Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Look, here is the portrait you sent me. I have always worn it next to my heart.”

  “I can’t make head or tail of all this,” said the king. “Wait for me here, I’ll be right back.” Off he went like an arrow. He reached the palace and released the two brothers from prison. “Your sister has been found. You are back in my esteem, but tell me how everything happened.”

  “We are just as much in the dark as you. The more we think about it, the less we understand.”

  The king then called in the nursemaid and her daughter, threatened them, and was informed of their entire scheme. He had them thrown into prison where the two brothers had been, armed all the soldiers, donned his finest feathers and, accompanied by the band, marched off at the head of his army to the poor mariner’s house to fetch his bride.

  “Yes indeed! Yes indeed!

  This is the queen we heed!”

  cried the trees, and millions of feathers filled the air and blotted out the sunlight.

  When they arrived at the palace, the wedding was celebrated and followed by a grand banquet. The nursemaid and her accursedly ugly daughter were hanged on the gallows that had been readied for the brothers. They never were able to catch the captain of the ship, since he had fled to the end of the earth to enjoy his two million.

  (Siena)

  93

  The Palace of the Doomed Queen

  In bygone days there lived an old widow who earned her bread by spinning. She had three daughters who also were spinners. Although they toiled day and night at their spinning wheels, the three spinners could never lay up a cent, as they earned barely enough for their daily needs. One day the old woman got sick and ran a high fever, and three days later she was near death. Calling her tearful daughters around her, she said, “Don’t weep. Nobody lives forever. I’ve lived a long life, and now it’s my turn to die. What really breaks my heart is to leave you so poor. But since you know how to earn your living, you will manage somehow, and I’ll beg heaven to help you. All I have to leave you as a dowry are the three balls of spun hemp there in the cabinet.” After those words, she drew her last breath and died.

  A few days later the sisters got to talking. “This Sunday,” they said, will be Easter Sunday, and here we are with nothing for a decent Easter-dinner.”

  Mary, the oldest sister, suggested: “I’ll sell my ball of thread and we’ll buy the dinner.” So, on Easter morning, she took her thread to market. It was excellent thread and brought a goodly sum, with which Mary bought bread, a leg of lamb, and a bottle of wine. She was on her way home with them when a dog rushed up behind her, seized the leg of lamb and the bread, broke the bottle, and fled, nearly scaring the poor girl to death. When she got home, she told her sisters what had happened, and that day they had to be content with a few crusts of brown bread.

  “I will go to market tomorrow,” announced Rose, the middle girl, “and we’ll just see if the dog dares to give me any trouble.”

  She went, sold her ball of thread, bought giblets, bread, and wine, then headed for home by a different road. Lo and behold, the dog ran after her too, grabbed the giblets and bread, broke the bottle, and fled. Rose, bolder than Mary by far, ran after him, but he was too fast for her and she went home all out of breath and told her sisters what had happened. So, for the second day in a row, they feasted on brown bread.

  “Tomorrow it’s my turn to go to market,” announced Nina, the youngest, “and we’ll just see if the dog pulls the same thing on me.”

  Next morning she left the house much earlier than her sisters had on the preceding days, took her ball of thread to market, sold it, and bought provisions aplenty. As she walked home by another road, up rushed the dog, broke the bottle, and made off with everything else. Nina struck out after him and chased him all the way to a palace, into which he disappeared. She said to herself, “If I meet anyone inside, I’ll tell them about the dog running away with our dinner for the last three days, and I’ll make them pay me for all the food we’ve lost.” Then she entered the palace.

  She came to a fine kitchen with the fire burning brightly and things cooking over it in pots and pans; roasting on a spit was a leg of lamb. Lifting the lid of a pot, Nina saw meat stewing which she’d bought only a little while ago, and there in another pan were the giblets! She opened a cupboard and beheld there three loaves of bread. She moved on through the house without meeting a living soul, but the table in the dining room was set for three persons. They seem to have cooked dinner just for us, thought Nina, and with our own food! If my sisters were here, I’d sit down to the table right away!

  At that moment she heard a cart going down the street. Looking out the window, she recognized its driver and asked him to tell her sisters she was waiting for them there, where a fine dinner was all ready to be served.

  When the sisters arrived, Nina told them what had happened and said, “Let’s sit down to the table. If the occupants of the house come in, we’ll simply say we’re only eating our own food.”

  The sisters were not so bold, but being quite hungry by this time, they finally took their places at the table. It had grown dark, and the three girls suddenly saw the windows close and the lamps light up. They were still marveling over it, when in came dinner and arranged itself before them. “We thank whoever’s serving us and sparing us the trouble of getting dinner ourselves,” said Nina. “And now, sisters, let’s begin,” she urged, and bit into the lamb.

  Paralyzed with fear, the sisters could scarcely eat and spent the whole time glancing about them, expecting any minute to see some monster rush in. But Nina said, “If they didn’t want us here for dinner, they shouldn’t have cooked for us, lit the lamps, and served us at the table.”

  After dinner they were soon sleepy, so Nina led them through the house until they came to a bedchamber with three nice beds all turned down. “Let’s go to bed now,” she proposed.

