Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  So the next day they both swam the underground canal from the fishpond to the underground hall and hid behind the tapestries. Exactly at noon, up popped the fairy on the crab’s back. She tapped her wand and out stepped the handsome young man from the crab shell and took his place at the table. The princess, who already liked the crab, was charmed with the young man and immediately fell in love with him.

  Seeing the empty crab shell right there next to her, she hid inside it.

  When the youth got back into the shell he found the beautiful maiden there. “What have you done?” he whispered. “If the fairy learns of this, she will put us both to death.”

  “But I want to free you from the spell!” whispered the king’s daughter. “Tell me what I must do.”

  “Impossible,” said the young man. “Only a maiden who loved me enough to die for me could break the spell.”

  “I am that maiden,” said the princess.

  While this conversation was taking place inside the crab shell, the fairy seated herself on the crab’s back, and the youth, working the crab claws as usual, carried her through the underground waterways to the open sea, without her suspecting that hidden inside with him was the king’s daughter. On the way back to the fishpond after leaving the fairy at her destination, the young man, who happened to be a prince, explained to his beloved close beside him in the crab shell what to do to free him. “You must climb up on a rock on shore and play and sing. The fairy is enthralled by music and will emerge from the sea to listen to you and say, ‘Play on, lovely maiden, your music is so delightful.’ And you will reply, ‘I certainly shall, if you give me the flower in your hair.’ When you have that flower in your hand, I will be free, since the flower is my life.”

  Meanwhile the crab had reached the fishpond, and he let the king’s daughter out of the shell.

  The tramp had swum back by himself and, finding no princess, saw himself in serious trouble. But the maiden emerged from the fishpond, thanked him, and gave him a handsome reward. Then she went to her father and told him she wanted to study music and singing. The king, who never refused her anything, sent for the finest musicians and singers to give her lessons.

  As soon as she had learned music, the daughter said to the king, “Papa, I want to go and play my violin on a rock by the sea.”

  “On a rock by the sea? Have you lost your mind?” But, as usual, he gave in to her and let her go with eight maids of honor dressed in white. As a precaution, he had her followed at a distance by a few armed soldiers.

  Seated on a rock, with her eight maids of honor in white dresses on eight rocks around her, the king’s daughter played her violin. From the waves rose the fairy. “How beautifully you play!” she said. “Play on, play on, it delights me so to hear you!”

  The king’s daughter said, “Indeed I shall, if you make me a present of that flower you are wearing in your hair, for I love flowers to distraction.”

  “I will give it to you if you can fetch it from where I throw it.”

  “I will fetch it,” she assured the fairy, and started to play and sing. When the song was over, she said, “Now give me the flower.”

  “Here you are,” said the fairy, and threw it as far as she could out to sea.

  The princess dove into the sea and swam toward the flower floating on the waves. “Princess, princess! Help! Help!” screamed the eight maids of honor standing up on the rocks, with their white veils billowing in the wind. But the princess swam on and on, disappearing in the waves and coming back up; she was beginning to doubt whether she would reach the flower, when a big wave swept it right into her hand.

  In that instant she heard a voice beneath her, saying, “You have given me back my life, and will be my bride. Now don’t be afraid. I am under you and will carry you to shore. But say nothing of this, not even to your father. I must go and tell my parents, and within twenty-four hours I’ll come and ask for your hand.”

  “Yes, yes, I understand” was all she could answer, since she was out of breath, while the crab underwater carried her to shore.

  So when she got back home, all the princess told the king was that she had enjoyed herself immensely.

  The next day at three, there was a roll of drums, a flourish of trumpets, a prancing of horses, and in walked a majordomo saying the son of his king requested an audience.

  The prince put the customary request to the king for the princess’s hand and then told the whole story. The king was somewhat taken aback, for he had been in the dark about everything. He sent for his daughter, who came running in and threw herself into the prince’s arms, exclaiming, “This is my bridegroom, this is my bridegroom!” The king realized there was nothing to do but conclude the marriage as soon as possible.



  Silent for Seven Years

  There was once a mother and father with two little boys and a girl. The father was often away from home traveling and one day when he was away the two little boys said to their mother, “We are going to meet Papa!” Their mother replied, “Yes, yes, go ahead.”

  When they reached the woods the children stopped to play. Shortly afterward, they saw their father approaching and ran up and grabbed him around the legs, saying, “Papa! Papa!”

  The father was in a bad humor that day and replied, “Don’t bother me! Go away!” But the boys paid no attention and went on pulling on his legs.

  Thoroughly irritated, the father yelled, “The Devil take you both!” In that moment the Devil came out and took them away before the father knew what had happened to them.

  When the mother saw the father return without the children, she became worried and started crying. Her husband first told her he didn’t know where they were, then he admitted cursing them, after which they disappeared from sight.

  At that, their little sister spoke up. “Even if it means losing my own life, I’m going out to look for them.” Ignoring her parents’ protests, she got together a little food and departed.

