Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  The king went back to his prayers and heard the voice. “Do you want a boy who will die, or a girl who will flee?”

  “A girl who will flee,” he replied.

  So nine months later the queen gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Many miles outside the city the king had a large park with a palace in the middle of it. He took the baby girl there and shut her up with a nurse. Her father and mother rarely visited her, so that she wouldn’t think about the city and decide to run away.

  When the maiden was sixteen, the son of King Giona came by there. Seeing her, he fell in love with her and bribed the nurse with a great deal of money to let him into the palace. Overcome with love for one another, the two young people got married without their parents’ knowing a thing about it.

  Nine months later the princess gave birth to a fine baby boy. The next time the king called on her, he was met by the nurse, whom he asked how his daughter was getting along. “Beautifully, Your Highness,” replied the nurse. “Would you believe she’s just had a baby?” The king refused to have anything more to do with the girl.

  She continued to live in her palace with her husband and their son. When the boy reached fifteen without ever having seen his grandfather, he said to his mother, “Mamma, I would like to meet my grandfather.”

  “Go to his palace, then, and meet him,” answered his mother.

  He rose bright and early, took a horse and a goodly supply of money, and departed.

  His grandfather made no fuss over him; he hardly looked at him and said nothing. Cut to the quick by such a cold welcome, the young man said three or four months later, “What do you have against me, Grandfather? Why won’t you even talk to me? For you, I’d go and cut off the sorceress’s head.”

  “That’s just what I wanted,” replied the grandfather, “for you to go and cut off the sorceress’s head.”

  Now this sorceress was so hideous that all who laid eyes on her turned to stone, and the old king was certain that would be his grandson’s fate. The youth chose a fine horse, a goodly supply of money, and departed.

  Along the way he met a little old man, who asked, “Where are you going, my boy?”

  “To the sorceress, to cut off her head.”

  “Oh, goodness me! For that you’ll need a horse that can fly, since you’ll have to go over a mountain swarming with lions and tigers that would devour you and your horse in a flash.”

  “But where can I find a horse that flies?”

  “Just a minute, and I’ll get you one,” replied the old man. He disappeared and returned with a magnificent flying horse.

  “Now listen to me,” said the old man. “You cannot look directly at the sorceress, or you’ll turn to stone. You must watch her in a mirror, which I’ll now explain how to get. Walk down the road a little way and you’ll come to a marble palace and a garden of flowering peach trees. There you will see two blind women, who have only one eye between the two of them. Those women have the mirror you need. The sorceress spends her time in a meadow full of flowers, whose scent alone is enough to cast a spell over you. Beware of it. And look at the sorceress only in the mirror, or you’ll turn to stone.”

  With the flying horse he hurdled the mountain infested with bears, tigers, and snakes, which all lunged after him. But he soared high and escaped them.

  With the mountain behind him, he traveled and traveled and finally saw a marble palace in the distance. “That must be the blind women’s palace,” he said to himself. These blind women had only one eye between the two of them, and they passed it back and forth to one another. The young man didn’t dare knock, but went for a stroll in the garden while the women ate their dinner. When they’d finished, they too strolled into the garden, and he climbed a tree so they wouldn’t see him. They were in conversation, and the one who had the eye at the moment held it up to glance about her. “Oh, you should see these fine new mansions the king has built!” she exclaimed.

  “Give me the eye,” replied her sister, “and let me look too.”

  The woman held out the eye, and the young man reached down from the tree and took it.

  “So you’re not giving it to me?” said the other sister. “You want to see everything all by yourself?”

  “But I gave it to you!”

  “No, you did not!”

  “I put it right into your hand.”

  They argued and argued until it dawned on them that neither sister had the eye. Then they said very loudly, “That means somebody’s in the garden and has taken our eye. If this person is here, please give us back our eye, since we have only one between the two of us. Name what you want in return, and we’ll reward you with it.”

  The youth then came down the tree and said, “I took the eye. You must give me your mirror in exchange for it, since I have to kill the sorceress.”

  “Gladly,” replied the blind women, “but you must first return the eye so we can find the mirror.” He courteously returned it, and the blind women went into the palace and came back out with the mirror, for which he thanked them and continued on his way.

  On and on he traveled until the air grew sweet with flowers, and the nearer he got to them, the stronger the scent became. He reached a handsome palace in the middle of a meadow full of flowers. The sorceress was strolling in the meadow. He had meanwhile mounted his horse backward and looked at her only in the mirror, with his back to her. The sorceress, who was confident of her power to turn people to stone, did not run or make any effort to protect herself. Facing the other way and looking into the mirror, he rode right up to her, swung his sword around behind him, and cut off her head. Then he put the head into a bag out of sight. It had dripped a little blood, though, which changed into serpents on contact with the ground. Thanks to the flying horse, he got safely away.

