Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Prezzemolina took along grease, loaves, string, and brooms, which she gave to the gate, the dogs, the cobbler, and the woman baking bread. They all thanked her. Then she came to a town square and went up to knock on the door of Morgan le Fay’s palace.

  “Just a minute, child,” said Morgan le Fay, “just a minute.” But Prezzemolina knew she had to act quickly, so she flew up two flights of steps, found Handsome Clown’s box, and made off with it as fast as her legs would carry her.

  Hearing her flee, Morgan le Fay yelled out the window, “Woman baker sweeping out the oven with your bare hands! Stop that child, stop her!”

  “Would I be such a fool? She was thoughtful enough to bring me brooms, so I won’t have to sweep out the oven any longer with my hands.”

  “Cobbler stitching shoes with your beard and hair! Stop that child, stop her!”

  “Would I be such a fool? She was thoughtful enough to bring me string and awl, so I won’t have to pull out my beard and hair any longer to stitch up shoes.”

  “Dogs in a fight! Stop that child!”

  “Would we be such fools? She gave us a loaf of bread apiece!”

  “Slamming gate! Stop that child!”

  “Would I be such a fool? She greased me from head to foot!”

  So Prezzemolina got safely through. No sooner was she out of all danger than she began wondering. “Just what could be in Handsome Clown’s box?” At last she gave in to the temptation to open it.

  Out jumped a whole regiment of tiny, tiny men, who went marching off to the sound of their band, and there was no stopping them now at any cost. Prezzemolina tried her best to get them back into the box; but for every one she caught, ten others slipped away from her. She burst into tears, and just at that moment Meme arrived.

  “Curiosity killed the cat!” he said. “Now you see what a fine mess you’re in!”

  “I was just going to take a peep.”

  “There’s no way to make up for this. But if you give me a kiss, I’ll get the men back into the box.”

  She replied:

  “Rather let the fairies eat me,

  Than allow a man to kiss me.”

  “You put that so nicely that I’m going to help you all the same.” He waved his magic wand, and all the tiny men retreated into Handsome Clown’s box.

  The fairies were anything but pleased to hear Prezzemolina knock at the door. “How on earth did she ever get away from Morgan le Fay alive?”

  “A pleasant day to each of you,” she said. “Here is the box.”

  “Ah, you clever girl . . . . And what did Morgan le Fay have to say?”

  “She told me to give you her best wishes.”

  “So that’s it!” whispered the fairies to each other. “We are to eat her ourselves.” That evening Meme called on them. “Know what, Meme? Morgan le Fay didn’t eat Prezzemolina. We are to do so ourselves.”

  “Fine!” exclaimed Meme. “Wonderful!”

  “Tomorrow when she’s finished all the housework, we’ll have her put on a large laundry tub of water to boil. When the water boils we’ll grab her and throw her in.”

  “Yes, yes,” he said. “I agree, it’s a good idea.”

  When the fairies left the house, Meme went to Prezzemolina. “Listen, Prezzemolina. They intend to boil you alive in the laundry tub. But you must say there’s no wood and go to the cellar to fetch some. Then I will come in.”

  So the fairies told Prezzemolina she had to do the wash and put the tub of water on to boil. She lit the fire, then announced: “But there’s hardly any wood left.”

  “Go to the cellar and get it.”

  When Prezzemolina went down to the cellar, she heard Meme say, “I am here, Prezzemolina.”

  He took her by the hand and let her to the back of the cellar where many candles were burning. “These are the fairies’ souls. Blow them out!” She started blowing, and for each candle that went out, a fairy died.

  Finally only one candle was still burning, the biggest of them all. “This is Morgan le Fay’s soul!” They both blew with all their might until they had put it out too and become the sole heirs to everything belonging to the fairies.

  “Now you will be my bride,” said Meme, and Prezzemolina gave him the kiss he had been waiting for.

