Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  At that moment, the parrot was interrupted by a servant bearing a letter for the merchant’s daughter. It was from the king, who had finally managed to get it to her. But the girl was eager to hear what happened next in the tale, which had reached the most exciting part, so she said, “I will receive no letters until my father returns. Parrot, go on with your story.”

  The servant took the letter away, and the parrot continued. “In the morning the jailers noticed the prisoner had not eaten a thing and they told the queen. The queen sent for her, and the maiden told her that her son was alive and in the dungeon a prisoner of four sorcerers, who took him out every night at midnight for exercise. The queen dispatched twelve soldiers armed with crowbars, who killed the sorcerers and freed her son. Then she gave him as a husband to the maiden who had saved him.”

  The servant knocked again, insisting that the young lady read the king’s letter. “Very well. Now that the story is over, I can read the letter,” said the merchant’s daughter.

  “But it’s not finished yet, there’s still some more to come,” the parrot hastened to say. “Just listen to this: the maiden was not interested in marrying the queen’s son. She settled for a purse of money and a man’s outfit and moved on to another city. The son of this city’s king was ill, and no doctor knew how to cure him. From midnight to dawn he raved like one possessed. The maiden showed up in man’s attire, claiming to be a foreign doctor and asking to be left with the youth for one night. The first thing she did was look under the bed and find a trapdoor. She opened it and went down into a long corridor, at the end of which a lamp was burning.”

  At that moment the servant knocked and announced there was an old woman to see the young lady, whose aunt she claimed to be. (It was not an aunt, but the old woman sent by the king.) But the merchant’s daughter was dying to know the outcome of the tale, so she said she was receiving no one. “Go on, parrot, go on with your story.”

  Thus the parrot continued. “The maiden walked down to that light and found an old woman boiling the heart of the king’s son in a kettle, in revenge for the king’s execution of her son. The maiden removed the heart from the kettle, carried it back to the king’s son to eat, and he got well. The king said, ‘I promised half of my kingdom to the doctor who cured my son. Since you are a woman, you will marry my son and become queen.’”

  “It’s a fine story,” said the merchant’s daughter. “Now that it’s over, I can receive that woman who claims to be my aunt.”

  “But it’s not quite over,” said the parrot. “There’s still some more to come. Just listen to this. The maiden in doctor’s disguise also refused to marry that king’s son and was off to another city whose king’s son was under a spell and speechless. She hid under his bed; at midnight, she saw two witches coming through the window and remove a pebble from the young man’s mouth, whereupon he could speak. Before leaving, they replaced the pebble, and he was again mute.”

  Someone knocked on the door, but the merchant’s daughter was so absorbed in the story that she didn’t even hear the knock. The parrot continued.

  “The next night when the witches put the pebble on the bed, she gave the bedclothes a jerk and it dropped on the floor. Then she reached out for it and put it in her pocket. At dawn the witches couldn’t find it and had to flee. The king’s son was well, and they named the maiden physician to the court.”

  The knocking continued, and the merchant’s daughter was all ready to say “Come in,” but first she asked the parrot, “Does the story go on, or is it over?”

  “It goes on,” replied the parrot. “Just listen to this. The maiden wasn’t interested in remaining as physician to the court, and moved on to another city. The talk there was that the king of this city had gone mad. He’d found a doll in the woods and fallen in love with it. He stayed shut up in his room admiring it and weeping because it was not a real live maiden. The girl went before the king. ‘That is my doll!’ she exclaimed. ‘And this is my bride!’ replied the king on seeing that she was the doll’s living image.”

  There was another knock, and the parrot was at a total loss to continue the story. “Just a minute, just a minute, there’s still a tiny bit more,” he said, but he had no idea what to say next.

  “Come on, open up, it’s your father,” said the merchant’s voice.

  “Ah, here we are at the end of the story,” announced the parrot. “The king married the maiden, and they lived happily ever after.”

  The girl finally ran to open the door and embrace her father just back from his trip.

  “Well done, my daughter!” said the merchant. “I see you’ve remained faithfully at home. And how is the parrot doing?”

  They went to take a look at the bird, but in his place they found a handsome youth. “Forgive me, sir,” said the youth. “I am a king who put on a parrot’s disguise, because I am in love with your daughter. Aware of the intentions of a rival king to abduct her, I came here beneath a parrot’s plumage to entertain her in an honorable manner and at the same time to prevent my rival from carrying out his schemes. I believe I have succeeded in both purposes, and that I can now ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

  The merchant gave his consent. His daughter married the king who had told her the tale, and the other king died of rage.

  (Monferrato)

  16

  The Twelve Oxen

  There were twelve brothers who fell out with their father, and all twelve of them left home. They built themselves a house in the woods and made their living as carpenters. Meanwhile their parents had a baby girl, who was a great comfort to them. The child grew up without ever meeting her twelve brothers. She had only heard them mentioned, and she longed to see them.

