Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Is she beautiful?”

  “They say she is, but no one has ever seen her.”

  “She can be as beautiful as beautiful can be, but never so fine-looking as the king of Denmark’s son. Did you know that the king of Denmark’s son is so dazzling he has to wear seven veils over his face? And he’ll never marry until he finds a wife whose looks equal his own.”

  Hearing that conversation, the king’s daughter was seized with frenzy and fell to the floor. Her maids of honor came running and found her weeping and raving. “I have to get out of here, I have to get out!”

  “Calm down,” answered the maids of honor; “wait and tell your father when he comes back to see you.”

  At the end of the month, her father came to call on her as usual, and she burst into tears and told him her imprisonment was senseless and that she had to get out. So the king took her to his palace and ordered that no man ever be mentioned in her presence. But the girl had the king of Denmark’s son on her mind now, and she was always wistful. Her father repeatedly asked her what the matter was, but she replied, “Nothing, nothing at all!” Finally one day she took heart, entered her father’s study, threw herself on her knees, and told him about the king of Denmark’s son. “Please, Father, send to him and ask if he will have me for his wife.”

  “Get up from there and calm down,” ordered the king. “I’ll send ambassadors to him at once. I am more powerful than the king of Denmark, so he won’t say no to me.”

  The ambassadors arrived at the king of Denmark’s. The king called in his son, who entered with the seven veils over his face, and his father told him he was being sought in marriage.

  At that, the boy lifted the first veil and asked the ambassadors, “Is she as fine-looking as I am?”

  The ambassadors replied, “Your Highness, she is.”

  He lifted the second veil. “Is she as fine-looking as I am?”

  “Your Highness, she is.”

  He thus lifted all the veils, one after the other, and when he had removed the last one, he asked, “Is she as fine-looking as I am?”

  The ambassadors hung their heads. “Your Highness, no.”

  “Tell her, in that case, I don’t want her.”

  “But she swore,” insisted the ambassadors, “that if Your Majesty turned her down she would hang herself.”

  At that, the king of Denmark’s son picked up a cord and threw it to the ambassadors. “Take her this rope and tell her to hang herself.”

  The ambassadors returned bearing the rope, and the king flew into a rage. But the girl cried, sighed, and pleaded until her father sent the ambassadors back to the king of Denmark.

  This time as well the king of Denmark’s son lifted all his veils down to the seventh and asked, “Is she as fine-looking as I am?”

  “Your Highness, no.”

  “Then tell her I don’t want her.”

  “She swore she’d take a knife and stab herself to death.”

  “Take this knife and tell her to stab herself to death.”

  When they returned with the knife, the king was ready to declare war on Denmark, but his daughter begged him to calm down, and a few months later she persuaded him to dispatch the ambassadors one more time.

  The king of Denmark’s son asked the same questions.

  “Your Highness, no,” replied the ambassadors when he lifted the last veil, “but if she’s rejected again, she said she would take a pistol and shoot herself.”

  “Take this pistol and let her shoot herself.”

  They returned with the pistol. The king had another tantrum, and the daughter another crying spell. “Please, Father, make me an iron cask; close me up in it and send me out to sea.”

  Her father wouldn’t hear of it, but she kept on begging until at last she was put into a cask dressed as a princess, with her crown on her head, and carrying cord, knife, pistol, and a few provisions for the crossing. Off she went over the sea.

  After floating for days and days and days, she was washed ashore on an island where the palace of a queen stood. When the ladies-in-waiting opened the windows in the morning, they spied the cask on the beach. “Your Highness!” they exclaimed, “if you could only see what a beautiful little cask the sea has washed ashore!”

  The queen ordered the cask brought in. They opened it as she looked on, and out stepped the beautiful maiden. “Why are you sailing the sea like that?” asked the queen, whereupon the girl explained.

  “You have nothing to worry about, absolutely nothing,” said the queen. “The king of Denmark’s son is my brother. He comes to see me every month to drink a glass of seawater. He’s expected here in just a few days.”

  So here came the king of Denmark’s son. Instead of having the usual maid of honor take him his glass of seawater, his sister the queen sent that maiden to him. The minute he laid eyes on her he was in love. “Who is this beautiful lady?” he asked his sister.

  “A friend of mine.”

  “Listen, my sister. From now on, instead of visiting you once a month, I’ll come here every fortnight.”

  He returned in a fortnight, and the same maiden served him his glass of seawater.

  “Listen, my sister, instead of every fortnight, I’ll come here every week.”

  He was back the next week, but this time the original maid of honor took him his glass of seawater. The king of Denmark’s son refused to drink it. “Is that other beautiful maiden no longer here?”

  “She’s not feeling very well.”

  “I shall go to her room and see her.”

  The maiden was in bed and, before her, on the sheet lay cord, knife, and pistol. But he looked only at her and paid no attention to the weapons. She said to him though, “Now, which one of these three things must I use?”

