Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Seeing their master so downcast, the animals approached, and the dog spoke. “Don’t give up hope yet, master. The cat and I will find our way down these cliffs, and then we’ll get the ring for you.”

  “My dear pets,” said the youth, “you’re my only hope. Were it not for you, I’d jump off these cliffs rather than starve to death.”

  The dog and cat climbed out of the house, leaped down the cliffs, and came to the foot of the mountain. They raced across the plain to a river, where the dog took the cat on his back and swam to the other bank. When they arrived at the faithless wife’s palace, it was already night and the whole house was sound asleep. In through the cat door they tiptoed, and the cat told the dog, “You stay here now and keep watch while I go upstairs and see what can be done.”

  Without a sound the cat rushed up the stairs and down the hall to the room where the false-hearted woman was sleeping, but the door was shut and he couldn’t get in. While he thought frantically what to do, a rat ran by. The cat grabbed him. It was a big fat rat, who began begging and pleading with the cat to spare him. “I will,” said the cat, “but you must gnaw a hole in this door big enough for me to crawl through.”

  The rat began to gnaw at once. He gnawed until he was blue in the face, but the hole was still too little, not only for the cat, but for the rat himself to get through.

  So the cat said, “Do you have any little ones?”

  “I should say so! I have seven or eight, each one as rambunctious as can be.”

  “Run get one,” said the cat, “and if you don’t come back, I’ll catch you and eat you alive wherever you are.”

  The rat ran off and was back in a trice with a little rat. “Listen, little one,” said the cat, “if you are clever you’ll save your father’s life. Go into this woman’s room, crawl up on her bed, and pull off the ring she has on her finger.”

  The little rat ran inside, but was back in no time, quite upset. “She has no ring on,” he said.

  The cat, however, didn’t lose heart, “That means she has it in her mouth,” he said. “Go back, slap her nose with your tail and she’ll sneeze, opening her mouth. The ring will drop out, you’ll pick it up quickly, and run back here with it.”

  Everything happened the way the cat said. In a little while the rat returned with the ring. The cat took it and bounded down the steps.

  “Do you have the ring?” asked the dog.

  “Of course.”

  They plunged through the front door and headed back the way they had come. But down deep, the dog was consumed with jealousy because the cat had been the one to get the ring.

  Arriving at the river, the dog said, “Give me the ring, and I’ll ferry you across.” The cat refused, and they started arguing. During the quarrel the cat let go of the ring, and it fell into the water, where a fish swallowed it. In a flash the dog grabbed the fish in his mouth, and then he had the ring. He carried the cat to the other bank, but they didn’t make up and continued to argue all the way to their master’s palace.

  “Do you two have the ring?” he asked eagerly. The dog spit out the fish, the fish spit out the ring, but the cat said, “Don’t believe him; I got the ring myself, and the dog stole it from me.”

  “But if I’d not caught the fish, the ring would have been lost forever.”

  Then the youth petted them both, saying, “My dears, don’t argue so much, you’re both very dear and precious to me.” For a half-hour he caressed the dog with one hand and the cat with the other, until the animals were again as good friends as ever.

  He took them into the palace, turned the ring on his finger, and said, “Let my palace take the place of my false-hearted wife’s while she and her entire palace come here where I now am.” At that, the two palaces sailed through the air and changed places with one another. His landed right in the middle of the plain; and hers, with her inside screaming like an eagle, perched on the sharp peak.

  The youth sent for his mother and made her last years as joyous as he had promised. The dog and cat remained with him, always quarreling about something or other, but all in all everyone lived in harmony. And the ring? He used it occasionally, but not too much, thinking (and how truly!), It’s not good for man to get everything he wants without effort.

  When they went up the mountain, they found his wife cold and dead. She had starved to death. It was a bitter end, but she deserved none better.

  (Trentino)

  43

  The Dead Man’s Arm

  It was the custom in a certain village, whenever a man died, for his sister to keep watch over his grave three nights in a row. If a girl should die, the watch would be kept by her brother. A certain maiden died, and her brother, a strapping youth who was afraid of nothing under the sun, went to the cemetery for the usual vigil.

  At the stroke of midnight three dead men arose from their graves and asked, “How about a game?”

  “Why not?” he answered. “But where do you want to play?”

  “We always play in church.”

  They entered the church and showed him to an underground crypt packed with rotting coffins and a jumble of human bones. They picked up some of the bones and a skull and went back upstairs into church, where they stood the bones in a straight line on the floor. “These are our ninepins.” They picked up the skull. “This is our ball.” And they began bowling.

  “Do you want to play for money?”

  “Certainly!”

  The young man bowled with the skull and was so good at it that he won each time and took every cent the dead men had. As soon as they ran out of money they carried ball and ninepins back to the crypt and retreated to their graves.