  He took a different road home, passing through a seaport along the way. Beside the sea was a chapel, which the youth entered and found a beautiful maiden dressed in mourning and weeping. At the sight of the young man, she cried, “Be gone! Be gone! If the dragon comes, he will eat you, too! I’m here waiting for him, since today it’s my turn to be eaten. He eats one person alive every day.”

  “No, no, beautiful maiden, I will free you.”

  “It’s impossible to kill a dragon like this one!” she said.

  “Don’t be afraid. Jump up on my horse,” said the youth, and helped her into the saddle.

  In that instant a great din and splashing was heard. The youth, after telling the maiden to close her eyes, pulled the sorceress’s head from the bag. Just as the dragon stuck his head out of the water, he saw the sorceress’s head, turned to stone, and sank to the bottom of the sea.

  The maiden was the king’s daughter, and the king gave her in marriage to the young man, promising to make him his heir if he stayed there. But the youth thanked him and said he already had his own kingdom to which he had to return. He took the princess with him and went first to his grandfather, who was surprised and dismayed to see him come back alive.

  “Grandfather,” said the youth, “didn’t you want me to go and cut off the sorceress’s head? I went, and I’ve brought it back to you. If you don’t believe me, just look!”

  He pulled it from the bag, and his grandfather turned to stone. Then the young man went to his parents, and they all returned to the grandfather’s kingdom.

  And there they lived a life happy and long,

  But nothing did they ever give me for my song.

  (Upper Val d’Arno)


  Apple Girl

  There was once a king and a queen who were very sad because they had no children. The queen kept asking, “Why can’t I bear children the same as the apple tree bears apples?”

  Now it happened that instead of bearing a son, the queen gave birth to an apple, but an apple redder and more beautiful than any you ever saw. The king placed it on a gold tray on his balcony.

  Across the street from the king lived a second king, who happened to be standing at his window one d
ay and saw, on his neighbor’s balcony, a beautiful maiden as fair and rosy as an apple bathing and combing her hair in the sun. Open-mouthed, he stood staring at her, never having seen so lovely a maiden. But the minute the girl realized she was being observed, she ran back to the tray and disappeared inside the apple. The king had fallen madly in love with her.

  He racked his brains and ended up crossing the street and knocking on the door, which the queen answered. “Majesty,” he said to her, “I have a favor to ask of you.”

  “By all means, Majesty,” replied the queen. “Any way neighbors can help one another out . . . ”

  “I would like to have that magnificent apple on your balcony.”

  “Do you know what you’re asking, Majesty? I’m that apple’s mother, mind you, and I had to wait a long time before I had her.”

  But the king wouldn’t take no for an answer, so the other king and queen had to grant his wish, in order for them all to remain good neighbors. Thus he went home with the apple, which he took straight to his own room. He put out everything necessary for her toilette, and the maiden would emerge every morning to bathe and arrange her hair while he looked on. That was all she did. She neither ate nor talked; she only bathed and arranged her hair, then went back inside the apple.

  The king lived with his stepmother, whose suspicions were aroused by her stepson’s constant seclusion in his room. “I’d give anything to know what my son is up to!”

  War broke out, and the king had to go off and fight. It broke his heart to leave his apple. He called his most trusted servant to him and said, “I’m leaving the key to my room with you. See that nobody goes in. Put out water and a comb every day for the apple girl, and make sure she has everything she needs. And don’t forget, she tells me everything.” (That wasn’t so, the girl never said a word, but the king thought it wise to tell his servant the contrary.) “If a hair of her head is harmed during my absence, you’ll pay with your life.”

  “Have no fear, Majesty, I will look after her to the very best of my ability.”

  As soon as the king was gone, the stepmother queen went to all lengths to get into his room. She put opium into the wine of his servant and stole the key from him when he fell asleep. She unlocked the door and turned the room upside down in search of clues to her stepson’s strange behavior; but the more she searched, the less she found. The only thing out of the ordinary in the room was that splendid apple in a golden fruit bowl. “It must be this apple that is always on his mind!”

  Queens, as you well know, always have a small dagger concealed in their sashes. She took out her dagger and began pricking the apple all over. Out of every wound flowed a rivulet of blood. The stepmother queen grew frightened, ran away, and replaced the key in the sleeping servant’s pocket.

  When the servant awakened, he had no idea what had happened to him. He ran into the king’s room and found blood all over the place. “Oh, my goodness, what will I do now?” he exclaimed and fled.

  He went to an aunt of his who was a fairy and possessed all the magic powders. The aunt took a powder suitable for apples under spells and another for bewitched maidens, and blended them.

  The servant returned to the apple and sprinkled all the wounds with the mixture. The apple burst open, and out stepped the maiden in bandages and plaster casts.

  The king came home, and for the first time, the maiden spoke. “Would you believe that your stepmother stabbed me all over with her dagger? But your servant has nursed me back to health. I am eighteen and was under a spell. If you like, I will be your bride.”

  “If I like! Indeed I do!”

  The wedding was celebrated, to the great joy of both palaces. The only person missing was the stepmother, who fled and was never heard of again.

