Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  From the palace came numerous fairies, who dressed her like a queen and prepared a fine feast for her. After eating she went out on her balcony for a while. The king’s son, who was hunting in the vicinity, saw her and fell in love with her. He hid nearby and waited for her to come out. He finally saw her emerge and turn into a hen.

  The hen gave the palace one peck, the palace turned back into a rag and, holding the rag in her beak, the hen flew off. The king’s son ran after her.

  “How much will you take for this hen?” he asked the washerwoman.

  “I wouldn’t sell her for all the gold in the world!” said the poor woman.

  But the king’s son went on so, that the washerwoman was unable to say no and therefore parted with her hen daughter.

  The king’s son carried her to his palace and made her a nest in a basket beside his bed. In the evening he went off to dance. The hen waited until he was gone, then shook her feathers, turned back into a young lady, and ran off to the ball herself.

  When she entered the ballroom, the king’s son recognized her and hurried away at once; he ran home, looked in the basket and, seeing the chicken feathers, threw them into the fire. Then he returned to the ball and danced with the young lady, pretending he had not recognized her.

  He went home late, but the hen wasn’t there. The king’s son went to bed and pretended to go to sleep. Then, in stole the young lady on tiptoe and, thinking no one saw her, went to don her chicken feathers again. She approached the basket, but the feathers were gone. Terrified, she was glancing about her, when the king’s son rose and took her in his arms, saying, “You will be my bride!”

  (Irpinia)

  123

  Crack, Crook, and Hook

  Once upon a time there were three rogues—Crack, Crook, and Hook. They made a bet to see who was the craftiest of the three. They set out walking. Crack walked ahead of the others and saw a magpie sitting on her nest in a treetop. He said, “Do you want to see me take the eggs out from under that magpie without her noticing it?”

  “Yes, let’s see you do that!”

  Crack climbed the tree to steal the eggs and, while he was taking them, Crook cut the heels from his shoes and hid them in his hat. But before he’d put his hat back on his head, Hook had filched them from him. Crack came down the tree and said, “I am the craftiest rogue, since I stole the eggs from under the magpie.”

  “No, I’m the craftiest,” said Crook, “since I cut off the soles from under your shoes without your noticing it.” And he removed his hat to show him the heels, but they were gone.

  Then Hook spoke up. “I’m the craftiest; I stole the heels from out of your hat. And since I am the craftiest, I intend to separate from you two. I’ll do far better by myself.”

  He went his own way, accumulating so much that he became quite rich. He changed cities, got married, and opened up a pork-butcher’s shop. The other two, in the course of roaming and thieving, came to this city and saw the shop. “Let’s go inside,” they said to one another. “It might be very worth our while!”

  They went in and found only the wife there. “Fine lady, will you give us something to eat?”

  “What do you want?”

  “A slice of cheese.”

  While she was cutting the cheese, the two glanced all around to see what there was to snitch. They spied a quartered pig hanging up and signaled each other they’d fetch it at night. Hook’s wife noticed, but said nothing. When her husband came home, she told him everything. Master thief that he was, he caught on right away. “That must be Crack and Crook, who mean to steal the pig. Fine! Just you wait!” He took the pig and put it in the oven. In the evening he went to bed. When it was night, Crack and Crook came to steal the pig. They looked everywhere, but couldn’t find it. So what did Crook decide to do but steal up to the bed, to the side on which Hook’s wife was sleeping, and say, “Listen, I don’t see the pig any more. Where did you put it?”

  Thinking it was her husband, the wife answered, “Go back to sleep! Don’t you remember putting it in the oven?” Then she went back to sleep.

  The two rogues went to the oven, removed the pig, and left. Crook went out first, then Crack with the pig on his back. Passing through the pork-butcher’s garden, Crack noticed some soup herbs growing there. He caught up with Crook and said, “Go back to Hook’s garden and pick us a few herbs which we’ll boil together with a pig leg when we get home.”

