Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “My good woman,” said Olive, “please squeeze the water out of one of your cloths into my mouth. I’m dying of thirst.”

  “No,” replied the old woman, “do as I say: kneel down and drink right from the pool.”

  “But can’t you see I have no hands and must hold my babies in my arms?”

  “That doesn’t matter. Go on and try.”

  Olive knelt down, but as she bent over the pool, both babies slipped out of her arms, one after the other, and disappeared under the water. “Oh, my babies! My babies! Help! They’re drowning! Help me!”

  The old woman didn’t budge.

  “Don’t be afraid, they won’t drown. Fish them out.”

  “How can I? Don’t you see I have no hands?”

  “Plunge in your stumps.”

  Olive immersed her stumps in the water and felt her hands growing back. With her hands she then grabbed hold of the babies and pulled them up safe and sound.

  “Be on your way now,” said the old woman. “You no longer lack hands to do for yourself. Farewell.” She was out of sight before Olive could even thank her for her fine deed.

  Wandering about the woods in search of a refuge, Olive came to a brand-new villa with the door wide open. She went in to ask for shelter, but no one was there. A kettle of porridge was boiling on the hearth next to some heavier foods. Olive fed her children, ate something herself, then went into a room where there was a bed and two cradles; she put the two children to bed, then lay down herself. She thus lived in the villa without ever needing a thing or seeing a soul anywhere around the place.

  But let’s leave her and go back to the king, who went home when the war was over and found the town in mourning. His mother tried to comfort him, but he was more and more unhappy as time went on. In an effort to cheer up, he decided to go hunting. In the woods he was overtaken by a storm, and it looked as though the earth would yawn under all the thunder and lightning. “If only I might die!” said the king to himself. “What reason do I have to go on living without Olive?” Through the trees he spied a faint light and moved toward it in search of shelter. He knocked, and Olive opened. He did not recognize her, and she said nothing, but welcomed him cordially and invited him up to the fire to warm himself while she and the children bustled about to make him comfortable.

  The king watched her, thinking how much like Olive she was; but noticing her perfectly normal hands, he shook his head. As the children jumped and played around him, he said, “I might have been blessed with children like that, but they died, alas, with their mother, and here I am all alone and miserable!”

  Meanwhile Olive had gone to turn down the guest’s bed and called the children to her. “Listen,” she whispered to them, “when we go back in the other room, ask me to tell you a story. I’ll refuse and even threaten to slap you, but you keep on begging me.”

  “Yes, Mamma, we’ll do that.”

  So when they got back to the fireside, they began saying, “Mamma, tell us one of your stories!”

  “What are you thinking of! It’s late, and the gentleman is tired and doesn’t want to hear any story!”

  “Come on, Mamma, please!”

  “If you’re not quiet, I’ll slap you!”

  “Poor little things!” said the king. “How could you slap them? Go on and make them happy. I’m not at all sleepy and would like to hear a story too.”

  With that encouragement, Olive sat down and began her tale. The king gradually became serious, listened more and more anxiously, asking repeatedly, “And then? And then?” because it was the life story exactly of his poor wife. But he didn’t dare get his hopes up, for the mystery of the hands was still unexplained. Finally he broke down and asked, “And about her hands that were cut off, how did that turn out in the end?” Olive therefore told about the old washerwoman.

  “Then it’s you!” cried the king, and they hugged and kissed. But after they had given vent to their joy, the king’s face darkened. “I must return to the palace at once and punish my mother as she deserves!”

  “No, not that!” said Olive. “If you really love me, you must promise not to lay a hand on your mother. She will be sorry enough as it is. The poor old soul believed she was acting in the interest of the kingdom. Spare her life, since I forgive her for all she has done to me.”

  So the king returned to the palace and said nothing to his mother.

  “I was uneasy about you,” she said to him. “How did you get through the night out in that storm?”

  “I passed a good night, Mamma.”

