Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  He met an old man, who said to him, “A good day to you! Where are you going, my good man, in such haste?”

  “To Biella,” answered the farmer, without slowing down.

  “You might at least say, ‘God willing.’”

  The farmer stopped, looked the old man in the eye, and snapped, “God willing, I’m on my way to Biella. But even if God isn’t willing, I still have to go there all the same.”

  Now the old man happened to be the Lord. “In that case you’ll go to Biella in seven years,” he said. “In the meantime, jump into this swamp and stay there for seven years.”

  Suddenly the farmer changed into a frog and jumped into the swamp.

  Seven years went by. The farmer came out of the swamp, turned back into a man, clapped his hat on his head, and continued on his way to market.

  After a short distance he met the old man again. “And where are you going, my good man?”

  “To Biella.”

  “You might say, ‘God willing.’”

  “If God wills it, fine. If not, I know the consequence and can now go into the swamp unassisted.”

  Nor for the life of him would he say one word more.

  (Biellese)

  21

  The Pot of Marjoram

  There was once an apothecary, who was a widower with a dear and beautiful daughter named Stella Diana. Every day Stella Diana went to a sewing mistress to learn how to sew. The mistress had a terrace full of potted flowers and plants, and Stella Diana would go out each afternoon to water a pot of marjoram she particularly liked. Facing the terrace was a balcony where a young nobleman stood and gazed at her. One day he spoke:

  “Stella Diana, Stella Diana,

  How many leaves show on your maggiorana?”

  The girl replied:

  “Noble, handsome knight,

  How many stars twinkle in the night?”

  He said:

  “Stars cannot be counted, so many are there.”

  Then she said:

  “See my marjoram you must not dare.”

  The nobleman disguised himself as a fishmonger and went to hawk his fish under the sewing mistress’s windows. The mistress sent Stella Diana down to buy a fish for supper. The girl picked out a fish and asked the fishmonger how much it was. He told her the price, but it was so high she said she would not take the fish. Then he said, “For a kiss, I would let you have it for nothing.”

  Stella Diana gave him a quick kiss, and he gave her the fish for the sewing mistress’s supper.

  In the afternoon when Stella Diana appeared in the midst of the plants on the terrace, the nobleman said to her from his balcony:

  “Stella Diana, Stella Diana,

  How many leaves show on your maggiorana?”

  She replied:

  “Noble, handsome knight,

  How many stars twinkle in the night?”

  He said:

  “Stars cannot be counted, so many are there.”

  Then she said:

  “See my marjoram you must not dare.”

  Then the nobleman said:

  “For only one tiny fish

  You gave me a nice little kiss.”

  Realizing he had made a fool of her, Stella Diana angrily withdrew and immediately went to work to make a fool of him. She dressed as a man, buckling a jewel-studded belt of rare beauty around her waist. Then she mounted a mule and sauntered up and down the street past the nobleman. He spied the belt and exclaimed, “What an exquisite belt! Would you sell it to me?” Mimicking a man, she told him she would sell it at no price. He said he would do anything to have the belt. “Well,” she said, “plant a kiss on my mule’s tail, and I’ll give you the belt.” The gentleman really liked that belt, so he looked all around to make sure no one was watching, kissed the mule’s tail, and went away with the belt.

  The next time they saw each other, the usual words were exchanged between the terrace and the balcony.

  “Stella Diana, Stella Diana,

  How many leaves show on your maggiorana?”

  “Noble, handsome knight,

  How many stars twinkle in the night?”

  “Stars cannot be counted, so many are there.”

  “See my marjoram you must not dare.”

  “For only one tiny fish,

  You gave me a nice little kiss.”

  “To get a belt without fail,

  You kissed my mule right on his tail.”

  That quip cut the nobleman to the quick, so he put a word in the ear of the sewing mistress and received permission to hide under her steps. When Stella Diana came down the steps, the youth reached up and grabbed her by the skirt. The maiden screamed:

  “Mistress, mistress,

  The steps do grab me by my dress!”

  In the afternoon this dialogue took place, with Stella on the terrace and the nobleman on the balcony:

  “Stella Diana, Stella Diana,

  How many leaves show on your maggiorana?”

  “Noble, handsome knight,

  How many stars twinkle in the night?”

  “Stars cannot be counted, so many are there.”

  “See my marjoram you must not dare.”

  “For only one tiny fish,

  You gave me a nice little kiss.”

  “To get a belt without fail,

  You kissed my mule right on his tail.”

  “Mistress, mistress,

  The steps do grab me by my dress!”

