Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Pomegranate I am, and a fox will I become!” said the seed, and out from under the princess’s skirt jumped a fox and ate the cock in one gulp.

  The pupil had outwitted the Master! The fox turned back into a young man, told the king his story, and the next day all the cannons were fired in honor of the princess’s marriage.

  (Terra d’Otranto)

  129

  The Tale of the Cats

  A woman had a daughter and a stepdaughter, and she treated the stepdaughter like a servant. One day she sent her out to pick chicory. The girl walked and walked, but instead of chicory, she found a cauliflower, a nice big cauliflower. She tugged and tugged, and when the plant finally came up, it left a hole the size of a well in the earth. There was a ladder, and she climbed down it.

  She found a house full of cats, all very busy. One of them was doing the wash, another drawing water from a well, another sewing, another cleaning house, another baking bread. The girl took a broom from one cat and helped with the sweeping, from another she took soiled linen and helped with the washing; then she helped draw water from the well, and also helped a cat put loaves of bread into the oven.

  At noon, out came a large kitty, the mamma of all the cats, and rang the bell. “Ding-a-ling! Ding-a-ling! Whoever has worked, come and eat! Whoever hasn’t worked, come and look on!”

  The cats replied, “Mamma, every one of us worked, but this maiden worked more than we did.”

  “Good girl!” said the cat. “Come and eat with us.” The two sat down to the table, the girl in the middle of the cats, and Mamma Cat served her meat, macaroni, and roast chicken; but she offered her children only beans. It made the maiden unhappy, however, to be the only one eating and, noticing the cats were hungry, she shared with them everything Mamma Cat gave her. When they got up, the girl cleared the table, washed the cats’ plates, swept the room, and put everything in order. Then she said to Mamma Cat, “Dear cat, I must now be on my way, or my mother will scold me.”

  “One moment, my daughter,” replied the cat. “I want to give you something.” Downstairs was a large storeroom, stacked on one side with silk goods, from dresses to pumps, and on the other side with homemade things like skirts, blouses, aprons, cotton handkerchiefs, and cowhide shoes. The cat said, “Pick out what you want.”

  The poor girl, who was barefooted and dressed in rags, replied, “Give me a homemade dress, a pair of cowhide shoes, and a neckerchief.”

  “No,” answered the cat, “you were good to my little ones, and I shall give you a nice present.” She picked out the finest silk gown, a large and delicately worked handkerchief, and a pair of satin slippers. She dressed her and said, “Now when you go out, you will see a few little holes in the wall. Push your fingers into them, then look up.”

  When she went out, the girl thrust her fingers into those holes and drew them out ringed with the most beautiful rings you ever saw. She lifted her head, and a star fell on her brow. Then she went home adorned like a bride.

  Her stepmother asked, “And who gave you all this finery?”

  “Mamma, I met up with some little cats that I helped with their chores, and they gave me a few presents.” She told how it had all come about. Mother could hardly wait to send her own idle daughter out next day, saying to her, “Go, daughter dear, so you too will be blessed like your sister.”

  “I don’t want to,” she replied, ill-mannered girl that she was. “I don’t feel like walking. It’s cold, and I’m going to stay by the fire.”

  But her mother took a stick and drove her out. A good way away the lazy creature found the cauliflower, pulled it up, and went down to the cats’ dwelling. The first one she saw got its tail pulled, the second one its ears, the third one had its whiskers snatched out, the one sewing had its needle unthreaded, the one drawing water had its bucket overturned. In short, she worried the life out of them all morning, and how they did meow!

  At noon, out came Mamma Cat with the bell. “Ding-a-ling! Ding-a-ling! Whoever has worked, come and eat! Whoever hasn’t worked, come and look on!”

  “Mamma,” said the cats, “we wanted to work, but this girl pulled us by the tail and tormented the life out of us, so we got nothing done!”

