Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  In the wedding procession the filly, draped in gala trappings, stood beside the bridegroom’s carriage, while on her sat the queen of England in her wedding dress. Every now and then the queen peered through the carriage window at the bridegroom with a sword on his lap and at her inlaws holding watches and awaiting the exact time when he had been born. Suddenly the filly pawed the ground with all her might, then sped off like lightning, with the bride holding on for dear life. The fatal hour had struck, and the bridegroom’s parents dropped their watches. Right before their eyes the king’s son had turned into a dragon, sending king, queen, and courtiers fleeing for their lives from the overturned carriage.

  The filly reached a farmhouse and drew to a halt. “Dismount,” she told the queen, “and go in and tell the farmer to give you his clothes in exchange for your royal ones.” The farmer could hardly believe he was getting a real queen’s dress, and a wedding dress at that. In exchange, he gave her his coarse shirt and breeches. The queen came back out dressed as a farmer, jumped into the saddle, and continued on her way

  They came to the palace of a second king, and the filly said, “Go to the stables and see if they’ll engage you as a stableboy.” She did, impressing the people as a bright boy who also had that fine filly, so they said, “We’ll hire you with your filly to work here with us.”

  Now the king had a son the girl’s age exactly. The boy no sooner saw the new groom than a certain thought struck him, which he confided to his mother. “Mamma, I may be wrong, but I believe that new stableboy is a girl and one that appeals to me.”

  “No, no,” replied his mother, “you’re all wrong. If you want to find out for sure, take him to the garden and show him the flowers. If he makes a bouquet, then you’ll know your stableboy is actually a girl. If he pulls a flower and sticks it in his mouth, he’s a man.”

  The prince called the stableboy into the garden and said, “Would you like to make a bouquet of flowers?”

  But the filly who knew everything had already warned the false stableboy, who replied, “No, thanks, I don’t care much for flowers,” and pulled a blossom and stuck it in her mouth.

  “What did I tell you? He’s a man for sure,” replied the queen when the prince related the incident.

  “I don’t care what you say, Mamma. I’m more convinced than ever that the stableboy is really a girl.”

  “Try something else, then: invite him to the table to cut the bread. If he holds it up to his chest, your stableboy is actually a girl. If he holds it away from him to cut it, then he’s a man.”

  This time too the filly warned her mistress, who held the bread away from her like a man. The prince was still not convinced, though.

  “The only thing left,” said his mother, “is to see him fence. Arrange a match with him.”

  The filly taught the girl all the subtleties of fencing, but concluded, “This time, my dear, you will be found out.”

  No fault could ever be found with her fencing, but in the end she fainted from exhaustion. And that way they finally discovered she was a girl. The prince was so deeply in love by now that he resolved at all costs to marry her.

  “Marry her without any idea who she is?” exclaimed his mother.

  They asked her to tell her story, and upon learning that she was the queen of England, the prince’s mother made no more objections to the wedding, which was celebrated with great pomp.

  A little later, the new wife found herself with child, when the king was summoned to war. But being an old man, he sent his son in his place. The prince urged his parents to write him as soon as the baby was born, mounted his wife’s filly, and rode off to battle. Before leaving, however, the filly gave her mistress three hairs from her mane, saying, “Hide these in your bosom. Break them in an emergency, and I’ll come to your aid.”

  In due time the princess gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who were the most beautiful children you ever saw. The king and queen wrote their son the good news at once. Now as the messenger was riding to the prince with the letter, a dragon lay in wait for him midway to the battlefield. It was none other than the other king’s son who had turned into a monster on his wedding day. Seeing the messenger approach, it blew its noxious breath down the road, and the man fell from his saddle in a deep sleep. Then the dragon pulled the letter from the messenger’s pocket, read it, and forged a new one saying the princess had borne two dogs, a male and a female, thus turning the whole town against her. This letter went into the pocket of the messenger, who, finding nothing amiss upon awaking, got back onto his horse and rode to the prince.

