Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  Realizing that her son was head over heels in love, the queen said, “Invite him to dinner. If the general holds the bread against his chest when he cuts it, then the general is a girl. But if he holds it in the air and cuts it, he is a man for sure, and you have fallen in love for nothing.”

  But the results of this test were no better. Fanta-Ghirò cut her bread like a man. The king, however, continued to say to his mother:

  “Beautiful Fanta-Ghirò

  With eyes so black and speech so low:

  She’s a maiden, I know, I know!”

  “Well, put him to the final test,” proposed the queen. “Invite him to swim with you in the fishpond in the garden. If the general is a girl, she will certainly refuse.”

  He extended the invitation, and Fanta-Ghirò replied, “Of course! I would love to go swimming; not now, though, but tomorrow morning.” She took Tonino the squire aside and said, “Leave the palace and return tomorrow morning with a letter bearing my father’s seal. The letter should say: ‘Dear Son, Fanta-Ghirò, I am deathly ill and wish to see you before I die.’”

  The next day they went to the fishpond. The king undressed and dived in first, then invited Fanta-Ghiròp to do the same.

  “Please wait a little longer, for I’m wet with perspiration,” she said, listening for approaching hoofbeats of the squire’s horse.

  The king insisted that she get undressed. Fanta-Ghirò replied, “I don’t know what it is, but I suddenly feel quite uneasy, as though something terrible were about to happen somewhere.”

  “Nonsense! Nothing is going to happen,” answered the king. “Get undressed and jump in! The water is fine. What could go wrong?”

  At that moment hoofbeats were heard, and up rode the squire and handed Fanta-Ghirò a letter with the royal seal.

  Fanta-Ghirò turned pale. “I’m terribly sorry, Majesty, but this is bad news. My father lies on his deathbed and is asking for me. I must depart at once. All you and I can do is make peace, and if any matters remain to be settled, you will find me at home in my kingdom. Farewell. I will go swimming with you some other time.”

  The king stayed in the fishpond, alone and naked. The water was cold, and he gave way to despair: Fanta-Ghirò was surely a girl, but she had left before he could prove it.

  Before leaving, Fanta-Ghirò stopped by her room to get her things. On the bed, she placed this note:

  Woman came and woman went,

  But of her presence gave the king no hint.

  After the king found and read the note, he continued to stand there like a fool, half angry and half jubilant. He ran to his mother. “Mamma, Mamma, I guessed it, the general was a girl after all!” And without giving his mother time to reply, he jumped into his carriage and sped off in the tracks of Fanta-Ghirò.

  When Fanta-Ghirò got home, she embraced her father and told him how she had won the war and made the enemy king abandon his plans for an invasion of their kingdom. At that moment the clatter of wheels was heard in the courtyard. It was the enemy king arriving, head over heels in love. As soon as he saw Fanta-Ghirò, he asked, “General, will you marry me?”

  The nuptials were celebrated, the two kings made peace, and when Fanta-Ghirò’s father died, he left everything to his son-in-law, and Fanta-Ghirò the Beautiful became queen of two kingdoms.

  (Montale Pistoiese)


  The Old Woman’s Hide

  There was a king with three daughters. He was going to the fair and, before leaving home, asked his daughters what they wanted as a present. The oldest said a kerchief, the next a pair of high-top shoes, while the third asked for a box of salt. The two older girls, who were jealous of their little sister, said to their father, “Do you know why that awful girl wants salt? For no other reason than to pickle you.”

  “I see!” said the father. “She intends to pickle me, does she? Well, I’ll turn her out.” And that he did.

  Turned out of her home with only her nursemaid and a purse of gold coins, the poor girl had no idea where to go. All the young men she met were bothersome, so the nursemaid had an idea. A woman a hundred years old had just died and was being buried, and the nursemaid asked the gravedigger, “Would you sell us the old soul’s hide?” After much haggling, the gravedigger picked up a knife, skinned the old woman wrinkle by wrinkle, and sold her whole hide together with face, white hair, fingers, and nails. The nursemaid then tanned the hide, stitched it onto cambric, and clothed the girl in it. People looked at the old centenarian and couldn’t get over her spry gait and her voice as clear as a bell.

