Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

He was a little boy with golden hair, and he wore a gold cross on his chest. Day by day he grew in stature and in wisdom. Before fifteen years had rolled around, he had already completed all his schooling and become an expert at handling weapons. Just three days before the boy’s fifteenth birthday, the king locked himself in his apartments and wept. The queen didn’t know what to make of this weeping, until the king informed her of the pact that was about to come due, and then she too wept and wept. The boy saw his parents in tears and was puzzled. His father said, “Son, I shall now take you to the forest and entrust you to your godfather, who sanctioned your birth by a pact.”

  So father and son rode to the forest in silence. Other hoofbeats were suddenly heard: it was the knight on the white horse. The youth rode up alongside him and, without a word, the father, with tears streaming down his face, wheeled his horse around and rode back whence he had come. The youth continued onward alongside the mysterious knight, through parts of the forest never before traversed. At last they came to a large palace, and the knight said, “Godson, you will live here and be the master of the house. Three things only I forbid you: to open this little window, to open this cupboard, and to go down into the stables.”

  At midnight, the godfather rode away on his white horse and didn’t return until dawn. After three nights, as soon as he was by himself, the godson was overcome with curiosity about the forbidden little window. He opened it and found himself peering into smoke and flames, since the window opened onto Hell. The youth stared into Hell to see if he recognized anyone there, and whom should he see but his own grandmother. She saw him too and cried out from the depths, “Grandson, dear grandson, who brought you here?”

  “My godfather!” replied the young man.

  “No, no, no, dear grandson. That man is not your godfather, he’s the Devil. Flee for your life, grandson. Open the cupboard and take with you a sieve, a cake of soap and a comb. Then go down into the stables, where you will find your horse. Flee, and when the Devil comes after you, throw down those three objects in his path. You’ll cross the Jordan River, and then be out of his reach for good.”

  The next minute the youth was already galloping away on his horse named Horseradish. When the godfather returned and found him gone, together with horse and objects from the cupboard, he launched out against the damned souls and raked them over the coals. Then he set out after the fugitive. Godfather’s white horse galloped a hundred times faster than Horseradish, and would certainly have caught up with him, had the godson not thrown down in his path the comb, which changed into a forest so dense that the godfather had to struggle for quite some time to get through it. When he was finally out of the forest and galloping again, the godson let him almost catch up, then threw down the sieve. The sieve changed into a marsh, which godfather had a time crossing, after no little wallowing. He’d almost caught up with the boy for the third time, when the godson threw down the cake of soap. The soap changed into a slippery mountain, and no matter where the godfather’s horse set foot, he took many more steps backward than forward. In the meantime the godson had come to the bank of the Jordan River, and spurred Horseradish forward into the current. Horseradish swam across to the other side, while the godfather, who had finally got over the mountain, gave vent to his anger over being unable to pursue him beyond the Jordan River, by unleashing thunder, lightning, wind, rain, and hail. But the youth was already on the opposite shore and galloping off to the royal city of Portugal.

  In Portugal, so as not to be recognized, the youth decided to hide his golden hair and therefore bought an ox bladder from a butcher. He put it on his head, and thus looked as if he had the mange. He tethered Horseradish in a meadow, and nobody could steal him, for during his stay in the Devil’s stables, the horse had learned to eat humans.

  Wearing the bladder over his head, the youth strolled by the king’s palace. The gardener saw him and, learning that he was seeking work, engaged him as his helper. The gardener’s wife began grumbling when her husband brought him home, for she wanted no mangy man in her house. So, to please her, the husband sent him to a wood hut nearby, telling him he was not to set foot in their house again.

  At night the youth stole softly from the hut and went off and untied Horseradish. He dressed up in a king’s red suit, removed the bladder from his head, and his golden hair gleamed in the moonlight. He rode Horseradish through various maneuvers in the royal garden, jumping over hedges and ponds, and engaged in feats of skill, such as tossing into the air three shiny rings, gifts from his mother, that he wore on his three middle fingers, and catching them on the tip of his sword.

  At the same time, the daughter of the king of Portugal happened to be at her window gazing at the garden in the moonlight, and saw the young rider with gold hair and dressed in red going through all those maneuvers. “Who can he be? How did he get into the garden?” she wondered. “I’ll watch where he goes when he leaves.” She therefore saw him leave, just before dawn, by a gate that led into the meadow where he kept his horse tethered. She still had her eyes on the gate, when a few minutes later the mangy one who helped the gardener came through it, and she closed her window so as not to be seen.

  The next night she sat at the window and waited. At last she saw the mangy one come out of the hut and go through the gate. In a few minutes the rider with golden hair came back through it; this time he was dressed from head to toe in white, and resumed his maneuvers. Just before dawn he left, and in no time the mangy one returned. The princess began to suspect some connection between the mangy one and the rider.

  The third night the same things took place; only the rider was dressed in black. The princess said to herself, “The mangy one and the rider are one and the same.”

