Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  At dawn Peter got up before the others and went outside. Some distance away was a fountain, so he picked up his gun, which he always carried with him, and went to wash. Reaching the fountain, he removed his hat and placed his diamond ring on it, so he could wash his hands and face. But as he rinsed, a little bird swooped down, picked up the ring, and flew into a tree with it. Peter grabbed his gun and ran after the bird; but when he took aim, the bird flew to another tree, with the king’s son running after it. Peter thus spent the entire day running from tree to tree, without managing to shoot the bird. Night fell, and the little bird went to roost, but it was now too dark for Peter to see a thing. As he hated to lose his ring, he decided to spend the night under the tree and shoot the bird at daybreak. He was actually up before dawn, with his gun aimed at the roost, but the little bird outsmarted him and got away again. What with the bird flying and Peter running, they went quite far away and came to a very high wall, over which the bird disappeared.

  It was a thick wall without doors or windows. Peter decided to skirt it and, before too long, found himself in the heart of the woods. There he saw a tree so tall that one of its limbs extended over the wall, so Peter climbed to the top and took a look. On the other side of the wall was a beautiful garden, in which he saw the bird calmly pecking. Peter slid from the branch to the top of the wall, then jumped safely into the garden. With his gun aimed, he crept up on the bird, but this time too it got away, flying over the wall and disappearing into the woods. Peter was now a prisoner in the garden. He tried to scale the wall, but there was no possible way to escape.

  In the thick of Peter’s struggle, a sorcerer appeared. His eyes blazed as he yelled, “Rogue! Thief! I’ve caught you at last. Now I know who’s been pulling up my plants!”

  “No, indeed, sir,” answered Peter. “There’s surely a mistake. I slipped in here for an entirely different reason, and nothing was further from my mind than destroying or stealing anything of yours.”

  But the sorcerer refused to listen to reason, and his eyes gleamed with rage: he was bent on putting Peter to death. Seeing himself in a hopeless predicament, Peter fell to his knees and begged the sorcerer not to kill him, telling in detail what had befallen him.

  “Very well,” replied the sorcerer, “in time I’ll see whether or not you’re telling the truth. Meanwhile, come with me into my palace.”

  They went into the palace, where they found the sorceress, wife of the sorcerer. “What’s new, my husband?” she asked.

  “I found this young man tearing up our beautiful garden. What shall we do with him?”

  After hearing the whole story, the sorceress said, “Well, if he’s told the truth, we must spare him. Let’s test him, husband, to see whether he’s a liar or not, and whether he’s good for something or good for nothing. Afterward we’ll decide what to do with him.”

  So Peter was put to work in the large garden looking after the flowers and vegetables. He took pains to satisfy the two sorcerers and obey them at all times. The sorcerers were delighted over how beautifully he kept the garden and, all in all, looked on him as their very own son.

  Several months went by, and one day the sorcerer said, “Listen, Peter, you are now to dig up this little field here, because I shall sow it in a particular manner of my own.” Peter set to work digging, and what should he see as he bent over but the little bird with the ring, which flew right down to the worked ground and began scratching around in it! Peter didn’t hesitate a minute, but ran for his gun, aimed, fired and, this time, brought the bird down dead. He touched its crop and felt the ring still there.

  At the blast, the sorcerer had come running. “What happened? What happened?” he cried.

  “Look, Uncle”—as he now called the sorcerer—“here’s the clear proof I’m a nobleman, and that I was telling the truth the first time I set foot in your splendid garden. You remember my telling you about the little bird and the ring? Well, I’ve killed the bird at last, and the ring is still in its crop.”

  “This means,” replied the sorcerer, “that you can consider yourself as my true son and just as much the owner of everything here as I am.”

  So Peter lived there as the son of the sorcerer and the sorceress, but he disliked being forever cooped up in that garden and constantly hinted he would like nothing better than to leave. The sorcerer, who truly loved him like a son, realizing what he wanted, said, “Listen, to go outside this wall is quite dangerous, for the surrounding woods are full of wild animals. I’ll never understand how you got here without being eaten alive. But if you wait for the day when there’s a storm at sea, you will see the water rise to the top of the wall and ships arrive and moor to those spires up there on the roof. If you are patient, you will be able to sail away on one of those ships.”

  Several months went by before the sorcerer finally announced, “Tomorrow there will be a storm at sea, Peter. If you still want to leave, get ready. I hate to see you go, but do as you will. However, first go into the treasure storeroom and take as much money as you like.”

  Peter didn’t have to be begged. He went down into the treasury and filled his pockets with beautiful coins.

  The next morning when he got up, he saw that the sorcerer had spoken the truth: the sea was on a level with the top of the wall, with the ships moored up at the battlements. Peter went to one of the ships and asked, “Captain, what is your destination?”

  “I’m bound for the port of Spain.”

  “Fine! I too will sail for Spain if you’ll take me aboard.”