  Merrily through life they went,

  But were only content

  To give me one cent

  I never spent.




  There was once a husband and a wife who lived in a pretty little house. And this little house had a window overlooking the fairies’ garden.

  The woman was expecting a baby and had a craving for parsley. She looked out the window and saw in the fairies’ garden a large patch of parsley. Waiting until the fairies were out, she descended into the garden by means of a rope ladder, gorged herself with parsley, then climbed back up the ladder and closed the window behind her.

  The next day, and the next, and the next, she did the same thing. Not a day went by that she didn’t eat her fill of parsley. At last the fairies, out walking in the garden, noticed that their parsley was almost all gone.

  “Know what we should do?” said one of the fairies. “Pretend we’ve all gone out, while one of us stays behind and hides. That way we’ll find out who’s stealing the parsley.”

  When the woman descended into the garden, out jumped a fairy. “Ah-ha! I’ve caught you at last, you villain!”

  “Please don’t be angry with me,” said the woman. “I crave parsley because I’m expecting a baby . . . ”

  “We will forgive you,” answered the fairy. “But if the baby is a boy you must name him Prezzemolino—that is, Little Parsley-Boy. If it is a girl, you are to call her Prezzemolina—that is, Little Parsley-Girl. And when the child is older, no matter whether it is a boy or a girl, we will take it away from you!”

  The women returned home in tears. When her husband learned of her pact with the fairies, he was furious. “You awful glutton! Don’t you see you’ve brought this on yourself?”

  The baby was a girl, Prezzemolina. In time her parents forgot all about the pact with the fairies.

  When Prezzemolina was a big girl, she started to school. And every day on her way home she met the fairies, who would say, “Child, tell Mother to remember what she owes us.”

  “Mamma,” said little Prezzemolina as she walked in, “the fairies say for you to remember what you owe them.” At those words her mother would wince, but say nothing.

  One day her mother had other things on her mind. Prezzemolina came in from school and said, “The fairies say for you to remember what you have to give them.” Without thinking, her mother replied, “Of course. Tell them to go ahead and take it.”

  The next day the child went to school. “Well, does Mother remember?” asked the fairies.

  “Yes, she said you can go ahead and take what she owes you.”

  The fairies didn’t have to be told twice. They grabbed Prezzemolina and away they flew.

  When her mother didn’t see her come home, she began to worry more and more. All of a sudden she remembered what she had told the little girl, and exclaimed, “Oh, dear! What have I done! And there’s no way to make up for it . . . ”

  The fairies took Prezzemolina to their house and showed her the grimy room where they kept their coal. “See this room, Prezzemolina? When we come home tonight, the walls must be milk-white and have all the birds of the air painted on them. Or else we’ll eat you alive.” They went off and left Prezzemolina crying her heart out.

  A knock was heard at the door. Prezzemolina went to open it, sure the fairies were back and that her time had come. But in walked Meme, the fairies’ cousin. “Why are you crying, Prezzemolina?” he asked.

  “You would cry too,” replied Prezzemolina, “if you had to make these filthy black walls milk-white and then paint all the birds of the air on them before the fairies get home! If I don’t do it, they will eat me alive!”

  “Give me a kiss,” said Meme, “and I’ll do every bit of the work myself.”

  But Prezzemolina replied:

  “Rather let the fairies eat me,

  Than allow a man to kiss me.”

  “The answer is so charming,” said Meme, “that I’ll do the work all the same.”

  He waved his magic wand, and the walls became as white as white could be, with all the birds on them, the way the fairies had directed.

  Meme went away, and the fairies came back. “Well, Pr
ezzemolina, did you get your work done?”

  “I certainly did, ladies. Come see.”

  The fairies looked at one another. “Tell the truth, Prezzemolina; our cousin Meme came by, didn’t he?”

  Prezzemolina replied:

  “I saw neither your cousin Memé

  Nor my dear mother who brought me to the light of day.”

  The next morning the fairies put their heads together. “How can we get to eat her? There must be some way . . . Prezzemolina!”

  “What is it, ladies?”

  “Tomorrow morning you are to go to Morgan le Fay and tell her to give you Handsome Clown’s box.”

  “All right,” replied Prezzemolina, and set out the next morning. After walking and walking she met Meme, the fairies’ cousin, who asked, “Where are you going?”

  “To Morgan le Fay, to get Handsome Clown’s box.”

  “But don’t you know she will eat you alive?”

  “So much the better for me. That way it will be all over.”

  “Here,” said Meme. “Take with you these two pots of grease. You’ll come to a gate that slams in your face. Grease it, and it will let you through. Also take along these two loaves of bread. You’ll come upon two dogs in a fight. Throw them the bread, and they will let you pass. Also take with you this string and awl. You will meet a cobbler pulling out his beard and hair with which to stitch shoes. Give him these things, and he will let you pass. Then take these brooms. You will meet a woman baking bread and sweeping out the oven with her bare hands. Give her the brooms, and she will let you pass. And be sure you act quickly.”

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