  They took up residence in Morgan le Fay’s palace, making the cobbler a duke and the baker a marquise. They kept the dogs with them at the palace and left the gate right where it was, carefully greasing it every now and then.

  Thus they lived happily ever afterward,

  But nothing did they give to me their bard.

  (Florence)

  87

  The Fine Greenbird

  There was once a nosy king who went prowling in the evenings under the windows of his subjects to hear what they said about him in private. It was a time of unrest, and the king feared the people were hatching some plot against him. Thus, lurking near a humble country dwelling at dusk, he overheard three sisters on their porch in a spirited discussion.

  The eldest said, “If I could marry the king’s baker, I would make as much bread in a single day as the court eats in a whole year, so taken am I with that handsome young baker!”

  The middle girl stated: “For my husband, I would like the king’s vintner, and you would see me intoxicate the whole court with one glass of wine, so much does that vintner delight me!”

  Then they asked the youngest girl, who held her tongue. “And whom would you marry?”

  The youngest, who was also the loveliest of the three, answered, “I would take the king himself, and I would give him two rosy-faced, golden-haired sons, and a rosy-faced, golden-haired daughter with a star on her brow.”

  Her sisters made fun of her. “Poor little thing! You ask for so little!” The nosy king, who had heard every word, went home, and the next day he sent for the three sisters. The girls were very frightened, for these were dangerous times when everyone was viewed with suspicion, and anything could happen. They got to the palace, quite upset, but the king said, “Don’t be afraid. Just tell me what you were saying last night on your porch.”

  More taken aback than ever, they stammered, “Uh . . . we were . . . uh, we weren’t saying anything.”

  “Weren’t you saying you wanted to get married?” prompted the king. And he kept on until the eldest finally repeated what she’d said about wanting to marry the baker. “Very well, you shall have him,” said the king. So the eldest girl got the baker for her husband.

  The middle girl admitted she wanted the vintner. “Your wish is granted,” said the king, and he gave her the vintner.

  “And you?” he asked the youngest. Blushing from head to toe, she told him what she had said last night.

  “If your wish to marry me came true, would you keep your promise?”

  “I would do my best,” said the girl.

  “In that case you shall become my wife, and we’ll see which of you girls is the most faithful to her word.”

  It galled the elder sisters, the baker’s and vintner’s wives, to be now so much lower in station than their lucky little sister-turned-queen-overnight, and their envy deepened when they learned that the queen was with child.

  Meanwhile, the king had to go to war against his cousin. “Remember your promise,” he said to his wife as he departed, leaving her in the care of his sisters-in-law.

  While he was at war, his wife gave birth to a rosy-cheeked, goldenhaired boy. How do you think her sisters reacted to that? They took the baby away and put a monkey in its place. They gave the baby to an old woman to drown. The old woman took the baby to the river in a basket. Reaching the bridge, she heaved her burden over the railing, basket and all.

  The basket floated downstream and was soon seen by a boatman, who rowed after it. He caught hold of it, saw that beautiful child, and took him home to his wife to nurse.

  To the king on the battlefield the sisters sent word that his wife had given birth to a monkey rather than a rosy-cheeked, golden-haired baby bo
y, and they wanted to know what they should do. “No matter whether it is a monkey or a baby boy,” replied the king, “take care of my wife.”

  When the war was over he came home, but he no longer felt the same toward his wife. He still loved her, of course; but he was disappointed she hadn’t kept her promise. Meanwhile the wife found herself expecting another child, and the king hoped things would go better this time.

  But to get back to the first baby, the boatman happened to notice the little boy’s hair one day. He said to his wife, “Just look at it! Doesn’t it look like gold?”

  The wife agreed. “It certainly does. It is gold!” They cut off a lock and went out and sold it. The goldsmith weighed it on his scales and paid them a gold sequin for it. From then on, the boatman and his wife would cut off a lock of the boy’s hair every day and sell it. In no time they were rich.

