Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “Me, Lord?”

  “But I’m not blaming you in the least. Go on, eat.”

  “I can’t, Lord. I have sort of a lump here. I’ll drink a glass of wine now.”

  That night Peter couldn’t sleep a wink. He’d no sooner dozed off at dawn than the Lord awakened him so they’d get an early start and reach town before midday. Peter got up still worrying about the liver and fearing the Lord knew all about it.

  In town all they saw were grave faces and lowered eyes; there was no sign of any of the dancing or merrymaking typical of all towns. “What’s going on here?” wondered St. Peter, and the Lord said to him, “Just ask somebody, Peter.”

  Peter asked a soldier, who explained in a hushed voice that the king’s daughter was so ill that the doctors had given up all hope of curing her, but the king had promised a bag of gold crowns to the person who made her well again.

  “Listen, Peter,” said the Lord, “I would like to see you win that bag of gold crowns. Go to the palace and say you’re a famous doctor. Once you’re alone with the king’s daughter, take your pruning knife and cut off her head. Soak the head in water for one hour, then take it out and put it back on the king’s daughter, who will be cured.”

  Peter marched straight to the king and asked to be left alone in his daughter’s room for one hour. Once alone with her, he pulled out his knife and cut off her head, drenching the bed with blood. He threw the head into a pail of water and sat down to wait until an hour was up.

  At the end of the hour, there was a mighty pounding on the door.

  “Just a minute!” called Peter. He pulled the head out of water, set it on the girl’s shoulders, but nothing happened! It wouldn’t stick, and Peter became more frightened by the minute.

  The knocking on the door grew louder. “Bam! Bam! BAM!”

  “Open up, doctor!” ordered the king.

  “What will I do? What will I do?”

  BANG! They broke the door down, and in walked the king, who, seeing all the blood, cried, “What have you done, wretch? You’ve murdered my daughter! You’ll hang for it! Guards! Bind him hand and foot and drag him to the gallows!”

  “Majesty, forgive me, have mercy!”

  “Away with him this instant!”

  Only the Lord can get me out of this, thought Peter as he was hauled through the streets by the soldiers. Who should emerge from the crowd just then but the Lord. “Help, Lord, save me! Save me!”

  “Where are you taking this man?” the Lord asked the soldiers.

  “To the gallows.”

  “What has he done?”

  “What has he done, you ask? He killed the king’s daughter, that’s what!”

  “That’s not so, let him go. Rather, take him to the king to get his bag of gold crowns. The king’s daughter is as sound as a bell.”

  The soldiers went back to see if it was true. Reaching the royal palace, they saw the princess on the balcony in the highest of spirits, and the king walked straight up to Peter and handed him the bag of gold crowns.

  Old though he was, Peter felt so unusually strong just then that he picked up the heavy bag as though it were a feather, slung it over his shoulder, and returned to the crossroads where the Lord was waiting for him.

  “You see, Peter?”

  “Now you’re going to tell me, Lord, I’m good for nothing!”

  “Hand me the money, which we’ll divide up as usual.”

  Peter put the bag down, and the Lord began making the piles.

  “Five for me, five for you, five for the other one . . . ” and on and on in that manner. “Five for me, five for you, five for the other one . . . ”

  Peter looked on for a while, then asked, “But Lord, there’re only two of us, why are you making three piles?”

  “What, Peter?” And the Lord continued. “Here’s for me, here’s for you, here’s for the other one . . . ”

  “Just who is the other one?”

  “The one who ate the liver . . . ”

  “Lord, Lord,” Peter hastened to say, “I’m the one who ate it!”

  “So there, I’ve caught you. You did wrong, Peter, and the fear I’ve caused you has been your punishment. I forgive you, but don’t do anything like that again.”

  Peter promised he wouldn’t.

  III. Hospitality

  One evening after a long journey over the mountain roads, Jesus and St. Peter stopped at a certain woman’s house and asked for shelter for that night. The woman looked them over and replied, “I’ll have nothing to do with vagabonds.”

  “For pity’s sake, madam!”

  But the woman slammed the door in their faces.

