Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  William went to the kingdom’s port and boarded a vessel sailing for the Isle of Buda, where it was to anchor for three hours before continuing on to Armenia. At Buda he went ashore to see the island. As he strolled about, he met a charming lady and became so engrossed in talking to her that the three hours went by before he knew it. At the appointed time the ship unfurled its sails and departed without William. He was sorry at first, but the lady’s company made him soon forget all about his father’s illness and the original purpose of the voyage.

  When the three months were up, with still no sign of William, the king began fearing the boy was dead, and to the pain of going blind was added that of losing a son. To console him, John, the middle boy, volunteered to go in search of his brother as well as the water. The king consented, although fearful that something would happen to this son too.

  On the boat, John soon came in sight of the Isle of Buda. This time the ship was to anchor there for a day. John went ashore to look around the island. He strolled into a park of myrtles, cypresses, and laurels, which shaded lagoons of limpid water stocked with fish of every color of the rainbow. From there he proceeded through the town’s beautiful avenues and streets to a square with a white marble fountain in its center. Encircling the square were monuments and buildings, and in their midst rose a majestic palace with gold and silver columns and crystal walls that sparkled in the sunlight. John spied his brother moving about on the other side of those crystal walls.

  “William!” he cried. “What are you doing here? Why did you not come home? We thought you were dead!” And they embraced.

  William told how, once he’d set foot on the island, he’d been unable to tear himself away and how he’d been received by the beautiful lady who owned everything in sight. “This lady is Lugistella,” he added, “and she has a very lovely little sister named Isabel. If you like her, she is yours.”

  In short, the twelve hours went by, and the ship sailed without John. After a brief spell of remorse, he too forgot all about his father and the miraculous water and became a guest, like his brother, in the crystal palace.

  When the three months were up, with no sign of the second son, King Maximilian was alarmed and, with the entire court, feared the worst. Then little Andrew boldly declared he would go in search of his brothers and the Sleeping Queen’s magic water. “So you intend to leave me too?” said the king. “Blind and crushed as I am, I must give up my last son as well?” But Andrew revived his hope of seeing the three boys back safe and sound in addition to obtaining the wonderful water, so his father consented at last to his departure.

  The ship dropped anchor at the Isle of Buda, where it would remain for two days. “You may disembark,” the captain told Andrew, “but be back on time if you don’t want to be left behind like two other young men who went ashore and have not been heard of since.” Andrew realized he was talking of his brothers, who must be somewhere on the island. So he began looking around and found them in the crystal palace. They embraced, and the brothers told Andrew about the spell that kept them on Buda. “We are in a real paradise here,” they told him. “We each have a beautiful lady. The mistress of the island is mine, her sister is John’s. If you’ll join us, I believe our ladies still have a cousin . . . ”

  But Andrew cut them off. “You’ve obviously lost your mind if you don’t remember your duty to Father! I intend to find the Sleeping Queen’s magic water, and nothing can turn me from that resolution—neither riches, nor amusements, nor beautiful ladies!”

  At those words, the brothers became silent and walked away in a huff. Andrew returned at once to the ship. The sails were unfurled, and favorable winds carried the vessel straight to Armenia.

  As soon as he was on Armenian soil, Andrew asked everyone he met where the Sleeping Queen’s city was, but apparently no one had ever heard of it. After weeks of vain search, he was directed to an old man living on a mountaintop. “He’s an old, old man, as old as the world itself, by the name of Farfanello. If he doesn’t know where this city is, nobody knows.”

  Andrew climbed the mountain. He found the bearded, decrepit old man in his hut and told him what he was seeking. “Dear youth,” said Farfanello, “I have indeed heard of this place, but it is quite far away. First you have to cross an ocean, and that will take almost a month, to say nothing of the perils of sailing those waters. But even if you do get across them safe and sound, still greater dangers lie in store for you on the Sleeping Queen’s isle, the very name of which suggests misfortune, since they call it the Isle of Tears.”