  “All right,” replied Mamma Cat, “let’s move up to the table.” She offered the girl a barley cake soaked in vinegar, and her little ones macaroni and meat. But throughout the meal the girl filched food from the cats. When they got up from the table, heedless of clearing away the dishes or cleaning up, she said to Mamma Cat, “Give me the stuff now you gave my sister.”

  So Mamma Cat showed her into the storeroom and asked her what she wanted. “That dress there, the nicest! Those pumps with the highest heels!”

  “All right,” replied the cat, “undress and put on these greasy woolen togs and these hobnailed shoes worn down completely at the heels.” She tied a ragged neckerchief around her and dismissed her, saying, “Off with you, and when you go out, stick your fingers in the holes and look up.”

  The girl went out, thrust her fingers into the holes, and countless worms wrapped around them. The harder she tried to free her fingers, the tighter the worms gripped them. She looked up, and a blood sausage fell on her face and hung over her mouth, and she had to nibble it constantly so it would get no longer. When she arrived home in that attire, uglier than a witch, her mother was so angry she died. And from eating blood sausage day in, day out, the girl died too. But the good and industrious stepsister married a handsome youth.

  A pair so handsome and happy

  We are ever happy to see;

  Listen, and more will I tell to thee.

  (Terra d’Otranto)

  130

  Chick

  A husband and a wife had seven children. The father was a farmer and, as a great famine raged, they were starving to death. At night, while the children slept, their father and mother lay awake worrying. “My wife, this life is unbearable,” said the man. “It breaks my heart to see our little ones starving.”

  “It is truly sad,” replied his wife, “but what can we do?”

  “Tomorrow, when I go to the woods, I’ll take the children along and leave them there. It’s better to lose them all at once than watch them waste away like candles.”

  “Sh!” cautioned the wife. “Don’t let them hear us talking.”

  “Don’t worry, they’re all sound asleep.”

  But the smallest of the seven children, a hunchback they called Chick, wasn’t asleep and heard every word.

  In the morning when they got up, their mother called them, got them ready, kissed them with tears in her eyes, and said, “Off with you, good children, you’re going with Papa today.”

  They set out, and along the roadside Chick picked up as many white pebbles as he could find and put them in his pockets. Once they left the road and entered the woods Chick, aware of what his father had in mind, dropped a pebble every step of the way to mark the path they took. In the middle of the woods their father went off and left them. Night fell, and the children screamed and cried. Chick spoke up. “What are you afraid of, silly children? I’m going to lead the way, and we’ll go back home.”

  “Yes, yes, little brother,” they all chimed in, “what are we to do?”

  “Just come with me.” And he followed the white pebbles out of the woods. Day was breaking when they got back home, dead tired.

  “My dears!” exclaimed their mother, overjoyed to see them again. “How did you find the way back?”

  “Chick showed us the way,” answered the older brothers.

  The children remained at home, but it was not long before their father decided to take them back to the woods, since there was no letup of the famine. Their mother sold everything they had left in the house, in order to buy seven long loaves of bread. Next morning she gave each child a loaf, kissed them goodbye, and sent them all off to the woods with their father.

  This time the father walked behind Chick, to make sure he didn’t strew white pebbles. But ins
tead of eating his loaf of bread, Chick crumbled it all up in his pocket and dropped crumbs every step of the way through the woods. Finding themselves alone once more at nightfall, the brothers began to bawl, but Chick said, “Have no fear, we’re going back home this time too.” And he started looking for the bread crumbs he had dropped. But what crumbs the ants had not carried off, the birds had eaten, so Chick could no longer find the way. His brothers shed more tears. “Wait a minute,” said Chick and, like a squirrel, scampered to the top of the tallest tree around. He saw a light in the distance. “That’s the direction we have to take.”

  After walking a long way they came to a house. They knocked, and out came Mammy Ogress. With her long stringy hair and teeth like corkscrews and eyes like lanterns, she seemed more of an ogress than she really was. She said, “My, my! Where in the world are you children going at this hour of night?”