  The second night the dead men wanted to play the return game, staking rings and gold teeth, and again the youth won everything. The third night they played still another round, at the end of which the men said, to the youth, “You’ve won again, and we have nothing left to give you. But since gaming debts are settled on the spot, we shall give you this dead man’s arm, which is well preserved although a bit dry and will come in handier than a sword. No matter what enemy you touch with it, the arm will grab him around the chest and throw him down dead, even if he is a giant.”

  The dead men departed and left the young man standing there with that arm in his hand.

  The next morning he took to his father the money and the gold won at ninepins and said, “Dear Father, I’m going out into the world and seek my fortune.” His father gave him his blessing and the young man departed, with the dead man’s arm hidden under his cloak.

  He came to a large city, where the walls of the houses were draped in black crepe; the people all wore mourning and had even draped their horses and carriages in black. “What has happened?” he asked a sobbing passer-by, who explained, “Near that mountain, mind you, is a black castle occupied by sorcerers who exact from us a human being a day, and that is the end of the poor soul who goes to them. First they called for the girls, and the king was obliged to send them every last one of the chambermaids, housewives, baker girls, and weavers; then all the maids of honor at the court and all the noble ladies, and most recently his only daughter as well. And not a one of them has come back. Now the king is sending soldiers there three by three, but they fare no better. If only somebody could deliver us from the sorcerers, we would reward him with anything he wanted.”

  “I shall see what I can do about all this,” said the youth and asked to be taken to the king at once. “Majesty, I will go to the castle all by myself.”

  The king looked him in the eye. “If you succeed, and if you free my daughter, I’ll give her to you in marriage and you shall inherit my kingdom. You need only spend three nights at the castle for the spell to be broken and the sorcerers to vanish. On the battlements of the castle stands a cannon. If you’re still alive tomorrow morning, fire one shot, day after tomorrow two, and the third morning three.”

  When night fell, the young man went to the black castle, with the dead man’s arm under his
cloak. He ascended the stairs and entered a room where a table had been set and laden with food, but the chairs were turned with their backs to the table. He left everything just as it was, entered the kitchen, lit the fire, and sat down next to the hearth, holding the dead man’s arm ready. At midnight a chorus of voices cried down the chimney:

  “Many, many have we slain,

  You will be the next to wane!

  Many, many have we slain,

  You will be the next to wane!”

  Then bang! out of the chimney dropped one sorcerer. Bang! another, and bang! a third. They all had frightfully ugly faces and long, long noses that wavered like octopus tentacles and clutched at the youth’s arms and legs. Realizing it was vital to stay clear of those noses, he began brandishing the dead man’s arm as though he were fencing. He tapped one sorcerer’s chest with it, but nothing happened. He tapped a second one on the head, but still nothing happened. Then he tapped the third one on the nose, and the dead man’s hand grabbed that nose and gave it a yank that left the sorcerer dead on the spot. Fully aware now that the noses were both dangerous and sensitive, the young man took aim. The dead man’s arm seized the second sorcerer by the nose and finished him off. Then it took care of the third one. The young man rubbed his hands together in contentment and went off to bed.

  In the morning he climbed to the battlements and fired the cannon: Boom! Down in the town below, where everyone anxiously waited, a crowd of handkerchiefs bordered in black waved in response.

  When he went into the dining room in the evening, some of the chairs had been turned around and properly faced the table. Through other doors filed noble ladies and maids of honor, downcast and clad in mourning. They addressed the young man: “Please persevere and free us!” Then they sat down to the table and dined. After dinner they all bowed low and departed. He went into the kitchen and took a seat by the hearth to wait for midnight. When the twelfth chime had struck, voices were again heard in the chimney:

  “Three of our brothers you slew,

  Now we’re coming after you!

  Three of our brothers you slew,

  Now we’re coming after you!”

  And bang! bang! bang! three sorcerers with long noses plummeted down the chimney. Brandishing the dead man’s arm, the young man had them each by the nose in a flash, and in no time they were corpses themselves.

  The next morning he fired two cannon shots: Boom! Boom! Down in the town a crowd of white handkerchiefs waved back: the black mourning strip had been removed from them.

  The third evening he found still more chairs turned to the table in the dining room, and the black-clad maidens entered in greater numbers than the evening before. “Just one more night,” they entreated, “and we’ll all be free!” Then they dined with him and again departed. He sat down in his customary place in the kitchen. At midnight the voices set up a howl in the chimney like a whole choir:

  “Six of our brothers you slew,

  Now we’re coming after you!

  Six of our brothers you slew,

  Now we’re coming after you!”

