Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  The next day, under the pretext of going hunting, the king’s son returned, dressed in yellow, and they stared at each other this time for two hours; in addition to smiles, bows, and curtsies, they put a hand over their hearts and waved handkerchiefs at great length. The third day the prince stopped for three hours, and they blew each other kisses. The fourth day he was there as usual, when from behind a tree a witch peeped and began to guffaw: “Ho, ho, ho, ho!”

  “Who are you? What’s so funny?” snapped the prince.

  “What’s so funny? Two lovers silly enough to stay so far apart!”

  “Would you know how to get any closer to her, ninny?” asked the prince.

  “I like you both,” said the witch, “and I’ll help you.”

  She knocked at the door and handed the ladies-in-waiting a big old book with yellow, smudgy pages, saying it was a gift to the princess so the young lady could pass the time reading. The ladies took it to the girl, who opened it at once and read: “This is a magic book. Turn the pages forward, and the man becomes a bird; turn them back, and the bird becomes a man once more.”

  The girl ran to the window, placed the book on the sill, and turned the pages in great haste while watching the youth in yellow standing in the path. Moving his arms, he was soon flapping wings and changed into a canary, dressed in yellow as he was. Up he soared above the treetops and headed straight for the window, coming to rest on the cushioned sill. The princess couldn’t resist picking up the beautiful canary and kissing him; then remembering he was a young man, she blushed. But on second thought she wasn’t ashamed at all and made haste to turn him back into a youth. She picked up the book and thumbed backward through it; the canary ruffled his yellow feathers, flapped his wings, then moved arms and was once more the youth dressed in yellow with the hunter’s leggings, who knelt before her, declaring, “I love you!”

  By the time they finished confessing all their love for one another, it was evening. Slowly, the princess leafed through the book. Looking into her eyes the youth turned back into a canary, perched on the windowsill, then on the eaves, then trusting to the wind, flew down in wide arcs, lighting on the lower limb of a tree. At that, she turned the pages back in the book and the canary was a prince once more who jumped down, whistled for his dogs, threw a kiss toward the window, and continued along the trail out of sight.

  So every day the pages were turned forward to bring the prince flying up to the window at the top of the tower, then turned backward to restore his human form, then forward again to enable him to fly away, and finally backward for him to get home. Never in their whole life had the two young people known such happiness.

  One day the queen called on her stepdaughter. She walked about the room, saying, “You’re all right, aren’t you? I see you’re a trifle slimmer, but that’s certainly no cause for concern, is it? It’s true, isn’t it, you’ve never felt better?” As she talked, she checked to see that everything was in place. She opened the window and peered out. Here came the prince in yellow along the trail with his dogs. “If this silly girl thinks she is going to flirt at the window,” said the stepmother to herself, “she has another thought coming to her.” She sent the girl for a glass of water and some sugar, then hurriedly removed five or six hairpins from her own hair and concealed them in the pillow with the sharp points sticking straight up. “That will teach her to lean on the windowsill!” The girl returned with die water and sugar, but the queen said, “Oh, I’m no longer thirsty; you drink it, my dear! I must be getting back to your father. You don’t need anything, do you? Well, goodbye.” And she was off.

  As soon as the queen’s carriage was out of sight, the girl hurriedly flipped over the pages of the book, the prince turned into a canary, flew to the window, and struck the pillow like an arrow. He instantly let out a shrill cry of pain. The yellow feathers were stained with blood; the canary had driven the pins into his breast. He rose with a convulsive flapping, trusted himself to the wind, descended in irregular arcs, and lit on the ground with outstretched wings. The frightened princess, not yet fully aware of what had happened, quickly turned the pages back in the hope there would be no wounds when he regained his human form. Alas, the prince reappeared dripping blood from the deep stabs that had rent the yellow garment on his chest, and lay back surrounded by his dogs.

  At the howling of the dogs, the other hunters came to his aid and carried him off on a stretcher of branches, but he didn’t so much as glance up at the window of his beloved, who was still overwhelmed with grief and fright.

  Back at his palace, the prince showed no promise of recovery, nor did the doctors know what to do for him. The wounds refused to heal over, and constantly hurt. His father the king posted proclamations on every street corner promising a fortune to anyone who could cure him, but not a soul turned up to try.

  The princess meanwhile was consumed with longing for her lover. She cut her sheets into thin strips which she tied one to the other in a long, long rope. Then one night she let herself down from the high tower and set out on the hunters’ trail. But because of the thick darkness and the howls of the wolves, she decided to wait for daylight. Finding an old oak with a hollow trunk, she nestled inside and, in her exhaustion, fell asleep at once. She woke up while it was still pitch-dark, under the impression she had heard a whistle. Listening closely, she heard another whistle, then a third and a fourth, after which she saw four candle flames advancing. They were four witches coming from the four corners of the earth to their appointed meeting under that tree. Through a crack in the trunk the princess, unseen by them, spied on the four crones carrying candles and sneering a welcome to one another: “Ah, ah, ah!”

