Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Next to the tower stood the palace of the king’s three older daughters. One day while they were at the window they overheard the maiden’s words and reported them to the king.

  “Knock that bird from the tower,” ordered the king. The guards shoved the nest off the tower with their lances, and the ten baby birds fell out and were crushed to death upon hitting the ground.

  That evening the prisoner saw the big bird hovering over the dead baby birds, with a tuft of special grass in its beak. It stroked them with the grass, and the birds revived. “Bird, O bird,” said the prisoner, “bring me some of that miraculous grass!”

  The bird flew off and returned with a tuft of grass in its talons. The maiden took it and ran to stroke the body of the king’s son with it. Little by little, the king’s son revived. I don’t know which of the two was the happier: they embraced, kissed, and made much fuss over each other.

  They didn’t tell a soul the good news, except the king’s youngest daughter who, in her elation over the wonderful surprise, sent them all kinds of delicacies every day; since her brother requested a guitar, she sent that, too.

  Now, the two lovers locked in the tower spent their time playing the guitar and singing. In the palace next door the three older daughters of the king heard this guitar music and singing, and decided to go and see what was up. But the king’s son stretched back out in his coffin, and the maiden feigned total bewilderment. The sisters went home none the wiser, but that night they once more heard music and singing coming from the tower.

  They kept after the king until he ordered the prisoner moved to another prison. When the guards went for her, whom did they see emerge but the maiden arm in arm with the king’s son, who was alive and as sound as a bell.

  The whole royal family, looking out the window, was dumbfounded.

  “Papa, Mamma, sisters,” said the king’s son, “I would like to introduce my bride.” His little sister clapped for joy.

  But the idea of having a milkmaid for their sister-in-law was more than the three older sisters could bear, and they lost no opportunity to mock and humiliate her.

  “Before the wedding,” said the bride, “I must go home and see my parents. Tell me what gifts you want me to bring you.”

  “Uh . . . a bottle of milk!” said the first sister-in-law.

  “Ah . . . bring me some ricotta!” said the second sister-in-law.

  “Eh . . . I’ll take a basket of garlic!” snapped the third sister-in-law.

  The milkmaid departed, but she didn’t return to the farm; she went home to her real father, the king who had kept her closed up so long in the palace underground. One week later she returned to her bridegroom in a handsome carriage drawn by white horses. “What! The milkmaid in a carriage?” exclaimed the sisters-in-law, upon seeing her drive up.

  Out stepped the milkmaid holding the presents. To her first sister-in-law she handed the milk; it was in a silver bottle wrapped in gold cloth. The second sister-in-law got the ricotta, silver ricotta in a gold basket. To the third sister-in-law she handed the basket of garlic—diamond cloves and emerald leaves.

  “And you brought nothing to me who’ve always loved you dearly?” asked the youngest daughter.

  The milkmaid opened the carriage door, and out stepped a handsome youth. “This is my little brother who was born while I was away from the court. He will be your husband.”

  (Leghorn)

  82

  The Story of Campriano

  There was once a man, a tiller of the soil, named Campriano. He had a wife and a mule. Yokels from backward Ciciorana sometimes passed through the field he was working and called to him, “Hey, Campriano, what are you doing?” They would ask him if he was ready to go home, and frequently he and his mule would walk a little way with them.

  One morning Campriano slipped a few gold pieces he had saved into his mule’s rear end. When the yokels from Ciciorana came by, Campriano said, “Wait for me, I’m going home, too.” He loaded his things onto the mule and joined the group in conversation. It was springtime and the fresh grass relished by animals abounded, so the mule, which had eaten his fill, soon cut loose and dropped the money his owner had hidden in him.

  The yokels from Ciciorana exclaimed, “Why, Campriano, your mule makes droppings of money!”

  “That’s right,” replied Campriano. “Without him, I’d never manage. He’s my fortune.”

  Right off the bat they said, “Campriano, you must sell him to us! You must!”

