Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “Cook, O cook of the cursèd kitchen,

  Tell me, tell me

  What the king is doing with old Ugly Saracen.”

  “He eats, drinks, and sleeps,” replied the cook.

  The wood pigeon said:

  “Please, a bit of soup for me,

  And plumes of gold I will give thee.”

  The cook served her a plate of soup, and the wood pigeon gave a little shake and shed a few feathers of gold. Then she flew off.

  The next morning she was back:

  “Cook, O cook of the cursèd kitchen,

  Tell me, tell me

  What the king is doing with old Ugly Saracen.”

  “He eats, drinks, and sleeps,” replied the cook.

  “Please, a bit of soup for me,

  And plumes of gold I will give thee.”

  She ate her soup, and the cook took the golden feathers.

  A little later, the cook decided to go to the king with the whole story. The king listened carefully, and replied, “Tomorrow when the wood pigeon returns, catch it and bring it to me. I shall keep it.”

  Ugly Saracen, who had eavesdropped and heard everything, knew only too well that the wood pigeon would be her undoing, so next morning she beat the cook to the window when the pigeon lit, pierced it through with a spit and killed it.

  The wood pigeon died, but a drop of blood fell in the garden and right there a pomegranate tree sprang up at once.

  This tree had the magic property that whoever was dying and ate one of its pomegranates got well. And there was always a long line of people begging Ugly Saracen for a pomegranate.

  Finally only one pomegranate remained on the tree, the biggest one of all, and Ugly Saracen announced: “I will keep this one for myself.”

  An old woman came to her, asking, “Will you give me that pomegranate? My husband is dying.”

  “I have only one left, and I am keeping it for decoration,” replied Ugly Saracen, but the king’s son objected. “Poor old thing, her husband is dying, you can’t refuse her.”

  So the old woman went back home with the pomegranate. She got home and found her husband already dead. “That means I keep the pomegranate for decoration,” she told herself.

  Every morning the old woman went to Mass. And while she was at Mass, the girl would come out of the pomegranate, light the fire, sweep the house, do the cooking, and set the table. Then she would go back inside the pomegranate. Finding everything in order upon her return, the old woman was baffled.

  One morning she went to confession and told her confessor all about it. He replied, “Know what you should do? Tomorrow morning pretend to go out to Mass, but hide somewhere at home instead. That way you’ll see who’s doing all your housekeeping.”

  The next morning the old woman pretended to leave the house, but stopped outside the door. The maiden emerged from the pomegranate and started on the housework and the cooking. The old woman came back in and caught the girl before she could reenter the pomegranate.

  “Where do you come from?” asked the old woman.

  “Peace to you, ma’am, don’t kill me, don’t kill me!”

  “I’m not going to kill you, but I want to know where you come from.”

  “I live inside the pomegranate . . . ” And she related her story.

  The old woman dressed her in peasant garb like her own, since the maiden was still as naked as the day she was born, and on Sunday took her to Mass with her. The king’s son was also at Mass and saw her. “My heavens!” he exclaimed. “I do believe that’s the maiden I met at the fountain!” So he lay in wait for the old woman on the road.

  “Tell me where that maiden came from!”

  “Don’t kill me!” whimpered the old woman.

  “Don’t worry, I only want to know where she comes from.”

  “She comes from the pomegranate you gave me.”

  “She was in a pomegranate too?” exclaimed the king’s son, who turned to the maiden and asked, “How on earth did you get into a pomegranate?” And she told him everything.

  He returned to the palace with the girl, and had her tell the whole story once more in front of Ugly Saracen.

  “Did you hear that?” the king’s son asked Ugly Saracen when the girl had finished her tale. “I don’t want to be the one to condemn you to death. Condemn yourself.”

  As there was now no way out, Ugly Saracen said, “Coat me with pitch and burn me to death in the center of the town square.”

  So was it done, and the king’s son married the maiden.



  Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-Flutist

  There was once a youth named Joseph Ciufolo, who played the flute when he wasn’t tilling the soil. One day he was dancing through the fields and playing his flute to relax awhile from all his digging, when he suddenly spied a corpse lying on the ground beneath a swarm of flies. He put down his flute, walked up to the body, shooed the flies away, and covered the dead man with green boughs. Returning to the spot where he had left his hoe, he saw that the hoe had gone to work by itself and already dug up half the field for him. From that day on, Joseph Ciufolo was the happiest tiller alive: he would dig until he got tired, then take his flute out of his pocket, while the hoe went on digging by itself.

  But Joseph Ciufolo worked for a stepfather who bore him no love and wished to turn him out of the house. In the beginning the man said Joseph was a good worker but lazy; next he said Joseph dug a whole lot but badly. Joseph Ciufolo therefore took his flute and left home.

  He went around to all the landowners, but none of them would give him any work. Finally he met an old beggar, and asked him for work to keep body and soul together.

  “Come along with me,” said the beggar, “and we will share alms.”