  Meanwhile the king’s cousin started another war, and the king went off and left his wife awaiting their second child. “Remember your promise!” he told her as he departed.

  This time too, while the king was away, the queen gave birth to a rosy-cheeked, golden-haired baby boy. Her sisters took the baby away and put a dog in its place. The baby was given to the same old woman, who threw him into the river in a basket, like his brother.

  “What’s going on?” asked the boatman upon seeing a second baby land in the river. Then he realized that this boy’s hair would double their fortune.

  Still at war, the king heard from his sisters-in-law. “This time, Majesty, your wife was delivered of a dog. Write us what to do with her.” By way of reply, the king wrote: “No matter whether the dog is male or female, take good care of my wife.” At last he came back to town very longfaced. But he truly loved his wife and still hoped that things would go well the third time.

  As luck would have it, the cousin declared a third war, again while the queen was with child. The king had no choice but to go. He said to his wife, “Farewell, and remember your promise. You failed to give me the two golden-haired boys. Try to give me the little girl with the star on her brow.”

  She bore the baby girl, a beautiful rosy-cheeked, golden-haired child with a star on her brow. The old woman got her little basket ready and threw the baby into the river. The sisters put a small tiger cub in bed in its place. They wrote the king about the tiger that had been born and asked what he wanted done with his wife. He wrote back: “Whatever you like, just so I never see her in the palace again upon my return.”

  The sisters pulled her out of bed and carried her down to the cellar. There they walled her up, leaving only an opening for her head. Every day they took her a morsel of bread and a glass of water, then each of them gave her a slap in the face: that was her daily meal. Her rooms were walled up, and no trace at all was left of her. When the war was over and the king came home, he never mentioned her, nor did anyone else. He was now sad all the time.

  The boatman, who had also found the little basket containing the baby girl, now had three fine children, who grew by leaps and bounds. With their golden hair, he amassed quite a fortune. One day he said, “We must now think about their future, poor dears, and build them a palace, for they are growing up.” So, right across from the king’s, he had an even larger palace built, with a garden that included all the wonders of the world.

  Meanwhile the boys had become young men, and the girl a graceful young lady. The boatman and his wife had died, and the children lived together in this handsome palace, rich beyond belief. As they always wore their hats, no one knew they had hair of gold.

  From the windows of the king’s palace, the baker’s and vintner’s wives would gaze at them, never dreaming they were the young people’s aunts. One morning these aunts saw the brothers and their little sister without their hats on, seated on a balcony, and cutting each other’s hair. It was a sunny morning, and the golden hair gleamed so brightly that it blinded you. The thought suddenly occurred to the aunts that these might be their sister’s children who had been thrown into the river. They began spying on them regularly, observing that they cut their hair every morning only to have it long again the next day. From then on, the two aunts were on pins and needles because of their crimes.

  At the same time, the king, too, had taken to studying the neighboring garden and the children that lived there. He thought to himself, Those are just the kind of children I wanted my wife to give me. They look exactly like the ones she promised me. But he hadn’t seen their golden hair, since they always kept their heads covered.

  He got into conversation with them. “What a wonderful garden you have!”

  “Majesty,” replied the girl, “we have here in this garden all the beautiful things in existence. If you deem us worthy of the honor, you are welcome to walk here.”

  “With great pleasure. Since we are neighbors, why don’t you come to my palace for dinner tomorrow?”

  “Oh, Majesty,” they said, “that would inconvenience the entire court too much.”

  “No,” insisted the king, “your visit will make us very happy.”

  “In that case, we accept and will be there tomorrow.”

  When the sisters-in-law learned of the invitation, they flew to the old woman supposed to have murdered the poor little things. “Menga, what did you really do with those babies?”

  “I threw them into the river, basket and all, but the basket was light and remained afloat. I didn’t stay to see whether it ever sank or not.”

