Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “I’ll help you,” said the maiden. “I’ll pile on the wood, and you look to see if the caldron is boiling.”

  The old woman bent over to see if the caldron was boiling, and the girl grabbed her by the legs and thrust her headfirst into the boiling oil, holding her there until she was good and dead. Then she lit her lamp, put out the fire, and hurried back to the farmhouse, where she found the youth completely recovered and getting out of bed. There was, naturally, great rejoicing in that humble house. “You are going to be my wife!” declared the young man. “No, I must move on,” was her reply, and the next morning, loaded down with gifts, she continued on her way.

  She came to a town and went to work for a man and his wife. The husband, poor soul, had been sick in bed for years, of a mysterious ailment that left all the doctors baffled. While working for them, the girl grew suspicious of the wife. She started spying on her and, one evening, hid behind a curtain to see just what the woman did at night. In came, the wife, awakened her husband, gave him a cup of opium to drink and, the minute he fell back asleep, opened a casket, saying, “Out with you, dear daughters, now is the time.”

  Out of the casket crept a brood of vipers. They fell on the sleeping man and began sucking his blood. When their thirst was quenched, the wife pulled the snakes off, brought out a little pot she kept hidden behind a picture, and made them spit out all the blood they had sucked. Then she carefully anointed her hair with the blood, replaced the reptiles in the casket, and said:

  Over wind and over sea,

  Take me to old Benevento’s walnut tree.

  At that, she disappeared.

  So what did the girl do but carefully anoint her own hair with blood from the pot, repeat the woman’s words, and end up all of a sudden inside a large cask full of witches who danced and worked magic spells. When day dawned, the girl, so as to be back home before her mistress, thought, I must now find the magic counter-formula. So she tried saying:

  Under wind and under sea,

  Take me from old Benevento’s walnut tree.

  Instantly she found herself back home. Her mistress returned and saw her sleeping as though nothing at all had happened.

  But the next morning the girl said to her master, “Tonight, pretend to drink the cup your wife brings you, but don’t swallow one drop of it.”

  He heeded her and thus remained awake. When his wife went to pull the snakes off, he jumped up and slew her. She’d not drawn her last breath before the husband was completely well. “How can I thank you?” he asked the maiden. “Don’t leave. I want you to stay here with me forever.”

  But she wouldn’t hear of it. She took all the money the master gave her and set out again.

  After some distance she came to another town and took lodgings at an inn. The innkeeper had a young son, who for quite some time had been in bed and taken no food or drink, sleeping night and day. The girl said, “Allow me, and I will cure him.”

  That night she kept watch. Ten o’clock struck: nothing. Eleven: nothing. At the stroke of midnight, bang! Two holes appeared in the ceiling, and through them dropped two bundles, a white one and black one. Upon hitting the ground, the white bundle became a beautiful lady, and the black one a maidservant carrying a tray with dinner on it. The lady slapped the sleeper and he woke up; then they set the table and dined as though nothing at all were amiss. At the first crow of the cock, the beautiful lady gave the young man another slap and he fell back asleep at once. The two women rolled themselves into new bundles, one white and one black, and vanished through the holes in the ceiling.

  When it was day, the girl said to the sick boy’s parents, “If you want that poor soul to get well, take heed of what I say. You must do five things: first, have all the cocks in the country killed; secondly, muffle all the bells; thirdly, have a black coverlet embroidered with all the stars and hang it outside the window; fourthly, light a bonfire under the window; lastly, have a mason stand by, on the roof, to plug up two holes.”

  The next night the two women bundles descended into the room and proceeded to dine with the young man. From time to time they glanced at the window to see if it was getting light, but the stars shone as brightly as ever. Hour after hour passed, but it remained dark outside; not a cock was to be heard, much less a hen. The two women bundles went to the window to see why in the world the night was lasting so long. They reached out and felt, not the air, but a coverlet, which suddenly fell, revealing the sun already high in the sky. At that, they turned themselves frantically into bundles again and rushed for the ceiling. But the mason had already carefully replaced tiles, beams, and plaster, thus cutting off their escape. They then dashed to the window, but saw the bonfire below it. Like it or not, they had to jump; scorched, they fled for dear life. In all their haste they had forgotten to slap the young man, who therefore remained awake and free from the evil spell.

  His parents were wild with joy and ran up to embrace him. His first words were: “What a girl! I will marry her!” But she had other plans and, with an armful of presents from the innkeeper, was again on her way.

  She met a little old woman, who asked, “Where are you going?”

  “I am seeking the haughty prince.”

  “Listen,” said the old woman. “I am well aware you have had your share of suffering. Here’s a little magic wand for you. Command what you will, and it will be granted. The haughty prince happens to be in this town.” At that, the old woman vanished. The merchant’s daughter then went and stood before the haughty prince’s palace, tapped the ground with the wand, and said, “I do hereby command that a palace equal in size to the haughty prince’s spring up instantly, with seven windows exactly like his. Let my palace be placed so that the windows at one end are close to the prince’s, and those at the other end are far from his.”