  “No,” said the sisters, “let’s go home. It’s so frightening here.”

  “You ninnies!” snapped Nina. “We’re comfortable here, and you want to leave! I’m going to bed, come what may!”

  She’d no sooner persuaded them to remain there than a voice was heard at the bottom of the stairwell:

  “Nina, come light my way.”

  The sisters were terrified. “Merciful heavens! Who can it be? Don’t go, Nina!”

  “I will go,” said Nina, who picked up the lamp and went down the steps. She found herself in a room where a queen was chained and darting flames from her mouth, ears, and nose.

  “Listen, Nina,” said the queen, speaking amid the flames, “would you like a fortune?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’ll need the help of your sisters as well.”

  “I’ll tell them.”

  “There’ll be awful things to do, mind you, and if you get scared, you’ll die.”

  “I’ll persuade them to do what must be done.”

  “Very well. Open those three chests there. They’re full of queens’ robes, gilded and bejeweled. I was the queen of Spain, mind you. I fell in love with a young man of this town and because of him I am in Hell today. Now after all the wrong he’s done me, he intends to marry another woman, but I want to see him suffer in Hell with me, which is only fair. Tomorrow, put on my robe, arrange your hair exactly like mine, and lean on the balustrade with a book in your hand. At a certain time the young man will come by and say, “Madam, may I call on you?” Say yes, invite him in to coffee, and give him this poisoned cup. When he drops dead, bring him down here, open this chest, throw him in, and light four candles around him. I was very rich. Here is a list of my assets which you can reclaim from my stewards, who’re stealing everything I own.”

  Nina went back upstairs and related everything to her sisters. “Swear you’ll help me, or heaven help you!” The next morning she dressed up to look exactly like the dead queen and went to the balustrade with a book. Hoofbeats were soon heard, and a young man rode up and stopped to look at her. Nina nodded in greeting.


  “May I call on you, madam?”

  “Please do.”

  The young man dismounted and climbed the steps to the palace.

  “Let us have a cup of coffee together.”

  “With pleasure.” He drank from the poisoned cup and dropped dead.

  Nina called her sisters to help carry the body downstairs, but they refused and she said, “If you don’t help me I’ll kill you also!” She grabbed him by the head while the sisters caught hold of his feet, and they went downstairs to the closed chest surrounded by four candles. The sisters shuddered and wanted to drop the body and flee. “You just try to get away,” said Nina, “and I’ll show you a thing or two!” The sisters knew better than to defy her and remained right there.

  Nina opened the chest: in it sat the queen on a throne of flames. They put in her beloved beside her, and she took him by the hand and said, “Come with me to Hell, you wicked soul. That way you won’t leave me again.”

  With a great din the trunk slammed and sank out of sight.

  Nina revived her sisters, who had fainted, and led them back upstairs to recover from the shock. Then they retrieved all the wealth in the hands of the stewards and became the richest girls in the world. A few years later the sisters got married, and Nina gave them each a dowry fit for a princess. Finally she, too, got married and ever after lived like a queen.

  (Siena)

  94

  The Little Geese

  Once upon a time a flock of little geese were on the way to the marshes to lay their eggs. Halfway there, one of them stopped. “My sisters, you’ll have to go on without me. I must lay my eggs at once and I’ll never make it to the marshes.”

  “Wait!”

  “Hold it!”

  “Don’t leave us!”

  But the little goose was not to be swayed. They embraced, said good bye, promised to meet on the way back, and the goose took cover in the woods. Under an old oak tree, she made a nest of dry leaves and laid her first egg. Then she went in search of fresh grass and clear water for her lunch.

  She returned to the nest at sunset, but the egg was gone. The little goose was frantic. The next day she decided to go up the oak tree and lay her second egg in the safety of the branches. Then she came back down the tree quite pleased with herself and went off in search of food as on the day before. When she got back, the egg was gone. The goose thought, There must be a fox in the woods feeding on my eggs.

  She went to the town nearby and called at the blacksmith’s shop.

  “Sir, would you make me a little house of iron?”

  “Yes, if you will lay me a hundred pairs of eggs.”

  “Very well, put a basket out here for me, and I’ll lay the eggs while you’re building my little house.”

  The goose squatted down, and at every blow of the smith’s hammer on the iron house, she laid an egg. When the smith struck the two-hundredth blow, the goose laid the two-hundredth egg and jumped from the basket. “Sir, here are the hundred pairs of eggs I promised you.”

  “Mistress goose, here’s your little house all finished.”

  The goose thanked him, took the house on her back, carried it to the woods, and set it down in a clearing. “This is the perfect place for my little ones. There’s fresh grass here for them to eat, as well as a stream to swim in.” Quite content, she shut herself up to lay the last of her eggs in peace.

  The fox meanwhile had been back to the oak, but found no more eggs. He therefore snooped around the woods until he reached the clearing and saw the little iron house. I’ll just bet the goose is inside, he thought, and rapped on the door.

  “Who is it?”

  “It’s me, the fox.”

