Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  No sooner was the proclamation out than a long line of men formed before the royal palace. They guessed and lost. The hangman worked day and night. Now the king’s daughter, unbeknownst to her father, had a lover, and was on pins and needles until she found out from certain servants in the know that the hide belonged to a louse. In the evening when the lover showed up as usual under her window, she said in a low voice, “Tomorrow, go to my father and say the hide is that of a louse.”

  But he didn’t catch her words. “Of a mouse, you say? A giant mouse?”

  “No, louse!” answered the king’s daughter, raising her voice.

  “Grouse?”

  “Louse! Louse!” she yelled.

  “Oh, I get it! I’ll see you tomorrow.” With that, he left.

  But under the window of the king’s daughter a hunchback cobbler had his workbench, and overheard the whole conversation. “We’ll just see now who marries you,” he said to himself, “me or that man there.” And in a flash, without even removing his smock, he jumped up and ran to the king. “Sacred Crown, I have the honor to come before you and guess what hide you have here.”

  “Be careful,” said the king. “Ever so many men have already lost their lives guessing.”

  “We’ll just see if I lose mine too,” said the hunchback. The king showed him the hide. The hunchback took a good look, sniffed it, pretended to rack his brains, and said, “Sacred Crown, I have the honor to inform you that it doesn’t take so much effort to recognize what animal this hide is from: it is from a louse.”

  The king was quite put out by the hunchback’s cleverness, but without a word, since a king’s promise is sacred, he sent for his daughter and right away declared her the rightful bride of the hunchback. The poor girl, who had been sure of marrying her lover on the morrow, was now beside herself with woe.

  The little hunchback became king and she was his queen. But having to live with him took all the joy out of life. In her service was an old chambermaid who would have given anything to see the queen laugh again and said one morning: “Sacred Majesty, I saw three hunchback buffoons passing through town dancing and singing and playing, and everybody just dying laughing. How about me bringing them to the royal palace to entertain you too a bit?”

  “Are you out of your mind?” said the queen. “What would the hunchback king say if he came in and found them here? He’d think we’d brought them in to mock him!”

  “Don’t worry,” replied the chambermaid. “If the king comes in, we’ll hide them in the trunk.”

  So the three hunchback musicians went to the queen and entertained her royally, and the queen split her sides laughing. Right in the middle of their act the doorbell rang loudly: the hunchback king was back.

  The chambermaid grabbed the three hunchbacks by the neck, thrust them into the big cupboard, and locked the door. “All right, all right, I’m coming!” she said, and went and let the king in. They ate supper and then went out for a walk.

  The next day was the day the king and queen received visitors, and the hunchbacks were completely forgotten. The third day the queen said to the maid, “By the way, what became of the hunchbacks?”

  “Oh, my goodness!” exclaimed the maid, clapping her hand to her forehead. “I forgot all about them! They’re still there in the cupboard!” They opened the cupboard at once, and what should they find but three dead hunchbacks. They had died from lack of food and air, and they looked quite sulky.

  “Now what will we do?” asked the frightened queen.

  “Don’t worry, I’ll think of a way out of this,” replied the maid, and she took one of the hunchbacks and stuffed him in a sack. She then called a porter. “Listen, in this sack is a thief I killed with a slap as he was stealing the crown jewels.” She opened the sack and showed him the hump. “Now take him on your back and, without letting anyone see you, throw him into the river. I’ll pay you when you return.”

  The porter flung the sack over his back and went to the river. Meanwhile that devil of a chambermaid stuffed the second hunchback into another sack and placed it beside the door. The porter returned to be paid, and the maid said, “How do you expect to be paid when the hunchback is still here?”

  “But what game are we playing?” asked the porter. “I just now threw him into the river.”

  “Here’s proof you didn’t do it very well. Otherwise he wouldn’t still be here.”

  Shaking his head and grumbling, the porter once more loaded the sack onto his back and trudged off. When he returned to the royal palace a second time what should he find but the sack with the hunchback, and the chambermaid as angry as a hornet. “Am I not right, you don’t know how to throw him into the river? Can’t you see he’s back again?”

  “But this time I tied a stone to him before throwing him in!”

  “Tie on two! Just let that sack come back here again, and not only will I not pay you, I’ll beat the daylights out of you!”

  Once more the porter took up the sack, walked to the river, tied two boulders to it, and threw the third hunchback into the water. He watched carefully to see that it didn’t reappear, then returned to the royal palace.

  As he was climbing the steps, he met the hunchback king on his way out and thought to himself, Damnation! The hunchback has escaped again, and that old witch will now beat me for sure! In a blind rage, he grabbed the hunchback by the neck and shouted, “You hangman of a hunchback, how many times do I have to throw you into the river? I tied one stone to you, and you came back up. I tied on two, and here you are back again! How can you be so ornery? I’m going to fix you for good!” At that, he put his hands around the hunchback’s throat and strangled him. Then he caught him by the neck and dragged him straight to the river, where he tied four rocks to his feet and hurled him into the water.