  When the prince read the letter, he turned as white as a sheet, but said nothing. He sat down immediately and wrote a reply: “Be they male dogs or females, keep them for me and take good care of my wife.”

  On the way back, the messenger was again spotted by the dragon and put to sleep by its breath as he came down the road. The dragon replaced the letter the messenger bore with one that read: “Burn wife and children at the stake in the town square. If king and queen do not comply, they too shall go up in flames.”

  Such a reply threw the town into alarm. What was the meaning of the prince’s fury? But instead of burning those innocent souls, the king and queen put the princess into a boat along with the children, two nurses, food, water, and four oarsmen, and secretly launched them on the sea. Then they carried to the town square three dummies resembling the princess and her babies and set them afire. The citizens, who had grown to love the princess, were outraged and vowed revenge.

  The princess sailed across the sea and was put ashore with her babies. She was walking along the deserted strand, when before her loomed the dragon. She had already given herself and the children up for doomed, when she remembered the three hairs from her filly’s mane. She pulled them from her bosom, broke one, and saw an impenetrable thicket instantly spring up around her. But the dragon plunged into it and twisted his way right on through. She broke another hair, and out gushed a river wide and deep. The dragon had a time in the swift current, but he finally got across the river as well. She frantically broke the last hair as the dragon was about to seize her, and a tongue of fire shot up and expanded into a mighty fire. But the dragon passed through the fire, too, and had her in his hands, when onto the shore galloped the filly.

  They faced one another, filly and dragon, and then began to fight. The dragon was taller, but the filly reared and kicked and bit so furiously that she laid him low and crushed him to bits. The princess rushed up to embrace the filly, but her joy was shortlived, for the filly closed her eyes, hung her head, and dropped lifeless to the ground. The princess wept as though she had lost her own sister, recalling all that the filly had done for her.

  She was there weeping with her children, when she happened to look up and see a large palace she didn’t remember seeing before. Moving closer, she noticed a beautiful lady at a window motioning to her to come inside. She entered with her children, and the lady embraced her, saying, “You don’t recognize me, but I’m the filly. I was under a spell and couldn’t change back into a woman until I’d slain a dragon. When you broke the hairs of my mane, I left your husband on the battlefield and ran to you. Killing the dragon, I broke the spell.”

  Let’s leave them for the time being and turn to the husband when he saw the filly flee from the battlefield. He thought to himself, Something must have happened to my wife! and hurried to win the war so he could go home.

  When he got back to town, all the citizens rose up against him. “Tyrant! Monster!” they screamed. “What crime had that poor woman and her children committed?” He couldn’t for the life of him understand what the people were talking about. When his father and mother, wrathful and griefstricken, produced the letter received from him, he said, “This is not from me!” He showed them the letter he had received, and they realized then that both letters had been forged by no telling whom.

  After rounding up the mariners who had rowed his wife to that deserted shore, the prince put out to s
ea with them immediately. He came to the spot where they had disembarked, saw the dead dragon and then the dead filly, and lost all hope. But while he was weeping, he heard his name called: it was the beautiful lady at the palace window. He went inside, and the lady announced she was the filly and led him into a room, where he found his wife and children. They hugged and kissed, wept and cried. Then, together with the beautiful lady who’d been a filly, they departed. Everyone was overjoyed to have them back, and from that time on they were always together and as happy as happy could be.



  The Florentine

  There was once a Florentine who went out every evening into society and listened to the talk of people who had traveled and seen something of the world. He never had anything to tell them, however, for he’d never been away from Florence a day in his life and therefore felt like a perfect blockhead.

  He was thus filled with the urge to travel and knew no peace until he had sold all his belongings, packed his bags, and set out. He walked all day long and at dusk requested shelter for the night at the house of a priest. The priest invited him to supper and inquired, as they ate, the reason for the man’s journey. Upon learning that the Florentine was traveling solely to come back to Florence with something to talk about, he said, “I, too, have often had such a desire. If you like, we can travel together.”