  They lit a bonfire under the tree and sat down to warm themselves and roast a couple of bats for dinner. When they had eaten their fill, they began asking one another what they had seen of interest out in the world.

  “I saw the sultan of Turkey, who bought himself twenty new wives.”

  “I saw the emperor of China, who has let his pigtail grow three yards long.”

  “I saw the king of the cannibals, who ate his chamberlain by mistake.”

  “I saw the king of this region, who has the sick son nobody can cure, since I alone know the remedy.”

  “And what is it?” asked the other witches.

  “In the floor of his room is a loose tile. All one need do is lift the tile, and there underneath is a phial containing an ointment that would heal every one of his wounds.”

  It was all the princess inside the tree could do not to scream for joy. By this time the witches had told one another all they had to say, so each went her own way. The princess jumped from the tree and set out in the dawn for the city. At the first secondhand dealer’s she came to, she bought an old doctor’s gown and a pair of spectacles, and knocked at the royal palace. Seeing the little doctor with such scant paraphernalia, the servants weren’t going to let him in, but the king said, “What harm could he do my son who can’t be any worse off than he is now? Let him see what he can do.” The sham doctor asked to be left alone with the sick man, and the request was granted.

  Finding her lover groaning and unconscious in his sickbed, the princess felt like weeping and smothering him with kisses. But she restrained herself because of the urgency of carrying out the witch’s directions. She paced up and down the room until she stepped on a loose tile, which she raised and discovered a phial of ointment. With it she rubbed the prince’s wounds, and no sooner had she touched each one with ointment than the wound disappeared completely. Overjoyed she called the king, who came in and saw his son sleeping peacefully, with the color back in his cheeks, and no trace of any of the wounds.

  “Ask for whatever you like, doctor,” said the king. “All the wealth in the kingdom is yours.”

  “I wish no money,” replied the doctor. “Just give me the prince’s shield bearing the family coat-of-arms, his standard, and his yellow vest that was rent and bloodied.” Upon receiving the three items, she took her leave.
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  Three days later, the king’s son was again out hunting. He passed the castle in the heart of the forest, but didn’t deign to look up at the princess’s window. She immediately picked up the book, leafed through it, and the prince had no choice but change into a canary. He flew into the room, and the princess turned him back into a man. “Let me go,” he said. “Isn’t it enough to have pierced me with those pins of yours and caused me so much agony?” The prince, in truth, no longer loved the girl, blaming her for his misfortune.

  On the verge of fainting, she exclaimed, “But I saved your life! I am the one who cured you!”

  “That’s not so,” said the prince. “My life was saved by a foreign doctor who asked for no recompense except my coat-of-arms, my standard, and my bloodied vest!”

  “Here are your coat-of-arms, your standard, and your vest! The doctor was none other than myself! The pins were the cruel doing of my stepmother!”

  The prince gazed into her eyes, dumbfounded. Never had she looked so beautiful. He fell at her feet asking her forgiveness and declaring his deep gratitude and love.

  That very evening he informed his father he was going to marry the maiden in the castle in the forest.

  “You may marry only the daughter of a king or an emperor,” replied his father.

  “I shall marry the woman who saved my life.”

  So they made preparations for the wedding, inviting all the kings and queens in the vicinity. Also present was the princess’s royal father, who had been informed of nothing. When the bride came out, he looked at her and exclaimed, “My daughter!”

  “What!” said the royal host. “My son’s bride is your daughter? Why did she not tell us?”

  “Because,” explained the bride, “I no longer consider myself the daughter of a man who let my stepmother imprison me.” And she pointed at the queen.

  Learning of all his daughter’s misfortune, the father was filled with pity for the gill and with loathing for his wicked wife. Nor did he wait until he was back home to have the woman seized. Thus the marriage was celebrated to the satisfaction and joy of all, with the exception of that wretch.

  (Turin)

  19

  King Crin

  Once there was a king who, for a son, had a pig named King Crin. King Crin would saunter through the royal chambers and usually behave beautifully, as befits anybody of royal birth. Sometimes, though, he was cross. On one such occasion, his father asked, while stroking his back, “What is the matter? Why are you so cross?”

  “Oink, oink,” grunted King Crin. “I want a wife. Oink, oink, I want the baker’s daughter!”

  The king sent for the baker, who had three daughters, and asked if his oldest daughter was willing to marry his pig-son. Torn between the thrill of wedding the king’s son and the horror of marrying a pig, the daughter made up her mind to accept the proposal.

  Tickled pink, King Crin went wallowing in the town thoroughfares on his wedding night and got all muddy. He returned to the bridal chamber, where his bride was waiting for him. Intending to caress her, he rubbed against her skirt. The bride was disgusted and, instead of caressing him, gave him a kick. “Get away from here, you nasty pig!”

  King Crin moved away, grunting. “Oink! You’ll pay for that!”

  That night the bride was discovered dead in her bed.

  The old king was quite distressed, but a few months later when his son was again as cross as could be and clamoring for a wife, he sent for the baker’s second daughter, who accepted.