  Just as touchy as ever, Peter cast the Lord a look that said he, Peter, knew what was good for the woman. But the Lord ignored him and moved on to a humbler house black with soot. Inside a little woman was spinning at the fireside.

  “Madam, would you be so kind as to give us lodgings for tonight? We’ve come a long way today and have no more strength to go any further.”

  “Why, of course! God’s will be done! Do stop here, my good men.

  Besides, where would you go, now that it’s dark as pitch outdoors? I’ll do what little I can to make you comfortable. Meanwhile, come up and warm yourselves at the fire. I bet you’re hungry too.”

  “You’re not far from the truth,” replied Peter.

  The little woman, whose name was Mistress Catín, tossed a few sticks on the fire and began to get supper—broth and the tenderest of beans, to Peter’s delight, and a bit of honey she kept hanging from the rafters. Then she led them off to sleep on the hay.

  “A good woman!” said Peter, stretching out contentedly.

  Bright and early the next morning, upon bidding Mistress Catín goodbye, the Lord said, “Madam, whatever you start out doing this morning, you shall continue throughout the day.” Then they left.

  The little woman sat down at once to weave, and wove and wove and wove, the whole day long. The shuttle flew back and forth in the warp, and the house filled up with cloth, cloth, cloth; it poured out the door and windows, piling all the way up to the eaves of the house. At evenfall neighbor Giacoma called on Mistress Catín. Neighbor Giacoma was the woman who’d slammed the door in the face of Jesus and St. Peter. She saw all that cloth and wouldn’t let Mistress Catín get a minute’s peace until the little woman told her the whole story. Hearing that the two strangers she’d turned away were responsible for her neighbor’s prosperity, she could have kicked herself. “Do you know whether those strangers intend to come back?” she asked.

  “I believe so. They said they were only going down to the valley.”

  “Well, if they return, send them to my house, please, so they can do me a good turn too.”

  “Gladly, neighbor.”

  So the next evening when the two wayfarers reappeared at her door, Mistress Catín said, “To tell the truth, my house is too cluttered for me to put you up here tonight. But go to my neighbor Giacoma, in that house down there, and she’ll do her utmost to make you comfortable.”

  Peter, who never forgot a thing, made a wry face and was about to speak his mind on neighbor Giacoma. The Lord, however, motioned to him to keep quiet, and they moved on to the other house. This time the woman made a great big to-do over them. “Why, good evening! Good evening! Did the gentlemen have a pleasant journey? Do come in, please! We’re poor folks, but big-hearted all the same. Won’t you come up to the fire and warm yourselves? I’m going to get dinner for you right away . . . ”

  So, amid all that fuss, the Lord and St. Peter ate and slept at neighbor Giacoma’s house, and made ready to leave the next morning, with the woman still bowing and scraping before them.

  “Madam,” said the Lord, “whatever you begin doing this morning, you shall continue throughout the day.” Then they left.

  “Now I’ll just show you what I can do!” chuckled the neighbor as she rolled up her sleeves. “I’ll weave twice as much cloth as Mistress Catín.” But before settling d
own to the loom, so as not to be interrupted later on, she decided to run in all haste to the dunghill and relieve herself. She got there and started—and it seemed to her she was doing it in a great big hurry—but she was unable to stop. “O mercy! What’s the matter with me? How come I can’t stop? Could I have eaten something that made me sick? Heavens above! But . . . but it couldn’t be that . . . ”

  A half-hour later she tried to get away from there and back to her loom. Of course, she had to dash back to the dunghill at once. And there she spent the whole day. The result was a far cry from cloth! It’s a wonder the Tagliamento didn’t overflow its banks.

  IV. Buckwheat

  At sunset, three hot, sweaty, dusty wayfarers came into a village. In the courtyards people were threshing the last of their grain for the day, and chaff was still floating in the air.

  “Mistress of this house!” said the three to a woman who was winnowing. The woman, a widow, invited them in, fed them, and said they could sleep in the hayloft if they would help her with the next day’s threshing. The wayfarers, who were the Lord, St. John, and St. Peter, went to bed in the hayloft. At daybreak Peter heard the cock crow, and said, “Let’s make haste and get up. We’ve eaten, and it’s only fair that we go to work.”

