Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “I’m not about to do that,” said the bride. “In the first place she wouldn’t come, for all she does is sleep.”

  On the contrary, all the poor maiden did was sigh and weep, day and night, over having slept one day too many and lost her fortune.

  At the end of the week of open house, the king announced he had to go away to look after his property and that it was his custom on such occasions to bring back a present to every servant in his household. He sent for them all and asked them each what they wanted. Some said a handkerchief, some an outfit, others a pair of breeches, others a cutaway coat, and he wrote down everything so as to forget nothing. He said to his wife, “Call that maid of yours and let me find out what she wants, because I will bring her something too.” The maiden was called in. The king found her so beautiful and genteel of face and speech that he was altogether charmed with her. “Tell me, my dear, what you want me to bring you.”

  “Please be so good,” sighed the maiden, “as to bring me a tinderbox, a black taper, and a knife.”

  The king was dumbfounded by such a request. “Fine, fine, have no fear, I’ll remember all three things.”

  He left, attended to his business, and then went to buy his servants’ presents. Loaded down with all those purchases, he boarded his ship to sail back home. The ship weighed anchor, but could move neither forward nor backward. The sailors asked, “Venerable Majesty, did you possibly forget something?”

  “No, not a thing,” he replied, but then he went over his notes and saw that he had forgotten the maiden’s three presents. He disembarked at once, entered a shop, and requested the three items.

  The merchant looked him in the eye. “Excuse me for asking, but who will receive these things?”

  “They are for one of my servants,” replied the king.

  “Listen carefully,” said the merchant. “When you get home, don’t give her anything, but make her wait three days. Then enter her room and say, ‘Go get me a drink of water, and I’ll give you the three presents.’ As soon as she leaves the room, put them on her dresser and hide under the bed or in some other place where you can watch what she does.”

  “I’ll do just that,” said the king.

  Upon his arrival all the servants ran out to meet him, and he gave them each the present he’d promised them. The last one in line was the maiden, who asked if he’d bought her three presents.

  “You worrisome girl!” he replied. “I bought them and will give them to you later . . . . ”

  She returned to her room and cried, sure that he’d brought her nothing.

  Three days later she heard a knock on the door, and there stood the king. “I’m here with your presents, but go get me a drink of water first, as I am thirsty.”

  The girl ran off. The king put everything on the dresser and hid under the bed. When she returned and found the king gone, she said, “He’s gone off once more without giving me anything.” She put the water down on the dresser and spied the presents.

  Then she bolted the door, undressed, struck a light, and lit the black candle, which she placed on a little table. She picked up the knife and thrust it into the tabletop, saying, “Do you remember when I was back home with His Majesty my father and an old woman told me I wouldn’t marry until I found the Dead Man?”

  The knife replied, “Indeed I do.”

  “Do you remember my traveling the world over and finding a palace with the Dead Man inside?”

  “Indeed I do.”

  “And you remember my watching him for a year and three months and then buying, to keep me company, that ugly slave I instructed to let me sleep for three days, since I was tired, and who let me sleep for a whole week only to have the Dead Man awaken, embrace her, and take her for his wife?”

  “I remember only too well, alas!”

  “Who should have been rewarded, myself who toiled a whole year and three months, or that woman who was there only a few days?”


  “Since you remember everything and say I deserved the prize, fly from the little table and lodge yourself in my heart.”

  When the king heard the knife tearing loose from the table, he jumped out from under the bed, embraced the maiden, and said, “I heard everything! You shall be my wife! In the meantime stay in your room and leave everything to me.”

  He went to the slave girl and said, “Now that I’m back from my trip, I shall hold a week of open house.”

  “Just so you don’t squander too much money on it,” replied the slave.

  “But that has always been my custom every time I’ve returned from a journey.”

  There was a grand banquet, and the king said to the slave, “I want all my servants to come in for dessert, and I want you to invite your maid too.”

  “Can’t you let that woman alone? She’s so disagreeable.”

  “If you don’t invite her, I will.” Thus the maiden came to the table, as tearful as ever.

  When dinner was over, the king gave an account of his journey. He had visited a city, he said, whose king had been under a spell like the one he had been under himself. A maiden had watched him for a year and three months, then bought a slave to keep her company. Exhausted, the maiden went to sleep, and the slave girl failed to awaken her. The Dead Man woke up, saw the slave girl, and married her.

  “Now tell me, everybody, which one should have been the king’s bride, the one who watched for a week, or the one who watched for a year and three months?”

  “The one who watched for a year and three months,” agreed everyone.

  The king continued. “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the lady who watched for a year and three months, and here is the slave girl she bought. Tell me how this ugly Moor should die for her shameful treachery.”

  They all jumped to their feet clamoring, “Burn her! In the middle of the town square, in a caldron of flaming pitch!”

  It was done. The king married the maiden, and they lived happily ever afterward, nor was any more ever said about them.



  Pome and Peel

  There was once a noble couple that longed to have a son, but alas, they had none. One day the lord was abroad and encountered a wizard. “Sir Wizard,” he said, “please tell me what I can do to have a son.”

