Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Hurrah,” said the king. “You will marry my daughter. But there’s a second test. The first night you spend with her, you must put her to sleep with the song of most beautiful and musical birds ever seen and heard. Otherwise your head will roll tomorrow.”

  The bridegroom recalled the three feathers from his fowler brother-in-law and threw them down. At that, the sky was darkened by a cloud of birds with wings and tails of every color. They lit in the trees, on spires and rooftops, and began singing such soothing music that the princess fell asleep with a smile on her lips.

  “Yes, indeed,” said the father-in-law, “you have won my daughter. But since you are man and wife, by tomorrow morning you must have a baby that can say Papa and Mamma. Or else I’ll behead you and her too.”

  “There’s time between now and tomorrow morning,” replied the bridegroom and, taking leave of the king, he remained with lovely Floret.

  In the morning he remembered the little bone from the gravedigger brother-in-law. He threw it on the floor, and lo and behold, the bone changed into a beautiful baby boy holding a golden apple and calling Papa and Mamma.

  The father-in-law king came in, and the baby went to him and insisted on placing the golden apple on the tip of his crown. The king then kissed the baby, blessed the newlyweds and, removing his crown, placed it on the head of his son-in-law, who now had two crowns.

  There was a grand celebration attended by the three brothers-in-law—swineherd, fowler, and gravedigger—and their wives.

  (Basilicata)

  134

  Liombruno

  There was once a fisherman who had no luck at all. For three years he’d not caught so much as an anchovy. To survive, he and his wife and four children had sold everything to their name and were now living on charity. But each day he still put his boat into the water and rowed out to where he would lower his nets. Then he pulled them up without so much as a crab or a mussel in them, and let out awful curses.

  One day, precisely while he was cursing over an empty net, who should appear in the middle of the sea but the Evil One and ask, “Why are you so angry, mariner?”

  “Who wouldn’t be with bad luck like mine? I fish nothing from this sea, not even a piece of rope to hang myself with!”

  “Listen, mariner,” replied the Evil One. “Make a pact with me, and you’ll have fish every day and become a rich man.”

  “On what condition?” asked the fisherman.

  “I want your son,” answered the Evil One.

  The fisherman began trembling. “Which one?”

  “The one who is not yet born, but who will arrive shortly.”

  The fisherman reasoned that for some years now no sons had been born to him, nor was it very likely he would ever have any more. So he said, “Very well, I agree.”

  “In that case,” said the Evil One, “when your son is thirteen, you will hand him over to me. And starting this very day, your hauls will be abundant.”

  “But what if this son should not come into the world?”

  “Don’t worry, your nets will still be full of fish, and you will owe me nothing.”

  “I just wanted to be sure.” Then he put his name to the agreement.

  Once the pact was concluded and the Evil One had disappeared over the sea, the fisherman pulled his nets up full of giltheads, tuna, mullet, and squid. And it was the same way the next day, and the next. The fisherman grew rich and was already saying, “I pulled a fast one!” when lo and behold a son was born to him, as fair as fair could be, and who would surely become the handsomest and strongest of all his sons. He named him Liombruno.

  While the fisherman was in the middle of the sea one day, the Evil One turned up again. “Hello, mariner.”

  “What can I do for you?”

  “Remember your promise and what you owe me. Liombruno is mine.”

  “Yes, indeed, but not before he turns thirteen.”

  “See you again in thirteen years.” And he vanished.

  Liombruno grew, and his father grieved when he saw him becoming ever handsomer and stronger, for the fatal day was approaching.

  The thirteen years were all but up, and the fisherman began hoping that the Evil One had forgotten the pact, when lo and behold, here he came while the fisherman was rowing upon the sea one day. “Well, mariner.”

  “Woe is me!” said the mariner. “Yes, I know, the time has come. Tell me what I am to do.”

  “Bring him to me tomorrow.”

  “Tomorrow,” repeated the father, weeping.