  When he didn’t understand, she explained that she was the daughter of the king who had sent ambassadors to him.

  “I was misled!” he exclaimed. “Had I known you were so beautiful I would have said yes at once!”

  At that, the maiden got up and wrote her father: “I am at the house of a certain queen, and here also is the king of Denmark’s son, who wishes to marry me.”

  Overjoyed, her father came for her, and they all went to the king of Denmark’s and celebrated the wedding.

  (Venice)

  37

  Petie Pete versus Witch Bea-Witch

  Petie Pete was a little boy just so tall who went to school. On the school road was a garden with a pear tree, which Petie Pete used to climb and eat the pears. Beneath the tree passed Witch Bea-Witch one day and said:

  “Petie Pete, pass me a pear

  With your little paw!

  I mean it, don’t guffaw,

  My mouth waters, I swear, I swear!”

  Petie Pete thought, Her mouth waters not for the pears but for me, and refused to come down the tree. He plucked a pear and threw it to Witch Bea-Witch. But the pear fell on the ground right where a cow had been by and deposited one of its mementos.

  Witch Bea-Witch repeated:

  “Petie Pete, pass me a pear

  With your little paw!

  I mean it, don’t guffaw,

  My mouth waters, I swear, I swear!”

  But Petie Pete stayed in the tree and tossed down another pear, which fell on the ground right where a horse had been by and left a big puddle.

  Witch Bea-Witch repeated her request, and Petie Pete thought it wiser to comply. He scampered down and offered her a pear. Witch Bea-Witch opened up her bag, but instead of putting in the pear, she put in Petie Pete, tied up the bag, and slung it over her shoulder.

  After going a little way, Witch Bea-Witch had to stop and relieve herself; she put the bag down and went behind a bush. Meanwhile, with his little teeth as sharp as a rat’s, Petie Pete gnawed the cord in two that tied up the bag, jumped out, shoved a heavy rock into the bag, and fled. Witch Bea-Witch took up the bag once more and flung it over her shoulder.

  “O Petie Pete,

  To carry you is a feat!


  she said, and wound her way home. The door was closed, so Witch Bea-Witch called her daughter:

  “Maggy Mag! Marguerite!

  Come undo the door;

  Then I ask you more:

  Put on the pot to stew Petie Pete.”

  Maggy Mag opened up, then placed a caldron of water over the fire. When the water came to a boil Witch Bea-Witch emptied her bag into it Splash! went the stone and crashed through the caldron. Water poured into the fire and spattered all over the floor, burning Witch Bea-Witch’s legs.

  “Mamma, just what do you mean

  By boiling stones in our tureen?”

  cried Maggy Mag, and Witch Bea-Witch, dancing up and down in pain, snapped:

  “Child, rekindle the flame;

  I’ll be back in a flash with something tame.”

  She changed clothes, donned a blond wig, and went out with the bag.

  Instead of going on to school, Petie Pete had climbed back up the pear tree. In disguise, Witch Bea-Witch came by again, hoping he wouldn’t recognize her, and said:

  “Petie Pete, pass me a pear

  With your little paw!

  I mean it, don’t guffaw,

  My mouth waters, I swear, I swear!”

  But Petie Pete had recognized her and dared not come down:

  “Pears I refuse old Witch Bea-Witch,

  Who would bag me without a hitch.”

  Then Witch Bea-Witch reassured him:

  “I’m not the soul you think, I swear,

  This morning only did I leave my lair.

  Petie, Pete, pass me a pear

  With your little paw so fair.”

  She kept on until she finally talked Petie Pete into coming down and giving her a pear. At once she shoved him down into the bag.

  Reaching the bushes, she again had to stop and relieve herself; but this time the bag was tied too tight for Petie Pete to get away. So what did he do but call “Bobwhite” several times in imitation of quail. A hunter with his dog out hunting quail found the bag and opened it. Petie Pete jumped out and begged the hunter to put the dog into the bag in his place. When Witch Bea-Witch returned and shouldered the bag, the dog inside did nothing but squirm and whine, and Witch Bea-Witch said:

  “Petie Pete, there’s nothing to help you,

  Bark like a dog is all you can do.”

  She got home and called her daughter:

  “Maggy Mag! Marguerite!

  Come undo the door;

  Then I ask you more:

  Put on the pot to stew Petie Pete.”

  But when she went to empty the bag into the boiling water, the angry dog slipped out, bit her on the shin, dashed into the yard, and gobbled up hens left and right.

  “Mamma, have you lost your mind?

  Is it on dogs you now want to dine?”

  exclaimed Maggy Mag. Witch Bea-Witch snapped:

  “Child, rekindle the flame:

  I’ll be back in a flash.”