  “I’m not selling him.”

  “But if you did, what would you ask for him? A whole lot?”

  “I wouldn’t sell him for all the money in the world. You’d have to offer me . . . no less than three hundred crowns.”

  The yokels of Ciciorana dug into their pockets and all together came up with three hundred crowns. They led the mule away, and the minute they got home they told their wives to spread sheets in the stable to catch all the gold that would be dropped during the night.

  In the morning they ran to the stable and found the sheets loaded with manure. “Campriano has cheated us! We’ll kill him!” With that, they grabbed up pitchforks and shovels and marched off to Campriano’s house.

  His wife answered the door. “Campriano isn’t here, he’s out in the vineyard!”

  “We’ll get him out of the vineyard!” they shouted, and marched on. At the vineyard, they called to him. “Come out, Campriano! We are going to kill you!”

  Campriano emerged from the rows of vines. “Why?”

  “You sold us the mule, and he doesn’t turn out any money!”

  “Let me ask how you treated him,” said Campriano.

  “We treated him fine. He had sweet broth to drink and fresh grass to eat!”

  “Poor animal! If he’s not dead by now, he will be shortly! He’s accustomed to eating roughage that shapes into durable coins, don’t you see? Wait a minute, and I’ll come and look at him. If he’s still all right, I’ll take him back. If not, you’ll keep him and hold your peace. But first, I have to stop by my house a minute.”

  “All right! Go ahead, but come straight back. We’ll wait here.” Campriano ran to his wife and said, “Put on a pot of beans to boil. But when we return, pretend to pull it out of the cupboard while they boil. Is that clear?”

  Campriano accompanied the Ciciorana yokels to the stable and found the mule standing in the middle of the dung-laden sheets. “It’s a wonder he’s still alive,” he said. “This animal is no good for work any more. But how could you! If I’d only known you’d break him down that way! Poor thing!”

  The yokels were puzzled. “What do we do now?”

  “What do you do now? I have nothing more to say, and you shouldn’t either!”

  “You have a point!”

  “It was just one of those things. Come to my house to dinner, and let’s for get the whole business once and for all.”

  They got to Campriano’s and found the door closed. Campriano knocked, and his wife emerged from the barn, pretending to finish her chores and enter the house only at that moment.

  The fire was out in the kitchen. Campriano said, “What! You’ve not cooked my dinner yet?”

  “I just got back from the field,” she replied. “But I’ll scrape up something right away.”

  She set the table for everybody, then opened the cupboard, where the pot of beans boiled.

  “What!” exclaimed the yokels of Ciciorana. “A pot that boils all by itself in the cupboard? How does it do that without any fire underneath it?”

  “Goodness knows what we’d do without that pot!” replied Campriano. “How could my wife and I go out together to work if we weren’t sure of finding the soup ready and waiting when we got back?”

  “Campriano,” said the yokels, “you must sell it to us.”

  “Not for all the money in the world!”

  “Campriano, things didn’t work out with the mule. To make up for it, you have to sell us the pot. We’ll give you three hundred crowns.?
?? Campriano sold the pot for three hundred crowns, and they left.

  His wife said to him, “They were ready to kill you over the mule. How will you get out of this one?”

  “Leave everything to me,” said Campriano. He went to a butcher, bought an ox-bladder, and filled it with raw blood. He said to his wife, “Here, put this bladder in your bosom, and don’t be afraid when I throw a knife at you.”

  The yokels of Ciciorana arrived carrying clubs and stakes. “We want your head! Give us back our money, or we’ll kill you!”

  “Now, now, calm down! Let’s hear what it is this time.”

  “You told us that pot boiled without fire. We went out to work with our wives, and when we came back, the beans were as raw as ever!”

  “Easy, now, easy! It must be the fault of that confounded wife of mine. I’m going to ask her if she didn’t switch pots on me . . . ”

  He called his wife and asked, “Honestly, did you switch pots on these men?”