  And the next morning he told Liombruno to bring him his lunchbasket at noon to a deserted spot on the shore, where the fisherman would fetch it and then go right back to his fishing without first coming home. The boy went, but saw no one. His father had gone way out to sea, so as not to be around when the Evil One showed up. Not finding his father, the boy sat down on the shore to wait for him. To pass the time, he made some little crosses out of the driftwood that had washed ashore and placed them around him in a circle, humming to himself as he did so. While he was humming there in the middle of the circle and holding a cross in his hand, who should arrive by sea but the Evil One and ask, “What are you doing there, boy?”

  “I’m waiting for my father.”

  “You must come with me,” said the Evil One, but he drew no closer, since the boy was encircled by those crosses.

  “Undo those crosses this minute!” he ordered.

  “I will not!”

  The Evil One’s eyes, mouth, and nose then began flashing fire and so frightened Liombruno that he quickly undid the crosses, but there was still the one he held in his hand.

  “Undo that one too, and quickly!”

  “I will not!” wept the boy as he faced the Evil One, who continued to flash fire. Just then an eagle was seen in the sky. It swooped down, seized hold of Liombruno’s shoulders with its claws, and soared off into the sky with him, right under the nose of the Evil One, who was furious.

  The eagle carried Liombruno to a high mountain top, then changed into a very beautiful fairy. “I am Fata Aquilina,” she said, “and you will live with me and be my spouse.”

  A princely life began for Liombruno. He was fed and reared by the fairies, who instructed him in the arts and in the use of weapons. But after several years up there, he grew homesick and asked permission of Fata Aquilina to visit his father and mother.

  “Go ahead, and carry riches to your old parents,” said the fairy, “but you must return to me at the end of the year. Take this ruby; whatever you ask of it will be granted. But beware of revealing that I am your wife.”

  When the people back in Liombruno’s village saw a knight so richly arrayed arrive, they made way for him and watched him dismount at the door of the old fisherman. “What business do you have with those poor people?” they asked, but Liombruno made no reply.

  His mother answered the door, and Liombruno, without revealing who he was, asking for lodging. Great was the embarrassment of those poor old people over having to put up a lord so noble and rich in bearing. “Ever since we lost our youngest and most beloved son,” they explained to him, “nothing else in the world has mattered to us, and we have let this house go to wrack and ruin.”

  But Liombruno proved he could adapt to anything and, that night, fell asleep on a couch, as though he were right at home.

  When everybody was finally asleep in the house, Liombruno said to the ruby, “Dear ruby, transform this poor hovel into a palace with noble furnishings, and also make our beds as soft and comfortable as possible.” And the ruby turned all those wishes into realities.

  Next morning the fisherman and his wife awakened in a bed so soft that they sank way down. “Where are we?” asked the old woman, frightened. “Husband, where are we?”

  “How would I know, wife?” answered the fisherman. “But I’ve never been more comfortable!”

  And their amazement increased when they opened the window and sunlight streamed into a princely bedroom. In place of the ragg
ed clothes they had left on the chair lay clothing embroidered with gold and silver. “Where on earth have we ended up?”

  “In your own house,” replied the knight as he entered their room, “and my house too, since I am your son Liombruno you thought you had lost forever.”

  So began for the old fisherman and his wife, reunited with their son, a life of joy and luxury. Then one day the boy informed them that he had to go away. He gave them chests of jewels and precious stones and took his leave, promising to return for a visit every year.

  Riding back to Fata Aquilinas castle, he came to a city where a tournament was being announced. Whoever won for three days straight would receive the king’s daughter in marriage. With the magic ring on his finger, Liombruno felt like showing off, so he entered the tournament the first day, defeated everybody, and fled without disclosing his name. The second day he went back, carried off another victory, and again slipped away. The third day the king stationed more guards around the tournament, and the victor was stopped and led before the royal dais.

  “Unknown knight,” said the king. “You entered the contest and won. Why do you refuse to reveal who you are?”

  “Pardon me, Majesty, I dared not come into your presence.”

