Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  So Filomena went inside the house. But when the ogress discovered she was Filo d’Oro’s wife bringing ashes to revive him, she took the pot away from her at once and brought her son back to life herself. Then she shut him up underground again so he wouldn’t see Filomena, and hatched quick plans to wed him to that princess.

  “Really?” commented the fairies, who had decided the shoemaker’s daughter would get Filo d’Oro. “In that case, we’ll just put a curse on the princess: in one month the earth shall yawn under her feet, and she shall fall into Hell.”

  In the meantime the ogress kept Filomena there as her servant, racking her brains for an excuse to gobble her up.

  “You must make five down mattresses for Filo d’Oro, who’s getting married,” she told her. “Here are the ticks: fill them with down in twenty-four hours’ time, or I’ll eat you.”

  Filomena wrung her hands and wept. But Filo d’Oro, mind you, under the fairies’ spell, could change his form and, thus transformed, he came out of the underground palace. He became a man with a beard and went to Filomena. “Lovely maiden,” he said, “kiss me, and I’ll get you all the down you need in a flash.”

  But Filomena replied, “Were you Filo d’Oro, not one kiss but a thousand would you get. But I refuse to kiss you, even though my life depends on it.”

  The bearded man smiled and disappeared. Then through the windows into the room flew thousands of birds of every species. In and out they flew, flapping their wings and strewing the room with feathers galore of every color. The carpet of feathers became thicker and thicker, so in twenty-four hours’ time Filomena was able to pack five mattresses as the ogress had ordered.

  The ogress said to herself, “This is surely my son’s doing. But we’ll just see who wins in the long run.” She said to Filomena, “You must go to my ogress sister, who lives on the Mountain of Entertainment, and get her to give you the music box.”

  Now to reach the Mountain of Entertainment, it was necessary to cross the River of Serpents, the River of Blood, and the River of Bile, and once you did and got to the ogress’s house, you then ran the risk of being eaten alive. All the poor maiden could do was weep.

  But lo and behold, here came a man with whiskers, who was none other than Filo d’Oro in disguise. “Give me a kiss,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to make off with the box and get back here safe and sound.”

  “Were you Filo d’Oro, I’d give you a thousand kisses,” replied Filomena. “But I would rather end up in the mouths of both ogresses than give you a single kiss.”

  Deeply moved by her loyalty, Filo d’Oro said, “Even if you won’t kiss me, I’ll still help you. When you reach the River of the Serpents, say, ‘Oh, what macaroni! It looks so good I could eat three bowls of it!’ When you reach the River of Blood, say, ‘What wine! I’d gladly drink three glasses of it!’ At the River of Bile, say, ‘What milk! It looks so good I could drink three cups with pleasure!’ That way, you will get to the ogress’s house. Take this shovel, which will come in handy. Farewell.” And the man with whiskers disappeared.

  Filomena set out, and repeated what the man with whiskers had told her to say. When the serpents heard themselves called macaroni, they separated and let her through. The blood hearing itself called wine also separated, as did the bile upon hearing itself called milk.

  She scaled the Mountain of Entertainment and came to the ogress’s house, which she entered, scared to death. In the kitchen, a servant was baking bread. This servant girl was a poor maiden like Filomena, and had fallen into the ogress’s clutches through misfortune. Three times a week she had to rake the embers out of the oven with her bare hands and put in the bread. The poor thing would suffer terribly from all her burns. But once the bread was baked and removed from the oven, the ogress magically healed the burns, so the girl didn’t die. But when time came to bake again, she had to suffer all over.

  Seeing Filomena enter, the girl shouted, “Be gone, for heaven’s sake! What are you doing here anyway? Don’t you know the ogress will eat you?”

  “If she doesn’t, then her sister will,” said Filomena. “So I might as well get what I came for.”

  “What’s that?”

  “The music box.”

