Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  But while Joseph was exploring the surroundings, a band of savages dressed in animal skins popped up. Joseph went over to them and asked for hospitality and also if they would carry his trunk, but he couldn’t make them understand him. He then pulled out a gold coin and offered it to them. They looked at it as though they didn’t know what to do with it. He showed them his watch, and he might as well have shown them the heel of a shoe. He produced a knife and cut off the branch of a tree. When they saw that, their interest perked up, and many reached for the knife. In sign language, Joseph explained he would give it to none but their leader, so they took up his trunk on their shoulders and led him to the cave where their king lived.

  Joseph and the king became good friends in no time. The youth stayed in the royal cave and learned the savages’ language. And he taught them many things they didn’t know, such as how to bake bricks and build houses from the island’s rich supply of clay and limestone. The king named him viceroy and ended up offering him his daughter in marriage. Joseph did not welcome this last honor, either because he was already in love with a beautiful savage, or because the king’s daughter was the ugliest girl he had ever seen. But he was alone in the midst of this uncivilized people, on an island from which there was no escape, and woe to him should he displease the king! He had no choice but consent to the marriage. He and his beloved separated in tears, but their bond of love remained as strong as ever. Joseph married the king’s daughter, while his beloved, so as to arouse no suspicion, also got married, becoming the wife of an old fisherman. The youth, from a material standpoint, couldn’t have been better off. He wasn’t king, but he wasn’t far from it. Just one thing was lacking: happiness. He felt cooped up on the island like a slave and was sorry now he hadn’t listened to his father.

  Unexpectedly, the king’s daughter became ill and died. All the kingdom went into deep mourning, while the king was inconsolable, weeping and grieving without cease. In an effort to console him, Joseph said, “But, Majesty, you must accept this loss. True, you no longer have your daughter, but I’m still here to keep you company.”

  “Alas!” said the king. “I’m weeping not only over losing my daughter but also over losing you.”

  “Losing me?” exclaimed Joseph. “What do you mean, Majesty?”

  “Don’t you know the laws of these parts?” asked the king. “If a husband or a wife dies, the survivor must be buried with the deceased. Our laws and customs require it. You have to comply.”

  In vain did Joseph protest and wail. The funeral procession formed. The pallbearers carried the coffin in which his wife was laid out as a queen; Joseph followed, half frozen with fear, then came all the people moaning and weeping. The tomb was a vast underground cavern sealed off by a boulder. Whenever anyone died, the boulder was rolled aside and he was entombed there with all his wealth. It was Joseph’s wish to have his trunk of treasures lowered into the cavern with him. The people thus obliged him, also giving him food enough for five days, and a lamp. When the ceremony was over, they rolled the boulder back into place and left Joseph alone with the corpse.

  Using his lamp, he decided to explore the cavern. It was full of deceased people, some who had died recently and others who were now nothing but skeletons; with the dead were treasures of gold, silver, and precious stones. He thought how worthless all this wealth was to him, condemned by that savage practice to end his days there. Tired and heavyhearted, he sat down on his trunk, pulling out his watch every now and then, checking the time, and grappling with the idea of dying. Shortly after midnight he heard the sound of trampling. He glanced around and saw an animal something like a huge ox enter the cavern. It approached a body, caught it by the hair, jerked it around onto his back, and disappeared into the dark. The next night at the same hour, the animal returned and carried off another body. This time Joseph followed him. The cavern ended in a passageway that ran downhill, and from the roar of water that reached his ears from the bottom, he realized that the passage led into the sea. The discovery filled him with joy; he was now sure he would get out of the cavern alive, but he didn’t want to flee empty-handed when all that wealth lay within such easy reach. He therefore put off his escape until the next day, since it was almost daylight and the islanders might see him leaving.

  He spent the day getting together the treasure he would carry off, when suddenly he heard the customary dirge sung in funeral processions and saw the door of the cavern rolled back. The body of a man was lowered, followed by a living woman with a lamp and a basket of food. Joseph hid behind a boulder, waiting for the cavern to be closed before showing himself to his companion-in-misfortune. When she spied his trunk at the back of the cavern, she went up to it and wept. “My poor Joseph! He is most certainly dead by now, and the same awful fate awaits me.” At that, Joseph recognized the woman: she was his beloved, who had married an old fisherman just now deceased. He came out of hiding and embraced her, saying, “No, I’ve not died yet, and I don’t intend to die. You and I will flee this tomb together.”

  Once the woman was over her initial shock and convinced that Joseph was not a ghost, she said, “No one ever came out of here alive. How can you be so hopeful in spite of that?” Joseph told her about his discovery, and they ate the new provisions she had brought and waited for the arrival of the ox.

  As soon as the ox had come and disappeared with a body, Joseph trailed him until he saw the gleam of moonlight on the sea at the bottom of the cavern and the ox swimming away with the corpse on his back. Then Joseph, too, jumped into the water, swam around the island, crawled through the dark up to the mouth of the cavern and, with great effort, moved aside the boulder. He lowered the rope he had brought along, and his friend, who waited uneasily in the cavern, tied it around as much treasure as he could draw up at a time. He pulled up bag after bag of gold, silver, and jewels filched from the dead. The last item to come up was Joseph’s trunk, and it was followed by his friend.

