Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino



  Sleeping Beauty and Her Children

  There was once a king and queen who had no children, which made the whole court as sad as if it had been in mourning. The queen prayed night and day, but no longer knew which saint to turn to, for they all turned a deaf ear to her. Finally one day she prayed this prayer: “Blessed Mother, help me to have a daughter even if she should have to die at fifteen from pricking her finger on a spindle!”

  Lo and behold, she began expecting a child, and the loveliest of baby girls was born to her. They had a grand christening and named her Carol. Nobody on earth was happier than the king and queen over the blessing they had received.

  The child grew by leaps and bounds and became ever more graceful. When she was almost fifteen, the queen recalled the vow she had made. She told the king, whose grief was indescribable. Right away he issued an order for all the spindles throughout the kingdom to be destroyed. Anyone in whose house a spindle was found would be beheaded without fail. Those persons who earned their living with a spindle were to go to the king, and he would then support them. Not satisfied with his proclamation, the king had his daughter locked up in her room for greater security, and ordered that she was to see no one at all.

  Alone in her room, Carol entertained herself by looking out the window. Now there was an old woman living across the street. One knows how some old people are: they get so wrapped up in themselves they can’t for the life of them think of anything else. This old woman had kept a spindle and a wad of cotton wool, and whenever the mood struck her, she would spin a while on the sly.

  Spinning at the window to get a little sun, the old woman caught the attention of the king’s daughter. Carol had never before seen anybody make such strange movements with their hands, and her curiosity was aroused. “Ma’am! Oh, ma’am!” she called. “What are you doing there?”

  “I’m spinning this teensy wad of cotton wool, but don’t you tell a soul!”

  “May I try to spin a little myself?”

  “Of course, dear. Just don’t let anyone see you doing it!”

  “All right, ma’am, I’ll let a little basket down into the street, and you put those things in the basket, where you’ll find a present for yourself.”

  So she let a purse of money down to the old woman and pulled up the spindle and cotton wool. As happy as happy could be, she tried to spin. She spun the first thread, then the second, but the third time the spindle slipped and the point stuck in her right thumb under the nail. The maiden fell to the floor, dead.

  When the king knocked at his daughter’s door and got no answer, he tried the door and found it bolted from the inside (she’d locked it so she wouldn’t be caught spinning). Then he had it broken down and saw Carol lying lifeless on the floor next to the spindle.

  There are no words to describe the grief of the king and queen. Poor dear, as beautiful as the girl had always been, she looked as though she were only sleeping; nor did her face even grow cold. She just didn’t breathe any more, nor did her heart beat any longer, as though a spell had been cast over her.

  Her poor father and mother stood at her bedside for weeks on end, hoping she would come back to life.

  They couldn’t believe she was dead, and so they refused to bury her. They had a castle built on a mountaintop with no door, but only a window high up from the ground. Inside they laid their daughter on a wide bed surmounted by a canopy embroidered in gold and full of flowers, and they dressed her in her bridal dress, which had seven skirts with silver bells. After placing one last kiss on that face as fresh as a rose, they left the castle by a door that was immediately walled up.

  One day long after that, another king, who was young and had been left an orphan with his queen mother, was out hunting in those parts, and chance led him right up to that castle. “What can it be?” he wondered. “A castle with no doors and only one window? What on earth is it?” The dogs ran around the castle and wouldn’t stop barking, while the young man was dying of curiosity to know what was inside. But how was he to get in? The next day he returned with a rope ladder, which he threw up to the window and thus managed to climb inside.

  At the sight of the maiden lying among the flowers with her face as fresh and beautiful as a rose, he almost swooned away. He got hold of himself, eased up to the bed, reached out and touched her forehead, discovering it was still warm. So she’s not dead! he thought, unable to take his eyes off her. He stayed there until night, expecting her to awaken any minute, but she didn’t awaken. He returned the next day too, and the next; by then he couldn’t bear to be away from her so much as an hour. He kissed her repeatedly and all but devoured her with his eyes. In short, he was in love with her, and the queen mother couldn’t imagine what was eating her son and keeping him away from home all the time.

  The young king’s love was so intense that the sleeping maiden gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and you never saw two more beautiful children in your life. They came into the world hungry, but who was to nurse them if their mamma lay there like a dead woman? They cried and cried, but their mother didn’t hear them. With their tiny mouths they began seeking something to suck on, and that way the boy child happened to find his mother’s hand and began sucking on the thumb. With all that sucking, the spindle tip lodged under the nail came out, and the sleeper awakened.