  “What!” said the queen, growing suspicious.

  “Yes, at the home of kind-hearted people who kept my spirits up. It was the first time since Olive’s death I’ve felt cheerful. By the way, Mamma, is Olive really dead?”

  “What do you mean? The whole town was at the funeral.”

  “I’d like to put some flowers on her grave, and see with my own eyes . . . ”

  “Why all the suspicion?” asked the queen, flushed with anger. “Is that any attitude for a son to have toward his mother, doubting her word?”

  “Go on, Mamma, enough of these lies! Olive, come in!”

  In walked Olive leading their children. The queen, who had been crimson with rage, now turned white with fear. But Olive said, “Don’t be afraid, we’ll do you no harm. Our joy over finding one another again is too great to feel anything else.”

  The queen returned to the convent, and the king and Olive lived in peace for the rest of their life.

  (Montale Pistoiese)


  Catherine, Sly Country Lass

  One day a farmer hoeing his vineyard struck something hard. He bent over and saw that he had unearthed a fine mortar. He picked it up, rubbed the dirt off, and found the object to be solid gold.

  “Only a king could own something like this,” he said. “I’ll take it to my king, who will most likely give me a handsome present in return!”

  At home he found his daughter Catherine waiting for him, and he showed her the mortar, announcing he would present it to the king. Catherine said, “Beyond all doubt, it’s as lovely as lovely can be. But if you take it to the king he’ll find fault with it, since something is missing, and you’ll even end up paying for it.”

  “And just what is missing? What could even a king find wrong with it, simpleton?”

  “You just wait; the king will say:

  ‘The mortar is big and beautiful,

  But where, you dummy, is the pestle?’”

  The farmer shrugged his shoulders. “The idea of a king talking like that! Do you think he’s an ignoramus like you?”

  He tucked the mortar under his arm and marched straight to the king’s palace. The guards weren’t going to let him in, but he told them he was bringing a wonderful gift, so they took him to His Majesty. “Sacred Crown,” began the farmer, “in my vineyard I found this solid gold mortar, and I said to myself that the only place fit to display it was your palace. Therefore I am giving it to you, if you will have it.”

  The king took the mortar and turned it round and round, running his eye over every inch of it. Then he shook his head and spoke:

  “The mortar is big and beautiful,

  But missing is its pestle.”

  Catherine’s words exactly, except that the king didn’t call him a dummy, since kings are well-bred persons. The farmer slapped his brow and couldn’t help but exclaim, “Word for word! She guessed it!”

  “Who guessed what?” asked the king.

  “I beg your pardon,” said the farmer. “My daughter told me the king would say just those words, and I refused to believe her.”

  “This daughter of yours,” said the king, “must be a very clever girl. Let’s see just how clever. Take her this flax and tell her to make me shirts for a whole regiment of soldiers. But tell her to do it quickly, since I need the shirts right now.”

  The farmer was stunned. But you don’t argue with a king, so he picked up the bundle (which contained only a fe
w measly strands of flax), bowed to the king, and set out for home, leaving the mortar without receiving a word of thanks, much less anything else.

  “My daughter,” he said to Catherine, “you are really in for it now.” And he told her what the king had ordered.

  “You get upset over nothing,” replied Catherine. “Give me that bundle.” She took the flax and shook it. As you know, there are always scalings in flax, even if it has been carded by an expert. A few scalings dropped on the floor, so tiny you could scarcely see them. Catherine gathered them up and said to her father, “Here. Go right back to the king and tell him for me that I will make him the shirts. But since I have no loom to weave the cloth, tell him to have one made for me out of this handful of scalings, and his order will be carried out to the letter.”

  The farmer didn’t have the nerve to go back to the king, especially with that message; but Catherine nagged him until he finally agreed.

