Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “That makes no difference,” replied Sandrino, “if we run a little bit over.”

  Next he gave all the jewelers in the city an order for their finest earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and rings with diamonds as big as hazelnuts. He arranged the jewelry on a silver tray, which four of his valets presented to the bride.

  The king was overjoyed, the daughter spent hours on end trying on the jewels, while her sisters suffered tortures from envy and said, “Everything would be perfect if only he had better looks.”

  “Just so long as he is kind, I am quite satisfied,” replied Zosa.

  Meanwhile Sandrino sent for the finest dressmakers, hatters, shoemakers, and seamstresses. He ordered everything needed for the trousseau, stating that it all had to be ready in a fortnight.

  Now as money works every miracle, everything was ready in a fortnight: gowns as sheer as air, embroidered to the knees; petticoats trimmed with yards of damask; handkerchiefs so full of embroidery there was no place to blow your nose; dresses of many colored silks, of bejeweled gold and silver brocade, of red and deep blue velvet.

  The evening before the wedding, Sandrino had four tubs filled with hot and cold water. When they were full he jumped into the one with the hottest water and soaked until the layers of filth on him loosened. Then he jumped into the other hot tub and proceeded to scrub; the dirt peeled off like chips from a carpenter’s plane. He had not bathed for seven years! When the heaviest layers of dirt were gone, he jumped into another tub, this one full of perfumed water just barely tepid. There he lathered until his beautiful skin of former times was again recognizable. Then he jumped into the last tub containing cologne, where he lingered for some time in a final rinsing. “Send for the barber at once!” The barber came, sheared him like a sheep, applied curling irons and pomades, and finally cut his fingernails and toenails.

  The next morning when he stepped from his carriage to fetch the bride, the sisters who were looking out the window to see the monster arrive, found themselves face to face with the handsomest of young men. “Who can he be? Probably someone sent by the bridegroom so as to avoid appearing in person.”

  Even Zosa thought it was one of his friends, and got into the carriage. Upon arriving at the palace, she said, “And the bridegroom?”

  Sandrino took the portrait she had already seen of him and said, “Look carefully at those eyes, look at the mouth. Don’t you recognize me?”

  Zosa went wild with joy. “But how on earth did you ever sink to such a state?”

  “Ask me nothing more,” replied the bridegroom.

  Upon learning that the bridegroom was none other than he, the sisters were consumed with envy. Throughout the wedding banquet they glared at the happy couple and whispered to one another, “We’ll give our soul to the Devil for the sake of seeing their happiness end.”

  Now that very day the seven years set by the Devil were up, and he was expected at midnight to reclaim the breeches. At eleven o’clock the bridegroom bid all the guests good night, saying he wished to be alone. “Dear wife,” he advised Zosa when they were by themselves, “you go on to bed, and I’ll join you later.” Zosa wondered, “What in the world is on his mind?” Still, assisted by her maids of honor, she undressed and went to bed.

  Sandrino had bundled up the Devil’s breeches, and sat waiting for him. The servants had all been sent off to bed, and he was alone. All of a sudden he noticed he had goose pimples and his heart was in his mouth. Midnight struck.

  The house shook. Sandrino saw the Devil advancing toward him, and held out the bundle. “Here, take your breeches! Go on, take them!” he said.

  “I ought to take your soul now,” said the Devil.

  Sandrino shuddered.

  “But since you are responsible for my finding two other souls,” continued the Devil, “I’ll take those two instead of yours and leave you in peace!”

  The next morning Sandrino was sleeping peacefully beside his wife, when the king came in to greet them and inquire if Zosa knew anything about her sisters, who had disappeared. They went into the sisters’ bedroom, but it was empty. On the table was this note: “May you be cursed! We are damned because of you, and the Devil is taking us away.”

  Then Sandrino realized who the two souls were that the Devil had taken in place of him.

  (Bologna)

  54

  Dear as Salt

  There was once a king who had three daughters: a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde. The first was homely, the second so-so, while the youngest was the best-hearted and most beautiful of the three. The two older girls were, naturally, quite envious of her. Now the king had three thrones: a white one, a red one, and a black one. When he was happy he sat on the white one, when he was so-so on the red one, when he was angry on the black one.

  One day he seated himself on the black throne, for he was angry with the two older girls. So they went in and made up to him. The oldest daughter asked, “Father, did you sleep well? You’re on the black throne! That doesn’t mean you’re angry with me, does it?”

  “It most certainly does. I am angry with you.”

  “But why, sir?”

  “Because you don’t love me at all.”

  “I do, Father. You are very dear to me.”

  “How dear?”

  “As dear as bread.”

  The king gave a little snort, but said nothing more, for he was greatly pleased with the girl’s answer.

  Next came the middle girl. “Father, did you sleep well? Why are you on the black throne? You couldn’t be angry with me, could you?”

  “I certainly am.”

  “But why are you angry with me, sir?”

  “Because you don’t love me at all.”

  “I do love you, sir, you are quite, quite dear to me.”

  “Just how dear?”

  “As dear as wine.”

  The king mumbled something to himself, but he was obviously delighted.