  Safely out of the cavern with the treasure, they headed for another kingdom on the same island, arriving before daybreak. They introduced themselves to the king, told him their story, and were hospitably welcomed into the king’s own dwelling.

  Joseph spent many years in that kingdom, and had three sons. Although he lived comfortably and had become the king’s chief minister, he constantly yearned to go back to Turin, his birthplace. He built a boat, under the pretext of using it for pleasure, and sailed out to sea and back in the same day with his wife, so as not to arouse the king’s suspicions. Then one calm night he embarked with his wife and sons and the trunk and all the treasures, and rowed out of sight of the island. Upon spotting a distant ship in the moonlight, he sounded a call for help through the waterspout. The ship happened to be going to Constantinople. Thus, Joseph saw the dream of his youth come true. He went to Constantinople and opened up a jewelry store with the treasures from the cavern of the dead. Then, rich and happy, he went back to Turin, where his old father was still waiting for him.

  (Montale Pistoiese)

  74

  The Daughter of the Sun

  A king and a queen who had waited for ages were at last about to have a child. They called in the astrologers to learn if it would be a boy or a girl and under what planet it would be born. After looking at the stars, the astrologers said the baby would be a girl; she was destined, they added, to be loved by the Sun before she was twenty and to bear his daughter. The king and queen were quite outdone to learn their daughter would have a child by the Sun who stays in the sky and can’t marry. To ward off such a fate, they had a tower built with windows so high up that not even the Sun himself could reach to the bottom of it. The baby girl was shut up inside with her nurse, to remain there until she turned twenty, without once seeing the Sun or being glimpsed by him.

  The nurse had a daughter the same age as the king’s, and the two little girls grew up together in the tower. One day when they were almost twenty and musing on the wonderful things that must be in the world outside the tower, the nurs
e’s daughter said, “Let’s try climbing up to those windows by placing one chair on top of the other. That way we’ll get an idea of what’s outside.”

  No sooner said than done! They piled up chairs all the way to the windows, looked out, and beheld trees, river, soaring herons and, high in the sky, clouds and the Sun. The Sun saw the king’s daughter, fell in love with her, and sent her one of his rays. From the instant that ray touched her, the girl began expecting a baby—the daughter of the Sun.

  The Sun’s daughter was born in the tower, and the nurse, fearful of the king’s anger, carefully wrapped it in royal swaddling clothes and carried it to a patch of broadbeans, where she abandoned it. In no time afterward the king’s daughter turned twenty and her father let her out of the tower, thinking the danger had passed. He had no idea that everything had already happened and that the baby girl born to his daughter and the Sun lay weeping in a bean patch.

  Now through that field passed another king on his way hunting. He heard the wails and, pitying the beautiful little baby left among the beans, took her home to his wife. They found a wet nurse for her, and the child was brought up at the palace just as though she were the king and queen’s own daughter along with their son, who was only a little older than she.

  Growing up together, the boy and girl eventually fell in love with each other. The king’s son was eager to marry her, but his father was unwilling for him to wed a foundling and sent her away from the palace to a distant and isolated house, in hopes the boy would forget her. The king never dreamed that the girl was the daughter of the Sun and endowed with all the magic skills lacking in men.

  As soon as she was out of the way, the king betrothed his son to a girl of royal birth. The day of the wedding, sugared almonds were sent to all the relatives and friends of the bride and groom, including the girl found in the bean patch.

  When the king’s messengers knocked on her door, she came down to open it, but without her head. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “but I was combing my hair and left my head on the dresser. Let me fetch it.” She showed the messengers into the house, replaced her head, and smiled.

  “Now tell me what I should give you to take back as a wedding present.” She led the messengers into the kitchen. “Open up, oven!” she commanded, and the oven door opened. The Sun’s daughter looked at the messengers and smiled. “Into the oven with you, wood!” and the wood flew into the oven. The Sun’s daughter again smiled and commanded, “Light up, oven, and call me when you’re hot!” She turned to the messengers and asked, “Well, what’s the good news?”

  Deathly pale, with their hair standing straight up, the messengers groped for words, when the oven cried, “My lady!”

  The Sun’s daughter said, “Excuse me,” plunged headlong into the fiery oven, turned around, and stepped back out holding a beautiful pie all ready to serve. “Take this to the king for the wedding banquet.”

  When the messengers returned wild-eyed and, speaking scarcely above a whisper, told all the things they had seen, no one would believe them. But the bride, who was jealous of the girl everyone knew as the prince’s first sweetheart, said, “That’s nothing! I used to do those things all the time when I lived at home.”

  “All right,” answered the bridegroom, “let’s see you do them here for us.”

  “Indeed I will, but . . . ” she began as he pulled her into the kitchen.

  “Wood, into the oven,” said the bride, but the wood didn’t budge. “Fire, light up,” but the oven remained cold. The servants lit it themselves, and as soon as it was hot, the boastful bride insisted on getting into it. She wasn’t all the way in before she had burned to death.

