Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  One day all five brothers happened to be together in the square of the Immacolatella, where a slave market was being held, with both dark Moorish girls and white girls for sale. Among the white girls stood out one who was especially beautiful. The minute the boys got back home they cried, “Father, Father!” (They no longer said “Papa.”)

  “What is it, my sons?”

  “We saw any number of beautiful slave girls. Shall we buy one?”

  “What!” said the father. “You want to bring a slut into the house? Indeed you won’t! If there’s an old woman among them, we’ll take her.”

  He went to the square himself, looked the slaves over, and spotted an old one among them—rather, she looked old just then from all the knocks she had taken and all the work forced on her, poor soul. “How much do you want for her?” the father asked the slave dealer.

  “One hundred ducats.”

  He paid, and they took her home. It wrung one’s heart watching that poor soul moving about in rags, so they bought her new clothes and put her in charge of the house.

  In the evening, as always, the sons attended the theater. But the old man never went out. When the poor woman saw the five brothers leave, she would sigh and weep. One evening after lighting the young gentlemen down the stairs, she came back up weeping, and the old gentleman closed the book he was reading and called to her.

  “Why do you always sigh and weep when you see my sons?”

  “Sir,” replied the slave woman, “if you knew what was in my heart you wouldn’t ask me!”

  “Sit down and tell me,” said the old man.

  “Well, I have never been the slave you bought me for. I was married to a farmer and had five sons like Your Honor’s . . . ” and she went on with her story. When she came to the part about going out for salad greens and being kidnapped by the Turks, the old man rose, embraced her, and covered her with kisses. “My wife, my wife, I am that very farmer, and the five boys are your own sons. One day, after years of suffering, since we thought you were dead, we came upon a fortune while plowing the field. So what the owl told you has come true.”

  Just imagine the good woman’s joy over miraculously finding her husband and sons after seventeen years of slavery. As they clasped one another relating past woes, their sons returned from the theater. Seeing the two old people lavishing so many caresses on one another, they said, “And he didn’t want us to buy a young woman!”

  “No, my sons,” said the father, “this is your mother, whom we mourned for so many years.”

  Just imagine the sons! Over and over they embraced and kissed her, saying, “Mamma, you’ve worked and suffered quite enough. From now on you will command and enjoy every luxury.”

  Maids and servants came and dressed her as the great lady she actually was, with a muff for winter and a fan for summer.

  Thus they lived in peace and contentment, spending their old age in the lap of luxury.

  (Terra d’Otranto)


  The Siren Wife

  There was once a beautiful woman married to a mariner. This mariner used to sail off and stay for years at a time and once, while he was away, a king of the region fell in love with his wife and finally persuaded her to run away with him. When the mariner got back, he found the house empty. Time passed, and the king tired of the woman and dismissed her. Repentant, she returned to her husband and begged his forgiveness on bended knee.

  Although he still loved her as much as ever, the mariner was so offended by her faithlessness that he turned his back on her, saying, “I’ll never forgive you. You’ll get the punishment you deserve. Prepare to die.”

  Tearing her hair, the woman begged and pleaded with him, but all to no avail. The mariner had the fathless wife loaded onto his ship as though she were a sack of grain, weighed anchor, and sailed off.

  Reaching the high seas, he said, “Your time has come.” At that, he picked her up by the hair and threw her into the waves. “I am now avenged,” he said, changing course and sailing back into port.

  The wife sank to the floor of the sea, right where the Sirens congregated.

  “Look what a beautiful young woman they’ve thrown into the sea,” said the Sirens. “The idea of such a lovely creature being eaten up by the fish! Let’s rescue her and take her in with us!”

  So they took the wife by the hand and led her to their underwater palace which was all lit up and glowing. And one Siren combed her black hair, another perfumed her arms and bosom, another put a coral necklace around her neck, still another slipped emerald rings on her fingers. The wife was too amazed for words. “Froth!” she heard them call her. “Froth, come along with us!” She realized that would be her name among the Sirens. She entered the grand hall of their palace and found it full of women and handsome youths who were dancing, and she too began dancing.

  What with so many comforts and celebrations, the wife’s days flew by in joy. But the memory of her husband would often return to haunt her and make her sad.

  “Aren’t you happy here with us, Froth?” asked the Sirens. “Why are you so quiet and downcast?”

  “Nothing at all is wrong, I assure you,” she would answer, but she was unable to force a smile.

  “Come, we’ll teach you to sing.” They taught her those songs of theirs which make sailors dive into the sea when they hear them. So Froth took her place in the Sirens’ choir, which rose to the surface to sing on moonlight nights.

  One night the Sirens saw a vessel approaching full sail. “Come on, Froth, we’re going up to sing!” said the Sirens and began their song:

  “This is the song of the full moon,

  Of the moon so round and here so soon;

  Is it the comely Siren you wish to see?

  Then, jump, O sailor, into the sea!”

  At that, a man was seen leaning over the railing of the ship, bewitched by the music, and next thing you knew, he flung himself into the waves. By the light of the moon, Froth had recognized him: it was her husband.

