Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Oh,” said the old woman, “I’m only putting you on the right track. You’ll manage the rest by yourself. I’m making you a present of this dog.

  His name is Bello, and your riddle will originate with him. Take him and go in peace.”

  “Very well, madam, if you say so, I believe it. And thank you very much. You have been very kind, and that is what counts.” He bid her farewell and left, but he set little store by what she had told him. Still, he took the dog by the leash and continued on his way.

  Toward evening he came to a farmhouse and asked for food and shelter for the night. The woman who answered the door inquired, “What are you doing out at night by yourself with just a dog for company? Have you no mamma and papa?”

  Menichino replied, “I wanted to go to France, so I hid at the back of the carriage, and Papa took off without me. Now I’m going to the daughter of the king of Portugal with a riddle, and this dog, a present from a fairy, will furnish me the riddle, and that way I’ll get to marry the king’s daughter.”

  The woman, a wicked soul, thought to herself, If this dog gives out riddles, I could steal him and send my own son to the princess. So she decided to kill Menichino.

  She prepared a poisonous pastry for him and said, “We call this pizza, and I have prepared it for you. However, I can’t put you up for the night here, since my husband forbids me to let strangers in. But you can go and sleep in a cabin of ours, which you will see as soon as you enter the woods. Take this pizza along and eat it in the cabin. I’ll come and awaken you tomorrow morning and bring you some milk.”

  Menichino thanked her and went off to the cabin. But the dog was hungrier than the boy, and jumped up for the pizza, so Menichino broke off a piece and threw it to him. Bello caught it, and no sooner had he swallowed it than he started trembling, rolled over on his back with his paws up in the air, and died. Menichino looked on, open-mouthed, then threw away the rest of the pizza. At length, he gave a sudden start and exclaimed, “But here is the beginning of the riddle:

  ‘Pizza slays Bello

  While Bello saves Menichino . . .

  All I have to do now is find the rest of it!”

  At that very instant, three crows flying overhead and spying the dead dog swooped down and started pecking on the carcass. A minute later, there lay three dead crows.

  “There’s the next line,” said Menichino:

  “‘One dead soul slays three . . . ’”

  He tied the three crows together with the dog leash and slung them over his shoulder. Suddenly out of the woods rushed a band of armed robbers, gaunt from hunger. “What do you have there?” they asked. Menichino, who had only those three crows, was not frightened. “Three birds to be roasted,” he answered.

  “Hand them over,” commanded the robbers, and off they went with the catch. Menichino hid in a tree to see what would happen. The robbers roasted the crows, and all six of them died.

  At that Menichino added another line to his riddle:

  “‘Pizza slays Bello

  While Bello saves Menichino.

  One dead soul slays three,

  And three then kill six.’”

  But seeing the robbers eat reminded him of his own hunger, and there was the spit all ready for roasting game. He took the gun of one of the dead robbers and fired on a bird in the tree. It happened to be a bird on a nest, and instead of hitting the bird the bullet struck the nest, which fell to the ground. Out of the broken eggs hopped a few baby birds with still no feathers. He placed them on the same hearth where the crows had roasted, and to light the fire, he tore out the pages of a book found among the robbers’ spoils. Then he climbed back up the tree and fell asleep. He now had the complete riddle in his head.

  When he reached Portugal’s royal city, he hurried at once to the princess, dirty and ragged as he was from his long trip. The princess burst out laughing. “The impudence of this ragamuffin even to think of outwitting me and becoming my husband!”

  “Wait until you’ve heard the riddle, Princess, before judging me,” said Menichino. “Your royal father’s decree applies to all men alike and makes no distinction among them.”

  “That’s true enough and well put,” said the princess. “However, there’s still time for you to withdraw if you like and avoid a beating.”

  Menichino thought for a moment, then remembered the fairy’s words and took heart. “My riddle goes like this,” he said.

  “‘Pizza slays Bello

  While Bello saves Menichino.

  One dead soul slays three,

  And three then kill six.

  I fired on what I saw,

  But hit what I saw not.

  Flesh unborn was my feast,

  Cooked with words and words and words.

  Neither on earth nor in heaven have I slept,

  So guess now, guess I pray thee, my queenlet.’”

  As soon as Menichino had finished, the princess exclaimed, “Of course, that one is very easy! Pizza is one of your brothers or friends, and he has slain Bello your enemy. Bello saves you by dying, since that way he can’t harm you any more. So far, so good? But before dying, Bello killed three others . . . uh . . . and those three, in turn . . . let’s see . . . ”

  She propped her elbows on her knees, then her chin on her hands. Next she began scratching the nape of her neck and assuming some very unbecoming positions for a princess, in her effort to concentrate. “Flesh unborn . . . . Really! Cooked with words . . . . That means . . . If I could just unravel all this . . . ” Finally she gave up. “You’ve got me. It’s an impossible riddle. You’ll have to explain it to me.”

  So Menichino told his story from start to finish and asked her to keep the royal promise. The princess replied, “You are right, I can’t refuse. But I have no desire to be your bride. If you would come to some other agreement with my father, I would be very happy.”

