Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  At the time, Menichino was deep in the woods, where the shotgun he held, the horse he rode, and the hounds chasing the hare all turned to ashes and were swept away by the wind. He realized that his entire fortune was gone for good this time, all because of his folly, and he burst into tears.

  It was now futile to go back to Milan. He decided he had best set out for Spain, where he still had that pension of one thousand lire a year awarded him by the king. So, full of sighs, he started off on foot.

  On a ferryboat he met a man who sold oxen. As fellow travelers often do, they greeted one another and began to talk about themselves, continuing their conversation along the road after leaving the boat. Touched by Menichino’s misfortune, the man asked the boy if he would like to help drive a herd to market wherever oxen were in demand. Menichino accepted the salary offered him, and the two of them made the rounds of the fairs. He had even saved up a little money, when one evening he was attacked by a band of assassins at an inn where he was passing the night with his companion. Together with the innkeeper and the oxen-dealer, Menichino took up arms to resist, but the assassins, who were quite numerous, overpowered and killed them. Thus ended the adventures and misfortunes of Menichino.

  Nor did his brother fare any better. Poor again, he tried his hand at trade, but to no avail, and going from bad to worse, he ended up in a band of professional robbers. It is a well-known fact that robbers get away nine times out of ten, but the tenth time they get caught. That’s what happened to him: the constables set a trap and watched him walk into it. He was shackled and thrown into prison, where he remained up to the day he was led out with the priest at his side to shrive him; then he was handed over to the executioner and beheaded.

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  63

  Monkey Palace

  Once there was a king who had twin sons, John and Anthony. As he was not quite sure which of the two was born first, no more than the court itself was of one mind on this subject, the king couldn’t say who was crown prince. “To be completely fair to you both,” he told the boys, “I want you each to go out into the world and seek a wife. The one whose bride presents me with the rarer and finer gift will be named crown prince.”

  The twins mounted their horses and galloped off, one in one direction, the other in the opposite.

  Two days later John came to a large city. There he made friends with a marquis’s daughter and told her about his father’s proposal. As her gift, she gave him a tiny, sealed box to take to the king, and the young people announced their engagement. The king accepted the tiny box, but put off opening it until he should also have Anthony’s bride’s present.

  Anthony rode and rode, but never reached any city. He found himself in a dense, pathless, seemingly endless forest, through which he had to cut his way with his sword. All at once he came to a clearing, at whose end rose a solid marble palace with glittering windowpanes. Anthony knocked, and who should answer the door but a monkey in steward’s livery! It bowed to Anthony and motioned him into the palace. Two other monkeys helped him dismount and led his horse to the stable. He proceeded up a carpeted, marble staircase past monkeys galore sitting on the balustrade and silently bowing to him. Anthony walked into a hall where a table had been set up for a game of bridge. One monkey offered him a chair at the table as three other monkeys took the remaining places, and the game began. After a while they asked by signs if he was ready to dine. They led him to the dining room where monkeys in plumed hats sat at a sumptuously laid table waited on by monkeys in aprons. After dinner they picked up torches and lighted him to his bedchamber, where they left him for the night.

  Although puzzled and uneasy, Anthony was so tired he fell asleep at once. But just when he was sleeping his soundest, a voice in the dark awakened him. “Anthony!”

  “Who’s calling me?” he asked, huddling beneath the covers.

  “Anthony, what have you come here seeking?”

  “I’m seeking a bride who will give the king a finer present than John’s bride will. That way I’ll be named crown prince.”

  “If you agree to marry me, Anthony,” said the voice in the dark, “you’ll get the finer gift and the crown.”

  “Let’s get married, then,” said Anthony scarcely above a whisper.

  “Very well, send a letter to your father tomorrow.”

  The next day Anthony wrote his father that he was in good health and would soon be home with his bride. He entrusted the letter to a monkey, which jumped from tree to tree and wound up in the royal city. Although surprised by the unusual messenger, the king was very happy over the good tidings and offered the monkey hospitality at the palace.

