Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “Nothing. I care for nothing at all.”

  But the serving woman kept on until she persuaded her to drink a spot of coffee. She brought in a demitasse and left it on the bedside table. Invisible, Liombruno picked it up and drank the coffee. Thinking the fairy had finished it, the serving woman then brought her a cup of chocolate, which Liombruno also drank. The woman returned with a cup of broth and a breast of pigeon. “My lady, since you drank your coffee and your chocolate, I believe your appetite is coming back. Try this broth and breast of pigeon and you’ll get stronger.”

  “What coffee are you talking about? And what chocolate?” said the fairy. “I haven’t touched a thing.”

  The serving women exchanged glances that said, She’s losing her mind.

  But as soon as they were alone, Liombruno took off his cloak. “Dear wife, do you recognize me?”

  The fairy threw her arms around her neck and forgave him. They swore their love for each other, declaring how they had suffered during their separation. And they gave a big banquet at the palace, inviting all the Winds to whirl around the windows in celebration.




  Once a king whose wife bore him no children issued a decree, stating:

  Whoever can advise the king and queen

  How to have children

  Will become, after the king,

  The richest man in the land.

  But whoever proves wrong

  Will be beheaded out of hand.

  This decree spurred many persons to try, and they advised all sorts of things, but every adviser ended up headless.

  At last a poor old man came forward, bearded and dressed in rags. “Majesty,” he said, “order a sea dragon fished up, and its heart cooked by a maiden. Just from smelling the aroma of the frying dragon, she will begin to expect a baby. After the maiden has cooked the dragon, the queen is to eat it, and she too will begin expecting a baby, and both babies will be born at exactly the same time.”

  Although skeptical, the king followed all the old man’s instructions: he had the dragon caught, gave it to a beautiful country lass to cook, and the minute she inhaled those cooking fumes, she felt herself with child. The queen’s son and the cook’s were born on the same day and looked as much alike as twins. And the same day even the bed gave birth to a little bed, the wardrobe to a little wardrobe, the coffer to a little coffer, and the table to a little table.

  The queen’s boy was named Emile, and the cook’s Cannelora. They grew up as brothers, loving each other dearly, and in the beginning the queen also loved them both. But as they grew, it annoyed her more and more to see no difference between her son and the other boy, who she feared might prove more intelligent and luckier than the little prince. So she explained to Emile that Cannelora was not his brother but a cook’s son, and forbade them to treat each other as equals. But the two boys were so devoted to one another that they paid no attention. Then the queen took to mistreating Cannelora. But Emile protected him and became ever fonder of him, while the queen seethed with rage.

  One day as the two boys were enjoying themselves casting bullets for hunting, Emile stepped outside for a moment, and the queen drew near the fireplace. Finding Cannelora alone, she threw a red-hot bullet in his face with the aim of killing him. But the bullet merely grazed him above his eyebrows, leaving a deep burn on his forehead. The queen was about to pick up another bullet with the tongs, when Emile returned, so she pretended that all was well and left the room.

  Although the burn pained him, Cannelora pulled his hair down over his forehead and gave Emile no clue of what had happened, but went on casting bullets, gritting his teeth. A little later he said, “Dear brother, I’ve decided to leave this house forever and go out and seek my fortune.”

  Emile couldn’t understand. “But why, brother? Aren’t you happy here?”

  With tears in his eyes and his hat pulled down over his forehead, Cannelora replied, “Brother, fate doesn’t want us living together. I must leave you.” All Emile’s protests were in vain. Cannelora picked up his double-barrel shotgun—the offspring of another gun and born at the time the dragon’s heart was cooked—and went out into the yard with Emile. “Dear brother, it grieves me to leave you, but I am giving you this remembrance.” He thrust his sword into the ground, out of which spurted a fountain of clear water. He stuck the sword into the ground a second time, and next to the water sprang up a myrtle tree. “When you see this water grow muddy and this myrtle tree drying up,” said Cannelora, “it will be a sign some grave misfortune has befallen me.”

  After those words they embraced, with tears in their eyes. Then Cannelora mounted his horse and rode off, leading his dog by a leash. After some distance he came to a crossroads. One road led into a vast forest, the other into other parts of the world. Right there at the junction was a garden, in which two gardeners were quarreling and about to come to blows. Cannelora entered the garden and asked why they were quarreling.

  “I found two piasters,” said one man, “and my friend here wants one of them because he was standing next to me when I found it.”

  “I saw the money first,” said the other man, “rather, we both saw it at the same time.”

  Cannelora drew four piasters from his pocket and gave each of the men two of them. The gardeners couldn’t thank him enough, and kissed his hand. He moved on, taking the way that led into the forest. Then the gardener who had ended up with four piasters shouted to him, “Young man, if you go that way, you’ll never get out of the forest. Take the other road instead.”

  Cannelora thanked him and took the other road. Much farther on, he ran into a group of young ruffians hitting and torturing a snake. They had already cut off the tip of its tail to watch it wriggle all by itself. “Let the poor creature go!” cried Cannelora, and the serpent slithered off with its tail mutilated.

