Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  He bid father, mother, uncles, and cousins goodbye and departed. For days and months he walked, asking everybody he met if they could direct him to the place where one never dies. But no one knew of any such place. One day he met an old man with a white beard down to his chest, pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks. The boy asked him, “Could you direct me to that place where one never dies?”

  “You don’t want to die? Stick with me. Until I’ve finished carting away that entire mountain rock by rock, you shall not die.”

  “How long will it take you to level it?”

  “One hundred years at least.”

  “And I’ll have to die afterward?”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  “No, this is no place for me. I will go to the place where one never dies.”

  He said goodbye to the old man and pushed onward. He walked for miles and came to a forest so vast that it seemed endless. There he saw an old man with a beard down to his navel pruning branches with a pruning hook. The young man asked, “Could you kindly tell me of a place where one never dies?”

  “Stick with me,” replied the old man. “Until I’ve trimmed all the trees in this forest with my pruning hook, you shall not die.”

  “How long will that take?”

  “Who knows? At least two hundred years.”

  “And afterward I’ll still have to die?”

  “Indeed you will. Isn’t two hundred years enough for you?”

  “No, this is no place for me. I’m seeking a place where one never dies.”

  They said goodbye, and the youth continued onward. A few months later he reached the seashore. There he saw an old man with a beard down to his knees watching a duck drink seawater.

  “Could you kindly tell me of a place where one never dies?”

  “If you’re afraid to die, stick with me. See that duck? Until it has drunk the sea dry, there’s no danger at all of your dying.”

  “How long will it take?”

  “Roughly three hundred years.”

  “And afterward I’ll have to die?”

  “What else do you expect? How much longer would you even want to live?”

  “No, no, no. Not even this place is for me. I must go where one never dies.”

  He resumed his journey. One evening he came to a magnificent palace. He knocked, and the door was opened by an old man with a beard all the way down to his feet. “What is it you look for, young man?”

  “I’m looking for the place where one never dies.”

  “Good for you, you’ve found it! This is the place where one never dies. As long as you stay with me, you can bet your boots you won’t die.”

  “At last, after all the miles I’ve trudged! This is just the place I was seeking! But are you sure I’m not imposing on you?”

  “Absolutely. I’m delighted to have company.”

  So the youth moved into the palace with the old man and lived like a lord. The years went by so fast and so pleasantly that he lost all track of time. Then one day he said to the old man, “There’s no place on earth like here, but I really would like to pay my family a little visit and see how they’re getting along.”

  “What family are you talking about? The last of your relatives died quite some time ago.”

  “I’d still like to go on a little journey, if only to revisit my birthplace and possibly run into the sons of my relatives’ sons.”

  “If you’re bent on going, follow my instructions. Go to the stable and get my white horse, which gallops like the wind. But once you’re on him, never, never dismount for any reason whatever, or you will die on the spot.”

  “Don’t worry, I’ll stay in the saddle. You know how I hate the very idea of dying!”

  He went to the stable, led out the white horse, got into the saddle, and was off like the wind. He passed the place where he had met the old man with the duck. There where the sea used to be was now a vast prairie. On the edge of it was a little pile of bones, the bones of the old man. “Just look at that,” said the youth. “I was wise not to tarry here, or I too would now be dead.”

  He moved on and came to what was once the vast forest where the old man had to prune every single tree with his pruning hook. Not one tree was left, and the ground was as bare as a desert. “How right I was not to stop here, or I too would now be long gone, like the old soul in the forest.”

  He passed the place where the huge mountain had stood, which an old man was to cart away rock by rock. Now the ground was as level as a billiard table.

  “Nor would I have fared any better here!”

  On and on he went, finally reaching his town, but it had changed so much he no longer recognized it. Not only was his house gone, but even the street it had stood on. He inquired about his relatives, but no one had ever heard his family name. That was the end of it. “I might as well go back at once,” he decided.

  He turned his horse around and started back, but was not halfway home before he met a carter with a cart full of old shoes and drawn by an ox. “Sir,” said the carter, “please be so kind as to dismount for a moment and help me dislodge this wheel sticking in the mud.”

  “I’m in a hurry and can’t get out of the saddle,” replied the youth.

  “Please help me. I’m all by myself, as you can see, and night is coming on.”

  Moved to pity, the youth dismounted. He had only one foot on the ground and the other still in the stirrup, when the carter grabbed him by the arm and said: “I have you at last! Know who I am? Yes, I am Death! See all those old shoes in the cart? They’re all the pairs you caused me to wear out running after you. Now you’ve fallen into my hands, from which no one ever escapes!”

  So the poor young man had to die the same as everybody else.



  The Devotee of St. Joseph

  Once there was a man devoted exclusively to St. Joseph. He addressed all his prayers to St. Joseph, lit candles to St. Joseph, gave alms in the name of St. Joseph; in short, he recognized no one but St. Joseph. His dying day came, and he went before St. Peter. St. Peter refused to let him in, since the only thing to his credit were all those prayers he had said during his lifetime to St. Joseph. He had performed no good works to speak of, and behaved as if the Lord, our Lady, and all the other saints simply did not exist.