  “Madam,” answered Chick, “we have lost our way. We saw your light and came here.”

  “Dear me, children, I must hide you, because when Pappy Ogre comes in, he’d eat you in one bite. I have roasted him a sheep to satisfy his appetite. If you don’t make a sound I’ll put you to bed with my own children. I have seven, the same number as you.”

  Pappy Ogre came home, and began saying, “Mm! Mmm! I smell human flesh around here.”

  “Always the same old tune!” replied his wife. “Sit down here and eat the nice mutton I roasted for you. Mind your own business and keep your hands off the poor dears. Seven little brothers ended up here after losing their way, and I took them in, since we too have seven children we wouldn’t want to see harmed.”

  “Give me that mutton, then,” answered Pappy Ogre. “I’m tired and want to get to bed early.”

  When Pappy Ogre’s seven children went to bed, they each wore a crown of flowers on their head. They slept in a big bed, at the foot of which Mammy Ogre placed Chick and his brothers. As soon as she left the room, Chick began wondering, “Why do her children wear those crowns? There’s something behind all that.” And he took the crowns off of Pappy Ogre’s sleeping children and put them on his brothers and himself.

  No sooner had he finished than Pappy Ogre tiptoed in, bent over the bed and, since the room was dark, began feeling the children. He touched Chick and his brothers on the head and, feeling the crowns of flowers, let the boys be. Then he touched his own sons one by one and, finding no crowns, ate them. There in the dark, Chick trembled like a leaf. Pappy Ogre gulped down his last son, licked his lips, and said, “Now that I’ve eaten them my wife can preach all the charity she wants to.” At that, he left. Chick woke his brothers up at once. “Let’s get out of here quick.” They eased the window open and dropped to the ground. Through the woods they ran and ran until they came to a cave, in which they hid.

  When Mammy Ogress got up the next morning, she found neither her seven sons nor the seven stray children and, from the marks on the bed, she realized what had happened. She began pulling out her hair and screaming. “Monster! Murderer! Come see what you have done!” Pappy Ogre ran in, stunned. “What! Our own sons were not wearing the crowns of flowers? How could that have happened? Give me my great boots that travel a hundred miles an hour. I will hunt down those rogues and eat them raw.” He put on his boots and combed the earth, but he didn’t find the children, because they were hidden in the cave.

  Dead tired from his search, Pappy Ogre sank to the ground and fell asleep just a stone’s throw from the cave where the seven brothers were in hiding. Chick, who was always out looking for food, found him stretched out there. He called his brothers. “Quick! Let him have it, all of you!” They each took their knife they cut bread with and stabbed him all over, until he looked like a strainer. When they were sure he was dead, they pulled off his boots, into which all seven of them climbed and went speeding to Mammy Ogre’s house.

  “Mammy,” they said to her, “Pappy sent us to tell you he’s fallen into the clutches of robbers, and if you don’t give them all his money, they will kill him. So you’d believe us, he lent us his boots.”

  Mammy Ogress got all her husband’s money, diamonds, and gold and gave them to the seven brothers. “Of course, my boys, go and free him.”

  In one step of the great boots, the seven brothers reached the house of their mother and father and made them rich. Chick went off to Naples and, with those boots that traveled a hundred miles an hour, became a courier, because in those days there were no locomotives or steamboats. Thus the little hunchback made his whole family rich, and lived happily ever after.

  (Terra d’Otranto)

  131

  The Slave Mother

  There was once a husband and a wife, well-off tenant farmers, who managed the farm of the leading nobleman of the province, in the vicinity of Otranto. They had five sons, and the farmer’s wife, after finishing her chores and putting supper on to cook for the men coming in from their work, would sit on the doorstep of their house each evening and say her rosary.

  One evening as she was about to make the sign of the cross, she heard the owl call, “Farmer’s wife, farmer’s wife! When do you want wealth, in youth or in old age?”

