Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  One day a murderer came to town and stopped at the inn across the street from the king’s palace. Right away he wanted to know who lived over there. “That’s the home of a king,” he was told, “so miserly that he keeps his daughter in the garret.”

  So what does the murderer do at night but climb up on the king’s roof and open the small garret window. Lying in bed, the princess saw the window open and a man on the ledge. “Help! Burglar!” she screamed. The murderer closed the window and fled over the rooftops. The servants came running, saw the window closed, and said, “Your Highness, you were dreaming. There’s no one here.”

  The next morning she asked her father to let her out of the garret, but the king said, “Your fears are imaginary. No one in the world would ever think of coming up here.”

  The second night the murderer opened the window at the same hour. “Help! Burglar!” screamed the princess, but again he got away, and no one would believe her.

  The third night she fastened the window with a strong chain and, with pounding heart, stood guard all by herself holding a knife. The murderer tried to open the window, but couldn’t. He thrust in one hand, and the princess cut it clean off at the wrist. “You wretch!” cried the murderer. “You’ll pay for that!” And he fled over the rooftops.

  The princess showed the king and the court the amputated hand, and everybody finally believed her and complimented her courage. From that day on, she no longer slept in the garret.

  Not too long after that, the king received a request for an audience from an elegant young stranger who wore gloves. He was so well-spoken that the king took an instant liking to him. Talking of this and that, the stranger mentioned that he was a bachelor in search of a genteel bride, whom he would marry without a dowry, being so wealthy himself. Hearing that, the king thought, This is just the husband for my daughter, and he sent for her. The minute the princess saw the man she shuddered, having the strong impression she already knew him. Once she was alone with her father, she said, “Majesty, I’m all but sure that’s the burglar whose hand I cut off.”

  “Nonsense,” replied the king. “Didn’t you notice his beautiful hands and elegant gloves? He’s a nobleman beyond any shadow of a doubt.”

  To make a long story short, the stranger asked for the princess’s hand, and to obey her father and escape his tyranny, she said yes. The wedding was short and simple, since the bridegroom couldn’t remain away from his business and the king was unwilling to spend any money. He gave his daughter, for a bridal present, a walnut necklace and a worn-out foxtail. Then the newlyweds drove off at once in a carriage.

  The carriage entered a forest, but instead of following the main road it turned off onto a scarcely visible trail that led deeper and deeper into the underbrush. When they had gone some distance, the bridegroom said, “My dear, pull off my glove.”

  She did, and discovered a stump. “Help!” she cried, realizing she’d married the man whose hand she had cut off.

  “You’re in my power now,” said the man. “I am a murderer by profession, mind you. I’ll now get even with you for maiming me.”

  The murderer’s house was at the edge of the forest, by the sea. “Here I’ve stored all the treasure of my victims,” he said, pointing to the house, “and you will stay and guard it.”

  He chained her to a tree in front of the house and walked off. The princess remained by herself, tethered like a dog, and before her was the sea, over which a ship glided from time to time. She tried signaling to a passing ship. On board they saw her through their telescope and sailed closer to see what the matter was. The crew disembarked, and she told them her story. So they set her free and took her aboard, together with all the murderer’s treasure.

  It was a ship of cotton merchants, who thought it wise to conceal the princess and all the treasure underneath the bales of cotton. The murderer returned and found his wife gone and the house ransacked. She could have only escaped by the sea, he thought to himself, and then saw the ship disappearing into the distance. He got into his swift sailboat and caught up with the ship. “All that cotton overboard!” he ordered. “I must find my wife who has fled.”

  “Do you want to ruin us?” asked the merchants. “Why not run your sword through the bales to see if anyone is hiding in them?”

  The murderer started piercing the cotton with his sword and, before long, wounded the girl hiding there. But as he drew his sword out, the cotton wiped the blood off, and the sword came out clean.

  “Listen,” said the sailors, “we saw another ship approach the coast, that one down there.”

  “I’ll investigate at once,” said the murderer. He left the ship carrying cotton and directed his sailboat toward the other ship.

  The girl, who had received a mere scratch on her arm, was put ashore in a safe port. But she protested, saying, “Throw me into the sea! Throw me into the sea!”

  The sailors talked the matter over, and one oldtimer in their midst whose wife had no children, offered to take the girl home with him, together with part of the murderer’s jewels. The sailor’s wife was a good old soul and gave her a mother’s love. “Poor dear, you will be our daughter!”

  “You are such good people,” said the girl. “I’m going to ask just one favor: let me always stay inside and be seen by no man.”

  “Don’t worry, dear, nobody ever comes to our house.”

  The old man sold a few jewels and bought embroidery silk, so the girl spent her time embroidering. She made an exquisite tablecloth, working into it every color and design under the sun, and the old woman took it to the nearby house of a king to sell.

  “But who does this fine work?” asked the king.

  “One of my daughters, Majesty,” replied the old woman.

