Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  The King of the Animals

  A man was left a widower with one daughter, the most beautiful girl you ever saw. Alone and with no one to look after his daughter, it wasn’t long before he decided to remarry. But he got an awful wife who was as mean as could be to poor Stellina.

  “Listen, Papa,” said Stellina, “rather than stay here and suffer all the time, I’m going to the country to live.”

  “Be patient,” replied her father.

  But one day the stepmother slapped her for breaking a bowl, and Stellina left home, unable to endure any more. She went to the mountains to her aunt, a fairy of sorts, but very poor, who said, “Dear Stellina, I must send you out to tend the sheep, but I’m giving you my most precious possession.” And she gave her a ring. “If you’re ever in trouble, take this ring in your hand, and it will help you.”

  One morning when Stellina was in a meadow with her sheep, she saw a handsome youth approach. “You are too beautiful to tend sheep,” he said to her. “Come, I’ll marry you, and you’ll live like a princess.”

  Stellina turned as red as a beet and was at a loss for an answer. But the young man finally talked her into going off with him. They climbed into a carriage waiting on the road and took off like lightning. They raced along for the better part of the day and drew to a halt before a handsome palace.

  “Here you are, Stellina,” said the young man, showing her inside. “This palace will be at your disposal. Ask for whatever you want and you will get it. I must now leave you to look after my business. We’ll meet tomorrow morning.” With that, he left.

  Stellina was speechless with amazement. She felt herself being taken by the hand, but saw no one; and she let herself be led into a magnificent room where clothing and jewels had been laid out for her. She was undressed, then clothed as a noble lady. At every moment she was conscious of somebody busying about her, but she saw no one. When they had finished dressing her, they led her to another room where a steaming hot dinner was on the table. She sat down and began eating. The plates were changed and new courses brought in, but still she saw no one. After dinner she went to look around the palace. There were rooms decorated in yellow, rooms decorated in red, with divans and chairs and the loveliest objects imaginable. Behind the palace was a beautiful park, stocked with all sorts of animals, including dogs, cats, donkeys, hens, and even giant toads, and they sounded like a group of people all talking at once. Stellina was charmed at the sight and watched them until it grew dark. Then she decided to go to bed.

  She entered a room furnished with a bed fit for a princess, and was helped out of her clothes. A lamp was brought to her along with nightgown and bedroom slippers. She went to bed. All was quiet. She fell asleep and didn’t awaken until broad daylight.

  “I’m going to ring the bell,” she said, “and see if they come to serve me.” But no sooner had she touched the bell than a silver tray appeared before her with coffee and cake. She drank the coffee and got up. She was dressed and had her hair done for her. In short, she was served like a princess.

  Later on, the young man returned. “Did you sleep well? Are you happy?”

  Stellina said yes, he squeezed her hand, and a few minutes later said goodbye and left. That was the daily visit he paid her, and the only time she ever saw him.

  At the end of two months, Stellina was sick of such a routine. One morning after the young man had left, she said, “I should like to go out for a walk in the beautiful countryside and get some fresh air.” She’d not got the words out before somebody brought her a beautiful bonnet, a fan, and a parasol. “So there’s still somebody around who listens to me!” said Stellina. “Do let me see you, just once!” Those words fell on deaf ears, though; no one appeared.

  In that instant Stellina remembered the ring her aunt had given her. Up to then, she’d not thought of using it, being in no need of anything. She went and got the ring out of the dresser drawer where she had put it. Once she had it in her hand, she said, “I ask to see who is here serving me!”

  All of a sudden before her stood a beautiful maid of honor.

  Stellina jumped for joy. “At last I’ll have somebody to chat with!”

  “Thank you, thank you,” said the beautiful maid of honor. “You have finally made me visible after all the time I was under a spell and could neither speak nor be seen.”

  They became the best of friends and resolved to try to solve the mystery of the place. They went outside and started walking along a trail. On and on they went, and at last the trail passed between two columns. On one column was written ASK, on the other AND YOU WILL FIND OUT.

  Facing the column with ASK written on it, Stellina said, “I want to know where I am.”

  The column that said AND YOU WILL FIND OUT replied: “You’re in a place where you will fare well, but . . . ”

  “But what?” asked Stellina. “But what?” She asked first one column, then the other, but no answer came back.

  That “but” struck the two friends as a bad sign, and they moved on, very worried. They soon reached the end of the park. On the other side of the fence a handsome knight was sitting on the ground.

  When he saw them, the knight stood up, asking, “How do you happen to be in there? Be careful, you’re in great danger, you’re in the hands of the king of the animals. He brings everyone he catches to his treasure-filled palace here and devours them one by one.”

  Hearing that, Stellina was petrified. “How can we escape?” she asked the knight.

  “I’ll take you away,” he replied. “I am the son of the king of India just passing by on my way around the world. I fell in love with you as soon as I saw you, and I’ll take you to my father, who will give you and your maid of honor the welcome you deserve.”

  “Yes, I accept, I will come with you,” said Stellina.

  “But if the palace is full of treasure,” said the maid of honor, “it’s a pity to go off and leave it. Let’s go get it while the king of the animals is away. And tomorrow morning we’ll meet here again and flee.”