  One day she went to bathe at a fountain, and the first thing she did was remove her coral necklace and hang it on a twig. A raven came by, grabbed the necklace, and flew off with it. The girl ran into the woods after the raven and found her brothers’ house. No one was at home, so she cooked the noodles, spooned them onto the brothers’ plates, and hid under a bed. The brothers returned and, finding the noodles ready and waiting, sat down and ate. But then they grew uneasy, suspecting the witches had played a joke on them, for the woods were full of witches.

  One of the twelve kept watch the next day and saw the girl jump out from under the bed. When the brothers learned she was not a witch but their own little sister, they made a great to-do over her and insisted that she remain with them. But they cautioned her to speak to no one in the woods, because the place was full of witches.

  One evening when the girl went to prepare supper, she found that the fire had gone out. To save time, she went to a nearby cottage to get a light. An old woman at the cottage graciously gave her the light, but said that, in exchange, she would come to the girl on the morrow and suck a bit of blood from her little finger.

  “I can’t let anyone in the house,” said the girl. “My brothers forbid it.”

  “You don’t even have to open the door,” replied the old woman. “When I knock, all you have to do is stick your little finger through the keyhole, and I’ll suck it.”

  So the old woman came by every evening to suck the blood from her, while the girl grew paler and paler. Her brothers noticed it and asked her so many questions that she admitted going to an old witch for a light and having to pay for it with her blood. “Just let us take care of her,” said the brothers.

  The witch arrived, knocked, and when the girl failed to stick her finger through the keyhole, she poked her head through the cat door. One of the brothers had his hatchet all ready and chopped off her head. Then they pitched the remains into a ravine.

  One day on the way to the fountain, the girl met another old woman, who was selling white bowls.

  “I have no money,” said the girl.

  “In that case I’ll make you a present of them,” said the old woman.

  So when the brothers came home thirsty, they found twelve bowls filled with water. They pitched in and
drank, and instantly changed into a herd of oxen. Only the twelfth, whose thirst was slight, barely touched the water and turned into a lamb. The sister therefore found herself alone with eleven oxen and one lamb to feed every day.

  A prince out hunting went astray in the woods and, turning up at the girl’s house, fell in love with her. He asked her to marry him, but she replied that she had to think of her oxen brothers and couldn’t possibly leave them. The prince took her to his palace along with all the brothers. The girl became his princess bride, and the eleven oxen and the lamb were put into a marble barn with gold mangers.

  But the witches in the woods did not give up. One day the princess was strolling under the grape arbor with her lambkin brother that she always carried with her, when an old woman walked up to her.

  “Will you give me a bunch of grapes, my good princess?”

  “Yes, dear old soul, help yourself.”

  “I can’treach up that high, please pick them for me.”

  “Right away,” said the princess, reaching up for a bunch.

  “Pick that bunch there, they’re the ripest,” said the old woman, pointing to a bunch above the cistern.

  To reach it, the princess had to stand on the rim of the cistern. The old woman gave her a push, and the princess fell in. The lamb started bleating, and bleated all around the cistern, but nobody understood what it was bleating about, nor did they hear the princess moaning down in the well. Meanwhile the witch had taken the princess’s shape and got into her bed. When the prince came home, he asked, “What are you doing in bed?”

  “I’m sick,” said the false princess. “I need to eat a morsel of lamb. Slaughter me that one out there that won’t stop bleating.”

  “Didn’t you tell me some time ago,” asked the prince, “that the lamb was your brother? And you want to eat him now?”

  The witch had blundered and was at a loss for words. The prince, sensing that something was amiss, went into the garden and followed the lamb that was bleating so pitifully. It approached the cistern, and the prince heard his wife calling.

  “What are you doing at the bottom of the cistern?” he exclaimed. “Didn’t I just leave you in bed?”

  “No, I’ve been down here ever since this morning! A witch threw me in!”

  The prince ordered his wife pulled up at once. The witch was caught and burned at the stake. While the fire burned, the oxen and also the lamb slowly turned back into fine, strapping young men, and you’d have thought the castle had been invaded by a band of giants. They were all made princes, while I’ve stayed as poor a soul as ever.

  (Monferrato)

  17

  Crack and Crook

  In a distant town there was a famous thief known as Crack, whom nobody had ever been able to catch. The main ambition of this Crack was to meet Crook, another notorious thief, and form a partnership with him. One day as Crack was eating lunch at the tavern across the table from a stranger, he went to look at his watch and found it missing. The only person in the world who could have taken it without my knowing, he thought, is Crook. So what did Crack do but turn right around and steal Crook’s purse. When the stranger got ready to pay for his lunch, he found his purse gone and said to his table companion, “Well, well, you must be Crack.”

  “And you must be Crook.”

  “Right.”

  “Fine, we’ll work together.”

  They went to the city and made for the king’s treasury, which was completely surrounded by guards. The thieves therefore dug an underground tunnel into the treasury and stole everything. Surveying his loss, the king had no idea how he might catch the robbers. He went to a man named Snare, who had been put in prison for stealing, and said, “If you can tell me who committed this robbery, I’ll set you free and make you a marquis.”