  When the queen learned that her husband had gone the way of the other three hunchbacks, she showered the porter with presents: gold, precious stones, hams, cheese, and wine. Without hesitation she then married her first love and from then on was happy as happy could be.

  “Wide is the leaf, narrow is the way,

  Tell yours now, as I have had my say.”

  (Rome)

  105

  Cicco Petrillo

  There was once a couple who had a daughter, for whom they had found a husband. All the relatives were invited to her wedding, after which everybody sat down to the table. Right in the middle of dinner, the wine gave out, so the father said to his newlywed daughter, “Go down to the cellar and fetch more wine.”

  The bride went to the cellar, placed the bottle under the cask, opened the tap, and waited for the bottle to fill up. While waiting, she got to thinking, Today I got married. In nine months I’ll have a son and name him Cicco Petrillo, dress him, put shoes on him. He’ll become a big lad . . . but suppose Cicco Petrillo dies? Oh, my poor son!” At that she burst out crying as no one has ever cried before.

  The tap was still open and the wine meanwhile ran all over the cellar. The diners sat and waited for the bride to come back, but there was no sign of her. Her father said to his wife, “Go down to the cellar and see if she’s fallen asleep, by chance.”

  The mother went down to the cellar and found her daughter in a flood of tears. “What on earth’s the matter, daughter? What happened?”

  “Ah, Mamma, I was thinking that today I got married and in nine months I’ll have a son and name him Cicco Petrillo, and what if Cicco Petrillo then dies?”

  “Oh, my poor, poor grandson!”

  “Oh, my poor, poor son!”

  And the two women burst out weeping together.

  The cellar meanwhile was filling up with wine. The diners upstairs continued to wait for wine, but no wine came. The father said, “They could have both had a stroke. I must go and see.”

  He went down to the cellar and found the two women bawling like two newborn babies. “What in God’s name has happened?” he asked.

  “Oh, my husband, if you only knew! We got to thinking that this
daughter of ours is now married and in practically no time she’ll be having a son we’ll name Cicco Petrillo, and what if Cicco Petrillo goes and dies?”

  “Ah!” screamed the father. “Our poor darling Cicco Petrillo!”

  And they all three broke down and wept right in the middle of the wine.

  When nobody returned, the bridegroom said, “But what kind of stroke could they have had down in the cellar? Let me go and see.” And he went downstairs.

  Hearing all that wailing, he asked, “What the deuce has come over you to wail like that?”

  “Ah, dear husband!” answered the bride. “We were thinking that now we are married and will have a son we’ll name Cicco Petrillo, and what if our Cicco Petrillo should die?”

  At first the bridegroom thought they were joking, but realizing they were serious, he blew up. “I always figured you were all a trifle stupid, but never to such a degree as this. It would be my luck to get mixed up with such simpletons! But I’m not staying! I’m leaving, and you, my dear, can be sure you’ll never see me again unless, on my travels, I should meet three people crazier than you!” At that, he left the house and never once looked back.

  He walked until he came to a river, where a man was trying to unload a boatful of hazelnuts with a pitchfork.

  “What are you doing, my good man, with that pitchfork?”

  “For some time I’ve tried, but I can’t pick up a single one.”

  “Naturally! Why not try the shovel?”

  “The shovel? Bless my soul, I never thought of it!”

  “That’s one!” said the bridegroom. “He’s even dumber than all my wife’s family put together.”

  He continued on his way until he reached another river. There a farmer was working himself to death watering two oxen with a spoon.

  “What on earth are you doing?”

  “I’ve been here for three hours and can’t seem to quench these animals’ thirst.”

  “Why not let them put their muzzles in the water?”

  “Their muzzles in the water? What a dandy idea! I never thought of that.”

  “He’s number two,” said the bridegroom, and moved on.

  After going some distance he spied a woman in the top of a mulberry tree holding out a pair of breeches.

  “What are you doing up there, my good woman?”

  “Oh, let me tell you!” she replied. “My husband died, and the priest told me he went up to Paradise. I’m waiting for him to return and step back into his breeches.”

  That makes three! thought the bridegroom. It seems that everybody is dumber than my wife, so I’d better go back home!

  And so he did and was glad of it, since they say that if you look far enough you can always find something worse.

  (Rome)

  106

  Nero and Bertha

  This particular Bertha was a poor woman who did nothing but spin, being a skillful spinner.

  One day as she was going along she met Nero, the Roman emperor, to whom she said, “May God grant you health so good you’ll live a thousand years!”