  Crook went back to the garden, while Crack continued on his way.

  Meanwhile Hook woke up, went to look in the oven and, finding the pig gone, glanced into the garden and saw Crook picking herbs for soup. “Now I’ll let him have it!” he said to himself. He picked up a thick bunch of herbs he had in the house and ran outside without letting Crook see him.

  He caught up with Crack, who walked bent over under the weight of the pig on his back, and signaled he would carry the pig a while. Thinking it was Crook returning with the herbs, Crack took the bunch and passed him the pig. Once the pig was on his back, Hook turned around and ran back home.

  In a little while Crook caught up with Crack carrying the herbs and asked, “What did you do with the pig?”

  “You have it!”

  “I do? I have nothing at all!”

  “But you changed with me and gave me the herbs to carry just a minute ago.”

  “When did I do that? You sent me off to see about the soup!”

  They finally realized they had been outwitted by Hook, truly the craftiest rogue of them all.

  (Irpinia)

  124

  First Sword and Last Broom

  Once there were two merchants who lived directly opposite one another. One had seven sons, the other seven daughters. Every morning the one with the seven sons would throw open his window and greet the one with the seven daughters, saying, “Good morning, merchant with the seven brooms.” And the other one never failed to take offense; he withdrew into his house and wept for anger. To see him in such a state upset his wife, who would ask him every time what the matter was, but the husband never answered and went on weeping.

  The youngest of the seven daughters was seventeen, lovely as a picture, and her father’s pride and joy. “If you love me as much as you claim, dear Father,” she said one day, “tell me your trouble.”

  “Dear daughter, the merchant across from us greets me every morning with ‘Good morning, merchant with the seven brooms,’ and every morning I stand there with no idea how to answer him.”

  “Oh, Papa, is that all that’s bothering you?” replied the daughter. “Listen to me. When he says that to you, you answer back, ‘Good morning, merchant with the seven swords. Let’s make a bet: let’s take my last broom and your first sword and see which one gets the scepter and crown of the king of France first and brings them back here. If my daughter wins, you will give me all your goods; and if your son wins, I lose all my goods.’ That’s what you must tell him. And if he agrees, make him sign a written contract at once that spells out the terms.”

  Open-mouthed, the father listened to this speech from beginning to end. When it was over, he said, “But, daughter, do you realize what you’re advising? Do you want me to lose everything I own?”

  “Papa, have no fear, leave it all to me. Just make the bet, and I’ll see to the rest.”

  That night the father couldn’t sleep a wink and waited impatiently for day to dawn. He appeared on his balcony earlier than usual, and the window across the street was still closed. It opened all of a sudden, revealing the father of the seven sons, who came out with his usual “Good morning, merchant with the seven brooms!”

  The other merchant was all ready for him. “Good morning, merchant with the seven swords. Let’s make a bet: I’ll take my last broom, and you your first sword; we’ll supply them with a horse and a purse of money apiece, and then just see which one makes it back with the crown and scepter of the king of France. We’ll stake all our wares; if my daughter wins, all your goods will be mine; if your son wins,
all my goods will be yours.”

  The other merchant stared at him a moment, then burst out laughing and shook his head as if to say the father of the daughters was crazy.

  “What, you’re afraid? You have no confidence?” said the father with the seven daughters.

  Cut to the quick, the other man replied, “For my part, I agree; let’s sign the contract and send them off.” And he went to tell his oldest son everything immediately. Thinking he would be traveling in the company of that beautiful daughter, the oldest son was all smiles. But when it was time to leave and she came out dressed as a man and seated in the saddle on a white filly, he realized this was no laughing matter. In fact, once their parents had signed the contract and said “Ready, set, GO!” the filly took off at full speed, and his own sturdy horse had a hard time indeed following.