  “Fine!” said the Florentine. “I never dreamed I’d be so lucky as to have a traveling companion.”

  The next morning they set out together, the Florentine and the priest.

  At nightfall they came to a farm and requested shelter. The farmer asked, “What is the purpose of your journey?” Hearing their account he, too, felt the urge to travel and left at daybreak with them.

  The three had gone quite some distance, when they came to the palace of a giant. “Let’s knock on the door,” proposed the Florentine, “so when we go back home we can tell about a giant.”

  The giant answered the door himself and invited them in. “If you’ll stay with me,” he told them, once they were inside, “I can certainly use a priest in the parish and a farmer on the farm. Although there’s no particular need for a Florentine, a place can be found for him too.”

  The three men talked the matter over. “No doubt about it, working for a giant, we’d see some pretty unusual things. Goodness knows how much we’d have to talk about afterward!” So they accepted his offer. He led them off to bed, with the understanding that all the details would be worked out the next morning.

  The next morning the giant said to the priest, “Come and let me show you the parish records.” They went into a room and closed the door. The Florentine, who had a great deal of curiosity and feared that he might miss something interesting, put his eye to the keyhole. As the priest bent over the records, the giant raised his sword, cut off his head, and threw the remains through a trapdoor.

  This will certainly be something to tell back in Florence! thought the Florentine. The only trouble is, people won’t believe me when I tell them.

  “I have put the priest where he belongs,” announced the giant. “Now I’ll look after the farmer. Come along and let me show you the records of the farm.”

  Unsuspecting, the farmer followed the giant into that same room.

  Through the keyhole the Florentine saw him bend over the records and the giant’s sword come down on his neck. Then the farmer’s remains went through the trapdoor.

  The Florentine was gloating over how many extraordinary things he would now be able to tell back home, when it suddenly occurred to him his turn would be next; in that case he wouldn’t get to tell a single thing. More and more he felt like running away, when the giant emerged from the room and said he would have lunch before looking after the Florentine. They sat down to the table, but the Florentine was thinking so hard about how to escape that he couldn’t swallow a thing.

  Now the giant had one eye that squinted. At the end of lunch, the Florentine spoke. “What a pity! You are so handsome, but that eye there . . . ”

  The giant was ill at ease whenever anyone noticed that eye, and he began blinking, frowning, and squirming in his chair.

  “I know of an herb,” continued the Florentine, “which cures every eye disorder. I think I even saw some growing on the lawn of your park.”

  “Really?” replied the giant. “There’s some right here at the palace? Let’s go get it at once!”

  He led him through the palace and onto the lawn, while the Florentine carefully noted where the keys were kept and how to get out when the time came to flee. On the lawn he picked a common weed. They went back inside, and he put it on to boil in a pot of oil.

  “This is going to hurt very badly,” he told the giant. “Can you stand the pain without moving a muscle?”

  “Of course I can!” answered the giant.

  “To make sure you keep perfectly still I’d better tie you to this marble table. If I don’t, you’ll be sure to move, and the operation will be a failure.”

  As he was anxious to get that eye corrected, the giant consented to being tied to the marble table. When he was all bound up like a sausage, the Florentine poured the pot of boiling oil into his eyes, blinding him. Then in a flash he was down the steps, rejoicing to himself. “This, too, will I relate!”

  The giant let out a howl that shook the whole house, jumped up with the marble table bound to his back, and ran after the man as best he could. But realizing he would never catch him now, he fell back on a trick. “Florentine!” he yelled. “O Florentine! Why are you running away from me? Don’t you want to finish the operation? How much will you take to finish it? Would you like this ring?” He threw him a ring. It was an enchanted ring.

  “How about that!” said the Florentine. “I’ll take this back to Florence and show it to anybody who doesn’t believe me!” But he’d no sooner picked it up and slipped it on than his finger turned to marble and weighted him completely to the ground. There he lay motionless, for the finger weighed tons and tons. He vainly tried to pull his finger out of the ring, but it stuck fast to him. The giant was almost upon him. At his wit’s end, the Florentine pulled out his pocketknife and cut off the finger. That way he escaped and the giant caught him no more.