  The evening of the wedding King Crin went back out and wallowed in the muddy roads, only to return and rub against his bride, who drove him out of the room. “Scram, you nasty pig!” In the morning she was found dead. This incident gave the court a bad name, being the second of its kind.

  More time went by, and King Crin began acting up again. “Would you have the nerve,” said his father, “to ask for the baker’s third daughter?”

  “Oink, oink, I certainly would. Oink, oink, I must have her!”

  So they sent for the third girl to see if she would marry King Crin. She was obviously quite happy to do so. On his wedding night, as usual, King Crin went out to wallow, then ran back inside all muddy to caress his wife. She responded with caresses of her own and dried him off with fine linen handkerchiefs, murmuring, “My handsome Crin, my darling Crin, I love you so.” King Crin was overjoyed.

  Next morning at the court everybody expected to hear that the third bride had been found dead, but out she came in higher spirits than ever. That was a grand occasion for celebration in the royal house, and the king gave a reception.

  The next night the bride became curious to see King Crin as he slept, because she had her suspicions. She lit a taper and beheld a youth handsome beyond all stretches of the imagination. But as she stood there rapt with admiration, she accidentally dropped the taper on his arm. He woke up and jumped out of bed, furious. “You broke the spell and will never see me again, or only when you have wept seven bottles of tears and worn out seven pairs of iron shoes, seven iron mantles, and seven iron hats looking for me.” At that, he vanished.

  So deep was her distress that the bride had no choice but to go in search of her husband. She had a blacksmith forge seven pairs of iron shoes, seven iron mantles, and seven iron hats for her, then departed.

  She walked all day long until night overtook her on a mountain, where she saw a cottage and knocked on the door. “My poor girl,” said an old woman, “I can’t give you shelter, since my son is the Wind who comes home and turns everything upside down, and woe to anyone in his way!”

  But she begged and pleaded until the old woman brought her in and hid her. The Wind soon arrived and sniffed all around, saying:

  “Human, human, I smell a human.”

  But his mother quieted him down with food. In the morning she rose at daybreak and softly awakened the young lady, advising, “Flee before my son gets up and take along this chestnut as a souvenir of me, but crack it open only in a serious emergency.”

  She walked all day long and was overtaken by night on top of another mountain. She spied a cottage, and an old lady on the doorstep said, “I would gladly lodge you, but I’m Lightning’s mother, and poor you if my son came home and caught you here!” But then she took pity on her and hid her. Lightning arrived soon afterward:

  “Human, human, I smell a human.”

  But he didn’t find her and, after supper, went to bed.

  “Flee before my son wakes up,” said Lightning’s mother in the morning, “and take along this walnut, which might come in very handy.”

  She walked all day long and was overtaken by night on top of another mountain. There stood the house of Thunder’s mother, who ended up hiding her. Thunder too came in saying:

  “Human, human, I smell a human.”

  But neither did he find her, and in the morning she went off with a hazelnut as a present from Thunder’s mother.

  After walking for miles and miles she reached a city whose princess, she learned, would soon marry a handsome young man staying at her castle. The young lady was sure that was her own husband. What could she do to prevent the marriage? How could she get into the castle.

  She cracked open the chestnut and out poured diamonds and other jewels, which she went off to sell under the princess’s windows. The princess looked out and invited her inside. The young lady said, “I’ll let you have all these gems for nothing, if you allow me to spend one night in the bedchamber of the young man staying at your palace.”

  The princess was afraid the young lady would talk to him and maybe persuade him to flee with her, but her maid said, “Leave everything to me. We’ll give him a sleeping potion and he won’t wake up.” They did just that, and as soon as the handsome youth went to sleep, the maid took the young lady into his bedchamber and left her. With her own eyes, the young lady saw that his was none other than her husband.

  “Wake up, my love, wake up! I’ve walked all over for you, wearing out seven pairs of i
ron shoes, seven iron mantles, and seven iron hats: and I’ve wept seven bottles of tears. Now that I’ve finally found you, you sleep and don’t hear me!”

  And that went on till morning, when, at her wit’s end, she cracked the walnut Out rolled exquisite gowns and silks, each lovelier than the other. At the sight of all these wonderful things, the maid called the princess, who simply had to have them all and therefore granted the young lady another night with the youth. But the young lady was taken into the bedchamber later than the last time and brought out earlier in the morning.

  Nor was this second night any more fruitful than the first. The poor girl cracked the hazelnut and out came horses and carriages. To acquire them, the princess again let her spend the night with the young man.

  But by this time he had grown tired of drinking what they brought him every night, so he only pretended to swallow it while actually emptying the glass over his shoulder. When the young lady began talking to him, he made out as if he were sleeping, but the moment he was sure it was his wife, he jumped to his feet and embraced her. With all those horses and carriages they had no problem getting away and back home, where there was a grand celebration.

  They put on the dog and high did they soar,

  They saw me not, I stood behind the door.

  (Colline del Po)

  20

  Those Stubborn Souls, the Biellese

  A farmer was on his way down to Biella one day. The weather was so stormy that it was next to impossible to get over the roads. But the farmer had important business and pushed onward in the face of the driving rain.

 
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