  Coming to a palace with an iron door, she went in and found herself before a gentleman, whom she asked, “Have you by any chance seen my brothers who were kidnapped by the Devil?”

  “I can’t say that I have. But go through that door into a room with twenty-four beds and see if the boys are there.”

  In effect, the maiden found her brothers in bed and was overjoyed. “So you are here, little brothers! That means you’re safe after all!”

  “Take a closer look,” replied the brothers, “and see whether we are safe.”

  She peered beneath the bedclothes and beheld countless flames. “Oh, my brothers! What can I do to save you?”

  “If you do not speak for seven years you will save us. But in that time you must go through fire and water.”

  “Don’t worry, you can count on me.”

  She left them and walked back through the other room past the gentleman sitting there. He motioned to her to approach, but she shook her head, made the sign of the cross, and left the palace.

  After walking and walking she found herself in a forest. Exhausted, she lay down and went to sleep. A king out hunting passed by and saw her sleeping. “What a beautiful girl!” he exclaimed, then woke her up to ask whatever brought her to the forest. With her head she made a sign that she was not there by her will. The king then asked, “Would you like to come with me?” and she nodded yes. Taking her at first for a deaf-mute, the king spoke loudly, but shortly realized she could hear even a whisper.

  He got home and took her out of the carriage, telling his mother he had found a speechless maiden asleep in the forest, whom he was going to marry.

  “I’ll never consent to it!” exclaimed his mother.

  “But here, I make the decisions,” he snapped, and the wedding took place.

  The mother-in-law was wicked-hearted and treated her daughter-in-law shamefully, but the daughter-in-law endured all in silence. Meanwhile she found herself with child. The mother-in-law forged a letter to her son calling him to a cert
ain city where he was supposedly being swindled. The king said goodbye to his expectant wife and went off to attend to the matter. The wife gave birth to a baby boy, but the mother-in-law, in league with the midwife, placed a dog in bed beside the new mother and took the baby stuffed in a box to the palace roof. The poor young woman looked on frantically, but then remembered her condemned brothers and bit her tongue.

  The mother-in-law wrote her son immediately that his wife had given birth to a dog. The king replied that he wished to hear no more about his wife. He ordered that she be given a little money for food and turned out of the palace before he got home.

  But the old woman told a servant to take the young wife off, kill her, throw her body into the sea, and bring back her clothes.

  When they reached the seashore, the servant said, “Please bow your head now, madam, as I’m obliged to kill you.” With tears in her eyes, the young woman sank to her knees and joined her hands. Moved to pity, the servant merely cut off her hair and took all her clothes, leaving her his own shirt and trousers to put on.

  Alone on the deserted shore, the young woman at last spotted a ship at sea and signaled to it. The ship carried soldiers who asked her who she was, never once suspecting she was a girl. In sign language she explained she was a sailor from a shipwrecked vessel and its sole survivor. The soldiers said, “Even if you can’t talk, you can still help us wage war.”

  There was a battle, and the young woman fired her share of cannon shots. Because of her bravery, her comrades in arms made her a corporal right away. Once the war was over she requested a discharge, which was granted.

  Back on land, she didn’t know which way to turn. At night she spied a tumbledown house and went inside. Hearing footsteps at midnight, she peeped out and saw thirteen murderers go out the back door. She let them get well out of sight, then went to the rear of the house and found a large table laid for a feast. Thirteen places were set, and she went around the table taking just a tiny bit of food at each place, so that the murderers would find nothing missing when they came back. Then she returned to her hiding place, but forgot to remove her spoon from one of the plates before she left. The murderers came home in the middle of the night, and one of them noticed the spoon at once. “Look! Some stranger has been in here meddling.”

  “Well,” replied another murderer, “let’s go back out while one of us stays behind to keep watch.” And so they did.

  Thinking they had all left, the girl jumped out and the murderer grabbed her. “I have you now, you rogue! You just wait!”

  Thoroughly frightened, she explained by signs that she was a mute and had come in because she was lost. The murderer comforted her and gave her food and drink. The others came home, heard the tale, and said, “Now that you are here you shall remain with us. Otherwise we’d have to kill you.”

  Nodding her agreement, she stayed on with them.

  The murderers never left her by herself. One day the ringleader said to her, “Tomorrow night we’re all going to descend on the palace of a certain king and steal all his valuables. You shall come with us.”

  He told her the name of the king, who happened to be her own husband, whom she wrote and warned of the danger. As a result, when the murderers started through the front door of the palace at midnight, the servants barricaded there in the dark hall slew them one by one. Thus died the ringleader and five others, while all the rest fled in every direction, leaving the young woman, who was also dressed as a murderer, at the mercy of the servants. What did they do but seize her, bind her hand and foot, and carry her off to prison. From her cell she could see them constructing the gallows in the town square. Only one more day, and her seven years of silence would be up. In sign language she begged them to put off her execution until tomorrow, to which the king consented. The next day they led her to the scaffold. On the first step she asked them in signs if, instead of executing her at three o’clock, they would wait one more hour. The king agreed to this also. Four o’clock struck and she was moving a step higher, when two warriors came forward, bowed to the king, and begged permission to speak.