  After a short time, the king’s son was persuaded to take another wife. The day of the wedding, messengers went back to the Sun’s daughter with sugared almonds. Instead of answering the door when they knocked, she came through the wall and greeted them. “Excuse me, but the door doesn’t open from the inside. I always have to come through the wall and open it from the outside. There, it’s open now. Please walk in.”

  Leading them to the kitchen, she asked, “So, what should I prepare this time for the wedding of the king’s son? Wood, into the fire! Fire, light up!” All this took place in a split second right before the eyes of the messengers, who broke out in a cold sweat.

  “Skillet, onto the burner! Oil, into the skillet! And call me when you are hot!”

  In a little while the oil called, “My lady, I’m ready!”

  “Here we go,” said the Sun’s daughter, smiling, and thrust her fingers into the boiling oil. At once the ten fingers turned into the most beautiful fried fish you ever saw. The Sun’s daughter wrapped them up herself, since her fingers had grown back in the meantime, and handed them to the messengers with a smile.

  When the new bride, who was as jealous and boastful as the first, heard the dumbfounded messengers’ tale, she said, “You should see the fish I fry!”

  The bridegroom took her at her word and had oil boiled in a skillet. The vain soul thrust in her fingers, and the pain from her scald killed her.

  The queen mother took the messengers to task. “With your tales you’re the death of all the brides!”

  However, the king and queen found their son a third bride, and messengers went out with sugared almonds on the day of the wedding.

  “Hello, I’m up here!” said the Sun’s daughter when they knocked. Looking all about them, they spied her up in the air. “I was just taking a little stroll on a spiderweb. I’ll be right down.” She climbed down the spiderweb and took the almonds.

  “This time I truthfully don’t know what to do about a present,” she said. After thinking it over, she called, “Knife, come here!” The knife came forward, she caught hold of it, and cut off one of her ears. Attached to her ear was a strip of gold lace which came out of her head as though unwinding from her brain. She pulled and pulled until the lace came to an end. Then she put her ear back in place, tapped it gently with her finger, and all was just as before.

  It was such beautiful lace that the whole court wanted to know where it came from, so the messengers, despite the seal placed on their lips by the queen mother, ended up telling about the episode with the ear.

  “Oh!” exclaimed the new bride, “I’ve trimmed all my gowns with lace I obtained in that very manner.”

  “Take the knife and let’s see you do it!” directed the bridegroom.

  The idiot therefore cut off one of her ears. Instead of lace, out flowed so much blood that she died.

  The king’s son went on losing wives and was now more in love than ever with that maiden. He eventually got sick, and no one knew how to cure him, for he neither ate nor laughed.

  They sent for an old sorceress, who advised, “You must feed him barley pap made from barley that is sown, grown, reaped, and made into pap all within the hour.”

  The king was frantic, for barley like that had never been seen. At last they thought of the maiden who could work so many wonders and sent for her.

  “Yes, indeed, I’m familiar with barley like that.” In a flash she had it sown, grown, reaped, and made into pap, well before the end of the hour.

  She insisted on taking the pap in person to the king’s son, who lay in bed with his eyes closed. But it was vile pap, and he took one taste and spat it out, and some flew into the maiden’s eye.

  “How dare you spit pap into the eye of the daughter of the Sun and granddaughter of the king!”

  “You’re the daughter of the Sun?” asked the king, who was standing nearby.

  “I am.”

  “And a king’s granddaughter?”

  “I am.”

  “And here we thought you were a foundling! In that case you can marry our son!”

  “Of course I can!”

  The king’s son got well that very instant and married the Sun’s daughter, who from that day onward became like all other women and did no more strange things.

  (Pisa)

  75

  Th
e Dragon and the Enchanted Filly

  There was once a king and queen who had no children. The royal couple constantly prayed for a baby and gave generously to the poor. At last the queen found herself with child, and the king sent for astrologers to find out if it would be a boy or a girl and under what star it would be born. The astrologers replied, “You will have a boy, who the minute he turns twenty will take a wife, and in the same instant he will slay her. Otherwise he would turn into a dragon.” The king and queen were all smiles when the astrologers informed them they would have a son who would marry at the outset of his twentieth year. But upon hearing the rest of the prophecy they burst into tears.

  The son was born and grew into a fine young man. That was no little comfort to his parents, who nevertheless shuddered at the thought of his terrible fate. As his twentieth birthday approached, they sought a wife for him and asked for the hand of the queen of England.

  Now the queen of England had a talking filly who told her owner everything and was, beyond all doubt, her best friend. As soon as the queen became engaged, she spread the word to the filly. “You have no cause to rejoice,” replied the filly, a bewitched animal who knew everything. “The truth of the matter is . . . ” and she revealed the prince’s strange destiny. The queen was horrified and wondered what she should now do. “Listen carefully,” said the filly. “Tell your bridegroom’s father the queen of England will not ride to the wedding in a carriage but on horseback. Come wedding day, you will mount me and proceed to the church. The instant I paw the ground, throw your arms around my neck and leave everything to me.”

 
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