  The wizard gave him an apple and said, “Have your wife eat it, and at the end of nine months she will give birth to a fine baby boy.”

  The husband took the apple home to his wife. “Eat this apple, and we will have a fine baby boy. A wizard told me so.”

  Overjoyed, the wife called her maidservant and told her to peel the apple. The maidservant did so, but kept the peeling and ate it herself.

  A son was born to the lady, and on the same day a son was born to her maidservant. The maidservant’s son was as ruddy as an apple skin; the lady’s son was as white as apple pulp. The lord looked on them both as his sons and reared and schooled them together.

  Growing up, Pome and Peel loved each other like brothers. Out walking one day, they heard about a wizard’s daughter as dazzling as the sun; but no one had ever seen her, as she never went abroad or even looked out her window. Pome and Peel had a large bronze horse built with a hollow belly, and they hid in it with a trumpet and a violin. The horse moved on wheels the boys turned from inside, and in that manner they rolled up to the wizard’s palace and began to play. The wizard looked out and, seeing that wonderful bronze horse making music all by itself, invited it inside to entertain his daughter.

  The maiden was delighted. But the minute she was left alone with the horse, out stepped Pome and Peel, and she was quite frightened. “Don’t be afraid,” they said to her. “We heard how beautiful you are, and we just had to see you. If you want us to leave, we will. But if you like our music and want us to keep playing, we’ll do so, then depart without letting anyone know we were ever here.”

  So they stayed on, playing and having a good time, and after a while the wizard’s daughter didn’t want them to
leave. “Come with us,” Pome told her, “and I’ll marry you.”

  She accepted. They all hid in the horse’s belly and off they rolled. No sooner had they gone than the wizard returned home, called his daughter, looked for her, questioned the guard at the gate: there was no sign of her anywhere. Then he realized he had been tricked, and he was furious. He went to the balcony and screamed three curses on the girl: “Let her come upon three horses—one white, one red, one black—and loving horses the way she does, let her leap on the white one, and let this horse be her undoing.

  “Or else: Let her come upon three pretty little dogs—one white, one red, one black—and loving little black dogs the way she does, let her pick up the black one, and let this dog be her undoing.

  “Or else: On the night she goes to bed with her spouse, let a giant snake come through the window, and let this snake be her undoing.”

  While the wizard was screaming those three curses from the balcony, three old fairies happened by on the street below and heard everything.

  In the evening, weary from their long trip, the fairies stopped at an inn. As soon as they were inside, one of them remarked, “Just look at the wizard’s daughter! She wouldn’t be sleeping so soundly if she knew about her father’s three curses!”

  For there asleep on a bench in the inn were Pome, Peel, and the wizard’s daughter. Peel wasn’t actually asleep; perhaps he wasn’t sleepy, or maybe he just considered it always wiser to sleep with one eye open and thus know what was going on around him.

  So he overheard one fairy say, “It’s the wizard’s will for her to come upon three horses—one white, one red, one black—and leap on the white one, which will be her undoing.”

  “But,” put in the second fairy, “if some far-seeing soul were present, he would cut off the horse’s head at once, and nothing would happen.”

  The third fairy added, “Whoever breathes a word of this will turn to stone.”

  “Then it’s the wizard’s will for her to come upon three pretty little dogs,” said the first fairy, “and pick up the very one that will be her undoing.”

  “But,” commented the second fairy, “if some far-seeing soul were present, he would cut off the puppy’s head at once, and nothing would happen.”

  “Whoever breathes a word of this,” said the third fairy, “will turn to stone.”

  “It’s finally his will, the first night she sleeps with her husband, for a giant snake to come through the window and destroy her.”

  But if some far-seeing soul were present, he would cut off the snake’s head, and nothing would happen,” chimed in the second fairy.

  “Whoever breathes a word of this will turn to stone.”

  So Peel found himself in possession of three terrible secrets which he could not reveal without turning to stone.

  The next morning they set out for a post house, where Pome’s father had three horses waiting for them—one white, one red, one black. The wizard’s daughter immediately jumped into the saddle on the white one, but Peel promptly unsheathed his sword and cut off the horse’s head.

  “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?”

  “Forgive me, I am not at liberty to explain.”

  “Pome, this Peel has a wicked heart!” said the wizard’s daughter. “I will travel no further in his company.”

  But Peel admitted having cut off the horse’s head in a moment of madness. He begged her to forgive him, which she ended up doing.

  They reached the home of Pome’s parents, and three pretty little dogs ran out to meet them—one white, one red, and one black. She bent down to pick up the black one, but Peel drew his sword and cut off the dog’s head.

  “Away with him at once, this crazy, cruel man!” screamed the bride.

  At that moment Pome’s parents came out. They heartily welcomed their son and his bride and, learning of the dispute with Peel, they persuaded her to pardon him once more. But at dinner, amidst the general merriment, Peel was pensive and aloof, nor could anyone make him say what was troubling him. “Nothing’s the matter, absolutely nothing,” he insisted, although he left the banquet early, under the pretext of being sleepy. But instead of going to his room, he entered the bridal chamber and hid under the bed.