  “Be quiet and sleep,” replied the Lord, and St. Peter turned over on the other side. They’d no sooner gone back to sleep than the widow showed up with a stick in her hand. “Well! Do you think you are going to fritter away your time here in bed until Judgment Day? And after eating and drinking at my expense!” She gave Peter a whack on the back and stormed off, furious.

  “You see how right I was?” said Peter, rubbing his back. “Come on, let’s get up and go to work, or that confounded woman will thrash us for all she’s worth.”

  Once more the Lord said, “Be quiet and sleep.”

  “That’s all well and good. But if she comes back, I’ll be the one to pay for it!”

  “If you’re so afraid of a woman,” replied the Lord, “come over here and let John take your place.”

  They changed places and then all three went back to sleep.

  Exasperated, the widow returned with her stick. “What! Still sleeping?” For the sake of fairness, she whacked the man sleeping in the middle this time, who was again Peter!

  “It’s always me!” groaned Peter, and to calm him down, the Lord changed places with him, saying, “Now you’re the best protected of all. Be quiet and sleep.”

  Back came the widow. “It’s your turn now!” Another whack went to Peter, who jumped out of the hay. “Let the Lord say what he will, I’m not staying.” He ran into the courtyard, grabbed the thresher, and got to work as far away as possible from that awful woman.

  In a little while here came the Lord and St. John. They also took up threshers, but the Lord said, “Bring me a firebrand.” Motioning to the others to stay calm, he set fire to the four corners of the threshing floor. In a moment a great blaze engulfed the sheaves. You would have thought there’d be nothing but ashes when the fire burned down. Instead, on the right was hay; on the left, straw; in the air, chaff; and in the center, a mound of grain, threshed and shiny, as though already winnowed and sifted. The threshing was all done, and without one blow of the thresher.

  The three didn’t even wait to be thanked. They walked out of the courtyard and continued on their way. But the widow, still as haughty and greedy as ever, had the threshing floor cleared, the grain measured and put away, and a whole new load of sheaves brought out. As soon as the men untied the sheaves, the widow herself picked up a firebrand and set fire to the threshing floor. But this time the flames burned in earnest, and the grain crackled like fritters in a frying pan.

  With her hands in her hair, the widow went flying out of the village after the wayfarers. The minute she caught up with them she fell to her knees and related her misfortune. Since she was now truly sorry, the Lord said to Peter, “Go and save what you can, showing her how to render good for evil.”

  St. Peter reached the threshing floor and made the sign of the cross. The fire went out, and the half-roasted grain all stuck together in a clot. Blackened, deformed, and cracked, it no longer looked like grain. But because of St. Peter’s blessing, it was still full of flour, and those dark, tiny, pointed granules were the first buckwheat ever seen on the face of the earth.



  The Magic Ring

  A poor boy said to his mother, “Mamma, I’m leaving home and going out into the world. Nobody in town esteems me, and if I stay here I’ll never amount to a thing. I’m going out and make a fortune, and better days will come for you too.”

  At that, he departed. He came to a city, and was strolling through the streets when he saw a little old woman trudging up a hilly lane with two heavy buckets of water and gasping for breath. He approached her and said, “Let me carry the water. You’ll never make it up the hill with such a load.” He took the buckets, followed her to her cottage, went up the steps, and set the water down in the kitchen. In the room were many cats and dogs that all crowded around the old woman, purring or wagging their tails.

  “How can I show you my appreciation?” asked the old woman.

  “Don’t mention it,” he replied. “It was a pleasure to help you.”

  “Wait a minute,” she said, and left the room. She came back with a little ring of no value and slipped it on his finger, saying, “This is a precious ring, mind you. Every time you turn it and ask for something, you will get your wish. Just be careful not to lose the ring, for that would be your undoing. To lessen that risk, I’m giving you one of my dogs and one of my cats that will follow you wherever you go. They are smart animals and sooner or later will prove quite useful.”