  “This one we’ll turn into coral!” the Sirens were already saying.

  “Or into white crystal! Or else shell!”

  “Wait! Please wait!” exclaimed Froth. “Don’t kill him! Don’t work any more magic on him!”

  “But why are you showing so much pity for him?” asked her companions.

  “I don’t know . . . I’d like to work a spell over him myself . . . in my own way, you’ll see . . . . Please, let him live for twenty-four hours more.”

  After seeing her so sad all the time, the Sirens didn’t have the heart to say no, and shut the mariner up in a white palace on the floor of the sea. It was now day, and the Sirens went off to sleep. Froth approached the white palace and sang a song that went like this:

  “This is the song of the moon when it’s full,

  I knew you in life and you were ungrateful,

  Now I’ve become a Siren

  You I will save and me they will condemn.”

  The mariner pricked up his ears and realized that the one singing could be none other than his wife. He grew hopeful, realizing deep down that he had already forgiven her and regretted drowning her.

  Now the Sirens slept in the daytime and went about the sea at night spreading their nets for sailors. Froth waited until night, opened the white palace and was reunited with her husband. “Be quiet,” she told him. “The Sirens have just gone off and can still hear us! Hold on to me and let me carry you.” Like that she swam and swam for hours until they came in sight of a large ship.

  “Cry to the sailors for help!” said Froth.

  “Here, down here! Help! Help!”

  A rowboat was lowered from the ship. They rowed toward the survivor and pulled him on board.

  “The Siren . . . ” he said. “The Siren . . . The Siren, my wife . . . ”

  “He’s gone crazy in the water,” said the rescuers. “Now, now, calm down, friend, you’re safe. There’s no siren around here!”

  The mariner made it back to his town,
but all he could think of from then on was his siren wife, and he was unhappy. “I drowned her and now she has saved my life,” he thought. “I will go sailing until I find her. I will save her, or else drown myself.”

  And thinking those thoughts, he penetrated a forest up to a walnut tree where the fairies were said to gather.

  “My good lad, why are you so sad?” said a voice next to him. He turned around and there stood an old woman.

  “I’m sad because my wife is a Siren and I don’t know how to bring her back.”

  “You seem like a good lad to me,” said the old woman, “and I will help you get your wife back. But on one condition. Do you agree?”

  “I’ll do whatever you say.”

  “There’s a flower that grows only in Sirens’ palaces and which is called ‘the loveliest.’ You must get this flower and bring it back here at night and leave it under this walnut tree. Then you shall have your wife back.”

  “But how can I do it? Get a flower from the floor of the sea?”

  “If you would have your wife back, you must find the way.”

  “I’ll try,” said the mariner. He went to the port at once, boarded his ship, and weighed anchor. When he reached the high seas, he started crying his wife’s name. He heard water splashing and saw her swimming in the wake of the ship. “My wife,” said the mariner, “I want to save you, but to do so I must get a flower which grows only in Sirens’ palaces and which is called ‘the loveliest.’”

  “That is impossible,” said the wife. “The flower is there and gives off a heavenly scent, but it is a flower the Sirens stole from the fairies, and the day it goes back to the fairies, all the Sirens will die. I’m a Siren too, so I would die along with the rest of them.”

  “You won’t die,” said the mariner, “because the fairies will save you.”

  “Come back tomorrow and I’ll have an answer for you.”

  The next day the mariner went back. His wife reappeared in the sea. “Well?” he asked.

  She answered: “In order for me to bring you the flower called ‘the loveliest,’ you must sell everything you own and, with the proceeds buy the finest jewels there are in the strongboxes of the goldsmiths of every city in the kingdom. At the sight of the jewels, the Sirens will stray from the palace and I’ll be able to pick the flower.”

  In no time the mariner had sold all he owned and bought the most splendid jewels in the kingdom. He loaded the ship with jewels, hanging them in clusters from all the yards where they gleamed in the sun. Like that, he sailed over the sea.

  Thirstier for jewels than everything else, the Sirens began to surface on the waves and follow the boat, singing:

  “This is the song of the noonday sun

  Your boat overflows with gems that stun;

  Good sailor, pause here a while,

  Give us rings and chains and pins in style.”

  But the mariner kept on going, and the Sirens followed along behind, getting farther and farther from their palace.

  All of a sudden a great rumbling came from under the sea. The waters billowed higher than ever before and all the Sirens were swept under and drowned. Out of the water flew an eagle, with the old fairy and the mariner’s wife astride, and disappeared into the distance.

  When the mariner got home, his wife was already there waiting for him.



  The Princesses Wed to the First Passers-By

  There was once a king with four children—three girls and one boy, who was the crown prince. On his deathbed, the king sent for the prince and said, “Son, I’m dying. You must do as I order: when your sisters are old enough to marry, have them go out on the balcony, and the first man who comes down the street is to be their husband, no matter whether he is an ignorant peasant, a learned master, or a nobleman.”