  So Joseph Ciufolo started going around with the beggar and singing:

  “Succor us, please, please succor us,

  In the name of Jesus and all His Saints!”

  Everybody gave alms to the old man, but to Joseph Ciufolo they all said, “What’s a young man like you doing out begging? Why don’t you work for a living?”

  “Nobody will hire me,” replied Joseph Ciufolo.

  “That’s what you say. There’s the king with so many untilled fields that he’s offering good wages to anyone willing to cultivate them.”

  Joseph Ciufolo went to the king’s fields and took the old man whose alms he had been sharing. The fields had never been worked by anyone. Joseph Ciufolo dug them up, sowed them, weeded them, then harvested the crops. Whenever he wearied of reaping he would play his flute; and once he was weary of playing, he would sing:

  “Sickle so brisk, sickle so gay,

  Master’s child with me, away!”

  Hearing the singing, the princess looked out the window. She saw Joseph Ciufolo and fell in love with him. But she was a princess, and he a tiller; the king would never consent to their marriage. So they decided to run away together.

  They fled at night in a boat. They were already on the high seas, when Joseph Ciufolo remembered the beggar. He said to his beloved, “We must fetch the old man, since he shared his alms with me. I can’t go off and leave him like that.” At that very moment they saw the old soul coming up behind the boat, walking on the water as if it had been dry land. Reaching the boat, he said, “We agreed to divide everything we had, and I always shared with you everything I own. Now you have the king’s daughter and must give half of her to me.” At that he handed Joseph Ciufolo a knife to cut his bride in half.

  Joseph Ciufolo took the knife with a trembling hand. “You are right,” he said, “you are perfectly right.” He was on the point of cutting his bride in two, when the old man stopped him.

  “Stop! I knew you were a just man. I am the dead man, mind you, whom you covered with green boughs. Go in peace, and may the two of you always be happy.”

  The old man walked away on the waves. The boat came to an island rich in all good things, with a princely palace awaiting the new



  Bella Venezia

  A mother and a daughter kept an elegant inn, where kings and princes passing through town would stop. The innkeeper’s name was Bella Venezia, and while travelers sat at the table, she would strike up a conversation. “What town do you come from?”

  “From Milan.”

  “Did you ever see any woman in Milan lovelier than I am?”

  “No, I’ve never seen a soul lovelier than you.”

  When it came time to settle the accounts, Bella Venezia would say, “Normally that would be ten crowns, but you need give me only five”—for she charged anyone only half-price when he told her he’d never seen a lovelier woman than herself.

  “Where are you from?”


  “And is there anyone in Turin lovelier than I am?”

  “No, a woman lovelier than you I have never seen.”

  Then, at reckoning time, Bella Venezia said, “Normally I charge six crowns, but you need give me only three.”

  One day the innkeeper was asking a traveler the usual question, “And did you ever see a lovelier woman than myself?” when her daughter went through the room. And the traveler replied, “Indeed I have.”


  “Your daughter.”

  This time in making up the bill, Bella Venezia said, “It’s normally eight crowns, but I’m asking you for sixteen.”

  That evening the mistress called in the kitchen boy. “Go to the seashore, build a hut with just one tiny little window, and close up my daughter in it.”

  Thus Bella Venezia’s daughter was imprisoned day and night in that hut by the sea. She heard the breaking of the waves, but was able to see no one other than the kitchen boy, who came to her daily with bread and water. But in spite of being shut up there, the maiden grew lovelier by the day.

  A stranger riding along the beach on horseback saw that hut all boarded up and drew closer. He peeped through the tiny window and made out in the dimness the most beautiful maidenly face he had ever laid eyes on. A bit frightened, he spurred his horse and galloped off.

  That night he stopped at Bella Venezia’s inn.

  “What town are you from?” asked the innkeeper.


  “Did you ever see anyone lovelier than myself?”

  “I certainly have,” replied the stranger.


  “Closed up in a hut by the sea.”

  “Here’s your bill. It’s only ten crowns, but I want thirty from you.”

  In the evening Bella Venezia asked the kitchen boy, “Listen, would you like to marry me?”

  The kitchen boy couldn’t believe his ears.

  “If you want to marry me,” continued Bella Venezia, “you must take my daughter into the woods and kill her. Bring me back her eyes and a bottle of her blood, and I’ll marry you.”

  The kitchen boy was eager to marry the mistress, but he didn’t have the heart to kill her daughter, who was all beauty and goodness. So he took the girl to the woods and left her. To get eyes and blood to carry back to Bella Venezia, he killed a lamb, which is innocent blood. And the mistress married him.

  Alone in the woods, the girl screamed and cried, but no one heard her. Toward nightfall she spied a light in the distance. Drawing near, she heard many people talking and, frightened to death, hid behind a tree. It was a rocky, desolate place, and twelve robbers had come to a halt before a white boulder. One of them said, “Open up, desert!” and the boulder swung outward like a door. The inside was all lit up like a large palace. The twelve robbers went in, and the last one said, “Close up, desert!” and the boulder swung to. The girl hidden behind the tree bided her time. In a little while, a voice inside said, “Open up, desert!” The door opened, and out filed the twelve robbers, the twelfth ordering, “Close up, desert!”

