Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Why don’t you bring us a feather too,” they said.

  “I certainly will.”

  “Also, would you ask the ogre something? In our garden is a fountain that once spewed gold and silver, but it has since dried up.”

  “I’ll ask him why, without fail.”

  He moved on and walked until dark, when he knocked at a monastery. Friars answered the door, and he requested shelter.

  “Come in, come in.”

  After hearing his story, the friars inquired, “But do you know what you are getting into?”

  “I was told there are seven caves. At the back of one of them is a door I’m to knock on and be greeted by the ogre.”

  “My poor man,” said the prior, “if you are unmindful of all the danger, you’ll certainly lose your life. This is no laughing matter. I’ll tell you about the ogre, in hopes you’ll do us a favor.”

  “Of course I will.”

  “Listen to me, then. When you get to the mountaintop, you’ll see seven caves. The seventh is the ogre’s. Go down into that one, all the way to the end, where it will be pitch-dark. We’ll give you a candle and matches to light your way. But be sure to go in right at noon, when the ogre is out. You’ll find his wife there, a bright girl who will tell you exactly what to do. Beware of the ogre, who would eat you up in a minute.”

  “How good of you to tell me all these things I didn’t know.”

  “Now here’s what you are to find out for us. We lived here in peace for no telling how many years. But for the last ten, we’ve done nothing but wrangle. Some want one thing, others another, there is bickering, and things are always in turmoil. What is the meaning of it?”

  The next morning the man scaled the mountain. He was at the top by eleven o’clock and sat down to rest. At the stroke of noon he slipped into the seventh cave. It was pitch-dark, but he lit the candle and discovered a door. The minute he knocked, a beautiful girl opened and asked, “Who are you? What brings you here? You don’t know my husband! He eats every human being he sees!”

  “I came for some feathers. Since I’m already here, I’ll stay and try my luck. If I get eaten, that’s that.”

  “Listen, I’ve been here for years and years and can’t stand it any longer. Be very careful, and we’ll both flee. He must under no circumstances see you, or he’ll eat you. I’ll hide you under the bed and when he retires for the night, I’ll pull out the feathers. How many do you want?”

  “Four.” And he told her about king, innkeeper, ferryman, noblemen, friars, and the queries of each.

  They talked as they ate their dinner. As it had grown late in the meantime, the young lady began getting the ogre’s meal ready. “When he’s hungry, he smells humans right away. After eating he no longer notices, luckily for you!”

  At six o’clock a great clatter was heard at the door, and the man disappeared under the bed in a flash. In stormed the ogre sniffing and saying:

  “Here, here,

  There’re stinking humans here.

  There were, there are, they’re hiding;

  My nose informs me they are near!”

  “Nonsense!” replied his wife. “Your hunger is making you imagine things. Sit down and eat.”

  The ogre ate, but he could still smell a man and went all through the house after dinner looking for him. It was at last bedtime, so they undressed, got under the covers, and the ogre went to sleep at once.

  The man under the bed held his breath. “Listen closely,” whispered the woman. “I’m going to pretend to be dreaming and pull out one of his feathers.” She plucked a feather and slipped it under the bed to him.

  “Ouch! What do you mean by plucking me?” yelled the ogre.

  “Oh, dear, I was dreaming . . . ”

  “What were you dreaming?”

  “I was dreaming about the monastery down below us. For the last ten years the friars have been so much at odds with one another that it’s pure torture to be under one roof together.”

  “That’s no dream but a fact,” answered the ogre. “The friars are ill-tempered because ten years ago the Devil got into their monastery dressed as a priest.”

  “How could they get rid of him?”

  “The real friars would have to start doing good deeds. Then they’d spot the Devil in their midst.” At that, the ogre went back to sleep.

  A quarter of an hour later, his wife pulled out another feather and passed it to the man under the bed.

  “Ouch! That hurt!”

  “I was dreaming.”

  “Again? What were you dreaming this time?”

  “You know the fountain down below us in the garden of those two noblemen, which used to spew gold and silver? I dreamt it had gone dry. What on earth could that mean?”

  “All of your dreams are true tonight. The fountain is stopped up and can’t spew any more gold and silver. They would have to dig gently down to the mouth of the fountain, where they’d find a ball entwined with a sleeping snake. They would have to crush the snake’s head beneath the ball before the snake awakened, and the fountain would spew gold and silver anew.”

  Again in a quarter of an hour she plucked another feather. “Ouch! I believe you’ve made up your mind to pluck me clean tonight.”

  “I’m sorry, I was dreaming.”

  “What now?”

  “A ferryman down there on the river hasn’t been able to leave his ferry for years.”

  “True. He doesn’t realize that he should ferry a man across the river, collect his fare, and disembark before his passenger can. The traveler will then have to remain on the ferry.”

  The wife pulled out the fourth feather. “Confound it! What are you about?”

  “I’m sorry. I keep on dreaming. I was dreaming of an innkeeper still looking for his daughter, years after her disappearance.”

  “You mean your father, because you are that innkeeper’s daughter.”

  In the morning at six o’clock, the ogre rose, bid his wife goodbye, and went off. The man came out from under the bed with the four feathers wrapped in a package, took the young lady by the arm, and together they fled.

