Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  The youth went up the mountain, found every sign favorable, and went in. He made his way up the tree through all the musical leaves and got the highest branch. Accompanied by its melody, he returned home.

  When it was planted, the branch became the most beautiful tree in the garden, filling it with its music.

  The king, who was rather outdone over the children’s failure to show up the second time, was so delighted with that music that he reinvited all three of them for the next day.

  The aunts at once dispatched the old woman. “You’re satisfied with the advice I gave you? The dancing water, the musical tree! Now all you need is the fine Greenbird, and you will possess every beautiful thing in existence.”

  Here came the boys. “Little brothers, who is going after the fine Greenbird for me?”

  “I am,” replied the oldest, and he was off.

  “This is truly unfortunate,” said the hermit. “So many have gone after it, and no one has come back Go to the same mountain, enter the same palace, and you will find a garden full of marble statues. They are noble knights who, like you, tried to capture the fine Greenbird. Flying through the trees in the garden are hundreds of birds. The fine Greenbird is the one that talks. He will speak to you, but don’t dare answer, regardless of what he says.”

  The youth made it to the garden full of statues and birds. The fine Greenbird perched on his shoulder and said, “So you too have come, my good knight? And you think you can catch me? You are mistaken. Your aunts send you here to your death, and they keep your mother walled up alive . . . ”

  “My mother walled up alive!” exclaimed the youth, and as he spoke he immediately became a marble statue.

  The sister never let a minute go by without looking at the ring. Seeing the stone turn blue, she screamed. “Help! He’s dying!” And the other brother jumped into his saddle and galloped away.

  He, too, reached the garden, and the fine Greenbird said to him, “Your mother is walled up alive.”

  “What! My mother walled up alive!” he cried, and turned to marble.

  The sister was looking at the second brother’s ring and saw it turn black. She did not go to pieces, but dressed up as a knight, took a phial of dancing water and a branch from the musical tree, saddled their fastest horse, and departed.

  The hermit said to her, “Look out: if you answer the Greenbird when he speaks, you are done for. Rather, pull out one of his feathers, dip it into the dancing water, and touch each statue with it.”

  When the fine Greenbird saw the maiden dressed as a knight, he perched on her shoulder and said, “You’re here, too? Now you will become like your brothers. Do you see them? One, two, and you will make three . . . Your father at war . . . Your mother walled up alive . . . And your aunts thumbing their noses at her . . . ”

  She let him run on, and the bird grew hoarse repeating his words in her ear. He was about to fly off when the maiden seized him, pulled a feather out of one of his wings, dipped it in the phial of dancing water, and passed it under the noses of her petrified brothers; they came back to life and embraced her. Next, the three of them stroked all the other statues and had a retinue of knights, barons, princes, and sons of noblemen. They made the giants sniff the feather, so the giants revived, too, and finally they brought the lions back to life. The fine Greenbird perched on the musical branch and allowed himself to be caged. In a grand procession, they all left the palace on the mountain, which magically vanished into thin air.

  When the aunts looked out of the royal windows into the garden with the dancing water, the musical tree, and the fine Greenbird, and saw brothers and sister mingling with all those joyful princes and barons, they grew weak in the knees. The king decided to invite everybody to dinner.

  They came, and the little sister brought along the fine Greenbird perched on her shoulder. As they were sitting down to the table, the fine Greenbird said, “One person is missing!” Everybody stood stockstill.

  The king then counted everybody in his household to see who could be absent, but the fine Greenbird went on saying, “One person is missing!”

  They had no idea whom else to bring in, when it suddenly dawned on the children. “Majesty! Could it be the queen walled up alive?” The king ordered her unwalled at once. The boys embraced her, and the little girl with the star on her brow helped her into a tub filled with dancing water and brought her out again as sound as ever.

  Then they went back to their dinner, with the queen dressed as a queen at the head of the table and her two sisters green with envy.

  Everybody was about to take the first bite of their food, when the fine Greenbird blurted out, “Only what I peck!” That was because the two aunts had poisoned the food. The guests ate only those portions the fine Greenbird pecked, and no one was poisoned.

  “Now let us hear what the fine Greenbird has to tell us,” proposed the king.

  The fine Greenbird hopped onto the table before the king and said, “King, these are your children.” They uncovered their heads, and everyone saw that they all three had golden hair, and the little sister a golden star on her brow. The fine Greenbird kept talking and told the whole story.

  The king embraced his children and begged his wife to forgive him. Then he summoned his two sisters-in-law and the old woman, and said to the fine Greenbird, “Bird, now that you have disclosed everything, give out the sentence.”

  The bird said, “For the sisters-in-law, a gown of pitch and a greatcoat of fire. Throw the old woman out the window.”

  Thus was it done, and king, queen, and children lived happily ever after.

  (Florence)

  88

  The King in the Basket

  There was once a woodcutter at the king’s court who had three daughters. One day the king ordered him to go and cut down a forest in a remote region of the country, something that would keep him away from home for years. The man couldn’t very well tell the king, “No, I won’t go,” for he had to earn his bread; but at the same time he disliked the idea of going so far away and leaving his daughters at home by themselves.

