Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Let me have a look at her.” When he saw her, he asked, “How much lo you want for her?”

  “We are asking seven thousand crowns!”

  So the youth gave the pirates all the money his father had given him and took the maiden to his ship. He had her baptized and married her, then went home to his father.

  “Welcome back, my son so fair,

  I can guess what prize you bring . . . .

  “Father, I bring a most precious gem,

  You will sing with joy when you see her!

  A maiden lovelier than you’ve e’er beheld:

  The daughter of the sultan of Turkey

  I bring as my first commodity!”

  “Idiot! Is that all you’ve brought?” And the father angrily shook them both and threw them out of the house.

  Poor things! They didn’t know which way to turn.

  “What will we do now?” he wondered. “I’ve nothing to my name.” But she said, “Listen, I can paint fine pictures. That’s what I’ll do and you’ll go out and sell them. But beware of ever telling a soul they were done by me.”

  Meanwhile, back in Turkey, the sultan had dispatched ship after ship in search of his daughter. By chance, one of them arrived at the town where the young people were living. Many men disembarked, and the youth, seeing all those visitors in town, said to his wife, “Paint a lot of pictures, which we’ll certainly sell today.”

  She did the pictures and said, “Here you are, but don’t sell a one for less than twenty crowns.”

  He took them to the town square. The Turks arrived, glanced at the paintings, and said to one another, “Nobody but the sultan’s daughter could have done these! She alone paints like that!” They moved closer and asked the young man how much he wanted for them.

  “They are expensive,” he replied. “I’m letting none of them go for less than twenty crowns.”

  “Fine, we’ll buy them. But we’d like others as well.”

  “Come home and talk to my wife about it. She’s the one who paints the pictures.”

  The Turks followed him home, and there was the sultan’s daughter. They seized her, bound her, and carried her back to Turkey.

  The husband was heartbroken. There he was with no wife, no trade, and no money. Every day he went to the harbor to look for a ship that might take him aboard, but he never found a one. Finally one day he saw an old man fishing from a little boat and said, “How much better off you are, good old soul, than I am!”

  “Why do you say that, my boy?” replied the old man.

  “How I would like to fish with you, good old soul!”

  “If you wish to fish with me, come ahead! What with your pole and my boat, we might catch something of note!”

  So the youth got in, and they made a pact to share everything, good and bad alike, that came their way. To begin, the old man divided his supper with the boy.

  After eating, they went to sleep. Meanwhile a storm suddenly came up. The wind seized the boat, swept it over the waves, and finally grounded it on the shore of Turkey.

  Seeing this boat land, the Turks took possession of it, made slaves of the two fishermen, and carried them before the sultan, who put them to work in the garden. The old man was to look after the vegetables, and the youth after the flowers. The two slaves made friends with the other gardeners and were very well off in the sultan’s garden. The old man fashioned guitars, violins, flutes, clarinets, and piccolos, and the youth played them all and sang songs.

  Now the sultan’s daughter, for her punishment, had been imprisoned in a tall tower with her maids of honor. Hearing that fine playing and singing, she thought of her husband far away. “Only Fair Brow [as she called him] could play all instruments and sing in a voice far sweeter than any of them. Who is that playing and singing in the garden?”

  Peeping through the slats in the blinds, which she was unable to open, she saw that the young musician was none other than her husband.

  Every day the maids of honor took the gardeners a big basket to fill with flowers. The sultan’s daughter therefore said to them, “Put that young man in the basket, cover him with flowers, and bring him up here!”

  For a joke the gardeners put him in the basket, and the maids of honor carried him up in the tower. When they set the basket down, he bobbed up from under the flowers and found himself face to face with his wife! They hugged and kissed, telling each other everything. Then they began planning their escape.

  They had a large ship loaded with pearls, precious stones, bars of gold, and jewels. Into the hold they lowered Fair Brow, then the sultan’s daughter, then, one by one, all her maids of honor, after which the ship weighed anchor.

  They were already on the open sea, when Fair Brow remembered the old man and said to his wife, “My dearest, I may lose my life for doing so, but I have to go back to shore. I cannot be unfaithful to my sworn word! I promised that old man we would always share everything, good and bad alike, that came our way!”

  They turned back and found the old man on shore waiting for them. They brought him aboard and regained the open sea.

  “Good old soul,” said Fair Brow, “let us now divide things up. One half of all this treasure is for you, and the other half is for me.”

  “The same goes for your wife,” said the old man. “One half of her is for you and the other half is for me!”

  “Good old soul,” replied the youth, “I am indebted to you, so I’ll let you have all the treasure on this ship. But let me keep my wife all for myself.”

  “You are a generous youth. Note that I am the soul of the dead man for whose burial you arranged. All your luck stems from that good deed of yours.”

  He gave him his blessing and vanished.

  The boat glided into its home port firing mighty cannon salutes: Fair Brow, the world’s richest nobleman, was arriving with his wife. And who should be waiting on shore with open arms but his father.

  Happily from then on did they live,

  But nothing to me did they ever give.

