Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  So Frankie-Boy began roving the highways with the band. A year later the leader died, and Frankie-Boy took his place. One day he ordered the whole band to go out and prowl while he stayed behind to guard their booty. An idea occurred to him. “I could take all this money here, load it onto a mule, and slip away without leaving a trace.” And that’s just what he did.

  He reached his mother’s house and knocked. “Mamma, I’m home, open up!” His mother opened the door and found herself face to face with her son, who held a mule by the halter. He immediately began unloading sacks of money.

  “But what trade did you learn?”

  “The respectable trade, Mamma, where one eats, drinks, and goes for a stroll.”

  His mother, who didn’t know what he was talking about, concluded it must be a good trade and asked no more questions. Now his mother happened to be very chummy with the archpriest. The next morning she went to the priest and said, “Father, did you know your old friend was back?”

  “He is? Has he learned a trade?”

  “Yes, he has. He’s learned the respectable trade. He eats, drinks, and goes for a stroll. And he’s earned a muleload of money.”

  “He has, has he?” said the archpriest, who knew better. “Send him around to see me. I want to talk to him . . . ”

  Frankie-Boy went to see him. “Well, old friend,” asked the priest, “have you really and truly learned a good trade?”

  “Yes, indeed.”

  “If that is so, we must make a bet.”

  “What are we betting?”

  “I have twelve shepherds and twenty dogs. If you can steal a ram from my flock, I’ll give you one hundred ducats.”

  “My friend,” replied Frankie-Boy, “if you have twelve shepherds and twenty dogs, how can I possibly succeed? I don’t know what to say. Let us try all the same.”

  He dressed up as a monk and went to the shepherds. “O shepherds, hold your dogs, I’m only a poor man of God.”

  The shepherds tied up their dogs. “Come closer, father, come up to the fire and warm yourself along with us.”

  Frankie-Boy sat by the fire with the shepherds, drew out of his pocket a piece of bread, and began eating. Then he took a flask from his pack and pretended to drink—just pretending, mind you, for the wine was drugged. A shepherd spoke up. “That’s the spirit, father! Eat and drink, offering no one a taste or sip!”

  “Sir,” replied Frankie-Boy, “one swallow of this is sufficient for me.” And he offered him the flask. The shepherd drank, as did the others, and when the wine was all gone they felt very drowsy. In no time they were asleep. “It would happen that just when we wanted to talk to the monk a bit, all of you had to fall asleep!” said the only shepherd to stay awake. But the words were scarcely out of his mouth before he too yawned and went sound asleep.

  When Frankie-Boy was sure they were all fast asleep he undressed them one by one and reclothed them in the garb of monks. Then he took the fattest ram and left. Back home, he killed and roasted it, then sent a leg to the archpriest.

  When the shepherds awakened and saw themselves dressed as monks, they knew at once they had been robbed. “What will we now tell our master?” they wondered.

  “You go and explain,” said one. “No, you go,” said the other. But no one was willing, so they decided to go to him in a body. They knocked. When the priest’s servant saw them, she said, “Father, the porch is full of monks who wish to come inside!”

  “I have to say Mass this morning,” replied the priest. “Tell them to go away.”

  “Open up, open up!” cried the shepherds, who finally all burst into the house.

  Seeing his shepherds dressed as monks, the archpriest knew it was none other than Frankie-Boy’s doing, and muttered, “So he really did learn the trade!” He sent for him and gave him the hundred ducats.

  “Now, my friend,” said the priest, “let’s play the return match. We will stake two hundred ducats this time. There’s a church in the country which belongs to our parish. If you succeed in taking anything at all from that church, you win. I’m giving you eight days to do it.”

  “Very well,” replied Frankie-Boy.

  The archpriest sent for the hermit who stayed at the church and said, “Be on your guard; a man will attempt to steal something out of the church. Be on the lookout night and day.”

  “Have no fear, father! Just arm me well, and leave the rest to me.”

  Frankie-Boy let seven days and seven nights go by. On the last evening, he went up close to the church and hid by one of the corners. Now the hermit, poor thing, who’d not slept a wink for seven days and seven nights, came to the door and said to himself, “For seven nights he’s not showed up. Tonight is the last one. Six o’clock has already struck, and he hasn’t come. That’s a sign he’s afraid to. But who knows? I shall go and relieve myself and then get some sleep.”

  Out he went to the privy while Frankie-Boy, who had heard every word, darted into church like a cat and hid. The hermit returned, bolted the doors, then threw himself down, dead tired, on the church floor and fell asleep. At that, Frankie-Boy collected all the statues in church and put them around the hermit, at whose feet a sack was placed. Then he dressed up as a priest, went up the altar steps, and started preaching. “Hermit of this church, the time of thy salvation is nigh!”

  The hermit slept on.

  “Hermit of this church, the time of thy salvation is now!”

  The hermit awakened and, seeing all those saints around him, said, “Lord, pray tell what I must do!”

  “Get into the sack,” replied Frankie-Boy, “since the time of thy salvation is now!”

  The poor hermit squeezed into the sack. Frankie-Boy came down the altar steps, slung the sack over his shoulder, and off he went. He reached the archpriest’s house and threw the sack into the middle of the room.