  He bid the sorcerer and sorceress farewell, thanking them for the kindness they had shown him, went aboard the ship, and landed in Spain a few days later and went to an inn. He had no idea what he had come to the port of Spain to do, so he asked the servant at the inn, “Is there any way to get work here in the city?”

  “Why not? There’s a man whose job is precisely to find jobs for people, and he comes by here every morning.”

  When the man showed up, Peter went to him and was told, “If you’re interested, the governor is looking for a footman.”

  Peter said he was interested, the man took him to the governor, and Peter became his confidential servant. Every day he took his master’s children to school. Now the master used to give the children a pocketful of coins so that they would learn to practice charity in the street. To whoever asked in God’s name, they gave a penny. And everybody who got a penny from the children would then receive five pence from Peter, who had all that money given him by the sorcerer.

  Word of this instantly spread all over the city, and the people began grumbling about the governor, saying, “The footman would make a far better governor than the old skinflint who presently governs.” A great tumult arose: the people went and shouted under the governor’s windows, “Down with him! Down with the governor! We want Peter the footman for our governor!”

  But Peter went to the window and signaled for the people to behave, at which they grew calm and left.

  Now the governor had a marriageable daughter who was in love with Peter. When she saw that the people wanted him in her father’s place, she made such a fuss that the governor had to let her marry Peter. In the meantime Peter continued his almsgiving, only now, instead of five pence, he gave ten. A still greater tumult resulted than before, and the governor thought it wiser to withdraw to one of his country villas. Peter took his place and governed so well that everyone without exception was delighted.

  Let’s go back a bit, to the wife and maid Peter had left in the shelter of branches when the bird flew off with his ring. Finding Peter gone, the two women went everywhere looking for him and thus passed through many cities and towns. After months and months of travel, they too ended up in the port of Spain. They took lodgings in an inn, had a hairdresser cut their hair short and a tailor made them men’s clothing, and asked the servant at the inn if there was work to be had in some house or other.

  “There’s a man,” explained the servant, “who looks for servants in p
articular for the rich. Speak to him of the matter.”

  The man arrived, spoke with the two women, and said, “It just so happens our new governor needs a cook and a footman. I’ll take you both to him.”

  They came to terms, and the shoemaker’s daughter took the job of cook, while her maid became the footman. But so much time had passed that Peter did not recognize them, nor did they recognize Peter.

  Not many days later Peter said to his wife, the governor’s daughter, “I won’t be home for dinner today. Certain noblemen have invited me out, so I’ll leave you by yourself.”

  “By all means, go,” replied his wife. “Rather than stay here by myself and be bored, I’ll go to Papa’s villa and keep him company awhile. I’ll even stay for a few days.” So they each went their own way.

  Remaining behind at the palace were the cook and the footman—that is, the two women in disguise. The cook said, “I’m going to give the kitchen a thorough cleaning while the master and mistress are away. Hold on to this ring my husband gave me when we became engaged, as I don’t want to damage it.”

  The footman took the ring and slipped it on, so as not to lose it. Then he went to put the master bedchamber in order, and to avoid scratching the ring, he removed it and placed it on the chest of drawers. But once he had finished, he forgot to put the ring back on his finger.

  In the evening Peter returned, dined in high spirits, then went to bed. The next morning as soon as he opened his eyes he saw the ring sparkling on top of the chest of drawers. “Whose ring is this?” he wondered, picking it up and examining it from every angle. He had a strong feeling he had seen it before. He rang the bell and asked the footman who put the ring there.

  “Oh, please excuse me, sir,” replied the footman, “I’m all to blame. I forgot and left the ring there myself. It’s not mine, though; it belongs to the cook.”

  “Send the cook to me, then,” said Peter, and the cook came up too.

  To make a long story short, what with questions, answers, and explanations, they all ended up recognizing each other. But if the women were excited, Peter was far less so, for he was thinking of his other wife there in Spain, and had no idea how to get out of such a mess. When the governor’s daughter returned from the country, Peter took heart and told her of his past and how his first wife had turned up there at the palace. “Tell me now how to get out of this,” he concluded, “for I frankly don’t know what to do.”

  His second wife answered, as though nothing were amiss. “Is that all that’s bothering you? Do you think I’m jealous? Even if you have two wives instead of one, so what? The Turks have as many as twelve.”

  Peter couldn’t believe his ears. Was it possible to live with two wives who were not at one another’s throats?

  At nightfall, Peter said, “Well, who is going to sleep with me tonight?”

  The governor’s daughter replied, “It’s only fair for your first wife to, after all this time apart.”

  So Peter went off to bed with his first wife. But not an hour had gone by when the door opened and the governor’s daughter entered with a pistol in each hand. One bullet in Peter’s head, one bullet in his wife’s head, and the jealous and false-hearted woman was revenged.

