Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  Samphire Starboard told his story, and the captain was imprisoned. Green though he was with seaweed, Samphire took his place beside the bride clad in white and was joined to her in matrimony.

  (Riviera ligure di ponente)


  The Ship with Three Decks

  Once there was a poor couple who lived way out in the country. A baby boy was born to them, but there was no one anywhere around to be his godfather. They went into town, but they didn’t know a soul there and couldn’t have the child baptized without a godfather. They saw a man wrapped in a black cloak on the church doorstep and asked, “Kind sir, would you please be this boy’s godfather?” The man agreed, and the child was baptized.

  When they came out of the church, the stranger said, “I now must give my godson his present. Take this purse, which is to be used to raise and educate him. And give him this letter when he has learned to read.” The father and mother were thunderstruck, but before they could find words of thanks and ask the man his name, he had disappeared.

  The purse was full of gold crowns, which paid for the boy’s education. Once he could read, his parents gave him the letter, which said:

  Dear Godson,

  I am going back to repossess my throne after a long exile, and I need an heir. As soon as you read this letter, set out on a journey to your dear godfather, the king of England.

  P.S. Along the way, beware of a cross-eyed man, a cripple, and a mangy character.

  The youth said, “Father, Mother, farewell. I must go to my godfather.” After a few days of walking, he met a traveler who asked, “Where are you going, my lad?”

  “To England.”

  “So am I. We shall travel together.”

  The youth noticed the man’s eyes: one of them looked east, and the other west, so the boy realized this was the cross-eyed man he must avoid. He found a pretext for stopping, then took another road.

  He met another traveler sitting on a stone. “Are you going to England? We’ll therefore travel together,” said the stranger, who got up and limped along, leaning on a stick. He’s the cripple, thought the youth, and changed roads again.

  He met a third traveler, whose eyes, like his legs, bespoke perfect health. As for any scalp disease, this man had the thickest and cleanest head of black hair you ever saw. As the stranger was also on his way to England, they traveled together. They stopped for the night at an inn, where the youth, wary of his companion, handed over his purse and the letter for the king to the innkeeper for safekeeping. During the night while everybody was sleeping, the stranger rose and went to the innkeeper for purse, letter, and horse. In the morning the young man found himself alone, penniless, on foot, and with no letter for the king.

  “Your servant came to me in the night,” explained the innkeeper, “for all your belongings. Then he left . . . . ”

  The youth set out on foot. At a bend in the road he spied his horse tethered to a tree in a field. He was about to untie it, when from behind the tree rushed last night’s companion armed with a pistol. “If you don’t want to die on the spot,” he said, “you must become my servant and pretend I’m the king of England’s godson.” As he spoke, he removed his black wig, revealing a scalp completely covered with mange.

  They set out, the mangy one on horseback, the youth on foot, and at last reached England. With open arms the king welcomed the mangy one, taking him for his godson, while the real godson was assigned to the stables as stable boy. But the mangy one couldn’t wait to get rid of his companion, and the opportunity soon presented itself. The king one day said to the false godson, “If you could free my daughter from the spell that holds her prisoner on a certain island, I’d give her to you in marriage. The only difficulty is that nobody who has attempted to free her has ever come back alive.” The mangy one lost no time in replying. “Try sending my servant, who is surely capable of setting her free.”

  The king summoned the youth at once and asked, “Can you set my daughter free?”

  “Your daughter? Tell me where she is, Majesty!”

  The king would only say, “I warn you that you’ll lose your head if you come back to me without her.”

  The youth went to the pier and watched the ships sail away. He had no idea how to reach the princess’s island. An old sailor with a beard down to his knees approached him and said, “Ask for a ship with three decks.”

  The youth went to the king and had a ship with three decks rigged. When it was in port and ready to weigh anchor, the old sailor reappeared. “Now have one deck loaded with cheese rinds, another with bread crumbs, and the third with stinking carrion.”

  The youth had the three decks loaded.

  “Now,” said the old man, “when the king says, ‘Choose all the sailors you want,’ you will reply, ‘I need only one,’ and select me.” That he did, and the whole town turned out to watch the ship sail off with that strange cargo and a crew of one, who also happened to be on his last legs.

  They sailed for three months straight, at the end of which time they spied a lighthouse in the night and entered a port. All they could make out on shore were low, low houses and stealthy movement. At last a voice asked, “What cargo do you carry?”

  “Cheese rinds,” replied the old sailor.

  “Fine,” they said on shore. “That’s what we need.”

  It was the Island of Rats, where all the inhabitants were rats, who said, “We’ll buy the entire cargo, but we have no money with which to pay you. But any time you need us, you have only to say, ‘Rats, fine rats, help us!’ and we’ll be right there to help you.”

  The youth and the sailor dropped the gangplank, and the rats came aboard and unloaded the cheese rinds in a flash.

  From there the men sailed to another island. It was also night and they could make out nothing at all in port. It was worse than the other place, with not a house or a tree anywhere in sight. “What cargo do you bring?” asked voices in the dark.

