Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  Ashamed of her daughter’s gluttony, the mother replied, “Seven spindles of hemp! I have a daughter so crazy about work that she’d even spin the wool on the sheep’s back! Can you imagine that she’s already spun seven spindles of hemp this morning and still wants to spin? To make her stop, I have to beat her.”

  “If she’s that hard-working, give her to me,” said the young man. “I’ll try her out to see if you’re telling the truth and then I’ll marry her.”

  He took her to his house and shut her up in a room full of hemp waiting to be spun. “I’m a sea captain, and I’m leaving on a voyage,” he said. “If you’ve spun all this hemp by the time I return, I’ll marry you.”

  The room also contained exquisite clothes and jewels, for the captain happened to be very rich. “When you become my wife,” he explained, “these things will all be yours.” Then he left her.

  The girl spent her days trying on dresses and jewels and admiring herself in the mirror. She also devoted much time to planning meals, which the household servants prepared for her. None of the hemp was spun yet, and in one more day the captain would be back. The girl gave up all hope of ever marrying him and burst into tears. She was still crying when through the window flew a bundle of rags and came to rest on its feet: it was an old woman with long eyelashes. “Don’t be afraid,” she told the girl. “I’ve come to help you. I’ll spin while you make the skein.” You never saw anyone spin with the speed of that old woman. In just a quarter of an hour she had spun every bit of hemp. And the more she spun, the longer her lashes became; longer than her nose, longer than her chin, they came down more than a foot; and her eyelids also grew much longer.

  When the work was finished, the girl said, “How can I repay you, my good lady?”

  “I don’t want to be repaid. Just invite me to your wedding banquet when you marry the captain.”

  “How do I go about inviting you?”

  “Just call ‘Columbina’ and I’ll come. But heaven help you if you forget my name. It would be as though I’d never helped you, and you’d be undone.”

  The next day the captain arrived and found the hemp all spun. “Excellent!” he said. “I believe you’re just the bride I was seeking. Here are the clothes and jewels I bought for you. But now I have to go on another voyage. Let’s have a second test. Here’s twice the amount of hemp I gave you before. If you spin it all by the time I return, I’ll marry you.”

  As she had done before, the girl spent her time trying on gowns and jewels, eating soup and lasagna, and got to the last day with all the hemp still waiting to be spun. She was weeping over it when, lo and behold, something dropped down the chimney, and into the room rolled a bundle of rags. It came to rest on its feet, and there stood an old woman with sagging lips. This one too promised to help, began spinning, and worked even faster than the other old woman. The more she spun, the more her lips sagged. When the hemp was all spun in a half-hour, the old woman asked only to be invited to the wedding banquet. “Just call ‘Columbara.’ But don’t forget my name, or my help will have been in vain and you will suffer.”

  The captain returned and asked before he even got into the house, “Did you spin it all?”

  “I just now finished!”

  “Take these clothes and jewels. Now, if I come back from my third voyage and find you’ve spun this third load of hemp, which is much bigger than the other two, I promise we’ll get married at once.”

  As usual, the girl waited until the last day without touching the hemp. Down from the roof’s gutter fell a bundle of rags, and out came an old woman with buckteeth. She began spinning, spinning ever faster, and the more she spun, the longer grew her teeth.

  “To invite me to your wedding banquet,” said the old woman, “you must call ‘Columbun.’ But if you forget my name, it would be better if you’d never seen me.”

  When the captain came home and found the hemp all spun, he was completely satisfied. “Fine,” he said, “now you will be my wife.” He ordered preparations made for the wedding, to which he invited all the nobility in town.

  Caught up in the preparations, the bride thought no more of the old women. On the morning of the wedding she remembered that she was supposed to invite them, but when she went to pronounce their names, she found they had slipped her mind. She cudgeled her brains but, for the life of her, couldn’t recall a single name.

