Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  The fox searched the market until sundown, then went and knocked at the iron cottage. “Goose, you failed to keep your promise and come to market.”

  “I most certainly was there. I was inside that huge melon.”

  “Ah, you gave me the slip again! Now open up!”

  “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, but there was no jarring of the iron house.

  More time went by. Then one day the fox was back knocking at the door: “Come on, goose, let’s make up. To forget the past, we’ll have a fine supper together.”

  “Gladly, but I have nothing to your liking to offer you.”

  “I’ll bring the food, and all you’ll have to do will be to cook and serve it.” True to his word, he made one trip after another, bringing salami, mortadella, cheese, and chicken pilfered during his rounds. At last the iron cottage was chock-full of food.

  The day of the supper arrived. The fox had been fasting for the past two days, so as to be as hungry as possible. He naturally gave no thought to cheese or mortadella, but to the tasty meal he would make off of goose and goslings. He went to the iron house and called, “Are you ready, goose?”

  “Yes, whenever you are; everything is done. But I’m afraid you’ll have to come through the window. Our big table with all the food on it reaches all the way to the door and keeps me from opening it.”

  “I don’t care. The only problem is getting to the window.”

  “I’ll throw down a rope. Slip your head through the noose, and I’ll pull you up.”

  The fox, who was dying to gobble up the goose, stuck his head through the noose without noticing that it was a slipknot. The goose began pulling him up, and the knot tightened. The more the fox kicked, the more he choked, strangling, with his eyes and tongue popping out. The goose was still uneasy, though, so she let go of the rope and he went crashing to the ground, now dead for sure.

  “Come, my little ones,” she then said, opening the door, “come and eat the fresh grass and swim in the brook.” So the little geese finally got to go outside and play.

  One day the goose heard a clamor and a flapping of wings. It was the season for geese to return from the marshes. “If only that were my sisters!” She went out on the road and saw a flock arriving, followed by all the newborn goslings. Like all good sisters, they made a grand to-do over each other, and the goose told them about her close calls with the fox. The sisters liked the cottage so much that they all went to the blacksmith and had him make one for each of them. And to this day, in a clearing somewhere stands the town of the geese, who all live in little iron cottages, safe from the fox.



  Water in the Basket

  There was once a widowed mother who married a widowed father, and they each happened to have a daughter by their first marriage. The mother loved her own daughter, but not her husband’s. She sent her own child for water with the jug, and her stepdaughter she sent with the basket. But the water would all run out of the basket, and the stepmother beat the poor girl every day.

  One day as the stepchild was filling her basket, it slipped out of her hand and was swept off by the stream. She began running downstream asking everyone she met, “Did you see my basket go by?” but they all told her, “Go farther downstream and you’ll find it.”

  She soon met an old woman sitting on a rock in the middle of the stream examining herself for fleas. “Have you seen my basket?” asked the girl.

  “Come here,” replied the old woman. “I have your basket. But first be so good as to look down my back and see what’s biting me.”

  The girl killed vermin by the hundreds, but so as not to embarrass the old woman, she said, “Pearls and diamonds.”

  “You shall have pearls and diamonds yourself,” replied the old woman. When all the fleas were off, she said, “Come with me,” and they went to her house, which was one big rubbish heap. “Do me a favor, my girl, and make my bed. Do you see anything in it?” It too was crawling with vermin, but the girl politely replied, “Roses and jasmines.”

  “You shall have roses and jasmines yourself. Do me another favor now and sweep the house. What do you see to sweep out?”

  “Rubies and cherubs,” answered the girl.

  “You shall have rubies and cherubs yourself.” Then she opened a wardrobe containing all kinds of clothes and asked, “Do you want a silk dress or one of cotton?”

  “I’m a poor girl, as you can tell, so give me a cotton dress.”

  “I’m giving you the silk one.” She gave her a handsome gown of silk, then opened a jewel case. “Would you like gold or coral?”

  “I’ll take coral.”

  “But I’m giving you gold,” and she slipped a gold necklace on her. “Do you want crystal earrings, or diamond earrings?”


  “But I’m giving you diamond ones,” and she put them on her, adding, “You shall be beautiful, your hair shall be golden, and when you comb it, down one side shall pour roses and jasmines; down the other, pearls and rubies. Go home now, but don’t turn around when the donkey brays. When the cock crows, turn around.”

  The girl set out for home. The donkey brayed, but she didn’t turn around. The cock crowed, she turned around, and on her forehead appeared a star.

  Her stepmother asked, “Who in the world gave you all those things?”

  “An old woman, who’d found my basket, gave them to me for killing the fleas on her.”

  “Now I know I love you,” said the stepmother. “Henceforth you’ll go for water with the jug, while your sister takes the basket.” To her own daughter she whispered, “Go for water with the basket, let it slip away from you in the stream, and go after it. And may you have the same luck as your sister!”

  The stepsister marched off, threw the basket into the water, then ran after it. Farther downstream she met the old woman. “Did you see my basket go by?”