  “Ugh!” groaned the hermit inside the bag.

  “Here you are, my friend. Just take a look at what I brought away from the church.”

  The archpriest opened the sack and found himself nose to nose with the hermit.

  “Frankie-Boy, my friend,” said the archpriest, “here are your two hundred ducats. I see you have really mastered the trade. Let us be friends, or you’ll have me in the sack too.”

  (Abruzzo)

  118

  Shining Fish

  There was a good old man whose sons had died, and he had no idea how he and his wife would now survive, for she too was old and ailing. Every day he went to the woods to gather firewood, and he would sell the bundle to buy bread and thus keep body and soul together.

  One day as he was making his way through the woods and groaning, he met a gentleman with a long beard, who said, “I’m aware of all your troubles, and I will help you. Here is a purse containing a hundred ducats.”

  The old man took the purse and fainted. When he came to, the gentleman had disappeared. The old man went home and hid the hundred ducats under a heap of manure, without breathing a word to his wife. “If I gave her the money, it would be gone in no time . . . ” Next day he returned to the woods, as usual.

  That evening he found the table spread with a feast. “How did you manage to buy all this?” he asked, already alarmed.

  “I sold the manure,” said the wife.

  “Wretch! Hidden in it were one hundred ducats!”

  The next day the old man went through the woods sighing louder than ever. Again he met the gentleman with the long beard. “I am aware of your bad luck,” said the gentleman. “Calm down. Here are one hundred ducats more.”

  This time the old man hid them in an ash pile. The next day his wife sold the ashes and fixed another hearty meal. When the old man came in and saw it, he couldn’t eat a single bite and went off to bed tearing out his hair.

  He was weeping in the woods the next morning, when back came the gentleman. “This time I shall give you no money. Take these twenty-four frogs out and sell them and with the proceeds buy yourself a fish—the biggest one to b
e had.”

  The old man sold the frogs and bought a fish. At night he realized that it gleamed; it put out an intense light that shone all around. Holding it was like carrying a lantern. In the evening he hung it outside his window to keep it fresh. It was a dark and stormy night. The fishermen out at sea couldn’t find their way in over the waves. Seeing the light at the window, they rowed toward it and were saved. They gave the old man half their haul and made an agreement with him that if he hung up the fish at the window every night, they would always divide their night’s catch with him. That they did, and the good old man knew no more hardship.

  (Abruzzo)

  119

  Miss North Wind and Mr. Zephyr

  Once upon a time Miss North Wind felt the urge to get married. She went to Mr. Zephyr and said, “Sir Zephyr, how would you like to be my husband?”

  Mr. Zephyr was a fellow attached to money, and didn’t care for women. So, without beating around the bush, he replied, “No, Lady North, because you haven’t a penny to your name for a dowry.”

  Cut to the quick, Miss North Wind began blowing with all her might, without a minute’s respite, at the risk of bursting her lungs. For three days and three nights straight, she blew; and for three days and three nights, it snowed up a storm. All the fields, hills, and villages were blanketed in snow.

  When Miss North Wind had spread her silver everywhere, she said to Mr. Zephyr, “Here’s my dowry that you said I didn’t have! Will that do?” Then she went off to rest up from her labor of the last three days.

  Mr. Zephyr didn’t bat an eye. He shrugged his shoulders and then he started blowing. He blew for three days and three nights, and for three days and three nights, fields, hills, and villages sweltered under intense heat that melted away every single bit of the snow.

  When Miss North Wind was thoroughly rested, she awakened and saw that her dowry was all gone. She ran to Mr. Zephyr, who mockingly asked, “Where did all your dowry go, Lady North? Do you still want me for your husband?”

  Miss North Wind turned her back on him. “No, Sir Zephyr, I’d never want to be your wife, since you’re capable of squandering my entire dowry in a day.”

  (Molise)

  120

  The Palace Mouse and the Garden Mouse

  While he was gnawing on a cheese in the pantry, a mouse was given such a scare by the house cat that he ended up somehow or other out in the middle of the garden.

  He hid under a head of lettuce and began thinking. After much thought, he remembered that his father, God rest his soul, had once told him about a fieldmouse friend of his who lived in the garden under a fig tree. So he went round and round, found the burrow, and entered it.

  His father’s friend had also died, but his son was there. They introduced themselves, and the fieldmouse was so hospitable that, for two days, the palace mouse forgot all about pantry, cheese, and cat.

  But by the third day he’d had his fill of turnips and hated the mere smell of them, so he said, “My friend, I must not impose on you any longer.”

  “Why must you leave so soon, my friend? Stay at least one more day.”

  “No, my friend, they are waiting for me back home.”

  “Who is waiting for you?”

  “An uncle . . . Listen, I have an idea. Walk me home. We’ll have lunch together, and you’ll come back here.”

  The field mouse, who was dying to see the house of a palace mouse, accepted, and they headed for the palace.

  Once they were out of the garden, they climbed up a trellis and went through the little window of the pantry.

  “What a charming house!” exclaimed the field mouse. “And what a delightful smell!”