  This time Stella Diana was cut to the quick. She thought to herself, Now I’ll fix you! By bribing his manservant, she got into the youth’s house one night and appeared before him completely veiled in a sheet and carrying a torch and an open book. At the sight of that ghost, the youth shook with fear:

  “Death, my love, I am young and patient,

  Go instead to auntie who’s cross and ancient.”

  Stella Diana put out her torch and left. The next day the duet resumed:

  “Stella Diana, Stella Diana,

  How many leaves show on your maggiorana?”

  “Noble, handsome knight,

  How many stars twinkle in the night?”

  “Stars cannot be counted, so many are there.”

  “See my marjoram you must not dare.”

  “For only one tiny fish,

  You gave me a nice little kiss.”

  “To get a belt without fail,

  You kissed my mule right on his tail.”

  “Mistress, mistress,

  The steps do grab me by my dress!”

  “Death, my love, I am young and patient,

  Go instead to auntie who’s cross and ancient.”

  At this latest jest, the youth thought to himself, Enough is enough! I’ll get even with her once and for all. No sooner said than done: he went to the apothecary and asked for Stella Diana’s hand in marriage. The apothecary was delighted, and they drew up the marriage contract at once. As the wedding day drew nigh, Stella Diana began to fear that her bridegroom would take revenge on her for all her pranks. She thus decided to make a life-size pastry doll that resembled her to a tee. In place of the heart, she put a bladder filled with whipped cream. On retiring to her room after the wedding, she placed the doll in bed wearing her own nightcap and gown; then she hid.

  The bridegroom came in. “Ah, here we are by ourselves at last! The time has come to avenge myself for all the humiliations I suffered at your hands.” He unsheathed a dagger and thrust it into the doll’s heart. The bladder burst, and whipped cream spurted everywhere, even into the bridegroom’s mouth.

  “Poor me! My Stella Diana’s blood tastes so sweet! How could I have killed her? Ah, if only I could bring her back to life!”

  Out jumped Stella Diana, as sound as a bell. “Here is your Stella Diana. I’m not dead, God forbid!”

  Overjoyed, the bridegroom embraced her, and from that time on they lived in perfect harmony.

  (Milan)

  22

  The Billiards Player

  There
was once a young man who spent his days in the cafés challenging people to a game of billiards. One day in a certain café he met a foreign gentleman.

  “Shall we play billiards?” proposed the youth.

  “Let’s do.”

  “For what stakes shall we play?”

  “If you win, I’ll give you my daughter in marriage,” replied the stranger.

  They played their game, which the young man won.

  The stranger said, “Fine. I am the king of the Sun. I’ll write to you without delay.” Then he left.

  From one day to the next the youth expected the mailman to bring him a letter from the king of the Sun, but no letter ever came. He therefore set out in search of the king. Every Sunday he stopped in a different city, waited for the people to come out of Mass, and asked the oldtimers if they knew where the king of the Sun kept himself. No one had any idea, but once an old man said to him, “I’m sure he exists, but his whereabouts are a complete mystery to me.”

  The youth journeyed for another week, and at last met a second old man coming out of Mass in another city. This old man directed him to still another city, where he arrived on Sunday and asked an old man coming out of Mass if he knew where the king of the Sun lived. “Just a stone’s throw from here,” said the old man. “At the end of this street, on the right, you will see his palace. You can’t miss it, for it has no doors.”

  “How do you get in?”

  “How would I know? I suggest you wait in yonder grove. You’ll see a pool there where the king of the Sun’s three daughters swim every day at noon.”

  The youth hid in the grove. Precisely at noon, here came the king of the Sun’s three daughters. They undressed, dove into the pool, and began their swim. Meanwhile the young man sneaked up to the clothes of the prettiest girl and made off with them.

  The three girls came out of the water and went to put their clothes back on. But the prettiest girl’s clothes were missing.

  “Hurry up,” said her sisters, “we’re all dressed. What’s keeping you?”

  “I can’t find my clothes. Wait for me!”

  “Look more carefully. We have to go.” And they went off without her. The maiden started to cry.

  Out jumped the youth. “If you take me to your father, I’ll give you your clothes back.”

  “Who are you?”

  “I beat the king of the Sun at billiards, so now I’m supposed to marry his daughter.”

  The two young people looked at each other and fell in love. The girl said, “You must marry me. But my father will blindfold you and tell you to choose one of us. You can pick me out by touching the hands of all three of us: one of my fingers was cut off.” Then she took him into the king of the Sun’s palace.

  “I am here to marry your daughter,” said the young man to the king of the Sun.

  “Very well, you will marry her tomorrow,” replied the king. “Meanwhile select the one you want.” And he had him blindfolded.

