Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “‘Listen,’ she said to me, ‘if you are not marrying me of your own free will, I’ll gladly go back home.’”

  “With courtesy, I told her I was gloomy by nature. And I married her. After the wedding we took our places on the throne. The whole court filed by, with all the princes advancing through one door, maids of honor through another, and pages through the third. The last page was a lad dressed in white, with a large bouquet of flowers. He came to the foot of the throne, bowed, and mounted the steps to offer the flowers to the bride. As she reached out for them, the little page drew a dagger from the flowers and stabbed her right there on the throne beside me. The page was seized by the guards and carried before my father. No sooner did he Stand before the king than he drew out a second dagger and planted it in his own heart. Upon trying to revive him, they discovered the page was a woman; I bent over her and immediately recognized Adelaide, who was already dead.

  “Upset as I was at the time, I told my father the reason for her vengeance. When he heard my account, my father, the sternest of men, ordered me locked up in a tower and the keys thrown into the sea. There I remained until I managed to slide down a long rope and flee into the forest. After walking for miles I came to a hollow tree trunk and fell asleep inside it. The next morning I was awakened by two shepherds who took pity on me and brought me here, where they treat me like a son. But tell me how you ended up in this house.”

  The queen therefore told her story, and they both realized they were persecuted by fate. “Listen,” said the prince, “since death claimed your husband and my wife and chance brought us together, let’s get married. We’ll ask the shepherds for two horses and go to Scotland, your homeland.”

  The queen agreed, and they asked the shepherds, who had come home in the meantime, for two horses, promising to knight the men for all their kindness. The shepherds let out two horses, and the prince took the queen’s child into his saddle and they departed.

  They had to go over the mountains, and the trail was full of perils. The queen’s horse suddenly shied, took a false step, and went plunging into the ravines below. The poor prince saw this as one more instance of the misfortune that plagued him. Broken-hearted, he continued on to Scotland with the baby and tidings of what had happened to the queen.

  But she was not dead. She had gone over the cliff, but landed on soft ground. Although bruised, she was alive. Regaining her senses, she looked about her and, in the midst of the precipices, spied a cottage. She approached it and knocked, but no one answered. She later returned when it grew dark, and knocked again; but there was still no answer. She settled down to wait. Around midnight a man covered with hair arrived carrying on his back a load of dead animals.

  “What are you doing here?” he asked the queen.

  “I’m seeking shelter for tonight.”

  The hairy man knocked, and this time his wife opened the door. The queen stepped into the dark house, and they gave her a place to sleep. In the morning the hairy man went out hunting, and his wife brought the queen a cup of broth. Seeing the woman in the light, the queen exclaimed, “Elizabeth!” And the hairy man’s wife said, “Yes, I’m Elizabeth.”

  She was the queen’s own maid of honor. The hairy man had found her tied to the tree where the murderers had left her, and brought her home with him. Every night he came in from hunting with animals for her to skin. But he was unkind to her because she would not love him.

  The two women embraced and made a big to-do over each other, telling their stories in turn. “But how are we going to get away from here?” asked the queen. “Have you no opium?”

  “Yes, I can get some,” replied Elizabeth.

  They drugged the hairy man’s wine and, once he was sleeping, killed and buried him.

  At the bottom of the mountain was a door that led directly into Scotland, and the key to the door was in the possession of the hairy man. Elizabeth got it, opened the door, and she and the queen walked through it into Scotland. On seeing the queen, who had twice been reported dead, all of Scotland was overjoyed. The queen’s father was glad to give his daughter to the prince of Portugal, but before celebrating the wedding, he wanted to make war on the two usurpers reigning in Naples. He dispatched ambassadors to ask the prince’s father to be his ally, and the king of Portugal provided him with a good-sized army.

  Before leaving for war, all the generals gathered round the throne to swear allegiance. Beside the king stood the two betrothed as the generals each stepped forward to present their swords. When it was the general of Portugal’s turn, the queen suddenly dashed from the throne and hugged and kissed the general, and they both fainted. She had recognized him as her husband, the king of Naples, who had not died in the fire, but fled from his brothers and enlisted under a false name in the service of the king of Portugal.

  Then the queen said to the prince, “I can’t marry you, since this is my husband right here. But Elizabeth, my maid of honor, is the daughter of the king of Spain and would be fully worthy of you.”

  The prince agreed, and they sent for the king of Portugal, under the pretext that his general was ailing. The king came, and seeing his son alive whom he had given up for lost, he was greatly moved and apologized for having shut him up in the tower.

  They attacked, vanquished, and put to death the usurpers of Naples, returning the throne to the king and his queen and little son. Elizabeth married the prince of Portugal, and from then on there was no more misfortune.

  (Pisa)

  78

  The Golden Ball

  There was once a king who had three daughters. The oldest was in love with the baker who brought bread to the palace, and the baker Was in love with her. But how was he to ask for her hand? He went to the king’s secretary and explained the situation to him.