  “Since I’ve come all the way here,” said the devotee of St. Joseph, “let me at least see him.”

  So St. Peter sent for St. Joseph. St. Joseph came and, finding his devotee there, said, “Bravo! I’m really pleased to have you with us. Come on in right now.”

  “I can’t. He won’t let me.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because he says I prayed only to you and to none of the other saints.”

  “Well, I’ll be! What difference does that make? Come on in all the same.”

  But St. Peter continued to bar the way. A mighty squabble ensued, and St. Joseph ended up saying to St. Peter, “Either you let him in, or I’m taking my wife and my boy and moving Paradise somewhere else.”

  His wife was our Lady, his boy our Lord. St. Peter thought it wiser to give in and admit the devotee of St. Joseph.



  The Three Crones

  There were once three sisters who were all young. One was sixty-seven, another seventy-five, and the third ninety-four. Now these girls had a house with a nice little balcony, in the very middle of which was a hole for looking down on people passing along the street. The ninety-four-year-old sister, seeing a handsome young man approach, grabbed her finest scented handkerchief and sent it floating to the street just as the youth passed under the balcony. He picked it up, noticed the delightful scent, and concluded, “It can only belong to a very beautiful maiden.” He walked on a way, then came back and rang the doorbell of that house. One of the three sisters answered the door, and the young man asked, “Would you please tell me if a young lady lives in this mansion, by chance?”

  “Yes, indeed, and
not just one.”

  “Would you do me a favor and allow me to see the one who lost this handkerchief?”

  “No, that is impossible. A girl can’t be seen before she’s married. That’s the rule at our mansion.”

  The youth was already so thrilled just imagining the girl’s beauty that he said, “That’s not asking a bit too much. I’ll marry her sight unseen. Now I’m going to tell my mother I’ve found a lovely maiden whom I intend to marry.”

  He went home and told his mother all about it She said, “Dear son, take care and don’t let those people trick you. You must think before you act.”

  “They’re not asking a bit too much. I’ve given my word, and a king must keep his promise,” said the young man, who happened to be a king.

  He returned to the bride’s house and rang the doorbell. The same crone answered the door, and he asked, “Are you her grandmother?”

  “That’s right, I’m her grandmother.”

  “Since you’re her grandmother, do me a favor and show me at least a finger of the girl.”

  “No, not now. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

  The youth said goodbye and left As soon as he was gone, the crones made an artificial finger out of the finger of a glove and a false fingernail. In the meantime his eagerness to see the finger kept him awake all night long. The sun came up at last, and he dressed and ran to the house.

  “Madam,” he said to the crone, “I’ve come to see my bride’s finger.”

  “Yes, yes,” she replied, “right away. You’ll see it through the keyhole of this door.”

  The bride pushed the false finger through the keyhole. Bewitched by its beauty, the young man kissed the finger and slipped a diamond ring onto it. Head over heels in love by then, he said to the crone, “I must marry her forthwith, Granny; I can’t wait any longer.”

  “You can marry her tomorrow, if you like.”

  “Perfect! I’ll marry her tomorrow, on my honor as a king!”

  Being rich, the three old women were able to get everything ready overnight for the wedding, down to the tiniest detail. The next day the bride dressed with the help of her two little sisters. The king arrived and said, “I’m here, Granny.”

  “Wait a minute, and we’ll bring her to you.”

  Here she came at last, arm in arm with her sisters and covered with seven veils. “Remember,” said the sisters, “you may not look at her face until you are in the bridal chamber.”

  They went to church and got married. Afterward the king wanted them all to go to dinner, but the crones would not allow it. “The bride, mind you, isn’t used to such foolishness.” So the king had to keep quiet. He was dying for night to come when he could be alone with the bride. The crones finally took her to her room, but made him wait outside while they undressed her and put her to bed. At last he went in and found the bride under the covers and the two old sisters still busying about the room. He undressed, and the old women went off with the lamp. But he’d brought along a candle in his pocket. He got it, lit it, and what should he see but an old withered crone streaked with wrinkles!

  For an instant he was speechless and paralyzed with fright. Then in a fit of rage he seized his wife and hurled her through the window.

  Under the window was a vine-covered trellis. The old crone went crashing through the trellis, but the hem of her nightgown caught on a broken slat and held her dangling in the air.

  That night three fairies happened to be strolling through the gardens. Passing under the trellis, they spied the dangling crone. At that unexpected sight, all three fairies burst out laughing and laughed until their sides hurt. But when they had laughed their fill, one of them said, “Now that we’ve had such a good laugh at her expense, we must reward her.”

  “Indeed we must,” agreed another. “I will that you become the most beautiful maiden in the world.”

  “I will,” said the second fairy, “that you have the most handsome of husbands and that he love you with his whole heart.”

  “I will,” said the third fairy, “that you be a great noblelady your whole life long.”