  “Listen, we must help each other. I see you are carrying a shovel. Give it to me, so I can put things into the oven and remove them without burning myself, and I’ll get you the music box, which I alone can find.”

  Filomena gladly gave her the shovel and left with the music box. Meanwhile the ogress returned, missed the box, and screamed, “I’ve been robbed! Serpents, eat her alive!”

  “No,” said the serpents. “She called us macaroni!” At that, they let her through.

  “Blood! Drown her!”

  “No,” answered the blood, “she called me wine!” And it let her through.

  “Bile! Sweep her under!”

  “No,” replied the bile. “She called me milk!” And it let her through.

  But once the three rivers were behind her, Filomena was overcome with curiosity to know what music and song were in the box. She opened it, heard a “Zing!” and an “Ooh!” and that was it. The box was empty, music and song had escaped together. Filomena burst into tears.

  Lo and behold, here came a man with sideburns, who was none other than Filo d’Oro. “Will you give me a kiss? I’ll get music and song back into the box for you.”

  As usual, she answered, “If you were Filo d’Oro, one thousand kisses. But for you, nothing.”

  “But I am Filo d’Oro!” The man with sideburns disappeared, and in his place stood Filomena’s husband. Trembling with emotion, she fell into his arms and kissed him a thousand times, while music and song came back into the box and were heard throughout the countryside.

  “Go home in good spirits, Filomena,” said Filo d’Oro, “and we’ll be man and wife in three days.”

  Overjoyed, the maiden returned to the ogress. Sure that the girl had been swallowed by the rivers or devoured by her sister, the ogress had already set her son’s wedding to the princess cursed by the fairies for three days hence. Seeing Filomena walk in with the music box, she turned livid with rage and said, “My son’s wedding will take place in three days. You will hold the candlestick during the ceremony.”

  Filo d’Oro seemed willing to go through with the ceremony. But he wanted it to take place at midnight. All the guests were waiting, but there was no sign of the wedding procession. Filomena held the candlestick and became more and more uneasy as the minutes ticked by. Lo and behold, here came the procession, with Filo d’Oro holding onto the princess’s arm. At that moment the church bell sounded—dong, dong, dong, twelve strokes. The earth yawned beneath the princess, and she disappeared into the flames.

  Filo d’Oro took Filomena by the hand. “This is my bride,” he said, and heavenly music wafted from the music box.

  Filo d’Oro and Filomena got married. At that, the ogress let out a shriek, put her hands to her forehead, and pronounced this curse: “You who have charmed my son can have a baby without dying in childbirth only when I put my hands to my forehead like this!”

  At that threat, Filomena grew weak in the knees. But Filo d’Oro squeezed her hand and gave her courage.

  Sometime later, Filomena began expecting a baby. “When you see the time has come to be delivered of the child,” Filo d’Oro told her, “dress in mourning and go to my mother. She’ll ask you the reason for the mourning and you will say, ‘Because Filo d’Oro is dead.’”

  Filomena did just that. When the ogress heard “Filo d’Oro is dead,” she put her hands to her forehead, very upset and crying, “My poor son,” and Filomena gave birth right away, with no risk, to a fine baby boy.

  Filo d’Oro then came in and, seeing him alive, the ogress forgave him and his wife and blessed the baby. So they lived in peace all the rest of their days.

  (Basilicata)

  137

  The Thirteen Bandits

  There were once two brothers, it is said??
?one a rich cobbler, the other a poor farmer. One day the farmer was in the country and saw thirteen men under an oak tree, each with a wicked-looking knife that would scare anyone to death. Bandits! thought the farmer, and hid. He watched them go up to the oak tree and heard their chief say, “Open up, oak!” The trunk yawned, and one by one the bandits went in. The farmer continued to watch from his hiding place. In a little while the bandits came out, one by one, with the leader bringing up the rear. “Close up, oak!” he said, and the oak went back together.