  Cannelora entered a large forest, and night fell. It was icy cold. From every direction came the howls of wild animals, and Cannelora feared for his life. All of a sudden, amid the cries, appeared a beautiful maiden holding a light, and took Cannelora by the hand.

  “Poor youth!” she said. “Come warm up and rest at my house.” Cannelora thought he must be dreaming. Unable to utter a sound, he followed the maiden. Leading him inside, she said, “Do you remember the snake you rescued from the ruffians? I am that snake. If you look at my little finger, you will see that the end has been cut off. That came about when they cut off the tip of the snake’s tail. And now I’ll save your life, just as you saved mine.”

  Cannelora was overjoyed. The fairy built him a fire, brought out food, and they dined together. Then they went off to rest for the night, each one in a separate room. In the morning the fairy embraced and kissed him, saying, “Go now, dear youth. You will meet with still more suffering, but the day will come when we’ll be reunited and happy.”

  Cannelora didn’t know what she meant, but he kissed her one more time and departed, with tears in his eyes. He came to a forest and saw among the trees a doe with golden horns. He aimed his double-barreled gun, but the doe ran off, with him in pursuit. He thus came to a cave in the heart of the forest. At that instant, a great storm broke: hailstones the size of eggs fell, so Cannelora took refuge in the cave. While he waited there, he heard a tiny voice outside in the rain. “Will you let me come in, good youth, out of the storm?”

  Cannelora looked out and saw a snake. He knew that helping snakes brought him good luck, so he said, “Come in, make yourself at home.”

  “But,” said the snake, “I’m afraid the dog will bite me. You couldn’t tie him up, could you?”

  Cannelora tied him up.

  “But,” said the snake, “the horse could stomp me with his hoofs.” Cannelora fettered the horse. “Now,” said the snake, “I’m uneasy because your gun is loaded. What if it went off somehow and killed me? I’m scared.”

  Cannelora humored the snake by unloading his gun, then said, “All right, now yo
u can come in without fear.”

  The snake entered and immediately changed into a giant. With the dog and horse tied up and the gun unloaded, Cannelora was defenseless. With one hand the giant grabbed him by the hair and with the other uncovered a tomb there in the cave and buried him alive.

  Meanwhile at the king’s house, young Emile knew no peace. Every day he went into the garden and looked at the fountain and myrtle tree, and one day he found the water muddy and the myrtle tree dried up.

  “Woe is me!” he exclaimed. “Some misfortune has befallen my brother Cannelora. I will go out in the world and find him and see what I can do for him.”

  Neither the king nor the queen could stop him. He took up his gun, sent his dog running on ahead of him, mounted his horse, and rode off. At the crossroads he saw the two men’s garden and, yes, met the one who had ended up with four piasters. “Welcome back, young man!” said the gardener, doffing his cap. “Do you recall the four piasters you gave me the other time? And I told you one road was dangerous and advised you to take the other, remember?”

  “I certainly do,” said Emile, who was so happy to learn which way Cannelora had gone that he gave the man four more piasters and continued on his way. He too reached the forest where Cannelora had met the beautiful fairy with the end of her little finger missing.

  “Welcome, friend of my husband!” said the fairy as she appeared before Emile.

  Amazed, Emile asked, “But who are you, madam?”

  “I am the fairy betrothed to your Cannelora.”

  “Tell me, then, is Cannelora alive? If so, please tell me where he is, for I’m anxious to go to him.”

  Tears came into the fairy’s eyes. “Do hurry, for our dear boy is suffering in an underground tomb. But beware of the false snake.” At that, she disappeared.

  Emile took heart and pressed on. He reached the forest, where he too pursued the dog with the golden horns, then was caught in the storm and took refuge in the cave. The tiny snake came crawling up asking if it could come in and get warm, and he said yes. Just as it wished, he tied up the dog and then the horse, but when it asked about the gun, Emile remembered what the fairy had told him, and said, “Oh, yes, you want me to unload it, do you?” He took aim and fired two shots into the snake, and what should he then see at his feet but a dead giant with two bullet wounds in his head gushing blood by the buckets. At the same time many voices underground cried, “Help, help, good soul! You’ve come at last to rescue us!”

  Emile opened the tomb and out came Cannelora, followed by a long line of princes, barons, and knights, buried there for years and years and living on bread and water. Emile and Cannelora fell into each other’s arms. Then the brothers and all the noblemen rode out of the forest in a grand cavalcade.

  They set out to find the fairy without the tip of her little finger, whom they soon saw coming to meet them and followed by other very beautiful fairies, but none so beautiful as she was. Taking Cannelora by the hand, she helped him from his horse, embraced him, and said, “My dearest, our worries are over. You saved my life, and I’m going to make you the happiest man alive. You shall be my husband.”

  Then she called another fairy, the most beautiful after herself, and said, “Belle, kiss Emile, my husband’s dearest friend and also a prince. Be his wife, and you both will be happy.”

  Then she addressed the other fairies. “Each of you pick the nobleman you like best, give him a kiss, and become his bride.”

  So there was a grand wedding of fairies, and lucky were the men who were there! Then everyone, including Emile and Cannelora, took his bride home, and there was great rejoicing throughout the kingdom. Poor girls were given the means for a fine wedding, but poor little me was not present, so here I am empty-handed!