  At that, the fairies moved on.

  At dawn the king awakened and remembered everything. To make sure it wasn’t just a bad dream, he opened the window in order to see the monster he’d thrown out the night before. But there on the trellis sat the loveliest of maidens! He put his hands to his head.

  “Goodness me, what have I done!” He had no idea how to draw her up, but finally took a sheet off the bed, threw her an end to grab hold of, then pulled her up into the room. Overjoyed to have her beside him once more, he begged her to forgive him, which she did, and they became the best of friends.

  In a little while a knock was heard on the door. “It must be Granny,” said the king. “Come in, come in!”

  The old woman entered and saw in bed, in place of her ninety-four-year-old sister, the loveliest of young ladies, who said, as though nothing were amiss, “Clementine, bring me my coffee.”

  The old crone put a hand over her mouth to stifle a cry of amazement. Pretending everything was just as it should be, she went off and got the coffee. But the minute the king left the house to attend to his business, she ran to his wife and asked, “How in the world did you become so young?”

  “Shhhhh!” cautioned the wife. “Lower your voice, please! Just wait until you hear what I did! I had myself planed!”

  “Planed! Planed? Who did it for you? I’m going to get planed too.”

  “The carpenter!”

  The old woman went running to the carpenter’s shop lickety-split. “Carpenter, will you give me a good planing?”

  “Oh, my goodness!” exclaimed the carpenter. “You’re already deadwood, but if I plane you, you’ll go to kingdom come.”

  “Don’t give it a thought.”

  “What do you mean, not give it a thought? After I’ve killed you, what then?”

  “Don’t worry, I tell you. Here’s a thaler.”

  When he heard “thaler,” the carpenter changed his mind. He took the money and said, “Lie down here on my workbench, and I’ll plane you all you like,” and he proceeded to plane a jaw.

  The crone let out a scream.

  “Now, now! If you scream, we won’t get a thing done.”

  She rolled over, and the carpenter planed the other jaw. The old crone screamed no more: she was dead as dead can be.

  Nothing more was ever heard of the other crone. Whether she drowned, had her throat slit, died in bed or elsewhere, no one knows.

  The bride was the only one left in the house with the young king, and they lived happily ever after.



  The Crab Prince

  There was once a fisherman who never could catch enough fish to buy food for his family. One day though, when he went to pull up his nets, he felt a weight almost too heavy to move, but he tugged and tugged and found a crab so enormous that one pair of eyes was not enough to take it all in. “Oh, what a haul at last! Now I can buy food for my children!”

  He took the crab home on his back and told his wife to put the pot on the fire, for he would return shortly with food. Then he carried the crab to the king’s palace.

  “Your Highness,” he said to the king, “I’ve come to see if you will kindly buy this crab from me. My wife has put the pot on the fire, but I have no money to buy anything to go in it.”

  The king replied, “But what would I do with a crab? Can’t you sell it to someone else?”

  Just then the king’s daughter came in. “Oh, what a fine crab, what a fine crab! Please buy it for me, Papa, please! We’ll put it in the fishpond with the mullets and the goldfish.”

  The king’s daughter was fascinated by fish and would sit for hours on the rim of the fishpond in the garden watching the mullets and the goldfish swim about. Her father could refuse her nothing, so he bought the crab. The fisherman put it into the fishpond and received a purse of gold coins that would feed his children for a whole

  The princess never tired of watching the crab and spent all her time by the fishpond. She had become thoroughly familiar with him and his ways, noticing that from noon until three o’clock he always disappeared and went off goodness knows where. One day the king’s daughter was there studying her crab, when she heard the doorbell ring. She looked down from her balcony, and there was a poor tramp asking for alms. She threw down a purse of money, but it flew past him into a ditch. The tramp went into the ditch after it, plunged under water, and began to swim. The ditch connected with the king’s fishpond by an underground canal which continued on to no telling where. The tramp followed it and came out in a beautiful basin in the middle of a large underground hall hung with tapestries and containing a table sumptuously laid. The tramp stepped from the basin and hid behind the tapestries. At the stroke of noon, up popped a fairy in the middle of the basin, seated on the back of a crab. She and the crab jumped out of the water into the hall, the fairy tapped the crab with her wand, and there emerged from the crab shell a handsome youth. The young man took a seat at the table and the fairy tapped her wand, producing food in the dishes and wine in the bottles. When the youth had finished eating and drinking, he reentered the crab shell, which the fairy touched with her wand, and the crab took her onto his back once more, jumped into the basin, and disappeared underwater with her.

  Then the tramp came out from behind the tapestries, dove into the water, and swam back to the king’s fishpond. The king’s daughter was there looking at her fish and, seeing the vagabond’s head bob up, she asked, “What are you doing here?”

  “Princess,” said the tramp, “I have a wonderful thing to relate to you.” He came out of the pond and told her the whole story.

  “Now I understand where the crab goes from noon to three o’clock!” exclaimed the king’s daughter. “Fine, tomorrow at noon we shall go together and see.”

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