Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Oh, what a fine little man! Please hire him out to us to keep watch over our ox.”

  “Would you like that, Pete?”

  “Yes, I would.”

  “Well, I’ll leave you here and stop by for you tonight.”

  Pete was placed on one of the ox’s horns, and it looked as though the ox was in the field unguarded. Two thieves came by and decided to steal it. But Pete cried, “Farmer, farmer, come quick!”

  The farmer came running, and the thieves asked, “My good man, where is that voice coming from?”

  “Oh, that’s Pete talking. Don’t you see him perched up there on the ox’s horn?”

  The thieves spotted Pete and said to the farmer, “Let us have him a few days and we’ll make you rich.” The farmer sent Pete off with the thieves.

  With Pete in their pocket, the thieves went to the king’s stable to steal horses. The stable was locked, but Pete crawled through the keyhole, opened the door, untied the horses, and came outside with them, hidden in one of the horse’s ears. The thieves, who were waiting for him, mounted the horses and galloped home, where they said to Pete, “We’re tired and will go to bed. You give the horses their oats.”

  Pete started fastening feedbags onto the horses, but he was so sleepy that he fell into one of the bags and went fast asleep. Unaware he was in there, the horse ate him up along with the oats.

  When he didn’t come back, the thieves went down to the stable to look for him. “Pete, where are you?”

  “Here I am,” replied a tiny voice. “I’m in the belly of one of the horses.”

  “Which one?”

  “This one right here!”

  The thieves slit open a horse, but he wasn’t in it. “No, it’s not this one. Which horse are you in?”

  “In this one!” So the thieves slit open another horse.

  They went on slitting open horses until they had killed every last one of them, but they still didn’t find Pete. They were tired by then and said, “That’s a crying shame! He was so useful to us, and now we’ve gone and lost him! To make matters worse, we’ve lost all the horses too!” They dragged the carcasses into the field and went back to bed.

  A hungry wolf came by, spied the butchered horses, and had quite a feast. Pete still happened to be hiding in the belly of one of the horses, and the wolf swallowed him with all the rest. There he was in the wolf’s belly now, and when the wolf got hungry again and headed for a nanny goat tethered in a field, Pete began yelling inside the wolf’s belly, “Wolf, wolf!” until the owner of the goat heard and put the wolf to flight.

  The wolf said, “What’s the matter with me to be making these sounds? I must have gas on my stomach!” and he began breaking wind.

  There, it’s all gone, he thought. Now I’ll go and eat a sheep.

  But when he neared the sheepfold, Pete started up again in his belly, crying “Wolf, wolf!” until he’d awakened the shepherd.

  The wolf was worried. “I still have gas making all that noise inside me,” and he went back to breaking wind. He broke wind once, then again, and the third time Pete too slipped out and hid behind a bush. Thus unburdened, the wolf returned to the sheepfold.

  Three robbers came by and sat down to count the money they’d stolen. “One, two, three, four, five,” said one. From his hiding place, Pete mimicked him. “One two three four five . . . ”

  The robber said to his companions, “Shut up, you’re confusing me. One more word out of you, and I’ll let you have it.” Then he started over: “One, two, three, four, five . . . ”

  “One two three four five,” piped Pete.

  “You didn’t hear what I said? Now you’ll see!”

  He killed him and turned to the other robber. “You’ll get the same thing if you make a sound.” Again he started over. “One, two, three, four, five . . . ”

  Pete repeated: “One two three four five . . . ”

  “That wasn’t me, I swear!” said the other robber.

  “Don’t try to fool me! Now it’s your turn,” and he killed him. “At last I can count the money in peace and keep every penny for myself. One, two, three, four, five . . . ”

  “One two three four five,” piped Pete.

  The robber’s hair stood straight up. “There’s somebody hiding around here. I’d better flee.” He fled, leaving all the money right there.