  They stopped at the monastery to tell the friars, “The ogre said that one of you is the Devil. You must start doing all the good you can, and he will flee.”

  The friars all did one good deed after another until the Devil finally fled.

  The couple next stopped by the garden to give the two noblemen a feather and explain to them about the snake. And it wasn’t long before the fountain was again spewing gold and silver.

  They came to the ferryman. “Here’s your feather!”

  “Thank you. And what did the ogre say concerning me?”

  “I’ll have to wait until I’m on the other bank to tell you.”

  Once the couple was safely on the opposite shore, they told the ferryman what to do.

  Upon arriving at the inn, the king’s man cried, “Innkeeper, here I am with your feather and your daughter!” Right away the innkeeper wanted to give his daughter to the man in marriage.

  “Let me first take the king his feather and ask his permission.”

  He carried the feather to the king, who got well and rewarded him. The man said, “Now if Your Majesty permits, I’ll be off to my wedding.” The king doubled the reward, and the man took leave of him and returned to the inn.

  What about the ogre? Discovering his wife gone, he set out in pursuit, fully intending to devour her and whoever was involved in her escape. He came to the river and jumped on the ferry. “Pay your fare,” said the ferryman. The ogre paid, never dreaming the ferryman knew the secret. Before landing on the opposite shore, off jumped the ferryman, and the ogre could no longer leave the boat.

  (Garfagnana Estense)

  58

  The Dragon with Seven Heads

  There was once a fisherman whose wife bore him no children, even though they had been married for some time. One fine day the fisherman took his nets to the nearby lake to fish and caught a big, beautiful fish
. The minute it was pulled out of water the fish began begging the man to let it go, promising in return to tell him about a pond in the region where he would make a much finer haul and in no time at all. Hearing a fish talk frightened the fisherman, and he didn’t hesitate to free the fish, which immediately disappeared in the water. The fisherman went to the pond and caught so many fish in two or three hauls that he returned home more loaded down than a donkey.

  His wife insisted on knowing how he had ever caught that many fish, so he told her in detail what had occurred. At that, the woman was furious with her husband. “Simpleton! How could you let such a fine fish get away? Be sure to catch it tomorrow and bring it home. I intend to prepare it in a stew that will really satisfy our craving for fish.”

  To please his wife, the fisherman returned to the lake the next day, cast his net, and again pulled up the talking fish. But this time also he yielded to the fish’s begging and pleading and spared it, then made a splendid haul in the same pond as yesterday. When he came home and told his wife, she flew off the handle, put her hands on her hips, and blessed him out. “You dumb ox! Blockhead! Can’t you see that you’re cursed with luck? How can you turn your back on it? Either you bring me that fish tomorrow, or you’ll be sorry you didn’t. Is that clear?”

  Dawn found the fisherman back at the lake. He cast his nets, pulled them up, and there again was the big fish, whose words and entreaties this time fell on deaf ears. The fisherman ran straight home, and his wife took the fish, which was still alive, and threw it into a tub of fresh water. Then they both stood by the tub admiring the fish and discussing the best way to cook it. At that, the fish poked its head above water and said, “Since I can’t get out of dying, let me at least make my testament.”

  The fisherman and his wife consented, and the fish said, “When I’m dead, cooked, and halved, let the woman eat my meat, the mare my broth, the dog my head, and plant the three biggest fishbones in the garden. Hang my gall bladder from a beam in the kitchen. You will have children; should any of them come to grief some day, blood will ooze from my gall bladder.”

  After killing and cooking the fish, the two people followed its instructions to the letter. Then it came to pass that the woman, the mare, and the dog all three gave birth on the same night. The dog had three puppies, the mare three colts, and the woman three baby boys. The fisherman said, “How about that! Nine creatures born in one night!” The triplets were so much alike that it was impossible to tell them apart without a different emblem around each one’s neck. As for the fishbones planted in the garden, they sprouted into three splendid swords.

  When the children became big boys, their father gave them each a horse, a dog, and a sword and, as a present from himself, a shotgun apiece. In no time the firstborn grew weary of living at home in poverty and decided to go out and seek his fortune. He mounted his horse, took up his dog, sword, and shotgun and bid everyone farewell. To his brothers, he added, “Should the gall bladder hanging from the beam ever ooze blood, come in search of me, for I’ll either be dead or in serious trouble. Farewell.” And away he galloped.

  After riding for days and days through unfamiliar territory he came to the gate of a big city draped in mourning. He entered and found all the inhabitants grief-stricken and dressed in black. At an inn where he went for dinner, he asked the reason for all the black, and the innkeeper explained. “There’s a dragon with seven heads who comes down to the bridge every day at noon. If he is not given a maiden to eat, he will enter the city and devour everyone in his path. Lots are drawn daily. Today it’s the turn of the king’s daughter, who must be on the bridge at noon for the dragon to devour. The king has posted a proclamation that the man who rescues her will wed her.”

  The youth said, “There must be some way to save the king’s daughter and free the city from such a scourge. I have a powerful sword, dog, and horse, and would like to be taken to the king.”