  “Have you lost your mind?” exclaimed the secretary. “The idea of a baker falling in love with the king’s daughter! Heaven help you if the king should find out!”

  “That’s just why I came to see you,” replied the baker, “so you could prepare him for the news.”

  “Heaven help us both!” sighed the secretary, putting his hands to his head. “I wouldn’t dream of telling the king. He would be furious and punish me as well as you.”

  But the baker was a persistent youth and kept after the secretary day in day out to talk to the king. To get rid of him, the secretary at last said, “Very well, I’ll speak to His Majesty; but mark my words, no good will come of it!”

  Availing himself of a day when the king was in a good humor, he said, “Majesty, if you permit, I would like to tell you something, provided you promise not to become angry with me.”

  “Go right ahead,” replied the king, and the secretary repeated the baker’s speech.

  The king turned pale. “What! How can you be so bold? Guards! Here! Seize him!” They were already on the way out with the poor secretary when the king recalled his promise not to be angry with him, so he ordered his three daughters seized instead and kept on bread and water.

  He confined them for six months. Then he decided he ought to let them get a little air and sent them out in a closed carriage with servants for a drive along the highway. When they had gone halfway, the road was suddenly enveloped in heavy fog, out of which stepped a sorcerer. He opened the carriage door, pulled the three girls out, and carried them off with him.

  When the fog lifted, the servants found the carriage empty. They called and called and searched and searched, but to no avail. They returned to the palace empty-handed, and all the king could do was issue a proclamation: whoever found the three girls would be allowed to choose one of them for his wife.

  The baker, who had been driven from the palace at once, joined two friends to travel about the world. One evening, in a forest, they found a house all lit up. They knocked, and the door swung open by itself. They went in and up the stairs, but no one was in sight. There was, however, a table laid for three, with supper ready and waiting. They sat down and ate, then found three bedrooms with be
ds turned down for the night, so they got into them and went to sleep.

  In the morning they found three shotguns next to their beds. There was food in the kitchen, but it had not yet been cooked. They decided, therefore, that two of them would go hunting while the third friend stayed behind to cook. The baker was one of the two to go hunting. The friend to stay behind went to light the fire. While he was putting in the coal, out of the fireplace bounded a golden ball and went capering around his feet. No matter what he did, the man couldn’t get out of its way. He tried kicking it off, only to have it bounce right back between his feet. The more he kicked, the harder it was to dodge the ball. Finally, at the hardest kick yet, the ball burst open, and out jumped a little hunchback brandishing a cudgel. He was a tiny hunchback who could just reach up to the man’s knees with his cudgel, but he dealt such furious blows that the man soon fell to the ground, his legs one solid bruise. Then the hunchback reentered the ball, which closed and disappeared up the chimney.

  Half dead, the man dragged himself on his hands and knees to his room and fell onto his bed. Cooking was the furthest thing from his mind. And being a wicked-hearted man, he thought to himself, Since I took a beating, my friends ought to take a beating. So when the other two returned and found him in bed and no dinner on the table, he explained, “Nothing’s wrong with me, the bad coal of this region just made me dizzy.”

  The next morning he felt better and went hunting with the baker. The other friend who stayed behind to cook went to light the fire, and out of the fireplace bounced the golden ball. This friend also tried kicking it out of the way until the little hunchback finally jumped out and beat him so badly that he, too, had to take to his bed half dead.

  “The coal made me dizzy too,” he explained when his companions came home and found no dinner waiting for them.

  “I don’t understand this,” said the baker. “I’ll try tomorrow myself and see how I feel.”

  “By all means, do! You’ll certainly be dizzy too!” said the two who had already taken the lickings.

  The next day the baker remained behind. He went to light the fire, and the ball began rolling about between his feet. He walked forward and backward, with the ball constantly bouncing around him. He stood up on a chair and the ball hopped up on the chair. He stood on top of a table, and the ball hopped up on the table. He put the chair on top of the table and then, standing on the chair, calmly plucked a chicken, allowing the ball to bounce freely in and out of the chair legs.

  In no time the ball grew tired of bouncing. It opened, and out stepped the little hunchback. “Young man,” he said, “I like you. Your friends kicked me, and you didn’t. I beat them, but I will help you.”

  “Wonderful,” said the baker. “Help me cook, then, since you’ve already made me waste enough time. Go get the wood for me and hold it while I chop it up.”

  The hunchback bent over to steady a log and the baker raised his ax, but instead of bringing it down on the log, he struck the hunchback as hard as he could on the neck and cut off his head. Then he threw the remains into the well.

  The friends returned, and the baker said, “You poor things. It was a far cry from coal! The blows are what hurt you!”

  “What! You didn’t receive any?”

  “Not a one; and what’s more, I beheaded the hunchback and threw him into the well.”