  When the bandits were gone, the farmer decided to try it himself. He went up to the tree and said, “Open up, oak!” The tree opened, and he went in. There were stairs that led underground. He went down and found himself in a cave containing thirteen piles of treasure from floor to ceiling; there were several heaps of gold, several of diamonds, and several of napoleons. The farmer stared and stared, feasting his eyes on all the glitter, and once his eyes had got their fill he proceeded to fill his pockets, beginning with those in his coat, then those in his pants; finally he pulled his pants up tight against his seat and crammed all the empty space with gold pieces and went slowly jingling home.

  “What happened to you?” asked his wife, when he came walking in like that. He emptied pockets and pants and told her everything. He thought he could best count the money by using one of those bottles in which wine is measured; but having nothing like that on hand, he had to send to his brother’s to borrow one. The cobbler wondered, “What on earth could my brother be measuring? He never has anything to his name. I shall find out.” So what did he do but stick a fishbone on the bottom of the measuring bottle.

  When the bottle was returned to him, he checked at once to see what had caught on the fishbone. Just imagine the expression on his face when he beheld a napoleon!

  He went to his brother right away. “Tell me who gave you that money!” And the farmer told him. The cobbler then said to him, “Brother, you just have to take me to that place too! I have children to support, and need money worse than you do!”

  So the two brothers took two pack animals and four sacks to the tree and said, “Open up, oak!” They filled up their sacks and left. Back home, they divided up the gold, diamonds, and napoleons, and now had ample means to live comfortably. Therefore they said to each other, “We are well fixed now. Let’s not even think of returning to that place, if we don’t want to lose our life!”

  Though the cobbler had agreed, he couldn’t resist deceiving his brother and going back one more time by himself to plunder, since he was the kind of man who never got enough. He went and waited for the bandits to emerge from the oak, but he failed to count them when they went off. He paid for his folly: instead of thirteen, only twelve came out; one stayed behind to keep watch, since they had realized someone was coming into the cave and robbing them. The bandit leaped out, taking the cobbler by surprise, butchered him like a pig, and strung him up on two branches.

  When he failed to come home, his wife went to the farmer. “Dear brother-in-law, I know something bad has happened! Your brother went to that oak tree again and hasn’t come back!”

  The farmer waited until nighttime and went to the oak. Strung up on the branches was the quartered body of his brother. He untied it, loaded it onto his donkey, and carried it home to a wailing wife and children. So as not to bury him quartered, they called in one of his fellow cobblers to sew him back together.

  The cobbler’s widow, with all the money left her, bought a tavern and became a tavern-keeper.

  Meanwhile the bandits were going about town in search of the person who had inherited the money. One went to the cobbler who had sewn the body back together and said to him, “Friend, could you stitch up this shoe a bit?”

  “Are you joking?” he asked. “I stitched up a shoe-mender. Do you think I couldn’t sew up a shoe?”

  “Who was this mender of shoes?”

  “A fellow cobbler who had been completely quartered. The husband of the tavern-keeper.”

  So the bandits learned that the tavern-keeper was the one to profit from the stolen riches. They got a large cask, and eleven of them hid inside. The cask was put on a cart, and the other two drew it along the street. They stopped at the tavern and said, “Good lady, will you let us leave this cask here for the time being? And will you feed us?”

  “Make yourselves comfortable,” replied the tavern-keeper, and put on macaroni for the two carters. Meanwhile the daughter, who was playing nearby, heard noise inside the cask. She listened closely and heard, “Now we’ll take care of this woman!” The girl jumped up and ran to tell her mother. In a split second the woman grabbed up a kettle of boiling water and dashed it into the cask, scalding the bandits to death. Then she went and served the other two macaroni. She poured out drugged wine for them and, when they fell asleep, cut off their heads. “Now go for the judge,” she told her daughter.

  The judge arrived, recognized the thirteen bandits, and rewarded the tavern-keeper for crushing such lawlessness.

