Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Queen art thou here,

  Thy every wish to us is dear.

  In the evening when Bellinda sat down to dine, the customary roar was heard, and in walked the monster. “May I join you?” he asked.

  Naturally polite, Bellinda replied, “You are the master.”

  “No,” he said, “you are in charge here. The whole palace and everything in it are yours.” He was silent for a while, as though lost in thought. Then he asked, “Am I really so ugly?”

  Bellinda answered, “Ugly you are, but you have a kind heart which makes you almost handsome.”

  Then he asked, all of a sudden, “Bellinda, would you marry me?”

  She trembled all over, not knowing what to reply. She thought, If I turn him down, goodness knows how he will feel. Then she took heart and said, “To tell the truth, I’m not really interested in marrying you.”

  The monster made no comment, but bid her good night and went away sighing.

  Three months passed. And every evening during that time, the monster came and asked Bellinda the same thing, if she would marry him, and then went away sighing. The girl was now so used to it that she would have been hurt if he had missed one evening.

  Every day Bellinda strolled in the garden, and the monster told her about the magic of the plants. Among the trees was a leafy one known as the tree of weeping and laughter. “Whenever its leaves turn upward,” explained the monster, “that means there’s joy in your family; when they droop, there is weeping at home.”

  One day Bellinda noticed the tree of weeping and laughter with all its leaves pointed upward. She asked the monster, “Why is it so jubilant?”

  “Your sister Assunta is going to get married.”

  “Could I go to the wedding?”

  “Of course,” answered the monster. “But come back in a week, or else you’ll surely find me dead. Take this ring. Whenever the stone clouds up, that means I’m sick, and you must rush back to me at once. Now gather together whatever things in the palace you’d like to take along as wedding presents, and put them in a trunk this evening at the foot of your bed.”

  Bellinda thanked him and took a trunk and filled it with silk gowns, fine lingerie, jewels, and gold coins. She put the trunk at the foot of her bed and went to sleep. In the morning she woke up in her father’s house, and there with her was the trunk she had packed the night before. Everybody gave her a hearty welcome, even her sisters. But when they learned she was so happy and rich and the monster so kind, they were again green with envy, since they were far from wealthy themselves, in spite of the monster’s presents; and to make matters worse, Assunta was marrying a mere carpenter. As spiteful as ever, they got Bellinda’s ring away from her under the pretext of wearing it themselves a little while; then they hid it. Bellinda was quite upset over not being able to see the stone, and at the end of a week she wept and pleaded so with her sisters that her father ordered them to return the ring at once. As soon as she got it back she noticed the stone had become somewhat cloudy, so she left immediately for the palace.

  The monster failed to appear at mealtime, and Bellinda grew worried; she looked all over for him and called and called. Only at dinner did he turn up, with a somewhat pained expression. “I was ill,” he said, “and if you’d come any later, you wouldn’t have found me alive. Don’t you love me any more?”

  “Of course I love you,” she replied.

  “And you would marry me?”

  “That, no!” exclaimed Bellinda.

  Two more months went by and the leaves again pointed upward on the tree of weeping and laughter, since this time Carolina was getting married. Bellinda went home once more with the ring and another trunk of treasures. Her sisters pretended they were glad to see her. Assunta was now meaner than ever, since her carpenter husband beat her every day. Bellinda told her sisters what a risk she had run by staying too long on her last visit, and said she couldn’t tarry this time. But once more the sisters stole the ring. When they finally returned it, the stone had completely clouded over. Bellinda rushed home in alarm, but the monster showed up for neither lunch nor dinner. He came in next morning looking quite weak, and said, “I was ready to die. If you are late another time, it will be the end of me.”

  A few more months went by. One day, the leaves of the tree of weeping and laughter were drooping, and the tree appeared completely withered. “What’s the matter at home?” Bellinda cried.

  “Your father is dying,” answered the monster.

  “Let me go to him! I promise I’ll come back on time!”

  The joy of having his youngest daughter at his bedside put the poor merchant on the road to recovery. Bellinda stayed by him day and night, but one day while washing her hands she left the ring lying on the washstand and then couldn’t find it when she went to put it back on. Frantic, she looked everywhere for it, and pleaded with her sisters to return it. When she finally recovered it, the stone was all black, except for a tiny dot on the edge.

  She hastened to the palace, but it was pitch-dark and looked as though it had been vacant for the last hundred years. Screaming and crying, she called and called the monster, but there was no answer. She looked everywhere for him; as she was running through the garden she suddenly saw him lying under the rosebush and breathing what seemed to be his last. She got down on her knees and listened to his heart: it was still beating but very feebly. Then she kissed him and sobbed, “Monster, if you die, I’ll be lost without you! If only . . . if only you could go on living, I’d marry you at once to-make you happy!”

  She had not finished speaking, when all at once the whole palace lit up and music and song poured from every window. Bellinda turned around, amazed. When she faced the rosebush again, the monster had vanished, and in his place, among the roses, stood a handsome knight. He bowed and said, “Thank you, dear Bellinda, for freeing me.”

  Bellinda was dumbfounded. “But I want the monster,” she said.