  “Bread crumbs,” replied the sailor.

  “Fine! That’s just what we need!”

  It was the Island of Ants, where all the inhabitants were ants. Nor did they have any money either, but they said, “Whenever you need us, you have only to say, ‘Ants, fine ants, help us!’ and we’ll be right there, no matter where you are.”

  The ants carried all the bread crumbs down the fore and aft moorings, and the ship cast off again.

  It came to an island of rocky cliffs that dropped straight down to port. “What cargo do you bring?” cried voices from above.

  “Stinking carrion!”

  “Excellent! That’s just what we need,” and huge shadows swooped down on the ship.

  It was the Island of Vultures, inhabited entirely by those greedy birds. They flew off with every ounce of carrion, promising in return to help the men whenever they called, “Vultures, fine vultures, help us!”

  After several more months of sailing, they landed on the island where the king of England’s daughter was a prisoner. They disembarked, walked through a long cave, and emerged before a palace in a garden. A dwarf walked out to meet them. “Is the king of England’s daughter here?” asked the youth.

  “Come in and ask Fairy Sibiana,” replied the dwarf, showing them into the palace, which had gold floors and crystal walls. Fairy Sibiana sat on a throne of crystal and gold.

  “Kings and princes have brought entire armies to free the princess,” said the fairy, “and every last one of them died.”

  “All I have are my will and my courage,” said the youth.

  “Well, then, you must undergo three trials. If you fail, you’ll not get away from here alive. Do you see that mountain shutting out the sun from my view? You must level it by tomorrow morning. When I wake up I want the sunlight streaming into my room.”

  The dwarf came out with a pickax and led the youth to the foot of the mountain. The young man brought the pickax down once, and the blade snapped in two. “Now how am I going to dig?” he wondered, then remembered the rats on the other
island. “Rats, fine rats, help me!”

  He’d not got the words out of his mouth before the mountain was swarming with rats from top to bottom. They dug and gnawed and clawed, while the mountain dwindled and dwindled and dwindled . . . .

  Next morning Fairy Sibiana was awakened by the first rays of sun streaming into her room. “Congratulations!” she said to the youth, “but you’re not done yet.” She led him to the palace’s underground vaults, in the center of which was a room with a ceiling as high as a church’s and containing one big heap of peas and lentils that reached the ceiling. “You have this whole night to separate the peas from the lentils into two distinct piles. Heaven help you if you leave one single lentil in the pea pile, or one single pea in the lentil pile.”

  The dwarf left him a candle wick and went off with the fairy. As the wick burned down to nothing, the youth continued to stare at the huge pile, wondering how any human could ever accomplish so intricate a task. Then he remembered the ants on the other island. “Ants, fine ants,” he called, “help me!”

  No sooner had he said those words than the entire cellar teemed with those tiny insects. They converged on the heap and, with order and patience, made two separate piles, one team of ants carrying peas and the other lentils.

  “I’m still not defeated,” said the fairy when she saw the task completed. “A far more difficult trial now awaits you. You have from now till dawn to fetch me a barrel of the water of long life.”

  The spring of long life was at the top of a steep mountain infested with savage beasts. Scaling the mountain was out of the question, much less while carrying a barrel. But the youth called, “Vultures, fine vultures, help me!” and the sky darkened with vultures circling down to earth. The youth attached a phial to the neck of each, and the vultures soared in a grand formation straight to the spring on the mountaintop, filled their phials, and flew back with them to the youth, who poured the water into the barrel he had waiting.

  When the barrel was full, hoofbeats were heard retreating. Fairy Sibiana was fleeing for dear life, followed by her dwarfs, while out of the palace ran the king of England’s daughter, cheering: “I’m safe at last! You set me free!”

  With the king’s daughter and the water of long life, the youth returned to his ship, where the old sailor was all ready to weigh anchor.

  The king of England scanned the sea every day through his telescope. Seeing a ship approach that was flying the English flag, he ran to port overjoyed. When the mangy one beheld the youth safe and sound and escorting the king’s daughter, he was fit to be tied and resolved to have him killed.

  While the king was celebrating his daughter’s return with a grand banquet, two grim-looking fellows came to get the youth, saying it was a matter of life and death. Puzzled, he followed them. When they got to the woods, the two fellows, who were assassins hired by the mangy one, drew their knives and cut the youth’s throat.

  Meanwhile at the banquet, the king’s daughter was more and more worried, since the youth had gone off with that sinister pair and not returned. She went out looking for him and, reaching the woods, found his body covered with wounds. But the old sailor had brought along the barrel containing the water of long life, in which he immersed the youth’s body, only to see him jump right back out as sound as ever and so handsome that the king’s daughter threw her arms around his neck.

  The mangy one was livid with rage. “What’s in that barrel?” he asked.

  “Boiling oil,” replied the sailor.

  So the mangy one had a barrel of oil heated to boiling and announced to the princess: “If you don’t love me I’ll kill myself.” He stabbed himself with his dagger and leaped into the boiling oil. He was instantly scalded to death. Also his black wig had flown off when he leaped, revealing his mangy head.