  Learning how cunning Catherine was, the king was now eager to see her with his own eyes. He said, “That daughter of yours is a clever girl! Send her to the palace, so that I’ll have the pleasure of chatting with her. But mind that she comes to me neither naked nor clothed, on a stomach neither full nor empty, neither in the daytime nor at night, neither on foot nor on horseback. She is to obey me in every single detail, or both your head and hers will roll.”

  The farmer arrived home in the lowest of spirits. But his daughter merrily said, “I know how, Daddy. Just bring me a fishing net.”

  In the morning before daybreak, Catherine rose and draped herself with the fishing net (that way she was neither naked nor clothed), ate a lupin (that way her stomach was neither empty nor full), led out the nanny goat and straddled it, with one foot dragging the ground and the other in the air (that way she was neither on foot nor on horseback), and reached the palace just as the sky grew lighter (it was neither day nor night). Taking her for a madwoman in that outlandish get-up, the guards barred the way; but on learning that she was just carrying out the sovereign’s order, they escorted her to the royal chambers.

  “Majesty, I am here in compliance with your order.”

  The king split his sides laughing, and said, “Clever Catherine! You’re just the girl I was looking for. I am now going to marry you and make you queen. But in one condition, remember: you must never, never poke your nose into my business.” (The king had realized that Catherine was smarter than he was.)

  When the farmer heard about it, he said, “If the king wants you for his wife, you have no choice but to marry him. But watch your step, for if the king quickly decides what he wants, he can decide just as quickly what he no longer wants. Be sure to leave your workclothes hanging up here on a hook. In case you ever have to come home, you’ll find them all ready to put back on.”

  But Catherine was so happy and excited that she paid little attention to her father’s words, and a few days later the wedding was celebrated. There were festivities throughout the kingdom, with a big fair in the capital. The inns were filled to overflow, and many farmers had to sleep in the town squares, which were crowded all the way up to the king’s palace.

  One farmer, who had brought to town a pregnant cow to sell, found no barn to put the animal in, so an innkeeper told him he could put it under a shed at the inn and tether it to another farmer’s cart. Lo and behold, in the night, the cow gave birth to a calf. In the morning the proud owner of the cow was preparing to lead his two animals away when out rushed the owner of the cart, shouting, “That’s all right about the cow, she’s yours. But hands off the calf, it’s mine.”

  “What do you mean, it’s yours? Didn’t my cow have it last night?”

  “Why wouldn’t it be mine?” answered the other farmer. “The cow was tied to the cart, the cart’s mine, so the calf belongs to the owner of the cart.”

  A heated quarrel arose, and in no time they were fighting. They grabbed props from under the cart and struck in blind fury at one another. At the noise, a large crowd gathered around them; then the constables ran up, separated the two men, and marched them straight into the king’s court of justice.

  It was once the custom in the royal city, mind you, for the king’s wife also to express her opinion. But now with Catherine as queen, it happened that every time the king delivered a judgment, she opposed it. Weary of that in no time, the king said to her, “I warned you not to meddle in state business. From now on you’ll stay out of the court of justice.” And so she did. The farmers therefore appeared before the king alone.

  After hearing both sides, the king rendered this decision: “The calf goes with the cart.”

  The owner of the cow found the decision too unjust for words, but what could he do? The king’s judgment was final. Seeing the farmer so upset, the innkeeper advised him to go to the queen, who might find a way out.

  The farmer went to the palace and asked a servant, “Could you tell me, my good man, if I might have a word with the queen?”

  “That is impossible,” replied the servant, “since the king has forbidden her to hear people’s cases.”

  The farmer then went up to the garden wall. Spying the queen, he jumped over the wall and burst into tears as he told how unjust her husband had been to him. The queen said, “My advice is this. The king is going hunting tomorrow in the vicinity of a lake that is always bone-dry at this time of year. Do the following: hang a fish-dipper on your belt, take a net, and go through the motions of fishing. At the sight of someone fishing in that dry lake, the king will laugh and then ask why you’re fishing where there’s no water. You must answer: ‘Majesty, if a cart can give birth to a calf, maybe I can catch a fish in a dry lake.’”