  Now came the youngest daughter, as cheerful as cheerful could be. “Father! Did you sleep well? Why in the world are you on the black throne? Are you in any way angry with me?”

  “I am indeed, for you don’t love me either.”

  “I do love you, sir, you are exceedingly dear to me.”

  “How dear?”

  “As dear as salt!”

  Hearing that, the king was furious. “As dear as salt? Salt? You wretch! Out of my sight! I never want to lay eyes on you again!” And he ordered her taken to a forest and slain.

  When her mother the queen, who doted on her, heard about that order, she racked her brains for a way to save her. In the royal palace was a silver candlestick big enough for Zizola—as they called the youngest daughter—to get inside its base, so the queen concealed her there. “Take this candlestick out and sell it,” she said to her most trusted servant “When anyone inquires how much you’re asking for it, if they are poor people, say a fortune; but if it’s a well-to-do gentleman, say he can have it for a song, and make sure he gets it” The queen kissed her daughter goodbye, giving her much parting advice, along with a store of figs, chocolate, and cookies.

  The servant carried the candlestick to the town square, and to all those who wanted to know its price but whose looks he didn’t like, he quoted a preposterous sum. At last the son of Hightower’s king happened by, scrutinized the candlestick, then asked its price. The servant told him a ridiculously low figure, so the prince had the candlestick carried to his palace. It was placed in the dining room, and everybody who came to dinner marveled at it In the evening the prince always attended some social or other. As he wanted no one waiting up for him at home, the servants set out his supper and went off to bed. When Zizola was sure everyone had left the room, she jumped out of the candlestick, ate up everything on the table, and returned to her post inside the candlestick. The prince came home, found nothing out for him to eat, rang every bell in the house, and gave the servants a severe tongue-lashing. They swore they had set his supper out for him and that
the dog or cat must have eaten it.

  “If it happens again, I’m dismissing every one of you,” stated the prince. He then ordered another supper, ate, and went off to bed.

  Next evening, although everything was locked up, the same thing occurred. For a while it looked as if the prince would bring down the house with all his shouting. Then he said, “We’ll just see what happens tomorrow night.”

  When tomorrow night came, what do you think he did? He hid under the table, which was covered by a cloth that came all the way to the floor. The servants set the table, putting out all the different dishes, then shooed the dog and cat out and locked the door behind them. No sooner was everyone gone than the candlestick opened and out stepped lovely Zizola. She went to the table and ate her fill. Out jumped the prince and grabbed her by the arm. She tried to get away, but he held her tight. Then Zizola fell to her knees and told him her whole story from beginning to end. The prince was, from the start, head over heels in love with her. He calmed her down and said, “You might as well know right now you will be my bride. For the time being, go back into the candlestick.”

  In bed, the prince couldn’t shut his eyes the whole night long for thinking about lovely Zizola. In the morning he ordered the candlestick brought to his room; it was so beautiful he wanted it near him at night. The next thing he did was have his meals sent to him—double portions, for he was quite hungry. They brought him coffee, then a hot breakfast, then dinner, every meal with double servings. The minute they put the dishes down and left the room he locked the door, invited Zizola out, and the two of them ate together in glee.

  The queen, who now had to take her meals in the dining room by herself, began sighing. “What on earth could my son have against me not to dine with me any more? Have I done anything to him?”

  Again and again he told her to be patient, that he needed a little time to himself. Then one fine day he announced, “I am going to get married.”

  “And who is the bride?” asked the queen, cheered by the news.

  The prince replied, “I am going to marry the candlestick!”

  “Oh, goodness, my son has lost his mind!” said the queen, putting her hands over her eyes. He was serious, though. His mother tried to get him to see reason, reminding him of what people would say, but he wouldn’t budge an inch: he ordered all wedding arrangements completed in a week.

  On the appointed day, a long line of carriages left the palace. In the first one rode the prince, with the candlestick at his side. They reached the church, and the prince had the candlestick carried up to the altar. At exactly the right moment the candlestick opened, and out stepped Zizola in her brocaded dress, with countless gems adorning her neck and ears and sparkling all over. After the wedding they returned to the palace, where the queen heard their whole story. Being a very cunning lady, she said, “Leave everything to me, and I’ll teach that father of yours a lesson.”

  So they had the wedding banquet and invited all the kings in the vicinity, including Zizola’s father. For him, the queen had a special dinner prepared separately, without a grain of salt in any of the dishes. All the guests were informed the bride wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t come to the banquet. They began eating; but the king who got the tasteless soup started grumbling to himself. “That cook, that dumb cook forgot to salt the soup.” What could he do but leave it.

  The main course came to him just as saltless as the soup. The king put down his fork.

  “Why aren’t you eating, Majesty? Isn’t it good?”

  “Of course, of course. It’s delicious!”

  “Well, why don’t you eat?”

  “Uh, uh, I don’t feel too well all of a sudden.”

  He tried putting a forkful of meat in his mouth, but no matter how much he chewed, the meat would not go down. Then he recalled what his daughter had told him, that he was as dear as salt to her. Overcome with remorse, he burst into tears. “Woe is me, what wrong have I done!”

