Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  The poor wolf went, but the smugglers who had discovered their honey gone, were also keeping watch. The wolf got there, but all he found were potsherds smeared with honey. Hungry as he was, he began licking the potsherds, when all of a sudden the smugglers pounced on him and beat him black and blue.

  From her lookout, the fox feasted her eyes on the dancing wolf. When he finally managed to flee and come back to her, groaning every step of the way, she said, “Goodness, brother, what happened?”

  “Sister!” he moaned, “can’t you see they’ve beaten me to death? Let’s run away fast if we don’t want to catch any more!”

  “Run away? How can I ever, since I’ve turned my ankle? No, I can’t run!”

  So with the wolf all beat up and impatient to flee, and the fox pretending to limp, they headed home.

  “Oh, brother,” groaned the fox, “how will I ever make it with this ankle? Carry me some way on your back.”

  The wolf had no choice but to take her on his back. And thus they moved along, the hale fox astride the half-dead wolf, while she sang:

  “Look, look, get a kick,

  The dead one bears the quick!”

  “Why are you singing that, sister?” asked the wolf.

  “Why, brother, they are the words to the song I’m singing to cheer you along the way.”

  They got home. So bruised was the wolf from all the blows, and so exhausted from lugging the fox on his back, that he fell lifeless to the ground and never revived. And that was how the fox got even with him for eating the lamb all by himself.

  Cock-a-doodle-doo,

  The wolf has left you.

  (Naples)

  126

  The Five Scapegraces

  In Maglie there was a mother and father who had one son, and this son was a devil if there ever was one. He was always pawning something or other, or else selling it outright. He stayed out all night and, in short, was a hard cross for the two old people to bear. One evening his mother said, “Husband, that boy will be the death of us. Let’s make whatever sacrifice necessary and send him away from home.”

  The next day his father bought him a horse, and borrowed one hundred ducats to give him. When the son came in at noon, his father said, “My son, you can’t go on like this. Here are one hundred ducats and a horse. Get out and start earning your own living.”

  “Very well,” replied the son, “I’ll go to Naples.” He set out, riding this way and that and, in the middle of a field, spotted a man on all fours. “Handsome youth,” called the boy from Maglie, “what are you doing there? What is your name?”

  “Lightning.”

  “And your last name?”

  “Streak.”

  “Why that name?”

  “Because my specialty is chasing hares.” He’d no sooner spoke than one darted by. In four bounds, he caught it.

  “Not bad! I have an idea,” said the boy from Maglie. “Come along with me to Naples. I have a hundred ducats.” Lightning didn’t have to be begged, and the two of them departed, one on horseback and the other on foot.

  Soon they met another. “And what is your name?”

  “Blindstraight.”

  “What kind of a name is that?” The words weren’t out of his mouth before a flock of crows flew overhead, pursued by a falcon. “Let’s see what you can do.”

  “I shall put out the left eye of the falcon and bring him down.” With that he drew his bow, and the bird dropped to the ground with an arrow in his left eye.

  “What do you say, friend, to coming along with us?”

  “Certainly I’ll come. Let’s be off.”

  They reached Brindisi. In port a hundred stevedores were working, but there was one in particular who bore a heavier burden than a mule, as though it were nothing at all.

  “Look at that!” exclaimed all three travelers. “Let’s ask him his name.”

  “What’s your name?” asked the youth from Maglie.

  “Strongback.”

  “Well, guess what: we want you to come along with us. I have one hundred ducats and enough to eat for us all. When I run out of food and money, then you will all provide for me.”

  Imagine the dismay of the other stevedores over the departure of Strongback, who was such a help to them all! They began crying, “We’ll give you another four pence, we’ll give you another four pence, if you stay with us!”

  “No, no!” said Strongback. “Leisure is better—eating, drinking, and going for a stroll.”

  All four of them moved onward, stopped off at a tavern where they ate like pigs and drank all the wine they could hold. Then they were again on their way. They’d not gone five or six miles before they ran into a youth with his ear to the ground.