  (Basilicata)

  138

  The Three Orphans

  A man with three sons died of illness. The three sons became three orphans. One day the oldest announced: “Brothers, I am leaving home and going out to seek my fortune.” He came to a city and began crying out in the streets:

  “Whoever would have me as his helper,

  Him do I want for a master!”

  An important gentleman appeared on a balcony. “If we can reach an agreement,” he said, “I’ll take you on as a helper.”

  “Fine, offer me whatever you wish.”

  “But I expect obedience.”

  “In all things will I obey you.”

  Next morning the gentleman called the boy and said, “Take this letter, mount this horse, and away. But never touch the reins, for if you do, the horse will turn back. You have only to let him gallop, for he knows the way to the place where you are to deliver the letter.”

  He mounted and rode off. On and on he galloped, coming at length to the edge of a deep ravine. I’ll surely go plunging down there! thought the orphan and pulled on the reins. The horse wheeled about and was back at the palace in a flash.

  Seeing him back, the master said, “So you didn’t go where I sent you! You are dismissed. Go over to that pile of money, take as much as you like, and get out.”

  The orphan filled his pockets and was off. As he stepped outside, he fell straight down into Hell.

  As for the other two orphans, when their big brother failed to return, the second oldest also decided to leave home. He took the same road, came to the same city, and he too proceeded to cry:

  “Whoever would have me as his helper,

  Him do I want for a master!”

  The gentleman came out and called to him. They made a bargain, and next morning the boy was given the same instructions as his brother and sent off with the letter. He too pulled on the reins as soon as he came to the edge of the ravine, and the horse turned back. “Now,” said the master, “take as much money as you like and get out!” He filled his pockets and left. He went out and straight down to Hell.

  When neither one brother nor the other returned, the little brother also left home. He traveled the same road, came to the same city, cried, “Whoever would have me as his helper, him do I want for a master.” The gentleman appeared, invited him in, and said, “I offer you money, food, and whatever you want, on condition that you obey me.”

  The orphan consented, and next morning the master gave him the letter and all the instructions. When he got to that drop-off of the road, the boy looked straight down the rocky precipice and felt his flesh creep, but he thought to himself, God help me!, closed his eyes, and when he reopened them, he was already on the other side.

  On and on he galloped and came to a river as wide as a sea. He though, What choice do I have if I really must drown? All the same, God help me! At that, the water divided, and he crossed the river.

  On and on he galloped and came to a swollen stream of
blood-red water. He thought, Here’s where I drown for sure. All the same, God help me! He plunged into the stream, and the water divided before the horse.

  On and on he galloped and came to a forest so thick that not even a little bird might fly through it. Here I’m doomed, thought the orphan, but so is the horse. God help me! and he galloped onward into the forest.

  In the forest he came upon an old man sawing on a tree with a blade of wheat. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked him. “Do you expect to cut down a tree with a blade of wheat?”

  “One more word out of you, and I’ll also cut your head off.”

  The orphan galloped away.

  He rode and rode and came to an arch of fire, with a lion on each side. “I’ll surely get burned going through there, but so will the horse. Forward, with God’s help!”

  On and on he galloped and came upon a woman kneeling on a stone and praying. At that point the horse drew to a sudden halt. The orphan realized that the letter was for the lady and gave it to her. She opened and read it, then scooped up a handful of sand and threw it into the air. The orphan remounted his horse and took the way back.

  Upon his return, the master, who was the Lord, said to him, “The ravine, mind you, is the chute into Hell; the water, the tears of my mother; the blood, the blood of my five wounds; the forest, the thorns of my crown; the man sawing the tree with the blade of wheat, Death; the fiery arch, Hell; the two lions are your brothers, and the kneeling lady is my mother. You obeyed me. Take all the money you want from that pile of gold.”

  The orphan wanted nothing, but ended up taking a single gold coin, and thus left the Lord.

  The next day he went shopping and spent the coin, but he always found it in his pocket and lived happily ever afterward.

 
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