Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Now the king had a daughter as fair as day, named Belfiore, and the youth fell in love with her. When the father realized that his daughter was being courted by his secretary, rather than deprive himself of a secretary he really needed, he chose to send his daughter to live in the house of another king, his brother. In his unhappiness Mandorlinfiore fell sick, and it was then that the king, visiting his bedside, discovered the scar on his neck. He remembered the baby he had knifed, and asked the secretary where he was born. “I was found in a field of almond trees in bloom,” replied the youth.

  So the king resolved to put him to death. He told him to carry a letter to the other king, his brother, and Mandorlinfiore departed. The letter said the young man was to be hanged immediately. But Belfiore, who had got wind of her lover’s arrival, was waiting for him and brought him in on the sly through a small secret entrance. Once they were alone, Belfiore asked to see the letter her father was sending her uncle, but Mandorlinfiore said no, he’d promised to give it to no one except its addressee. But when the youth went to sleep, Belfiore opened the letter and read it. That way she discovered the trap set by her father, and she and Mandorlinfiore together sought a way to get the better of the king. In place of the letter, they put another that said the youth was to marry Belfiore immediately, and Mandorlinfiore went back through the secret entrance, purchased princely garb and a gilded carriage and then returned with the letter. Uncle called in niece and told her that, by order of her father, he was to give her in marriage, and Belfiore pretended to be thunderstruck. The marriage was celebrated, and when the king learned of it, he was so mad he died.

  (Abruzzo)

  113

  The Three Blind Queens

  There were three sons of a king, but the king was dead, like the queen. The nursemaid was the one who ran the house. The three king’s sons wanted to get married, and had three portraits of three girls they liked.

  They said to the ambassadors, “Go all over the world. If you find three girls like the portraits, bring them back for us to marry.” The ambassadors searched the world over without finding anyone. Finally they saw a fisherman’s three daughters, who alone looked like the portraits. The ambassadors had them dressed as queens and presented to the three sons of the king. They liked one another and got married.

  War broke out. The three noble sons departed, leaving the nursemaid in charge of the house. But the nursemaid, with those three queens at home, couldn’t have her own way as in the past. So she told a minister to kill them and, as proof, to bring her back three pairs of eyes. The minister said to the queens, “The weather is truly delightful today, let’s go for a ride.” They got into a carriage, and the carriage kept right on going until it came to the foot of a mountain. The three queens got out, and then the minister. The minister drew a sword and sighed. “I have the honor to announce I shall kill you and carry your eyes back to the nursemaid.” The three queens replied, “No, listen, don’t kill us. Leave us here on the mountain. As for the eyes, we will give them to you ourselves.”

  They gouged out their eyes and gave them to the minister, who wept. When the three royal sons returned and asked about the three queens, the nursemaid said they had died in an accident. The three widowers swore they would never take any other wives.

  Inside a cave, the three blind queens lived on herbs and roots. They were each expecting a baby, and one night, each of them gave birth at the same time to a fine baby boy. The mothers and their babes lived on herbs and roots. When the herbs and roots ran out, to keep from starving to death the mothers drew lots to see whose baby they would eat. It fell to the oldest, so her baby was eaten. Next it was the turn of the second sister’s baby. The youngest sister, whose turn had now come, picked up her baby and groped her way hastily out of the cave.

  She found another cave and a spot with many herbs. So the baby grew to be a big boy, went hunting with a gun made from a reed, and brought his mother back something to eat. Then he found the other two blind women and took them to his mother’s cave.

  One of the royal sons, who happened to be his father, was out hunting one day and met the boy in a forest. “Come with me,” said the king’s son.

  “I’ll go and tell my mother,” replied the boy. His mother said all right, and the boy left her.

  The nursemaid pretended to be glad to see him, but behind his back she scowled. When it came to handling weapons, the boy was the best and bravest man in the whole kingdom. The nursemaid decided to impose on him a task that would get him out of the way for good. A long time ago a princess of the family had been kidnapped by the fairies. The nursemaid said to the three royal sons, “This youth could go and find the girl.” At that, the three sons instructed him to go and look for her.

  First the young man went to the blind women’s cave for advice, after which he set out. In a desert stood a black and white palace. He drew near, and a plaintive voice called to him, “Do you see where I am? Do you see? Turn around!” The youth replied, “No, if I turn around, I’ll change into a tree.” He entered the black and white palace. Three yellow candles were burning in one of the rooms. The young man blew them out in one puff. That broke the evil spell, and he suddenly found himself back at the palace of the three royal sons, together with the very lovely prin cess and his mother and aunts, who had all recovered their eyes. The youth married the princess. At dinner everyone told a story. The three queens told theirs, and the nursemaid got to shivering so much that, to warm her up, they coated her with pitch and roasted her alive.

  (Abruzzo)

  114

  Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler

  A king was out strolling. He looked at the people, the swallows, the houses, and was content. A little old woman passed, minding her own business. She was a very well bred old soul, but she limped a little, and was also a trifle hunchbacked and, in addition, had a wryneck. The king stared at her and said, “Hunchback wryneck hobbler! Ha, ha, ha!” And he laughed heartily in her face.