  “You were victorious, knight, and now you must wed my daughter.”

  “It grieves me to be unable to do so, Majesty!”

  “And why can you not wed her?”

  “Majesty, your daughter is the most graceful of maidens, but I already have a wife a thousand times more beautiful than your daughter.”

  At those words a great hubbub arose in the court. The princess turned crimson, and all the noblemen began whispering to one another. Solemn and impassive, the king spoke. “Knight, in order to allow your boast, you must at least show us this consort of yours.”

  “Yessirree,” chimed in the noblemen all together, “we too wish to behold this beauty.”

  Liombruno fell back on the ruby. “Ruby, dear ruby, bring Fata Aquilina here.”

  But the ruby, although able to fulfill every request, could not produce Fata Aquilina, who was the source of its magic. And the fairy, full of indignation because Liombruno had bragged about her, responded to the ruby’s summons by sending him the least of her serving women.

  But even the least of Fata Aquilina’s attendants was so comely and so richly clad that the king and his entire court could do nothing but gape at her.

  “Your wife is indeed beautiful, knight!” they said.

  “But she is not my wife!” said Liombruno. “She is but the least of my wife’s attendants.”

  “Well, what are you waiting for to show us your wife herself?” said the king.

  Liombruno repeated to the ruby, “Ruby, I want Fata Aquilina here.”

  This time Fata Aquilina sent her first serving woman.

  “Ah, that is truly beauty herself!” they all said. “Surely she is your wife!”

  “No,” answered Liombruno. “She is only her first attendant.”

  “Let’s be done with this comedy!” said the king. “I order you to send for your true wife.”

  Liombruno had hardly looked at the ruby a third time, when in a splendor like the sun’s appeared Fata Aquilina. Dazzled, all the noblemen of the court stood stock-still, the king bowed his head, and the princess burst into tears and fled. But Fata Aquilina approached Liombruno, as though she meant to take his hand, and took away the ruby, exclaiming, “Traitor! You have lost me and will find me no more unless you use up seven pairs of iron shoes looking for me!” At that she vanished.

  The king pointed at Liombruno. “I see now. You won by no power of your own, but thanks to the ruby. Servants, thrash him!” And the knight was thrown out and beaten and then abandoned in the middle of the street, black and blue, in tatters, and without a horse.

  As soon as he was strong enough to get up, he headed dejectedly for the city gate. Hearing a great pounding of hammers, he realized he had come to a blacksmith’s shop, which he entered. “Sire,” he said, “I need seven pairs of iron shoes.”

  “What for? Did you make a bargain with the Eternal Father to live hundreds of years and use up all those shoes? As far as I’m concerned, I can make you ten pairs or as many as you say.”

  “What business of yours is it if I use them? All I need do is pay you, right? Make me the shoes and keep quiet!”

  Receiving the shoes, he paid for them, slipped on a pair, and put three in one side and three in the other side of a knapsack and continued on his way. Night overtook him in the middle of the forest. He heard voices arguing; three thieves were arguing over how to divide up their booty.

  “You, there, good fellow! Come and be our judge. We shall let you decide what goes to each of us.”

  “What’s to be divided among you?”

  “A purse that produces one hundred ducats every time it’s opened. A pair of boots that carry their wearer faster than wind. And a cloak that makes you invisible.”

  “Let me try out these things first, if I am to be your judge. Yes, the purse does what you say. The boots: they are certainly comfortable. Now the cloak: let me button this button. Can you see me?”

  “Yes.”

  “Now can you?”

  “Yes, we still see you.”

  “Now?”

  “No, now we can’t.”

  “And you won’t any more, either!” said Liombruno. Invisible in the cloak, racing faster than wind in the magic boots, and clutching the one-hundred ducat purse, he skimmed valleys and forests.

  He saw smoke and came in sight of a cottage covered with brambles, in a deep and somber gorge. He knocked, and an old woman’s voice called out, “Who’s knocking?”