  The queen wanted to know what was the matter, and he told her all about Zizola. At that, the queen rose and summoned the little bride. Again and again her father embraced her; he couldn’t help weeping and asking what she was doing there, as though she had risen from the dead. They sent for her mother too, renewed the festivities with a party every day, and I do believe everyone is there to this day and still dancing.

  (Bologna)

  55

  The Queen of the Three Mountains of Gold

  There was once a poor man who had three sons. This man was sick and in great pain, and one day he called his sons to his bedside and said, “As you can see with your own eyes, I am about to die. I’ve nothing to leave you, but I ask you to be good boys and work as I’ve always done, and heaven will surely help you.” He drew his last breath, and the three sons were left all alone.

  The eldest said, “Let us now go out and seek work as our father advised.” So they all three departed and went out into the world.

  At nightfall they found themselves before a fine palace and knocked on the door to request shelter. They called and looked all around, but not a soul was anywhere in sight. They therefore went inside and found a table laden with a variety of good food. They stood there gaping, until the oldest boy said, “Since no one is home, let’s sit down and eat. If anybody comes in, then we’ll ask for permission.” With that, they proceeded to eat and drink their fill.

  Next, they strolled through the palace and came to a room with a nice bed surmounted by a canopy. Then they entered a room containing a bed with a garland of flowers above it; and last, a room where the bed was surmounted by a crown of golden leaves.

  “These beds seem to have been prepared just for us,” the boys agreed. “So let’s go to bed!”

  They each chose a room, and the oldest boy said, “Make sure you get up bright and early to leave, because I don’t intend to wait for you.”

  In the morning the oldest boy rose quite early and left without a word, which was quite typical of him. When the middle boy awakened, he went into the room of his big brother and found him already gone, so he too dressed and departed.

  Their little brother slept late. When he finally got up, he sought his brothers in vain. Breakfast was on the table, so he sat down and ate, then went to look out a window. Before him was a beautiful garden, which he decided to visit.

  The youngest brother, whose name was Sandrino, was quite a handsome young man. As he strolled through the garden he spied a large pool at the end of one of the paths. Rising above the surface was the head of a very beautiful maiden immersed in water up to her neck and perfectly motionless.

  Sandrino said, “What are you doing there, madam?”

  “You are a real godsend, good youth,” she replied. “I am the queen of the Three Mountains of Gold. A spell was cast over me and I must stay here in the water until I meet a man courageous enough to sleep in the palace three nights in a row.”

  “If that’s all one has to do,” answered Sandrino, “I’ll sleep there myself.”

  “I will marry whoever succeeds in sleeping there, when the three days are up. But you must not be afraid if you hear a commotion and see all kinds of wild animals rush into the room. Stand your ground, and they will retreat without touching you.”

  “You can be sure I won’t be afraid. I’ll do exactly as you said.”

  At nightfall the boy went to bed. Then at the stroke of midnight he heard a tumult and recognized the roar of wild animals. “Here we go,” said Sandrino, waiting to see what would happen.

  Into the room rushed wolves, bears, eagles, serpents, and countless other beasts ferocious enough to make the Devil himself cringe. They circled the room and completely surrounded the bed, but Sandrino didn’t cower the least bit, so the animals filed slowly out, and that was that.

  In the morning the boy returned to the pool. The queen was now in water only up to her waist. She was happy and full of praise. At night the same animal music filled Sandrino’s room, but he stood his ground and found the queen the nex
t morning in water only up to her calves. She praised him to the skies, and Sandrino went to breakfast, all smiles.

  He’d come to the last night. The animals roared mightily and closed in on the bed, but Sandrino still refused to flinch, and they finally left. In the morning only the queen’s feet remained under water. He gave her his hand and led her out of the pool; maids of honor appeared and made a big fuss over her. They went to breakfast at once and set the wedding for three days thence.

  On the morning of the wedding day, the queen said to Sandrino, “I must tell you something extremely important: when you kneel on the prayer bench, don’t fall asleep, or I’ll disappear and you’ll see me no more.”

  “That’s all we would need!” replied Sandrino. “How could I possibly fall asleep?”

  They went to church, where he knelt on the prie-dieu and became so drowsy that he fell sound asleep, while the queen fled. Upon awaking a few minutes later, Sandrino looked and saw that the queen was no longer there. “Woe is me!” he said over and over. He returned to the palace and searched everywhere for her, but she was nowhere to be found. He therefore picked up a bag of money and set out in pursuit of her.

  After walking all day long he entered an inn at night and asked the innkeeper if he had seen the queen of the Three Mountains of Gold. “I’ve not seen her myself,” said the innkeeper, “but as I happen to be in charge of all the animals of the earth, I’ll ask them if they’ve seen her.” He whistled once, and here came dogs, cats, tigers, lions, monkeys, and other animals, and the innkeeper asked, “Have any of you seen the queen of the Three Mountains of Gold?”

  “No,” replied the animals, “we can’t say that we have.”

  The innkeeper dismissed all the animals and said to Sandrino, “Look, tomorrow morning I’ll send you to my brother who’s in charge of all fish, and you can see what they have to say.”

 
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