Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

Fioravante replied, “I am the son of the king of London, and I’m going to my uncle, the king of Paris, to get an education.”

  “If you want me to spare you, change clothes with me and pretend I am you and that you are my servant, so that the king of Paris will take me for his nephew. But give me away, and I’ll kill you. Is that clear?”

  “Quite!”

  They went to Paris. The uncle welcomed the murderer, thinking him to be the nephew he was expecting. Fioravante was put in the stable to curry the horses and eat fodder with them.

  One day the murderer said to the king, “All kings have fine teams for their carriages, and you don’t How come?”

  “I could have the finest teams of all the kings in the world,” explained the king, “but the horses are wild and graze in a herd in the meadows. No one has ever managed to capture a team for my carriage.”

  “My servant,” answered the murderer, “can capture all the teams you want, or at least he boasts he can.”

  “Let him try,” said the king, “but if he fails, his head will roll!”

  The murderer ran to Fioravante and said, “The king has decided you are to get him a team of horses from his herd grazing in the meadows. And if you fail, you will be beheaded.”

  Fioravante, who was tired of staying in the stable all the time, saddled a horse and rode to the meadows. On the way he passed through a garden full of all kinds of flowers and plants; riding near an oak he heard a voice that sounded like a woman’s saying, “Fioravante! Fioravante!”

  He was quite surprised, for this was the first time he had ever been in these parts, and he didn’t see how anybody could know his name. “Who is it?” he asked, and out of the oak’s trunk walked a beautiful filly, who said, “Don’t be afraid! If you want to carry off a team from the herd, leave your horse and get on my back.”

  Fioravante tied his horse to a tree, mounted the filly, and rode bareback to the meadows. He went up to the herd, threw out his lasso, caught two horses, and put a halter on them as easily as you please.

  When the king saw the team, which was the most beautiful anybody had ever beheld, he said to the murderer, “That’s a superior man you have there for a servant. But let’s see now if he can break them.”

  Following the filly’s advice, Fioravante by means of a beater used in threshing grain taught the horses to be quiet and obedient.

  The king said, “I’m going to have that servant of yours to dinner.”

  But the murderer objected. “Sovereign uncle, it is better not to do that, since he’s accustomed to eating fodder like the horses, and if he tastes something different, there’s no telling what ideas he might get.” He thus persuaded the king not to invite Fioravante, and every chance he got he would say, “Sovereign uncle, you are getting on in years, unfortunately. Who will inherit your crown? You have no sons, and I would hate to end up with it myself . . . ”

  “Sons have I none,” replied the king. “But I had a daughter as fair as day, who died when she was fourteen. I’ve never even visited her tomb, as she’s buried in a convent far, far away, in India. And I still mourn her.”

  “Don’t cry, Majesty,” said the false nephew. “My servant says he can bring your daughter back safe and sound.”

  “But who on earth is this servant to raise the dead?”

  “I’m just going by what he says,” replied the murderer.

  “Your servant boasts too much. Tell him he’d better make good his boast, for his head will surely roll if he fails to bring me Isolina.”

  Fioravante had his filly, who said to him, “Don’t be discouraged. Go to your master and ask him for a goblet of pure crystal; a solid gold cage with gold sticks, bars, and drinking trough; and a ship that doesn’t leak the least bit.”

  Fioravante went to the murderer and explained it all to him, and the king ordered everything readied.

  Fioravante set sail for India, with his faithful filly aboard the ship. In the middle of the sea he saw a fish jumping up out of the water. “Catch it!” said the filly, and Fioravante reached out and grabbed the fish at its next leap. “Put it in the crystal goblet now,” said the filly.

  After disembarking in India, they set out for the convent. A bird swooped down, and the filly said, “Catch it!” Fioravante seized it and was then told: “Put it in the gold cage.”