  “And how am I to spend the night out in the open?” asked the prince. “There’s not even a hut here.”

  “I’ll see to that!” announced Stellina. She pulled the ring out of her small purse, squeezed it, and said, “I will that a villa rise here at once, with servants, carriages, and all the necessaries for eating and sleeping.” Right in the middle of the meadow rose a villa that was a marvel to behold. The prince said goodbye to the girls and went inside.

  Stellina and her maid of honor returned to the palace and made a thorough search, from top to bottom. The cellar was full of innumerable boxes and trunks. “What is all this?” asked Stellina. “It looks more like a warehouse than a cellar. Let’s see what’s in these boxes.” Taking off one lid after another they found silver, jewels, and money in abundance. Stellina squeezed the ring, saying, “Let all this be removed immediately to the prince of India’s villa!” No sooner said than done, leaving the cellar completely bare.

  Moving on through the palace, Stellina and the maid of honor came to a secret staircase. They went up and found themselves in the dark. A voice said over and over, “Poor me! Poor me!”

  Stellina grew weak in the knees at that, then remembering the ring, she continued in the same direction. They were in a great hall, and on a table lay heads of men and women, along with arms and legs, while other members hung on the walls and chairs. The heads were saying, “Poor me! Poor me!” Terrified, the two girls realized these were the secret quarters of the king of the animals.

  They found a barn full of hay, maize, and oats, and realized this was fodder for all the animals in the park, who were most likely men and women changed into animals by the king of the animals. He would surely eat them too.

  That night Stellina had a hard time sleeping. In the morning, as usual, the king of the animals called on her and asked if she had slept well. Stellina replied politely, as she did every morning, hiding her excitement. “Goodbye, Stellina, stay happy,” he said. “I?
??ll see you again tomorrow.” And he left.

  Stellina and the maid of honor climbed to the loft of the barn at once, opened the window, and threw out hay, maize, and oats into the park, so that the animals would be too busy eating to notice them leave and alert the king of the animals. While they ate, Stellina and the maid of honor packed up and left.

  When they got to the two columns, Stellina held the ring and said, “I order you to explain what you meant by ‘but.’”

  “That ‘but’ means you won’t escape unless you bring about the death of the king of the animals,” replied the column.

  “How can I do that?”

  “Go into the king’s room and remove the walnut he keeps under the cushion in the armchair.” With that pronouncement, the column crumbled to the ground.

  Courageous to the end, Stellina went back and took the walnut from under the cushion. That very instant the king of the animals ran in, screaming, “Stellina, you have betrayed me!” Then he sank to the ground, dead.

  He’d no sooner fallen than all the animals changed back to their true form. There were kings, queens, princes, and they all thanked Stellina and wanted to repay her with a kingdom or a royal marriage. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I already have a bridegroom waiting for me.” Together they all left the palace, which immediately burst into flames.

  The noblemen went their separate ways, while Stellina journeyed to India with the prince and all the treasure. They got married and were happy forevermore.

  (Bologna)

  53

  The Devil’s Breeches

  A man had a son, who was the handsomest boy you ever saw. The father fell ill and, one day, sent for his son. “Sandrino, my final hour has come. Please behave, and hold on to what little bit I’m leaving you.”

  He died, but instead of working and holding on to his inheritance, the son had a grand fling and in less than a year found himself penniless. So he went to the king of the city asking to be taken into service. Seeing what a handsome young man he was, the king engaged him as a footman. The minute the queen saw the youth, she took such a fancy to him that she insisted he be her personal footman. But when Sandrino realized that the queen was in love with him, he thought, I’d better be off before the king sees what’s going on, and resigned. The king demanded an explanation, but Sandrino would only say that it was for urgent personal business, and departed.

  He reached another city and again asked the king who was there to take him into service. Seeing what a tall, handsome youth Sandrino was, the king engaged him on the spot. Now the king had a daughter who, the instant she saw the young man, fell in love with him and became blind to all else around her. Sandrino was forced to resign before things got out of hand. When the king, who hadn’t noticed what went on, requested an explanation for the departure, Sandrino stated it was for personal business, and the king could say no more.

  He went to work for a prince, but the prince’s wife fell in love with him, so he left that place too. He tried working for five or six other masters; but, every time, some lady fell in love with him and he would have to leave. The poor youth began to curse his good looks and ended up saying he would give his soul to the Devil just to be rid of them. No sooner had he made the statement than a young nobleman stood before him. “Why are you complaining so?” he asked, and Sandrino told him the reason.

  “Listen,” said the nobleman, “I’m going to give you this pair of breeches. Be sure to wear them all the time and never take them off. I’ll return for them in exactly seven years. Meanwhile you must never wash so much as your face; and never trim your beard, hair, or fingernails. But you can do anything else you want to and be fully satisfied.”

  At that, he vanished, and the clock struck midnight.

  Sandrino slipped into the breeches and threw himself upon the ground to sleep. He woke up in broad daylight, rubbed his eyes, and immediately remembered the breeches and what the Devil had told him. Rising to his feet, he felt the breeches weighting him down. He then took a few steps and what should be hear but a jingle of coins: the pants were full of gold pieces, and the more he removed, the more there came spilling out.