  “Good heavens!” exclaimed the farmer’s wife, crossing herself in haste.

  It was the hour when the men came in from the fields. They sat down to the table and ate quite heartily. That poor woman was a bit disturbed. “What’s the matter?” asked her husband and sons. She replied that she didn’t feel well.

  The next evening when she began saying her rosary anew, she again heard the owl. “When do you want wealth, in youth or in old age?”

  “Mother of God!” exclaimed the farmer’s wife. “This is serious!” She went straight to her husband about it.

  “Wife,” said the farmer, “if the same thing happens again, tell the owl that you want wealth in old age, since one always gets through youth somehow, but in old age a person can’t have too many comforts.”

  So when the owl called the third evening, the farmer’s wife said, “You’re back again? In old age I want it, is that clear?”

  Time went by. One evening, fed up with eating the same vegetables all the time, the husband and sons said: “Mamma, tomorrow, God willing, make us a salad of mixed greens.”

  In the morning the farmer’s wife took her apron with the deep pocket and a knife, and went out for salad greens. The farm was on a promontory overlooking the sea, and the farther out she went, the nicer became the greens. “What fine greens!” she said. “This evening my sons and husband will have something to feast on!” She picked greens here, there, and yonder and wound up right on the seashore. And while she was bending over gathering a particular kind of chicory, some Turks sneaked up, seized her, dragged her off to a boat, and sped away over the sea. In vain did she scream and beg for mercy; not for the life of them would they let her go.

  But let’s leave her screaming her head off and turn to the poor husband and sons when they came in that evening. Instead of seeing the house open, as always, and supper ready, they found the door closed. They called, they knocked, and finally they broke the door down. When they had made sure she was nowhere in the house, they went around and asked the neighbors if any of them had seen her. “Yes,” said the farmers in the vicinity, “we saw her go out with her apron, but we didn’t see her return.”

  Just imagine the grief of those men! Night fell, and they lit lanterns and went out into the fields crying, “Mamma! Mamma!” They also peered down into the wells. Finally they gave up hope of finding her and returned home in tears.

  Then they dressed in mourning and received callers for three days straight. But since everything in this world passes, they again returned to work in the fields as before.

  Two years later it happened they had to plow a large field for sowing it in grain. The sons and the old man each took a team of oxen and started plowing. As he plowed, the old man’s plow caught on something in the earth. Unable to get it loose by himself, he called his oldest son. They pulled and pulled and final
ly saw that it was caught in an iron ring. They tugged on the ring, and up came a large stone slab. Underneath it was a room.

  “Oh, Papa!” said the son, “What do I see down there? May I go down?”

  “No,” answered the old man. “Let’s leave everything as it is. Tonight we’ll come back and see what this is all about.” Thus they separated.

  In the evening they took the farmhands aside and got them good and drunk. Once the men were snoring, the old man and his five sons took the lantern and returned to the stone slab. They raised it, descended to the underground vault, and found seven pots full of gold pieces. They stared at one another open-mouthed, at a loss for words, and with no idea what to do. “My sons,” said the old man, “don’t just stand there like blockheads. Run get the cart and hurry back.”

  The sons raced back with the cart, loaded on all the treasure, and took it off and hid it.

  The next day—exactly two years and one month from the time of the disappearance of the poor farmer’s wife—they went to the owner of the farm and said that they wouldn’t stay at the farm any longer, their hearts were no longer in it. They turned the property back over to him, offered the farmhands a fine feast, and set out for Naples. Arriving there, they took off their country clothes and donned fine new ones. They bought a palace and called in schoolmasters and language teachers to teach them the ways of gentlemen. Then they went to the theater and other similar things. The old man grew a pigtail, as was the custom in those days. They took up speaking like the Neapolitans, and even changed their names; it was no longer Renzo, or Cola, but Don Pietrino, Don Saveruccio; every nice name they heard, they latched onto it. Nobody they used to know would have recognized them any more.

 
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