  Now this old woman was a fairy. She looked the king in the eye and said, “Go on, laugh your fill. We’ll just see who’s laughing tomorrow.”

  At that, the king went into another peal of laughter. “Ha, ha, ha!”

  This king had three daughters who were beautiful girls indeed. The next day he called them to go out walking with him. The oldest girl showed up with a hump on her back. “A hump?” asked the king. “How on earth did you get that?”

  “Well,” explained the daughter, “the maid made up my bed so badly that I got a big hump last night.”

  The king began pacing the floor; he felt uneasy.

  He sent for his second daughter, who showed up with a wryneck. “What’s the meaning of coming in now with a wryneck?” asked the king.

  “Here’s what happened,” replied the second daughter. “While the maid was combing my hair, she pulled out a hair . . . and here I am now with a wryneck.”

  “And this girl?” said the king, noticing his youngest daughter limp into the room. “Just why is she limping now?”

  “I went out into the garden,” explained the third daughter, “and the maid picked a jasmine blossom and flung it at me. It fell on my foot and lamed me.”

  “But who is this maid?” screamed the king. “Have her come before me at once!”

  The maid was called and had to be dragged before the king by the guards because, in her words, she was ashamed to be seen: she was hunchbacked, wrynecked, and hobbling—the very same old woman as the day before! The king recognized her instantly and yelled, “Coat her with pitch and burn her to death!”

  The old woman shrank and shrank until her head was the size of a nail and just as pointed. There was a tiny hole in the wall, and she squeezed through it and disappeared from sight, leaving behind only her hump, wryneck, and lame foot.

  (Abruzzo)

  115

  One-Eye

  There were two friars who went out begging. Darkness fell on the mountains. From a cave shone a little light.

  “Lord of
the house,” they called, “will you give us shelter for the night?”

  “Come in,” thundered a voice that echoed on the mountain.

  The friars entered, and there before the fire was a giant with one eye in his forehead, who said, “Welcome, you will be comfortable here.”

  He stepped behind the friars, who were shaking like leaves, and closed up the entrance with a boulder that one hundred persons all together couldn’t have budged.

  “I have one hundred sheep,” said One-Eye, “but the year is long and I must save them. So which one of you two should I eat first, Little Friar or Big Friar? You decide, by drawing lots.”

  Lots were drawn, and it fell to Big Friar. One-Eye ran him onto a spit, and put him over the fire to roast. As he turned the spit, he sang, “Fatty tonight, Shorty tomorrow, Fatty tonight, Shorty tomorrow!”

  Little Friar was torn between grief over losing his companion and eagerness to avoid a like fate. When Big Friar was done, One-Eye began eating him and also gave Little Friar a leg to sample. Little Friar pretended to eat, but threw the meat over his shoulder.

  Once he’d picked Big Friar’s bones clean, One-Eye threw himself down on the straw to sleep. Little Friar curled up by the fire and also pretended to go to sleep. When he heard One-Eye snoring like a pig rooting in the earth, he took the spit, heated the point to a glow, and—zing!—thrust it into the giant’s single eye.

  The blinded giant jumped to his feet howling and waving his hands in all directions in an effort to grab Little Friar. But Little Friar darted into the flock of sheep. One-Eye began feeling the sheep, one by one, but Little Friar got out of his way every time. Then the giant said, “Just wait until daylight!”

  At that, Little Friar quietly took the ram, skinned it, and wrapped himself up in the fleece. When it was day, One-Eye lifted the boulder away from the mouth of the cave and planted himself at the entrance, one leg on one side, the other on the other, so as to be able to feel everything that came out and to let the sheep pass, but not Little Friar. He called the ram first of all, and Little Friar came forward on all fours ringing the bell around his neck. One-Eye stroked him on the back and said, “Go on.” Then he felt the sheep as they went out one by one. So Little Friar was free and took to his heels, overjoyed to be out of the cave.

  But once all the sheep were out, One-Eye began feeling around the cave, and his hands came upon the flayed ram. He then realized that the ram he had felt a few minutes ago was none other than Little Friar in disguise, and he ran out of the cave after him. He groped his way along, sniffing the air and, smelling the friar near at hand, he yelled, “Little Friar, you gave me the slip! You’re smarter than I am! Here’s a ring for a souvenir of your victory!” He threw him a ring, which Little Friar caught and put on. But it was a magic ring: once it was on his finger, Little Friar tried to run away from One-Eye but ran to him instead. The harder he tried to flee, the closer he came to the giant. He tried to remove the ring, but it would no longer come off. When he was almost in the giant’s reach, he cut off the finger with the ring and flung it in the giant’s face: right away he was free and able to flee.

  One-Eye opened his mouth and swallowed Little Friar’s finger, saying, “I at least got a taste of you!”

  (Abruzzo)

  116

  The False Grandmother

  A mother had to sift flour, and told her little girl to go to her grandmother’s and borrow the sifter. The child packed a snack—ring-shaped cakes and bread with oil—and set out.

  She came to the Jordan River.

  “Jordan River, will you let me pass?”