  The bride and bridegroom went to bed and fell asleep. Keeping watch, Peel soon heard the windowpane break, and in crawled a giant snake. Peel leaped out, bared his sword, and cut off the snake’s head. At the commotion the bride awoke, saw Peel by the bed with his sword unsheathed, saw no snake (it had vanished), and screamed, “Help! Murder! Peel wants to kill us! I’ve pardoned him two times already, let him be put to death this time!”

  Peel was seized, imprisoned, and three days later dressed for the gallows. Imagining himself now doomed in any event, he asked permission to tell Pome’s wife three things before dying. She came tohimin prison.

  “Do you remember,” Peel asked, “when we stopped at an inn?”

  “Of course I do.”

  “Well, while you and your husband were sleeping, three fairies came in and said the wizard had placed three curses on his daughter: to come upon three horses and leap on the white horse, which would be her undoing. But, they added, should somebody quickly cut off the horse’s head, nothing would happen. And whoever breathed a word of this would turn to stone.”

  As he said those words, poor Peel’s feet and legs turned to marble.

  The young woman understood. “That’s enough, please!” she screamed. “Don’t tell me any more!”

  But he went on: “Doomed whether I speak or keep silent, I choose to speak. The three fairies also said the wizard’s daughter would come upon three pretty little dogs . . . ”

  He related the curse regarding the little dogs and turned to stone up to his neck.

  “I understand! Poor Peel, forgive me! Don’t go on!” pleaded the bride.

  But in a strained voice, since his throat was already marble, and stuttering, since his jaws were becoming marble, he told her about the curse with the snake. “But . . . whoever breathes a word of this . . . will turn to stone . . . ” At that, he was silent, marble from head to foot.

  “What have I done!” moaned the young wife. “This faithful soul is damned . . . unless . . . why, of course, the only person that can save him is my father.” And she took paper, pen, and ink, and wrote her father, asking his forgiveness and begging him to come to her.

  The wizard, whose child was the apple of his eye, came to her at breakneck speed. “Papa dear,” she said as she kissed him, “I am asking you a favor. Look at this poor youth. After saving my life and protecting me from your three curses, he has turned to stone from head to foot.”

  Sighing, the wizard replied, “For the love I bear you, I will do this also.” He drew a phial of balsam from his pocket, brushed Peel with it, and Peel sprang back to life as sound as ever.

  Thus, instead of leading him to the gallows, they bore him home in triumph, amid music and singing, while the throngs around him shouted, “Long live Peel! Long live Peel!”



  The Cloven Youth

  A woman was expecting a baby and craved parsley. Next door to her lived a famous witch who had a whole garden of parsley. The garden gate was always open, since the parsley was so abundant, and all who wished could go in and help themselves. The woman with a craving for parsley went in, fell to, and didn’t stop until she’d eaten half the garden. When the witch returned and found half the garden stripped, she said, “Ah-ha! They intend to eat me clean out . . . . I’ll just keep watch tomorrow and find out who it is.”

  The woman showed up the next day to eat the rest of the parsley. She’d scarcely finished nibbling up the last plant when out jumped the witch and said, “Ah-ha! So you’re the one who ate all my parsley!”

  The woman was terrified. “Please let me go, I’m expecting a baby.”

  “Of course I’ll let you go,” replied the witch. “Only, the baby boy or girl you bear will be half mine and half
yours when it is seven years old.”

  In great fright, the woman agreed, just to get away.

  A boy was born. He grew, and when he was six, he met the witch on the street one day. Seeing him, she said, “Listen, remind your mother we have only one more year to go.”

  The child went home and said, “Mamma, an old woman told me we have only one more year to go.”

  “If she repeats that, tell her she’s crazy.”

  When the boy was only three months away from his seventh birthday, the witch said to him, “Tell your mother we have only three months to go.”

  “My dear lady,” he replied, “you’re crazy!”

  “Indeed! We’ll see whether I’m crazy!

  Three months later the old woman caught the boy on the street and took him to her house. She placed him on a table flat on his back, picked up a knife, and cut him lengthwise into two halves, starting at his head.

  To one of the halves, she said, “You go home.” To the other, “You stay with me.”

  One half remained, while the other went home and said, “You see, Mamma, what that old woman did to me? And you said she was crazy!” His mother threw up her hands, but what could she say now?

  This half-boy grew up, but had no idea what calling to follow. He finally decided to be a fisherman. One day while eel fishing, he caught an eel as long as himself. When he pulled it up, the eel said, “Let me go and you’ll fish me up again.” He threw it back into the water, lowered his net once more, and pulled it up full of eels. He returned to shore with his boat brimming with eels and earned a bag of money.

  The next day he caught the large eel again, which said, “Let me go, and whatever you wish will be granted, for the sake of the little eel.” He let it go at once.

  One day on his way out to fish as usual, he passed the king’s palace. The king’s daughter was on the balcony with her maids of honor. She saw this man with half a head, half a body, and just one leg, and burst out laughing. He looked up at her and said, “You laugh, do you? For the sake of the little eel, the king’s daughter shall therefore have a son by me.”

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