  The next night Anthony was again awakened by a voice in the dark. “Anthony, are you still of the same mind?”

  “I certainly am!”

  “Very well. Send your father another letter tomorrow.”

  The next day Anthony again wrote his father he was in good health and sent the letter off by a monkey. The king took this monkey also into the palace.

  Thus, every night the voice asked Anthony if he’d changed his mind, and told him to write his father, while every morning a monkey left with a letter for the king. That went on for a month, and the royal city was now full of monkeys. They swarmed in the trees, on the rooftops, and over all the monuments. Shoemakers hammered heels onto shoes while monkeys sat on their shoulders and mimicked them. Surgeons performed operations as monkeys looked on and made off with scalpels and thread for cutting open and stitching up patients. Ladies went out walking, with monkeys perched on their parasols. The king no longer knew what to do.

  At the end of the month, the voice in the dark at last said, “Tomorrow, we will go to the king together and get married.”

  In the morning when Anthony went downstairs, a handsome carriage was waiting at the door with a monkey coachman on the box and two monkey footmen hanging onto the back. And who should be sitting inside the coach on velvet cushions and wearing many jewels and an elaborate coiffure of sweeping ostrich plumes but a monkey! Anthony seated himself at her side, and off they drove.

  When the couple arrived in the royal city, all the people pressed against the strange carriage and, to their utter amazement, discovered that Prince Anthony’s bride was a monkey. All eyes turned to the king, who awaited his son on the palace doorstep, to see how he would react. But the king lacked no backbone: he didn’t bat an eye, as though marrying a monkey were the most normal thing in the world. He merely said, “He chose her, so he has to marry her. Never does a king go back on his word.” From the monkey’s hands the king took a tiny, sealed box exactly like her sister-in-law’s. The boxes were to be opened tomorrow, the day of the wedding. The monkey was shown to her room, where she requested to be left alone.

  The next day Anthony went for his bride. When he entered her room, the monkey was standing before the mirror trying on her wedding dress. “How do I look?” she asked, turning around. Anthony was speechless: she was no longer a monkey but a tall and graceful maiden with blond hair and rosy cheeks, whom it was a real joy to behold. Anthony rubbed his eyes, unable to believe what he saw, but she said, “You are looking at none other than your bride.” At that, they fell into each other’s arms.

  Outside the palace all the people had gathered to see Prince Anthony and his monkey bride. When he emerged instead with that beautiful maiden, their mouths flew open and they could only gape with admiration. Beyond the palace monkeys flanked the street and filled all trees, rooftops, and windowsills. When the royal couple passed, every monkey wheeled around and instantly changed into a human being. Some became ladies in long, trailing cloaks; others cavaliers with plumed hats and sabers; and the rest friars, farmers, or pages. They all moved in procession behind the couple going to be married.

  The king opened the tiny boxes containing the presents. Out of the box from John’s bride flew a live baby bird, and everybody marveled that it had stayed alive closed up so long. In its beak the bird clutched a walnut, inside which
lay a tassel of gold.

  The king opened the box from Anthony’s wife. It too contained a live baby bird which, of all things, was holding a lizard. In the lizard’s mouth was a hazelnut. The king cracked it open and beheld, carefully folded, a lace tablecloth embroidered by one hundred hands.

  To John’s dismay, the king was about to proclaim Anthony crown prince, when Anthony’s bride spoke. “Anthony doesn’t need his father’s kingdom, since I am giving him mine as my dowry. By marrying me, he has freed us from the spell that made monkeys of us all!” Then all the monkeys newly changed into human beings hailed Anthony as their king.

  John inherited his father’s kingdom, and everybody lived in peace and harmony.

  Life they did indeed enjoy,

  But me they never would employ.