  Menichino said, “It all depends. If the new terms suit me, I’ll agree to them. But remember, I’m out in the world to better my lot, and if I can’t marry the princess, then I must have some other prize of equal value.”

  “Don’t worry,” said the princess. “You’ll have far more. You’ll be a millionaire and in a position to realize your every wish. Just compare that with marrying a princess who wants no part of you and who would always be unhappy and irritated with you. Can you guess what I am giving you? The secret of the Sorcerer of Flower Mountain. With that secret in your possession, all your worries are gone forever.”

  “And where is that famous secret?”

  “You must go and pick it up in person, from the Sorcerer of Flower Mountain. Go in my name, and he will give it to you.”

  Menichino wondered whether he should give up the certain for the uncertain, but the thought of being the princess’s husband was more frightening than pleasant, so he asked for directions to Flower Mountain.

  Flower Mountain was a great big mountain all but impossible to climb, and Menichino wore himself out getting to the top, where there was an immense castle surrounded by gardens. How they had ever managed to build it way up there on all those rocks was a complete mystery. Menichino knocked, and was met at the door by several gigantic beings who were neither men nor women and hideous enough to frighten Fright herself. Expecting still worse to come, Menichino looked at them calmly and asked to be taken before the Sorcerer. The Sorcerer’s steward, a monstrous giant, stepped forward and said, “Boy, you don’t lack courage, that’s for sure. But you’d better not try to meet my master, since he has a weakness for good Christian folk and eats them alive and raw.”

  Menichino answered, “Be that as it may, I still have to speak with the Sorcerer in person. Please be so kind as to announce me.”

  The Sorcerer was still lounging on rich carpets and cushions, and learning that a boy was there to see him, he thought to himself, Here is a Christian morsel, good and fresh, for breakfast! In walked Menichino, and the Sorcerer asked, “Who are you? What do you want?”

  “Put your m
ind at rest, sir,” replied Menichino. “I’ve come on no evil mission. I’m just a poor boy seeking his fortune, and they directed me to you, since you are so charitable toward poor, unfortunate souls.”

  Hearing that, the Sorcerer broke into laughter that shook the whole palace. “May I ask who sent you?” So Menichino told the whole story. The Sorcerer propped himself on an elbow, the better to see the boy. “You are courageous and you’re also truthful. You deserve this prize. My secret is this magic wand. I’m giving it to you, but heaven help you if it is ever mislaid or stolen! Each time you tap the ground with the wand and state your wish, it will be granted at once. Here you are. Now go in peace.”

  Going back down Flower Mountain, Menichino thought things over and decided he’d best return home now, dressed as a gentleman, and see if his parents and his brother were alive and still remembered him. “This will be the first test I put the magic wand to,” he told himself. He tapped the ground with it and heard a tiny voice say, “Command!” Menichino replied, “I command a four-horse carriage, lackeys, grooms, and a noble lord’s wardrobe.” And there before him stood a carriage with magnificent horses, while servants came forward to dress him in clothing of the latest style. The horses were magic creatures and galloped straight to Milan without once stopping along the way.

  When he got to Milan, Menichino discovered that his parents had moved out of their original palace. That business in France, instead of bringing his father still more wealth, had resulted in a loss of everything he owned. Now the family were tenants of a hovel on the outskirts of the city. When Menichino drew up to their door with horses and servants, his parents were dumbfounded, as you can well imagine. He didn’t mention the wand, but said he had made a fortune in business and that he would provide for them all from now on. So, using the wand, he produced a large palace, explaining that it had been built by the fastest and most experienced workers in his service. The family moved in, to enjoy the greatest plenty of furnishings, clothes, horses, servants, and chamberlains, to say nothing of money itself.

  They were all quite happy, except Menichino’s brother, who was consumed with envy. Here he was the older son and his father’s favorite, and he had to defer to and depend on his younger brother for everything! He worried himself sick to learn where Menichino actually got his money. He began spying on him through the keyhole, and seeing him always daydreaming with that wand, he resolved to steal it. Menichino kept the wand in his chest of drawers, so one day while he was away from home his brother entered the bedroom and stole it. Back in his own room he tried tapping the floor with the wand, but nothing happened, since in his hands the wand was powerless. He said, “I’ve made a mistake; this is no magic wand.” So he returned to put it back and rummage through the drawers for another one. But he’d no sooner gone into the room than he heard Menichino coming upstairs. Afraid of being found out, he broke the wand in two and threw it out the window overlooking the garden.

  Now Menichino did not use the wand every day, but only when he needed something. That’s why he did not miss it right away. But the first time he went to look for it and found it gone, he was frantic. He imagined himself done for and all his wealth gone in a flash. In despair he went outside and was pacing up and down in the garden, when he happened to look up and see a broken wand hanging on a tree limb. His heart skipped a beat. He shook the tree and down fell the two halves of the wand. The instant they hit the ground a voice said, “Command!” Menichino’s despair gave way to great joy: that was his wand, and even when broken, it still worked! He put it back together and resolved to be more careful in the future.

