Biancabella and the Snake

This story is an early version of “The Girl Without Hands” from 16th-century Italy. My retelling is based on The Facetious Nights (published 1550-1553) by Gianfrancesco Straparola (c. 1485 – 1558).

Everybody, no matter what their circumstances, should think twice before acting. If a certain wicked stepmother had used her head when she plotted murder, she would not have been punished in the way I’m about to tell you.

Once upon a time, there lived a mighty marquis named Lamberico. He had a lot of money and a lot of important titles, but he had no children to inherit either. He and his wife did everything they could think of, but years passed and no baby appeared.

One day, the marchioness was taking a walk in the palace garden and suddenly felt very sleepy. She lay down at the foot of a tree and fell asleep. While she slept, a very small snake slid under her clothes and into her body, where it curled up and stayed.

Before long, the marchioness discovered that she was pregnant, which made her and her husband very happy. She gave birth to a girl, and around the baby’s neck, a snake was coiled three times. When the midwives saw the baby with the snake, they screamed and jumped away, but the snake ignored them, unwrapped itself from the baby without hurting it, and slithered out into the garden.

After the baby was washed and dressed, everyone could see that around her neck was a delicate gold collar with three rings. It shone against her skin like a lovely jewel. The marquis and marchioness named the girl Biancabella, and she was so beautiful that people wondered if she was a goddess instead of a little girl.

When Biancabella was ten years old, she was playing on the terrace, and she looked out over the palace and spied a garden she had never seen before, full of roses and other lovely flowers. Biancabella asked her nurse what garden it was, and the nurse told her that it was the personal garden of her mother, the marchioness.

“I’m going to go for a walk in it,” Biancabella announced, and she and the nurse went to play in the garden.

The nurse felt sleepy, so while Biancabella played, she fell asleep. Biancabella ran around in the grass, picking flowers, until she exhausted herself and sat down under a tree.

The moment she sat down, a little snake appeared right beside her! Biancabella was surprised and startled, and she took a deep breath to scream for her nurse. But the snake said, “Shh, Biancabella, don’t be afraid of me! I’m your twin sister, Samaritana. If you listen to what I say, I will make your life very happy. And if you disobey me, you will be unlucky and miserable. So now, go home and don’t be afraid, and tomorrow, have a bowl of pure milk and a bowl of rose water carried into the garden. Then come and see me, all by yourself.”

When her nurse woke up, Biancabella went back to the palace without saying anything about the snake.

The next morning, Biancabella’s mother said, “Biancabella, is something the matter? You look so sad today.” And Biancabella replied, “Nothing is wrong. I just wish I could have a bowl of milk and a bowl of rose water.”

“That’s no trouble at all,” said Biancabella’s mother. “Don’t you know that everything in this house belongs to you?” And she had the servants carry the milk and rose water into the garden for Biancabella.

That afternoon, Biancabella snuck away by herself to the garden, locking the gate behind her. She sat down near the two bowls. Almost as soon as she arrived, the snake appeared and commanded her to bathe in the milk. After she did so, the snake licked her all over with her tongue, fixing all of Biancabella’s little weaknesses and unhealthinesses so that she was even more beautiful and strong than before. Next, the snake had Biancabella bathe in the rose water, which filled her body with energy.

The snake told Biancabella that she must never let anyone know about her good fortune, because she wanted Biancabella to grow up to be the most beautiful and gracious woman in the world, which wouldn’t happen if other people knew the secret to good health and beauty. Then the snake crept back into its hiding place, and Biancabella went home.

But Biancabella’s parents noticed right away that she was even prettier and more graceful than before. They asked her what happened, but Biancabella had nothing to say. However, she couldn’t hide the change in herself. That evening, when the marchioness combed Biancabella’s hair, pearls and other precious stones fell from her curls, and when she washed her hands, beautifully scented roses and violets sprang up where the water fell. Biancabella knew that the secret was out and that Samaritana would be angry, but what could she do?

When Biancabella’s mother saw the jewels and roses, she ran at once to her husband and told him what had happened. The marquis was a skeptical man and at first did not believe her, but she insisted that it was true, so he went to see for himself, and he found that it was just as his wife had told him. He was so proud of his daughter that he swore a great oath that there was no man in the whole world who was good enough to marry her.

Years passed, and word of Biancabella’s beauty spread. Many kings and princes and nobles visited and tried to win her hand, but none of them were good enough in her father’s eyes even to meet her. But at last, one day, Ferrandino, the King of Naples himself, came to woo her, and he was so handsome and strong and graceful, as well as noble and powerful and wealthy, that Biancabella’s father agreed and declared that they would marry at once.

