Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “No, what should I have said to him?”

  “All right, all right,” he replied. He then climbed on the donkey and rode home to his mother. “Open up, Mamma, your Tony’s home!”

  “Merciful heavens! So you’re finally back! I thought you’d fallen off the face of the earth!”

  The son walked in. “How are you doing, Mamma?”

  “I’m worn out! I washed a tubful of stuff and, for all my work, earned a few peas!”

  “Is that so? You’re eating this mess?” He picked up the pot and threw it out the door. Just imagine how the poor woman screamed and wailed when she saw her peas go sailing through the air!

  “Don’t cry, Mamma, I’ll make you rich!” He pulled the blanket off the bed and spread it on the floor, then led in the donkey and said, “Ari-ari, money, money!”

  Yes, he really expected the donkey to drop gold! “Ari-ari, money, money!” he continued to say, but nothing dropped. Then he grabbed a stick and—bam, bam, bam!—thrashed him so hard that the donkey at last let out everything he had inside him. When the mother saw the blanket full of manure, she jerked the stick out of his hand and began pounding him.

  Long-faced, the son made his way back to Pappy Ogre’s. When Pappy saw him, he said, “So you’ve come back, have you? Very well, you’ll settle down now and not cry for Mamma any more.”

  A little time went by, and the boy began whining to go see his mamma. Pappy gave him a table napkin and said, “Don’t do anything foolish. When you get to Mamma’s, say, ‘My table napkin, make ready the table!’”

  The boy left. When he came to the place where he’d tested the donkey, he pulled out the napkin and said, “My table napkin, make ready the table!” Out came all kinds of good things—macaroni, meatballs, sausage, blood pudding, tasty wine.

  “What a feast!” he sighed. “Now Mamma need weep no more over spilled peas!”

  He ate his fill and more besides, then said, “My table napkin, clear the table!” and was on his way once more. He came to the same inn. The minute they saw him, they all asked, “Well, Tony, how is everything?”

  “Fine. What’s for dinner?”

  “A few turnips and Neapolitan kidney beans, my son, since this is an inn for carters!”

  “Pooh! I’m not eating that disgusting stuff. I’ll now show you what a real meal is.” He pulled out the napkin and said, “My table napkin, make ready the table!” Out came poached fish, baked fish, veal cutlet, wine, and all kinds of other good things. When he’d eaten his fill and more besides, he stuffed the napkin into his vest pocket and said, “I’d just like to see you make off with this the way you did with the donkey! Look where I’m putting it!” But right at that moment, from all he’d eaten and drunk, he fell fast asleep and had to be carried off to bed. They took the napkin away and left him one that looked just like it. The next morning he got up, saying, “So you didn’t take this away from me!” Then he continued his journey.

  He reached his mother’s and knocked at the door. “Who is it?”

  “It’s me, Mamma.”

  “Oh, dear, you’re back again? Away with you! Get away from this house.”

  “No, Mamma, let me in. This time I have something for you that will make you happy for life!”

  When his mother let him in, he asked, “What’s for supper tonight?”

  “What am I having? A few mustard greens I picked behind the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows in the master’s garden.”

  The son grabbed the frying pan and emptied it out the window.

  “You murderer! You wretch! You’re forcing me to go hungry again. God knows how Vito Borgia abused me when he caught me picking the greens, and now you come, you murderer, and pitch them out the window!”

  “No, no, dear Mamma!” he replied. “Take this rag of a table napkin and just see what comes out of it. My table napkin, make ready the table! My table napkin, make ready the table!”

  But no matter how many times he repeated “My table napkin, make ready the table!” absolutely nothing happened. He yanked it this way and that, reducing it to tatters good for nothing but a dishrag. His mother gave him a mighty whack and once more turned him out of the house.

  So he went back to Pappy once more. “What happened to you this time, stupid boy? Didn’t I tell you that you’d get into more trouble?” The boy had no choice, then, but return to his former routine, digging in the field.