  Glad to have definite information at last, Andrew embarked at the port of Brindisse. The ocean crossing was hazardous because huge polar bears, capable of wrecking even big ships, swam in those waters. But Andrew, a courageous hunter, was not afraid, and the vessel steered clear of the polar bears’ claws and arrived at the Isle of Tears. The port looked abandoned, and not a sound was to be heard. Andrew disembarked and saw a sentinel holding a gun, but the man was completely motionless. Even though Andrew asked him for directions, he continued to stand as still and silent as a statue. Next, Andrew approached the porters about his baggage, but they didn’t move a muscle; some held heavy trunks on their backs, with one foot forward and raised. Andrew entered the city. On one side of the street he saw a cobbler, still and silent, halted in the midst of drawing thread through a shoe. On the other side of the street a coffeehouse keeper held a pot in position to pour a lady a cup of coffee, but both he and she were mute and motionless. Streets, windows, and shops were full of people, but they all looked like figures of wax in the strangest of postures. Even the horses, dogs, cats, and other creatures were standing dead still in their tracks. Moving through this thick silence, Andrew came to a splendid palace adorned with statues and tablets commemorating the island’s past kings; on the façade was a frieze full of figures, with an inscription in radiant letters of gold: TO HER MAJESTY THE QUEEN OF LUMINOUS SOULS, WHO REIGNS OVER THIS ISLE OF PARIMUS.

  “Where could this queen be?” wondered Andrew. “Could she be one and the same as the Sleeping Queen?” He went up a grand alabaster staircase and crossed several halls decorated with bas-reliefs and guarded at the doors by the customary men of arms, over whom a spell had been cast. In one hall marble steps led up to a dais, on which stood the throne surmounted by a canopy and displaying a diamond-studded coat-of-arms. A grapevine growing in a gold pot had trailed clear across the room and twined around the throne and canopy, adorning them with clusters of ripe grapes and vine leaves. That wasn’t all: fruit trees of every kind in the garden had grown quite out of bounds, thrusting their branches through the windows into the hall. Andrew, who was hungry after so much walking, pulled an apple from one of those branches and bit into it. He’d no sooner done so than his eyesight dimmed, then left him altogether. “Woe is me!” he cried. “How will I now get about in this strange country peopled with nothing but statues?” He began groping his way out of the palace; but moving along, he suddenly stepped into a hole and plummeted through empty space, landing in water over his head. With a few strokes he came to the surface, and the minute his head was out of water, he realized he had regained his eyesight. He was at the bottom of a deep well, and high above him was the sky. “So this is the well,” he said to himself, “the wizard was referring to. This is the water that will cure my father, if I ever manage to get out of here and carry some back to him.” He spied a rope hanging in the well, took hold of it, and climbed out.

  It was nighttime, so Andrew looked about for a bed to sleep in. He found a bedchamber royally decorated annd containing a large bed, in which a maiden of angelic beauty lay sleeping. The maiden’s eyes were closed and her face was peaceful, so Andrew knew she had been put under a spell while she slept. After a little reflection, he undressed and slipped into bed beside her passing a delightful night without her giving any sign she knew he was there. At daybreak he jumped out of bed and wrote her a note, which he left on her bedside table: “To his great joy, Andrew, son of King Ma
ximilian of Spain, slept in this bed on the 21st of March, in the year 203.” He filled a bottle with the water that restored eyesight and plucked one of the apples that caused blindness, and set out for home.

  The ship again called at the port of Buda, where Andrew stopped to visit his brothers. He told them of the wonders of the Isle of Tears and the night he had spent with the lovely maiden. Then he showed them the apple which took away one’s eyesight and the water which restored it. Possessed with sudden envy, the two brothers hatched a plot against Andrew. They stole the bottle of magic water, leaving in its place one exactly like it. Then they informed him they would accompany him home in order to present their wives to their father.