  “Of course I did. You go and give things away without asking me anything. Then I have to do the work! I don’t want to part with that pot!”

  Campriano let out a yell. “You wretch!” He grabbed a knife, flung it at her, striking the bladder hidden in her bosom, and blood squirted all over the place. Down fell the woman in a whole pool of it.

  The two yokels of Ciciorana turned as pale as ghosts. “You mean you’d kill a woman, Campriano, over a pot?”

  Glancing at his wife all covered with blood, Campriano pretended to be sorry. “Poor thing, we’ll just have to revive her!” He pulled a straw from his pocket, placed it in the woman’s mouth, blew three times into it, and the woman rose as sound and fresh as ever.

  The two yokels were wide-eyed. “Campriano,” they said, “you must give us that straw.”

  “No, indeed,” replied Campriano. “I’m often overcome with the urge to kill my wife. If I didn’t have that straw, I couldn’t revive her afterward.”

  They begged and pleaded with him and ended up giving him another three hundred crowns, so Campriano let them have the straw. They went home, picked a fight with their wives, and knifed them. They were apprehended while still blowing into the straw, and imprisoned for life.

  (Lucchesia)

  83

  The North Wind’s Gift

  A farmer by the name of Geppone lived on a prior’s farm up on a hillside where the north wind always destroyed his crops. As a result, poor Geppone and his family often went hungry. One day he made a decision. “I shall go in search of this wind that persecutes me.” He said goodbye to wife and children and headed for the mountains.

  As soon as he got to Ginevrino Castle he knocked on the door. The North Wind’s wife peeped out the window. “Who’s knocking?”

  “It’s Geppone. Is your husband there?”

  “He went out to blow through the beech trees awhile and will be back shortly. Come inside and wait for him.”

  An hour later, the North Wind returned.

  “Good day, Wind.”

  “Who are you?”

  “I’m Geppone.”

  “What do you want?”

  “Every year you ruin my crops, as you well know. All because of you, my family and I are starving to death.”

  “What did you come to me for?”

  “To ask you to make up for all the suffering you’ve caused me.”

  “What can I do?”

  “I leave that up to you.”

  The North Wind’s heart went out to Geppone, to whom he said, “Take this box and open it whenever you get hungry. Order whatever you wish and you will get it. But tell no one about the box, or you’ll lose it and end up with nothing at all.”

  Geppone thanked him and departed. Halfway home, as he went through the woods, he got hungry and thirsty. He opened the box and said, “Bring out wine, bread, and something to eat with it,” whereupon the box produced a hearty loaf, a bottle, and a ham. Geppone had a fine feast right there in the woods and then continued on his way.

  Just before he reached his house, he met his wife and children, who had walked down the road to meet him. “How did you fare? Did things go well?”

  “Quite nicely,” he replied, leading them all inside. “Everybody sit down to the table.” He then said to the box, “Wine, bread, and all the rest for everybody here.” So they all had a fine dinner. When the meal was over, Geppone said to his wife, “Don’t tell the prior I brought this box back, or he’ll want it and take it away from me.”

  “I wouldn’t dream of it!”

  The prior sent for Geppone’s wife.

  “Your husband is back, is he? And how did everything go? Fine? I’m glad to hear it. And what did he bring back worth a mention?” Thus, one thing led to another, and before you knew it the cat was out of the bag.

  The prior sent for Geppone at once. “Geppone, my good man, I hear you have a very valuable box. May I see it?” Geppone was inclined to deny the whole story, but now that his wife had blabbed, what could he do but show the priest the box and how it worked.

  “Geppone, you just have to give it to me.”

  “Then what will I do?” replied Geppone. “You know I lost all my crops and have nothing to eat.”

  “If you give me the box, I’ll give you all the grain you want, all the wine you can drink, and whatever else you ask for.”

  Geppone, poor soul, gave in. And what did he get in return? The prior let him have a few sacks of wretched seed, and that was that. Geppone was again as badly off as ever, and all because of his wife, mind you. “You caused me to lose the box,” he said, “and to think that the North Wind advised me not to mention that box to a soul! Now I’d never have the nerve to go back to him.”