  “Go on down, my friend, don’t be bashful. Make yourself at home.”

  “No, thank you, my friend. I’m inexperienced and might not be able to find my way back. I’d better stay here on the windowsill . . . ”

  “Well, wait a minute,” said the palace mouse, and went down into the pantry by himself.

  As he made his way to a piece of bacon, the cat lurking nearby jumped out and grabbed him.

  “Eeeeeeeek! Eeeeeeeeeeek!” squealed the poor little victim.

  The field mouse’s heart pounded, and he thought to himself, What’s he saying? Unkkkkkkk? Unkkkkkkkkkkk? So that’s his uncle! A fine reception indeed! If that’s how he receives his nephew, just imagine what he would do to me, a total stranger!

  And in one bound he was back in the garden.

  (Molise)

  121

  The Moor’s Bones

  A widower king with one son remarried and then died. The son remained with his stepmother, who paid him no mind whatever, since she was in love with a Moor and had eyes only for him. The king’s son, faithful to his father’s memory, began to detest the Moor. They went hunting together, and the prince killed and buried him in the heart of the forest.

  When the Moor failed to return, the queen became worried and went out looking for him with her dog. Drawing near to the grave, the dog could smell the Moor and began barking and digging. He dug and dug until he came to the body. The queen finished uncovering it, and returned to the palace with the skull and the bones from the arms and legs. She had the skull made into a cup decorated with gold and precious stones. The leg bones went into a chair, and the arm bones became the frame of a mirror.

  Then to get even with her son, she said to him, “You killed the Moor, so I’m condemning you to death. I will spare you only if, in three months’ time, you can explain the meaning of this riddle:

  ‘I drink Moor, I sit Moor,

  I look up and see Moor.’”

  The youth went out into the world to find the answer. He asked everyone he met, but no one could solve the riddle. When the time was up but for one day, he stopped at a haystack that housed a father, a mother, and a daughter. He asked for something to eat, and the father and mother replied, “We have nothing; we are so poor that we live in a haystack.”

  “We have only one hen,” said the daughter. “Let’s wring its neck and feed our visitor.”

  The father and mother didn’t like the idea of killing their only hen, but the daughter said, “Let’s wring its neck; this is certainly a king’s son!”

  She cooked the hen, put it on the table, and invited the king’s son to carve it. He served the father the legs, the mother the breast, the daughter the wings, and kept the head for himself.

  At night he was given a bed on the haystack. He and the father slept on one side, mother and daughter on the other. In the night he woke up and heard the daughter saying to her mother, “Did you notice how the king’s son carved the hen? He gave Papa the legs, since he goes out and gets food for us. He gave you the breast, since you are the mother and nursed me as a baby. He gave me the wings, since I am beautiful like an angel of paradise. And he ate the head himself, since he will be his subjects’ head.”

  Hearing that, the king’s son thought, I’m sure this girl would understand my mother’s riddle. And when it was day, he asked her.

  “That’s easy,” she replied. “‘I drink Moor’ refers to the queen’s drinking cup. ‘I sit Moor’ refers to her chair. ‘I look up and see Moor’ refers to her mirror.”

  The youth left her a purse of gold coins, and promised to return and marry her. He went back to his stepmother, but instead of giving her the answer, said, “I didn’t find the solution; I am ready to die.”

  The stepmother had the gallows erected at once.

  The whole town gathered in the square around the youth, who already had his neck in the noose, and cried, “Spare him! Spare him!”

  “To be spared,” answered the queen, “he must explain the riddle.”

  “Well, for the last time,” said the judge to the king’s son, “can you explain the meaning of ‘I drink Moor’?”

  Only then did the youth say, “Yes, it means the queen had herself a cup made out of the Moor’s skull.”

  “And ‘I sit Moor,’ what does that mean?” asked the judge.<
br />
  “It means that the chair where the queen sits is made out of the Moor’s leg bones.”

  “And ‘I look up and see Moor’?”

  “That means that the queen’s mirror is framed by the Moor’s arm bones.”

  So the judge also went to see the mirror frame.

  The king’s son then said, “And the riddle in its entirety means that the queen must hang for thinking of the Moor, both living and dead, and forgetting my late father.”

  At that, the judge condemned the queen to death.

  The king’s son returned to the haystack and wed the wise maiden.

  (Benevento)

  122

  The Chicken Laundress

  There was once a washerwoman who had no children. One day while she was hanging out clothes, she saw a mother hen with seven chicks running along behind her. “Holy Mother,” she said, “even if you helped me have a hen for a daughter, I would be happy.”

  Thus she actually gave birth to a chicken. The washerwoman was happy, and loved her, and before long, this daughter became a big hen, the likes of which had never been seen.

  One day the hen went about the house saying, “Co, co, co, give me the clothes and I’ll go and wash them!” And she sang that song the whole day long.

  The washerwoman at first turned a deaf ear to her, then lost patience and threw her an old rag. The hen took it in her beak and began flapping her wings, continuing to flutter until she reached a deserted terrain. There she put the cloth down on the ground, and in its place rose a palace. The hen climbed the palace steps, walked through the front door and, in that moment, turned into a beautiful young lady.

 
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