  He went to a city, stopped at an inn, and rented the finest room they had. All day long he did nothing but pull money out of the breeches and pile it up. For every service rendered him, he gave a gold coin; every poor man who stretched out a hand also received a gold coin, so there was always a long line of men at his door.

  One day he asked the manservant at the inn, “Would you know if there’s a palace for sale?” The manservant mentioned one right across from the king’s, but no one could afford it.

  “See to the purchase of it,” said Sandrino, “and I will pay you for your pains.”

  So the manservant got busy and arranged for the sale of the palace to Sandrino.

  Sandrino had it completely refurnished and all the rooms on the ground floor lined with iron and the entrances walled up. Closed up inside the palace, he spent his days piling up money. When one room was full, he would move on to the next, and that way he filled up all the rooms on the ground floor. Time passed, and his hair and beard got so long that you no longer recognized him. His fingernails too were as long as combs for carding wool, while his toenails had grown to such length that he had to wear sandals like the friars’, since he couldn’t get into his shoes any more. A crust formed on his skin an inch thick. In short, he no longer looked like a man, but an animal. To keep his breeches clean, he covered them with white lead or with flour.

  Now the king of that city had been drawn into war with a neighboring king and urgently needed money to continue the fight. One day he sent for his steward.

  “What is it, Sacred Crown?”

  “We are between the Devil and the deep blue sea,” said the king. “I haven’t another penny to wage war.”

  “Sacred Crown, there’s the gentleman across the street who has more money than he knows what to do with. I can go and ask him for a loan of fifty million. The worst he can do is say no.”

  The steward went to Sandrino on the king’s behalf, bowed and scraped before him, then explained his mission.

  “Tell His Majesty I’m at his service,” replied Sandrino, “on condition that he give me one of his three daughters in marriage, and I don’t care which one.”

  “I will relay the message,” answered the steward.

  “I’ll expect an answer in three days. Otherwise I’ll consider myself released from all obligation.”

  Upon learning what strings were attached, the king exclaimed, “Oh, me! There’s no telling what my daughters will say when they see this man who looks more like an animal. You might have at least asked for a portrait to prepare the girls for the shock.”

  “I’ll go and ask him for one,” said the steward.

  When Sandrino was informed of the king’s request, he called in a painter, had his portrait done, and sent it to the king. Beholding the brute, the king took a step backward, crying, “Could one of my daughters love a face like this?”

  Just to see her reaction, he called in his oldest daughter and put the matter before her. The girl flatly rebelled. “You’re proposing such things to me? Does he strike you as a man a maiden could possibly marry?” With that, she turned her back on the king and walked off.

  The king sank into a black armchair he reserved for his bad days, and sat there completely disheartened. The next day he took heart again and sent for his middle daughter, but he was prepared for the worst. The girl came in and he made the same speech to her as to the first daughter, giving her to understand that the welfare of the kingdom depended on her reply. “Well, Father,” said the girl, whose curiosity had been aroused, “let me see his picture.”

  The king handed her the portrait, but the minute she glanced at it, she hurled it away as if she had accidentally picked up a snake. “Father! I wouldn’t have thought you capable of giving your daughter in marriage to a brute. Now I know how much you really love me!” With that, she stalked off, indignant
and grumbling.

  The king sighed to himself. “That’s that! We’re headed for sure destruction. If those two made such a fuss, I can just imagine the objections of the youngest, who is the most beautiful of the three.” He sank into the black armchair and gave orders not to be disturbed the rest of the day. He failed to show up for dinner, but his daughters didn’t deign to ask what was the matter with him. Only the youngest girl, without a word, slipped out of the room and went to find her father. She began wheedling him, saying, “But why are you so sad, Papa? Come on, get out of that chair, cheer up, or I’ll break down and cry too.”

  She begged and pleaded so hard to know what the matter was, that the king told her. “Really?” replied the girl. “Show me the portrait, then. Come on, let’s see it.”

  The king pulled the portrait out of a drawer and handed it to her. Zosa, as they called her, studied it from every angle and said, “Look, Father! Do you see what a beautiful forehead is hidden under this long, tousled hair? True, his skin is black; but washed, it would be something else entirely. Do you see how beautiful his hands would be, were it not for those awful fingernails? His feet too! And all the rest. Cheer up, Father, I’ll marry him myself.”

  The king took Zosa in his arms and kissed her again and again. Then he called the steward and sent him to inform the gentleman that his youngest daughter was willing to marry him.

  As soon as Sandrino heard it, he said, “Fine, we agree. Please tell His Majesty he can have fifty million, or better still, come get the money at once and fill up a little bag for yourself too, since I want to show my gratitude. Tell His Majesty not to worry about providing for the bride. I want to do it all myself.”

  When the sisters heard of Zosa’s betrothal, they began teasing her, but she paid no attention and let them have their fun.

  The steward went for the money, and Sandrino filled up a big bag of gold pieces for him. “I must now count them,” said the steward, “because I have the impression there’s more money here than the sum agreed on.”

 
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