  The knight knelt at her feet and said, “Here is the monster. I was under a spell and obliged to remain a monster until a beautiful maiden promised to marry me the way I was.”

  Bellinda gave her hand to the youth, who was a king, and together they walked to the palace. At the door stood her father, who embraced her, and her two sisters. The sisters, out of spite, remained outside and became statues on each side of the door.

  The young king made Bellinda his wife and queen, and they lived happily ever afterward.

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  60

  The Shepherd at Court

  A boy was tending the flock, when a lamb fell into a ravine and perished. The shepherd went home, and his parents, who had little love for him to begin with, screamed at him and beat him, then turned him out of the house into the night. Weeping, he wandered about over the mountain and found a hollow rock, which he lined with dry leaves and nestled in the best he could, stiff from the cold air. But he was unable to sleep.

  Through the darkness, a man made his way to the rock and said, “You had the nerve to take my bed! What are you doing here at this time of night?”

  Shaking with fright, the boy told how he had been turned out of the house, and begged the man to let him stay there the rest of the night.

  The man said, “You were very clever to bring in dry leaves. The idea never occurred to me. Go on and stay here.” And he lay down beside him.

  The lad made himself as small as possible so as not to disturb him, keeping perfectly still to give the impression he was sleeping; but he couldn’t shut his eyes for watching the man. Nor was the man sleeping, but mumbling to himself under the illusion the boy was asleep. “What present can I make this boy who lined the stone for me with leaves and who’s thoughtful enough to stay on his side and not disturb me? I can give him a linen napkin which, unfolded, produces dinner for everybody present. I can give him a little box which, opened, produces a gold coin. I can give him a harmonica which, played, sets everyone within earshot to dancing.”

  This mumbling slowly pu
t the boy to sleep. He awakened at dawn, thinking he had been dreaming. But there beside him on the bed of leaves lay the napkin, the little box, and the harmonica. The man was gone, and the boy had not even seen his face.

  After walking some distance he came to a crowded city that was getting ready for a big tournament. The king of that city had staked his daughter’s hand, together with the entire treasure of the state. The lad thought, Now I can test the little box. If it gives me the money needed, I too can line up to joust. He began opening and closing the box and, every time, it produced a shiny new gold piece. He took all the money and purchased horses, armor, princely clothes, engaged squires and servants, and passed himself off as the son of the king of Portugal. He won every match, and the king was bound to declare him his daughter’s bridegroom.

  But at court, the lad, having been raised with sheep, was as uncouth as could be: all his food he picked up in his hands, then wiped them on the curtains, and he was constantly slapping the ladies on the back. The king became suspicious. He dispatched ambassadors to Portugal and found out that the king’s son, having dropsy, had never set foot outside the palace. So he ordered the lying lad imprisoned at once.

  The palace prison was right under the banquet hall. When the boy walked in, the nineteen prisoners already there greeted him with a chorus of jeers, knowing he’d had the impudence to become the king’s son-in-law. He let them jeer all they liked. At noon, the jailer brought the prisoners the usual pot of beans. The lad rushed up and kicked the pot over on the floor.

  “Have you lost your mind? What will we now eat? You’ll pay for this!”

  “Shhhhhhh! Just wait,” he replied. Pulling the napkin out of his pocket, he said, “For twenty,” and unfolded it. Dinner for twenty appeared, including soup, many tasty dishes, and excellent wine. At that, they all hailed the lad as a hero.

  Every day the jailer found the pot of beans overturned on the floor and the prisoners better fed and livelier than ever. So he went and told the king. Curious, the king went down into the prison and asked for an explanation. The lad stepped forward. “Listen, Majesty, I am the one providing my companions with food and drink far better than what’s on the royal table. So if you’ll accept, I invite you to dine with us and promise you’ll go away happy.”

  “I accept,” said the king.

  The lad unfolded the napkin and said, “For twenty-one, and fit for a king.” Out came the most wonderful dinner you ever saw and the king, delighted with the sight, took a seat in the midst of the prisoners and ate and ate.

  When dinner was over, the king said, “Will you sell me the napkin?”

  “Why not, Majesty? But on condition you let me sleep one whole night with your daughter, my rightful betrothed.”

  “Why not, prisoner?” replied the king. “But on condition you keep perfectly still and quiet on the edge of the bed, with the windows open, a lamp lit, and eight guards in the room. If that suits you, well and good. Otherwise you get nothing at all.”

  “Why not, Majesty? That’s settled.”

  So the king got the napkin, and the boy slept an entire night with the princess, but with no possibility of talking to her or touching her. And in the morning he was taken back to prison.

  Seeing him back, the prisoners all raised their voices in mockery. “Hey, stupid! What a blockhead you are! Now we’ll be back on our daily beans! A fine bargain you made with the king!”

  But the lad didn’t lose countenance. “Why can’t we buy our dinner from now on with perfectly good money?”

  “Who has any of that?”

  “Take heart,” he said, and started pulling gold pieces out of his purse. So they had grand dinners sent in from the inn next door, and continued to kick over the pot of beans on the floor.

