Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Now I’ll go and see everything from close up,” he said.

  He walked and walked and finally reached the castle. His knocks and calls all went unanswered. He went inside and walked through all the rooms, but saw no one until he came to the most beautiful chamber of all, where a lovely maiden sat sleeping in a plush armchair.

  The soldier went up to her, but she continued to sleep. One of her slippers had dropped off her foot, and the soldier picked it up and put it in his pocket. Then he kissed her and tiptoed away.

  He was no sooner gone than the sleeping maiden awakened. She called her maids of honor, who were also sleeping, in the next room. They woke up and ran to the princess, exclaiming, “The spell is broken! The spell is broken! We have awakened! The princess has awakened! Who could the knight be who freed us?”

  “Quick,” said the princess, “look out the windows and see if you see anyone.”

  The maids looked out and saw the massacred army and the slain she-wolf. Then the princess said, “Hurry to His Majesty, my father, and tell him a brave knight came and defeated the army that held me prisoner, killed the she-wolf that stood guard over me, and broke the evil spell by kissing me.” She glanced at her bare foot and added, “And then he went off with my left slipper.”

  Overjoyed, the king had notices posted all over town: WHOEVER COMES FORWARD AS MY DAUGHTER’S DELIVERER SHALL HAVE HER IN MARRIAGE, BE HE PRINCE OR PAUPER.

  In the meantime the Neapolitan had gone back to his companions in broad daylight. When he awakened them, they asked immediately, “Why didn’t you call us earlier? How many hours did you watch?”

  But he wasn’t about to tell them all that had happened and simply said, “I was so wide-awake I watched the rest of the night.”

  Time went by without bringing a soul to town to claim the princess as his rightful bride. “What can we do?” wondered the king.

  The princess had an idea. “Papa, let’s open a country inn and put up a sign that reads: HERE YOU CAN EAT, DRINK, AND SLEEP AT NO CHARGE FOR THREE DAYS. That will draw many people, and we’ll surely hear something important.”

  They opened the inn, with the king’s daughter acting as innkeeper. Who should then come by but our three soldiers as hungry as bears, and singing as usual, in spite of hard times. They read the sign, and the Neapolitan said, “Boys, here you can eat and sleep for nothing.”

  “Don’t believe a word of it,” replied his companions. “They just say that, the better to cheat people.”

  But the princess-innkeeper came out and invited them in, assuring them of the truth of every word of the sign. They entered the inn, and the princess served them a supper fit for a king. Then she took a seat at their table and said, “Well, what news do you bring from the world outside? Way off in the country like this, I never know what’s going on elsewhere.”

  “We have very little of interest to report, madam,” answered the Roman who then smugly told of the time he was keeping watch when suddenly confronted by a giant whose head he cut off.

  “Zounds!” exclaimed the Florentine. “I too had something similar happen to me,” and he told about his giant.

  “And you, sir?” said the princess to the Neapolitan. “Has nothing ever happened to you?”

  His companions burst out laughing. “You don’t think he would have anything to tell, do you? Our friend here is such a coward he’d run and hide for a whole week if he heard a leaf rustle in the dark.”

  “Don’t belittle the poor boy like that,” said the maiden, who insisted that he too tell something.

  So the Neapolitan said, “If you really want the truth, I too was confronted by a giant while you two were sleeping and I killed him.”

  “Ha, ha, ha!” laughed his companions. “You’d die of fright if you so much as saw a giant! That’s enough! We don’t want to hear any more, we’re going to bed.” And they went off and left him with the princess.

  She served him wine and coaxed him to go on with his story. Thus, little by little, he came out with everything—the three old women, the lantern, the shotgun, the sword, and the lovely maiden he had kissed as she slept, and her slipper he had carried off.

  “Do you still have the slipper?”

  “Here it is,” replied the soldier drawing it from his pocket.

  Overjoyed the princess kept filling his glass until he fell asleep, then said to her valet, “Take him to the bedchamber I prepared especially for him, remove his clothes, and put out kingly garb for him on the chair.” When the Neapolitan awakened next morning he was in a room decorated entirely in gold and brocade. He went to put on his clothes and found in their place robes for a king. He pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming and, unable to make heads or tails of a thing, he rang the bell.

  Four liveried servants entered and bowed down to him. “At Your Highness’s service. Did Your Highness sleep well?”

  The Neapolitan blinked. “Have you lost your mind? What highness are you talking about? Give me my things so I can get dressed, and be done with this comedy.”

  “Calm down, Highness. We are here to shave you and dress your hair.”

  “Where are my companions? Where did you put my things?”

  “They are coming right away, you will have everything immediately, but allow us first to dress you, Highness.”

  Once he realized there was no getting around them, the soldier let the servants proceed: they shaved him, dressed his hair, and clothed him in a kingly outfit. Then they brought in his chocolate, cake, and sweets. After breakfast he said, “Am I going to see my companions or not?”