  They reached the convent, and Fioravante asked the abbess where Isolina, the daughter of the king of Paris, was buried. The abbess lit a taper, led him into church, pointed to the tomb, and left him there. Fioravante began digging. He dug and dug, and under the earth appeared the king’s daughter adorned in gold and diamonds and as fresh as a sleeping maiden. He went to lift her from the tomb, but she stuck fast, as though she had become part of the stone. He then sought advice from the filly waiting outside the church. The filly said, “Isolina is missing a blond tress from around her head. Without it she cannot be torn from the tomb. Ask the nuns where they put it. When she gets it back, she will come off the stone as easily as a rose petal.”

  Fioravante went and knocked on the abbess’s door and asked about the tress. “The tress was lost at sea,” explained the abbess, “during the journey to the convent for burial.”

  At that, the filly said, “What you now must do is throw the fish you have in the goblet back into the sea, telling him to bring you in exchange for his freedom Isolina’s tress.”

  The tress was at the bottom of the sea, where two dolphins were engaged in a tug of war with it. Set free, the fish swam swiftly between them, seized the tress in his mouth, and made off with it. The dolphins both hoisted their tails, wondering where in the world the tress had gone. In revenge they began eating right and left all the little fish they met. In the meantime the fish brought the tress to Fioravante waiting on shore. He thanked him and let him go.

  Fioravante put the tress around Isolina’s head, bent down to raise her, and she came up as light as a feather. He carried her aboard the ship, but she was dead, and Fioravante wondered if seeing her come home like that wouldn’t heighten her father’s present grief. But the filly said, “Go ask the abbess where Isolina’s soul is. When she has it back, the maiden will breathe again.”

  The abbess said, “Isolina’s soul is too far away for anyone to get. It is at the top of a mountain as steep as a tower and so high up that, to reach it, you would have to go through red air, green air, and black air, and contend with wild beasts of every species and nation.”

  “What am I to do?” Fioravante asked the filly.

  “Let the bird out of the gold cage.”

  The bird soared upward all the way to the red air, turning solid red; then penetrated the green air, turning solid green; and from there passed into the black air, turning solid black. Above the black air rose the mountain peak, where Isolina’s soul rested enclosed in a little phial. The bird took the phial in its beak, swooped back down through the air, again turning black, then green, then red, and landed on Fioravante’s deck with the phial. Fioravante set the bird free and emptied the phial into Isolina’s mouth. Isolina drew a deep breath, the color flowed back to her cheeks, and she spoke. “Oh, how I have slept!”

  The anchor was drawn up, and the ship set sail.

  The king was at the port of Paris waiting for them. As soon as he saw that Fioravante had brought his daughter back alive, he was beside himself with joy, and said to the false nephew, “There’s no finer man on earth than your servant!”

  He gave orders for a grand banquet, with kings and queens as guests, and he also wanted the servant to be present. This time the false nephew failed to sway him with the fodder argument and had no choice but to extend the invitation. But he told Fioravante, “You are not to open your mouth at the table. You are used to living with the horses, so you will neigh. Is that clear?” The look he gave Fioravante plainly warned that he would kill him at the first word the youth said.

  When Fioravante told the filly, she advised: “Do as you like. But tell the king. ‘I’ll come to the banquet only if yo
u invite my filly, too.’”

  Upon hearing that strange condition, the king was of a mind to refuse, but the man had brought his daughter back to life, so he wasn’t in a position to quibble and consented. Finding themselves at the same table with the servant and his filly, all the kings and queens were quite puzzled. Once they finished eating and drinking they began talking, with everybody joining in. Only Fioravante remained silent.

  “How can you be so quiet,” they asked him, “after all the experiences you’ve had?” He smiled, but kept his mouth shut.

  At that, the filly reared and, placing her front hoofs on the table, spoke: “With your permission, ladies and gentlemen, I shall speak for him.”

  Hearing a filly talk frightened everyone to death. But they were still more astounded by Fioravante’s story, which she told from beginning to end. The false nephew made a move to flee, but was seized by the guards at once.