  Nero, whom not a soul could abide because he was so mean, was astounded to hear someone wishing him a thousand years of life, and he replied, “Why do you say that to me, my good woman?”

  “Because a bad one is always followed by one still worse.”

  Nero then said, “Very well, bring to my palace all you spin between now and tomorrow morning.” At that, he left her.

  As she spun, Bertha said to herself, “What will he do with the thread I’m spinning? I wouldn’t put it past him to hang me with it! That hangman is capable of everything!”

  Next morning, right on time, here she was at Nero’s palace. He invited her in, received the thread she had spun, and said, “Tie the end of the ball to the palace door and walk away as far as you can go with the thread.” Then he called his chief steward and said, “For the length of the thread, the land on both sides of the road belongs to this woman.”

  Bertha thanked him and walked away very happy. From that day on she no longer needed to spin, for she had become a lady.

  When word of the event got around Rome, all the poor women went to Nero in hopes of a present such as he had given Bertha.

  But Nero replied, “The good old times when Bertha spun are no more.”

  (Rome)

  107

  The Love of the Three Pomegranates

  A king’s son was eating at the dinner table. While slicing the ricotta, he cut his finger, and a drop of blood fell on the white cheese. He said to his mother, “Mamma, I would like a wife white like milk and red like blood.”

  “Why, my son, whoever is white is certainly not red, and whoever is red is by no means white. But go out all the same and see if you can find such a girl.”

  The son set out. After some distance he met a woman, who asked, “Where are you going, young man?”

  “How can I confide my secret to a woman? The very idea!”

  On and on he went, and met a little old man, who asked, “Where are you going, young man?”

  “You I’ll tell, respected sir, who will certainly hear further of me. I’m seeking a girl both milk-white and blood-red.”

  “My son, whoever is white is not red, and whoever is red is not white. Take these three pomegranates, however. Open them and see what comes out. But do so only beside the fountain.”

  The youth opened a pomegranate, and out jumped a very beautiful girl white like milk and red like blood, who immediately cried:

  “Dear young man, bring me some water,

  Otherwise I’m Mother’s dead daughter!”

  The young man dipped up water in the hollow of his hand and offered it to her, but he was too late: the beautiful creature was dead.

  He opened another pomegranate, and out jumped another beautiful girl saying:

  “Dear young man, bring me some water,

  Otherwise I’m Mother’s dead daughter!”

  He brought her water, but she was already dead.

  He opened the third pomegranate, and out jumped a girl still more beautiful than the other two. The young man threw water in her face, and she lived.

  She was as naked as the day her mother gave birth to her, so the young man threw his own cloak over her, saying, “Climb this tree while I go for clothes to dress you in and a carriage to take you to the palace.”

  The girl remained in the tree beside the fountain. Now every day, this fountain was visited by the ugly Saracen woman, who came there for water. As she went to dip up water with her earthen pot, she saw the maiden’s face reflected on the surface of the fountain from the tree, and sighed:

  “Why must I, who am so beautiful,

  Trudge home with water by the potful?”

  At that, she slammed the pot down, smashing it to smithereens. When she got home, her mistress said, “Ugly Saracen, how dare you return with no water and no crock!” She therefore picked up another earthen pot and returned to the fountain, where she again saw that image in the water. “Ah, I am truly beautiful!” she said to herself, adding:

  “Why must I, who am so beautiful,

  Trudge home with water by the potful?”

  Again she slammed down the crock. Again her mistress scolded her. Again she went to the fountain and smashed still another pot. Up to then the maiden had merely looked on from the tree, but now she had to laugh.

  Ugly Saracen looked up and saw her. “Oh, it’s you? You are the one who made me smash three pots to smithereens? But you are truly beautiful! Just a minute, I want to do your hair for you.”

  The maiden was reluctant to come down the tree, but Ugly Saracen insisted. “Let me dress your hair, so that you will be still more beautiful.”

  Helping her down, Ugly Saracen undid the maiden’s hair and found a hairpin, which she thrust into the poor girl’s ear. A drop of blood fell from the maiden, then she died. But when the drop of blood hit the ground, it changed into a wood pigeon, which flew away.

  Ugly Saracen went and
settled in the tree. The king’s son returned in the carriage and, seeing her, said, “You were milk-white and blood-red. How on earth did you become so dark?”

  Ugly Saracen replied:

  “Out came the sun

  And made me dun.”

  “But how could your voice have changed so?” asked the king’s son.

  She replied:

  “The wind came up,

  My voice came down.”

  “But you were so beautiful, and now you are so ugly!” said the king’s son.

  She replied:

  “Also rose the breeze

  And caused my face to freeze.”

  That was that. He took her into the carriage and carried her home.

  From the moment Ugly Saracen settled down in the palace as the wife of the king’s son, the wood pigeon would alight on the kitchen window ledge every morning and say to the cook:

 
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