Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  When the second banquet came up, the youth said to his dog, “Go back, Faithful, and do the same thing over.” Seeing the dog back, the princess laughed for joy, but the coalman, fearful and suspicious, insisted that the dog be driven out with the whip. The princess, however, stood up for the dog, and the coalman, in spite of his meanness, dared not defy her. This time too, as soon as the soup was served, the dog grabbed hold of the tablecloth, pulled everything off onto the floor, and fled like lightning. Guards and servants tore after him, but he was out of sight before they came anywhere near him.

  Just before the third banquet, the young man said, “Go back, Faithful, and do the same thing once more, but this time let them follow you home to me.”

  The dog did just what he was supposed to, and here came the guards on his heels right into the room of the young man, whom they seized and carried to the king. The king recognized him. “But aren’t you the man who wanted to rescue my daughter from the dragon?”

  “I certainly am, Majesty, and rescue her I did.”

  At those words, the coalman shouted, “It’s not so! I killed the dragon myself with my own two hands. To prove it I brought along the seven heads!” He ordered the heads laid at the king’s feet.

  Without losing countenance, the youth turned to the king, saying, “Maybe he brought the seven heads. They were so heavy I brought only the tongues. Let’s look in those seven mouths and see if there’s a tongue in each one.”

  The seven tongues were missing. Then the youth pulled out of his pocket the handkerchief in which he had wrapped them and described the combat in detail. But the coalman refused to concede defeat, claiming the tongues would have to be put back in place to be sure they fit. Every time a tongue went in exactly right, he flung one of the cushions off his chair in anger; when they got to the seventh tongue he disappeared under the table and fled. But he was caught at once and hanged by order of the king in the town square.

  Now in the highest of spirits, king, bride and guests sat down to feast and conclude the marriage. Then night fell and everyone went to bed. At dawn the youth rose, opened the window and, seeing a forest full of birds before him, felt the urge to go hunting. His wife begged him not to go, as the forest was enchanted and whoever entered it never came back home. But the more the youth heard, the more he was tempted by the danger, so he took horse, dog, sword, gun, and departed. He had already shot many birds, when a violent storm arose, with thunder, lightning, and rain by the barrels. Soaking wet, the young man who had already strayed in the darkness then enveloping the forest, spied a cave and took shelter in it. It was full of white marble statues in various postures, but the youth was too tired and wet to pay much attention to them. He raked up some dry wood and, with the aid of his flintlock, lit a small fire to dry out his clothes and cook the birds.

  In a little while, an old woman entered the cave seeking shelter. She was drenched through and through, her teeth chattered, and she begged the youth to let her warm up at his fire.

  “By all means, ma’am,” he replied. “You can keep me company.”

  The old woman sat down and offered the youth salt for the roasted birds, bran for the horse, a bone for the dog, and grease to grease the sword. But the minute the youth, the horse, and the dog ate, and the sword was greased, they all froze into statues.

  Waiting in vain for her husband to return, the princess gave him up for dead, and the griefstricken king ordered the city draped in mourning.

  Meanwhile back at the fisherman’s house, from the time the firstborn son had left, his father and brothers looked daily at the gall bladder hanging from the beam. One day they found the kitchen inundated with blood, which was pouring from the gall bladder. At that, the second-bom son said, “My big brother is either dead, or something terrible has happened to him. I’m going out and look for him. Farewell.” He mounted his horse, and with dog, sword, and shotgun, galloped off.

  All along the way he stopped and asked people if they had seen his brother. “Have you seen a man who looks exactly like me?”

  Everybody would laugh. “That’s a fine joke! Aren’t you the same one who rode through here some time ago?”

  “So the youth realized his big brother too had come this way, and he continued in the same direction. He came to the royal city, and when the people dressed in black saw him, they marveled. “Here he is, here he is! He’s not dead after all! Hurrah! Long live our prince!”