  To reach France, it was necessary to cross a dense, dark, and pathless forest. The filly sprang right through it, as though on home ground, winding to the right of an oak, to the left of a pine, leaping a holly hedge, and constantly advancing. In contrast, the merchant’s son was at a loss to steer his sturdy horse: first he rammed his chin into a low tree branch and fell from the saddle, then the horse’s hoofs sank into a mire concealed beneath dead leaves, and the animal landed flat on its belly. Next they got all tangled up in a briar patch and couldn’t for the life of them get free. The girl with her filly had already made it through the forest and was galloping miles ahead.

  To reach France, it was necessary to go over a mountain full of crags and gorges. She had come to its slopes, when she heard the hoofbeats of the sturdy horse of the merchant’s son behind her. The filly galloped straight up the mountain, as though on home ground, winding her way around the boulders by leaps and bounds and continuing right on to the top, whence she descended to the flatlands. But the youth maneuvered his horse upward by jerking on the reins and, in no time, a landslide carried him back to the bottom and left him crippled.

  The girl was now far ahead on the road to France. But to reach France it was necessary to cross a river. As though on home ground, the filly knew just where a ford was and jumped into the water, galloping through it as fast as on a beaten track. When they emerged from the water onto the other bank, they looked around and saw the youth approaching the river and spurring his horse into it after her. But he didn’t know where the ford was and, when the horse’s hoofs no longer touched solid ground, the current swept away both rider and steed.

  In Paris and dressed as a man, the girl went to a merchant who hired her as his helper. He was a supplier to the royal palace and began sending goods to the king by the youth of such handsome appearance. When the king saw the merchant’s helper, he asked, “Who are you? You look like a foreigner to me. What brought you here?”

  “Majesty,” replied the helper, “my name is Temperino—Penknife—and I was carver to the king of Naples. A series of mishaps has brought me here.”

  “What if I found you a position as carver in the royal house of France?” asked the king. “Would you like that?”

  “Majesty, it would be a godsend.”

  “Very well, I’ll speak to your master.”

  Reluctantly, the merchant released his helper to the king, who arranged for the youth to become carver. But the more the king looked at him, the more certain he was of something, and finally he told his mother about it one day.

  “Mamma, there’s something about this Temperino that’s puzzling. He has beautiful hands, a slim waist; and he plays and sings, reads and writes. Temperino is the girl I’ve lost my heart to!”

  “My son, you have lost your mind,” replied the queen mother.

  “I assure you, Mamma, Temperino is a girl. How can I prove it?”

  “Here’s the way,” said the queen mother. “Take him hunting. If he hunts only quail, then Temperino is a girl with a mind only for roast bird. If he hunts goldfinches, then he’s a man who delights in the chase.”

  So the king gave Temperino a gun and took him hunting. Temperino mounted the filly, which he had insisted on bringing along. To trick him, the king shot only quail. But every time a quail appeared, the filly turned away, and Temperino realized he was not supposed to shoot quail. “Majesty,” Temperino then said, “may I be so bold as to ask if you think shooting quail is a test of skill? You already have enough to roast. Shoot some goldfinches as well, which is more difficult.”

  When the king got home, he said to his mother, “True, he went for goldfinches rather than quail, but I’m still not convinced. He has beautiful hands and a slim waist, plays and sings, reads and writes. Temperino is the girl I’ve lost my heart to!”

  “My son, put him to another test,” answered the queen. “Take him to the garden to pick salad. If he carefully picks just the tips, then Temperino is a girl, since we women are more patient than men. If he pulls up the whole plant, roots and all, then he is a man.”

  The king went into the garden with Temperino and began plucking salad, taking only the tips of the plants. The carver was about to do the same thing, when the filly, who had come along too, began pulling up plants by the roots; Temperino understood he was to do that. He hur riedly filled a basket with uprooted salad plants, to which the dirt still clung.

  The king took the carver past the flowerbeds. “See the beautiful roses, Temperino?” he said. But the filly directed her muzzle at another flowerbed.