  “Go on, you don’t mean it!”

  “If you don’t believe it, let me down into the well, and I’ll bring him up to you.”

  The friends tied a rope around his waist and lowered him into the well. Halfway down the well was a large window all lit up, through which the baker saw the king’s three daughters sewing and embroidering in a locked room. Just imagine the joy of the lovers over this reunion. But the king’s daughter said to him, “Flee for your life! It’s time for the sorcerer to return. Come back tonight while he’s asleep and free us!”

  Overjoyed, the baker continued on down to the bottom of the well, picked up the hunchback’s body, and carried it up to show to his friends.

  That same night, he had them lower him into the well with a saber to free the king’s daughters. He entered by the big window, and there was the sorcerer asleep on a sofa, with the king’s three daughters fanning him. Should they stop fanning for one instant, he would awaken. “Let’s try fanning him with the saber,” proposed the baker. The sorcerer awakened, but he was already dead, with his head cut off by a sweep of the saber and sent flying to the bottom of the well.

  The king’s daughters opened the dresser drawers, which were full of sapphires, diamonds, and rubies. The baker filled a basket with them, tied it to the rope, and had his friends draw it up. Then he had the girls pulled up one by one.

  “Here, take this walnut,” said the first girl as he tied the rope around her.

  “Here, take this almond,” said the second girl when her turn came.

  The third girl was his beloved and, being the last, she was able to give him a nice kiss in addition to a hazelnut.

  It was now the baker’s turn to be pulled up, but he distrusted his two friends who had already proved untrue to him by their silence about the hunchback, so instead of tying the rope around himself, he attached it to the beheaded sorcerer. Up, up went the body, then all of a sudden crashed to the bottom of the well, since the friends had let go of the rope in order to take the king’s daughters home and tell the king they had freed them.

  Noticing that the friends had ceased pulling, the king’s daughters began shouting. “What! You’re going to leave him down there after he set us free?”

  “Hush, dears!” replied the two rogues, “if you know what’s good for you! You’ll go back to the palace with us like good girls and say yes to everything we say.”

  Thinking the men had actually rescued his daughters, the king embraced them and made a big to-do over them; although they were scarcely to his liking, he promised each of them one of his daughters. But the daughters found all kinds of excuses for putting off the wedding and waited day after day for the poor baker to return.

  Abandoned down in the well, the baker remembered the three gifts from the king’s daughters. He broke open the walnut and found the glittering clothes of a prince. He cracked the almond, and out rolled a carriage drawn by six horses. He broke open the hazelnut, and out marched a regiment of soldiers.

  So, dressed as a prince, riding one of the horses in the team, and followed by the regiment of soldiers, he journeyed from the world below ground to the world above ground and came to the city of the king.

  Learning of the arrival of such an important nobleman, the king sent ambassadors to him. “Do you come in the name of peace, or of war?”

  “Peace to those who love me, war to those who have betrayed me,” replied the baker.

  “There he is, there he is, that’s our deliverer!” shouted the king’s three daughters, who had climbed to the top of the tower to look through the telescope.

  “That’s my bridegroom, that’s my bridegroom!” exclaimed the eldest girl.

  “What does that peasant in disguise want?” said the two friends, who armed themselves and went onto the field.

  The entire regiment fired, and the two traitors fell to the ground, dead.

  The king welcomed the newcomer as the victor and the rescuer of his daughters.

  “I am the baker you dismissed, Majesty!” said the young man.

  The king was so taken aback that he abdicated, and the baker reigned happily from then on with his bride.

  (Pisa)

  79

  Fioravante and Beautiful Isolina

  A king getting on in years, with a grown son unwilling to learn a thing, grew worried and sent for the boy. “Fioravante,” he said, “I’m taking great pains to instruct you in important matters, but it’s like beating my head against a wall. How can I leave the crown to you?”

  “Dear Father,” replied Fioravante, “I’m in love with a certain maiden, and all you tell me goes in one ear and out the other.”
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  Now the maiden was Sandrina, a poor weaver, which displeased the king. “But what will people say? A king’s son in love with a weaver? Have you no sense of decorum?” He decided to write his brother, the king of Paris, to let Fioravante come to his court for a while and that way forget the weaver.

  Fioravante chose a sleek horse and set out on the journey. He was going through a dark and dense forest inhabited by wolves when the sky suddenly filled with clouds, followed by distant thunder, then lightning, and a heavy downpour. Fioravante dismounted and took shelter under his horse; he stretched out, lit his pipe, and waited for the rain to stop. When the storm was finally over he made out a small light in the distance, which led him to a cottage; he knocked and was met at the door by an old woman.

  “You have come to a place, sir, where . . . ” she began in a wheezy voice, when behind her appeared a huge man with a beard down to his chest.

  He happened to be a murderer, and asked the youth, “Who are you?”

 
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