  They led him before the king, and the whole court, including the princess, took him for the firstborn. The king scolded him at great length for going off, and the second-born, without seeming puzzled, apologized, making up with the princess as well. So cleverly did he handle questions and answers that he learned all about his brother, his marriage, and his disappearance.

  That night on going to bed, the second-born took off his sword and placed it blade upward in the middle of the bed, telling the princess they would sleep one on one side, the other on the other. The princess didn’t understand why, but they went to bed and fell asleep.

  He too rose at dawn and right away opened the window. Seeing the forest before him, he said, “I shall go hunting there.”

  “Isn’t one narrow escape enough for you?” replied the princess. “Must I suffer more anxious moments?”

  Her words fell on deaf ears, and he left with horse, dog, sword, and gun. He met with the same fate as the firstborn and thus remained in the cave as a statue. Waiting in vain for him to return, the princess felt certain he was dead this time, and once more the city put on mourning by order of the king.

  Back at the fisherman’s meanwhile, the kitchen was newly flooded with blood trickling from the gall bladder. The third-born set out at once in search of his brothers, taking horse, dog, sword, shotgun, and galloping off. He too inquired along the way: “Did you see two young men who each looked exactly like me riding through here?”

  “What a clown you are!” exclaimed the people he stopped. “Are you going to continue to come by asking the same thing?”

  So the third-born knew he was on the right road and kept on until he reached the city, where he was as joyously welcomed as if he had just risen from the dead. He too was taken for the firstborn by king, princess, and court. Like his brother, he went to bed at night with the princess, putting the sword in the middle of the bed and sleeping on one side of it, with her on the other. Seeing the forest from the window in the morning, he announced, “I am going hunting.”

  Again the princess was thrown into a state of dismay. “Are you bent on going to your doom? Do you love me no better than that? Every time you go hunting I’m worried to death about you.”

  But the third-born was dying to be off in search of his brothers and left immediately. Taking shelter in the cave out of the storm, he examined the statues one by one and recognized his two brothers. “There’s mischief here, for sure,” he said to himself, “so I shall watch my step.”

  He had just lit the fire and put on the birds to roast when the old woman appeared and, bowing and scraping, asked to warm herself. But the youth scowled and said, “Out of my way, you ugly witch, I want you nowhere near me.”

  Appearing hurt by such a welcome, the old woman whimpered, “Have you no love for a fellow human being? I would still like to give you a few little things to improve your supper: salt for the roast birds, bran for the horse, a bone for the dog, and even grease to keep your weapons from rusting.”

  “Horrid old hag, you’re not going to catch me too!” he cried, and pounced on her, throwing her to the ground and holding her down with his knee. Gripping her throat with his left hand, he unsheathed his sword with his right and pressed the point to her neck, snarling, “Awful old witch! Give me back my brothers, or I’ll slit your throat this very instant!”

  The old woman protested she had never harmed a soul, but menaced by the youth’s sword touching her windpipe, she finally confessed her witchcraft and promised to obey him if he would spare her life. She immediately pulled a jar of salve from her
pocket to restore the statues to life. The youth wasn’t about to let her go, and with his sword against her back, forced her to daub the statues. So one by one all the statues turned back into living persons, and the cave was full of people. When the brothers saw one another they joyfully embraced, while all the other men were speechless with gratitude toward the third-born. In all the turmoil the witch was slipping away, when the brothers saw her and ran up and cut her to bits. Now the spell of the forest was completely broken, and the firstborn carefully pocketed the jar of salve which brought the dead back to life.

  Returning to the royal city in a body, the men got to talking, and the three brothers told one another what had happened to them. At the news his brothers had slept with the princess, the firstborn was seized with jealous rage and unsheathed his sword and slew them.

  No sooner had he committed this crime than he repented and pointed the sword at his own throat. The other noblemen restrained him, and then he remembered the jar of salve. He anointed his dead brothers’ wounds, and up they stood again as hale and hearty as ever. Overjoyed, the firstborn begged their forgiveness, which they granted, mentioning the sword in the middle of the bed of which they’d not had a chance to speak earlier. The three of them continued on until they reached the palace of the king.