  At the noise the whole palace woke up and, running into Peter’s room, beheld that awful scene. The guards immediately seized the governor’s daughter, who was led to the square next morning into the throng of outraged citizens, fastened to a pyre, coated with pitch, and burned alive for the crime she had committed.

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  69

  Fanta-Ghirò the Beautiful

  In olden times there was a king who had no sons, but only three beautiful daughters. The oldest was Carolina, the next Assuntina, and the youngest was called Fanta-Ghirò the Beautiful, since she was the loveliest of the three.

  The king, who was always sick and irritable, stayed shut up in his room the whole day long. He had three chairs—a sky-blue one, a black one, and a red one. Every morning upon going in to greet him, his daughters were quick to note in which chair he sat. If it was sky-blue, that meant high spirits. But the black one spelled death, and the red one war.

  One day the girls found their father in the red chair. “Father!” exclaimed the eldest. “What’s happened?”

  The king replied, “I’ve just received a declaration of war from the king next door to our land. What will I do? I’m ailing, as usual, and there’s no one to take command of the army for me. Where can I get a good general at a moment’s notice?”

  “If you’ll allow me,” said the oldest girl, “I’ll be your general myself. Do you think I couldn’t command the soldiers?”

  “Don’t be silly! That’s no task for a woman!” said the king.

  “Do let me try,” begged the girl.

  “Try. Very well, we shall try it,” said the king, “but understand that if, along the way, you get to talking about women’s work, you march straight back home.”

  She agreed to that condition, and the king ordered his trusted squire, Tonino, to mount his horse and ride with the princess to war, but to bring her straight home to the palace the first time she mentioned women’s work.

  So the princess and squire rode off to war, with the whole army behind them. They had already gone a good way when they came to a cane field and started through it. The princess exclaimed, “What magnificent canes! If we had them at home, we could make any number of distaffs for our spinning!”

  “Whoa, princess!” cried Tonino. “I’m under orders to take you back to the palace. You’ve brought up women’s work.” They wheeled their horses around, and the whole army about-faced and followed them home.

  Then the second girl went to the king. “Majesty, I will take command of the army myself.”

  “Under the same conditions as your sister?”

  “The very same.”

  They set out on horseback, she and the squire side by side, with the army right behind them. On and on they galloped. They went through the cane field, and the princess said nothing. They passed by a pile of vine stakes, and the princess said, “Look at these fine stakes, Tonino. So straight and thin! If we had them at home, there’s no telling how many spindles we could make.”

  “Whoa, princess!” cried Tonino the squire, stopping her horse. “Back home you go! You brought up women’s work.”

  So the whole army, bag and baggage, took the road back to town.

  The king no longer knew which way to turn, when Fanta-Ghirò came to him.

  “No, a thousand times NO!” he replied. “You’re too young. How could you command an army if neither of your sisters could?”

  “Is there any harm in letting me try, Papa? I promise I won’t let you down or disgrace you. Let me try.”

  So it was agreed that Fanta-Ghirò would go to war. She dressed as a warrior, with helmet, armor, sword, and two pistols, and galloped off with Tonino at her side. They passed the cane field without comment; they passed the pile of vine stakes, also without comment. Thus they reached the border. “Before going into battle,” said Fanta-Ghirò, “I’d like a word with the enemy king.”

  The enemy king was a handsome young man. The minute he laid eyes on Fanta-Ghirò he suspected she was a maiden rather than a general, and invited her to his palace to agree on the reasons for the war before going into battle.

  They arrived at the palace, and the king ran to his mother. “Mamma, Mamma,” he said, “listen! I’ve brought home with me the general in command of the enemy forces, but just wait until you see him!

  Beautiful Fanta-Ghirò

  With eyes so black and speech so low:

  She’s a maiden, I know, I know!”

  His mother replied, “Take him into the armory. If the general is really a girl, arms won’t interest her at all, and she won’t even look at them.”

  The king led Fanta-Ghirò into the armory. Fanta-Ghirò took down the swords hanging on the walls carefully noting how you gripped them and how heavy they were. Then she
moved on to the guns and pistols, breaking them to see how they were loaded. The king ran back to his mother. “Mamma, the general handles weapons like a man. But the more I look at him, the more I’m convinced of what I say.

  Beautiful Fanta-Ghirò

  With eyes so black and speech so low:

  She’s a maiden, I know, I know!”

  His mother said, “Take him into the garden. If the general is a girl, she will pick a rose or a violet and pin it on her bosom. If he is a man, he will choose the Catalonian jasmine, sniff it, and then stick it behind his ear.”

  So the king and Fanta-Ghirò went for a stroll in the garden. She reached for the Catalonian jasmine, plucked a blossom, sniffed it, then stuck it behind her ear. In great distress, the king returned to his mother. “The general did what a man would do, but I stick to what I’ve said all along.

  Beautiful Fanta-Ghirò

  With eyes so black and speech so low:

  She’s a maiden, I know, I know!”

 
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