  From the cheerful girl she was, she sank into a state of bottomless gloom. The captain noticed it and asked her what the matter was, but she would say nothing. Unable to account for her sadness, the bridegroom thought, This is perhaps not the right day. He therefore postponed the wedding until the day after. But the next day was still worse, and the day following we won’t even mention. With every day that passed, the bride became gloomier and quieter, with her brows knit in concentration. He told her jokes and stories in an effort to make her laugh, but nothing he said or did affected her.

  Since he couldn’t cheer her up, he decided to go hunting and cheer himself up. Right in the heart of the woods he was caught in a storm and took refuge in a hovel. He was in there in the dark, when he heard voices:

  “O Columbina!”

  “O Columbara!”

  “O Columbun!”

  “Put on the pot to make polenta! That confounded bride won’t be inviting us to her banquet after all!”

  The captain wheeled around and saw three crones. One had eyelashes that dragged on the ground, another lips that hung down to her feet, and the third teeth that grazed her knees.

  Well, well, he thought to himself. Now I can tell her something that will make her laugh. If she doesn’t laugh over what I’ve just seen, she’ll never laugh at anything!

  He went home and said to his bride, “Just listen to this. Today I was in the woods and went into a hovel to get out of the rain. I go in and what should I see but three crones: one with eyelashes that dragged on the ground, another with lips that hung down to her feet, and the third with teeth that grazed her knees. And they called each other: ‘O Columbina,’ ‘O Columbara,’ ‘O Columbun!’”

  The bride’s face brightened instantly, and she burst out laughing, and laughed and laughed. “Order the wedding banquet right away. But I’m asking one favor of you: since those three crones made me laugh so hard, let me invite them to the banquet.”

  Invite them she did. For the three old women a separate round table was set up, but so small that what with the eyelashes of one, the lips of the other, and the teeth of the third, you no longer knew what was what.

  When dinner was over, the bridegroom asked Columbina, “Tell me, good lady, why are your lashes so long?”

  “That’s from straining my eyes to spin fine thread!” said Columbina. “And you, why are your lips so thick?”

  “That comes from always rubbing my finger on them to wet the thread!” said Columbara.

  “And you, how on earth did your teeth get so long?”

  “That’s from biting the knot of the thread!” said Columbun.

  “I see,” said the bridegroom, and he turned to his wife. “Go get the spindle.” When she brought it to him, he threw it into the fire. “You’ll spin no more for the rest of your life!”

  So the big, fat bride lived happily ever after.

  (Riviera ligure di ponente)



  There was a widow with a son named Jack, who at thirteen wanted to leave home to seek his fortune. His mother said to him, “What do you expect to do out in the world? Don’t you know you’re still a little boy? When you’re able to fell that pine tree behind our house with one kick, then you can go.”

  Every day after that, as soon as he rose in the morning, Jack would get a running start and jump against the trunk of the tree with both feet, but the pine never budged an inch and he fell flat on his back. He would get up again, shake the dirt off, and go back inside.

  At last one fine morning he jumped with all his might, and the tree gave way and toppled to the grou
nd, his roots in the air. Jack ran and got his mother who, surveying the felled tree, said, “You may now go wherever you wish, my son.” Jack bid her farewell and set out.

  After walking for days and days he came to a city whose king had a horse named Rondello that no one had ever been able to ride. People constantly tried, but were thrown just when it appeared they would succeed. Looking on, Jack soon realized that the horse was afraid of its own shadow, so he volunteered to break Rondello himself. He began by going up to the horse in the stable, talking to it and patting it; then he suddenly jumped into the saddle and rode the animal outside straight into the sun. That way it couldn’t see any shadow to frighten it. Jack took a steady hold of the reins, pressed his knees to the horse, and galloped off. A quarter of an hour later Rondello was as docile as a lamb, but let no one ride him after that but Jack.

  From then on, Jack served the king, who was so fond of him that the other servants grew jealous and plotted to get rid of him.