  Whom should they meet but the king’s son, who asked the nursemaid, “Just how old is that old soul?”

  “Ask her yourself,” replied the nursemaid.

  “Granny, can you hear me? How old are you?”

  “Me? I’m a hundred and fifteen,” laughed the girl.

  “Good heavens! And where do you come from?”

  “From my town.”

  “Who were your parents?”

  “I’m my own mother and father.”

  “What is your occupation?”

  “Having a good time!”

  Amused, the king’s son said to the king and queen, “Let’s take this old soul to the palace. She’ll entertain us as long as she lives.”

  So the nursemaid left the girl at the royal palace, where they gave her a room on the mezzanine, and whenever the king’s son had nothing else to do, he’d go in to talk to the old woman and laugh at her droll remarks.

  One day the queen said to Rotten Eyes (they called her that because of the blear eyes of the old woman’s hide), “What a shame you can’t do any more work with those eyes!”

  “But I sure could spin as a girl!” replied Rotten Eyes.

  “Try spinning this little bit of flax,” said the queen, “just to be doing something.”

  As soon as the old woman was alone, she locked her door, removed the hide, and spun thread that was a marvel to behold. The king’s son, the queen, and the whole court were amazed that a decrepit, shaky, halfblind old woman had been able to turn out work like that.

  The queen next had her make a blouse. As soon as she was alone, she cut it out, sewed it up, and embroidered the front with the daintiest gold flowers you ever saw. People no longer knew what to think. But the king’s son was suspicious and peeped through the keyhole the next time the old woman locked her door. Just what did he see? The old woman removed the hide, and there stood a maiden as beautiful and radiant as the sun. Without thinking, the king’s son broke the door down and embraced the girl, who was quite embarrassed and tried to cover herself. “Who are you?” asked the king’s son. “Why did you disguise yourself like that?”

  The girl confessed that she too was the child of a king, who had cursed her and turned her out of his palace.

  The king’s son went at once to his parents and said, “I’ve found a king’s daughter, mind you, to marry.”

  The wedding festivities were proclaimed, and all kings and queens from near and far were invited. Among them was the bride’s father, but he didn’t recognize her beneath her veil and diadem. The bride had her father’s food cooked separately and without salt, except the roast. The soup was brought in and the guests ate it, but after one spoonful her father ate no more of his. Next came boiled meat, but the father scarcely tasted his. Then came fish, which he left completely untouched. “I’m not hungry,” he explained. But when the roast was served, he liked it so much that he helped himself to it three times. Then his daughter asked why he’d not touched the other dishes but had relished the roast. The king said he would never understand it, but the roast had been so tasty, and everything else so tasteless.

  “So now you see,” replied his daughter, “how awful food is without any salt in it? That’s why your daughter asked for salt when you went to the fair and those wicked sisters of mine said it was to pickle you . . . ”

  At that, the father recognized his daughter, embraced her, begged her forgiveness, and punished the envi
ous sisters.

  (Montale Pistoiese)



  Once upon a time a rich Jew lost his wife in childbirth and had to leave his newborn daughter to be raised by a farmer who was a Christian.

  In the beginning, the farmer was reluctant to take on the burden. “I have children of my own,” he explained, “and can’t bring up your little girl in the Hebrew faith. She’d always be with my children and become accustomed to our Christian ways.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” replied the Jew. “Please do me a favor and keep her, and you will be repaid. If I’ve not come back for her by the time she’s ten, then you are free to do as you please, for that will mean I’ll never return and the child will be with you for good.”