  “Ah, the mangy one!” exclaimed the king of England. “The crudest of all my enemies. He finally got what was coming to him. So you, valiant youth, are my godson! You shall marry my daughter and inherit my kingdom!” And so it was.

  (Riviera ligure di ponente)


  The Man Who Came Out Only at Night

  Long ago there lived a poor fisherman with three marriageable daughters. A certain young man asked for the hand of one of them, but people were wary of him since he came out only at night. The oldest daughter and then the middle daughter both said no to him, but the third girl said yes. The wedding was celebrated at night, and as soon as the couple was alone, the bridegroom announced to his bride: “I must tell you a secret: I am under an evil spell and doomed to be a tortoise by day and a man at night. There’s only one way to break the spell: I must leave my wife right after the wedding and travel around the world, at night as a man and by day as a tortoise. If I come back and find that my wife has remained loyal to me all along and endured every hardship for my sake, I’ll become a man again for good.”

  “I am willing,” said the bride.

  The bridegroom slipped a diamond ring on her finger. “If you use it to a good end, this ring will help you in whatever situation you find yourself.”

  Day had dawned, and the bridegroom turned into a tortoise and crawled off to begin his journey around the world.

  The bride went about the city in search of work. Along the way, she came across a child crying and said to his mother, “Let me hold him in my arms and calm him.”

  “You’d be the first person to do that,” answered the mother. “He’s been crying all day long.”

  “By the power of the diamond,” whispered the bride, “may the child laugh and dance and frolic!” At that, the child started laughing, dancing, and frolicking.

  Next, the bride entered a bakery and said to the woman who owned it, “You’ll have no regrets if you hire me to work for you.” The owner hired her, and she began making bread, saying under her breath, “By the power of the diamond, let the whole town buy bread at this bakery as long as I work here!” From then on, people poured in and out with no sign of a letup. Among the customers were three young men who saw the bride and fell in love with her.

  “If you let me spend a night with you,” one of them said to her, “I’ll give you a thousand francs,”

  “I’ll give you two thousand,” said another.

  “And I’ll make it three thousand,” said the third.

  She collected the three thousand francs from the third man and smuggled him into the bakery that very night.

  “I’ll be with you in a minute,” she told him, “after I’ve put the yeast into the flour. While you’re waiting, would you please knead the dough a little bit for me?”

  The man began kneading, and kneaded and kneaded and kneaded. By the power of the diamond, he couldn’t for the life of him take his hands out of the dough, and therefore went on kneading till daylight.

  “So you finally finished!” she said to him. “You really took your time!”

  And she sent him packing.

  Then she said yes to the man with the two thousand francs, brought him in as soon as it grew dark, and told him to blow on the fire a moment so that it wouldn’t go out. He blew and blew and blew. By the power of the diamond, he had to keep right on blowing up to the next morning, with his face bulging like a wineskin.

  “What a way to behave!” she said to him in the morning. “You come to see me, but spend the night blowing on the fire!”

  And she sent him packing.

  The next night she brought in the man with the thousand francs. “I have to add the yeast,” she told him. “While I’m doing that, go shut the door.”

  The man shut the door, which by the power of the diamond came open again right away. All night long he closed it only to see it immediately reopen, and in no time the sun was up.

  “Did you finally close this door? Well, you may now open it again and get out.”

  Seething with rage, the three men denounced her to the authorities. In that day and time there were, in addition to policemen, women officers who were called whenever a woman was to be bro
ught into custody. So four women officers went to apprehend the bride.

  “By the power of the diamond,” said the bride, “let these women box one another’s ears until tomorrow morning.”

  The four women officers began boxing one another’s ears so hard that their heads swelled up like pumpkins, and they still went on striking each other for all they were worth.

  When the women officers failed to return with the culprit, four male officers were sent out to look for them. The bride saw them coming and said, “By the power of the diamond, let those men play leapfrog.” One of the male officers dropped down at once on all fours; a second one moved up, put his hands on the officer’s back, and leaped over him, with the third and fourth following in his tracks. Thus began a game of leapfrog.

  Right at that point, a tortoise came crawling into view. It was the husband returning from his trip around the world. He saw his wife, and behold! He was again a handsome young man, and a handsome young man he remained, by his wife’s side, up to a ripe old age.

  (Riviera ligure di ponente)


  And Seven!

  A woman had a daughter who was big and fat and so gluttonous that when her mother brought the soup to the table she would eat one bowl, then a second, then a third, and keep on calling for more. Her mother filled her bowl, saying, “That makes three! And four! And five!” When the daughter asked for a seventh bowl of soup, her mother, instead of filling the bowl, whacked her over the head, shouting, “And seven!”

  A well-dressed young man was passing by just then and saw the mother through the window hitting the girl and crying, “And seven!”

  As the big fat young lady captured his fancy immediately, he went in and asked, “Seven of what?”

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