  Snare replied, “It can be none other than Crack or Crook, or both of them together, since they are the most notorious thieves alive. But I’ll tell you how you can catch them. Have the price of meat raised to one hundred dollars a pound. The person who pays that much for it will be your thief.”

  The king had the price of meat raised to one hundred dollars a pound, and everybody stopped buying meat. Finally it was reported that a friar had gone to a certain butcher and bought meat. Snare said, “That had to be Crack or Crook in disguise. I’ll now disguise myself and go around to the houses begging. If anybody gives me meat, I’ll make a red mark on the front door, and your guards can go and arrest the thieves.”

  But when he made a red mark on Crack’s house, the thief saw it and went and marked all the other doors in the city with red, so there was no telling in the end where Crack and Crook lived.

  Snare said to the king, “Didn’t I tell you they were foxy? But there’s someone else foxier than they are. Here’s the next thing to do: put a tub of boiling pitch at the bottom of the treasury steps. Whoever goes down to steal will fall right into it, and his dead body will give him away.”

  Crack and Crook had run out of money in the meantime and decided to go back to the treasury for more. Crook went in first, but it was dark, and he fell into the tub. Crack came along and tried to pull his friend’s body out of the pitch, but it stuck fast in the tub. He then cut off the head and carried it away.

  The next day the king went to see if he had caught the thief. “This time we got him! We got him!” But the corpse had no head, so they were none the wiser about the thief or any accomplices he might have had.

  Snare said, “There’s one more thing we can do: have the dead man dragged through the city by two horses. The house where you hear somebody weeping has to be the thief’s house.”

  In effect, when Crook’s wife looked out the window and saw her husband’s body being dragged through the street, she began screaming and crying. But Crack was there and knew right away that would be their undoing. He therefore started smashing dishes right and left and thrashing the poor woman at the same time. Attracted by all that screaming, the guards came in and found a man beating his wife for breaking up all the dishes in the house.

  The king then had a decree posted on every street corner that he would pardon the thief who had robbed him, if the thief now managed to steal the sheets out from under him at night. Crack came forward and said he could do it.

  That night the king undressed and went to bed with his gun to wait for the thief. Crack got a dead body from a gravedigger, dressed it in his own clothes, and carried it to the roof of the royal palace. At midnight the cadaver, held by a rope, was dangling before the king’s windows. Thinking it was Crack, the king fired one shot and watched him fall, cord and all. He ran downstairs to see if he was dead. While the king was gone, Crack slipped into his room and stole the sheets. He was therefore pardoned, and so that he wouldn’t have to steal any longer, the king married his daughter to him.

  (Monferrato)

  18

  The Canary Prince

  There was a king who had a daughter. Her mother was dead, and the stepmother was jealous of the girl and always spoke badly of her to the king. The maiden defended herself as best she could, but the stepmother was so contrary and insistent that the king, though he loved his daughter, finally gave in. He told the queen to send the girl away, but to some place where she would be comfortable, for he would never allow her to be mistreated. “Have no fear of that,” said the stepmother, who then had the girl shut up in a castle in the heart of the forest. To keep her company, the queen selected a group of ladies-in-waiting, ordering them never to let the girl go out of the house or even to look out the windows. Naturally they received a salary worthy of a royal household. The girl was given a beautiful room and all she wanted to eat and drink. The only thing she couldn’t do was go outdoors. But the ladies, enjoying so much leisure time and money, thought only of themselves and paid no attention to her.

  Every now and then the king would ask his wife, “And how is our daughter? What is she doing with herself these days?” To prove that she did take an interest in the girl, the queen called on
her. The minute she stepped from her carriage, the ladies-in-waiting all rushed out and told her not to worry, the girl was well and happy. The queen went up to the girl’s room for a moment. “So you’re comfortable, are you? You need nothing, do you? You’re looking well, I see; the country air is doing you good. Stay happy, now. Bye-bye, dear!” And off she went. She informed the king she had never seen his daughter so content.

  On the contrary, always alone in that room, with ladies-in-waiting who didn’t so much as look at her, the princess spent her days wistfully at the window. She sat there leaning on the windowsill, and had she not thought to put a pillow under them, she would have got calluses on her elbows. The window looked out on the forest, and all day long the princess saw nothing but treetops, clouds and, down below, the hunters’ trail. Over that trail one day came the son of a king in pursuit of a wild boar. Nearing the castle known to have been unoccupied for no telling how many years, he was amazed to see washing spread out on the battlements, smoke rising from the chimneys, and open casements. As he looked about him, he noticed a beautiful maiden at one of the upper windows and smiled at her. The maiden saw the prince too, dressed in yellow, with hunter’s leggings and gun, and smiling at her, so she smiled back at him. For a whole hour, they smiled, bowed, and curtsied, being too far apart to communicate in any other way.

 
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