  Once the robbers were out of sight, the girl went to the white boulder and said, “Open up, desert!” and the door swung open for her. She stepped into the lighted interior and commanded, “Close up, desert!”

  Inside was a table laid for twelve, with twelve plates, twelve loaves of bread, and twelve bottles of wine. In the kitchen twelve chickens were on a spit ready to roast. The girl tidied up the place, made the twelve beds, and roasted the twelve chickens. Hungry by then, she ate a wing from every chicken, took a bite of every loaf of bread and a sip of wine from every bottle. When she heard the robbers coming back, she hid under a bed. The twelve bandits didn’t know what to think when they saw the house so tidy, the beds made, and the chickens roasted. Then they noticed a wing missing from every chicken, a bite from every loaf, and a sip from every bottle, and said, “Somebody must have come in here.” Tomorrow it was agreed one of them would remain behind to stand guard.

  The smallest of the robbers stayed, but he went outside to watch while the girl meanwhile came out from under the bed, put everything in order, ate the twelve chicken wings, the twelve chunks of bread, and drank the twelve swallows of wine.

  “You’re good for nothing!” said the ringleader, when he returned and saw that the house had been visited again. He assigned someone else to stand guard the next day. But this man also remained outside, while the girl was indoors. So for eleven days straight every robber tried keeping watch, but failed to discover the girl and was bawled out by all the others for being so stupid.

  On the twelfth day, the chief decided to stand guard. Instead of watching outside, he remained inside and thus saw the girl come out from under the bed. Grabbing her by the arm, he said, “Don’t be afraid. Now that you are here you can stay, and we will treat you as our little sister.”

  So the girl remained with the robbers, keeping house for them, and every evening they brought her jewels, gold pieces, rings, and earrings.

  The youngest robber delighted in dressing up as a grand nobleman to commit his robberies, and he would stop at the best inns. He thus went to Bella Venezia’s one evening for dinner.

  “Where do you come from?” asked the innkeeper.

  “From the heart of the forest.”

  “Have you ever seen any woman lovelier than myself?”

  “I certainly have,” replied the robber.

  “Who is she?”

  “A girl we have with us.”

  So Bella Venezia knew her daughter was still alive.

  Every day an old woman would come to the inn asking for alms, and this old woman was a witch. Bella Venezia promised one-half of her fortune to the witch if she could track down and kill that daughter.

  One day while the robbers were out, the girl was standing at the window singing, when an old woman came by and said, “Brooches for sale! Brooches for sale! Lovely maiden, may I come in? I’ll show you a pin that’s a real gem, for your hair.”

  The maiden invited her in, and the old woman, going through the motion of showing her how nice a pin would look in her hair, thrust it into her scalp. The girl died.

  When the robbers came home and found her dead, they all burst into tears, tough as they were. They chose a tall tree with a hollow trunk and buried her inside it.

  Now the king’s son was out hunting. He heard the dogs barking and, moving closer, saw them all scratching on the trunk of a tree. The king’s son looked inside and found a very beautiful maiden who was dead.

  “If you were alive, I would marry you,” he said. “Even though you are dead, I can’t tear myself away from you.” He sounded his hunting horn, assembled his hunters, and had her taken to the royal palace. Without his mother the queen’s knowledge, he had the beautiful maiden put in one of the rooms and would stay there the whole day admiring her.

  Suspicious, the mother burst into the room. “So that’s why you didn’t want to come out! But she’s dead! How could you possibly be interested in her?”

  “Dead or not, I can’t live apart from her!”

  “You can at least have her hair fixed!” said the queen, and sent for the royal hairdresser. He came and
, combing her hair, broke his comb. He picked up another comb and broke that one too. Thus, one right after the other, he broke seven combs. “What on earth does this girl have in her head?” asked the royal hairdresser. “I shall take a look.” And he touched the head of a pin. He pulled ever so gently and, as the pin came out, the maiden regained her color, opened her eyes, drew her breath, said, “Oh,” and stood up.

  The wedding was celebrated. Tables were also set up in the streets. Whoever wanted to eat, ate; whoever didn’t want to, didn’t.

  O Lord!

  A hen for every sinner!

  And for me, sinner of sinners,

  A hen and several roosters!



  The Mangy One

  A king had no sons, and that distressed him. In the grip of this distress he was riding through a forest, when he met a knight on a white horse.

  “Why so sad, Majesty?” inquired the knight.

  “I have no sons,” explained the king, “and my kingdom will be lost.”

  “If you want a son,” said the knight, “sign a pact with me. When this son turns fifteen, you will bring him to this spot in the forest and give him to me.”

  “I’d sign any agreement whatever just to have him,” answered the king. Thus the pact was signed, and the son was born.

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