Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  And the other horse answered, “Cruel indeed was his father’s order.”

  “So you were ordered by my father to take me out and kill me!” said Bobo to the servants.

  They shuddered. “How did you know?”

  “The horses told me so,” said Bobo. “Go ahead and kill me right now. Why torture me with a long wait?”

  “We don’t have the heart to kill you,” said the servants. “How can we get around it?”

  While they were talking, the dog ran up barking. He had chased the carriage all the way from home. Bobo listened to what he was saying. “I would give my life to save young master!”

  “Even if my father is cruel,” said Bobo, “there are still loyal beings such as you, dear servants, and this dog who declares himself ready to die for me.”

  “In that case,” replied the servants, “we will kill the dog and carry his heart back to master. Flee for your life, young master.”

  Bobo embraced the servants and the faithful dog and wandered off. At nightfall he came to a farmhouse and asked for shelter. As everybody sat around the supper table, a dog began barking outside. Bobo went to the window to listen, then said, “Hurry, send the women and children off to bed and arm yourselves to the teeth and stay on the alert. A band of robbers will strike at midnight.”

  The people thought he had lost his mind. “How can you say such a thing? Who told you?”

  “I learned it from the dog who was just now barking a warning. Poor animal, if I wasn’t here, he’d only be wasting his breath. Listen to me and you’ll be safe.”

  The farmers took their guns and hid behind a hedge, while their wives and children locked themselves in the house. At midnight there was a whistle, than another, then a third, followed by the sound of rushing feet. From the hedge came a volley of gunfire, and the thieves took to their heels. Two were killed and lay in the mud clutching their knives.

  A big to-do was made over Bobo, and the farmers wanted him to stay on with them, but he said goodbye and continued on his way.

  After miles and miles he came to another farmhouse in the evening. As he debated whether to knock, he heard frogs croaking in the ditch. He listened closely and heard: “Come on, throw me the Host! Throw it to me! If you don’t I won’t play any more! You won’t catch it, and it will break in two! We’ve kept it whole all these years!” He went up and peered into the ditch: the frogs were playing ball with a consecrated wafer. Bobo made the sign of the cross.

  “For six years now it’s been in the ditch!” said one frog.

  “Ever since the farmer’s daughter was tempted by the Devil. Instead of swallowing the Host at communion, she hid it in her pocket and then threw it into the ditch here on her way home from church.”

  Bobo knocked on the door and was invited in to supper. Speaking with the farmer, he learned that the man had a daughter who had been sick for the last sue years, but no doctor knew what ailed her and now she was dying.

  “I should think so!” exclaimed Bobo. “She’s being punished by God. Six years ago she threw the sacred Host into the ditch. You must find that Host and have her make a devout communion, at which she will get well.”

  The farmer was amazed. “Who told you all that?”

  “Frogs,” replied Bobo.

  Doubtful, the farmer nevertheless searched the ditch, found the Host, and had his daughter receive communion, at which she got well. They had no idea how to repay Bobo for what he had done for them. But wanting nothing, he said goodbye and left.

  One very hot day he met two men resting under a chestnut tree. He asked if he might join them, and stretched out beside them.

  “Where are you gentlemen going?”

  “To Rome. Haven’t you heard the Pope is dead and a new one is being elected?”

  Overhead, a flight of sparrows lit in the chestnut tree. “These sparrows are also going to Rome,” said Bobo.

  “How do you know?” asked the two men.

  “I understand their speech.” He listened closely and added, “Guess what they are saying.”

  “What?”

  “They say that one of us three will be elected Pope.”

  In those days they chose the Pope by letting a dove loose in St. Peter’s Square, where crowds of people waited. The man on whose head the dove lit would be the new Pope. The three men reached the packed square and made their way into the crowd. Round and round flew the dove and finally lit on Bobo’s head.