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  64

  Rosina in the Oven

  The young wife of a poor man died giving birth to a beautiful baby girl named Rosina. Since the man had to work and couldn’t look after the baby, he took another wife who bore him a second daughter by the name of Assunta, who was as homely as the other child was beautiful. The two girls grew up together, went to school together, and were always together wherever they went. But every time Assunta would come home full of resentment and say to her mother, “Mamma, I won’t go out with Rosina any more. People we meet always pay her so many compliments, telling her how rosy and beautiful and well-mannered she is. But they say I’m as black as coal.”

  “What difference does it make if you’re dark-skinned?” replied her mother. “My complexion is somewhat dark, so you get your color from me. Your beauty is very special, don’t you see?”

  “Say what you like, Mamma,” answered Assunta. “I’ll not go out with Rosina any more no matter what.”

  Seeing the girl consumed with envy, her mother, who would have done anything to make her happy, said, “But what can I do?”

  “Give her a pound of hemp to spin while she pastures the cows. If she comes home at night with hungry cows and messy spinning, beat her. Beat her day in day out, and she’ll be a sight.”

  With some reluctance, the stepmother gave in to her daughter’s whims, called Rosina, and said, “You will not go out with Assunta any more. You are to tend the cows and find grass for them, and while you’re doing that, you will spin this pound of hemp. If you bring the cows home still hungry or the hemp not all spun, you will hear from me. But do your part, and I’ll do mine.”

  Rosina, who wasn’t used to being ordered around like that, was dumbfounded. But since her stepmother had already picked up a stick, she had no choice but to obey. She took the cows to the pasture, with her distaff full of hemp, repeating along the way, “Dear little cows, how will I ever mow grass for you if I have to spin this whole big distaff of hemp? Somebody is bound to lose!”

  At those words one of the oldest cows wheeled around, saying, “Don’t you worry, Rosina. Just cut the grass for us, and we’ll spin all the hemp for you and wind it into a skein. All you have to do is say:

  ‘Cow, little cow,

  Spin, spin, use your mouth,

  Wind, wind, use your horn,

  Make my skein this very morn.’”

  That night when Rosina returned, the cows went into the barn well fed; on her head she carried a nice bundle of hay, and under her arm a one-pound skein of spun hemp. Seeing that, Assunta was furious, and said to her mother, “Send her out again tomorrow with the cows, but give her two pounds of hemp, and if she doesn’t spin every bit of it, beat her.”

  But once more all Rosina needed to do was say:

  “Cow, little cow,

  Spin, spin, use your mouth,

  Wind, wind, use your horn,

  Make my skein this very morn”

  and by night the cows were fed, the bundle of hay had been mowed, and the two pounds of hemp were all spun and wound into a skein.

  “But how on earth did you do it in one day?” asked Assunta, just seething inside.

  “As you might expect,” said Rosina, “there are always good souls around to lend a hand. My little cows came to my rescue.”

  Assunta went running to her mother. “Mamma, keep Rosina home tomorrow to do the housework. I’ll take the cows out, and I want some hemp to spin while I’m tending them.”

  Her mother gave her the hemp, and Assunta led the cows out. She kept them stepping by whacking them on the rump and the tail until they reached the pasture. Then she put the hemp on their horns, but they didn’t budge.

  “Get busy! Why aren’t you spinning?” screamed Assunta, whacking them with the stick. The cows began twisting their horns until the hemp became so stringy that it was nothing but a wad of tow.

  That wasn’t enough for Assunta, who said to her mother one day, “Mamma, I feel like eating some lamb’s lettuce. Send Rosina out tonight to get some from that farmer’s field.”

  To make her happy, her mother ordered Rosina to go and pick the farmer’s lettuce. “What!” exclaimed Rosina. “You want me to go out and steal? But that’s something I’ve never done before. What if the farmer saw someone trespassing in his field at night? He’d be sure to shoot me from his window!”

  That’s just what Assunta wanted to happen, and as she too had now taken to bossing Rosina about, she said, “Go on, you have to go, or we’ll thrash you good!”