  Carrying the bag of money on his head, Pete went home and knocked on the door. His mother opened up and saw nothing but the bag of money. “Pete!” she exclaimed. She lifted the bag, and there stood her son, whom she embraced.

  (Florence)

  92

  The King of the Peacocks

  A king and a queen had two sons and a little girl who was the apple of their eye. They always gave her all their love, and even had a nursemaid just for her in the palace. Now the king was taken sick one day and died. The queen looked after the kingdom for a while afterward, but then she, too, fell ill. At death’s door, she entrusted her two sons with the care of their little sister, after which she drew her last breath and died.

  In the meantime the little girl had grown up without ever leaving the palace. Her sole pastimes were gazing out of the window at the countryside, singing softly, chatting with the nursemaid who was now her governess, and embroidering. One day as she stood at the window, a peacock emerged from the woods, flew up, and lit on the window ledge. The girl made a big to-do over him, serving him birdseed and inviting him inside. “How handsome he is!” she exclaimed. “Until I’ve found the king of the peacocks, I’ll not marry!” She kept the peacock with her all the time, but shut him up in a wardrobe whenever anyone came in.

  It wasn’t long before the brothers remarked to one another, “Our dear little sister never wants to go out of the house. If that continues, she will be in a bad way. Let’s see if she wishes a husband.” They went to her and made known their thoughts. “As long as you are unmarried, we will not get married ourselves. Do you feel like taking a husband?”

  “No, I don’t.”

  “You just think you don’t. Look at these portraits here of all the kings, pick out the one you like, and we’ll ask him if he wants you.”

  “I tell you I want no husband . . . ”

  “For our sake, will you make a choice?”

  “If you insist, I will. But the choice must be mine.”

  “Of course.”

  At that, the sister opened the wardrobe and brought out the peacock. “See this?”

  “Yes, it is a handsome peacock.”

  “I’ll not marry until I find the king of the peacocks.”

  “Where is he?”

  “I’ve no idea, but I will marry only him.”

  “In that case we’ll try to find him.” They entrusted the girl to her governess, chose a reliable governor to look after the kingdom, and each went their separate way in search of the king of the peacocks.

  They asked all around, but no one had ever heard of the king and took them for fools. But the two youths didn’t give up hope and continued their search. One evening the older boy met an old man who was part-sorcerer. “Tell me, is there a king of the peacocks?”

  “There certainly is.”

  “What is he like? Where does he live?”

  “He’s a handsome young man who dresses like a peacock. Peru is his kingdom, and to see him you have to go there.”

  The youth thanked and rewarded the man, then headed for Peru. After traveling a great distance, he entered a meadow planted with strange trees, and all around him voices said, “There he is! There he is! He’s come to offer his sister in marriage to the king! Make way for him!”

  The youth glanced about, but still saw nothing but a flutter of brightly colored feathers in the air.

  “Where am I?” he asked.

  “In Peru,” answered the voices. “In the realm of the king of the peacocks.”

  “Would you please tell me where he is?”

  “With great pleasure. Go to the right and you’ll come to a beauti
ful palace. Say to the guards, ‘Royal secret!’ and they will let you in.”

  “Thank you!”

  “Don’t mention it!”

  These trees are very courteous, thought the youth, but sorcery is surely afoot here. He walked on, coming to a palace adorned with blue, white, and violet peacock feathers that gleamed in the sun like gold. The front door was flanked by guards dressed as peacocks, and you really couldn’t tell whether they were men or birds. “Royal secret!” said the youth, and they let him in. In the middle of a hall stood a throne of precious stones, with an aureole of peacock feathers whose eyes sparkled like stars. On the throne sat the king dressed from head to foot in feathers and indistinguishable from a bird. The youth bowed and, at a signal from the king, all the courtiers left the room. “Speak, I am listening,” said the king.

  “Lord, I am the king of Portugal,” began the youth, “and I have come to ask if you will accept my little sister in marriage. Pardon my boldness, but my sister has resolved to wed no one but the king of the peacocks.”