  “Speak,” said the king.

  “Why is that young man being sent to his death?”

  The king explained why.

  “That is no man, mind you, but our sister!” And they told the king why she had not uttered a word for the last seven years. Then they said to her, “Speak up, the danger is over, and we are safe.”

  They removed her shackles and, in the presence of the whole city, she said, “I’m the king’s wife, and my wicked mother-in-law killed my baby. Go to the roof, get that box, and see whether I gave birth to a dog or to a baby boy.” The king sent his servants for the box, and there inside lay a baby’s skeleton.

  At that, the whole city shouted, “String up the queen and the midwife in place of this courageous soul!” And so died the two old women, while the young wife returned to the palace with her husband, and the two brothers became prime ministers of the king.



  The Dead Man’s Palace

  There was once a king who had a daughter. One day the girl was on the balcony with her maids of honor, when an old woman came walking by.

  “My little lady,” said the old woman, “be kind and give me something, won’t you, please?”

  “Yes, of course, good soul,” replied the maiden, and threw her down a bag of coins.

  “My little lady, that’s not much money . . . . Won’t you give me something more?”

  The king’s daughter threw down another bag. The old woman again said, “Little lady, can’t you give me still a little bit more?”

  At that, the king’s daughter lost her temper. “You know what you are? You’re a nuisance, that’s what! I’ve given you money twice, and you’re not getting a cent more!”

  The old woman then faced her and said, “So that’s how it is! I therefore call on heaven to prevent you from marrying until you have found the Dead Man!”

  The king’s daughter went back inside and burst into tears.

  When her father learned why she was crying, he told her, “Never give any of those old wives’ tales a thought!”

  “I don’t know what will become of me,” she sobbed, “But I intend to depart in search of the Dead Man!”

  “As you like! I give you up for lost!” replied the king, who then burst into tears himself. The girl paid no attention and set out.

  After days and days of walking, she came to a marble palace. The door stood open and all the rooms were brightly lit. The girl walked in and called out, “Anybody home?”

  There was no answer.

  She went into the kitchen and found a pot of stew cooking on the stove. She opened the cupboard: it was full of provisions. “Since I’m already here, I may as well stay,” she said, and sat down and ate, being quite hungry after all those days of traveling. When she had finished, she opened a door and saw a comfortable bed. “I’m going to bed. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.”

  The next morning she awakened and resumed her tour of the palace. She opened every door until she finally found herself in a room in which a dead man lay. At his feet a note said:

  Whoever watches over me

  A year, three months, and a week,

  My beloved bride shall be.

  “So I’ve found him I was seeking,” murmured the girl. “All I have to do now is stick by him day and night.” Nor did she budge from there except to prepare her meals.

  Thus a year went by while she watched the dead man in solitude. Then one day a cry came up from the canal: “Slave girls for sale! Slave girls for sale!”

  “That’s an idea!” said the maiden. “I’ll buy a slave girl right now. That way I’ll at least have company, and every now and then I can lie down and sleep for a few minutes. I’m so tired now I could drop.”

  She went to the window, called to the slave dealer, and purchased one of his girls. She then had the girl come upstairs and stay by her side at all times.

  Three more months went by, and the maiden was so tired that she said to the slave girl, “I’m going to bed now. Let me sleep for three days, no more. Wake me up the fourth day. Be careful and don’t mistake the day!”

  “Don’t worry, I won’t,” replied the slave girl.

  The maiden went to sleep, while the slave girl remained day and night with the dead man. Three days passed, then one more, and the maiden slept on. The slave girl said to herself, “Do you think I’d awaken her? Let her sleep, let her sleep!”

  Time was up at last, and the dead man opened his eyes, saw the slave girl, embraced her, and said, “You shall be my beloved bride!”

  At those words the whole palace sprang back to life. Servants came running from one wing, maids of honor, cooks, and coachmen from the other. In short, there were people all over the place.

  The noise they made awakened the maiden, who realized she had slept a whole week. “I’ve been cheated!” she exclaimed. “That evil soul failed to call me, and now I’ve lost my fortune! Cursed was the hour and the minute when I bought that slave!”

  The Dead Man happened to be a king. He asked the slave girl, “Did you watch over me all the time by yourself?”

  “I brought in another woman for a few minutes every day, but she slept all the time and was of little use to me.”

  “Where is she now?” asked the king.

  “In her room, sleeping as usual.”

  So the king married the slave girl. But despite all the royal finery he had her dressed in, despite all the gold and diamonds, she was still just as homely as homely could be. The king held open house for a week. After dinner it was his wish for the servants to join everybody else at the table for dessert, and he told his wife to be sure and invite the maid who had shared in her vigil.

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