  “Right away, Highness.”

  In came the Roman and the Florentine, whose mouths flew open when they saw him dressed in such finery. “What are you doing in that costume?”

  “You tell me. Your guess is as good as mine.”

  “Goodness knows what you’ve cooked up!” replied his companions. “You must have told the lady some pretty tall tales last night!”

  “For your information, I told no tall tales to anyone.”

  “So how do you account for what’s happening now?”

  “I’ll explain,” said the king, coming in just then with the princess in her finest robe. “My daughter was under a spell, and this young man set her free.”

  By questions and answers, they got the entire story.

  “I am therefore making him my daughter’s husband,” said the king, “and my heir. As for yourselves, have no fears. You will become dukes, since had you not slain the other two giants, my daughter would not be free today.”

  The wedding was celebrated to the great joy of all, and followed by a grand feast.

  On the menu was chicken a la king:

  Long live the queen!

  Long live the king!

  (Rome)

  101

  Belmiele and Belsole

  There was once a father with two such fair and beautiful children that the boy was called Belmiele, and the girl Belsole. The man’s duties as chief steward at the royal court took him away from his children, as the king lived in another town. Hearing their looks so highly praised, the king, who had never seen these children, said to his chief steward, “Since you have such a handsome son, bring him to the court, and I will make him a page.”

  The father fetched the boy and left the girl with her nurse. Belmiele became page to the king, who liked the boy so much that he kept him on at the palace as page after the chief steward’s sudden death and even entrusted him with the special privilege of dusting the paintings in his art gallery. Belmiele could never dust the portraits without pausing to admire one in particular, that of a lady. Time after time the king caught him there, entranced, with his feather duster at rest.

  “What’s so fascinating about that portrait?”

  “Majesty, this portrait is the perfect likeness of my sister, Belsole.”

  “I don’t believe you, Belmiele. I looked the world over for a lady like the one in that portrait, but I didn’t find her. If your sister
resembles that lady, bring her here, and she will be my bride.”

  Belmiele wrote the nurse to bring Belsole to him immediately, as the king wanted to marry her. Now the nurse, mind you, had a daughter uglier than sin and as envious as could be of Belsole’s beauty. After receiving Belmiele’s order, she set out with Belsole and her own ugly daughter. As they were to travel by sea, they all three boarded a boat.

  On board, Belsole fell asleep, and the nurse said, “So that’s how it is! She has all the luck and gets to marry the king! Wouldn’t it be better if he married my daughter?”

  “Indeed it would!” replied the daughter.

  “Leave everything to me. I have absolutely no use for that silly creature.”

  Meanwhile Belsole awoke, saying, “Nurse, I’m hungry.”

  “I have bread and sardines, but not even enough for me.”

  “Please, nurse, give me a tiny little bit.”

  So that dreadful woman gave her a small piece of bread and some sardines, but mostly sardines and practically no bread, and in no time the girl was dying of thirst. “Oh, nurse, I’m so thirsty.”

  “I have scarcely any water, but if you like, I’ll give you some salt water.”

  Feeling her throat utterly parched, Belsole said, “I’ll even drink salt water.” After one sip, though, she was thirstier than ever.

  “Nurse, I’m thirstier than ever.”

  “All right,” replied the cruel woman, “I’m really going to give you a drink of water now.” She grabbed her around the waist and flung her into the sea.

  A whale happening by just then saw Belsole in the water and swallowed her whole.

  The nurse came into the king’s port, and there stood Belmiele on the pier with arms outstretched to embrace his sister. Instead, he saw that ugly face wearing a bridal veil. His arms dropped. “What’s happened? Is this my sister? My starry-eyed sister? My sister with the gracious smile?”

  “Ah, my son,” said the nurse, “if you only knew how sick she was! In a short time she turned into this.”

  The king stepped forward. “So this is the beauty you were boasting about! This is the maiden as fair as day? To me she looks like something the cat dragged in! What a fool I was to believe you and promise to marry her! A king can’t go back on his word, so I’ve no choice but to wed her, But you, my page, will change your calling this very day and go out to tend the ducklings.”

  So the king married the nurse’s daughter, but treated her more like his servant than his wife.

  Meanwhile Belmiele took the ducklings down to the seashore. He sat on the beach to watch them swim, and he thought of his misfortunes and of Belsole the way she was before joining him at the king’s court. Suddenly he heard a voice at the bottom of the sea;

  “Whale, my whale,

  Stretch out thy tail

  To the shore of the sea,

  Where Belmiele would speak with me.”

  Belmiele couldn’t imagine what the voice was talking about, when lo and behold, out of the water stepped the loveliest of maidens dragging a chain around one ankle. She looked exactly like Belsole, so much so that it could only have been Belsole, who was now more beautiful than ever.

  “Sister, what on earth are you doing here?”

