Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Not long after that, the king’s daughter expected a child, and her parents became aware of it. “Just what is the meaning of this?” they asked.

  “I’m as much in the dark as you are,” replied the girl.

  “What do you mean you’re in the dark? Who’s the father?”

  “I really don’t know. I know nothing about any of this.” And she continued to say that, even though her parents went on questioning her, urging her to talk, and assuring her of their forgiveness. At last they lost patience and began insulting her and mistreating her.

  The baby was born, a handsome son, but the girl’s parents wept over the disgrace of having a fatherless child under their roof and called in a sorcerer to solve the riddle. The sorcerer said, “Wait until he’s a year old.”

  After a year, the sorcerer said, “You must have a grand reception for all the noblemen in town. When they’re all in the reception hall, let the child be carried past them with a gold apple and a silver apple. He will give his father the gold apple and his grandfather the silver apple.”

  The king sent out the invitations and had chairs set up around the walls of a large reception hall. When all the noblemen in town were seated, he sent for the nurse with the baby in her arms and put the two apples into his hands. “This one is for your father, and this one for your grandfather.”

  The nurse went around the hall and came back to the king, and the baby handed him the silver apple.

  “I know only too well I’m your grandfather,” said the king. “But I want to know who your father is.”

  But the baby was taken round and round the room, without giving the gold apple to a soul.

  The sorcerer was called back and said, “Now give a reception for the town’s poor men.” So the king announced this reception.

  When the cloven youth heard there was to be a reception at the palace for all the poor men in town, he said to his mother, “Get out my best halfshirt, my half-vest, my trouser, my pump, and my half-beret, for I’m invited to the king’s.”

  The large hall was packed with paupers, fishermen, and beggars, who sat on benches the king had ordered placed against the walls. The nurse started around with the little boy holding the gold apple. “Go on,” she told him, “give it to Papa.” She continued around the room. The minute the child saw the cloven youth, he broke into a smile and threw his arms around the young man’s neck, saying, “Here, Papa, take this apple!”

  The poor men seated around the room on benches burst out laughing. “Ha, ha, ha! Just look who the king’s daughter fell in love with!”

  The only one among them to remain perfectly calm was the king, who said, “In that case, he shall become my daughter’s husband!”

  The wedding was performed at once. The newlyweds emerged from church, expecting to find a carriage waiting for them. Instead, there stood a barrel, a great big empty barrel. The cloven youth, his bride, and their child were put inside and sealed up, after which the barrel was thrown into the sea.

  A storm was raging over the sea, and the barrel bobbed up and down on the waves until it finally disappeared from sight, and everyone at the king’s palace said it had gone under for good.

  It didn’t sink, though, but floated out to sea. Sensing how frightened the king’s daughter was, the cloven youth said to her, “My bride, would you like me to bring the barrel in to shore?”

  The bride replied, scarcely above a whisper, “Yes, if you can.”

  No sooner said than done! For the sake of the little eel, the barrel came to rest on dry land. The cloven youth broke open the bottom, and they all three stepped out. It was mealtime, and for the sake of the little eel, a table appeared, set for three and laden with tasty dishes and beverages. When they had eaten and drunk their fill, the cloven youth asked, “Are you satisfied with me, my bride?”

  “I would like you still better,” she said, “if you were whole.”

  At that, he said to himself, “For the sake of the little eel, may I become whole and handsomer than ever.” At once he became the handsomest of youths, completely whole, and dressed as a grand nobleman. “Are you satisfied?”

  “Oh, yes, but I would be still more so if we were in a fine palace, instead of out here on this deserted shore.”

  He therefore thought to himself, For the sake of the little eel, may we find ourselves in a fine palace with two apple trees, one bearing gold apples and the other silver apples, and may we have maids, butlers, ladies-in-waiting, and everything one needs in a palace.

  No sooner had he thought of all that than everything was there before him—palace, apples, and butlers.

  A few days later, the cloven youth, who was now no longer cloven but whole, gave a reception for all the kings and queens in the vicinity, including his wife’s father. The cloven youth, greeting them at the door, said, “Let me warn you of one thing: do not touch those gold apples and those silver apples. Heaven help you if you put your hands on them.”

  “Don’t worry, don’t worry!” replied the guests. “We’ll keep our hands where they belong.”

  They sat down to eat and drink, while the cloven youth said to himself, “For the sake of the little eel, let a gold apple and a silver apple find their way into my father-in-law’s pockets.”

  After dinner he took his guests into the garden for a stroll and noticed that two apples were missing. “Who took them?” he asked.

  “Not I,” answered all the kings. “I’ve not put my hands on a thing.”

  The cloven youth said, “I gave you warning those apples were not to be touched. Now I’ve no choice but to search Your Majesties.”

  He went down the line frisking them, king by king and queen by queen. No one had the apples. At last he came to his father-in-law, and there was an apple in each pocket. “Of all things! No one else dared touch them, but you stole two! You’re now going to account to me!”

  “But I know nothing about the apples,” the king tried to explain. “I don’t know how on earth . . . I didn’t take them, I swear!”