  “Go on! That doesn’t look like the work of a sailor’s daughter,” said the king, and bought the tablecloth.

  The old woman used the money to buy more silk, and the girl embroidered a beautiful folding screen, which the old woman also took to the king.

  “Is this really your daughter’s work?” asked the king. He was still suspicious, and secretly followed her home.

  Just as the old woman was closing the door, the king walked up and stuck his foot in it; the old woman let out a cry. Hearing the cry from her room, the girl thought the murderer had come after her and she fainted from fright. The old woman and the king came in and tried to revive her. She opened her eyes and, seeing that it was not the murderer, regained her senses.

  “But what are you so afraid of?” asked the king, charmed with this girl.

  “It’s just my bad luck,” she replied, and would say nothing more.

  So the king started going to that house every day to keep the girl company and watch her embroider. He had fallen in love with her and finally asked for her hand in marriage. You can just imagine the old people’s amazement. “Majesty, we are poor people,” they began.

  “No matter, I’m interested in the girl.”

  “I am willing,” said the maiden, “but on one condition.”

  “What is that?”

  “I refuse to see all men regardless of who they are, except you and my father.” (She now called the old sailor her father.) “I will neither see them nor be seen by them.”

  The king consented to that. Jealous beyond measure, he was delighted she wanted to see no man but him.

  Thus were they married in secret, so that no man would see hot. The king’s subjects were not at all happy over the matter, for when had a king ever married without showing the people his wife? The strangest of rumors began circulating. “He’s married a monkey. He’s married a hunchback. He’s married a witch.” Nor were the people the only ones to gossip; the highest dignitaries at the court also talked. So the king was forced to say to his wife, “You must appear in public for one hour and put an end to all those rumors.”

  The poor thing had no choice but obey. “Very well, tomorrow morning from eleven till noon I will appear on the terrace.”

  At elev
en o’clock, the square was more packed than it had ever been. People had come from all over the country, even from the backwoods. The bride walked onto the terrace, and a murmur of admiration went up from the crowd. Never had they seen so beautiful a queen. She, however, scanned the crowd with uneasiness, and there in its midst stood a man cloaked in black. He brought his hand to his mouth and bit it in a threatening gesture, then held up his other arm, which ended in a stump. The queen sank to the ground in a swoon.

  They carried her inside at once, and the old woman said over and over, “You would have to show her off! You would have to show her off against her will. Now just see what’s happened!”

  The queen was put to bed, and all the doctors were called in, but her illness baffled everyone. She insisted on remaining shut up and seeing no one, and she trembled all the time.

  Meanwhile the king received a visit from a well-to-do foreign gentleman with a glib tongue and full of flattery. The king invited him to stay for dinner. The stranger, who was none other than the murderer, graciously accepted and ordered wine for everyone in the royal palace. Casks, barrels, and demijohns were brought in at once, but every drop of the wine had been drugged. That evening, guards, servants, ministers, and everybody else drank their fill and, by night, they were dead drunk and snoring, the king loudest of all.

  The murderer went through the palace making sure that on the stairs, in the corridors and all the rooms there was no one who wasn’t flat on his back and sleeping. Then he tiptoed into the queen’s room and found her hunched up in a corner of her bed and wide-eyed, almost as though she expected him.

  “The hour has come for my revenge,” hissed the murderer. “Get out of bed and fetch me a basin of water to wash the blood from my hands when I’ve cut your throat.”

  The queen ran out of the room to her husband. “Wake up! For heaven’s sake, wake up!” But he slept on. Everybody in the whole palace slept, and there was no way in the world to wake them up. She got the basin of water and returned to her room.

  “Bring me some soap, too,” ordered the murderer as he sharpened his knife.

  She went out, tried once more to rouse her husband, but to no avail. She then returned with the soap.

  “And the towel?” asked the murderer.

  She went out, got the pistol off of her sleeping husband, wrapped it in the towel and, making a motion to hand the towel to the murderer, fired a shot point-blank into his heart.

  At that shot, the drunk people all woke up at the same time and, with the king in the lead, ran into her room. They found the murderer slain and the queen freed at last from her terror.

  (Florence)

  90

  The Two Hunchbacks

  There were two hunchbacks who were brothers. The younger hunchback said, “I’m going out and make a fortune.” He set out on foot. After walking for miles and miles he lost his way in the woods.

  “What will I do now? What if assassins appeared . . . I’d better climb this tree.” Once he was up the tree he heard a noise. “There they are, help!”

  Instead of assassins, out of a hole in the ground climbed a little old woman, then another and another, followed by a whole line of little old women, one right behind the other, who all danced around the tree singing:

  “Saturday and Sunday!

  Saturday and Sunday!”

  Round and round they went, singing over and over:

  “Saturday and Sunday!”

  From his perch in the treetop, the hunchback sang:

  “And Monday!”