  The king said, “Fioravante, my nephew, take this murderer and punish him as he deserves.”

  “All Fioravante has to do,” said the filly, “is mount me, with the murderer tied to my tail. We’ll go for a romp through the city. If the man comes back alive, fine for him.”

  They broke into a trot, dragging the murderer right along with them, kicking him right and left, splashing him with mud, and banging him against every stone in the path. When they returned, the murderer was no longer breathing.

  The king said, “Fioravante, you brought my daughter back to life. It is right for you to marry her.”

  “If my father permits me to marry my cousin,” replied Fioravante, “I will do so.”

  The king of Paris wrote to London to his brother, who was overjoyed that his son had forgotten about the weaver.

  After the wedding Fioravante went to the filly and said, “Guess what: I’ve married the king’s daughter.”

  “I know,” said the filly. “There’s no more hope for me now . . . ”

  “What do you mean, filly? I’ll always cherish you, I’ll never abandon you . . . ”

  “Yes, you will, you’ll forget all about me . . . ”

  That night, before retiring with his bride, Fioravante wanted to go and say good night to the filly, as he did every evening. Isolina objected. “It’s dark now, you can go see her tomorrow.” Fioravante agreed. In the morning when he went down to the stable, the filly said, “You see? You are forgetting me . . . ”

  “But, filly . . . ”

  “All right, here’s the last test to see if you love me: take your sword and cut off my head.”

  “No! Never!”

  “That means you don’t love me.”

  With a heavy heart, Fioravante raised his sword and whack! cut off her head in one sweep. And what did he then see? From the filly’s neck emerged, fully dressed, a lovely maiden, white and rosy like an apple. It was Sandrina the weaver, his first love. “You see, Fioravante,” she said, “to save your life I had a sorceress cast a spell over me, and I took the form of a filly. And now you have abandoned me . . . ’

  “O Sandrina! Had I known it was you, I would never have married Isolina! If only I could go back in time!”

  But that was impossible, so to make amends, he gave Sandrina a rich dowry and married her to a merchant of Fiesole, while he remained king of London and Paris and the spouse of beautiful Isolina with the blond tress.

  (Pisa)

  80

  Fearless Simpleton

  A man had a nephew who was as stupid as could be. The boy understood nothing; on the other hand, nothing frightened him. Now the man left home, instructing his nephew to watch out for robbers and not let them steal any belongings from the house. The boy began wondering. “What are robbers? What are belongings? I’m afraid of nothing.”

  The robbers appeared and said, “What are you doing here, boy? We have come to rob you.”

  “So what are you waiting for? Go on and rob me. Is anybody stopping you? Do you think I’m afraid?” And he let them steal everything in the house.

  The uncle returned and found the house ransacked. He asked his nephew, “Did you send for the robbers?”

  “Me? I was here on the doorstep. The robbers came. They said, ‘What are you doing here? We have come to rob you.’ ‘And who’s stopping you?’ I said to them. ‘How dumb can you be!’ So they went ahead and robbed us. I had nothing to do with it.”

  The man thought of his priest brother, who could perhaps teach the boy something. “You are going to your priest uncle,” he told him.

  “What is a priest uncle? I don’t know of any priest uncles or anybody else. If we must go to my priest uncle, let’s go!”

  The first evening the priest uncle said to him, “Tonight you will go and put out the lights in church.”

  The nephew replied, “What are lights? What is a church? I don’t know of any lights or any church. I’ll go wherever you say, I’m afraid of nothing.”

  The uncle had given instructions that while his nephew was putting out the lights, the sacristan was to lower a basket of flaming candles and say, “Get into the basket, whoever wants to see the kingdom of heaven.”

  The nephew saw the basket, heard the voice, and said, “What heaven? What heaven? I don’t know of any heaven. Wait, let me get in.”

  He took a knife and cut the rope. The sacristan went to pull up the basket and ended up with nothing but rope.