  The youth thanked her over and over, then left. But he set little store by her words. “Old wives’ tales,” he said to himself, not even thinking to give the ring a twist just to see what would happen. He left the city with the dog and cat trotting along beside him. He loved animals and was happy to have these two with him. Running and jumping with them, he entered a forest. Night fell, and he had to make his bed under a tree, with the dog and cat lying beside him. But he couldn’t go to sleep because of the hunger gnawing at his stomach. He then remembered the ring he was wearing. It won’t hurt to try it out, he thought to himself. He turned the ring and said, “I wish food and drink!”

  He hadn’t got the words out of his mouth before there appeared three chairs and a table laden with all kinds of food and drink. He took a seat and tied a napkin around his neck. In the other two chairs he seated the dog and the cat, tied napkins also around their necks, and they all three started eating with great relish. He now had confidence in the ring.

  When the meal was over, he stretched out on the ground and considered all the wonderful things he would now be able to do. The hardest part was making a choice. For a while he imagined he would like piles of gold and silver, then he dreamed of horses and carriages, then castles and land, and the more he mused, the less he knew what he wanted. “But here I go losing my head,” he finally said, exhausted from building castles in the air. “I’ve heard so often that people become perfect fools when they grow rich, but I intend to keep my wits about me at all times. That’s enough for today; I’ll give the matter more thought tomorrow.” He turned over and went sound asleep, while the dog curled up at his feet and the cat at his head and kept watch over him.

  When he woke up, the sun was already high in the sky and shining through the green treetops; a gentle wind blew, the birds sang, and he found himself completely refreshed by his night’s rest. He thought of asking the ring for a horse, but the forest was so lovely he decided to cross it on foot. He thought of ordering breakfast, but such delicious wild strawberries grew in the forest, he made a meal of them instead. He then thought of calling for drink, but in the forest was a spring of the clearest water in the world, so he cupped his hands and drank from it. Wandering through fields and meadows he came at last to a large palace.
A beautiful maiden happened to be looking out the window and smiled warmly at the carefree youth advancing so sprightly, with a dog and cat right behind him. He looked up and, although the ring was safe, his heart was lost. “Now is indeed the time to use the ring,” he decided. Turning it, he said, “Let a palace rise opposite this one, outdoing it in beauty and containing every comfort.”

  In the twinkling of an eye the palace was there, far bigger and more beautiful than the other, and he was inside as though he’d always lived there, with the dog sleeping in his basket and the cat lying by the fire licking his paws. Opening the window, the youth found himself directly across from the beautiful maiden’s window. They smiled at each other, sighed, and the young man realized the moment had come to go and ask for her hand in marriage. She was as pleased as her parents, and in a few days’ time they were married.

  Their first night together, after kisses, embraces, and caresses, she jumped up, saying, “But do tell me just how your palace sprouted all of a sudden like a mushroom?”

  He wasn’t sure whether he should tell her, but then he thought, She’s my wife, and you don’t keep secrets from your wife. He therefore told her about the ring. Then they fell asleep in bliss.

  But while he was sleeping, his wife slipped the ring off his finger, then got up, called all the servants, and said, “Leave this palace at once; we are returning to my parents’ house!” When she was safely home she turned the ring, saying, “Let my husband’s palace be removed to the highest and steepest peak of the mountain in the distance!” And the palace vanished as though it had never existed. She looked at the mountain and saw the castle now poised on the peak.

  The youth awakened in the morning, found his wife gone, threw open the window, and beheld the void. Taking a closer look, he made out deep ravines down below, and mountains all around him blanketed in snow. He went to touch the ring, and it too was gone. He called the servants, but no one answered. Instead, the dog and cat ran in. They had stayed there, because he’d told his wife only about the ring and said nothing of the two animals. Completely baffled at first, he gradually realized his wife had cruelly betrayed him, but the truth was little consolation to him. He peered out to see if he was going to be able to get down the mountain, but the doors and windows, alas, opened onto empty space, with the ravines plunging straight downward. The supplies in the palace would last only a few days, and the terrible thought struck him that he would then starve to death.

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