  “Wretch!” exclaimed the aunts. “The children are alive, and the king has seen them. If he learns who they are, we are done for. You must keep them from coming to the palace and do away with them once and for all.”

  “I will,” replied the old woman.

  Disguised as a beggar woman, she paused before the gate of their garden. Just then the girl was looking around her property and saying, as usual, “What does our garden lack? Nothing, for we have right here every beautiful thing in existence!”

  “Ah, you say you have everything?” asked the old woman. “I know of one thing you lack, my child.”

  “What thing?”

  “The dancing water.”

  “Where can you get . . . ” began the child, but the old woman had disappeared. The girl burst into tears. “And here I thought we had every thing in our garden, but . . . but we don’t have the dancing water. The dancing water . . . . There’s no telling how lovely it is!” And on and on she sobbed.

  Coming home and finding her so upset, her brothers asked, “What’s the matter? Why do you weep?”

  “Please, leave me alone. I was here in the garden saying to myself that we had every beautiful thing in existence, when an old woman came to the gate and said, ‘You think you have everything, but you have no dancing water.’”

  “Is that all you’re crying about?” asked the elder brother. “I’ll go and get it myself, so you’ll be happy.” He removed the ring he was wearing and slipped it on his sister’s finger. “If the stone changes color, that’s a sign I am dead.” He then mounted his horse and galloped off.

  He had already gone a good way when he met a hermit, who asked, “Where are you going, my lad?”

  “I am seeking the dancing water.”

  “My poor child!” answered the hermit. “They are sending you to your death. Are you unaware of the danger of the quest?”

  “However dangerous it is, I must find the water.”

  “Listen to me, then,” said the hermit. “Do you see that mountain? Scale it and you will come to a large plateau, in the middle of which rises a beautiful palace. Before the front door stand four giants holding swords. Watch out: if their eyes are closed you must not go past them. Is that clear? But when their eyes open, then you can go in. About the door: if it’s open, don’t go in; if it’s closed, then push it open and walk in. You will come upon four lions: if their eyes are closed, don’t go past them; pass only when their eyes open and you will come to the dancing water.” The boy bid the hermit farewell, mounted his horse, and rode up the
mountain.

  Up there he found the palace with the front door open and the four giants with their eyes closed. “Yes, indeed, wait . . . ” he told himself. The instant the giants opened their eyes and the front door closed, he went in. He waited for the lions also to open their eyes and moved past them. There was the dancing water. The boy filled the bottle he had brought along, and the minute the lions reopened their eyes, he took to his heels.

  Just imagine the joy of the little sister, who’d spent all those days anxiously watching the ring, when her brother walked in with the dancing water. They hugged and kissed, then they placed two golden basins in the garden and poured into them the dancing water, which, to the little girl’s great delight, leaped from one basin to the other. She was sure she now had every beautiful thing in existence right there in her garden.

  The king passed by and wanted to know why they had not come to dinner; he had waited and waited for them. The little girl explained that their garden had lacked the dancing water, so her older brother had been obliged to fetch it. The king had much praise for the new addition and extended the three young people another invitation for the following day. The old woman, sent back by the aunts, saw the dancing water and felt her blood boil. “You have the dancing water now, but you still don’t have the musical tree,” she said to the little girl and vanished.

  The brothers came home. “If you love me, dear brothers, you must bring me the musical tree.”

  This time it was the second brother’s turn to say, “Why, of course, my little sister. I’ll go and get it for you.”

  He gave his sister his ring, mounted his horse, and galloped all the way to the hermit who had helped his brother.

  “Oh!” exclaimed the hermit. “The musical tree is a hard nut to crack. Here’s what you have to do: scale the mountain, beware of the giants, the front door, and the lions, just as your brother did. You will then come to a little door with a pair of scissors over it. If the scissors are closed, don’t go through the door. If they are open, go on through. You will then come upon a huge tree making music with its every leaf. Climb the tree and break off its highest branch. Plant it in your garden, and it will take root there.”

 
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