  After a while, though, he was again yearning for his mother. Pappy said, “All right, my son, this is the last time. Take this club and, when you get to your mother’s, say, ‘My club, let me have it, let me have it!’”

  Weeping, the boy left Pappy and was on his way. Nosy as ever, when he came to the usual place, he had to try it out, and said, “My club, let me have it, let me have it!” Once in motion, there was no stopping the club. It thrashed him right and left, whirling round like a lathe.

  Up in his tower, Pappy Ogre doubled up with laughter. “That should put some sense into that head of his!”

  The boy screamed, “My club, be still! My club, you have killed me!”

  “Give it to him, give it to him!” cried Pappy from his tower top. When he saw that the boy had had enough, he said, “Now be still,” and the club stopped.

  The boy reached the inn in the lowest of spirits. “Back again, Tony? How is everything, lad? How come you’re all bandaged up?”

  “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m going to bed. Keep this stick for me, but beware of ever saying, ‘My club, let me have it, let me have it!’”

  When it was night, the innkeeper picked up the club and tested it, saying, “My club, let me have it, let me have it!” The club began thrashing the daylights out of him and all his family, flying around like a wool-winder. “Help! Help! Christians to the rescue, it is killing us!”

  The boy ran in. “Give me back the donkey and the table napkin, or else I won’t take back the club.”

  They gave him back the donkey and the table napkin. When he had made sure they were really his, he took back the club and left. He reached his mother’s house with club, donkey, and table napkin.

  Hearing the knocking on the door, his mother opened a peephole and saw him there with another donkey. “You bandit! You rogue! Away with you, away with you, and may they catch you and skin you alive!”

  He said, “Club, give her a couple of whacks, but go easy.”

  The club went flying through the peephole and—bam! bam!—let her feel a couple of blows.

  “You monster! You turncoat! Would you beat your own dear mother?”

  “Open up wide if you want the club to stop.”

  His mother flung open the door, and he rode in on the donkey. “No, not the donkey, for heaven’s sake! You’re not going to dirty my house again, are you?” she shouted over and over.

  “Well, my club,” he said, “give her two more.”

  She therefore quieted down immediately. The son pulled the blanket off the bed and made the donkey drop a pile of gold pieces. Then he took out the table napkin and ordered it to make ready the table. They sat down and ate and drank their fill, while here we are, dying of thirst.

  (Terra d’Otranto)

  128

  The School of Salamanca

  There was once a father who had an only son. To this son, who showed he was shrewd, the father said, “My son, by being thrifty, I have managed to save up a hundred ducats, and I would like to double the sum. But I’m wary of investing it, lest I lose every bit of the money, for in one way or another, men are all rogues. I worry day and night over what to do. Tell me your thoughts on the matter. What does that brain of yours advise?”

  The son was silent awhile, as though lost in thought, and when he had carefully reflected, he said, “Papa, I’ve heard of the school of Salamanca where one may learn any number of things. If I can enter it with our hundred ducats, you can be sure I’ll know what to do when I come out and rake in the money for you with little effort.”

  This idea appealed to th
e father, and early the next day they set out for the mountain. After some distance they came to a hermitage. “Hello in there!”

  “Hello, hello, who comes hither?”

  “A good Christian soul exactly like yourself!”

  “Here the cock crows not, the moon shines not; what brings you, solitary soul? Do you bring clippers to clip my eyelashes? Do you bring shears to shear my hedges?”

  “I bring clippers to clip your eyelashes, and shears to shear your hedges.” No sooner was that said than the door of the hermitage flew open, and father and son stepped inside. They trimmed the big old man’s long eyelashes with the scissors, and once he was able to look out and see them, they asked his advice.

  The hermit approved of their decision, gave the boy much advice, and said in conclusion, “When you reach the top of that mountain way over there, strike the ground with the wand I am giving you, and out will come an old man far older than I am: he is the Master of Salamanca.”

