her father without saying a word. The king then sent his second eldest daughter, but she came back just as the first one had because she could not live with the horrible skull either. When the third daughter saw that her two sisters had returned home, she went to her father and said, “Father, send me to live with the skull. It doesn’t matter what happens to me.” “My dear daughter,” replied the king, “you are the pet of the family and you are willing to marry the skull? Do you want to throw your whole life away? But go if you want!” “Yes, father, I’ll go and try my luck,” said the pretty maiden. And so, the old king sent his daughter off and was very sad to see her go. She too entered the hall where the Moor was waiting. Once again the skull came into the room, but the maiden was not afraid. She took the skull in her hands and stroked it, saying, “What a lucky girl I am to have such a wonderful husband!” Then she laid the skull in the corner of the room.

The next morning, the king despatched the governess who asked the maiden, “My girl, how did you spend the night? What was your husband like?” “It couldn’t have been better, nanny, I have a husband without equals!” The governess returned home and reported what she had heard. The king was delighted, and the sisters were very curious. “Is it possible,” they wondered, “to be happy with a skull?” Some time later, they sent the old governess back with a diamond brooch and had her ask their sister to buy it. The old woman went off to the happy maiden and asked her, “My girl, wouldn’t you like to have this beautiful brooch?” “Oh yes I would, nanny,” the clever maiden replied, “but I’ll have to ask my husband, because he must like it too.” Having said this, she accompanied the governess to the door, went up to her room and began to weep because she didn’t know where to get the money to buy the brooch. The Moor came in as she was weeping and asked what the matter was. She told him her problem and the Moor went off to the skull which ordered, “Tell the mistress to get the key near the chimney, go into the other room and take as much money as she wants.” The Moor reported what the skull had said and the maiden went off happily to the room and filled her pockets with money.

The next day, the governess returned and asked the maiden on behalf of her sisters, “Did you speak to your husband? Did he like the brooch?” “You know, nanny dear,” the maiden replied, “he doesn’t want to spoil my happiness. Look at all the money he’s given me.” The old woman’s eyes opened wide. She was astounded, and all the more so because she knew the girl was married to a skull. Bewildered, she returned home. When the sisters heard what had happened they were green with envy. The next day they invited their sister to go to the baths with them. The old woman brought the sisters’ invitation and the maiden replied that she would first have to ask her husband. She returned to her room again and began to weep because she didn’t know what to do. Again the Moor came in and asked her why she was weeping. She told him what had happened and he went off to the skull which declared, “Tell the mistress to take these crumbs and scatter them outside.” The maiden did as the skull had told her and what did she see? The whole road was full of coaches and one of them was made of gold. Standing in front of them were servants waiting with everything she needed to go to the baths. The sisters were stupefied when they saw her and began to regret their decision. “We were stupid not to have stayed at the palace,” the wicked sisters thought.

The third day, they sent the governess off again to say that they wanted to come over for a meal. When the governess had returned home, the maiden went back to her room and began to weep. The Moor appeared once again, found out why she was weeping and hurried off to the skull. The skull ordered the maiden to scatter the crumbs in the kitchen, which she did. To her surprise a pantry appeared full of all sorts of food, with servants standing at attention. Just before the sisters were to arrive, she arranged for the servants to say to her from time to time in her sisters’ presence: “Could you come out for a moment? The master wishes to speak to you.” The sisters arrived and were quite taken by the delicious meal. The servants did as they were told and asked the maiden to come out of the room, which she did. She spoke to herself so that the sisters would hear her and think she was talking to her husband. But still they were not satisfied. Now they wanted to meet the husband.

This time the maiden didn’t know what to do. While she was weeping, a black cat appeared and enticed the maiden into following it into a beautiful garden There she saw a girl and a boy under a rose bush. Beside them was a baby lying directly in the sun. The maiden felt sorry for the baby and covered its head with a towel. Then she noticed that the girl’s long blonde hair was entangled in the thorns of the rose bush, so she began extricating the strands one by one, careful not to hurt the girl or disturb her sleep. When the girl awoke, she was surprised and woke the boy up to ask him what had happened, but he had no idea either. Then the girl with the long blonde hair said, “Let the person who has been so kind to me come forth and I will make all his wishes come true.”

The maiden with the skull came out from behind the rose bush where she was hiding and said to the blonde girl, “I beg you, sister, save me from the predicament I’m in or I am doomed. My father married me to the skull of a dead man, and now my sisters want to meet my husband face to face because they are green with envy. Do you know how they can meet him the way he was before he died? If you can help me, I’ll never forget you.” Thus spoke the maiden and touched the girl’s heart. “Here is the man you are looking for,” she replied. “This is your husband!”

And at that moment, the skull was transformed into a human being. The blonde girl, radiant and fair, was actually the Earthly Beauty. She had earlier changed the man into a skull to keep him for herself and not to let him into the world of the living.

The maiden was overjoyed and returned to the palace where her sisters were waiting. They were overwhelmed when they saw the husband alive. The couple reigned a long, long time and are still living happily ever after.

[Source: Stavro Frashëri, Folklor shqipëtar (Durrës 1936), reprinted in Folklor shqiptar 1, Proza popullore (Tirana 1963). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]

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