  No words can describe the joy of King Maximilian at the safe return of all three of his sons to Spain. After many hearty embraces, the king asked, “Which one of you was the luckiest?” William and John held their tongues, but Andrew spoke up. “Father, I make bold to say I was, for I found and brought back my lost brothers. I reached the Sleeping Queen’s city and got the water that will restore your eyesight. I also got something else amazing, and I’m going to show you right this minute how it works.”

  He pulled out the apple and handed it to his mother to eat. The queen bit into it, went blind on the instant, and let out a scream. “Don’t get upset, Mamma,” said Andrew, taking out the bottle, “for a drop of this water will restore your sight and also that of Papa, who’s been blind for so long.”

  But the water came from the bottle substituted by the older brothers, so she did not regain her sight. The queen wept, the king raged, and Andrew trembled in his boots. Then the two brothers came forward and said, “This has happened because he didn’t find the Sleeping Queen’s magic water. We found it ourselves, and here it is.” Once the stolen water had touched their eyes, the two old people could see again as well as ever.

  A big row followed. Andrew called his brothers thieves and traitors, and they turned around and called him a little liar. The king could make neither head nor tail of the dispute, but finally he sided with William and John and their wives, and said to Andrew, “Silence, you shameless wretch! You not only had no intention of curing me, but you meant to blind your mother as well! Guards, away with this ungrateful creature! Take him to the woods and slay him! And bring me back his heart, or more heads will roll!”

  The soldiers dragged off Andrew, screaming and protesting, to a thicket outside the city. But Andrew managed to tell his story and convince them. So as to avoid staining their hands with innocent blood, the soldiers made him promise never to come back to town, then set him free. They returned to the king with the heart of a pig purchased from a farmer and slaughtered on the spot.

  On the Isle of Tears nine months went by, and the sleeping maiden gave birth to a fine baby boy, as she brought him forth, she awakened. With the queen now awake, the spell was broken which Morgan le Fay had cast over her out of envy, and the whole city awakened and came back to life. The soldiers frozen at attention relaxed, those at ease jumped to attention, the cobbler finished drawing the thread through the shoe, the coffeehouse keeper overfilled the lady’s cup, and the porters at the port shifted their loads to the other shoulder, since the first shoulder was a bit weary by now.

  The queen rubbed her eyes and said, “I wonder who on earth was so bold as to make his way to the island and sleep in this room and thereby free me and my dear subjects from the spell we were under.”

  One of her maids of honor then handed her the note from the night table, so the queen knew her visitor had been Andrew, son of King Maximilian. Right away she wrote the king to send Andrew to her without delay, or else she would make war on Spain.

  When King Maximilian got that letter, he called in William and John to read it and give their opinion. Neither one of them knew what to say. At last, William spoke. “We’ll never know what this is all about unless somebody goes to the queen for an explanation. I’ll go myself and see what I can find out.”

  William’s trip was easier, since Morgan le Fay’s spell had been broken and all the polar bears had disappeared. He went before the queen, saying he was Prince Andrew.

  The queen, who was naturally distrustful, began to question him. “What day did you come here the first time? How did you find the city? Where was I? What happened to you in the palace? What do you see now that you didn’t see before?” And on and on. William soon got all confused and started stammering, so the queen knew right away he was lying. She had his head chopped off and stuck on a spike atop the city gate, with the inscription: IF YOU LIE, THIS IS HOW YOU WILL DIE.

  King Maximilian got a second letter from the sometime Sleeping Queen saying if he didn’t send Andrew to her, troops were ready to move against him and reduce his kingdom, his people, his family, and himself to ashes. Long regretful of having ordered Andrew slain, the king wailed to John, “Now what do we do? How will we tell her that Andrew is dead? And why doesn’t William come home?” John volunteered to go to the sometime Sleeping Queen himself. He reached the island, but the sight of William’s head on the city gate told him all he needed to know, and he returned home at full speed. “Father!” he exclaimed, “we are done for! William is dead, and his head is on a spike atop the city gate. If I had gone in, there would have been another head next to it.”