  “A poor Christian soul seeking shelter.”

  The cottage door opened, and a decrepit old woman said, “Oh my poor boy, what on earth possessed you to stray into these parts?”

  “Ma’am,” said Liombruno, “I’m looking for my wife, Fata Aquilina, and won’t rest until I’ve found her.”

  “What will we do now when my sons come home? They will eat you alive.”

  “Why? Who are your sons?”

  “You don’t know? This house is the domicile of the Winds, and I am old Voria, their mother. My sons will be back any minute now.”

  Voria hid Liombruno in a trunk. From out of the distance came a whirring, like a fierce swaying of trees and snapping of branches, with howls echoing through the mountain ravines. Leading was North Wind, freezing cold with icicles hanging from his clothing. Next came Northwest Wind, Northeast Wind, and Southwest Wind. They had already sat down to supper when Voria’s last son arrived, Southeast Wind, the one who was always late, and the minute he came in, the house grew very warm.

  The first thing all these Winds said to their mother upon entering was, “What a strong smell of human flesh! Some man is in this house!”

  “You’re dreaming, my sons! What human being could ever penetrate these wild-goat haunts?”

  But the Winds went on sniffing every so often and talking about the smell of humans. Voria meanwhile set before them a steaming polenta, which they greedily ate. When they had eaten their fill, Voria said, “You imagined you smelled humans because you were hungry, didn’t you?”

  “Now that we are full,” replied Northwest Wind, “even if we had a human right here within reach, we wouldn’t touch him.”

  “You’re sure you wouldn’t?”

  “Absolutely. We wouldn’t harm a hair of his head.”

  “Well, then, if you swear by St. John to do him no harm, I will produce a real live human being.”

  “What’s that, Mamma? A man here? But how did he ever make it? We certainly will swear by St. John to do him no harm if you’ll let us see him.”

  So amid the Winds’ gusts, which almost blew him over, Liombruno came out and, at their questions, told his story.

  When they learned of his search for Fata Aquilina, each one thought hard and then admitted, one by one, that in all their travels about th
e world, they had never come across her. Only Southeast Wind had not spoken. “Southeast Wind,” said Voria, “do you know anything about her?”

  “I certainly do,” replied Southeast Wind. “I’m not half asleep like my brothers, who can never find anything. Fata Aquilina is sick from love. She weeps constantly, saying her husband betrayed her, and now she’s at death’s door, out of grief. Gallows bird that I am, I delight in cutting up around her palace, tearing open windows and doors and messing up everything, down to the bedclothes.”

  “You wonderful Southeast Wind! You must help me!” said Liombruno. “You must show me the way to this palace. I am Fata Aquilina’s husband, and it’s not true at all I’m a traitor. I too will die of grief if I don’t find her.”

  “I don’t know what to do,” said Southeast Wind, “since the way there is too complicated to explain to you. You would have to come along with me, but I go with such speed that no one can keep up with me. I’d have to carry you on my back, but how could I do that? I’m all air, and you would slip off, for sure.”

  “Don’t worry,” said Liombruno. “Just go ahead, and I’ll keep up.”

  “But you have no idea how I fly! Yet, if you want to try, we’ll set out tomorrow at dawn.”

  Next morning, Liombruno with purse, boots, and cloak left with Southeast Wind. Every few minutes Southeast Wind wheeled around and called, “Liombruno! O Liombruno!”

  “Yes, what is it?” Liombruno was way ahead of him. Southeast Wind couldn’t get over it.

  “We are here,” Southeast Wind at length announced. “That is your beloved’s balcony.” With a sudden gust, Southeast Wind tore open the window. Liombruno lost no time in leaping through it, wrapped in his invisible cloak.

  Fata Aquilina was in bed, and one of her serving women asked, “How do you feel my lady? A little better?”

  “Better? With this infernal wind rising once more? I’m half dead.”

  “Can’t I bring you something—a little coffee, maybe, some chocolate, a cup of broth?”

 
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