  The next morning, with dipper dangling at his side and net in hand, the farmer went off to the dry lake, sat down on the shore, lowered his net, then raised it as though it were full of fish. The king came up with his retinue and saw him. Laughing, he asked the farmer if he had lost his mind. The farmer answered him exactly as the queen had suggested.

  At that reply, the king exclaimed, “My good man, somebody else had a finger in this pie. You’ve been talking to the queen.”

  The farmer did not deny it, and the king pronounced a new judgment awarding him the calf.

  Then he sent for Catherine and said, “You’ve been meddling again, and you know I forbade that. So now you can go back to your father. Take the thing you like most of all in the palace and go home this very evening and be a farm girl once more.”

  Humbly, Catherine replied, “I will do as Your Majesty wills. Only, I would ask one favor: let me leave tomorrow. Tonight it would be too embarrassing for you and for me, and your subjects would gossip.”

  “Very well,” said the king. “We’ll dine together for the last time, and you will go away tomorrow.”

  So what did sly Catherine turn around and do but have the cooks prepare roasts and hams and other heavy food that would make a person drowsy and thirsty. She also ordered the best wines brought up from the cellar. At dinner the king ate and ate and ate, while Catherine emptied bottle after bottle into his glass. Soon his vision clouded up; he started stuttering and at last fell asleep in his armchair, like a pig.

  Then Catherine said to the servants, “Pick up the armchair with its contents and follow me. And not a word out of you, or else!” She left the palace, passed through the city gate, and didn’t stop until she reached her house, late in the night.

  “Open up, Daddy, it’s me,” she cried.

  At the sound of his daughter’s voice, the old farmer ran to the window. “Back at this hour of the night? I told you so! I was wise to hold on to your workclothes. They’re still here hanging on the hook in your room.”

  “Come on, let me in,” said Catherine, “and don’t talk so much!”

  The farmer opened the door and saw the servants bearing the armchair with the king in it. Catherine had him carried into her room, undressed, and put into her bed. Then she dismissed the servants and lay down beside the king.

midnight the king awakened. The mattress seemed harder than usual, and the sheets rougher. He turned over and felt his wife there beside him. He said, “Catherine, didn’t I tell you to go home?”

  “Yes, Majesty,” she replied, “but it’s not day yet. Go back to sleep.”

  The king went back to sleep. In the morning he woke up to the braying of the donkey and the bleating of the sheep, and saw the sunshine streaming through the window. He shook himself, for he no longer recognized the royal bedchamber. He turned to his wife. “Catherine, where on earth are we?”

  She answered, “Didn’t you tell me, Majesty, to return home with the thing I liked best of all? I took you, and I’m keeping you.”

  The king laughed, and they made up. They went back to the royal palace, where they still live, and from that day on, the king has never appeared in the court of justice without his wife.

  (Montale Pistoiese)


  The Traveler from Turin

  There once lived in the city of Turin a well-to-do gentleman with three sons. The oldest was Joseph, a clever youth who dreamed constantly of taking a trip: he was eager to see the city of Constantinople. His father, who wanted him to marry, have children, and become his heir, was reluctant to let him go; but Joseph thought of nothing but journeys. Finally the middle son got married, and the father then looked to him as the one who would take his place in the business and continue his name. He therefore consented to the departure of Joseph, who embarked for Constantinople with a trunk full of personal belongings, sundries, and money.

  A storm came up on the high seas, the boat began pitching, and the sailors lost all control of it. Now off course, it crashed on a reef. All the passengers were swept under the waves and drowned. Joseph, having jumped from the sinking ship, straddled his precious trunk and spent a whole night buffeted by the storm until the wind, at last, brought him ashore on an island. The sun rose, and the sea became calm once more. The island appeared deserted, although abounding in fruit trees.

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