  “I can’t answer the door, I’m sitting on the eggs.”

  “Open up, goose.”

  “No, because you’ll eat me.”

  “No, I won’t, little goose, open up!”

  He waited.

  “I’m warning you, goose, if you don’t open up this minute,

  I’ll climb to the rooftop,

  Dance a dance called the contradanse,

  Your house will topple,

  And you won’t stand a chance.”

  The goose replied:

  “Climb to my rooftop,

  Dance your contradanse,

  House will stand,

  And on will play the band!”

  The fox hopped to the roof and stomped every inch of it. But, would you believe it, the more he stomped, the more solid the iron house became. Exasperated, he jumped down and ran off, while the goose split her sides laughing.

  For a while after that the fox kept under cover, but the goose kept a sharp eye open whenever she went outside. The eggs had hatched into many, many goslings.

  One day a knock was heard on the door.

  “Who is it?”

  “It’s me, the fox.”

  “What do you want?”

  “I came to tell you there’s a fair tomorrow. Shall we go together?”

  “Gladly. When will you be by for me?”

  “Whenever you like.”

  “Well, drop by about nine. I can’t go earlier, I have to look after my little ones.”

  They said goodbye, the best of friends. The fox was already licking his lips, certain of gobbling up goose and goslings in two bites.

  But next morning the goose rose at dawn, fed her little ones, kissed them goodbye, cautioned them to open up to no one, and went off to the fair.

  No sooner had the clock struck eight than the fox was there knocking at the little iron house.

  “Mamma’s not home,” said the goslings.

  “Open up and let me in,” ordered the fox.

  “Mamma said not to.”

  The fox said to himself, “I’ll eat you all later.” Then, out loud, he asked, “How long has Mamma been gone?”

  “She went out early this morning.”

  That was all the fox needed to hear, and he went running off as fast as his legs would carry him. The poor goose had finished her shopping and was on the way home, when she saw the fox coming down the road lickety-split with his tongue hanging out. “Where, oh, where can I hide?” wondered the goose. At the fair, she’d bought a huge soup tureen. She put the lid on the ground, squatted upon it, and pulled the pot over her.

  The fox came to a dead stop. “My, my, what a pretty little altar! I think I’ll say a prayer.” He knelt before the tureen, said his prayer, left a gold coin as an offering, and ran on his way.

  The little goose peeped out, picked up the gold piece, gathered together the soup tureen, and sped home to give her goslings another kiss.

  Meanwhile the fox looked up and down at the fair for the goose, but found her nowhere around. “But she must still be here, since I didn’t meet her on the road,” he said, and resumed his search for her. The fair was over, the vendors put away their unsold goods, took down their stalls, but there was no trace of Mistress Goose. “She’s given me the slip once more!”

  Famished, he went to the iron house and knocked.

  “Who is it?”

  “It’s me, the fox. Why didn’t you wait for me?”

  “It was hot. Also, I thought I’d meet you along the way.”

  “But what road did you take?”

  “There’s only one.”

  “Then how come we missed each other?”

  “We didn’t. I was inside the little altar . . . ”

  The fox was furious. “Open up, goose.”

  “No, because you’ll eat me.”

  “I’m warning you, goose,

  I’ll climb to your rooftop,

  Dance a good old contradanse,

  House will topple,

  And you won’t stand a chance.”

  The goose replied:

  “Climb to my rooftop,

  Dance your dumb contradanse,

  House will stand,

  And on will play the band!”

  Stomp, stomp, stomp! Up and down he stomped, and the iron house became
stronger and stronger.

  For days and days afterward, the fox didn’t show his face. But one morning there was a knock.

  “Who is it?”

  “It’s me, the fox. Open up.”

  “I can’t, I’m busy.”

  “I just wanted to say that Saturday is market day. Will you go with me?”

  “With pleasure. Stop by for me.”

  “Tell me exactly when to come, so the same thing won’t happen that did last time.”

  “Let’s say seven o’clock, I can’t make it any earlier.”

  “All right,” he agreed, and they parted, the best of friends.

  Saturday morning, before daybreak, the goose tidied the little ones’ feathers, fetched them fresh grass, cautioned them to open up to no one, and was off. It was hardly six o’clock when the fox arrived. The goslings told him Mamma was already gone, and he set out after her.

  The goose was idling before a stall of melons, when the fox appeared in the distance. To run away now was out of the question. On the ground she spied a huge melon, pecked a hole in it, and slipped inside. The fox arrived and scoured the market for the goose. “Could be she’s not here yet,” he said, and sidled up to the melon stall to pick out the best melon for himself. He bit into one, tasted a second, but the rind of every one he tried was too bitter, and he brushed them all aside. His eyes finally fell on the huge melon lying on the ground. “This one has to be good!” he exclaimed and took the biggest bite yet. The goose, who happened to be looking in that very direction, saw a tiny window open up, and spat through it.

  “Ugh! It tastes awful!” exclaimed the fox, and sent the melon rolling. It sped down a long slope, crashed into a rock, and the goose jumped out and flew home.

 
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