  “Come here, I have it. Look down my back and see what’s biting me.” The girl began killing vermin, and the old woman asked, “What is it?”

  “Fleas and the itch.”

  “You shall have fleas and the itch yourself.”

  She took the girl to make the bed. “What do you see there?”

  “Bedbugs and lice.”

  “You shall have bedbugs and lice yourself.”

  She had her sweep the house. “What do you see?”

  “Disgusting filth!”

  “You shall have disgusting filth yourself.”

  Then she asked her if she wanted a dress of sackcloth or one of silk.

  “A silk dress!”

  “But I’m giving you sackcloth.”

  “A pearl necklace, or a necklace of rope?”


  “But I’m giving you rope.”

  “Golden earrings or tinsel?”


  “But I’m giving you tinsel. Go home now and turn around when the donkey brays, but don’t turn around when the cock crows.”

  She went home, turned around when the donkey brayed, and on her forehead sprouted a donkeytail. It was useless to cut it off, it only grew right back. The girl screamed and cried:

  “Mamma, Mamma, this is how it goes:

  My head is now a tail down past my nose;

  The more of it I cut, the more it grows.”

  As for the girl with the star on her brow, the king’s son asked for her hand in marriage. On the day he was supposed to fetch her in his carriage, her stepmother said to her: “Since you are marrying the king’s son, do me one last favor be
fore you leave: wash out the barrel for me. Climb into it and I’ll come and help you in a minute.”

  The girl climbed into the barrel while her stepmother went off to get a kettle of boiling water to throw upon her and scald her to death. The woman intended to dress the ugly girl in the wedding dress and take her to the king all veiled so that he wouldn’t know the difference until too late. Meanwhile the ugly girl walked by the barrel. “What are you doing in there?” she asked her half-sister.

  “I’m here because I’m to marry the king’s son.”

  “Let me get in, so I’ll be the one to wed him.”

  As accommodating as ever, the beautiful girl climbed out, while the ugly one took her place. The mother returned with the boiling water and poured it into the barrel. She thought she’d killed the stepdaughter but, discovering it was her own child, she began screaming and crying at the top of her voice. Her husband came in about that time, having heard everything from his daughter, and gave the woman the beating of her life.

  The beautiful daughter married the king’s son and lived happily ever after.

  Wide is the sheet, narrow is the street;

  To tell your tale after mine is meet.




  There was once a mamma and a papa with thirteen sons. One more was born, and they named him Fourteen. He grew by leaps and bounds, and when he got to be a big boy, his mamma said to him, “It’s time you too were out digging in the field and helping your brothers. Take this basket with your lunch and theirs and join them.”

  She gave him a basket containing fourteen round loaves, fourteen cheeses, and fourteen liters of wine, and Fourteen set out. Halfway there, he got hungry and thirsty and ate all fourteen loaves and cheeses and drank all fourteen liters of wine.

  His brothers, who had to go hungry, said to him, “Grab a hoe and get to work.”

  “I sure will,” answered Fourteen, “but I need a hoe weighing fourteen pounds.”

  His brothers found him a hoe weighing fourteen pounds, and Fourteen said, “Shall we race one another digging to the end of the field?”

  All fourteen of them began digging, and Fourteen got to the end of the field first.

  From that time on, Fourteen worked with his brothers. He did the work of fourteen boys, but also ate the food of fourteen, and his brothers became as thin as rails.

  His mother and father then said to him, “Go off for a while into the world!” That he did. He came across a wealthy farmer who needed fifteen laborers. “I do the work of fourteen and eat enough for fourteen, so I want the pay of fourteen,” the boy told him. “If you hire me under those terms, I’ll work for you.”

  The wealthy farmer decided to try him out and hired one other man, who together with Fourteen made fifteen. They began digging, and to every one thrust of the man’s hoe Fourteen gave fourteen and in no time dug up the whole field.

  Once the field was dug up, the wealthy farmer was unwilling to give him the pay and nourishment of fourteen men, so he thought up a way to get rid of Fourteen. “Listen,” he said, “you must now perform another service for me. Go to Hell with seven mules and fourteen buckets and fill them with Lucibello’s gold.”

  “I sure will,” said Fourteen. “Just give me some tongs weighing fourteen pounds.”

  With the tongs in his possession, he drove the mules to Hell. When he got there, he said to the devils standing around the gate, “Bring Lucibello to me.”

  “What do you want with our chief?” asked the devils.

  Fourteen handed them the letter from his employer asking for fourteen buckets of gold.

  “Come on down,” replied Lucibello.

  As soon as he arrived underground, fourteen devils pounced on him to eat him alive. But Fourteen clamped his tongs to the tongue of each devil and tortured them all to death. Now only Lucibello the chief was left.

  “How am I going to fill the buckets with gold after you’ve killed the fourteen devils who were to fill them?”

  “I’ll fill them myself,” said Fourteen. He filled the buckets and said, “Thanks, and so long.”