  The Jew and the farmer came to an agreement, and the Jew left on a journey to distant lands to look after his business. The baby was nursed by the farmer’s wife who, finding her so gentle and pretty, became as attached to her as if she’d been her own daughter. The child learned to walk in no time, played with the other children, and did everything children of her age do; but no one ever spoke to her about the Christian commandments. She heard everybody else saying their prayers, but she didn’t know what religion was and remained in ignorance of it up to her tenth year.

  When she reached ten, the farmer and his wife looked for the Jew to show up any day and reclaim her. But her eleventh year also passed, then the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth, without any sign of the Jew. So they concluded he had died. “We’ve now waited long enough,” they said. “It’s high time to have this daughter baptized.”

  They had her instructed in the faith, then baptized in pomp, with the whole town looking on. They named her Olive and sent her to school to learn women’s skills as well as reading and writing. So by the time she was eighteen, Olive was a truly fine girl, well-mannered, loving, beautiful, and cherished by all.

  The farmer and his family were now happy and their minds at rest, when one morning a knock was heard on the door. They opened up. It was the Jew. “I’ve come for my daughter.”

  “What!” exclaimed the mother. “You said if you’d not returned by the time she was ten for us to do as we pleased, since she’d then be our daughter. Eighteen years have passed. What right can you possibly have to her? We had her baptized, and now Olive is a Christian girl.”

  “I don’t care,” replied the Jew. “I didn’t show up sooner, because I couldn’t. But the girl is my daughter, and I’m taking her back.”

  “We’re not giving her to you, that’s for sure!” screamed the whole family in unison.

  A bitter quarrel ensued. The Jew took the matter to court, and the court granted him custody of the girl, since she was his own daughter. The poor farmer and his family therefore had no choice but comply with the law. They all wept, the most heartbroken of all being Olive herself as her father was a total stranger to her. With tears streaming down her face, she broke away from those good people who’d been her mother and father for so long.

  Bidding her goodbye, the woman slipped Olive a copy of the Office of the Blessed Virgin and urged her never to forget she was a Christian. With that, those two gentle souls separated.

  When they got home, the first thing the Jew said to Olive was, “Here, we are Jews, and you are too. You will believe what we believe. Heaven help you if I ever catch you reading the book the woman gave you. The first time I’ll throw it into the fire and beat you, and the next time I’ll cut off your hands and turn you out of the house. Watch your step, because I mean what I say.”

  Under those threats, poor Olive had no choice but publicly pretend she was Jewish. Locked in her room, though, she said the Office and Litanies of the Blessed Virgin while her faithful maid kept watch, in case her father should unexpectedly appear. All precaution was useless in the end, for the Jew caught her by surprise one day kneeling and reading from the book. Seized with rage, he flung the book into the fire and beat her unmercifully.

  That did not discourage Olive. She had her maid buy her a second book like the first and continued to read in it. But the Jew was suspicious and, without seeming to, watched her constantly. Finally he burst into her room and caught her again. This time, without a word, he led her to a workbench, motioned for her to stretch out her hands, and, with a sharp knife, cut them clean off. Then he ordered her taken into the woods and abandoned.

  The unfortunate girl remained there more dead than alive, and with no hands what could she now do? She set out and walked and walked until she came to a large palace. She thought of going in and asking for alms, but the palace was surrounded by a high doorless wall, which enclosed a beautiful garden. Jutting out over the top of the wall were branches of a pear tree laden with ripe, yellow pears. “Oh, if only I had one of those pears!” exclaimed Olive. “Is there any way of reaching them?”

  The words were no sooner out of her mouth than the wall opened and the pear tree bent down its branches, so that Olive, who had no hands, could reach the pears with her teeth and eat them while they were still on the tree. When she had eaten her fill, the tree raised its branches once more, the wall closed back together, and Olive returned to the woods. She now knew the secret and went and stood under the pear tree every day at eleven o’clock and made a meal off the fruit. Then she would return to the densest part of the woods and get through the night the best she could.