  “Yes, if you give me your ring-shaped cakes.”

  The Jordan River had a weakness for ring-shaped cakes, which he enjoyed twirling in his whirlpools.

  The child tossed the ring-shaped cakes into the river, and the river lowered its waters and let her through.

  The little girl came to the Rake Gate.

  “Rake Gate, will you let me pass?”

  “Yes, if you give me your bread with oil.”

  The Rake Gate had a weakness for bread with oil, since her hinges were rusty, and bread with oil oiled them for her.

  The little girl gave the gate her bread with oil, and the gate opened and let her through.

  She reached her grandmother’s house, but the door was shut tight.

  “Grandmother, Grandmother, come let me in.”

  “I’m in bed sick. Come through the window.”

  “I can’t make it.”

  “Come through the cat door.”

  “I can’t squeeze through.”

  “Well, wait a minute,” she said, and lowered a rope, by which she pulled the little girl up through the window. The room was dark. In bed was the ogress, not the grandmother, for the ogress had gobbled up Grandmother all in one piece from head to toe, all except her teeth, which she had put on to stew in a small stew pan, and her ears, which she had put on to fry in a frying pan.

  “Grandmother, Mamma wants the sifter.”

  “It’s late now. I’ll give it to you tomorrow. Come to bed.”

  “Grandmother, I’m hungry, I want my supper first.”

  “Eat the beans boiling in the boiler.”

  In the pot were the teeth. The child stirred them around and said, “Grandmother, they’re too hard.”

  “Well, eat the fritters in the frying pan.”

  In the frying pan were the ears. The child felt them with the fork and said, “Grandmother, they’re not crisp.”

  “Well, come to bed. You can eat tomorrow.”

  The little girl got into bed beside Grandmother. She felt one of her hands and said, “Why are your hands so hairy, Grandmother?”

  “From wearing too many rings on my fingers.”

  She felt her chest. “Why is your chest so hairy, Grandmother?”

  “From wearing too many necklaces around my neck.”

  She felt her hips. “Why are your hips so hairy, Grandmother?”

  “Because I wore my corset too tight.”

  She felt her tail and reasoned that, hairy or not, Grandmother had never had a tail. That had to be the ogress and nobody else. So she said, “Grandmother, I can’t go to sleep unless I first go and take care of a little business.”

  Grandmother replied, “Go do it in the barn below. I’ll let you down through the trapdoor and then draw you back up.”

  She tied a rope around her and lowered her into the barn. The minute the little girl was down she untied the rope and in her place attached a nanny goat. “Are you through?” asked Grandmother.

  “Just a minute.” She finished tying the rope around the nanny goat. “There, I’ve finished. Pull me back up.”

  The ogress pulled and pulled, and the little girl began yelling, “Hairy ogress! Hairy ogress!” She threw open the barn and fled. The ogress kept pulling, and up came the nanny goat. She jumped out of bed and ran after the little girl.

  When the child reached the Rake Gate, the ogress yelled from a distance; “Rake Gate, don’t let her pass!”

  But the Rake Gate replied, “Of course I’ll let her pass; she gave me her bread with oil.”

  When the child reached the Jordan River, the ogress shouted, “Jordan River, don’t you let her pass!”

  But the Jordan River answered, “Of course I’ll let her pass; she gave me her ring-shaped cakes.”

  When the ogress tried to get through, the Jordan River did not lower his waters, and the ogress was swept away in the current. From the bank the little girl made faces at her.

  (Abruzzo)

  117

  Frankie-Boy’s Trade

  A woman had an only child, Frankie-Boy, and was anxious for him to learn a trade. The son replied, “Find me a master, and I will learn the trade.” So his mother found him a blacksmith as a master.

  Frankie-Boy went to work at the smithy, where he accidentally brought down the hammer on his hand. Back home he went to his mother. “Mamma, find me another master, I’m not cut out to be a blac
ksmith.”

  Mamma looked around for another master, and this time found a cobbler. Frankie-Boy worked at the cobbler’s and accidentally ran the awl through his hand. Home to his mother he went. “Mamma, find me another master; I’m not cut out to be a cobbler either.”

  His mother replied, “Son, I have only ten ducats left. If you learn the trade, well and good! If not, I don’t know of anything else to do for you.”

  “If that’s the case, Mamma,” said Frankie-Boy, “you’d better give me the ten ducats and let me go out into the world and see if I can’t learn a trade on my own.”

  His mother gave him the ten ducats, and Frankie-Boy set out. Along the way, in the heart of a forest, four robbers sprang out and cried, “Face to the ground!”

  “Face to the ground?” repeated Frankie-Boy. “How do you mean?”

  “Face to the ground!”

  “Show me how I’m supposed to do,” replied Frankie-Boy.

  The robbers’ ringleader thought to himself, This fellow is even more persistent than we are. What if we took him into our band? So he asked him, “Young man, would you like to be one of us?”

  “What trade will you teach me?” said Frankie-Boy.

  “Our own respectable trade,” replied the ringleader, “We accost people, and if they refuse to hand over their money, we assassinate them. Then we feast, drink, and go for a stroll.”

 
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