  He left the king and went home very much upset. “Girls, His Majesty has assigned work to me, and I must leave you. But before I go, I want you to allow one thing in particular.”

  “What, Papa?”

  “Allow me to wall up the front door to keep everyone out and you safe inside.”

  “If that is your will, Papa, we consent.”

  The woodcutter had the front door walled up and supplied the girls with money and all else they would need, saying, “Take this nice big basket, tie the well-rope to it and let it down with money in it whenever any street peddlers come by selling something you want.”

  Weeping, they kissed each other goodbye, then he departed, and the masons immediately walled up the opening they had left in the entrance for the father to get out.

  Now confined in earnest, the three girls were always leaning out of the window. The king saw them and thought they were the prettiest girls he had ever seen. He therefore dressed up as a peddler and went under their window crying, “Beautiful skeins of gold for sale! Beautiful skeins of gold for sale!”

  The girls decided to buy some for their embroidery and called the peddler.

  “What can I do for you, my ladies?” he asked.

  “How much are those gold skeins?”

  “Three crowns,” he answered, and it was indeed a high price, since he was a king and didn’t have too clear an idea about money. But the girls sent one crown down to him in the basket and told him to put in the skeins.

  “Be careful, because they are heavy. Do you think you can pull them up?”

  “Why not? There are three of us here!”

  The girls pulled the basket up with great difficulty, and in it saw a man. They were going to let go of the rope, but the man grabbed hold of the window, saying, “Don’t! I am the king! Knowing you were here by yourselves, I came to keep you company.”

  Clutching one another, the girls replied, ??
?Majesty, we are poor girls. How can we possibly receive a person of your rank?”

  “Don’t give it a thought,” said the king. “I’ve not come in search of luxury. I’m here to spend an hour with you, simply because you are beautiful and also kind, I’m sure.” Then he added, “What a pity your father’s away! I would so like to ask him to let you attend three grand balls I’m giving, starting tonight.”

  “That’s much too kind of you,” replied the girls, bowing. “Much too kind.”

  “When your father returns, I’ll have other balls,” said the king, “and you will come.” He thus made pleasant conversation with them for an hour, then had the girls let him back down in the basket.

  All the sisters could talk about afterward was the king’s visit. The youngest said, “You can be sure you’ll lower me in the basket tonight!”

  “You? What on earth for?”

  “Lower me and you’ll see.” She persuaded them, and the sisters let the basket down from the window.

  The girl, whose name was Leonetta, went to the royal palace with the basket. She entered by the kitchen door, which was unguarded, as all the guards stood at the front door. The cooks, too, were out at the time peeping through the door at the arriving guests, so there was no one tending the stoves. Leonetta picked up items of food right and left and thrust them into her basket: roast chicken, skewered lamb, macaroni, almond cakes. Everything she was unable to carry off she doused with water and ashes, ruining it completely. Then she fled with the basket crammed full of the finest food in the world. Arriving home she whistled to her sisters to lower the rope and draw her and the basket up.

  The next day when they heard, “Beautiful skeins of gold for sale!” they lowered the basket and drew up the king, whose face wore a grim expression.

  “Majesty, what’s wrong today?”

  “Oh, my girls, you’d never imagine what happened to me last evening! When time came to sit down to the table, the servants went into the kitchen and found every bit of the food doused with ashes and water. Not a thing was fit to eat. They threw themselves at my feet and swore they were innocent, and I believed them. I’m either ill-starred, or else a traitor is trying to overthrow me. I’ve stationed guards everywhere for tonight’s ball. When I find out who’s scheming against me, I’ll make mincemeat of him.”

  The girls sympathized with the king. “Oh, Majesty, how could anyone have done such things to you! You must be joking.” The most indignant of the girls was Leonetta. “The idea of treating such a kind-hearted king like that! Whoever did it must be a madman!”

  The king left, somewhat comforted by the three sisters’ strong expression of sympathy.

  In the evening, Leonetta said to the other two girls, “Come on, let me down and be quick about it!”

  “Have you lost your mind?” asked her sisters. “Tonight you’re staying home! After what you did last night, do you think we would let you out again? You heard what the king said, didn’t you?”

  Back and forth they argued, until the sisters finally lowered Leonetta to the ground. She went straight to the royal palace with the basket, but instead of entering through the kitchen, which was guarded, she went down into the cellar, where the best bottles and finest flasks were all hers. When the basket was full, she uncorked every one of the casks and fled.

  The next day they pulled the king up, who was glummer than ever.

  “Majesty, what on earth has happened to you?”

  “It’s too awful for words, my girls. They didn’t bother the kitchen last night, but when the banquet was in full swing and I ordered wine brought to the guests, the servants went to the cellar and found it flooded with wine up to their knees. All the casks were uncorked and still spewing wine.”

  “Majesty, you don’t mean it!”

  “These are dangerous times, dear girls, I feel sure people are plotting to overthrow me. I shall double the number of guards tonight, and heaven help any traitor I lay my hands on! There’ll be nothing left of him when I finish!”