  The jailer went to the king again, and the king came down to investigate. As soon as he found out about the box, he asked, “Will you sell it tome?”

  “Why not, Majesty?” he replied, making the same bargain as before. He gave the king the box, and slept with the princess another time without being able to touch her or talk to her.

  Seeing him back, the prisoners resumed their taunts. “Well, here we are on beans once more, hurrah!”

  “Joy is a good thing indeed. Whether we eat or not, we will dance.”

  “What!”

  The lad pulled out the harmonica and began to play. The prisoners started dancing around him, with their ankle-chains clanking loudly. They broke into minuets, gavottes, and waltzes, and couldn’t stop. The jailer rushed in, and he too started dancing, with all his keys jingling at his side.

  In the meantime the king had just sat down to a banquet with his guests. Hearing the notes of the harmonica float up from the prison, they all jumped to their feet and began dancing. They looked like so many bewitched souls, and nobody knew what was going on: the ladies danced with the butlers, and the gentlemen with the cooks. Even the furniture danced. The crockery and crystal were smashed to smithereens; the roasted chickens flew off; and people butted the walls and ceiling beams. The king himself danced while yelling for everyone to stop. All of a sudden the lad stopped playing, and everyone fell to the floor at once, with heads spinning and legs collapsing.

  Out of breath, the king went down to the prison. “Just who is being so funny?” he began.

  “It’s me, Majesty,” answered the lad, stepping forward. “Would you like to see?” He blew a note, and the king took a dance step.

  “Stop! Stop this instant!” he said, frightened, then asked, “Will you sell it to me?”

  “Why not, Majesty? But under what conditions this time?”

  “The same as before.”

  “Well, Majesty, here we’re going to have to make a new bargain, or I’ll play more music.”

  “No, no, please! Tell me your terms.”

  “Tonight I’ll be satisfied with talking to the princess and having her answer me.”

  The king thought it over and ended up agreeing. “But I’m doubling the number of guards, and there’ll be two lamps lit.”

  “As you like.”

  Then the king called his daughter to him in secret and said to her, “Listen carefully: you are to say no, and only no, to every question which that rascal asks you tonight.” The princess promised she would.

  Night fell, and the lad went to the bedchamber—which was brightly lit and full of guards—and stretched out on the edge of the bed at some distance from the princess. Then he said, “My bride, do you think that in this chilly night air we ought to keep the windows open?”

  “No.”

  “Did you hear that, guards?” cried the lad. “By express orders of the princess, the windows are to be closed.” The guards obeyed.

  A quarter of an hour passed, and the lad said, “My bride, do you think it is quite right for us to be in bed and have all these guards around us?”

  “No.”

  “Guards!” cried the lad. “Did you hear? By express orders of the princess, be gone and don’t show your faces here any more.” So the guards went off to bed, which struck them as almost too good to be true.

  Letting another quarter of an hour pass, he said, “My bride, do you think it right to be in bed with two lamps lit?”

  “No.”

  So he put out the lamps, making the room pitch-dark.

  He came back and took his place on the edge of the bed, then said, “Dear, we are lawfully married, and yet we are as far apart as if we had a thornbush hedge between us. Do you like that?”

  “No.”

  At that, he took her in his arms and kissed her.

  When day dawned and the king appeared in his daughter’s room, she said to him, “I obeyed your orders. Let bygones be bygones. This young man is my lawful husband. Pardon us.”

  Having no alternative, the king ordered sumptuous wedding festivities, balls, and tournaments. The lad became the king’s son-in-law and then king himself, and there you have the tale of a shepherd boy lucky enough to plop down on a royal throne for lif
e.

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  61

  The Sleeping Queen

  Spain was once ruled by the good and just King Maximilian. He had three sons: William, John, and little Andrew—the youngest and his father’s favorite. Following an illness, the king lost his eyesight. Though all the doctors in the kingdom were summoned, none knew of any remedy. One of the oldest doctors suggested, “Since medical knowledge is limited in this case, send for a soothsayer.” So, soothsayers from everywhere were called in. They pored over their books, but proved no wiser than the doctors in the end. With the soothsayers a wizard had slipped in, a stranger to everyone. After the others had all had their say, the wizard came forward and spoke. “I am familiar with cases of blindness like yours, King Maximilian. The cure is nowhere to be found but in the Sleeping Queen’s city: it is the water in her well.” People’s amazement at those words had not yet died down before the wizard vanished and was never heard of again.

  The king was eager to find out who he was, but no one had ever laid eyes on the man before. One of the soothsayers thought he might be a wizard from the vicinity of Armenia, come to Spain by means of magic. The king asked, “Could the Sleeping Queen’s city also be thereabouts?” An old courtier replied, “We won’t know where it is until we look for it. If I were younger, I would go in search of it myself, without delay.”

  William, the eldest son, stepped forward. “If anyone is to set out in search of the city, I am the one to go. It is only fitting that the firstborn put his father’s health above all other concerns.”

  “Dear son,” replied the king, “you have my blessing. Take money and horses and everything else you need. I will be expecting you back victorious in three months.”

 
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