  The king was beside himself with grief. “William dead? Also William! Now I know for sure Andrew was innocent, and all this has happened to punish me. Tell me the truth, John; confess your treachery before I die.”

  “Our wives are to blame!” said John. “We never went to the Sleeping Queen ourselves, and we put a bottle of ordinary water in the place of Andrew’s magic liquid.”

  Railing, weeping, and pulling out his hair, the king summoned the soldiers to take him to the spot where Andrew was buried. Among the soldiers this order caused great alarm. The king noticed it and was filled with new hope. “Out with it! I want the truth. Whatever it is you’re guilty of, I give you my royal word that you are pardoned.”

  Trembling in their boots, the soldiers admitted that they had flatly disobeyed the order to slay Andrew. To their great surprise, the king began madly hugging and kissing them. Posted at every street corner was an announcement that whoever found Andrew would be richly rewarded for the rest of his life.

  Andrew returned, to the infinite joy of his old father and the court, and set out at once for the Isle of Tears where he was given a hero’s welcome.

  “Andrew, who freed me and my people,” said the queen, “you will be my husband and king forever!” For months afterward, all you heard on the island were songs of joy, so they called it the Isle of Happiness.

  (Montale Pistoiese)


  The Son of the Merchant from Milan

  There was once a Milan merchant who had a wife and two sons. Of the two he favored the older, who was now big enough to help in the business. It wasn’t that the merchant disliked the younger boy, but he still looked on him as a child and paid him little mind. The merchant had grown rich and now entered into only those transactions yielding immense profit. That was why he was going to France for the manufacture of certain goods, an undertaking he figured would be very, very profitable. The elder son was to accompany him as a matter of course, but his little brother, Menichino, begged to go with them. “Let me come too, Papa. I promise I’ll be a good boy. I’ll even be a big help to you. I won’t stay here in Milan by myself.” The merchant, though, didn’t want to be bothered and threatened to slap Menichino if he didn’t keep quiet.

  The hour of departure arrived. The merchant and his son had their trunks brought out, and climbed into the carriage. It was nighttime, and what with the darkness and the commotion of getting away, the postilions failed to notice Menichino crouching on the footboard at the back of the carriage.

  When the carriage stopped at the first relay station to change horses, the little boy jumped off so as not to be seen. He waited until the vehicle was again in motion before regaining his place on the footb
oard. By the time they reached the second post house, it was already daylight, so Menichino ran off and hid at a bend in the road until the carriage should come by and he could jump back on. But it went by so fast he failed to leap on in time and remained stranded there in the middle of the road.

  Finding himself in a strange place, alone, penniless, and hungry, the lad felt like crying. But he took heart and proceeded to look around. Seated by the roadside was an old woman. “Where are you going all by yourself?” she asked. “Are you lost?”

  “I am indeed, madam,” said Menichino. “I was traveling with my father and my big brother, and the carriage took off from a relay station without me, so here I am, and I don’t even know the way home to my mother. But there’s nothing for me to do at home anyway. I really prefer to go out in the world and seek my fortune, since my father has left me stranded in the road.”

  He was thoughtful a while, then added, “Well, the truth of the matter is, he didn’t know I was with him; I hid on the back footboard, so I could go to France too.”

  The old woman said, “Good for you! You have been truthful, and it’s a good thing, for I am a fairy and knew the whole story anyway. If you are seeking your fortune, I’ll tell you where to find it, if you are clever and respectful.”

  “I am young, I admit,” answered Menichino, “but I don’t believe I’m dumb for a boy of fourteen. So you can be sure, madam, I’ll do everything you tell me, if you’re so kind as to help me.”

  “Good boy!” replied the fairy. “Listen to this: the king of Portugal has a gifted daughter who can solve any riddle. The king has promised her in marriage to the man who gives her a riddle she can’t solve. You’re a bright boy, so find a riddle, and your fortune is made.”

  Menichino said, “Oh, yes, but how do you expect me to compose a riddle that baffles a young lady so brilliant. Only learned people could do that, not ignorant boys like me.”

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