  “Roses stick your hands,” said Temperino. “Pick yourself some carnations and jasmines, not roses.”

  The king was disappointed, but he did not give up hope. “She has beautiful hands and a slim waist,” he repeated to his mother. “She sings and plays, reads and writes. Temperino is the girl I’ve lost my heart to.”

  “At this stage, my son, the only thing left for you to do is take her swimming with you.”

  So the king said to Temperino, “Come along, let’s go swimming in the river.”

  At the river, Temperino said, “Majesty, you get undressed first.” The king undressed and slipped into the water.

  “Now you come in too!” he said to Temperino.

  At that instant a great neighing was heard, and the filly came galloping up excited and foaming at the mouth. “My filly!” cried Temperino. “Wait, Majesty, I must go after my excited filly!” And she ran off.

  She ran to the royal palace and said to the queen, “Majesty, the king is in the river without his clothes and some guards, not recognizing him, want to seize him. He sent me to fetch his scepter and his crown to identify him.”

  The queen picked up scepter and crown and handed them to Temperino. When she had them, Temperino got on the filly and galloped away, singing:

  “As a maiden I came, as a maiden I return,

  So the scepter and the crown do I earn.”

  She crossed river, mountain, forest, and arrived home, and her father won the bet.

  (Naples)

  125

  Mrs. Fox and Mr. Wolf

  There was once a wolf and a fox who called each other brother and sister, and made a pact to share everything they were each lucky enough to catch.

  The wolf, going about sniffing the air, caught a whiff of sheep and said to the fox, “Sister, I’m going to take a look in these pastures to see if a flock is grazing there.”

  He went, and landed right in the middle of a flock. He’d no sooner sunk his teeth into a lamb than he had to flee for his life, carrying the animal in his mouth; But he wasn’t quick enough, and received a thrashing that put him in bed for a week.

  “Since it cost me so many blows,” reasoned the wolf, “I shall keep this lamb all for myself.” He hung it up inside the fireplace hood and said nothing about it to the fox.

  “How about those sheep? Did you catch them?” asked the fox.

  “Sister, it’s dangerous to go after them. Leave them alone, that’s my advice.”

  The fox, who didn’t believe him, said to herself, “I’ll fix you now!”

  She had discovered a hiding place full of honey, whi
ch smugglers had buried. “Brother,” she said to the wolf, “I found a place full of honey, something too good to be true! One of these days we’ll go and see it!”

  She departed, instead, by herself, without a word to the wolf, found the honey, tasted it, and licked her lips. “Ah, what a delicious thing!”

  Still aching from those blows, the wolf would ask her every time he met her, “Sister, when are we going to see that honey?”

  “Oh! What do you expect from me, brother? I traveled quite a distance!”

  “But, sister, where did you go to be away so long?”

  “Brother,” replied the fox, “I was in a town called Taste-It.”

  The next day the wolf had finished eating the lamb, and asked the fox, “Well, sister, shall we go?”

  “Oh, dear, brother, it’s so far away!”

  “But you were gone a long time . . . Where did you go?”

  “Brother, I’m exhausted. Just imagine, I went to a town called Pilfer-It.”

  The poor wolf returned the day after. “Shall we go take a look, sister?”

  And the fox finally said, “Tomorrow we will go.”

  But no sooner had she left the wolf than she departed alone. She went straight to the hiding place and ate the rest of the honey. She was licking the bottom of the pot, when the smugglers arrived, but the fox ran away as fast as her legs would carry her.

  The next day they set out, she and the wolf. “Brother, we have to go to a town quite far from here. If you want to come along, follow me. It’s a town called Finish-It!” Still limping from all those blows, the wolf followed as best he could.

  When they reached the top of a hill, the fox said, “Here we are in Finish-It. You go on ahead while I stay behind and watch, so no smugglers will come up and beat us.”

 
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