  She changed clothes, donned a red wig, and returned to the pear tree. She went on at such length that Petie Pete fell into the trap once more. This time there were no rest stops. She carried the bag straight home where her daughter was waiting on the doorstep for her.

  “Shut him up in the chicken coop,” ordered the Witch, “and early tomorrow morning while I’m out, make him into hash with potatoes.”

  The next morning Maggy Mag took a carving board and knife to the henhouse and opened a little hen door.

  “Petie Pete, just for fun,

  Please lay your head upon this board.”

  He replied:

  “First show me how!”

  Maggy Mag laid her neck on the board, and Petie Pete picked up the carving knife and cut off her head, which he put on to fry in the frying pan.

  Witch Bea-Witch came back and exclaimed:

  “Marguerite, dear daughter,

  What have you thrown in the fryer?”

  “Me!” piped Petie Pete, sitting on the hood over the fireplace.

  “How did you get way up there?” asked Witch Bea-Witch.

  “I piled one pot on top of the other and came on up.”

  So Witch Bea-Witch tried to make a ladder of pots to go after him, but when she got halfway to the top the pots came crashing down, and into the fire she fell and burned to ashes.

  (Friuli)

  38

  Quack, Quack! Stick to My Back!

  A king had a daughter as pretty as a picture whom all the princes and noblemen would have liked to marry, had it not been for the bargain she’d made with her father.

  This king, mind you, had once given a big banquet, and while the guests all laughed and enjoyed themselves, his daughter remained serious and solemn-faced. “Why so glum?” asked her table companions. She answered them with total silence. They all tried to make her laugh, but failed.

  “My daughter, are you angry?” asked her father.

  “No, Father, I am not.”

  “Then why don’t you laugh?”

  “I wouldn’t laugh even if my life depended on it.”

  Then the king had an idea. “Fine! Since you’re so determined not to laugh, let’s try something, rather let’s make a bargain. Whoever would marry you must manage to make you laugh.”

  “Very well,” said the princess. “But under this condition: whoever tries to make me laugh and fails will have his head cut off.”

  Thus was it agreed. All the guests witnessed the pact, and the royal word once given had to be kept.

  The news spread to the four corners of the world, and all the princes and noblemen began competing for the hand of the lovely princess. But every single one who tried lost his life. Early each morning the princess would go out on her balcony to wait for a suitor to come by. Time was passing, and the king was more and more afraid his daughter would end up an old maid.

  Now word of all this also reached a certain country village. You know how people sit around at night talking about all sorts of things, and so they got on the subject of the princess’s bargain with her father. A boy with scalp disease, the son of a poor cobbler, listened open-mouthed. At length, he said, “I shall go myself and try!”

  “Don’t be silly, my son,” answered his father.

  “I’m serious, Father, I’m going. I shall set out tomorrow.”

  “Those people are serious too, and they’ll put you to death.”

  “Father, I intend to become king!”

  “Ha, ha, ha!” they all laughed. “A king with scalp disease!”

  The next morning the father had forgotten all about it, when his son came in and announced, “Well, Father, I’m leaving. Here everybody looks down on me because of my scalp disease. Give me three loaves of bread, three gold florins, and a bottle of wine.”

  “But just think what you’re letting yourself in for.”

  “I have,” and with that, he departed.

  He walked and walked and met a poor woman trudging along with the aid of a stick. “Are you hungry, madam?” asked the boy with the scalp disease.

  “I certainly am, son. Could you give me something to eat?”

  He gave her one of his three loaves, which she ate. But since she was still hungry, he gave her the second loaf as well. Feeling truly sorry for her, he ended up giving her the third one too.

  On and on he went, until he met another woman in tatters.

  “Could you give me a little money, my lad, to buy myself some sort of dress?”

  He gave her a florin. Then he got to thinking one florin was perhaps not enough, so he gave her another one. But he felt so sorry for her that he handed her the third one too.

  On and on he went until he met another woman, who was old, wrinkled, and panting with thirst.

  “Dear boy, give me something to quench my thirst and you’ll save a soul from Purgatory.”

  The boy with scalp disease handed her his bottle of wine. The old woman drank a little, and he kept on telling her to have more until she had drained the bottle dry. S
he looked up at last and was no longer an old woman, but a lovely blond maiden with a star in her hair.

  “I know where you are going,” she said, “and I know how kind-hearted you are, because the three women you met were all none other than myself. I shall now come to your assistance. Take this fine goose and carry it with you everywhere you go. Whenever anyone touches it, it will cry, ‘Quack, quack!’ and you must straightway say, ‘Stick to my back!’” At that, the beautiful maiden vanished.

  The youth continued on his way with the goose. He came to an inn at night and, having no money, took a seat outside on a bench. The innkeeper emerged and was going to drive him away, when his two daughters appeared, saw the goose, and said to their father, “Please don’t send this stranger away, Father. Invite him in and offer him bed and board.”

 
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