Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  The queen arrived. With cries, embraces, slaps in the face, kisses, and shakes, she did her best to awaken Fiordinando. But realizing she would not succeed, she began weeping so violently that instead of tears a few drops of blood trickled down her cheeks. She wiped the blood off with her handkerchief, which she placed over Fiordinando’s face. Then she got back into her carriage and sped straight to Peterborough. Meanwhile the hermit came out of the cave, picked up the handkerchief, and stood by to see exactly what would happen.

  When Fiordinando woke up at night and realized he’d missed his last chance to see the queen, he was fit to be tied. He pulled out the pistols and was about to carry out his threat of unloading them in the sleeping hunter’s head, when the hermit grabbed him by the wrists and said, “That poor fellow is blameless. The culprit is the innkeeper’s daughter who drugged the red wine, the white wine, and the soup.”

  “Why would she do a thing like that?” asked Fiordinando. “And how do you know so much about it?”

  “She’s in love with you and gave you opium. I know all about it from peeping through the trees at everything that goes on here. For the last three days the queen of Portugal has come by and tried to awaken you, leaving on your brow a diamond, a lock of her hair, and a handkerchief moist with tears of blood.”

  “And where are these things now?”

  “I took them away for safekeeping, since there are many thieves around here who would have stolen them before you ever got to see them. Here they are. Look after them, because if you act sensibly, they will bring you luck.”

  “What am I to do?”

  “The queen of Portugal,” explained the hermit, “has gone to Peterborough where she will be given in prize at a tournament. The knight who jousts with this ring, this lock of hair, and this handkerchief on the tip of his lance will be invincible and wed the queen.”

  Fiordinando didn’t have to be told twice. He sped from Paris to Peterborough, where he arrived in time to enter the list of jousters, but under a false name. Illustrious warriors had arrived from all over the world with wagonloads of luggage, servants, and arms as shiny as the sun. In the heart of the city a large arena had been surrounded with viewing stands, and there the knights were to contend on horseback for the queen of Portugal.

  With his visor lowered, Fiordinando won the first day, thanks to the diamond on the tip of his lance. He won the second day with the lock of hair. He won the third with the handkerchief. Horses and men fell by the dozens until not a one was left standing. Fiordinando was proclaimed victor and the queen’s bridegroom. Only then did he open his helmet. The queen recognized him and swooned for joy.

  There was a grand wedding, and Fiordinando sent for his mother and father, who had already given him up for dead and gone into mourning. He introduced his bride to them, saying, “This is none other than the little hare I pursued, the veiled lady, and the queen of Portugal whom I have freed from an awful spell.”

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  67

  Buffalo Head

  A farmer was angrily hoeing the wretched soil of his field, when his hoe struck something hard. He dug gently around it, unearthing a buffalo head twice as big as any other buffalo head. Its horns stood up, its fur gleamed, and its eyes were open and bright, so that it really looked as if it were alive. It was alive, in fact, for when the farmer made ready to bring his hoe down on the ugly thing with all his might, the head opened its mouth and spoke. “Stop! Don’t kill me. I will be the making of one of your daughters if you spare me.”

  Suspecting that magic was in play here, the farmer carefully picked up the head and carried it to the edge of the field, where he put it down and covered it with his coat. When his elder daughter brought him his midday meal, he said to her, “Go look at what’s under my coat.”

  The girl lifted the coat and let out a scream. “Oh, what a hideous monster!” She went flying back home, screaming all the way.

  Seeing her return so frightened her mother thought something might have happened to her husband, so she said to her middle daughter, “Go to your father and find out if he needs anything.”

  She too was directed by her father to look under the coat, and she too fled like lightning, screaming at the top of her voice. “What a dreadful snout!”

  The mother then called her youngest daughter, who was also the smartest and most courageous of the three, and sent her to the field. When her father told her to look under the coat, the little girl obeyed. A smile spread over her face, and she reached out and petted the buffalo head. “My, what a pretty little head! What fine horns! What fine whiskers! Papa, where did you find this wonderful buffalo head?”