  “You’re exactly right, Majesty,” said Leonetta. “The idea of people abusing a kind-hearted soul like you!”

  That evening the sisters were determined not to let Leonetta out, but she made such a fuss that they put her into the basket, saying, “All right, do as you please, but we’re writing Papa at once and disclaiming all responsibility for your actions.”

  This time the kitchen and the cellar were packed with guards. Leonetta slipped into the cloakroom and filled her basket with all the mantles, furs, plumed hats, and boots it would hold. Then she set fire to what was left and fled.

  At home the first thing the sisters did every morning was conceal all the loot, so the king wouldn’t see it when he came. That day they really had a time hiding all those clothes, which they’d spent the whole night trying on. They dressed in their usual attire, but Leonetta forgot to take off a stolen pair of silver pumps.

  When the king came up in the basket, his hair was all disheveled, and he had circles under his eyes. “Would you believe, my girls,” he began, “they even tried to set fire to my palace! Luckily we caught it in time, but the cloakroom was heavily damaged. I will give no more balls from now on. I’m even of a mind to abdicate.”

  “Traitors!” exclaimed Leonetta, echoing the king’s thoughts. “The idea of abusing such a kind-hearted soul!”

  Time came for the king to leave, and the sisters were lowering him in the basket, when he noticed Leonetta’s silver pumps and realized they were the very ones that had disappeared from his wardrobe. “You traitress!” he cried, reaching out to grab hold of the window. But the sisters all three let go of the rope, and the king plummeted to the ground in the basket. The girls were almost sure he’d killed himself, when they saw him get up and go hobbling off.

  He reached the palace and began plotting his revenge at once. He wrote the woodcutter to return immediately, as he had to talk to him. The woodcutter, who had expected to be away no telling how long, was overjoyed to return, all the more so when he heard the king ask for the hand of one of his daughters.

  “Any one of the three,” said the king, “you want me to have.”

  The woodcutter went home and put the matter before the girls.

  The oldest said, “No, Papa, I wouldn’t want him for my husband.”

  “Neither would I, Papa,” said the second girl, “since . . . ”

  Right off the bat, Leonetta said, “I’ll take him.”

  The woodcutter went back and told the king, “Majesty, I informed my three daughters of the proposal. The first one answered: ‘I wouldn’t want him’; the second, ‘Neither would I, since . . . ’ But the third said: ‘I’ll take him.’”

  The king said to himself, “So she’s actually the boldest and the one who did all the mischief.” To the woodcutter he replied, “In that case I’ll marry the third girl.”

  The wedding was set for a few days hence. The bride had at her beck and call many maids of honor from the royal household, to whom she said, “Listen, I intend to play a joke on the king.”

  “What will you do, my lady?”

  “Don’t breathe a word of it to a soul, under any circumstances. I’m going to make a life-size pastry woman, with sugar and honey for a heart. She’ll have strings tied to her that will permit her to say yes or no. I’ll put her in bed in my place and see if the king notices it.”

  The maids of honor set to work and made the pastry woman. The girl had her put into the bridal bed dressed in her own nightgown and bonnet.

  The wedding was followed by the banquet, supper, and finally it was time to go to bed. Leonetta asked to go upstairs before the king, and hid under the bed, holding the strings to make the pastry woman move.

  The king came into the room, closed the door, and said, “It’s now between the two of us, my dear! At last you’re in my hands! Do you remember telling me, ‘You’re such a kind-hearted soul, Majesty’?”

  “Yes, I remember,” said Leonetta from under the bed, making the pastry wo
man nod her head.

  “You do? And just who wrecked my kitchen?”

  “I did, Majesty,” said Leonetta, and the pastry woman lying in bed shook her head and moved her hands.

  “What a hypocrite you are! And who wrecked the cellar?”

  “I did, Majesty!”

  “And the cloakroom?”

  “I did that too, Majesty!”

  “And you think I’ll ignore those outrages?”

  “I don’t know, Majesty!”

  She’d no sooner got the words out of her mouth than the king unsheathed his sword and, thinking the pastry woman was his bride, thrust it into her heart. Sugar and honey spurted all over him.

  “There, I’ve killed you,” he began shouting; “you asked for it!” Tasting sugar and honey on his lips, he exclaimed, “But you were made of sugar and honey! We could have been happy together! How I would love you, were you still alive!”

  From under the bed, Leonetta replied in a faint voice, “Alas I’m dead . . . ”

  “Oh, what have I done!” sighed the king. “My Leonetta of sugar and honey . . . If you were here now, I would love you so!”

  “I’m now dead,” answered Leonetta.

  “Since you are dead, I too will be better off dead!” said the king and prepared to impale himself on his sword.

  “Don’t, I’m alive, I’m alive!” cried Leonetta, leaping from under the bed and embracing him.

  They fell into each other’s arms, kissed, and from then on loved each other and were as happy as happy could be.

  (Florence)

  89

  The One-Handed Murderer

  There was once a miser king, so miserly that he kept his only daughter in the garret for fear someone would ask for her hand and thus oblige him to provide her with a dowry.

 
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