Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  The next morning Sandrino gave the innkeeper a purse of money and left for his brother’s.

  When the man in charge of all fish heard that Sandrino had been sent by his brother, he invited him into his inn and said, “Just a minute and I’ll call all the fish and ask them.”

  He whistled, and here came pike, tench, eels, sturgeon, dolphins, whales, and all the rest. “No, we’ve seen nothing,” they all answered and were dismissed by the innkeeper, who then said to Sandrino, “Tomorrow I’ll give you a letter of introduction to my brother, the one in charge of birds; they might have seen her.”

  Sandrino impatiently awaited the next day, and when it dawned he set out and walked and walked until he reached the third inn. “I’ll oblige you immediately,” said the innkeeper. He whistled, and all around them flew hens, owls, pheasants, birds of paradise, and falcons; only the eagle was missing. The innkeeper gave a second whistle, and the eagle appeared.

  “I’m sorry I was late,” said the eagle. “I was attending a banquet at the court of the king of Marone who’s marrying the queen of the Three Mountains of Gold.”

  Hearing that news, Sandrino lost hope. But the man in charge of all birds said, “Cheer up, we’ll see if we can do something about this.” He turned to the eagle. “Will you carry this youth to the court of the king of Marone?”

  “Right away!” said the eagle, “but I demand that every time I call for water he give me water, every time I call for bread he give me bread, and every time I call for meat he give me meat. Otherwise I’ll throw him into the sea.”

  So the youth loaded up with two baskets of bread, two containers of water, and two pounds of meat. The eagle soared into the air with Sandrino astride. Every request the eagle made for bread, water, and meat was satisfied at once. But they still had a stretch of sea to cross, and the youth had run out of meat. The eagle called for meat, and Sandrino could think of nothing else to do but cut off flesh from his own leg and feed it to him. The queen had given him a magic salve, which he applied to the wound and healed it at once.

  The eagle carried him right into the queen’s room.

  The minute they saw each other, they fell into each other’s arms. They told each other everything, then the queen took him to the king, introducing Sandrino as her rescuer and bridegroom. The king thought it quite fitting for her to marry the young man and took great pleasure in proclaiming the wedding festivities, which lasted a month and one week.

  (Bologna)

  56

  Lose Your Temper, and You Lose Your Bet

  A poor man had three sons: Giovanni, Fiore, and Pírolo. Taken sick, he called his sons to his bedside. “As you can see with your own eyes, my sons, I am at death’s door. All I have to leave you are three equal sums of money which I accumulated by hard work. Each of you take one and manage the best you can.” No sooner had he said that than he heaved a deep sigh and died. The boys were heartbroken and wept; their poor father had left them forever.

  They each took a bag of money, but Giovanni, the oldest son, said, “Brothers, we’ll never make out if we don’t work. What we have here won’t last forever and we’ll find ourselves out in the cold. One of us must begin looking around for work of some sort.” The middle boy, Fiore, agreed. “You are quite right. I’ll go out myself and see what I can find.” Next morning he got up, washed, shined his boots, slung his bag of money over his shoulder, embraced his brothers, and set out.

  He spent the whole day looking around and, toward evening, passed by a church and saw the archpriest outside getting some fresh air.

  “Good evening, Father,” said Fiore, doffing his hat.

  “Good evening, young man, where are you going?”

  “I’m going out into the world to seek my fortune.”

  “What have you there in that bag?”

  “The share of money my poor father left me.”

  “How would you like to enter my household?”

  “I’d like to.”

  “I too have a share of money, mind you. If you enter my service, we’ll make a bargain: the first one to lose his temper will forfeit his share of money.”

  Fiore accepted the terms, and the archpriest took him out and showed him the plot of land to be tilled the next day, saying, “Once you begin working, there’s no need to waste time going back and forth for breakfast and dinner. I’ll send your meals out to you.”

  “As you wish, Father,” replied Fiore. Then they sat down to supper and chatted awhile, after which the older servant woman showed the boy to his room.