  Filo d’Oro and Filomena

  There was once a shoemaker’s daughter named Filomena (Nightingale), whose father and mother were very old. One day her mother said to her, “Filomena, go to the market-gardener and buy a cabbage for soup. If you don’t find the gardener, pick the cabbage yourself and leave the money on the ground for him. But be careful not to pick any savoys instead of cabbage.”

  The girl went to the market-garden, but the farmer was not there. She went to pick a cabbage but accidentally pulled up a savoy. In its place she left a crown. She’d no sooner put the money on the ground than it disappeared and a little crystal window opened. A handsome youth appeared at the window and said, “Come to me, lovely maiden. I’m madly in love with you!”

  The next thing she knew—as though drawn by a magnet—Filomena found herself underground with him, in a room fit for a queen. The youth kissed her and said, “I am Filo d’Oro [Gold Thread], and you will be my bride.” Then he gave her a bag of money and said, “Go home to your parents, but come back to see me every day. You will always find the savoy you pulled up this morning in the same place. Pull it up again and throw in a crown where the root was. That way you will see me again. But make sure you are the only one who sees me. No one else must look upon me.”

  Filomena went home overjoyed and told her parents everything that had befallen her. The two old people couldn’t get over it, and days of plenty began for them. Every day the girl would go to the garden and come home with a bag of money. But her mother was dying to see this bridegroom of her daughter’s. “Let me see him just once,” she begged. “I am your mother!”

  “No, Mother, for if you look upon him, my luck will leave me.”

  “But you can at least let me see the place where he appears. That much you can do!”

  So the girl ended up taking her mother there.

  “This is the market-garden, and this is the savoy. Now goodbye, Mother, you must go.”

  The old woman pretended to leave, but hid behind a walnut tree instead. Filomena pulled up the savoy, threw in the crown, saw the little window; but this time there was no Filo d’Oro peering through the crystal panes. The old woman who was dying to see what her son-in-law looked like, threw a walnut at the window. The panes shattered, and the youth’s face appeared, flushed with rage, then immediately vanished along with the window and everything else. Back came the savoy where it had been, but it could no longer be uprooted as before.

  Filo d’Oro, mind you, was the son of an ogress, who wanted to marry him to a princess; but the fairies had destined him to wed a shoemaker’s daughter. So the ogress had said, “May you see only one woman in the world, and should you look upon a second, may you die!” And to keep him from seeing any women except the one he would wed, she had shut him up in that underground dwelling.

  The fairies, who wanted to rescue him from his mother’s curse, had brought it about that the first woman seen by Filo d’Oro was Filomena, and they made him fall in love with her. But the minute he saw her mother, the curse took effect, and he died in the ogress’s arms.

  Finding herself with a dead son on her hands, and all because of her curse, the ogress began tearing out her hair. As Filo d’Oro had formerly been put under a spell by the fairies, his dead body did not decay. His mother buried him up to the waist and went to look on his beautiful face every day and weep.

  Meanwhile Filomena, grieved over the disappearance of her bride groom, had left home and gone out into the world looking for Filo d’Oro. One night she stopped under an oak tree to sleep. In this oak a pair of doves had alighted, and Filomena heard them singing:

  “Dead is Filo d’Oro,


  But on lives lovely Filomena . . .


  Let her kill us,


  Then burn us,


  Then smear him with our ashes,


  Thus Filo d’Oro would she save,

  And he would rise up from his grave,


  After the song was over, Filomena waited for the two doves to fall asleep; then without a
sound, she climbed the oak, grabbed hold of them, and killed them. From her post high in the tree, she saw a little light off in the forest. She came down and made her way toward the light. It came from a hut, and the girl went in and asked for fire to burn up the doves. The hut was occupied by a fairy baker, who put the doves in the fire and, after hearing Filomena’s tale, said, “My daughter, keep the dove ashes in this pot, and also carry along this basket of figs with you. Then go up to the ogress’s windows. You will find her spinning at the window and, to stretch the thread, she lets the spindle down to the ground from the window. You are to pick up the spindle and stick a fig on it. The ogress will eat the fig, thank you, and invite you in. But be careful, for she can gobble you up. Don’t go in until she has sworn by Filo d’Oro’s soul not to eat you. Then you’ll show her you have the ashes to revive her son, and leave everything else to fate.”

  Tickled pink, the maiden thanked the fairy baker and went to the house of the ogress, who was spinning at the window. The girl stuck a fig on the spindle, the ogress drew the spindle up, saw the fig, and ate it. “Excellent!” she exclaimed. “Let the good soul who stuck a fig on my spindle come inside so I can kiss you.”

  “No, because you’ll eat me!” replied Filomena.

  The ogress threw the spindle back out, and Filomena stuck on another fig. “Come in and let me kiss you! I won’t eat you, I promise!” said the ogress, after eating the fig.

  “I don’t trust your promises,” said Filomena, putting another fig on the spindle.

  “Come on, I swear by Filo d’Oro’s soul I won’t eat you.”

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