  “Do you have her portrait with you?”

  “Here it is, Majesty.”

  “She is lovely! I like her! I agree to this marriage!”

  “Majesty, thank you! My sister will be delighted, as we all are.” He bowed, and proceeded to leave.

  “Stop!” ordered the king. “Where are you going?”

  “To fetch her, Majesty.”

  “No, whoever enters the kingdom of the peacocks can no longer leave it. You are a stranger to me. For all I know, you could be a spy for an enemy king, or a thief aiming to rob me. Write home, send my portrait, and wait for an answer.”

  “I will do just that,” replied the youth. “But where will I lodge while I’m waiting for the answer?”

  At a signal from the king, guards entered and seized the young man by the arms. “You will wait in prison,” said the king, “until your sister arrives.”

  In the meantime the second brother had returned home after a fruitless search. When the letter came from Peru, he ran to his sister with the portrait of the king of the peacocks. “That’s my bridegroom,” said the girl, “exactly the one I wanted! Let’s make haste and leave, I can hardly wait to see him!” They started packing up the trousseau, prepared the luggage and horses, and ordered the finest ship of the whole fleet.

  “To reach Peru we have to cross the sea,” the brother explained to the nursemaid. “How can we protect my sister against wind, dampness, and bright sunlight?”

  “That’s simple,” said the nursemaid. “Drive her to the shore in a carriage, bring the ship up close to land, and roll the carriage up the gangplank. That way she can make the crossing comfortably inside her carriage, without getting in the wind or spoiling her bridal gown.” The plan was adopted.

  Now the nursemaid had a daughter as ugly as a demon, who was envious and wicked to boot. Upon learning that the princess was going off to be married, she began whimpering to her mother. “She’s getting married and I’m not, she’s getting a king and I’m getting nothing; all eyes will be on her and none will be on me . . . ”

  “True,” said the nursemaid, “that occurred to me, too.” And she began dreaming of a scheme to marry her daughter instead of the princess to the king. After some hard thinking she came up with a plan. She ordered her daughter a carriage and wedding dress exactly like the princess’s, and said to the captain of the ship, “Here are two million just for you, now listen to what you are to do. In the last carriage that comes aboard sits my daughter. At night when everybody is sleeping, take the princess, throw her into the sea, and put my daughter in her place.”

  The captain was afraid to consent, but two million was a fortune, and he thought, When I have it in my pocket, I can flee to a distant country and enjoy it. So he haggled a bit over the amount, then agreed to do the deed.

  When time came to depart, all the carriages were lined up side by side on the ship, but at the last minute the princess started crying for her little dog. “He’s been my companion for so long I just can’t go off and leave him!” So her brother ran ashore, picked up the dog, and brought him to the carriage. The little dog cuddled up on the mattress and the ship set sail.

  At nightfall, the nursemaid went to the bride’s carriage. “The weather is good, a favorable wind is blowing, and we’ll be in Peru tomorrow. Go to sleep and get your rest.” The princess fell asleep dreaming of the king of the peacocks and the grand welcome she would receive upon her arrival.

  At midnight, the captain eased open the carriage door, picked up the mattress with princess and dog on it, and threw it into the sea.

  Nearby, the nursemaid’s daughter waited in the shadows, and the captain put her into the bride’s carriage.

  Falling, the princess woke up and found herself in the middle of the sea, while the ship continued on its way out of sight. But the mattress, as light as a feather, floated instead of sinking. A gentle wind rose and swept it right to Peru with the girl on it in her wedding gown and the dog at her side.

  Toward daybreak, a sailor of Peru, whose house was by the sea, heard a dog barking in the distance. “Do you hear that dog?” he asked his wife.

  “Yes, there must be someone in danger.”

  “I thought so, too. It’s almost day, so I’ll go outside and take a look.”