  Fiore got up bright and early the next morning and went out to dig up the field the archpriest had shown him the evening before. He dug until breakfast time, when he stopped and waited, expecting someone to show up any minute with food. When no one came, Fiore got upset and cursed. Since time was passing, he took up the spade again and went back to digging on an empty stomach in anticipation of dinnertime. At last it was dinnertime, and Fiore peered down the road to see if anyone was coming. Every time somebody approached, he was sure it must be the archpriest’s servant and perked up; but it was always someone else, and he cursed a blue streak.

  At last, around nightfall, the old woman arrived full of excuses: she’d been too busy with the laundry to come any sooner, and blah-blah-blah . . . . Although burning to call her every name under the sun, he controlled himself so as not to forfeit his sum of money to the priest. He dived into the old woman’s basket and pulled out a pot and a bottle. He went to open the pot, but the lid seemed to have been cemented on and stuck fast. Screaming insults, Fiore sent pot and all flying. “But don’t you realize,” began the old woman as innocently as you please, “that we closed it up tight so the flies wouldn’t get into it.”

  Fiore then grabbed the bottle, but it too was sealed up the same way. Cursing loud enough to awake the dead, he said, “Away with you! Go back and tell the archpriest he’ll hear the rest from my own lips. He’ll see if this is any way to treat a man!”

  The servant went back to the archpriest, who was waiting at the door. “How did it go? How did it go?”

  “It was perfect, Father, simply perfect! He’s beside himself with rage!”

  In a little while here came Fiore so long-faced you could have put a halter on him, and he hadn’t shut the door before he launched out against the archpriest, calling him every name under the sun.

  “Have you forgotten our agreement,” said the archpriest, “that whoever flew off the handle first would forfeit his sum of money?”

  “The Devil take that money too!” shouted Fiore, who packed up and left without the bag of money. The archpriest and his two servants laughed until they cried.

  Half starved, exhausted, and angry, Fiore made his way home. His brothers, who were looking out the window as he came into view, knew right away from the expression on his face that he had fared badly.

  Once he had satisfied his hunger and thirst, he told them what had happened. Giovanni said, “I bet if I go out I’ll return with not only my money but the priest’s and yours as well. Tell me where he lives and sit tight.”

  So Giovanni went to the archpriest, but he too became so enraged, what with hunger and thirst and that confounded pot and bottle, that he would have forfeited ten additional bags of money if he had had them. He came home as hungry and cross as a bear.

  Pírolo, the youngest and most cunning of the three, said, “Let me go, brothers, and I’ll be sure to return with your money and every cent of the archpriest’s.” The brothers were reluctant for him to go, lest the rest of their father’s money be lost, but he begged and pleaded until they finally consented.

  He reached the archpriest’s house and entered his service. The usual bargain was made, and the archpriest added, “I have three bags of money, which I’m staking against your bag.” They sat down to supper, and Pírolo wisely pocketed all the bread, meat, ham, and cheese he dared.

  In the morning he was at work before sunrise. Naturally nobody showed up at breakfast time, so he took
out his bread and cheese and ate. Then he went to a farmhouse, introducing himself as the archpriest’s field hand, and asked for something to drink. The farmer and his family made a big to-do over him; they asked after the archpriest and chatted for a while, then took Pírolo to the cellar and drew a bowl of their finest wine, which lasted him until dinnertime. He thanked the people, promising to call on them again, and returned to his work in the best of spirits. Neither did anybody show up at dinnertime, but Pírolo had bread, ham, and other meat. Then he went back for more wine and returned to the field singing. As night began to fall, here came a little old woman down the road, the priest’s old servant, bringing his dinner. And there was Pírolo singing!

  “I’m sorry to be so late, young man . . . ”

  “Oh, don’t give it a thought!” he replied. “It’s never too late to eat.”