  Now the king had a daughter who had been kidnapped in her infancy by the sorcerer Body-without-Soul, and no one had heard of her since. The servants went to the king claiming Jack had boasted to everybody he would free her. The king sent for him. Jack was amazed and said this was the first he had even heard of the king’s daughter. But the fact that anyone had dared make light of the episode concerning his daughter so infuriated the king that he said, “Either you free her, or I’ll have you beheaded.”

  Since there was no calming the king now, Jack asked for a rusty sword they kept hanging on the wall, saddled Rondello, and rode off. Crossing a forest, he saw a lion motioning him to stop. Although a bit uneasy, Jack disliked the idea of running away, so he dismounted and asked what the lion wanted.

  “Jack,” said the lion, “as you can see, there are four of us here: myself, a dog, an eagle, and an ant. We have a dead donkey to parcel among us. Since you have a sword, carve the animal and give us each a portion.” Jack cut off the donkey’s head and gave it to the ant. “Here you are. This will make you a nice home and supply you with all the food you’ll ever want.” Next he cut off the hoofs and gave them to the dog. “Here’s something to gnaw on as long as you like.” He cut out the entrails and gave them to the eagle. “This is your foody which you can carry to the treetops where you perch.” All the rest he gave to the lion, which as the biggest of the four deserved the largest portion. He got back on his horse and started off, only to hear his name called. “Dear me,” he thought, “I must have made some mistake in dividing the parts.” But the lion said to him, “You did us a big favor and you were very fair. As one good deed deserves another, I’m giving you one of my claws which will turn you into the fiercest lion in the world when you wear it.” The dog said, “Here is one of my whiskers, which will turn you into the fastest dog on earth, whenever you place it under your nose.” The eagle said, “Here is a feather from my wings which can change you into the biggest and strongest eagle in the sky.” The ant said, “I’m giving you one of my tiny legs. Put it on and you will become an ant so small that no one can see you, even with a magnifying glass.”

  Jack took his presents, thanked the four animals, and departed. As he was uncertain whether the gifts were magic or not, thinking the animals might have played a joke on him, he stopped as soon as he was out of sight to test them. He became lion, dog, eagle, and ant; next ant, eagle, dog, and lion; then eagle, ant, lion, and dog; finally dog, lion, ant, and eagle. Yes, everything worked like a charm! All smiles, he moved onward.

  Beyond the forest was a lake, on whose shore stood the castle of Body-without-Soul. Jack changed into an eagle and flew straight to the edge of a closed window. Then he changed into an ant and crawled into the room. It was a beautiful bedchamber where, beneath a canopy, lay the king’s daughter asleep. Still an ant, Jack went crawling over her cheek until she awakened. Then he removed the tiny ant leg, and the king’s daughter suddenly beheld a handsome youth at her side.

  “Don’t be afraid,” he said, signaling silence. “I’ve come to free you. You must get the sorcerer to tell you what could kill him.”

  When the sorcerer returned, Jack changed back into an ant. The king’s daughter made a big to-do over Body-without-Soul, seating him at her feet and drawing his head onto her lap. Then she began: “My darling sorcerer, I know you’re a body without a soul and therefore incapable of dying. But I live in constant fear of someone finding your soul and putting you to death.”

  “I can tell you the secret,” replied the sorcerer, “since you’re imprisoned here and can’t possibly betray me. To slay me would require a lion mighty enough to kill the black lion in the forest. Out of the belly of the dead lion would leap a black dog so swift that only the fastest dog on earth could catch it. Out of the belly of the dead black dog would fly a black eagle that could withstand every eagle under the sun. But if by chance that eagle were slain, a black egg would have to be taken out of its craw and cracked over my brow for my soul to fly away and leave me dead. Does all that seem easy? Do you have any real grounds for worry?”