  He dressed, picked up a harpoon, and went out on the shore. And there in the dawn he saw something floating along briskly and accompanied by barking. As it came closer, the sailor stepped into the water, reached out with his harpoon, and drew the raft to him. Imagine his surprise on beholding a girl asleep in a wedding dress and a little dog making such a fuss! He brought her in to shore very gently so as not to awaken her, but she stirred and asked, “Where am I?”

  “You’ve landed at the house of a poor but kind-hearted sailor and his wife. Come and stay with us.”

  At that hour, the accursedly hideous girl was arriving in Peru, shut up in her carriage. When the procession reached the meadow of strange trees, a clamor went up on all sides:

  “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

  What an eyesore, the queen of Peru!”

  And in the air swirled thousands of peacock feathers. The brother who had accompanied her on the voyage, rode up on horseback and, at the sound of those cries coming from no telling where, his heart stood still. “This is a bad sign,” he said to himself. “Something will surely happen to us!” He ran to the carriage, opened the door, and was stunned at the sight of the hideous girl. “How did you ever become so ugly? What happened? Was it the sea, the wind, the sun that did it? Tell me!”

  “How should I know?”

  “Here’s the king! Now everybody’s head will roll!”

  In the middle of a band of feather-clad soldiers appeared the king of the peacocks. The soldiers raised long gold trumpets and blew a flourish. The trees cried:

  “Long live the king! Long live the king!

  The bride is a homely thing!”

  and the air was so thick with swirling feathers that it looked like fog.

  “Where is the bride?” asked the king.

  “Here she is, Lord . . . ”

  “Is this the beautiful maiden whose praises were sung to me?”

  “What do you expect, Majesty? It must be the fault of the wind, the sea breeze . . . ”

  “What a wind and what a sea! Shut up, impostors! You intended to cheat me, but you’ll learn that the king of the peacocks is not to be deceived! Take them to prison and prepare gallows for each.” At that, the king of the peacocks walked away scowling: he was out of sorts not only because of the insult, but especially because of his love for the beautiful maiden whose picture he wore around his neck and never tired of admiring.

  Let’s leave the king and those unfortunate prisoners and go back to the beautiful princess in the home of the poor sailor. The next morning she asked the sailor’s wife, “Would you have a little basket?”

  “Yes, madam.”

  “Give it to me, so I can take care of our dinn
er.” She called the dog and gave him the basket, saying, “Go to the king’s and get our dinner.”

  Holding the basket handle in his mouth, the little dog ran to the king’s kitchen, picked up a roasted chicken, thrust it into the basket, and went flying back to his mistress. They ate a good dinner that day at the sailor’s house, and even the dog had his share of bones to gnaw on.

  The next day the dog returned to the king’s kitchen with the basket and made off with a huge fish. This time the cook went and told the king, who ordered him to catch the dog the next time, or at least find out where he went.

  So, when the dog ran off with a leg of lamb the next day, the cook followed and saw him enter the sailor’s house. He returned and told the king.

  “I’ll go after him myself tomorrow,” declared the king. “Or could I already be the laughingstock of everybody?”

  The next morning as soon as the dog had left with the little basket, the princess put on her bridal gown and sat down in her room to wait. “If someone comes looking for the dog,” she said to the sailor and his wife, “send him in to me.”

  It wasn’t long before the dog was back home with dinner in the basket, and right behind him ran the king with two peacock soldiers. “Have you seen a dog?” they asked the sailor.

  “Yes, Majesty.”

  “Why is he always stealing my dinner?”

  “He does it of his own free will, to provide us with something to eat. We never taught him to do that ourselves.”

  “Where did you get him?”

  “He’s not ours. He belongs to a bride who is here with us.”

  “I want to see her.”

  “Come in, come in, Majesty. You will excuse us: this is the house of poor people.” They brought him in, and there before him was the maiden of the picture, dressed as a bride. “I am the daughter of the king of Portugal, and you, my lord, have my brothers in prison.”

  “Can it be?” said the king of the peacocks.

 
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