  In the end, though, he took heart and set out for the castle. He knocked, and the Wind’s wife looked out. “Who’s there?”

  “Geppone.”

  Then the Wind also looked out. “What do you want, Geppone?”

  “You remember the box you gave me? Well, my landlord took it away from me and won’t give it back, and now I live in hunger and poverty.”

  “I told you to tell no one about the box. So go away, since I’m giving you nothing more.”

  “Please, you alone can make good this loss.”

  A second time the Wind’s heart went out to Geppone, and he pulled out a gold box and gave it to him. “Don’t open this one unless you are famished. Otherwise it won’t obey you.”

  Geppone thanked the Wind and headed home through the valleys with the box. Hunger soon got the better of him, and he opened the box and said, “Provide!”

  Out of the box jumped a big, strapping man holding a club and began thrashing poor Geppone for dear life.

  As soon as he could, Geppone shut the box and continued on his way, all stiff and bruised. To his wife and children who’d come down the road to meet him and find out how things went, he said, “All right. I brought back a finer box than the other one.” He sat them around the table and opened the gold box. This time, out came not just one, but two big, strapping men with clubs and set upon the family. The wife and children screamed for mercy, but the men didn’t let up until Geppone got the box closed.

  “Now go to the prior,” he instructed his wife, “and tell him I brought back a much nicer box this time than the last.”

  The wife went, and the prior asked her the usual questions. “So Geppone’s back? What did he bring home this time?”

  “Just imagine, Prior, he brought a nicer box than the other one. It’s solid gold, and the beautifully cooked dinners it serves are a dream. But Geppone wouldn’t part with this box for the world.”

  The priest sent for Geppone at once. “Geppone, Geppone, you don’t know how glad I am you’re back. And with another box. Show it to me.”

  “If I do, you’ll take this one away from me, too.”

  “No, I won’t, I promise.”

  Geppone showed him a corner of the glittering box. The priest couldn’t contain himself a second longer. “Geppone, gi
ve it to me, and I’ll give you back the other one. What do you need with a gold box? I’ll give you the other one for it and then something.”

  “All right, return the other one, and I’ll give you this one.”

  “Agreed.”

  “But beware of opening this box, Prior, unless you are famished.”

  “This box couldn’t come my way at a better time,” said the prior. “I’m expecting the bishop tomorrow and many other priests. I’ll keep them all fasting till noon, then open the box and offer them a big dinner.”

  In the morning, after saying their Masses, all the priests started milling around the prior’s kitchen. “He refuses us breakfast this morning,” they said. “Just look, the fire’s out, and the larder’s empty.”

  But those in the know said, “Just you wait! At dinner time he’s going to open a box and serve a meal finer than any we could imagine.”

  In marched the prior and seated everybody around the table, in the center of which gleamed the gold box, with all eyes now upon it. The prior opened the box, and out leaped six strapping men with clubs and began clubbing the priests for all they were worth. Under that onslaught the prior dropped the box, which lay open on the floor, so the men went on pounding the life out of the dinner guests. Geppone, who was hiding nearby, noticed the box and shut it. Otherwise the men would have beaten the priests to death. So that was the meal they got, and it appears that they were unable to say their office in the evening. Geppone kept both boxes, never lent them out again, and from that day on lived a life of ease.

  (Mugello)

  84

  The Sorceress’s Head

  There was once a king who had no children. He was always imploring heaven to send him a child, but all his prayers were in vain. One day he had gone to pray as usual, when he heard a voice. “Do you want a boy who will die, or a girl who will flee?”

  He didn’t know what to say and kept silent. He went home, sum moned all his subjects, and asked what reply he should make. They answered, “If the boy is to die, that’s the same as having no child. Ask for the girl. You can keep her under lock and key and she can’t flee.”

 
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