  In the midst of cheers and hymns of joy, he was lifted onto a throne and vested in rich robes. He stood to bless the crowd, when the hush that fell over the square was suddenly pierced by a cry. An old man had fallen unconscious to the ground, where he lay like a corpse. The new Pope rushed up to him and recognized his father. The old man was dying of remorse and just had time to ask his son’s forgiveness before expiring in his arms.

  Bobo forgave him and turned out to be one of the best popes the church has ever had.

  (Mantua)

  24

  The Three Cottages

  A poor woman who was dying called her three daughters to her bedside and said, “Dear daughters, it won’t be long now before I die and leave you all by yourselves. When I’m gone, call on your uncles to build you each a little house. Love one another. Farewell.” She then drew her last breath, and the three girls burst into tears.

  They went out on the street, where they happened to meet one of their uncles who wove mats. Catherine, the oldest daughter, said, “Uncle, our mother has just died. Since you are so kind-hearted, will you build me a cottage out of rushes?”

  So the uncle who wove mats built her a cottage out of rushes.

  The other two sisters walked on until they met another uncle, who was a carpenter. Julia, the middle girl, said, “Uncle, our mother has just died. Since you are so kind-hearted, will you build me a wooden cottage?”

  So the carpenter uncle built her a wooden cottage.

  Now there was only Marietta, the youngest girl, who continued down the street until she met her uncle who was a blacksmith. “Uncle,” she said, “my mother has just died. Since you are so kind-hearted, will you build me an iron cottage?”

  So the blacksmith uncle built her an iron cottage.

  At dusk the wolf came out. He went to Catherine’s cottage and knocked on the door.

  “Who is it?” asked Catherine.

  “A poor little thing drenched to the bone. Please let me in.”

  “Get away from here. You’re the wolf and want to eat me.”

  The wolf gave the rushes a push, walked in, and gobbled up Catherine.

  The next day the two sisters called on Catherine. They found the rushes pushed in and the cottage empty. “Oh, how awful!” they exclaimed. “Our big sister has surely been eaten by the wolf.”

  Toward evening the wolf came back and went to Julia’s cottage. He knocked and she asked, “Who is it?”

  “A poor little thing that’s lost its way. Please give me shelter.”

  “No, you’re the wolf and you would eat me next.”

  The wolf gave the wooden cottage one punch, flung open the door, and gobbled up Julia.

  In the morning Marietta called on Julia, found her gone, and said to herself, “The wolf has eaten her up too! Poor me, now I’m all by myself in the world.”

  At dusk the wolf went to Marietta’s cottage.

  “Who is it?”

  “A poor little thing half frozen to death. Please let me in.”

  “Get away from here, wolf! You ate my sisters and now you want to eat me, I know!”

  The wolf threw himself against the door, but the door was iron like the rest of the cottage, so he only broke his shoulder. Howling with pain, he ran to the blacksmith.

  “Fix my shoulder,” he ordered.

  “I fix iron, not bones,” said the blacksmith.

  “But I broke my bones on iron,” argued the wolf, “so you’re the one that has to fix them now.”

  The blacksmith therefore took his hammer and nails and
fixed the wolf’s shoulder.

  The wolf went back to Marietta and called through the closed door, “Oh, Marietta dear, you caused me to break my shoulder, but I love you all the same. If you’ll come with me tomorrow morning, we’ll go for peas in a patch near here.”

  “Fine. Come by for me when you’re ready.”

  But, smart girl that she was, she realized the wolf was only trying to get her out of the house so he could eat her. The next day she got up before dawn, went to the pea patch, picked a mess of peas, and carried them home in her apron. She put the peas on to cook and threw the pods out the window. At nine o’clock the wolf arrived. “Marietta dear, let’s go for the peas.”

  “No, indeed, you dummy, I’m not going. I’ve already picked peas. Can’t you see the pods under the window? Take a deep breath and you’ll smell them cooking and lick your lips.”

  The wolf was fit to be tied, but he replied, “Oh, that’s all right. I’ll come by for you tomorrow morning, and we’ll go out for lupins.”