  “Even with all the evidence against you,” said the cloven youth, “you still claim you’re innocent?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, then, just as you are innocent, so was your daughter, and it’s only fair that I do to you what you did to her.”

  In walked the young man’s wife at that moment. “Never let it be said that my father had to suffer because of me. Even if he was cruel to me, he’s still my father, and I beg you to be merciful to him.”

  Moved to pity, the cloven youth pardoned him. Happy to be reunited with his daughter, whom he’d given up for dead, and pleased to learn she was innocent, the king took them back to his palace, where they all lived in harmony from then on. Unless they have died in the meantime, they may well be there to this day.

  (Venice)

  35

  Invisible Grandfather

  There was once a mother with three daughters, and the family was as poor as poor could be. One day, one of the three girls said, “Look, rather than stay here and suffer, I’m going out in the world and seek my fortune.” With that, she picked up and left.

  After walking for miles and miles, she came to a palace. Finding the door open, she said, “I’ll go in and see if they need a servant.” She entered and called out, “Hello! Is anyone at home?” No one answered her. She walked into the kitchen and saw the pot boiling over the fire. Opening a cupboard, she found bread, rice, wine, a little bit of everything, and said, “Here’s everything one could possibly need, and I am hungry, so I’m making myself some good soup right away.”

  As she uttered those words, she saw two hands setting the table. The hands put out a bowl of rice, and the girl said, “Now I’ll eat,” and sat down at once to the table. When she’d finished her rice, the hands brought her a cockerel, and the girl ate every bit of it. “Yes, indeed,” she mused, “I was truly weak from hunger, but I feel better now.”

  She went through the palace and saw a beautiful reception hall, a breakfast room,
and a bedroom with a canopied bed. “What a fine bed! I’m going to retire right away.” She lay down and slept the whole night long.

  The minute she woke up next morning, the same two hands appeared with coffee on a tray. She drank it, and the hands carried off the tray with the cup on it. After dressing, she passed into a large room containing a vast wardrobe full of dresses, shawls, skirts, and other wearing apparel. The girl cast off her rags and dressed in queenly attire. If she was beautiful before, no words can describe how lovely she was afterward.

  Outside was an arbor, and she strolled under it at the very moment a king happened by. Catching sight of the beautiful maiden, he asked her under what conditions he could talk to her, for he was overwhelmed with admiration. The girl replied that she had neither father nor mother, but that if he would stop by another day, she would have an answer for him. The king bowed profusely, then rode off in his carriage.

  The girl went back inside, approached the fireplace, and said, “Dear Sir, I ended up at this palace, but I’ve never seen a soul anywhere around, and now there’s a king who’s taken a liking to me. What must I tell him when he returns for an answer?”

  From the chimney a voice answered her: “Beautiful you are and ever more beautiful will you be. I give you my blessing! Tell the king your poor, sick, solitary grandfather is glad for you to marry, provided you don’t put off the wedding. Now go, my lovely one whose loveliness will increase.” And the girl grew ever more beautiful.

  The next day she appeared on her balcony just as the king was arriving, and the minute he saw her, he asked for her answer. She explained that she couldn’t invite him inside, as her poor sick grandfather was there. But her grandfather was glad for them to marry if they would do so without delay, and meanwhile they could carry on their courtship on the balcony. The king was overjoyed.

  They courted for a whole week, at the end of which the girl went up to the fireplace and said, “Grandfather, we’ve now courted for a week. Do you think that’s long enough?”

  He answered: “Go ahead and marry him and start carrying off everything in the house. Be sure you leave nothing behind. It is very important you take every single thing! Now go, my lovely one whose loveliness will increase.” And she grew still more beautiful.

  She went to the balcony, and the minute the king appeared, she told him to make arrangements for the wedding and to send carriages and horses in the meantime to haul away everything in her palace. It took them a good week to carry everything off. And the king said to his father, “Just look, Papa, at what fine things my bride has. Nothing our royal family has comes up to them. And just wait until you see what a beauty she is!”

  In the meantime his fiancee had swept out the palace and thrown away brooms and brushes. It was now completely empty. All that remained was a golden necklace she intended putting on as soon as she departed, and she’d left it hanging on a nail. As she waited on the balcony, she saw the king approaching in his two-horse carriage, so she went to the fireplace and said, “Grandfather, I’m leaving now, since my bridegroom has come for me. Put your mind at rest, I’ve taken everything away and swept the palace clean.”

  “Good girl,” said Grandfather. “I thank you. Beautiful you are, and ever more beautiful will you become.”

  More beautiful than ever, the girl climbed into the carriage, and the king embraced her; then they drove off. Halfway to the king’s palace, she touched her neck and exclaimed, “Woe is me, I forgot my golden necklace . . . . Quick, let us go back for it!”

  The king replied, “Don’t give it a thought. We’ll have a much finer one made for you.”

  But she insisted on going back at all costs. She got out of the carriage and went into the palace, while the king waited for her below. Approaching the fireplace, she said, “Grandfather?”

  “What do you want?”

  “Please forgive me, I forgot my golden necklace,” and saying that, she took it off the nail.