  “What are you doing down there? What’s your name?”

  “Rabbitears,” he replied. “I hear all the conversations in the world, be they kings’, ministers’, or lovers’.”

  “Let’s see if you’re telling the truth,” said the youth from Maglie. “Cock your ears and listen to what they’re saying in Maglie, in that house in front of the column.”

  “Just a minute,” he replied. He put his ear to the ground. “I hear two old people talking by the fireside, and the old woman says to the old man: ‘Thank God you went into debt, husband. It was worth it to get that devil out of our house and have a little peace at last.’”

  “You’ve not made that up,” said the youth from Maglie. “Only my mother and father could say those things.”

  They resumed their journey and came to a place where many bricklayers were working and sweating under a hot morning sun.

  “How do you poor souls manage to work at this hour?”

  “How do we manage it? We have somebody who cools us off.” They looked and saw a youth fanning the workers with his breath. “Puffffffffff. Pufffffffffff.”

  “What’s your name?” they asked him.

  “Puffarello,” he replied. “I can imitate all the winds. Fooooooooooo! That’s the north wind. Pooooooooooo! That’s the southeast wind. Fffffffffff! That’s the east wind.” And he went on imitating winds, blowing with all his might. “If you order a hurricane, I can even produce a hurricane.” He blew, and trees began crashing to the ground and rocks flying through the air with all the fury of the gods.

  “That will do!” they told him, and he calmed down.

  “Friend,” said the youth from Maglie, “I have one hundred ducats. Will you come along with me?”

  “Let’s go,” he answered. They made a rollicking band all together. Telling one tall tale after another, they came to Naples. The first thing they did was go and eat, naturally. Next they went to a barber, then dressed up and went for a stroll, to lord it over everybody. In three days’ time, the hundred ducats were running low, and the youth from Maglie said, “Friends, the air of Naples doesn’t suit me. Let’s go off to Paris, which is better.”

  After a long distance they arrived in Paris. On the city gate was written:

  The man who defeats the king’s daughter in a foot-race

  Will have her as his wife.

  But whoever loses, loses his life.

  The youth from Maglie said, “Lightning, here’s where you come into the picture.” He went up to the royal palace and spoke to a steward. “Sir, I am traveling for my own pleasure. This morning as I entered the city I read the challenge issued by the king’s daughter, and I want to try my luck.”

  “My son,” replied the steward, “just between the two of us, she is a madwoman. She does not wish to get married, and is constantly thinking up all these tricks to send many, many fine men to their death. It grieves me to see you join them.”

  “Nonsense! Go and tell her to pick the day; I am ready any time.” Everything was set for Sunday. The youth from Maglie went to tell his companions. “Guess what! The big day is Sunday!” They went off to the inn to eat a hearty meal and plan what to do. Lightning Streak said, “You know what you should do? Send me to her Saturday evening with a note saying you have
a fever and can’t race, but that you’re sending me to run in your place. If I win, she’ll still marry you. If I lose, you’re still under the obligation of going to your death.”

  That’s what they did, and Sunday morning the people lined both sides of the street that had been swept free of every speck of dust. At the appointed hour, out came the princess dressed as a ballerina and took her place beside Lightning Streak. Everyone looked on, wide-eyed. The signal sounded, and the princess was off like a hare. But in four bounds Lightning Streak passed and left her one hundred feet behind. Just imagine the applause and cheers! Everyone shouted, “Hurrah, Italian youth! She’s finally met her match, that madwoman! That will sober her!”

  She went home quite long-faced, and the king said, “My daughter, such a contest was your idea, and now it is your turn to be angry, whatever good that will do you.”