  Right away, opposite the king’s palace, sprang up a second palace exactly as specified. It was morning, and the haughty prince rose and saw a brand-new palace across from his. He looked out, and opposite his window was the most distant window of the other palace. At it stood a maiden so beautiful that, to get a better look at her, the haughty prince removed the first of his seven veils. He told his servants at once, “Pick out the two most beautiful bracelets in the treasure house and take them straight to the maiden, asking for her hand in my name.”

  Carrying the bracelets on velvet cushions, the servants went to relay the message. But when the maiden saw the gifts, she said, “Put those bracelets on the front door to serve as door knockers, which are just what I needed.” With that, she dismissed the men.

  The next day the girl appeared at the second window, and the haughty prince removed another veil and looked from uis second window. Then he sent the servants to her with a diamond necklace. “This necklace,” she said, “will make a nice chain for the dog you now have tied up with a rope.”

  On the third day, the maiden was at the third window, and the haughty prince, without his third veil, stood at his third window too. He sent the servants to her with two pearl earrings. “Take these earrings,” she ordered, “and put them in the dog’s harness bell for bell-clappers.”

  On the fourth day, from the fourth window, she told the servants who brought her a precious embroidered shawl to put it down for a doormat, and on the fifth day, since the prince had taken off his fifth veil as well and sent her an engagement ring set with a walnut-size diamond, she told them to give the diamond to the porter’s children to play with.

  The sixth day they brought her the queen’s crown. “Put it under the pot as a tripod.”

  But meanwhile they had come to the seventh window, where they stood face to face. The haughty prince removed his last veil and so delighted the merchant’s daughter that she said, “Very well, I will marry you.”

  A feast of chicken, bread, and pride . . .

  Long live the bride! Long live the bride!



  Wooden Maria

  There was once a king and queen, who had a
very beautiful daughter named Maria. When Maria was fifteen, her mother became deathly ill. The king, weeping at his wife’s bedside, swore he would never remarry, whereupon the queen said, “My husband, you’re still young and have a daughter to raise. I am leaving you this ring: you must take as your wife the lady on whose finger the ring fits.”

  When the period of mourning was over, the king started looking around for a new wife. Numbers of ladies came forward, but they all withdrew after trying on the ring; it was too loose on half of them and too tight on the other half. “That means I’m not supposed to remarry right now,” said the king, “so we’ll just drop the matter for the time being.” And he put the ring away.

  One day while poking around the house, the daughter came across the ring in a drawer. She slipped it on and could not get it off. “What will Papa now say?” she wondered. She took a piece of black cloth and bandaged her finger. When her father noticed the bandage, he asked, “What’s the matter, daughter?”

  “Nothing, Papa, I just got a little scratch on my finger.”

  But a few days later her father, deciding to take a look at her finger, undid the bandage and saw the ring. “Oh, dear daughter,” he exclaimed, “you are to be my wife!”

  Shocked by such talk, Maria ran off to hide and tell her nursemaid. “If he brings the matter up again,” said the nursemaid, “agree to it, but say that you want a betrothal gown the color of meadows and printed with all the flowers in the world. There’s no such dress on earth, and you’ll have a good excuse not to do what he wants.”

  When he heard the condition, the king immediately called in a faithful servant, supplied him with a bag of gold coins and a good horse, and sent him out into the world to look for a gown the color of meadows and printed with every flower. He traveled about for six months, but there was no finding the dress. At last he entered a city full of Jews and asked a textile merchant, “Would you have such and such a silk material?”

  “What do you mean, would I have it?” replied the Jew. “I have something far finer than that.”

  So the king presented his daughter with just the gown she had requested. Maria flew to her nursemaid, in tears. “Be not dismayed, my child,” said the nursemaid, “but request another gown for the announcement of the banns: one the color of the sea, with all the fish embroidered in gold.”

  In a few months’ time the servant also obtained that dress down in the city of the Jews. The nursemaid then suggested that Maria ask for a wedding dress far more splendid than the other two gowns: it was to be the color of air and display sun, planets, and all the stars. The servant made a third trip, and six months later the dress was ready.

  “Now,” said the king, “there’s no more time to lose, my daughter. In one week we will get married.”

  The ceremony was set, but in the meantime the nursemaid had made the girl a wooden outfit which covered her from head to toe and could float in the sea.

  The day of the wedding Maria told her father she was going to take a bath. Then in the tub of water she secured a dove, to which was tied a second dove outside the tub. As the second bird pulled against the first in an attempt to fly away, the first vigorously beat its wings, thus splashing water loudly like someone taking a bath. In the meantime Maria slipped into her wooden outfit, concealing the three gowns the color of meadows, water, and air in the wooden skirt, and fled. As the splashing in the other room continued, her father suspected nothing.

  Maria went down to the sea and started walking on the water in the dress that floated. On and on she went over the waves and came to a place where a king’s son was fishing with some fishermen. At the sight of the wooden lady walking on the sea, he said, “I’ve never seen a fish like that. Let’s catch it and see what it is.” He had the nets spread, and they drew her in to shore.

  “Who are you? Where do you come from?” they asked.