  At that time, the king of Spain sent a dispatch to all lands: his only daughter had reached marriageable age, and the bravest knights of every nation were invited to joust for three days; the victor would marry the princess and inherit the kingdom. Menichino decided this would be a good time for him to become crown prince and then king. Tapping the wand, he ordered radiant armor, horses, and shields; then he left for Spain. To keep his name and origin a secret, he took lodgings at an out-of-the-way inn to await the day of the joust.

  The joust took place in a busy clearing thronged on all four sides by lords and ladies of every description. On a canopied dais sat the king and the princess, conversing with the most important barons. All of a sudden trumpets sounded, and the crowd looked up to see knights riding onto the field with lances poised. The combat began at once, blows rained fast and furious upon the armor, but no one was unseated, since all were equally matched in strength and valor. Onto the field galloped a new knight, his visor down over his face and his coat-of-arms known to none. One by one he challenged the others to joust with him. One knight rode up to him, clashed, and fell to the ground. Another tried, and was disemboweled. A third had his lance broken, a fourth his helmet knocked off. That went on until they were all disabled by the unknown knight. But instead of parading victoriously around the field, he rode through the opening in the fence and galloped off. All the spectators were bewildered, and everybody from the king on down speculated on who this knight might be, but they got absolutely nowhere.

  “We’ll find out who he is if he comes back tomorrow,” they said. As a matter of fact, the unknown knight returned, unseated everyone as he had done the day before, and escaped with his identity still a secret.

  The king, both intrigued and offended, ordered his men on the third day to stop him, and the number of guards around the fence was doubled for that very purpose. The knight appeared and carried off the final victory, then went to bow before the royal dais. When the princess, aglow with admiration, threw him her embroidered handkerchief, he caught it and galloped toward the exit. The guards barred his way with their weapons, but with a few flourishes of his sword he opened up a path and fled, even though a lance had penetrated one of his legs.

  The king ordered the entire city searched, indoors and out, and finally they found Menichino in that wretched inn, in bed because of a wound in his leg. They were not sure at first whether he was the unknown knight, since great knights wouldn’t have taken such modest lodgings; but then they saw his wound bandaged with the princess’s embroidered handkerchief, and there could be no more doubt. Led before the king, he was asked to reveal his identity, since he would become prince and heir to the throne, provided his character was spotless.

  “My character is spotless,” answered Menichino; “however, I am not a knight by birth, but the son of a merchant from Milan.”

  Princes and barons began clearing their throats and shuffling their feet, and the noise grew louder and louder as Menichino went on with his story.

  When he had finished, the king spoke. “You are not a knight, but a merchant’s son, and all your wealth is the fruit of magic. If this magic were lost, what would become of you and yours?”

  The princess chimed in. “You see what peril I’m in, Father, as a result of the joust you ordered.”

  The barons commented, “Can we accept as our sovereign a man of lower birth than we are?”

  The king shouted, “Silence, silence! What is this hubbub? Beyond all doubt this young man, according to what I promised as king, is entitled to marry my daughter and inherit the kingdom. But if he would agree to it—since you do not accept him and there’s no telling how the people would take the matter—I propose that he give up my daughter for other prizes.”

  “What do you propose in exchange, Majesty?” asked Menichino. “If I profit from it, then I agree.”

  “I had in mind,” stated the king, “paying you a pension of one thousand lire a year for the rest of your life.”

  “I accept,” said Menichino, and a notary was summoned at once to draw up the contract. Immediately afterward Menichino left for Milan.

  Back home he found the old merchant ailing, and not long afterward the old man gave up the ghost. The two brothers were left with their aging mother. The elder boy was more envious all the time, especially now that they were so wealthy and had no need whatever of the magic wand to stay
rich. So he planned to have Menichino killed by two hired assassins. Menichino was accustomed to visit friends at their villa outside Milan, so the hired assassins lay in wait for him along the road. But he always carried the wand with him, and the instant he was out of the city, he tapped the ground with the magic stick.

  “Command!”

  “I command that the horse run like lightning.” The assassins heard something rush past them, but it went so fast they couldn’t make out what it was.

  “We’ll get him on his return, at nightfall.”

  But Menichino also galloped home at the same speed, and the assassins heard only a whir like a whistle.

  The elder brother admitted the killers to the palace and took them to Menichino’s bedroom. But Menichino had smelled a rat and commanded the wand to make his door impossible to open, so the assassins struggled in vain throughout the night to get in, until dawn at last put them to flight.

  Then one day Menichino made a fatal mistake. He thought, If I keep going out with the wand, I’ll end up being treacherously attacked and robbed. I’d better hide the wand in my bedroom. That he did, and went out hunting with his friends. But his brother, who always kept his eyes open, began turning drawers and wardrobes inside out until he came across that stick broken in half. “So this is really it!” he exclaimed. “Otherwise my brother wouldn’t have bothered picking it up in the garden where I threw it! But this is going to be the end of it.” At that, he rushed into the kitchen and flung it into the fire. The wand was reduced at once to ashes, and in the same instant, palace, money, horses, clothing, and everything else obtained through its magic turned to ashes as well.

 
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