  The next day she went down into the garden and told the mangy one to bring her some flowers. He made three nosegays: a big one, a middlesized one, and a little one; he put them in a basket and carried them to her. The larger nosegay was fitted into the ring from his middle finger, the middle-sized one into the ring from his ring finger, and the smaller one into his pinkie ring. The princess recognized the rings and returned the basket full of gold doubloons.

  The mangy one carried the basket back to the gardener, doubloons and all. The gardener began scolding his wife. “Just look at that!” he said. “You won’t allow him inside our house, but the princess calls him into her rooms and fills his basket with gold doubloons!”

  The next day the princess wanted the mangy one to bring her some oranges. He brought her three: one ripe, one half-ripe, one green. The princess put them on the table, and the king asked, “Why are you bringing green oranges to the table?”

  “They are what the mangy one brought in,” answered the princess.

  “Let’s see what this mangy one has to say for himself; bring him in,” said the king. When the mangy one stood before him, the king asked why he’d picked three oranges of varying degrees of ripeness.

  “Majesty,” replied the mangy one, “you have three daughters: one is marriageable, a second is only halfway ready for marriage, while the third still has a few years to wait.”

  “True,” replied the king, and issued a proclamation: LET ALL MY OLDEST DAUGHTER’S SUITORS LINE UP. HE TO WHOM SHE GIVES HER HANDKERCHIEF WILL BE CHOSEN.

  There was a grand parade under the royal windows. First came all the sons from reigning families, then all the barons, next all the knights, then the artillery men, and finally the foot soldiers. Bringing up the rear was the mangy one, and the princess gave her handkerchief to him.

  Upon learning that his daughter had chosen the mangy one, the king turned her out of the house. She went off to live in the mangy one’s hut. He gave her his own bed and made do with a couch by the fire, saying a mangy one may not come close to the daughter of the king. So he’s really and truly mangy, thought the princess to herself. Good heavens, what have I gone and done! She already regretted her choice.

  War broke out between the king of Portugal and the king of Spain, and all the men
went off to fight. They said to the mangy one, “All the men are going to war; are you who have taken in the king’s daughter staying here?” They had already made plans to give him a lame horse, so that he would be killed in battle. The mangy one took the lame horse to the meadow where Horseradish was tethered, dressed himself in red from head to toe, donned a breastplate his father had given him, and rode off to war on Horseradish. The king of Portugal found himself hemmed in by the enemy: up galloped the red knight, put the enemy to flight, and saved the king’s life. No enemy soldier on the field could come anywhere near the king, for the knight dealt cutting blows right and left while his horse filled the enemy horses with terror. That was how the first day’s battle was won.

  Each evening the king’s daughter went to the palace to hear the latest news from the battlefield. When they told her about the golden-haired knight in red, who’d saved the king’s life and brought victory to his army, she couldn’t help thinking, That’s my knight, the rider I used to see at night in the garden. And here I’ve gone and chosen the mangy one! With a heavy heart she returned to the hut and found the mangy one asleep by the fire, huddled up under his old cloak. The princess could no longer keep back her tears.

  At dawn the mangy one rose, took the lame horse, and went off to battle. But he first stopped by the meadow as usual, exchanging the lame horse for Horseradish and his rags for a white suit. He donned the breastplate and removed the ox bladder from his head of golden hair. That day too the battle was won, thanks to the knight in white.

  Upon hearing this latest piece of news in the evening and then going home and finding the mangy one sleeping by the fire, the king’s daughter was more woeful than ever.

  The third day the golden-haired knight showed up on the field dressed entirely in black. This time the king of Spain himself was there, together with his seven sons. So what did the golden-haired knight do but single-handedly confront all seven of them at once. He slew them one by one until they were all vanquished. But the seventh son, before dying, wounded him on the right arm with a sword. At the end of the battle the king of Portugal wanted to have the wound dressed, but the knight had already disappeared, as on the other evenings.

  Hearing that the golden-haired knight had been wounded, the king’s daughter was deeply grieved, as she was still in love with that stranger. She went home feeling more bitter than ever toward the mangy one and stared at him with contempt as he slept curled up next to the fire. But as she looked at him, she caught a glimpse, through his unbuttoned cloak, of a bandage around his arm. Then she noticed that, under this cloak, he wore a costly black-velvet outfit. Nor was that all she observed: sticking out from under the ox bladder was a lock of golden hair.

  Wounded, the youth had been unable to change as on the other evenings; dead tired, he’d dropped down on his couch and fallen asleep.

  The king’s daughter stifled a cry of surprise and joy and uneasiness all in one and tiptoed out of the hut, so as not to awaken him, and went flying to her father. “Come see who won your battles! Come see!”

  Followed by the whole court, the king went to the wood hut. “Yes, it is he all right!” said the king, recognizing the knight under his disguise. They woke him up and would have carried him out on their shoulders, but the king’s daughter had called in the surgeon to dress his wound. The king wanted to celebrate the wedding right then and there, but the young man said, “First I must go and inform my father and mother, for I too am the son of a king.”

  The father and mother came to meet their son, whom they had given up for dead, and everybody sat down together to the wedding banquet.