  These were very fine pears, and one morning the king who lived in the palace decided to sample them, so he sent his servant out to pick a few. The servant came back quite dismayed. “Majesty, some animal has been climbing the tree and gnawing the pears down to the core!”

  “We’ll catch him,” said the king. He built a hut out of branches and lay in wait every night, but he lost sleep that way while the pears continued to be nibbled. He therefore decided to watch in the daytime; at eleven o’clock he saw the wall open, the pear tree bend down its branches, and Olive bite into first one pear and then another. The king who had been ready to shoot, dropped his gun in amazement. All he could do was stare at the beautiful maiden as she ate and then disappeared through the wall, which closed behind her.

  He called his servant at once, and they scoured the woods for the thief. Suddenly they came upon her sleeping under a bush.

  “Who are you? What are you doing here?” asked the king. “How dare you steal my pears? I was about to shoot you down with my shotgun!”

  By way of reply, Olive showed him her stumps.

  “You poor girl!” exclaimed the king. “What villain mutilated you so cruelly?” After hearing her story, he said, “I don’t care about the pears. Come and live in my palace. My mother the queen will indeed keep you with her and look after you.”

  So Olive was presented to the queen, but the son mentioned neither the pear tree’s bending down nor the wall’s opening by itself, lest his mother think the girl a witch and detest her. The queen did not actually refuse to take Olive in, but she had no love for her and gave her little to eat, for the simple reason that the king was too charmed by the handless maiden’s beauty. To rid him of any idea he might have, she said, “My son, it’s time you looked about for a wife. Any number of princesses could be yours for the asking. Take servants, horses, and money, and travel around until you have found her.”

  The king obediently departed and was away visiting courts in many lands. But six months later he came home and said, “Don’t be angry with me, Mamma. There’s no shortage of princesses in this world. But I met none so kind and beautiful as Olive. So I’ve decided Olive is the maiden I’ll marry.”

  “What!” exclaimed the queen. “A handless girl from the woods? You know nothing about her! Would you disgrace yourself like that?”

  But the queen mother’s words fell on deaf ears, and the king married Olive without further delay.

  Having a daughter-in-law of unknown origins was more than the old queen could bear, and she lost no opportunity to be rude and mean to Olive, taking care on the other hand not to displease the king. W
isely, Olive never made any protest.

  In the meantime Olive expected a baby, to the great joy of the king; but certain neighboring kings suddenly declared war on him, obliging him to lead his soldiers to the defense of the kingdom. Before leaving, he wanted to entrust Olive to his mother, but the old queen said, “No, I can’t assume such responsibility. I too am leaving the palace and shutting myself up in a convent.”

  So Olive had to stay at the palace by herself, and the king urged her to write him a letter every day. Thus the king left for the battlefield and the old queen for the convent, while Olive remained at the court with all the servants. Every day a messenger left the court with a letter from Olive to the king, but at the same time an aunt of the old queen plied between court and convent to inform her of everything that went on. Upon learning that Olive had given birth to two fine babies, the old queen left the convent and returned to the palace under the pretext of coming home to help her daughter-in-law. She called the guards, forced Olive out of bed, thrust a baby under each of their mother’s arms, and told the guards to take the young queen back to the woods where the king had found her.

  “Leave her there to starve to death,” she said to the guards. “Your heads will roll if you disobey my orders and if you ever breathe a word of this!”

  Then the old queen wrote her son that his wife had died in childbirth along with her babies; so that he would believe the lie, she had three wax figures made, then held a grand funeral and burial in the royal chapel. For the ceremony she wore mourning and wept many tears.

  Off at war, the king couldn’t get over the unfortunate event, nor did he suspect foul play on the part of his mother.

  But let’s go back to Olive, handless in the middle of the woods and dying of hunger and thirst, with those two babies in her arms. She walked onward until she came to a pool of water where a little old woman was washing clothes.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]