  He reached Florence with his tongue hanging out, and gone forever was his urge not only to travel far and wide but also to talk about his journeys. As for the finger, he said he had cut it off mowing the grass.



  Ill-Fated Royalty

  There was a king in Naples who had three sons. Being an old man, he decided to give his eldest son the queen of Scotland as a wife. Shortly after his son’s marriage the old king died, and the son inherited the throne. But the other two brothers could not bear being ruled by him, and their hatred grew to the point that they resolved to kill him. They thought of all the ways to do so, and finally one of them suggested, “Let’s set fire to the palace. Everyone inside, including the king, will perish. Then we’ll build ourselves another palace.” So the two of them, in league with other rogues in the city, formed a plot to burn down the royal palace. But one of the conspirators had a change of heart and turned the king’s spy. Seeing that, the other conspirators realized they hadn’t a minute to lose, so they surrounded the palace and set fire to it.

  When the queen, who happened to be downstairs, saw the flames, she leaped from the window into the garden with Elizabeth, her maid of honor. At the end of the garden was a door, through which they passed into safety. From a distance the palace was seen going up in smoke and flames along with all those who were trapped inside.

  The two women entered a forest. They walked the whole day, but the queen, who was expecting a baby, grew very tired. Toward evening they ran into twelve murderers. “You women there! What are you doing in this forest?”

  “Misfortune has driven us here,” answered the queen.

  The murderers seized the maid of honor, bound her to a tree, and left her there, while they took th
e queen home with them to keep house and cook for them. They also showed her their medicine cabinet, in case they should ever come in wounded. One day when the queen was by herself and looking in the cabinet, she found a bottle labeled POISON: CAUSES DEATH WITHIN TWELVE HOURS. She took the bottle and sprinkled all the food with its contents. When the murders came home to dinner, she put everything on the table and fled. Off their guard, the murderers ate and were poisoned to death.

  The queen went through the forest looking for her maid of honor, but found no trace of her, near or far. She was tired and in pain. In the heart of the forest she came upon a hollow tree, went in to rest, and all at once labor pains started, and she gave birth to a boy. She stayed inside the tree all night nursing him. In the morning two shepherds passing by heard the baby crying and went up to the tree. Seeing the woman with the newborn baby, they gave her their assistance, carried her home with them, and said, “Here you will be the lady of the house, and we will provide for you.” So the queen, with her little son, dwelled in the shepherds’ house, while back in Naples her two treacherous brothers-in-law lived in their newly built palace and reigned undisturbed.

  The shepherds were rich and had a big house. One day while they were out, the queen decided to look around.

  She opened a door and saw a very long flight of stairs. Climbing it, she came to a door already ajar and pushed it open. There sat a pensive youth, with his face in his hands. The queen made a move to withdraw, but he raised his head and told her to come in. They asked each other how they happened to be in that house, and told each other their stories.

  “I am the son of the king of Portugal,” said the youth. “My father and his chamberlain both got married the same day. The day I was born, the chamberlain’s wife gave birth to a baby girl. From the beginning, we children were together, and as we grew up we fell in love with each other. No one knew about our love, but I swore I would never go to the altar with any girl but my lovely Adelaide. Meanwhile my father had grown old and decided to marry me off. He sent ambassadors to the queen of England to conclude the marriage. I didn’t have the courage to say I loved Adelaide and let the negotiations continue. One day I was finally forced to tell her I was about to marry another girl. No memory is more bitter to me than the pain and wrath of my beloved on hearing my confession. Hopeless and indignant, she dismissed me, and I deserved it. Meanwhile my father went on with lavish preparations for the wedding. He had three entrances made into the banquet hall: one for princes, one for maids of honor, and one for pages. During the ceremony the bride observed my distress.

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