  They talked on a bit, then separated. For two days and two nights, father and son walked and, reaching the mountaintop, they did what the hermit had told them. The mountain opened, and there stood the Master.

  At that, the poor father fell to his knees and, with tears in his eyes, told why he had come. The Master, totally impassive and hard-hearted like all masters, took the hundred ducats and invited father and son into his dwelling. He led them through rooms and rooms and rooms packed with animals of all species. As he passed them, he whistled, and all the animals turned into dazzling young men. The Master said to the father, “You need worry no more about your son. He’ll be treated even better than a nobleman. I will instruct him in the mysteries of science and, if at the end of the year, you are able to distinguish him from all these animals, you’ll take him back home together with the hundred ducats you have given me. But if you’re unable to recognize him, he will remain with me forever.”

  At those woeful words, the poor father began weeping. But then he took heart, embraced his son, kissed him goodbye over and over, and made his way back home alone.

  Morning and evening the Master instructed the youth, who caught on at once and made enormous progress. In almost no time he was so clever that he could figure out things by himself. In sum, when the year rolled around, the pupil knew everything the Master knew, good and bad.

  The father, meanwhile, was on the way to get his son, and the poor old man was worried, having no idea how he would recognize his son in the midst of all those animals. He was climbing the mountain, when he heard the wind blow, and a voice in the wind spoke. “Wind I am, and a man will I become.” And there before him stood his son.

  “Papa,” said the youth, “listen to me: the Master will take you into a room full of pigeons. You will hear a pigeon cooing. That will be me.” Then he said, “Man I am, wind will I become.” At that, he turned back into wind and flew away.

  Overjoyed, the father pushed on to Salamanca. When he reached the mountaintop, he struck the ground with the wand, and—bang!—there stood the Master! “I’ve come for my boy,” explained the father, “and may God help me recognize him!”

  “Fine, fine!” replied the Master. “But you’ll certainly fail. Come with me.”

  He took him from one end of the house to the other, upstairs, downstairs and all around to confuse him. When they entered the room containing pigeons, he said, “It’s up to you now: tell me if your son is in there; if not we will move on.”

  In the midst of those pigeons, a magnificent white and black one began strutting around and cooing. “Coo, cooo, COO . . . ” Right off the bat the father said, “This one is my son, I just know it is he, my blood tells me so . . . ”

  The Master was mortified, but what could he do? He had to abide by the pact and hand over the son as well as the hundred ducats, which he hated even more to lose.

  Overjoyed, father and son went home and, as soon as they arrived, invited relatives and friends to a big banquet, and everyone joyfully ate and drank. After a month of merrymaking, the son said to his father, “Papa, the hundred ducats are still here, we’ve not yet doubled the sum. If we built ourselves a cottage, the money wouldn’t even pay for the bricks. What did I go to school for? Wasn’t it to learn how to rake in money? Listen to me: the fair of Saint Vitus takes place tomorrow in Spongano. I will turn into a horse with a star on my head, and you will take me to the fair to sell. Watch out, for the Master will surely come and recognize me. But sell me for no less than one hundred ducats and without the halter. Remember that; my life depends on it.”

  The next day, right under his father’s nose, he changed into a fine horse with a star on his head, and off they went to the fair. Everybody flocked open-mouthed around the beautiful animal, they all wanted it but, hearing the owner ask one hundred ducats for it, they all backed away. The fair was almost over, when an old man came sidling up, looked the horse over, and said, “How much are you asking for it?”

  “One hundred ducats, halter not included.”

  Hearing that figure, the old man grumbled a little. Then he balked, saying it was too much. But seeing that the owner would not come down on his price, he began counting out the money. The father was pocketing the money and hadn’t yet removed the halter from the horse, when that cursed old man, quick as lightning, leaped onto the horse’s back and fled like the wind. “Stop! Stop!” frantically cried the father. “I have to get the halter. The halter doesn’t go with the horse!” But he’d vanished without a trace.