  But let’s leave the princess and turn to Lightning Streak. He went back to the inn and sat down to a feast with his companions. Right in the middle of it, Rabbitears said “Shhh!” and put his ear to the ground the way he always did. ‘We’re in trouble. The princess says she won’t have you for a husband at any cost. She says the race won’t count, that another one must be run. She’s now asking a sorceress to find a way to make you lose. And the sorceress tells her she’ll cast a spell over a precious stone and have it set in a ring. The princess is to give you the ring before the race, and once you have it on your finger you’ll no longer be able to remove it, and your legs will give way beneath you.”

  “That is where I come in,” said Blindstraight. “Before the start of the race, hold out your hand, and I will shoot the stone out of the ring with an arrow. Then we’ll see what our princess can do!”

  “Wonderful! Wonderful!” they all shouted, and worried no more about it.

  The next morning a note came to the sick youth from the princess congratulating him on his friend’s skill; but if he didn’t mind, she wanted to run another race next Sunday.

  Sunday even more people lined the street than the first time. At the appointed hour, she came out with her legs bared like an acrobat’s. She approached the Italian and offered him a ring. “Good youth, since you are the only one ever to defeat me in a race, I am presenting you with this ring as a remembrance from your friend’s bride.” She slipped the ring on his finger, and his legs started trembling and gave way beneath him. Blindstraight, who was looking straight at him, cried, “Hold out your hand!” Slowly and with great difficulty he stretched out his hand, and right at that moment the trumpet sounded. The princess had already run past him. Blindstraight drew his bow, the arrow knocked the ring off, and Lightning Streak in four bounds was right on the heels of the princess. He leaped over her as in a game of leapfrog, causing her to fall on her face, and ran on ahead.

  But the real show was the people! Cheers went up and hats were tossed into the air. Rejoicing over the defeat of the haughty princess, they picked him up and carried him in triumph all over town on their shoulders.

  When the five scapegraces were at last alone, they began hugging and slapping one another on the back. “We are rich!” said the youth from Maglie. “Tomorrow I’ll be king, and I’d just like to see anyone try to turn you out of the royal palace! Tell me what you want me to name each of you.”

  “Chamberlain,” replied one.

  “Minister,” said another.

  “General,” put in a third.

  But Rabbitears motioned to them to be silent. “A message is coming through!” And he threw himself to the ground to listen. At the royal palace they were talking about offering a large sum of money as a settlement and refusing him the princess’s hand.

  “Here’s where I come into the picture,” announced Strongback. “I’ll make them pay, down to their very souls.”

  The next morning, the youth from Maglie dressed up and went to the palace. Outside the throne room, he met a councilor. “My son, will you take advice from someone older than you? If you marry that madwoman, you’re doing nothing but taking the devil into your home. Instead, ask for whatever sum you wish, and go in peace.”

  “Thank you for your advice,” replied the youth, “but I don’t like naming a round sum. Let’s do it this way: I’ll send a friend of mine to you, and you load onto his back all you can.”

  So Strongback showed up with fifty hundred-pound sacks and said, “My friend sent me here for you to load me down.”

  All the people at court looked at one another, certain that this young man was mad. “I’m serious,” he said, “hurry up!” They entered the treasury and proceeded to fill one of the sacks. Twenty persons were then needed to lift it. When they finally got it on his back, they asked, “Will that do?”

  “Are you joking?” he asked. “To me that’s like a tiny straw.”

  They went on filling sacks and exhausted the pile of gold. Then they started on the pile of silver, and all their silver ended up on Strongback. Next they took up copper, and not even that sufficed. They crammed in all the candlesticks and crockery, and Strongback still did not stoop under the weight.

  “How do you feel?” they asked.

  “Shall we bet I can even take on the palace?”

  His companions came along and saw a mountain advancing all by itself on two little feet, and they all left the city, in gay spirits.

  They had gone five or six miles when Rabbitears, who bent over to listen from time to time, said, “Friends, at the royal palace, they are in council. Can you imagine what the councilor is saying? ‘Majesty, is it possible that four good-for-nothings have left us stark naked, that we can’t even buy a penny’s worth of bread? They took everything we owned! Quick, let’s send a regiment after them and blow them to bits!’”