As soon as the wedding vows were spoken, Biancabella ran out into the garden to tell her sister Samaritana what had happened. But no matter how loudly she called, Samaritana did not appear. Biancabella was very sad and searched everywhere, but she couldn’t find even a trace of the little snake. And Biancabella knew it was her fault, because she had disobeyed Samaritana’s command.

After drying her tears, she went back to the wedding, and afterwards, she and Ferrandino went back to Naples, where they were welcomed with a celebration throughout the city.

It happened that Naples was the home of Ferrandino’s stepmother, who had two daughters of her own, both of them very ugly, with twisted features; even so, she had been determined that one of her daughters would marry the king. But now that he was married to Biancabella, this could not happen, and the stepmother was so angry that she could barely look in Biancabella’s direction. But she was careful to hide her feelings and pretended to love Biancabella like a daughter.

The king and his new queen were very happy together, and soon Biancabella became pregnant.

Meanwhile, the King of Tunis had been raising a mighty army to attack Naples, so Ferrandino had to gather his own army and leave to defend his realm. He left Biancabella in the care of his stepmother.

As soon as Ferrandino was gone, the stepmother decided to get rid of Biancabella. She gathered her most loyal servants and told them to kidnap Biancabella, kill her, and bring back proof that she was dead. Just as she ordered, they grabbed the queen and took her to the woods, tied her up, and prepared to end her life. But Biancabella was so beautiful and so frightened, and she begged so pitifully for the life of her unborn baby, that they couldn’t do it. So they cut off her hands and tore her eyes out of her head, and they carried these back to the stepmother as proof that they had done what she said.

The wicked mother was filled with joy when she saw these proofs, because she  believed Biancabella was dead, and she continued with her evil plan. She spread rumors through the kingdom that her own daughters had died of an illness and that Biancabella was sick in bed. And she dressed up one of her daughters in Biancabella’s clothes and had her sleep in Biancabella’s bed, pretending to be Biancabella, but made ugly and weak from the disease.

When Ferrandino returned and found the woman he thought was his wife at lying in bed, pale and shrivelled, he was incredibly upset. He didn’t even recognize her! Feeling sorry for her, he told the servants to help her bathe and comb her hair, but when they combed her hair, instead of pearls and gems, there fell out giant worms that had been eating the woman’s flesh. And when she washed her hands, the water was so foul and filthy that the smell made everyone nauseous. But the stepmother explained to Ferrandino that this is what happens when people are ill for a long time.

In the meantime, Biancabella crawled around in the woods without eyes or hands, crying and calling over and over again for her sister Samaritana, but she got no reply except her own echo. After a long time, a kind old man was walking through the forest, and when he heard her terrible cries, he found Biancabella and took her home and called the doctor to tend her wounds. The man’s three daughters, who were themselves very beautiful, spent time with Biancabella and helped her learn to walk around the house now that she couldn’t see.

But the man’s wife, who was not kind, was furious. “Why do we have to take care of this blind, deformed woman?” she complained. “This probably happened to her as punishment for something very bad that she did.” But the old man was angry with his wife and said, “You’ll treat her kindly, or I’ll leave and never come back.”

The old man’s daughters were good-hearted, and seeing that Biancabella had been sleeping in the woods and had leaves and sticks in her hair, one of them offered to comb Biancabella’s hair for her. Her mother told her not to do it, but the young woman obeyed her father instead. Of course, as soon as she began to comb Biancabella’s hair, pearls and rubies and diamonds began to fall from her tresses. As soon as this happened, the mother was amazed and decided that she liked Biancabella after all. When the old man came home from work, his wife and daughters ran out to hug him, thrilled with their good fortune. Then Biancabella asked for some water and for help washing. And when the roses and violets fell down from her clean arms and face, the family decided she must be a goddess of some kind.

After some time, Biancabella felt a yearning to return to the forest. The old man and his wife and daughters, who loved living with a woman who constantly provided them with precious jewels, told her how much they cared about her and begged her not to leave. But Biancabella was determined to go, though she promised she would return. When the old man saw that she had made up her mind, he took her to the place where he had found her. “Come back when evening has fallen,” she told him, “and we’ll go home together.”

