The Maiden in the Box – The most amazing Albanian fable!

Once upon a time there was a poor old woman who had one son. When the boy grew up, she said to him, “We are poor folk, my son. Now that you are grown up, you will have to look for a job so that we can live. I cannot feed you any longer.” The son realized that his mother was right and said to her, “Mother, I am not fit for hard work. Let us write to my godfather, the merchant in Smyrna. Let him take me on. Then I can send you money so that you will be cared for.” So they wrote to his godfather who agreed right away to take the boy on. The mother made him some clothes and sent him by ship to Smyrna. When he arrived, his godfather received him kindly and gave him a job in his shop. And since the godfather had no wife, he gave the boy money so that he would go to market and cook the meals.

One day, when the boy was sitting in front of the shop, he saw a porter carrying a box, shouting: “Box for sale! Whoever buys it will regret it, and whoever does not will regret it too.” When the boy heard this, he was intrigued for a long time by the strange words and then asked the porter how much he wanted for the box. “Five hundred piastres, my lad,” he replied. The boy, who had managed to save just that amount of money from his wages, paid the porter and took the box. He placed the box in a corner of the shop, hidden from his godfather. The following day was a Sunday and the boy went to market. Afterwards, he went to church, intending to make dinner as soon as he got back. When he left the church and went home to the shop, he found that dinner had already been prepared, a meal as good as any cook could make. He thought to himself, “Well, well, my godfather made the meal himself because I wasn’t here.” When the godfather arrived, the meal was served and they sat down to eat. The godfather tasted the delicious food and said to Constantine, as the boy was called, “I bet you, my son, that not even the king is enjoying such a wonderful meal today. You are the best cook in the land.” The boy, who thought that his godfather had cooked the meal and was just making fun of him, blushed and said nothing.

The next day, he bought some fish, took it home and went off to work. He intended to cook the fish for lunch. When he finished work, he returned home and found that the fish had been cooked already, and in such a delicious manner that the whole neighbourhood was enticed by the smell. “Oh,” he thought, “my godfather has done my job once again.” The godfather arrived and they sat down to eat. The godfather found the meal so delicious that he did not know how to praise the boy enough. Now the boy realized that his godfather had not made the meal at all and he was completely confused.

The next day he took home all the food he had bought, but instead of going to work he hid in the cupboard. All of a sudden, he saw a maiden step out of the box he had bought. The whole house radiated with her beauty. She immediately put on an apron and began to cook. He crept out of his hiding place, knelt before her and asked her if she was a human being or an angel. She answered, “Fear not, I am a human being. I am the daughter of the King of Egypt. One day, while spending the summer in Smyrna, I saw you and immediately fell in love with you because you are so handsome. When I returned to my father in Egypt, he wanted to give me away in marriage. But since I loved only you and knew that my father would never give me to you, I said to him, ‘I shall not marry.’ He became furious and ordered his servants to put me in a box and sell me secretly far away from Egypt. I asked the man to take me to Smyrna and sell me to you. So let us wait and see what my father intends to do, for he has no other children.”

When the boy heard that she was the daughter of a king, he fell to his knees again. But she caused him to rise and kissed him. Then they got married in secret, without telling his godfather. The next day, Constantine went in search of a ship and spoke to its captain, saying, “I am going to bring you a box. Take good care of it, as you would of your own eyes, and take it to my mother.” He then brought the box with the maiden in it to the captain who transported it with a letter to Constantine’s mother. In the letter, Constantine wrote that the woman in the box was his wife. The old woman received her with great love and kindness.

One day, a Jew came to the old woman’s house and, seeing the beautiful maiden, was seized with a passion to win her. Whenever he saw her at the door, he would immediately go up to sell his wares, but the maiden always went back into the house right away. The Jew returned day after day to see her, but she hid from him. He sent people to talk to her, but she refused to see them. Then the Jew became frustrated and wrote a letter to Constantine saying, “Your wife lets young men into the house without your mother’s knowledge. She is a wicked woman.”

When Constantine read the letter, he was so angry that he left Smyrna immediately and returned home. From her window, the maiden saw him coming. She ran down the stairs to open the door and gave him a kiss. There was a large river next to the house. When Constantine saw his wife, he was so furious that he did not wait to ask whether what the Jew had written him was true or not. Instead, he seized her and threw her into the river. Then he entered the house and asked his mother about the maiden. The mother told him everything the Jew had done to win the maiden and that she had always rejected his advances.

Constantine was so grieved that he wanted to die. He ran down to the river and had people search everywhere to see whether his wife had drowned. As she was nowhere to be seen, he took flight, like a madman, to the mountains.