  Led to His Majesty at once, the youth asked permission to confront and slay the dragon.

  “Young man full of zeal,” replied the king, “note that many men before you have tried and lost their life, poor wretches. But if you feel like risking your life and conquer the dragon, you will have my daughter in marriage and inherit the kingdom at my death.”

  Undaunted, the youth took his dog and horse and went to sit on the parapet of the bridge.

  At the stroke of twelve, here came the king’s daughter, dressed from head to toe in black silk, with her retinue. When they were halfway across the bridge, her attendants turned back in tears, leaving her there by herself. She looked around and saw a man sitting on the bridge with a dog.

  “Noble sir,” she said, “what are you doing here? Didn’t you know that a dragon is coming any minute to devour me and that he will eat you too if he finds you here?”

  “I’m well aware of that, and I’ve come to set you free and marry you.”

  “My poor man,” answered the princess, “flee, or the dragon will have two souls to devour today instead of just me. He’s a dragon full of wiles. How can you expect to slay him?”

  From just looking at the princess, the youth had fallen in love with her, and he said, “For the sake of your love I will risk my life, and what will be, will be.”

  They had just finished this discussion, when the palace clock struck noon. The earth began quaking, a chasm yawned, and out sprang the dragon with seven heads amid smoke and flames. He made straight for the princess, his seven mouths open and whistling for joy, since he had noticed he would feast on two humans this day instead of one. In a flash the youth was on his horse and charging the dragon as well as sicking his dog on the monster. Brandishing his sword, he swept off six of the seven heads, one after the other. Then the dragon asked to rest awhile and the youth, who was also out of breath, said, “Let us both rest a moment.”

  But the dragon rubbed his one remaining head on the ground and came back up with the other six heads reattached. Seeing that, the youth realized he had to sweep off all seven heads at once. He therefore rushed upon the dragon, swinging around his sword with all his might until every single head was off and rolling on the ground. Then he took his sword and cut out the seven tongues, asking the king’s daughter, “Do you have a handkerchief with you?”

  The princess gave him her handkerchief, in which he wrapped the seven tongues. He mounted his horse again and rode to an inn to wash and dress for his visit to the king.

  As luck would have it, in a hovel near the bridge lived a very sly and wicked coalman, who had witnessed the combat from afar. He thought to himself, Let’s outsmart this ninny who leaves the dragon heads lying around and wastes time getting all spruced up. He gathered the amputated heads into a bag and ran to the king brandishing a huge knife smeared with the dragon’s blood.

  “Sacred Crown!” he exclaimed. “Here before you stands the dragon slayer, and these are his seven heads which I cut off one by one with the knife you see here. Therefore, Sacred Crown, keep your royal promise and give me your daughter’s hand in marriage!”

  The king was quite taken aback at the sight of that ugly and sinister face. He was not convinced of the truth of the man’s story, suspecting strongly that the zealous youth had been devoured and that the coalman had shown up at the last minute, when the dragon was already done for, and dealt only the finishing stroke. In any event, the royal promise could not be altered, and the king was obliged to reply, “If that’s how it really happened, then my daughter is yours, so take her.”

  At that, the princess, who had been in the audience hall listening to the conversation, began screaming that the coalman was a liar, that it wasn’t he who had slain the dragon but the young man who would arrive any minute. A heated quarrel followed, but the coalman stuck by his story, producing the heads in the bag as evidence. The king could not dispute it and had no choice but to order his daughter to calm down and get ready to marry the coalman.

  Right away the king ordered the announcement made public. Three days were devoted to
festivities, with a grand banquet on each day, at the end of which period the wedding would be celebrated. In the meantime the real dragon slayer arrived at the royal palace. But the guards at the front door refused to admit him under any circumstances; in the same instant he heard the town crier going through the city squares announcing the forthcoming wedding of the princess and the coalman. The youth argued in vain to be taken to the king; the guards were not to be moved. Finally the coalman appeared and ordered the young man thrown out at once. The youth therefore had no choice but return to the inn, seething with rage, and think of a way to prevent that marriage, expose the coalman’s lie, and establish himself as the slayer of the dragon.

  At court the table was laid and all the nobility invited. Seated next to the princess was the coalman dressed in velvet; since he was short in stature, seven cushions were placed under him to make him look a little taller.

  After racking his brains back at the inn, the young man woke his dog sleeping at his feet and said, “Listen, Faithful, run to the palace to the king’s daughter, make a fuss over her alone, no one else, and when they are all ready to sit down and eat, upset the table and flee. But be careful not to get caught.”

  The dog, who understood everything his master said to him, ran off, found the princess, put his front paws in her lap, whined, and licked her hands and face. She recognized him and was quite glad to see him; stroking him, she whispered in his ear and asked where her rescuer was. But the coalman was suspicious of all those caresses and ordered the dog driven out of the banquet hall. They were just serving the soup, so the dog caught hold of a corner of the tablecloth and pulled it clean off the table with everything on it, thus littering the floor with broken dishes. Then he flew down the stairs so fast that no one could catch him or even see which way he went. The confusion of the guests was too much for words. The banquet had to be called off, which caused something of a scandal.

 
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