As soon as the old man had left, Biancabella began to wander through the woods, calling loudly for Samaritana. But Samaritana, who had been nearby all this time and had never for a single moment abandoned Biancabella, refused to answer. And Biancabella despaired, seeing that there was no hope for her troubles to go away. She decided that she wanted to die and felt her way through the forest to a pool of water, intending to drown herself. But as she stood at the edge of the pool, ready to jump in, a voice like thunder sounded in her ears, saying, “Do not murder yourself, Biancabella! Save your life for a better ending!”

Biancabella was alarmed, but the voice seemed familiar. So she stepped back from the edge of the water and said, “Who are you, kind person?”

“I’m your twin sister, Samaritana,” said the voice, “the one you’ve been calling for.”

Biancabella started to cry. “Please help me, Samaritana,” she said. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t listen to your advice, but it was an accident, not because I’m a bad person.”

“I know you’re not a bad person,” said Samaritana, who had been watching over Biancabella the whole time. And she gathered magical herbs and spread them over Biancabella’s eyes. And she brought Biancabella two hands and joined them to her wrists, and at once Biancabella was healed. And then Samaritana peeled off her snakeskin and became a beautiful young woman, just like her sister.

When the old man returned at dusk, he was very surprised to find Biancabella with eyes and hands and another young woman beside her. Biancabella explained that she had been cured by her sister, and both of them went home to live with the old man and his wife and daughters.

After some time, the old man learned that he needed to move to Naples, so he and his wife and his daughters and Biancabella and Samaritana packed all of their things and went to the city, where they began to look for a new house. While they looked, they set up camp in a little park near the king’s palace. And when darkness came, Samaritana took a laurel twig and struck the earth with it three times, whispering magic words. Almost before she finished speaking, a well designed and beautifully furnished palace sprang up out of the ground, complete with hundreds of servants, and Samaritana and Biancabella and the others went inside.

In the morning, Ferrandino, the King of Naples, glanced out his window and saw the new palace, which had apparently been built overnight. He called his wife and stepmother to come and see it, but they didn’t share his excitement. The palace felt like a bad sign to them, something foretelling their own punishment.

Ferrandino went outside to look at the new palace, examining it from every angle and puzzling over its construction. While doing so, he happened to look up, and he saw through the window two ladies of astonishing beauty. At first, he was convinced that one of them was Biancabella, and he fell in love with her a little. But then he realized that it couldn’t be Biancabella – she was at home, in his own palace, sick in bed.

Still, Ferrandino wanted to be friendly to his new neighbors, and he sent a messenger to ask if he could visit them. Samaritana and Biancabella replied that they would be honored. So Ferrandino summoned his wife and his stepmother and all the other ladies of the court, and they all went to visit. Biancabella and Samaritana showed them around their impressively large and richly decorated palace, and they invited Ferrandino and his wife to eat dinner with them. Ferrandino graciously accepted the invitation, and he and his stepmother and his wife went with Biancabella and Samaritana to a feast with rare and abundant foods.

When the feast was over and the table was cleared, Samaritana rose and said to the king and queen, “Your Majesties, it’s still early. Let’s have someone choose a game for us to play together.” Everyone agreed that this was a good idea, but no one could think of a good game. Finally, Samaritana said, “Since no one can think of one, let’s listen to some music.” And she called a servant to sing and play the harp for them.

The singer played beautifully, and the words of the song were the story of Biancabella’s life, although she was careful never to mention Biancabella’s name. The story was so sad that everyone’s hearts were touched. Ferrandino started to cry.

When the song was over, Samaritana stood up again and asked the king how he thought the people who had done such a horrible thing should be punished. But before Ferrandino could answer, his stepmother spoke up. She had seen Ferrandino crying, and she thought that by calling for a harsh punishment for the evildoers in the story, she would make Ferrandino like her more. “We should throw them into the furnace!” she cried.

Furious, Samaritana turned and looked at her. “You’re the one who did this,” she hissed, “and that’s the fairest punishment anyone could suggest.” Then she pulled Biancabella up to stand beside her and said to the king, “Look, Your Majesty! This is your real wife, Queen Biancabella!” And to prove that she was telling the truth, Samaritana had the old man’s daughters comb Biancabella’s hair. When Ferrandino saw the golden collar on her neck, and when he saw the gems that fell from her head, he knew that she was his wife.

He cried and hugged her and took her home to his palace, and he had his stepmother and her two daughters thrown into the furnace. And soon Biancabella gave birth to their son, who became king when his father was gone.

Samaritana lived in her own palace and was very happy, too.

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