  “I am here because of the nurse’s treachery, brother.” And she told him her story while tossing seed of gold and pearl to the ducklings.

  “You cannot mean it, sister!” gasped poor Belmiele.

  “The nurse threw me overboard and put her own daughter in my place,” replied Belsole, and hung colored tassels on the ducklings.

  Night fell and the sea turned black. “Farewell, brother,” said Belsole, and gradually sank back underwater to where the chain was attached.

  Belmiele assembled the ducklings all decked in tassels and headed homeward along the shore, with ducklings chanting:

  “Crò! Crò! We come from brine,

  On gold and pearls we dine.

  Belsole’s fair, as fair as day,

  Our lord and king would love her, yea!”

  People stopped in their tracks to listen and were flabbergasted: never had they heard ducklings chant like that. That night, back in the royal roost, instead of going to sleep, the ducklings chanted straight through the night:

  “Crò! Crò! We come from brine,

  On gold and pearls we dine.

  Belsole’s fair, as fair as day,

  Our lord and king would love her, yea!”

  A scullery boy heard them and told the king the next morning what the ducklings Belmiele tended had chanted throughout the night. The king listened only with half an ear at first, then curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to trail Belmiele when he took the ducklings out.

  He hid in the reeds and heard the voice at the bottom of the sea:

  “Whale, my whale,

  Stretch out thy tail

  To the shore of the sea,

  Where Belmiele would speak with me.”

  Up came the maiden with the chain around her ankle and swam to shore. Beholding her in all her beauty, the king emerged from the reeds, saying, “You are my bride beyond any shadow of a doubt!” They introduced themselves and, together with Belmiele, considered how to free her from the whale that kept her chained. The king and Belmiele took a rock equal to Belsole’s weight, cut the chain, and fastened the rock to it in the maiden’s place. Then arm in arm, the king and Belsole walked back to the royal palace, followed by Belmiele with his flock of ducklings chanting:

  “Crò! Crò! We come from brine,

  On gold and pearls we dine.

  Belsole’s fair, as fair as day,

  Our king has wed her with no delay!”

  When the nurse and her daughter heard this chant and saw the procession arriving, they fled from the palace, never to be seen again.

  (Rome)

  102

  The Haughty Prince

  There was once a merchant who had a daughter, and in the evenings he took her out into society. One evening while the girl was out in society, she saw a gentleman pull a snuffbox from his pocket and take snuff. On the cover of the snuffbox was a portrait. It was the portrait of the king of Persia’s son with seven veils over his face, and the maiden fell in love with him.

  She went home and said to her father, “Papa, I’ve fallen in love with the king of Persia’s son. Please go and propose to him for me, and take him my portrait.”

  Now the king of Persia’s son was well known for two things: for being unusually handsome and unusually haughty. He was too handsome for human eyes; in fact, lest someone see him, he wore seven veils over his face and kept to the throne room, where he never addressed a living soul, with the exception of his mother.

  After his daughter had spoken, the merchant replied, “Dear daughter, you had better forget this son of the king of Persia.”

  But the girl by now was so smitten she could think of nothing else. She began pestering her father and went on so that the merchant decided to satisfy her by going to the king of Persia’s son who wore seven veils over his face and telling him about the girl’s love.

  The queen received him, and took the maiden’s portrait off to show to her son.

  “Do you wish to see the portrait, my son?”

  “Tell him to throw it in the toilet.”

  The queen relayed the message, and the poor father argued, “But my poor daughter is crying her eyes out!”

  The haughty prince’s mother went back to her son, “My son, the man says his daughter is crying her eyes out.”

  “Then give him these seven handkerchiefs for her!”

  “But my daughter will kill herself!” objected the wretched father, when the queen brought him the handkerchiefs.

  “He said she will kill herself,” the queen repeated to her son.

  “Then give him this knife for her to kill herself with.”

  The old man returned to his daughter with those cruel answers. After a few minutes of silence, she said, “Father, in this matter we
must be firm. Give me a horse and a purse of money, and let me be off.”

  “Have you lost your mind?”

  “Crazy or not, I intend to go out into the world.”

  She left and went out into the world. Night overtook her in the country. She spied a light and, approaching it, came to a house where a woman watched over her dying son. The girl said, “Go and get some sleep while I watch over your son.”

  As she kept watch, the lamp went out, and everything was pitch-black. She groped about for a taper, but none was to be found. “I must see if there’s someone in the neighborhood who can give me a light.” She ran out, circled around, and in the distance, saw a ray of light. She approached it and found an old woman putting wood under a caldron filled with oil.

  “Will you help me light my lamp, ma’am?”

  “If you help me,” answered the old woman.

  “Do what?”

  “Work a spell on a young man, the son of those country people who live up there”—and she pointed to the house where the dying boy lay. “When this oil has boiled away, the young man will be dead.”

 
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