  The next evening the priest uncle ordered the sacristan to get into a coffin and pretend to be dead, in order to frighten the nephew. “Tonight,” he told the boy, “you are going to wake a dead man.”

  “What is a dead man? What is wake? I’ll go anywhere.” And he went into church to wake the dead man. A small candle flickered near the corpse, while the rest of the church was pitch-dark. The corpse slowly raised one leg. The boy watched and didn’t move a muscle.

  The dead man raised his head, and the boy yawned. Then the dead man spoke: “You, there! I’m still alive!”

  The boy replied, “If you are alive, you are going to die now.” He picked up a candle-snuffer, struck him on the head, and killed him. Then he went back and told his priest uncle, “That dead man hadn’t finished dying, so I finished him off myself.”

  (Leghorn)

  81

  The Milkmaid Queen

  There was once a king and queen who had no children. A little old woman told their fortune. “You may choose between having a son who will leave home and never be seen again, or a daughter whom you’ll manage to keep until she’s eighteen, provided you watch her closely.”

  The king and queen settled for the daughter, who in due time came into the world. The king had a magnificent underground palace built, and there the little girl was reared without the slightest notion of what was aboveground.

  Upon reaching her eighteenth year, she begged her governess to open the door for her, and the governess finally obeyed. The girl walked through the door and found herself in the garden. She was charmed at the sight of the sun, which she saw for the first time, and with the various hues of the sky and the flowers. But a bird with large wings swooped down from the sky, took her in his claws, and flew off with her.

  On and on he flew, finally landing on a farmhouse and leaving the girl on the roof. Two farmers, a father and his son, were in the field at the time and saw something gleaming on the roof of their house. They climbed a ladder to the roof and found a maiden wearing a crown of sparkling diamonds. Now the farmer had five daughters who were milkmaids, and he kept the maiden at home with them. Every month they sold a diamond from the crown, and that supported the whole family.

  When the diamonds were all gone, the maiden said, “I don’t want to live off of you, Mamma [as she now called the farmer’s wife]. Go to the queen of this country and have her give you something to be embroidered.”

  The woman went, but the queen said, “How do you expect one of your daughters who’s always been a milkmaid to embroider?” She scornfully gave her a bit of canvas, which the girl embroidered so exquisitely that the quee
n was speechless when the farmer’s wife returned it. The woman went home with two gold coins and a dustcloth which the girl was to embroider next. A few days later the farmer’s wife carried a masterpiece of embroidery to the queen, who gave her three gold coins and an old torn skirt. When the skirt was returned, it looked like part of an evening dress.

  “But where on earth did your daughter learn to embroider so beautifully?” asked the queen.

  “The nuns taught her.”

  “That may well be, but this is no country girl’s work. No matter, I want her to embroider all my son’s wedding clothes.”

  Upon learning that this milkmaid was embroidering his wedding clothes, the king’s son just had to meet her and went to her while she was working. Being a rather mischievous young man, he got on her nerves. One day he took her quite by surprise and kissed her. At that, the milkmaid aimed her embroidery needle at his chest, thrust it into his heart, and killed him.

  The maiden was led before the tribunal, which was made up of the king’s four daughters. The oldest proposed a death sentence; the second life imprisoinment; the third twenty years; whereas the youngest, who was the most kind-hearted and understood that her brother had brought it on himself, recommended imprisonment for eight years in a tower with the prince’s body, the constant sight of which should make the girl repent. The youngest daughter’s counsel prevailed, and the maiden was led to the tower. As she passed, the king’s youngest daughter whispered, “Don’t be afraid. I will help you.”

  True to her word, she sent the prisoner in the tower the choicest dishes from the court table every day.

  The prisoner had been closed up in the tower three years, when there appeared in the sky the bird with the large wings that had kidnapped her. It lit on top of the tower, built a nest, and laid eggs which hatched into ten baby birds. “Bird, O bird,” said the prisoner daily, “take me away from here the same as you took me away from home.”

 
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