  (Istria)

  46

  The Stolen Crown

  A king had three sons whom he loved very much. One day this king went hunting with his prime minister and, feeling very weary, lay down under a tree and went to sleep. Upon awakening, the first thing he did was look for his crown. It was neither on his head nor on the ground beside him, much less in the game bag, so where could it be? Right away he called to his prime minister, “Who took my crown?”

  “Sacred Majesty, do you think I would so much as touch your crown? Nor have I seen anyone else who might have taken it!”

  The king went home in a rage and had his prime minister sentenced to death, even though the poor man was completely innocent. The real culprit was Fairy Alcina, the queen of the fairies.

  Ashamed to appear in public without his crown, the king shut himself up in his room and gave orders for no one to disturb him. That puzzled his sons, who couldn’t imagine what had happened, and one day the oldest boy said to his two brothers, “Why would our father seclude himself like that and refuse to see anyone? He must have had an accident of some kind. I’ll go in and try to cheer him up.” But his father shouted him out of the room and would have surely struck him if the boy had not bolted.

  “Let me try,” said the middle boy. But he received the same welcome and retreated completely mortified.

  It was now up to the youngest son, Benjamin, who was his father’s favorite. Like his brothers, he went in and begged the king to say what the trouble was.

  “I’d tell you everything,” replied the king, “but this is too humiliating for words.”

  “If you won’t tell me what’s the matter, I’ll kill myself rather than stand by and see you suffer.” At that, he put a gun to his heart.

  “Stop, my son!” cried the king, “I’ll tell you everything!” And he went into detail about losing the crown, but entreated his son to say nothing about it to his brothers.

  Benjamin listened attentively, then spok
e. “The only person under the sun who could have made off with your crown is Fairy Alcina. She loves to torment people. I’ll search the world over for her. Either I’ll bring the crown back, or you’ll never see me again.”

  He saddled a horse, filled a purse with money, and set out. At a certain point the road branched off in three different directions. A stone marker stood at the beginning of each new road. The first stone read: WHOEVER TAKES THIS ROAD WILL RETURN. The second stone read: GOODNESS KNOWS WHAT YOUR FATE WILL BE IF YOU TAKE THIS ROAD. The third stone read the opposite of the first: WHOEVER TAKES THIS ROAD WILL NEVER RETURN. He was about to start down the first road, but changed his mind and set foot in the second, only to backtrack and enter the third.

  For a while the road was good, but then came brambles, stones, snakes, insects, and all kinds of wild animals. The horse could go no farther, so Benjamin dismounted, tethered the horse to a tree, kissed him goodbye, and said in a tearful voice, “We might never meet again.” Then he continued his journey on foot.

  After walking and walking he came to a cottage and knocked on the door, for he was quite hungry by this time. “Who is it?” asked a voice inside.

  “A poor horseless knight requesting a little refreshment.”

  An old woman opened the door and asked in amazement, “What on earth are you doing in these parts, good lad? Don’t come in, please! If my daughter should return and find you here, she’d kill you and eat you, upon my word. I am the mother of Bora the Northeast Wind. Wait right here and I’ll bring you something to eat.”

  While he ate, Benjamin told the old woman why he was roaming the globe in search of Fairy Alcina. The old woman knew nothing about her, but nevertheless promised to help him, good old soul that she was. She brought him in and hid him under the bed; and when Bora arrived angry and ravenous, she fed her enough to quiet her hunger for a good while, then told her about the young man’s plight and made her promise not to harm a hair on his head.

  Bora, who was well fed by now, let Benjamin come out from under the bed and spoke to him as a friend. She told him that in the course of her routine journeys around the world she had seen his father’s crown on Fairy Alcina’s bed, together with a shawl of stars and a musical golden apple, both of which Alcina had stolen from two queens now imprisoned in a well by a magic spell. Finally she revealed the locations of Fairy Alcina’s palace and the two queens’ well.

  “But how will I get inside the palace?” asked Benjamin.

  “Take this potion,” said Bora, “with which you will put the watchman to sleep. Then you can go in and find the gardener.”

  “How will I deal with the gardener?”

  “Have no fear,” said Bora. “Fairy Alcina’s gardener is my father. Mother and I will recommend you to him.”

  After thanking mother and daughter profusely, Benjamin set out and didn’t stop until he reached the fairy’s palace. He put the watchman to sleep and found the gardener, who promised to help him. “The steps are guarded by two Moors who have orders to kill anyone who tries to pass, with the exception of myself when I take flowers to the fairy.”

  So Benjamin dressed as a gardener, picked up a large vase of tuberoses that hid his face, and went up the steps past the two Moors. He entered the boudoir of the sleeping fairy and picked up the crown which she had placed on the canopy, along with the shawl of stars and the golden apple. Then he turned and looked at the fairy: she was so beautiful he had the urge to kiss her as she slept. He was about to do so, when the golden apple sounded a few notes of music. Afraid the fairy would awaken, Benjamin fled, hiding his face in a vase of jasmines so the Moors wouldn’t see him. It was a narrow escape, since whoever kissed Fairy Alcina turned to stone from head to foot.