  The little old women became dead silent, looked up, and one of them said, “Oh, the good soul that has given us that lovely line! We never would have thought of it by ourselves!”

  Overjoyed, they resumed their dance around the tree, singing all the while:

  “Saturday, Sunday,

  And Monday!

  Saturday, Sunday,

  And Monday!”

  After a few rounds they spied the hunchback up in the tree. He trembled for his life. “For goodness’ sakes, little old souls, don’t kill me. That line just slipped out. I meant no harm, I swear.”

  “Well, come down and let us reward you. Ask any favor at all, and we will grant it.”

  The hunchback came down the tree.

  “Go on, ask!”

  “I’m a poor man. What do you expect me to ask? What I’d really like would be for this hump to come off my back, since the boys all tease me about it.”

  “All right, the hump will be removed.”

  The old women took a butter saw, sawed off the hump, and nibbed his back with salve, so that it was now sound and scarless. The hump they hung on the tree.

  The hunchback who was no longer a hunchback went home, and nobody recognized him. “It can’t be you!” said his brother.

  “It most certainly is me. See how handsome I’ve become?”

  “How did you do it?”

  “Just listen.” He told him about the tree, the little old women, and their song.

  “I’m going to them, too,” announced the brother.

  So he set out, entered the same woods, and climbed the same tree. At the same time as last, here came the little old women out of their hole singing:

  “Saturday, Sunday,

  And Monday!

  Saturday, Sunday,

  And Monday!”

  From the tree the hunchback sang:

  “And Tuesday!”

  The old women began singing:

  “Saturday, Sunday,

  And Monday!

  And Tuesday!”

  But the song no longer suited them, its rhythm had been marred.

  They looked up, furious. “Who is this criminal, this assassin? We were singing so well and he had to come along and ruin everything! Now we’ve lost our song!” They finally saw him up in the tree. “Come down, come down!”

  “I will not!” said the hunchback, scared to death. “You will kill me!”

  “No, we won’t. Come on down!”

  The hunchback came down, and the little old women grabbed his brother’s hump hanging on a tree limb and stuck it on his chest. “That’s the punishment you deserve!”

  So the poor hunchback went home with two humps instead of one.

  (Florence)

  91

  Pete and the Ox

  A woman was cooking some chickpeas. A needy girl passed by and begged for a bowl of them. “If I give them to you,” replied the woman, “what will I then eat myself?” At that, the poor girl cursed her. “May all the peas in the pot become so many children for you!” Then she continued on her way.

  The fire went out, and from the pot, like chickpeas boiling over, popped one hundred little boys as tiny as peas screaming, “Mamma, I’m hungry! Mamma, I’m thirsty! Mamma, pick me up!” They scattered into all the drawers, ovens, and pots. Frightened out of her wits, the woman scooped up these little creatures by the handful, thrust them into her mortar, and crushed them with the pestle as though she were making mashed peas. When she thought she’d finally slain them all, she began getting dinner for her husband. But reflecting on what she’d done, she burst into tears, saying, “If only I’d spared the life of at least one of them! He’d now be a help to me and take his father’s dinner to the shop!”

  Just then, she heard a tiny voice. “Don’t cry, Mamma, I’m still here!” It was one of the little sons, who’d escaped death by hiding behind the handle of the jug.

  The woman was overjoyed. “Come here, my dear! What is your name?”

  “Pete,” replied the child, sliding down the jug and landing on the table.

  “Well done, my little Pete!” exclaimed the woman. “You are now to go to the shop with your father’s dinner.” She put everything into the basket and set it on Pete’s head.

  Pete left, and all you saw was the basket, which looked as though it were walking by itself. He asked a couple of people the way, scaring the life out of them, for they thought the basket itself was talking. Finally he reached the sh
op and called, “Papa, I’ve brought your dinner to you.”

  “Who’s that calling me?” wondered his father. “I’ve never had any children!” He came out and saw the basket, under which a tiny voice was heard. “Papa, lift the basket and you will see me. I’m your son Pete, born this very morning.”

  The man lifted the basket, and there stood Pete. “Well done, Pete!” said his father, who was a locksmith. “You will now come round to the farmers’ houses with me to see if they’ve anything that needs mending.” At that, the father put Pete into his pocket, and off they went. They talked without stopping along the way, and everybody thought the man had lost his mind to be talking to himself that way.

  He asked around at the different houses, “Do you have anything to be repaired?”

  “We do indeed,” he was told, “but we wouldn’t trust a crazy man like you to mend a thing.”

  “Crazy? What do you mean? I’m much smarter than you any time.”

  “Well, why do you constantly talk to yourself as you go from place to place?”

  “That’s not true. I was talking to my son.”

  “Just where is this son?”

  “In my pocket.”

  “You see what we meant? You are crazy.”

  “Look here!” he said, reaching into his pocket and bringing his hand out with Pete straddling one of his fingers.

 
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