  They called the princess, who had nearly cried her eyes out. Seeing the triplets, she couldn’t for the life of her say which one was her husband. The firstborn then identified himself and introduced his two brothers. The king married them to two daughters of noblemen they had freed, named them courtiers, and even invited the old fisherman and his wife to the palace.

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  59

  Bellinda and the Monster

  Once upon a time in Leghorn there was a merchant who had three daughters: Assunta, Carolina, and Bellinda. He was rich, and had brought his girls up in the lap of luxury. They were all three beautiful, but the youngest was so bewitchingly lovely that they had given her the name of Bellinda. Not only was she beautiful, but also kind, modest, and wise—every bit as much as her sisters were haughty, stubborn, spiteful, and always full of envy to boot.

  When the girls were older, the richest merchants in town went and proposed to them, but Assunta and Carolina scornfully dismissed them. “Never will we marry a merchant!”

  Bellinda, however, always had a courteous reply for her suitors. “I can’t marry just now, for I’m still too young. We’ll speak further of the matter when I get older.”

  As the saying goes, life is full of surprises. The father lost a ship with its entire cargo, and in no time he was ruined. Of all his former possessions, the only thing left was a cottage in the country. The only choice he now had was to move there with his daughters and till the soil as a farmer. Just imagine the faces the two older girls made upon hearing that. “No, indeed, Father,” they said, “we’re not about to move to the country. We’re staying right here in town. Certain gentlemen of consequence have proposed to us.”

  But just let them seek out the gentlemen now! On hearing that the young ladies were left without a cent to their name, the sometime suitors all stole away, saying, “It serves them right! That will teach them a lesson. Now they’ll get off their high horse.” But equal to the men’s delight over Assunta and Carolina’s misfortune was everyone’s sympathy for poor Bellinda, who had never turned up her nose at anyone. Two or three youths even asked her to marry them just as she was, beautiful and penniless. She wouldn’t hear of it, however, for her heart was set on helping her father, whom she couldn’t think of abandoning now. As things stood, she was the one who rose early in the country, did the housework, got dinner for her sisters and her father. Her sisters, however, always rose at ten o’clock and didn’t lift a hand all day long. They were forever out of sorts with Bellinda, and called her “country wench,” for taking such a wretched life in her stride from the start.

  One day the father got a letter saying that his ship, which he had given up for lost, had reached Leghorn with part of its cargo intact. The older sisters, imagining they’d be back in town in no time and rich again, went wild with joy. Their father said, “I’m going to Leghorn now to see about recovering what is due me. What shall I bring you as a present?”

  Assunta said, “I want a beautiful silk gown the color of air.”

  Then Carolina said, “Bring me, instead, a peach-colored gown.”

  Bellinda, however, remained silent and asked for nothing. Her father repeated his question, and she said, “Now is no time to be spending so much money. Just bring me a rose, and I’ll be happy.” Her sisters poked fun at her, but she paid no attention.

  The father went to Leghorn, but just as he was about to claim his cargo, up rushed other merchants to prove he owed them money and that these goods were therefore not his. After much wrangling, the poor old man was left empty-handed. But not wanting to disappoint his daughters, he drew out the little money remaining to him and bought the air-colored gown for Assunta and the peach-colored one for Carolina. Then he hadn’t a cent left. The rose for Bellinda was such a little thing, he decided, that it really made no difference whether he bought it or not.