  The first girl came in. He touched her hands and said, “This one doesn’t suit me.”

  The king sent him the second girl. The youth felt her hands and said, “Neither will this one do.”

  In came the third girl. The young man touched her hands just to be sure she was the one missing a finger. He said, “This is the maiden I wish to marry.”

  The wedding was celebrated, and the bride and groom retired to their own room in the palace. At midnight the bride said, “I can’t hide it from you any longer that my father is planning to have you killed.”

  “Let us flee, then,” he replied.

  They got up early, took a horse apiece, and galloped away. The king also rose, entered the bridal chamber, and found the couple gone. He rushed to the stable and discovered his two finest horses missing. Then he sent out a troop of mounted soldiers after the newlyweds.

  In the midst of their flight the king of the Sun’s daughter, hearing hoofbeats behind them, looked around and saw a troop of soldiers advancing. So she took the comb out of her hair and flung it to the ground. The comb changed into a forest, in which a man and a woman were busy digging up tree stumps.

  The soldiers asked them, “Did you see the king of the Sun’s daughter go by with her husband?”

  The man and the woman replied, “We’re getting up stumps. When nighttime comes, we’ll go home.”

  The soldiers raised their voices. “We asked if you saw the king of the Sun’s daughter and her husband go by!”

  The couple said, “Yes, when we have a cartload we go home.”

  Exasperated, the soldiers returned to the king, who asked, “Did you find them?”

  “We were just about to lay hold of them, when all of a sudden we found ourselves in a forest and face to face with a man and a woman who gave us only foolish answers.”

  “You should have seized them. They were the newlyweds!”

  So the pursuit resumed. The soldiers had almost caught up with the couple, when the king of the Sun’s daughter again threw down her comb, which changed into a garden where a man and a woman were busy gathering chicory and radishes. The soldiers asked, “Did you see the king’s daughter go by with her husband?”

  “The radishes are a dime a bunch, and the chicory a nickel.”

  The soldiers repeated their question, while those two chattered on about radishes and chicory. The troops gave up and went home.

  “We were within two feet of them,” they told the king, “when all of a sudden we found ourselves in a garden and face to face with a man and a woman who gave us the most foolish of answers.”

  “You should have seized them! They were the newlyweds!”

  After a mad chase, the soldiers were again on the heels of the couple, when the girl once more threw down her comb. The men found themselves before a church, where two sacristans were ringing the bells. The soldiers asked if they had seen the king of the Sun’s daughter.

  The sacristans said, “We’re now ringing the second bell, next we’ll ring the third, then comes Mass.”

  The soldiers gave up.

  “You should have seized them! They were the newlyweds!” screamed the King. Then he too gave up.

  (Milan)

  23

  Animal Speech

  A rich merchant had a son named Bobo, who was both quick-witted and eager to learn. The father therefore put the boy in the charge of a learned teacher, who was to teach him all the languages.

  When his studies were completed, Bobo came home. One evening he was walking with his father in the garden, where the sparrows were twittering so loudly in one of the trees that you couldn’t hear yourself think. “These sparrows shatter my eardrums every evening,” said the merchant, sticking his fingers in his ears.

  “Shall I tell you what they are saying?” asked Bobo.

  His father looked at him in amazement. “How would you know what the sparrows are saying? You’re not a soothsayer, are you?”

  “No, but my teacher taught me the languages of the various animals.”

  “Don’t tell me that’s where my money went!” said the father. “What was that teacher thinking of? I meant for him to teach you the languages of men, not of dumb beasts!”

  “The tongues of animals are harder, so the teacher decided to start with them.”

  At that moment the dog ran up barking, and Bobo asked, “Shall I tell you what he’s saying?”

  “No, indeed! Don’t let me hear another word about your dumb beasts’ talk! Oh, the money I’ve thrown away!”

  They were walking alongside the moat by now, and heard the frogs croaking. “The frogs also get on my nerves,” grumbled the father.

  “Father let me tell you what they . . . ”

  “The devil take you and the man who taught you!”

  Angry over having thrown away his money to educate his son and associating this knowledge of animal speech with witchcraft, the father called in two servants and gave them secret instructions for the next morning.

  Bobo was awakened at dawn, when one of
the servants put him into the carriage and climbed in beside him. The other servant took a seat on the box, cracked his whip, and off they galloped. Bobo had no idea where they were going, but he noticed the sorrowful and swollen eyes of the servant beside him. “Where are we going?” asked Bobo. “Why are you so sad?” But the servant made no reply.

  Then the horses began neighing, and Bobo understood what they were saying. “Gloomy is our trip, we are carrying young master to his death.”

 
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