  At those words the old woman stood stock-still, then took out the pot with the sealed lid. He burst out laughing. “You clever souls! You fixed it so the flies wouldn’t get in!” He pried off the lid with his hoe and ate the soup. Next he picked up the bottle, broke the bottleneck, again with his hoe, and drank the wine. When his hunger and thirst were satisfied, he said to the old woman, “You go on back, and i’ll be home just as soon as I’ve finished up out here. Please thank the archpriest for his thoughtfulness.”

  The archpriest welcomed the old woman with open arms. “Well? What news?”

  “Bad news. That boy is as cheerful as a canary.”

  “You just wait,” said the archpriest. “He’ll change his tune.”

  Pírolo returned and they sat down to supper. All through the meal he joked with the two servants while the archpriest sat there and shuddered.

  “What work do you have lined up for me tomorrow?” asked Pírolo.

  “Listen,” said the archpriest, “I have a hundred pigs for you to drive to market and sell.”

  The next morning Pírolo drove the hundred pigs to market and sold them to the first merchant he met, all except for a sow as big as a cow. But before selling them, he cut off each one’s tail and thus went away with ninety-nine pigtails. With money in his pocket now, he headed for home. He stopped in a field along the way, dug countless holes with a trowel, and planted the tails, leaving only their curls showing aboveground. Next he dug a vast hole and buried the sow, leaving only the curl of its tail showing. Then he cried at the top of his voice:

  “Hurry, hurry, Don Raimondo,

  Pigs you own are going to Inferno!

  Downward do they rush to darkest dales;

  Left to see are only curly tails!”

  The archpriest looked out the window, and Pírolo frantically motioned for him to come outside. The archpriest came running.

  “Who has ever suffered worse luck? I was here with the herd when I suddenly noticed them going under, right before my eyes. As you can see, they’ve disappeared all but for their tails! No doubt about it, they’re tumbling straight down to Hell! Let’s see if we can rescue a few, at least!”

  The archpriest began tugging, but ended up with only a handful of tails. Pírolo, though, grabbed hold of the sow’s tail and after tugging and tugging brought her out alive and in one piece and squealing like one possessed.

  The archpriest was all ready to jump up and down in rage, but remembered the money and checked his anger. “Well, what more can we do but accept it,” he said, feigning unconcern. “Accidents will happen.” But he walked back to the house wringing his hands.

  That night Pírolo asked as usual, “What do I have to do tomorrow?”

  “I have a hundred sheep to go to market,” replied the archpriest, “but I wouldn’t want the same thing to happen that occurred today.”

  “Goodness, no!” said Pírolo. “We won’t ever be that unlucky again!” The next day he went to market and sold the sheep to a certain merchant, all except one that limped. He pocketed the money and headed for home. When he came to the field of the day before, he picked up a long, long ladder lying there on the ground, propped it against a poplar tree, and carried the lame sheep to the treetop and tied her up. Then he came back down, removed the ladder, and cried at the top of his voice:

  “Hurry, hurry, Don Carmelo!

  Lambs you own are bound for the rainbow!

  Left behind in poplar’s top

  Is the lamb that limps and flops.”

  The archpriest came running, and Pírolo explained. “I was here with my sheep when all of a sudden I see them leap into the air as if summoned to Paradise. Only that poor crippled one there didn’t make it and remained in the treetop.”

  The archpriest was as red as a beet, but again managed to feign unconcern. “What can you do but accept it. Those things will happen . . . ”

  At supper Pírolo asked what his next task would be, and the archpriest said, “My son, I have no more tasks for you. Tomorrow morning I shall say Mass in a neighboring parish. You can come along and serve Mass.”

  The next morning Pírolo rose early, shined the archpriest’s shoes, put on a white shirt, washed his face, and went to wake up his employer. They left the house together, but as soon as they got out on the road it began to rain and the archpriest said, “Go back and get my wooden shoes. I don’t want to muddy my nice shoes I say Mass in. I’ll wait for you under this tree with the umbrella.”