  At those compliments, the buffalo head looked up and whined happily. “Would you come and live with me, you lovely child?”

  “If Papa lets me, I’ll come right now.”

  The farmer didn’t have the heart to refuse. The buffalo head led the way, capering on its horns, while the child followed dancing and clapping for joy.

  In a clearing in the heart of the woods was a trapdoor. Buffalo Head opened it with one of her horns and sprang through it. Reaching the bottom, she called to the little girl, “Remove your wooden shoes and come on down. Be careful, though, for the steps are glass.” The child went down the glass steps and found herself in a princely drawing room, and there in an armchair sat Buffalo Head.

  The little girl was quite happy in this underground home. Buffalo Head was even better to her than any real mother would have been, teaching her how to keep house, cook and iron, along with many other things. The child was good at everything, even reading and writing. She grew by leaps and bounds, and before you knew it she had become a beautiful maiden and so fond of Buffalo Head that she called her “Mamma.”

  The girl had not been in this hole too many years before she began saying, “Mamma, let me go up to the clearing for a little fresh air.”

  Buffalo Head didn’t think much of the idea, but the girl kept on begging until Buffalo Head finally gave her a silver dress and a stool and told her she could sit in the clearing and knit.

  While she was knitting in the clearing, a hunter who had lost his way came by and saw her. He was the son of the king of that territory. He got to talking to her, and in no time he was in love with the maiden.

  “Beautiful maiden,” he said, “you delight me in every way imaginable. If you have no objections, I would like to marry you.”

  “I have no objections myself,” she replied, “but I must first see what my mother has to say.” She walked back to the trapdoor and disappeared down the glass staircase.

  Buffalo Head did not say no, but, “Do as you like. If you wish to leave me, then leave. But remember to be grateful. I’m responsible for all the good that has come your way, even the king’s son who just asked you to marry him.”

  The king’s son promised to return in a week with maids of honor and knights and royal carriages to take his bride away. Meanwhile, with Buffalo Head’s help, the bride-to-be got her trousseau ready, and it was a trousseau fit for a queen. “Remember, now,” Buffalo Head told her repeatedly, “when you leave this home, see that you leave nothing behind you. If you forget something, great misfortune could overtake you.”

  But when the king’s son arrived with his train, the bride was so excited and distracted that not only did she leave her comb behind, she also forgot to bid Buffalo Head farewell and ran off without even closing the trapdoor behind her.

  The bridal party had already traveled a great distance, when the bride suddenly clapped her hand to her forehead. “We must go back, we must go back, Majesty! I have forgotten my comb.”

  The king’s son replied, “Are you afraid there’ll be no combs in my palace? Or that the shops in town will have none?”

  “I’m afraid something awful will happen to me,” she said in a tearful voice, “since Mamma told me to leave none of my things behind if I didn’t want to have bad luck. Please, Majesty, let’s go back.” So the prince ordered the horses tu
rned about, and they rode back into the woods.

  The trapdoor was still wide open. The bride ran downstairs and started looking for her comb.

  “Oh, you’d already gone off?” asked Buffalo Head.

  “Yes, Mamma, and in the excitement of getting away I forgot my comb, and now I can’t find it.”

  “You forgot your comb, did you?” said Buffalo Head. “Just your comb? Go look in your dresser drawer.”

  Quite upset by now, the bride pulled out a drawer and bent over to rummage through it. When she stood back up and saw herself in the mirror, she let out a scream: her head had changed into a large buffalo head. “Mamma, Mamma! Something terrible has happened to me! Come here quick! Help me!”

  Buffalo Head said, “There is nothing I can do. This is what you get for being ungrateful. You went off without even telling me goodbye.”

  “What will my bridegroom now say?”

  “He will have to take you as you are, for he promised to marry you.”

  In short, all the maiden could do was wind a thick veil around her head and return to the prince. “Why on earth are you all muffled up?” he asked her. The girl explained that her eyes had suddenly become sore and swollen.