  With his tiny ant ears, Jack took in every word, then crawled back under the window to the ledge, where he again turned into an eagle and soared into the forest. There he changed into a lion and stalked the underbrush until he came face to face with the black lion. The black lion jumped him, but Jack, being the strongest lion in the world, tore it to bits. (Back at the castle, the sorcerer felt his head spin.) The lion’s belly was slit open, and out bolted a swift-footed black dog, but Jack turned into the fastest dog on earth, caught him, and they rolled together in a ball, biting each other until the black dog lay dead. (Back at the castle, the sorcerer had to take to his bed.) The dog’s belly was slit open and out flew a black eagle, but Jack became the most powerful eagle under the sun and they soared through the sky pecking and clawing each other until the black eagle folded its wings and fell to earth. (At the castle, the sorcerer ran a high fever and curled up under the bedclothes.)

  Jack changed back into a man, opened the eagle’s craw, and removed the black egg. He returned to the castle and gave it to the king’s daughter, who was overjoyed.

  “How on earth did you do it?” she asked.

  “Nothing to it,” replied Jack. “The rest is now up to you.”

  The king’s daughter entered the sorcerer’s bedchamber, asking, “How do you feel?”

  “Woe’s me! I’ve been betrayed . . .

  “I brought you a cup of broth. Drink some.”

  The sorcerer sat up in his bed and bent over to drink the broth.

  “Here, let me break an egg into it and give it more body.” At that, the king’s daughter broke the black egg over his brow and Body-without-Soul died on the spot.

  Jack took the king’s daughter home to her father. Everyone was overjoyed, and the young couple was married forthwith.

  (Riviera ligure di ponente)


  Money Can Do Everything

  There was once a prince as rich as cream, who took it into his head to put up a palace right across the street from the king’s, but a palace far more splendid than the king’s. Once it was finished, he put on its front in bold lettering: MONEY CAN DO EVERYTHING.

  When the king came out and saw that, he sent immediately for the prince, who was new in town and hadn’t yet visited the court.

  “Congratulations,” the king said. “Your palace is a true wonder. My house looks like a hut compared with it. Congratulations! But was it your idea to put up the words: Money can do everything?”

  The prince realized that maybe he had gone too far.

  “Yes it was,” he answered, “but if Your Majesty doesn’t like it, I can easily have the letters stripped off.”

  “Oh, no, I wouldn’t think of having you do that. I merely wanted to hear from your own lips what you meant by such a statement. For instance, do you think that, with your money, you could have me assassinated?”

  The prince realized he had got himself into a tight spot.

  “Oh, Maj
esty, forgive me. I’ll have the words removed at once. And if you don’t like the palace, just say so, and I’ll have it torn down too.”

  “No, no, leave it the way it is. But since you claim a person with money can do anything, prove it to me. I’ll give you three days to try to talk to my daughter. If you manage to speak to her, well and good; you will marry her. If not, I’ll have you beheaded. Is that clear?”

  The prince was too distressed to eat, drink, or sleep. Day and night, all he thought of was how he might save his neck. By the second day he was certain of failure and decided to make his will. His plight was hopeless, for the king’s daughter had been closed up in a castle surrounded by one hundred guards. Pale and limp as a rag, the prince lay on his bed waiting to die, when in walked his old nurse, a decrepit old soul now who had nursed him as a baby and who still worked for him. Finding him so haggard, the old woman asked what was wrong. Hemming and hawing, he told her the whole story.

  “So?” said the nurse. “And you’re giving up, like that? You make me laugh! I’ll see what I can do about all this!”

  Off she wobbled to the finest silversmith in town and ordered him to make a solid silver goose that would open and close its bill. The goose was to be as big as a man and hollow inside. “It must be ready tomorrow,” she added.

  “Tomorrow? You’re crazy!” exclaimed the silversmith.

  “Tomorrow I said!” The old woman pulled out a purse of gold coins and continued, “Think it over. This is the down payment. I’ll give you the rest tomorrow when you deliver the goose.”

  The silversmith was dumbfounded. “That makes all the difference in the world,” he said. “I’ll do my best to have the goose tomorrow.”

  The next day the goose was ready, and it was a beauty.

  The old woman said to the prince, “Take your violin and get inside the goose. Play as soon as we reach the road.”

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