  Thus he headed back to the country. He walked and walked until nightfall; entering a forest, he soon lost his way. To make matters worse, snow began falling and a strong wind arose. The merchant took refuge under a tree, expecting to be torn to bits any moment by the wolves whose howling came from all directions. While he stood there glancing around, he caught sight of a light in the distance. He made his way toward it and at length saw a handsome palace all lit up inside. The merchant went in, but not a soul was anywhere to be seen; no matter where he looked, there was absolutely no one. A fire burned brightly in the fireplace, and the merchant, who was soaking wet, paused to warm himself. Somebody will surely come in now, he thought. He waited and waited, but not a living soul appeared. The merchant saw a table laden with delicacies of every variety, so he sat down and dined. Then he took up the lamp and passed into another room, where a fine bed had been carefully made; after undressing, he climbed into it and went to sleep.

  When he woke up next morning, he couldn’t believe his eyes: there on the chair beside the bed lay a brand-new suit of clothes. He dressed, went downstairs and out into the garden. A magnificent rosebush was blooming in the middle of a flowerbed. The merchant remembered his daughter Bellinda’s wish and decided he could now fulfill this one too. He selected the most beautiful rose and plucked it. At that moment a roar came from behind the rosebush, and in the midst of the roses appeared a monster, so ugly that the mere sight of it was enough to reduce a person to ashes. It exclaimed, “How dare you steal my roses after I’ve lodged you, fed you, and clothed you! You shall pay for that rose with your life!”

  The poor merchant fell to his knees and explained that the flower had been intended for his daughter Bellinda, who wanted no present but a rose. Hearing the story, the monster calmed down and said, “If you have such a daughter, bring her to me. I will keep her here with me, and she will live like a queen. But if you don’t send her, I will pursue you and your family wherever you happen to be.”

  Quaking in his boots, the little old man could hardly believe it when he was told he was free to go. But first the monster had him go back inside the palace and pick out all the jewels, gold objects, and brocades that captured his fancy. These things filled a chest, which the monster would send to the merchant’s house.

  As soon as the merchant got back to the country, his daughters ran out to meet him. Simpering, the two older girls asked him for their presents. Bellinda, though, was truly happy over his return and as gracious as ever. He gave one of the dresses to Assunta, the other to Carolina. Then he looked at Bellinda and burst into tears as he handed her the rose and told her exactly what had happened.

  The older sisters were quick to speak out. “We said so! Bellinda and her crazy ideas! A rose, mind you! Now we’ll all have to suffer the consequences!”

  Calm as usual, Bellinda sa
id to her father, “The monster promised to harm none of you if I go to him? In that case I’ll go, since it’s better for me to sacrifice myself than for all of us to suffer.”

  Her father said that never, never would he take her there, and her sisters insisted she was crazy. Bellinda, though, would hear no more. She put her foot down and declared she was going.

  The following morning, then, father and daughter set out at dawn. Earlier, however, upon arising, the father had found at the foot of his bed the chest with all the treasures he had selected at the monster’s palace. Making no mention of it to the two older girls, he hid it under the bed.

  They arrived at the monster’s palace in the evening and found it all lit up. They went inside. On the first floor was a table laid for two, full of heavenly delights. Although Bellinda and her father had little appetite for these things, they nevertheless sat down to taste a few dishes. When they had finished eating, a great roar was heard, and in came the monster. Bellinda was speechless: he was far uglier than she had dared imagine. But little by little she took heart, and when the monster asked if she’d come of her own will, she answered quite frankly that she had.

  The monster seemed pleased. He turned to the father, handed him a traveling bag full of gold, and ordered him to leave the palace at once and never set foot there again; the monster would see to it that the family had everything they needed. Heartbroken, the poor father kissed his daughter goodbye and returned home, pitifully weeping.

  Left by herself (since the monster had bid her good night right after her father’s departure), Bellinda undressed and got into bed and slept peacefully the whole night long knowing she had saved her father from no telling what catastrophes.

  Next morning she arose refreshed and confident, and decided to look around the palace. On the door of her room was written Bellinda’s Room. On the door of her wardrobe was written Bellinda’s Wardrobe. In each of the beautiful frocks was embroidered Bellinda’s Frock. And all around were placards that read:

 
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