  And bang! bang! bang! bang! down rained sorcerers by the dozens, all with their long noses sticking out, but the youth whirled the dead man’s arm round and round and killed them off as fast as they came. It was no trouble at all, since the only thing that shriveled paw had to do was grab them by the nose, and they were corpses themselves. He went to bed thoroughly satisfied, and the minute the cock crowed the whole castle came back to life. A procession of maidens and noble ladies dressed in gowns with trains entered the kitchen to thank him and pay him honor. In the middle of the procession came the princess. When she got up to the youth, she threw her arms around his neck and said, “I want you to be my husband!”

  Three by three entered the freed soldiers and saluted.

  “Go up to the battlements of the castle,” commanded the youth, “and fire three cannon shots.” They heard the thunder of the cannon down in the town and vigorously waved yellow, green, red, and blue handkerchiefs in response, accompanied by trumpets and bass drums.

  The youth went down the mountain in the procession of free people and entered the town. The black crepe had disappeared, and all you saw were flags and colored streamers billowing in the wind. The king was there waiting for them, his crown entwined with flowers. The wedding was celebrated the same day and was such a grand event that people are still talking about it.

  (Trentino)

  44

  The Science of Laziness

  There was once an old Turk who had just one son, and the boy was dearly loved by his father. As everybody knows, the greatest scourge on earth for a Turk is work. Therefore, when the son turned fourteen, his father decided to send him to school to learn the science of laziness.

  On the same street as the old Turk there lived a famous and highly respected professor, who had never done a lick of work in his life that he could get our of doing. The old Turk called on him and found him stretched out in the garden beneath a fig tree, with a cushion under his head, a cushion under his back, and a cushion under his buttocks. “Before talking to him I must first see how he does,” said the old Turk to himself and hid behind a hedge to observe the man.

  The professor lay as still as a corpse, with his eyes closed. The only time he moved was whenever he heard the thud of a ripe fig on the ground near where he lay: he would reach slowly out, bring the fruit to his mouth, and swallow it. Then he wouldn’t stir again until another fig fell.

  “This is just the professor my boy needs,” decided the Turk. He came out of his hiding place, introduced himself, and asked if the professor would teach his son the science of laziness.

  “Old man,” answered the professor just above a whisper, “don’t talk so much. It tires me to listen to you. If you want to bring up your son to be a true Turk, just send him to me.”

  The old Turk went home, took his son by the hand, thrust a feather pillow under his arm, and led him to that garden.

  “I urge you,” he told him, “to do everything you see this professor of idleness do.”

  The boy, who already had an inclination for that particular science, also stretched out under the fig tree. Observing his teacher, he saw him reach for every fig that fell and bring the fruit to his mouth. Why should I work myself to death reaching for figs? he thought, and lay there with his mouth wide open. Soon a fig fell into his mouth; he let it go down slowly, then reopened his mouth. Another fig fell, just missing his mouth. He kept perfectly still and murmured, “Why so wide of the mark? Fig, fall into my mouth!”

  Seeing how wise the pupil was already, the professor said, “Go home. You have nothing to learn. You can even teach me something.”

  So the boy went home to his father, who thanked heaven for having given him such a smart son.

  (Trieste)

  45

  Fair Brow

  There was once a boy whose father said to him at the end of his schooling, “My son, now that you’ve finished your studies, the time is right for you to begin to travel. I will give you a ship so that you can get a start in loading, unloading, buying and selling. Work seriously, because I want you to learn to earn your living as soon as possible!”

  He gave him seven thousand crowns with which to buy goods, and the boy set out. He had already sailed some distance without buying anything, when he came into a port and saw sitting on the shore a coffin, into which passers-by would all drop a small donation of money.

  “Why are you keeping that corpse there?” he asked. “The dead wish to be buried.”

  “That man died saddled with debts,” the boy was told. “It’s the custom here to bury no one who has not paid his debts. We will not bury the man until his debts are paid up in full by charity.”

  “In that case let it be known that all his creditors should come to me to be paid. And take him away and bury him at once.”

  They made the announcement, and he paid every debt, without one penny left over for himself when he had finishe
d. He therefore went back home, and his father asked, “What’s the meaning of your returning so soon?”

  “I sailed the sea and ran into pirates, who took all my capital.”

  “Don’t worry, my son but be thankful they didn’t take your life as well! I’ll fit you out again, but don’t venture into the same waters the next time.” And he gave the boy another seven thousand crowns.

  “You can be sure, Father, I’ll change my course!” At that, he set out again.

  Halfway across the sea, he saw a Turkish vessel and said to himself, “In this spot it’s better to make friends than enemies: let’s call on them and invite them to do likewise.” He boarded the Turks’ vessel and asked, “Where do you come from?”

  “We come from the East!”

  “And what do you carry?”

  “Nothing but a beautiful maiden.”

  “To whom are you taking this maiden?”

  “We will sell her to whoever wants to buy her. She’s the daughter of our sultan and we kidnapped her on account of her great beauty.”

 
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