  (Abruzzo)

  111

  The Wildwood King

  A king had three daughters. Two of them were neither beautiful nor ugly, but the youngest was beautiful beyond words. Whenever any man came asking for the hand of the eldest girl, he would fall in love with the youngest. None of the girls, therefore, managed to get married. The two older daughters formed a plot against the youngest; they told their father they had both had a dream: their sister would run away from home with a common soldier. Lest the dream come true and his youngest daughter disgrace the royal house, the king called in a general and ordered him to take the girl walking in the woods of the wildwood king and there kill her with his sword.

  So they went into the wildwood king’s woods, the maiden and the general. “All right,” said the girl after a time, “let’s go back home now.”

  “No, Your Highness,” replied the general. “I’m sorry, but I have orders to kill you right here.”

  “And why would you want to kill an innocent girl like me?”

  “King’s orders,” answered the general, unsheathing his sword. But the sight of the poor girl so frightened moved him to pity, and he took away her clothes to dip them in a lamb’s blood and present them to the king as proof of her death.

  The girl remained in the woods weeping, terrified at the thought of the wildwood king who lived in those woods and ate everyone who crossed his path. After crying for a while, she dried her eyes and fell asleep in a hollow tree trunk.

  In the morning, the old wildwood king was out hunting and in pursuit of a wounded stag. But instead of finding the stag, he came upon the sleeping maiden. Seeing how beautiful she was, he awakened her and asked, “Would you like to come with me? Don’t be afraid.” The girl accepted, and followed the wildwood king to his house in the depths of the woods, where he led a sad, solitary life, going out hunting and never seeing a living soul. The girl began keeping house for him, and the old hermit loved her like a daughter.

  In the morning as soon as she got up, she braided her hair at the window, and a parrot lit on the ledge and said:

  “In vain are you pretty and neat,

  You will become the forest king’s meat.”

  Hearing those words, the girl started crying. The wildwood king came in from hunting and, seeing her upset, asked, “What’s the matter?” The girl told him what the parrot had said.

  “Do you know what you should tell him?” asked the wildwood king.

  “Parrot, parrot, hear this ban:

  Your feathers for my fan,

  Your meat is for my pan,

  Your master will become my man!”

  When she repeated those words the next day the parrot, out of spite, shook himself so vigorously that he flew off minus half his feathers. The parrot belonged to a king in the vicinity, who seeing his bird come back half-plucked, asked the servants, “Who is pulling out the parrot’s feathers?”

  The servants replied, “Every morning he flies off in the direction of the wildwood king’s house and comes home plucked.”

  “I shall follow him tomorrow morning,” said the king, “and find out what is going on.”

  So next morning, riding through the woods, he followed the parrot’s flight and came up to the window where the most beautiful maiden he had ever seen was arranging her hair. The parrot lit on the window ledge and sang:

  “In vain are you pretty and neat,

  You will become the forest king’s meat.”

  And the maiden replied:

  “Parrot, parrot, hear this ban:

  Your feathers for my fan,

  Your meat is for my pan,

  Your master will become my man!”

  And the parrot shook out all his feathers.

  Then that king went to the wildwood king and asked for the girl’s hand in marriage. The wildwood king gladly gave her to him, although it grieved the old king to be separated from her. She thanked him and bid him farewell, leaving him by himself in the depths of the woods.

  The wedding banquet was also attended by the bride’s royal father, who asked her forgiveness for all the suffering he had caused her at the prompting of the wicked sisters.

  And the parrot? He flew off and was never seen again.

  (Abruzzo)

  112

  Mandorlinfiore

  There was a wife and a husband, and a baby was about to be born to them.
The father went to the door to see who was passing by, for his son would become exactly like that person.

  Some loose women came down the street, and the father cried to his wife, “Don’t have him just now, for heaven’s sake!”

  Some thieves went by, and again the father cried out, “Not yet, not yet, please!”

  Then the king came by, and in that instant the baby was born, and it was a boy. So father, mother, grandmother, and aunts shouted, “The king has just been born! The king has just been born!”

  The king heard them and entered the house. He asked for an explanation, and they told him the whole story. Then the king said he would take the baby home with him and raise him. Father and mother blessed the child and handed him over to the king.

  Along the way the king got to thinking, Why should I raise a child that will only be my undoing in the end? He pulled out a knife, planted it in the baby’s throat, and left him lying in the middle of an orchard of almond trees in bloom.

  The next day two merchants came that way. They found the baby still alive, so they bandaged up his wound, and one of them took him home to his wife. They were a rich couple with no children of their own, and they came to love him dearly. They named him Mandorlinfiore, which means “almond blossom.”

  Mandorlinfiore grew to be a handsome and clever youth. Then, quite unexpectedly, the merchant had a son of his own. One day when this second son was already a big boy, he got into an argument while playing with Mandorlinfiore and called him a bastard. Mandorlinfiore went and told his mother, and thus learned how he had been found in an orchard. At that he decided to leave home and nothing the merchant and his wife said could make him change his mind. After going some distance he reached the city of the king who had stabbed and then abandoned him. Finding Mandorlinfiore such an intelligent youth, the king engaged him as his secretary, for he naturally did not recognize him.

 
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