  Astride the horse, the Master whipped him to top speed. The blows fell so fast and thick that the animal bled all over and would have soon dropped, had luck not brought them to a tavern. The Master dismounted, led the wounded horse into the stable, tied him to an empty manger, and left him still wearing the halter and with neither fodder nor water.

  Working as a servant at the tavern was a girl who was a marvel to behold and, while the Master was upstairs dining, she chanced to walk through the stable. “Ah, poor horse!” she exclaimed. “Your owner must really be base to leave you here like that without fodder or water and all bloody! But I’ll look after you.” The first thing she did was lead him to the fountain to drink and, so that he could do so with ease, she removed the halter.

  “A horse I am, and an eel will I become!” said the horse, once out of the halter, and transformed into an eel, he jumped into the fountain.

  Hearing him, the Master pushed aside the plate of macaroni he was eating and flew downstairs, livid with rage. “Man I am, and a conger will I become!” he screamed and jumped into the water, turning into a conger and pursuing the eel.

  The disciple, though, did not lose heart, but said, “Eel I am, and a dove will I become!” And swish! out of the water he flew, now a beautiful dove. The sorcerer then said, “Conger I am, and a falcon will I become!” Now a falcon, he flew after the dove. They flew and flew, with the Master always on the verge of overtaking pupil and, at length, they came to Naples. Outside in the king’s garden sat the princess under a tree. She happened to be looking up at the sky and suddenly saw the poor dove pursued by the falcon, and the sight moved her to pity. Seeing her, the disciple said; “Dove I am, and a ring will I become.” He became a gold ring and dropped into the princess’s bosom. The falcon swooped down and lit on the roof of the house across the way.

  At night, when the princess undressed and removed her corset, the ring fell into her hands. Bringing it closer to the candlestick to examine it, she heard these words: “My princess, forgive me for coming to you like this without your leave, but it’s a matter of life and death. Allow me to appear in my true form, and I will tell you my whole story.”

  Hearing that voice, the princess almost died of fright, but curiosity then got the better of her and she granted him permission to show himself. “Ring I am, and a man will I become!” The ring gleamed brighter, and there stood a dazzling young man. The princess was fascinated and couldn’t take her eyes off of him. Then when she heard of all his accomplishments and the misfortunes he wa
s enduring, she fell in love with him and insisted that he remain with her. In the daytime the youth turned back into the ring, which she wore on her finger. At night when they were alone, he took back his human form.

  But the Master didn’t stand idly by. One morning the king woke up in terrible pain. All the doctors were called, and they made him take every medicine known to man, but his suffering did not lessen. The princess was grieved, and the youth still more so because he knew all this was the Master’s doing. As a matter of fact, here came a foreign doctor to the palace, from a country at the end of the earth, and he claimed that if they let him into the king’s room, he would cure him. They showed him in at once, but the princess saw the ring gleaming more intensely and realized that the youth wanted a word with her. She shut herself up in her chamber, and the young man said, “What a mistake you have made! That doctor is the Master! He will cure your father but, for his pay, he will demand the ring! Refuse to give it up, but if the king orders you to, then throw it on the floor as hard as you can!”

  Things happened that way: the king got well and told the doctor, “Name whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” At first the doctor pretended to want nothing, but at the king’s insistence, he asked for the ring on the princess’s finger. She screamed, cried, and finally fainted; but feeling the king grab her hand to take the ring by force, she suddenly jumped up, slipped it from her finger, and threw it to the floor.

  As soon as she hurled it, a voice was heard. “Ring I am, and a pomegranate will I become!” The pomegranate broke open on the floor, and seeds scattered all over the room.

  “Doctor I am, and a cock will I become!” said the Master, turning into a cock and proceeding to eat the seeds one by one. But one seed landed under the long skirt of the princess, who kept it hidden there.

 
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