  Benjamin thanked the gardener and took the way back. After walking for six or seven hours he came to a well gone dry and so deep you couldn’t see the bottom. Circling this well was a goose with wings wide enough to shelter several persons at a time. Realizing at once that Benjamin wished to go down into the well, it approached for him to get under a wing, then flew to the bottom.

  There stood the two queens held prisoners by the magic spell. “Here are your shawl of stars and musical golden apple!” said Benjamin, jumping out from under the goose’s wing. “You are now free! If you wish to leave with me, take your places here under the goose.”

  Overjoyed, the two queens took their places under the wings, and the goose soared from the well, passed over woods and mountains, and came to the spot where Benjamin’s horse was tethered.

  Benjamin bid the goose farewell, mounted the two queens on his horse, and returned to his father.

  At the sight of his crown, the king was beside himself with joy. He made his son kneel and placed the crown on the boy’s head. “It is yours, and you deserve it,” said the king.

  Benjamin married the lovelier of the two queens. There were celebrations galore and a beautiful life afterward, and on that note I bring my tale to a close.

  (Dalmatia)

  47

  The King’s Daughter Who Could Never Get Enough Figs

  A king issued a proclamation that whoever succeeded in giving his daughter her fill of figs would have her as his wife. One suitor then showed up with a whole basketful and didn’t even have time to offer her the figs before she had eaten every one of them. When they were all gone, she said, “More!”

  Three boys were out digging in a field. The oldest one said, “I don’t feel like digging any longer. I shall go and try to give the king’s daughter her fill of figs.”

  He climbed the fig tree with a large basket. When it was quite full he set out for the king’s palace. Along the way he met a neighbor, who said, “Give me a fig.”

  “I can’t,” he replied. “I mean to give the king’s daughter her fill of figs, and I may not have enough as it is.” Then he moved on.

  He reached the palace and was taken to the king’s daughter, before whom he set the figs. Had he not picked up the basket the instant it became empty, she would have eaten that as well.

  He went home, and the middle brother said, “I too have had enough of digging in the field. I shall try my luck at giving the king’s daughter her fill of figs.”

  He climbed the tree, filled his basket, and off he went. He met the neighbor, who said, “Give me a fig.”

  The brother shrugged his shoulders and moved on. But he too had to grab up the empty basket, or the king’s daughter would have eaten it as well.

  Then the youngest boy announced his intention to go to the palace.

  He was walking along with his basket, when the neighbor asked him also for a fig. “You may even take three,” said the youth, holding out the basket.

  The neighbor ate a fig, then gave him a magic wand, explaining, “When you get there all you have to do is strike the ground with this wand, and the basket will fill up again as soon as it becomes empty.”

  The king’s daughter ate every single fig, but the youngest brother gave a tap with the wand, and the basket was full again. After two or three such taps, the king’s daughter said to her father, “Figs! Ugh! I never want to see another one!”

  The king said to the young man, “You’ve won all right, but if you want to marry my daughter, you must go to her aunt across the sea and invite her to the wedding.”

  Hearing that, the youngest brother went home in dismay. Along the way he met the neighbor on his doorstep and told him of his plight. The neighbor gave him a bugle. “Go to the seashore and blow this. The princess’s aunt who lives across the sea will hear you and come over here. Then you can take her to the king.”

  The youth blew the bugle, and the aunt crossed the sea. Seeing her walk into the palace, the king said to the young man, “Bravo! But to wed my daughter you must have the gold ring now lying somehwere at the bottom of the sea.”

  The youth returned to the neighbor, who said, “Go back to the seashore and blow the bugle.”

  He did, and out of the water jumped a fish with the ring in its mouth
. Seeing the ring, the king said, “In this bag are three hares for the wedding banquet, but they are too lean. Take them out to feed in the woods for three days and three nights and then bring them back in the same bag.”

  But who ever heard of letting hares loose in the woods and then recapturing them? When asked how you did it, the neighbor said, “When it gets dark blow the bugle and the hares will run back into the bag.”

  So the boy let the hares feed in the woods for three days and three nights. On the third day here came the aunt in disguise.

  “What are you doing here in the woods, my boy?”

  “I’m minding three hares.”

  “Sell me one.”

  “I can’t.”

  “How much will you take for one?”

  “One hundred crowns.”

  The aunt gave him one hundred crowns and left with the hare.

  The young man waited until she was almost home, then blew the bugle. The hare slipped out of the aunt’s hands and ran back to the woods and into the bag.

  The king’s daughter next went to the woods in disguise.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Minding three hares.”

  “Sell me one.”

  “I can’t.”

  “How much will you take for one?”

  “Three hundred crowns.”

  She paid him and left with the hare. But as she came in sight of home, the young man blew the bugle, and the hare slipped out of her hands, ran back to the woods, and into the bag.

  Finally the king himself went to the woods in disguise.

  “What are you doing?”

  “Minding three hares.”

  “Sell me one.”

  “For three thousand crowns I will.”

 
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