  When the oldest girl reached a marriageable age, she went out on the balcony. A barefooted man came by.

  “Friend, stop here for a minute.”

  “What is it, Majesty?” asked the man. “Don’t delay me, for my pigs are penned up and I have to take them out to pasture.”

  “Sit down. We have to have a word in private. I must give you my oldest sister in marriage.”

  “Your Majesty is joking. I am only a poor swineherd.”

  “And you will marry my sister, in accordance with my father’s will.” So the princess and the swineherd were married and left the palace. Now came time to marry off the second sister. He put her on the balcony, and the first man that passed was called into the house.

  “Your Majesty, don’t delay me. I’ve set snares and have to go see if there are any birds in them.”

  “That makes no difference. Come in for a moment, I’ve got to talk to you.”

  And he offered him his sister’s hand. “Majesty, how can that be?” asked the man. “I’m a poor fowler I can’t marry into a royal family.”

  “My father has so decreed,” replied the young king, and the second sister was wed to the fowler and departed with him.

  When the third sister went out on the balcony, who should pass by but a gravedigger, and however much it grieved the brother (since he adored his little sister), he sent her off as the gravedigger’s wife.

  Left alone in the palace, with all his sisters gone, the young king thought, What if I should do as my sisters? Whom would it be my lot to marry? He went out on the balcony. An old washerwoman came scurrying by, and he called to her, “Friend, O friend, wait a minute . . . ”

  “Just what do you want?”

  “Come inside a minute, I have to speak to you. It’s urgent!”

  “What is so urgent? It’s urgent for me to get to the river and wash these clothes.”

  “Come in here, will you? I order you to!”

  “Go on, try and bully old women.” She looked him squarely in the eye and let out a curse. “Go look for lovely Floret!” At that, she turned and walked off.

  The king grew weak in the knees and had to lean on the railing of the balcony. He was overcome with longing, which he at first thought was for the sisters he had lost. Instead it was the name, lovely Floret, which had gone to his head. He said to himself, “I must leave this house and travel the world over until I find lovely Floret.”

  He combed half the world, but no one knew anything about lovely Floret. He’d been journeying for three years, when he found himself in a field one day and ran into a herd of pigs, then another, and still another. He was swept along in the herd and making his way forward, he soon came to a large palace. He knocked and said, “Hello, anybody home? Give me shelter for the night!”

  The palace door opened, revealing a great lady. She saw the king and threw her arms around his neck. “Dear brother!” she exclaimed. And the king recognized his oldest sister, who had married a swineherd. “Dear sister!” he exclaimed.

  And here came the swineherd brother-in-law dressed as a great lord, and they showed him around their magnificent palace, telling him the other two sisters had homes every bit as fine.

  “I’m out seeking lovely Floret,” explained the King.

  “We know nothing about her,” she said. “But go to our sisters; they might be able to help you.”

  “And should you ever find yourself in danger,” said the brother-in-law who had been a swineherd, “take these three pig bristles, throw one on the ground, and you’ll get out of every difficulty.”

  The king continued on his way and after going a great distance found himself in a forest. On every tree branch in the forest, birds had lit. They flew from tree to tree, and the sky was no longer visible for all the birds that fluttered in the air. They all chirped together, in a deafening chorus. In the heart of the forest rose the palace of the second sister, who was even better off than the first one with her husband, once a poor fowler and now a great lord. Neither did they know anything about lovely Floret, and directed the king to the third sister. But before bidding him farewell, his brother-in-law gave him three bird feathers. In case of dang
er, all he had to do was drop one of them, and his safety would be assured.

  The king continued on his way and, at a certain point, began to see graves on both sides of the road, graves that became ever more numerous as he advanced, until the whole countryside revealed nothing but graves. Thus he reached the palace of the third sister whom he loved best of all, and his brother-in-law who had been a gravedigger gave him a small bone from a corpse, instructing him to drop it in case of danger. And his sister told him yes, she knew the city where lovely Floret lived. She directed him to an old woman whom she had helped and who would certainly help him.

  The youth reached the town of lovely Floret, who was the king’s daughter. Opposite the king’s palace stood the house of that old woman, who gratefully welcomed the brother of her benefactress. From the window of the old woman’s house the young king could see lovely Floret looking out at dawn, covered with a veil, a flower of loveliness at the sight of which he would have fallen out of the window, had the old woman not been holding on to him.

  “But don’t attempt to ask for her hand, Majesty,” cautioned the old woman. “The king of this town is cruel and imposes impossible tasks on the suitors. He beheads all those who fail.”

  But the young man was unafraid and went to the father of lovely Floret and asked for her hand. The king had him shut up in an immense storage room with bins and bins of apples and pears, telling him that unless he ate all the fruit in a single day, his head would roll. The youth remembered the pig bristles from his swineherd brother-in-law and threw them on the floor. At once a chorus of grunts arose, and pigs poured in from every direction—pigs, pigs, pigs, an ocean of grunting, rooting pigs that ate up everything in sight, overturning all the bins and gobbling up every apple and pear without leaving a single core.

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