  “Be gone!” screamed the voice from the chimney. “Be gone, you hideous bearded woman!”

  At that moment, as the girl slipped on her necklace, she felt hair touch her fingers. She looked in the mirror: she had a long beard that came halfway down her bosom.

  Seeing her come out like that, the bridegroom put his hands to his head. “I told you we shouldn’t have come back here! Now what will I tell my father after having praised your beauty to the skies? I can no longer take you home with me. But I have a cottage in the woods nearby, and I’ll keep you there.”

  That he did, and called on her every day, for he still loved her and saw that she lacked nothing. Word got out and soon reached the king that his son was courting a bearded woman. At that, the king sent for his son and said to him, “What do you mean by courting a bearded woman? The dignity of the crown is at stake! Either you give her up, or I will put her to death!”

  The youth went to the girl and said, “I must tell you something. My father has found out I’m courting a bearded woman, and said if I didn’t leave you he would put you to death. What hope is there for us?”

  “Do one thing for me,” answered the girl. “Get someone to make me a black veil and a black velvet dress. Then take me to Grandfather, and we’ll ask him to help us.”

  The prince brought her the dress and veil, and as soon as she was all wrapped up in them, they got into the carriage and drove off to the palace.

  She approached the fireplace and said, “Grandfather?”

  “Who’s there?”

  “It’s me, Grandfather!”

  “What do you want, you hideous, bearded woman?”

  “Please listen, dear Grandfather. Because of you, I’ve been condemned to die . . . ”

  “Because of me? Didn’t I tell you to take away everything, every single thing? If you hadn’t left the golden necklace, I would now be free from my evil spell; but instead, I have to start my sentence all over again from the beginning!”

  “Grandfather,” said the girl, “I’m not asking for the beauty back I had in this palace, but I’d at least like my face to look as it did the first time I ever came here. Please, Grandfather, make me the way I used to be.”

  “Very well,” said Grandfather; “you’ve not forgotten anything?”

  “No, no,” she replied. “I’m holding the necklace I left hanging on a nail.”

  Then the grandfather said to her, “Put it around your neck. Beautiful you were, and more beautiful will you become.”

  The girl put on her necklace, and the beard suddenly vanished.

  “Grandfather! Thank you! Farewell!”

  “Go, my lovely one, your loveliness will increase.” And the girl became as dazzling as the sun.

  She flew down the steps and into her bridegroom’s carriage. The king’s son was overjoyed to see her once more the way she used to be and even a hundred times more beautiful. He embraced her and said, “My father wouldn’t dream of sentencing you to death now, and he wouldn’t say it is undignified for the crown prince to court you.”

  As soon as they reached the royal palace, the father came out. “Here,” said the son, “is the hideous bearded woman I have been courting.”

  “Ah,” said the old king. “My son, you are exactly right. There couldn’t be a lovelier girl under the sun.” He embraced her and gave orders for the wedding, and in the meantime had her appear on the balcony, so that the whole town could see her. All the citizens immediately gathered before the balcony and, at the sight of the maiden, cried, “Long live our new queen!”

  A few days later the two young people were married. At the wedding banquet they served radish preserves, peeled mice, skinned cats, and fried monkeys. They ate that, and enough was left over for tomorrow. To top off everything was a sprig of rosemary, token of remembrance, but nobody thought to say to me so much as “Have a glass of wine!”

  (Venice)

  36

  The King of Denmark’s Son

  There was once a king and queen who seemed unable to have any children. At last,
thanks to constant prayer to their idols, the queen gave birth to a baby girl. To learn the daughter’s destiny, she called in twelve astrologers. Eleven of them she presented with a gold telescope apiece, but on the twelfth, the oldest astrologer, she bestowed only a silver telescope. The astrologers gathered round the girl. Some of them said she would be beautiful, others that she would be clever, others virtuous—in short, the usual things. Only the oldest astrologer remained silent. “Let us hear your prophecy too,” said the king. At that, the old man, whose feelings had been hurt because of the telescope, answered that the predictions would all come true, but that the girl would fall in love with the first man she heard named.

  “How can we prevent that?” asked the king.

  “You will have to build a palace adjoining yours,” explained the astrologer, “furnished as befits a king’s daughter, and house her there with nurses and maidservants. But there mustn’t be a single window in this palace, except a tiny little one way up at the top.”

  So was it done. The king called on his daughter once a month and saw her growing up and getting lovelier and lovelier, just as the astrologers had predicted she would. But the older she got, the more certain she became that she couldn’t stay closed up there forever and that there had to be another world different from her prison.

  One day while her maids were out in the garden, the girl went and stood under the little window way up at the top, then built a tower out of big tables, little tables, and chairs, piling one on top of the other until she reached the windowsill. She looked out and saw the sky with the sun and clouds; although the earth was not visible, she heard words and sounds floating up from it.

  Two young men happened to be passing by. One of them said, “Just what is this palace next to the king’s?”

  “You don’t know? They keep the king’s daughter closed up in there, since it’s been predicted she would fall in love with the first man she heard about.”

 
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