  At court, the prince’s mother and all the noble ladies could hardly wait to see this great beauty. But, under the pretext of sore eyes, she arrived heavily veiled and showed her face to no one. At last came the hour when she was alone with the prince and had to lift the veil. Imagine his surprise on discovering that his bride had become a monster! He pressed his hands tightly over his eyes and refused to take a second look. His first thought was to have her burned at the stake, but then he consulted his mother, who persuaded him to close up the poor thing in the palace attic instead. The rumor spread through the court that he kept her locked up out of jealousy. Only his mother knew his secret and sympathized with him the sadder he became. One day she said to him, “Dear son, you will have to get rid of that buffalo head and start looking around for a bride who is worthy of you.”

  “How can I get rid of her when I’ve already promised to marry her?”

  “There’s a way, I assure you,” said his mother. “At the court, there are two graceful young ladies whose sole dream is to marry you. Let us have a contest between them and the buffalo head to see who spins a pound of flax the best, in only one week. The winner will be your bride.”

  The prince followed the suggestion. The noble ladies shut themselves up in separate rooms and went to work at once painstakingly spinning their pound of flax. The poor bride, however, did nothing but sit and weep over her misfortune. Saturday evening she slid down a rope and ran to Buffalo Head’s trapdoor in the woods. “Mamma,” she whined, “please help me. Get me out of this mess, please. I know you can! After showing me so much kindness, you have made me the most miserable girl alive.”

  Buffalo Head replied, “You think ingratitude is nothing? I’m sorry but I can’t help you. I can only give you this walnut. Offer it to the king’s son tomorrow and tell him to eat the kernel in exchange for the pound of flax he gave you to spin.”

  On Sunday the noble ladies took their finely spun yarn to the queen to judge. “Not bad!” she commented. “But it’s not perfect, either; it’s not completely uniform. Let’s now have a look at this other one’s work.” The bride came forward with the walnut. “Do you want to make a fool of me too?” said the king’s son. He nevertheless cracked open the nut and found a skein of thread perfectly spun from a pound of flax and finer than any you ever saw.

  But the queen remarked, “The thread is fine indeed; that, we cannot deny. But would you marry a monster solely because of the wonder she’s worked with a pound of flax? There must be a second test. This time we’ll give these ladies a week to make a linen shirt, and the best seamstress will be your bride.”

  Once more the ladies were in their rooms and bent over their work: stitch by stitch, minute by minute, they worked. But the bride wept without cease and didn’t even go near her material. Saturday evening she slipped down the rope and back to Buffalo Head. “Mamma, please help me! Forgive me for going off without saying goodbye. Have you really ceased to love your daughter?”

  “Can’t you do anything but weep and complain?” said Buffalo Head. “It’s certainly not my fault you’re in this predicament. You can’t say I didn’t warn you in time. All I can give you is this hazelnut. Take it to the king’s son to crack open and eat. If he doesn’t like it, let him spit it out!”

  When the king’s son cracked the hazelnut, out came a shirt embroidered entirely in gold, with certain stitches so close and fine that no human eye could see them.

  The queen spoke. “We shall now have the final test. One week from today a grand ball will take place. Order these three ladies to get ready for it, and the most beautiful will be your bride.”

  As soon as they got back to their rooms, the two noble ladies each began exerting all their skill to become the most beautiful. They were so busy rubbing down their bodies with aromatic oils, making up their faces, setting their hair in every way imaginable, and trying on dress after dress, that they had no time to sleep. And could looking glasses be worn out from use, nothing of theirs would have remained at the end of that week. As for the bride, what more would you expect her to do, with that bunglesome buffalo head on her shoulders, than cry all week long and then slip back on Saturday night to the trapdoor in the woods.

  “You’ve come back to bawl?” asked Buffalo Head.

  “Mamma, what on earth will I do now? If you don’t forgive me right away, I will lose my bridegroom for good.”

  “You brought this all on yourself. You ran off like a dog, and after all the nice things I’d done for you.”

  “I didn’t do it on purpose, Mamma, don’t you see? I was too happy and excited to realize what I was doing that day.”

  “And now, if you had that day to live over, what would you do?”

  “Oh, Mamma, I would hug and kiss you goodbye, and I wouldn’t leave any of my belongings behind, and I would close the trapdoor securely when I went out.”