  “Fine,” said Marietta, “I’ll expect you at nine.”

  But this time too she rose early, went to the lupin patch, picked an apronful, and took them home to cook. When the wolf appeared, she showed him the pods under the window.

  The wolf swore to himself he would take revenge, but he said to her, “Naughty girl, you fooled me! And to think I’m so fond of you! Why don’t you come with me tomorrow to a certain patch I’m familiar with. There we’ll find wonderful pumpkins and have a real feast.”

  “Of course I’ll come,” said Marietta.

  The next morning she ran to the pumpkin patch before daybreak, but this time the wolf didn’t wait for nine o’clock. He too ran to the pumpkin patch to gobble up Marietta.

  As soon as Marietta saw the wolf in the distance, she rapidly hollowed out a large pumpkin and squeezed inside, for there was absolutely nowhere else to hide or to flee. Smelling human flesh, the wolf went up and down and back and forth sniffing the pumpkins, but no Marietta could he find. He then thought, She must be back home already. I’ll feast on the pumpkins by myself. And he began eating pumpkins right and left.

  Marietta shuddered as the wolf approached her pumpkin, almost certain he would eat it too with her inside. But when he reached Marietta’s pumpkin, the wolf was no longer hungry. “I’ll take this big one home to Marietta,” he said, “so that she will be my friend.” He sank his teeth in the pumpkin and ran all the way with it to the iron cottage, where he threw it through the window.

  “Marietta, my dear!” he called. “Look what a fine present I’ve brought you.”

  Back in safety, Marietta slipped out of the pumpkin, slammed the window, and made faces through the panes at the wolf. “Thank you, my friend,” she said. “I was hiding in the pumpkin, and you carried me all the way home.”

  When he heard that, the wolf beat his head on the rocks.

  That evening it snowed. Marietta was keeping warm at the fireside when she heard a noise in the chimney. That’s the wolf coming to eat me, she thought to herself. She filled a kettle with water and hung it over the fire to boil. Little by little the wolf lowered himself through the chimney, then made a bound for what he thought was Marietta, but landed in the boiling water instead and scalded to death. So sly Marietta was rid of her enemy at last and lived in peace for the rest of her life.

  (Mantua)

  25

  The Peasant Astrologer

  A king had lost a precious ring. He looked all over for it, but nowhere was it to be found. He issued a proclamation stating that the astrologer who could tell him where it was would be rich for the rest of his life. Now there was a peasant by the name of Gàmbara, who was penniless and could neither read nor write. “Would it be so hard to play the astrologer?” he wondered. “I think I’ll try.” So he went to the king.

  The king took him at his word, and shut him up in a room to study. There was nothing in the room but a bed and a table with a great big astrology book on it, and paper, pen, and ink. Gàmbara sat down at the table and began leafing through the book without understanding a word. Every now and then he made marks on the paper with the pen. As he didn’t know how to write, he produced some very strange marks indeed, and the servants bringing him his lunch and his dinner got the idea he was an extremely wise astrologer.

  Those servants had been the very ones to steal the ring. With their guilty conscience, they imagined from the knowing looks Gàmbara gave them whenever they went in that he suspected them, although the astrologer was only trying to look like an authority in his field. Fearful of being found out, they couldn’t bow and scrape enough. “Yes, honorable astrologer! Your least wishes, honorable astrologer, are orders!”

  Gàmbara, who was no astrologer, but a peasant and therefore cunning, suspected right away the servants knew something about the ring. So he set a trap for them.

  One day, at the hour they brought in his lunch, he hid under the bed. The head servant came in and found no one in the room. Under the bed Gàmbara said in a loud voice, “That’s one of them!” The servant put the dish down and withdrew in fright.

  The second servant came in and heard a voice that seemed to come from underground. “That’s two of them!” He too ran off.

  Then the third came in. “That’s three of them!”