  “If that’s the case,” said the youth from Maglie, “we are done for. We got out of all the other difficulties, but now what can we do against shotguns?”

  “Silly youth!” exclaimed Puffarello. “Have you forgotten that I can whip up a hurricane and knock every one of them down? You go on ahead, and I’ll show you what I can do!”

  Hoofbeats were heard just then. As soon as they came within range, Puffarello began blowing, gently at first—ff, ff—then stronger—fffffff!—blinding them with clouds of dust; then with all his might—fffffffffffffffffffffffff!—and the soldiers fell beneath their horses, trees were uprooted, walls crumbled, cannons went whirling through the air!

  When he was certain of having dashed them all to bits, Puffarello rejoined his companions and said, “The king of France was not expecting that! Let him remember it and tell his sons.”

  So they returned to Maglie by the grace of God, divided up the fortune, each taking four million, and whenever they were all together after that, they would say, “Down with the king of France and that mad daughter of his!”

  (Terra d’Otranto)

  127

  Ari-Ari, Donkey, Donkey, Money, Money!

  There was once a mother and a son. The mother sent her son to a monk to be instructed in godly matters, but the boy was in no mood to learn a thing. The neighbors advised her to send him to the village school, where Schoolmaster Squall kept them hopping. Master Squall tried his best, but he couldn’t even drum into the boy his A-B-C-’s, so he finally kicked him out of school. The boy went home jumping for joy. Seeing him back, his mother grabbed the broom and thrashed him. “Get out of my house, you rascal! Don’t ever let me see you again!”

  He left home and set out on the road. After some distance, he came to a garden with no wall around it. As he was hungry, he climbed a pear tree and started eating pears.

  Right in the middle of his meal, he heard, “H’m, h’m! I smell human flesh around here!” Under the pear tree appeared Pappy Ogre, the owner of the garden, sniffing the air.

  “I am indeed human flesh,” said the boy in the pear tree. “I’m a poor lad kicked out of the house by his mother.”

  “Come down, then,” said Pappy Ogre, “and I’ll take you to my house.”

  He took h
im home, dressed him in other clothes, and let him stay there. “You will live with me now, and no one will beat you any more.” Every morning Pappy went out to work and carried the boy along. That continued for two years. Then one day the boy was very long-faced.

  “Why do you look so sad?” asked Pappy.

  “I want to see my mamma. Goodness knows how many tears she’s shed since I left.”

  “You’re really worrying about your mamma? I’ll let you go see her, then. I’ll give you a donkey to take her as a present. When you get home, take him inside and say: “Ari-ari, donkey, donkey, money, money!” And the donkey will drop money from his rear end. But watch out along the way that nobody steals him from you!”

  The boy departed with the donkey. After going half a mile, he said to himself, “I just want to see if this donkey really drops money.” He looked about him to be sure no one was around, dismounted, and said, “Ari-ari, donkey, donkey, money, money!” The donkey went “Prrrr-rrrrrr!” raised its tail, and dropped numbers and numbers of coins.

  Pappy Ogre, who had climbed up in the tower of his house to spy on the boy’s movements, said, “There, he’s gone and done it!”

  The boy stuffed his pockets with coins and got back on the donkey. He came to an inn and asked for the best room in the house for his donkey. The innkeeper wanted to know why.

  “Because my donkey drops money.”

  “What do you mean, he drops money?”

  “You have only to say, ‘Ari-ari, money, money!’”

  “Oh, no, my boy,” replied the innkeeper, “we’ll put him in the stable and cover him up with a sack so he won’t sweat. Don’t worry, no one will touch him.”

  With all that money, the boy ordered his fill of food and drink, then went off to bed. The innkeeper went down into the stable, took away the boy’s donkey, and left in its place one that looked just like it. The boy got up in the morning and asked, “You didn’t say a word to my donkey, did you?”

 
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