  And Maria answered:

  “I am Wooden Maria,

  Fashioned far from here;

  Made with much skill,

  I go where I will.”

  “And what can you do?”

  “Everything and nothing.”

  So the king’s son carried her to the royal palace and had her tend the geese. The news that the court had as a solid wooden maiden as a goose girl created a sensation, and people came from far and wide to watch her following the geese around over meadows and over ponds, walking or floating as she pleased.

  But on Sundays, when no one was looking, Wooden Maria removed her floating garb, let down her beautiful black locks over her bare back, and climbed a tree. There she would comb her hair, while the geese gathered round the tree and sang:


  Lovely girl there up high

  Like the Moon, like the Sun in the sky,

  King’s child or emperor’s, that’s no lie!”

  Every evening Wooden Maria went back to the palace with a basket of eggs, and one evening she found the king’s son getting ready to go to a ball and started joking with him.

  “Where do you go, son of the king?”

  “I don’t have to tell you a thing.”

  “Take me with you to the dance!”

  “I’ll kick you in the seat of your pants!”

  And he gave her a kick. Maria returned to her roost, slipped on the gown the color of meadows and printed with all the flowers in the world, and went off to the ball herself.

  There the unknown lady was the belle of the ball in her gown, the likes of which had never been seen. The king’s son invited her to dance with him, and asked her where she came from and what her name was. Maria said, “I am the Countess Thwartboot.” The king found it hard to believe, never having heard that name; not a soul knew the lady, and she said nothing other than “Thwartboot.” The king’s son had truly fallen in love with her, and made her a present of a gold pin, which she put in her hair, then flew away from the ball laughing. The king’s son ordered his men to pursue her and see where she went, but she scattered a handful of gold coins behind her. The men stopped to pick them up and got to squabbling among themselves.

  The next evening, torn between hope and despair, the king was getting ready for the ball, when Wooden Maria came in with her eggs and said, “Majesty, you’re going dancing again tonight?”

  “Don’t bother me. I’ve other things to think about!”

  “Can’t you take me with you?”

  Losing patience, the king’s son grabbed up a small shovel from the hearth and struck her.

  Wooden Maria returned to the poultry house, donned the sea-colored gown displaying all the fish in the sea, and went off to the ball. The king’s son was overjoyed to dance with her again. “Tell me who you are this time.”

  “I am the Marquise Thwartshovel,” answered Maria, and not one more word would she say.

  The king’s son gave her a diamond ring, and she ran away just as she had done the evening before, getting rid of the servants once more by means of gold coins. The king was now more in love than ever.

  The next evening he was in no mood for Wooden Maria’s wit. As soon as she came asking him to take her to the ball, he hit her on the back with the reins, as he was just harnessing his horse. At the ball he met the lady wearing a dress still lovelier than those of the evenings before, this one the color of air and displaying sun, planets, and stars. The lady told him she was the Princess Thwartreins. The king’s son gave her a medallion bearing his picture.

  And not even that evening were the servants able to follow her.

  The king’s son was overcome with love sickness, and the doctors were completely baffled. He refused to eat and wouldn’t touch even one spoonful of soup. One day he said to his mother, who was constantly after him to eat something, “Yes, I feel like a pizza. Make it yourself, Mamma, with your own hands.”

  The queen went into the kitchen, and there was Wooden Maria. “Leave everything to me, Majesty, I’ll gladly help you,” she said, and set to work kneading dough and baking the pizza.

nbsp; The king’s son took a bite, liked it, and was complimenting his mother, when he suddenly bit into something hard—the pin he had given the beautiful stranger. “Mamma, just who made this pizza?”

  “I did. Why?”

  “No, you didn’t. Tell me the truth, who made it?”

  So the queen had to admit Wooden Maria had helped her. Right away the son said to have her make him another one.

  Wooden Maria’s second pizza arrived, and in it the king’s son found his diamond ring. “Wooden Maria must know something about the beautiful stranger,” said the young man to himself, and ordered that she make him a third pizza. When he found the medallion bearing his picture, he jumped out of bed and ran to the poultry yard. There he found all the geese gathered round the tree singing:


  Lovely girl there up high

  Like the Moon, like the Sun in the sky,

  King’s child or emperor’s, that’s no lie!”

  And looking up in the branches, he saw the beautiful stranger coming out of the wooden hide and combing her locks. Maria told him her story, and in less than no time they were man and wife and as happy as happy could be.



  Louse Hide

  There was once a king who, during a leisurely stroll one day, found a louse on him. A king’s louse, he thought, is to be respected. So instead of delousing himself, he took it home to the royal palace and cared for it. The louse grew fat, as fat as a cat, and spent the whole day in a chair. Then it got as fat as a pig and had to be moved to an easy chair. When it became as fat as a calf, it had to be put in a barn. But the louse continued to fatten and soon outgrew the barn, so the king had it slaughtered. Once it was slaughtered, he had it skinned and the hide nailed to the palace door. Then he issued a proclamation: whoever guessed which animal’s hide it was would have his daughter in marriage; but whoever guessed wrong would be condemned to death.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]