  The servants talked things over. “We have been found out, and if the astrologer accuses us to the king, we are done for.”

  So they decided to go to the astrologer and confess their theft. “We are poor men,” they began; “if you tell the king what you have learned, we are lost. Please take this purse of gold and don’t betray us.”

  Gàmbara took the purse and replied, “I won’t betray you, provided you do as I say. Take the ring and make that turkey out in the farmyard swallow it. Then leave everything to me.”

  The next day Gàmbara went to the king and said that after much study he had learned where the ring was.

  “Where is it?”

  “A turkey has swallowed it.”

  They cut the turkey open and discovered the ring. The king heaped riches on the astrologer and honored him with a banquet attended by all the counts, marquis, barons, and grandees in the kingdom.

  Among the many dishes served was a platter of gamberi, which means crayfish. Now crayfish were unknown to that country. Those served at the banquet were a present from the king of another country, and it was the first time people here had seen them.

  “Since you are an astrologer,” said the king to the peasant, “you must know the name of these things on the platter here.”

  The poor soul, who’d never seen or heard of them, mumbled to himself, “Ah, Gàmbara, Gàmbara, you’re done for at last.”

  “Bravo!” said the king, who didn’t know the peasant’s real name. “You guessed it, the name is gamberi! You’re the greatest astrologer in the world.”

  (Mantua)

  26

  The Wolf and the Three Girls

  Once there were three sisters who worked in a certain town. Word reached them one day that their mother, who lived in Borgoforte, was deathly ill. The oldest sister therefore filled two baskets with four bottles of wine and four cakes and set out for Borgoforte. Along the way she met the wolf, who said to her, “Where are you going in such haste?”

  “To Borgoforte to see Mamma, who is gravely ill.”

  “What’s in those baskets?”

  “Four bottles of wine and four cakes.”

  “Give them to me, or else—to put it bluntly—I’ll eat you.”

  The girl gave the wolf everything and went flying back home to her sisters. Then the middle girl filled her baskets and left for Borgoforte. She too met the wolf.

  “Where are you going in such haste?”

  “To Borgoforte to see Mamma, who is gravely ill.”

  “What’s in those baskets?”

  “Four bottles of wine and four cakes.”

  “Give them to me, or else—to put it bluntly—I’ll eat you.”

 
So the second sister emptied her baskets and ran home. Then the youngest girl said, “Now it’s my turn.” She prepared the baskets and set out. There was the wolf.

  “Where are you going in such haste?”

  “To Borgoforte to see Mamma, who is gravely ill.”

  “What’s in those baskets?”

  “Four bottles of wine and four cakes.”

  “Give them to me, or else—to put it bluntly—I’ll eat you.”

  The little girl took a cake and threw it to the wolf, who had his mouth open. She had made the cake especially for him and filled it with nails. The wolf caught it and bit into it, pricking his palate all over. He spat out the cake, leaped back, and ran off, shouting, “You’ll pay for that!”

  Taking certain short cuts known only to him, the wolf ran ahead and reached Borgoforte before the little girl. He slipped into the sick mother’s house, gobbled her up, and took her place in bed.

  The little girl arrived, found her mother with the sheet drawn up to her eyes, and said, “How dark you’ve become, Mamma!”

  “That’s because I’ve been sick so much, my child,” said the wolf.

  “How big your head has become, Mamma!”

  “That’s because I’ve worried so much, my child.”

  “Let me hug you, Mamma,” said the little girl, and the wolf gobbled her up whole.

  With the little girl in his belly, the wolf ran out of the house. But the townspeople, seeing him come out, chased him with pitchforks and shovels, cornered him, and killed him. They slit him open at once and out came mother and daughter still alive. The mother got well, and the little girl went back and said to her sisters, “Here I am, safe and sound!”

  (Lake of Garda)

  27

  The Land Where One Never Dies

  One day a young man said, “This tale about everybody having to die doesn’t set too well with me. I will go in search of the land where one never dies.”

 
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