  “All right, then, I forgive you,” said Buffalo Head. “Go look for your comb.”

  The bride went to the dresser, opened her drawer, rummaged through it, and found the comb. How great was her amazement, as she stood up again, to see her original head in the mirror, but twice as lovely now as before! Jumping and screaming for joy, she ran to Buffalo Head and hugged and kissed her, thanking her over and over for her kindness.

  On Sunday the whole court gathered in the royal ballroom before the king and queen seated on the high throne and their son standing at the foot of the steps. The three ladies came forward, heavily veiled from head to foot. The prince lifted the first one’s veil and muttered, “What’s this? She’s nothing but padding from top to bottom!”

  The second lady moved up, and the prince lifted her veil. “My word! This one is all ribbons and paint!” He dared not lift his bride’s veil, but when he did lift it at last, he was dumbfounded. “That’s my wife! That’s how she looked the first time I ever saw her, knitting out in the heart of the woods. Only, she’s far lovelier now than then! Mother dear, I’ve made my choice, I will marry this kind and beautiful maiden.”

  He took her by the hand and drew her onto the throne beside him, while the whole court hailed her as their future queen. From that day on they were together and as happy as happy could be.

  (Montale Pistolese)

  68

  The King of Portugal’s Son

  The king of Portugal had a son named Peter, who was dying to get married if only he could find a girl that suited him. On his way home from hunting one day, Peter spied on a shoemaker’s doorstep a very beautiful girl with thick golden hair, sparkling brown eyes, and rosy cheeks. “She is certainly beautiful enough to be my wife,” said Peter to himself. He got to the palace, put his gun up, changed into clothing appropriate to his rank, then went back out. “Come what may, I’m going to have a little chat with her,” he told hi
mself. “It’s a shame she’s only a shoemaker’s daughter!” Thinking such thoughts, he reached the shop, struck up a conversation, and found the girl to be not only beautiful but also quite refined. In short, he fell head over heels in love with her and asked: “Will you have me for your spouse?”

  “What!” she laughed. “You’re joking! You are a king’s son, and I’m the daughter of a poor shoemaker. We’ve nothing in common.”

  “I’m serious,” replied Peter. “I want you, and I don’t care who your father is. If you like me, I will marry you.”

  To make a long story short, they became engaged and, walking on air, Peter returned to the palace, as it was now dinner time.

  At table he passed up the soup, then the main dish, and when they came to dessert, he said, “Father, I’ve decided to get married, and I’ve found my bride.”

  The king was overjoyed at first, but upon learning who the girl was, he exclaimed, “What! A shoemaker’s daughter? That’s no bride fit for a king. What would the nobility say? What would all the people say when they saw a shoemaker’s daughter on the throne of Portugal? No, a thousand times no, this wedding cannot take place.”

  “Father,” answered Peter, “I’m sorry you’re unhappy about it, but I gave the girl my word, my royal word. So you see I’ve no choice now but to wed her.”

  “That being the case,” said the king in dismay, “keep your promise, by all means. But outside this palace and this kingdom. Here, I want to see neither you nor her.”

  The ceremony took place in a few days, but without pomp, and then the newlyweds and one maid climbed into a coach and headed for Paris. When it was night, Peter, his bride, and the maid, worn out from the day’s journey, went sound asleep in the coach while the drivers whipped the horses onward. It was so dark that, upon arriving at a crossroads, the drivers made a slip and, instead of going to the right, took the road to the left into a dense forest and immediately lost their way. All of a sudden, out rushed a herd of wild beasts, which attacked horses and drivers and devoured them all in a flash. At the uproar, Peter awakened and called the drivers, but there was, naturally, no answer, as they were dead. He climbed out of the coach, and there on the ground lay only the boots of those unfortunate men and the hoofs of the horses. Frightened, the women also left the coach and, in an attempt to get out of the forest, the three of them ran until they came to a clearing, where they dropped from exhaustion. Peter threw up a shelter of branches, in which they rested for the remainder of the night, half dead from fear and running.

 
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