  “Just a minute,” replied Lucibello. “You don’t expect to walk off like that, do you?”

  The devil opened his mouth to eat the boy, but Fourteen clamped the tongs to his tongue, picked him up, threw him over his shoulder, and galloped off with the mules laden with gold.

  He reached his employer’s house and tied the devil to a leg of the kitchen table.

  “What do you want me to do now?” asked Lucibello.

  “Take my master and return to Hell with him.”

  The devil didn’t have to be begged, and Fourteen became one of the richest farmers alive.



  Jack Strong, Slayer of Five Hundred

  Once upon a time in Rome there was a woodcutter named Jack. As he was cutting a limb from an oak tree one day, the limb fell on him and broke his leg, putting him in the hospital for three months. When he couldn’t stand the hospital a minute longer, he ran away and came down here to Marca. One day he unbandaged the wound, and flies swarmed all over it. So what did Jack do but slap and kill them as fast as they lit. When no more came buzzing around him, he counted the dead ones on the ground: there were a good five hundred. He made a sign and hung it around his neck: I AM JACK STRONG, SLAYER OF FIVE HUNDRED. He went into the city and took lodgings at an inn.

  The next morning the governor sent for him. “Since you are so strong,” said the governor, “go after the giant here in the vicinity who is robbing everyone.”

  Jack went into the brush and walked until he came upon a shepherd. “Where is the giant’s cave?” asked Jack.

  “What business have you there? The giant will gobble you up in one mouthful,” replied the shepherd.

  Jack said, “Sell me three or four white cheeses.” And he went away with an armload of white cheeses. On reaching the giant’s cave, he began stamping his feet to make a racket. Out came the giant. “Who’s there?” Jack picked up a cheese and said, “Shut up, or I’ll crush you like this stone,” and he squeezed the ricotta until it oozed through his fingers.

  At that, the giant asked him if he wanted to be his partner. Jack said yes, threw away the other cheeses, and joined up with the giant.

  The next morning, the giant was out of wood, so he took a long, long rope and went into the woods with Jack. He uprooted an oak with one hand, uprooted another with the other hand, and said to Jack, “Now you gather a few oaks yourself.”

  Jack answered, “Look here, giant, would you have a slightly longer rope? I’d like to put it all the way around the woods and pull up everything at once so as not to have to make a second trip.”

  The giant replied, “Never mind. I don’t want you tearing up the whole place. What I’ve gathered here will be enough for now, so let well enough alone.” He picked up all the uprooted oaks, and Jack didn’t have to carry a thing.

  One day the giant wanted to have a contest with the spinning top: whoever threw it the greatest distance would win one hundred crowns. For cord he took a windmill cable, for a spinning top a millstone. After making a throw of almost a mile, he walked to the top, pointed out how far it had gone, and said to Jack, “Now it’s your turn.”

  Jack dared not touch the millstone, which he couldn’t have budged an inch, but he began yelling, “Looook out! Loooooooook out, everybody!” The giant squinted. “Who are you calling to? Who’s down there? I don’t see anybody.”

  “I’m talking to the people across the sea!”

  “Well, never mind about throwing the top. You would send it so far we would never get it back,” and he gave him the hundred crowns without making him throw the stone.

  Jack then proposed a contest himself. “You clever man, let’s see which one of us can thrust his finger further into an oak tree trunk.”

  The giant accepted. “We’ll stake another hundred crowns on that!”

  Earlier, Jack had taken a gim
let and a knife and made a hole in an oak, then re-covered it with bark, so you couldn’t see it. The contest started, and the giant stuck his finger halfway into the trunk. Jack aimed for the hole he had made and shoved more than half his arm through it.

  The giant gave him the hundred crowns, but was no longer at ease with such a strong man around him, so he sent him away. He waited until Jack got part way down the mountain; then he sent a lot of huge rocks rolling after him. But Jack, who distrusted the giant, had hidden in a cave. When he heard the rocks coming down, he yelled, “What’s that falling out of the sky, flakes of plaster?”

  The giant said to himself, “Heavens! I threw boulders down on him, and he calls them flakes of plaster. It’s better to have a man like that for a friend than an enemy.” So he called Jack back to the cave, but still went on thinking how he might get rid of him. One night while the strong man was sleeping, the giant tiptoed up to him and dealt him a blow on the head. But it so happened that every night Jack put a pumpkin on his pillow and slept with his head at the foot of the bed. As soon as the giant smashed the pumpkin, he heard Jack say, “Little do I care if you’ve beaten in my head. But you’re going to pay for disturbing my sleep!”

  The giant was now more fearful than ever. He thought, I’ll take him into that wood and leave him; then the wolves will tear him to bits. He said to Jack, “Come on, we’re going for a walk.”

  “All right,” agreed Jack.

  “Would you like to run a race?” asked the giant.

  “Let’s,” answered Jack. “Just let me get a slight head start, since your legs are longer than mine.”

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