Some fishermen were just spreading their nets when the maiden fell into the river and they fished her out of the water, half drowned, and wrapped her in a cloak. A Turk came along to buy fish. The fishermen said that they had caught nothing but a woman. When the Turk saw her, his heart was ablaze and he bought her from the fishermen for fifty thousand piastres. When the young woman woke up, she found herself beside the Turk. She recalled what had happened to her and asked the Turk, “What are you going to do with me now? If you take me with you and another man stronger than you sees me, he will take me away from you. Do you know what we should do? Give me some of your clothes so that I can dress up like a man. Then no one will know I am a woman and you can keep me.” He agreed. She took the clothes, went behind a bush and got dressed. The Turk’s horse was grazing nearby and, when she had finished changing, she mounted it and rode off. When the Turk wondered why she had not come back, he went in search of her, but she was gone. The poor man then set off too, half naked and without his horse.

The maiden rode for hours on end, from mountain to mountain, all through the night, until she arrived, without knowing it, in Egypt where her father reigned. Since the gates of the capital city were already closed and it was raining, she sat down outside.

At that time in Egypt, the king had just died and, since he had left no heir, his ministers took counsel and sent emissaries off in search of his daughter, who according to the king was lost. They searched for days but could not find her, and because the country needed a new king, the ministers said, “Since we have no child of the king, we shall, after this dreadful night of wind and rain in which anyone outside would have perished, take as our king the first person we see outside the city gates tomorrow morning.”

The next morning the maiden, still dressed as a man, almost dead from the cold and unaware of what was to happen, saw the gates being opened and the guards marching out. She mounted her horse and rode to the side to let them by. When they saw the handsome young man, they knelt at his feet, brought him into the palace and made him king.

The maiden ruled wisely and no one knew that she was a woman. She reigned over the kingdom so well that everyone loved her. Indeed, she was so loved by the people that they put her picture up at every public fountain in the country so that everyone fetching water would see her. The girl secretly ordered her servants to watch out for anyone who sighed on seeing her picture. They were to arrest him, take him to the palace and keep him there as long as she wished.

One day the Jew who had written Constantine the letter came by and, seeing the picture, sighed. When the royal servants noticed this, they arrested him and took him to the palace. The next day, the fishermen came by and sighed too when they saw the picture. So they were also taken to the palace. Then the Turk came by and he too was arrested when he sighed. Some time later, the husband happened to pass by a fountain and, seeing the picture, cried out, “It looks just like her. Oh, how I wish I hadn’t lost her!” He broke into tears and was therefore taken to the palace, too.

When the maiden saw that all those who had wanted to have her had been gathered together, she ordered her ministers to assemble in order to announce to her prisoners the sentences she would pass. They all assembled and she sat down as king in the middle of the room. She then had all the prisoners brought in and gave orders that none of them should speak without her permission. The king then began by asking, “Jew, why did you sigh when you saw the picture at the fountain? Be careful not to lie or I’ll have your head chopped off immediately!” The Jew replied, “What can I tell you, oh king? I saw that it was the picture of a woman.” He then proceeded to tell the whole truth, including the letter he had written because the maiden had refused to marry him. When he was finished, the king said to him, “Good, you have told the truth, sit at the side over there.” When the husband heard the Jew telling how he had slandered his wife, he rushed forth to strike him, but the king cried out, “Stay where you are, or you’ll be sorry!” And he stayed put.

The king then asked the fishermen why they had sighed. They answered that they had fished the woman out of the river and sold her to a Turk. “And you,” said the king to the Turk, “why did you sigh?” “I am the one,” he said, “who bought her. But she ran away from me before I got a chance to see her properly and took my clothes and my horse.” The ministers were puzzled and looked at the king, but she gave a sign that they should remain silent.

Then she asked her husband, “And why did you sigh?” “Oh, what an unhappy man I am,” he answered with tears in his eyes, “I was her husband and now I have lost her.” “No,” she replied, “you haven’t lost her at all. Wait for a moment until I come back.”

She went out of the room, changed into the women’s clothes she had worn when she was living with her husband and came in again. When the men saw her, their eyes bulged in amazement. The ministers recognized her as the daughter of the king, and her husband and the others recognized her as the maiden. First her husband came up to her, fell to his knees and asked for forgiveness. She caused him to rise, kissed him and had him sit at her side. She gave money to the fishermen and to the Turk. She pardoned the Jew whom the minister wanted to hang, but ordered him to leave her kingdom within twenty four hours. The heralds then announced that the king’s daughter had been found and there was great feasting. Constantine was made king and they have been feasting right up to the present day.

[Source: Gustav Meyer, Albanesische Studien. 6: Beiträge zur Kenntnis verschiedener albanesischer Mundarten, Sitzungsberichte der philosophischen-historischen Classe der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1896), 136, Teil 12, reprinted in Folklor shqiptar 1, Proza popullore (Tirana 1963). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]
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