  So Rosina went out in the dark and climbed over the hedge into the farmer’s field; but instead of lamb’s lettuce, she found a turnip. She caught hold of the turnip and pulled and pulled. Finally it came up, revealing a toad’s nest underneath containing five tiny toads. “Oh, how darling!” she exclaimed, holding them to her bosom and making a fuss over them. But one fell on the ground and broke a leg. “Excuse me, little toad,” said Rosina, “I didn’t drop you on purpose.”

  The four little toads which she still held, finding her so kind, said, “Lovely maiden, you are kind, and we want to reward you. You shall become the most beautiful girl in the world and shine like the sun, even when it is cloudy. So be it.”

  But the lamed toad grumbled. “I certainly don’t think she’s kind. She has crippled me for life! She could have been more careful! The minute she sees a ray of sun, she shall change into a snake and never turn back into a woman without first passing through a fiery oven.”

  Rosina went home half cheerful and half terrified, and her beauty was so radiant that the night around her was like daylight. Seeing her walk in shining like the sun left her stepmother and sister speechless. Right away she told them how it had come about, concluding, “But I’m not to blame for it. Please don’t send me into the sunlight, or I’ll become a snake.”

  From then on, Rosina never went out of doors when the sun was shining, but only after sunset or when the sky was cloudy. She spent her days at the window working and singing. A great light shone from the window and was visible for miles around.

  One day the king’s son passed by, noticed the glow, and saw the maiden. “What is such a beauty doing in a hovel of peasants?” he wondered, and entered the house. Thus they came to know one another, and Rosina told him her whole story and about the curse placed on her.

  The king’s son said, “Come what may, you are too beautiful to remain in this hovel, you will be my bride.”

  At that point the mother stepped in. “Majesty, be careful, you’re asking for trouble. Just realize that the first time a ray of sun touches her she will turn into a snake.”

  “This does not concern you,” said the king’s son. “You obviously hate this girl, but I order you to send her to my palace. I shall dispatch a sealed carriage for her, so that the sun will not fall on her along the way. From now on, you will have all the money you need. We agree, and goodbye.”

  Gritting their teeth, the stepmother and Assunta, unable to disobey the king’s son, got everything ready for Rosina’s departure. The carriage finally arrived, one of those old-fashioned carriages entirely closed, with only a round vent in the roof, and a groom behind decked in tassels, plumed
hat, and sword. Rosina got into the carriage, and her stepmother climbed in after her to keep her company along the way. But the woman had first taken the groom aside and said, “Sir, if you would like a reward of ten crowns, open the vent in the roof when the sun strikes it.”

  “Yes, madam, as you say.”

  The carriage sped off, and as soon as it was noon and the sun shone straight down on the roof, the groom opened the vent, and a ray of sun fell upon Rosina’s head. In a flash she changed into a snake and wriggled off into the woods, hissing.

  When the king’s son opened the carriage and found Rosina gone, he knew exactly what had occurred. Dismayed and tearful, he was on the verge of slaying the wicked stepmother. But everybody told him that the thing had been bound to happen to Rosina, if not then, at some other time. Finally he calmed down, although he remained sad and disconsolate.

  Meanwhile the cooks had everything in the ovens and on the stoves and spits for the wedding feast, and the guests were all at the table. Learning that the bride had disappeared, they said, “Since we are already here, let’s have the banquet just the same.” So the cooks were ordered to fire up the oven. One cook was putting into the lighted oven a bundle of brushwood just brought in from the woods, when he spied a snake concealed in the bundle. There was no way to draw the brushwood back out, since it had already caught fire. He peered into the oven to get a look at the snake, and there out of the flames leapt a maiden stark naked, fresh as a rose, and more radiant than fire or sun! Petrified, the cook yelled, “Come here quick! I’ve just seen a maiden in the oven!”

 
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