  Pírolo ran home and said to the servants, “Quick, where are you? The archpriest said for me to give you both a kiss!”

  “Kiss us? Have you lost your mind? We can just hear the archpriest saying such a thing!”

  “Upon my word, he said to kiss you both! If you don’t believe it, I’ll let him tell you so himself!” He called out the window to the priest waiting outside, “One, father, or two?”

  “Why, both of them, of course!” cried the archpriest. “Both of them!”

  “You see?” said Pírolo, who gave them each a kiss. Then he picked up the wooden shoes and ran back to the archpriest, who asked, “What good would just one shoe have done me?”

  When he got back home, the archpriest found the servant women sulking. “What’s the matter?” he asked.

  “What’s the matter? You ask us that? What do you mean by giving the boy such orders? If we’d not heard with our own ears, we’d never have believed it!” And they told him about the kiss.

  “That’s the last straw,” said the archpriest. “I must dismiss him at once.”

  “But you can’t send field hands away,” replied the servants, “until the cuckoo has sung.”

  “We’ll just make believe the cuckoo is singing, then.” He called Pírolo and said, “Listen, I have no more work for you, so Godspeed!”

  “What!” replied Pírolo. “You know very well that you can’t dismiss me before the cuckoo has sung.”

  “Very well, to be perfectly fair we’ll wait for the cuckoo to sing.”

  The old servant killed and plucked a few hens, sewing all the feathers onto a waistcoat and a pair of breeches belonging to the archpriest. She then dressed up in all those feathers and went to the roof that night and sang, “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”

  Pírolo was at the supper table with the archpriest. “Well, bless my soul!” exclaimed the priest. “I do believe I hear the cuckoo singing.”

  “Oh, no,” answered Pírolo. “March has scarcely begun, and the cuckoo never sings before May.”

  Yet there was no denying it was singing: “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Pírolo ran and got the shotgun hanging behind the archpriest’s bed, opened the window, and took aim at that big bird singing on the rooftop. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” shouted the archpriest, but Pírolo fired away.

  Down tumbled the feather-clad servant, riddled with shot.

  This time the archpriest was blind with rage. “Pírolo, get out, and don’t ever let me see you again!”

  “Why? Are you angry, Father?”

  “I certainly am!”

  “Well, give me the three bags of money, and I’ll go.”

  So Pírolo went home with four bags of mo
ney, in addition to all the proceeds from the sale of the pigs and sheep. He gave his brothers back their shares, opened up a haberdashery with his own, got married, and lived happily ever after.

  (Bologna)

  57

  The Feathered Ogre

  A king fell ill and was told by his doctors, “Majesty, if you want to get well, you’ll have to obtain one of the ogre’s feathers. That will not be easy, since the ogre eats every human he sees.”

  The king passed the word on to everybody, but no one was willing to go to the ogre. Then he asked one of his most loyal and courageous attendants, who said, “I will go.”

  The man was shown the road and told, “On a mountaintop are seven caves, in one of which lives the ogre.”

  The man set out and walked until dark, when he stopped at an inn. When the innkeeper learned of his mission, he said, “How about bringing me a feather too on your way back, since they are so beneficial.”

  “I’ll be glad to,” replied the king’s man.

  “And should you talk to the ogre, try and find out something about my daughter. She disappeared years ago and is now goodness knows where.”

  In the morning the man continued on his way. He came to a river and called the ferryman to row him to the other side. During the crossing, they got into conversation.

  “Will you bring me a feather too?” asked the ferryman. “I know they bring luck.”

  “Yes, of course I’ll bring you one.”

  “And if you have the chance, ask the ogre how come I’ve been at this job for so many years and can’t get off the ferry.”

  “I’ll certainly ask him.”

  The king’s man disembarked and continued his journey on foot. At a fountain he sat down to eat a bite of lunch. Two well-dressed noblemen came by and also sat down, and the three of them got to talking.

 
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