  “Oh, me, how I’ve slept!” she said, rubbing her eyes. “But . . . where am I? In a tower? And who are these two babies?” She was growing more and more puzzled, when the young king, having climbed up to the window as usual, jumped into the room.

  “Who are you? What do you want with me?”

  “Oh! You’re alive! Speak to me, my love!”

  After their initial amazement was over, they began talking, learned of each other’s royal origins, rejoiced, and embraced one another as man and wife. They named the baby boy Sun, and the baby girl Moon.

  The king returned to his court, promising to come back for his bride and shower her with fine gifts and arrange for their wedding. But the poor girl was born under a truly unlucky star: the minute the king reached his palace, he fell sick. His illness was so serious that he was practically unconscious and refused all food. All he did was repeat:

  “O Sun, O Moon, O Carol,

  If only I had you at my table!”

  Hearing those words, his mother suspected her son had been bewitched, and she had the woods combed in search of the place where he used to go every day. When she learned that in an isolated castle lived an unknown young woman with whom her son was madly in love and who had borne him two babies, she was seized with fierce hatred, awful woman that she was. She sent two soldiers to the castle to order the young woman to give them Sun, since the king was sick and wanted to see him. Though Carol didn’t want to, she had no choice but to obey, and weeping, handed him over to the soldiers.

  The soldiers returned to the palace, where the queen awaited them on the stairs. She took the baby in to the cook. “This,” she said, “you are to roast for the king.”

  But the cook was a good man and didn’t have the heart to slay the baby. He gave him to his wife, who kept him hidden and nursed him. In the baby’s stead, he roasted a lamb and took it in to the sick king. Seeing the food, the king as usual sighed and said:

  “O Sun, O Moon, O Carol,

  If only I had you at my table!”

  Passing him the dish, his mother said, “Eat, my dear, you’re feasting on your very own!”

  The young man heard those words and looked up at her, but he didn’t understand what she meant.

  The next morning the cruel woman sent the same soldiers back to the castle to fetch the girl child. This time too the baby was saved by the cook and given over to his wife to nurse; in her stead another lamb was roasted. Again the king’s mother said, “Eat, you’re feasting on your very own!” In a whisper he asked her what she meant, but his mother made him no answer.

  The third day the soldiers were ordered to fetch the yo
ung woman. The poor thing, frightened to death, followed the two men, dressed in her bridal gown of seven skirts with silver bells on them.

  The queen was on the stairs waiting for her and began slapping her right and left as soon as the girl came up to her. “Why do you beat me?” asked the poor soul.

  “Why? You cast a spell over my son, you ugly witch, and now he’s dying! But do you see where you will end up yourself?” asked the queen, pointing to a kettle of boiling pitch.

  In the meantime the king heard nothing, since in his room was a band of musicians his mother had sent for, saying the doctors had prescribed that to cheer him up.

  Words can’t describe the terror of the poor girl when she saw the kettle prepared for her and learned that she was to die. “Take off those skirts,” ordered the queen, “and then I’ll throw you into the pitch.”

  Trembling, the young woman obeyed. She removed the first skirt, and the silver bells rang. Indistinctly the prince heard the music of the bells, and it struck him as a familiar sound. He opened his eyes, but the drummer meanwhile beat the bass drum, so he decided he must not have heard right after all.

  The young woman removed her second skirt, and the bells rang louder. The prince raised his head and was almost sure he heard Carol’s skirts, but about that time the cymbalist played the cymbals, and he couldn’t hear anything else. Then he imagined he heard still more jingling, clearer yet, and he strained his ears to listen. The young woman thus removed one skirt after the other, and each time the bells rang louder, until at last they resounded through the whole palace.

  “Carol!” cried the king, and jumped out of bed, weak and shaky as he was. He made his way downstairs and saw his beloved about to be thrown into the kettle.

  “Stop!” he shouted. He grabbed his sword, thrust it against the queen, and said, “Confess your sins!”

  When he learned that the children had been served up as a meal, he ran in to kill the cook, but in the kitchen they told him at once that the babies were safe and sound, and he was so thrilled that he laughed and danced like a madman.

  In the meantime the queen had been thrown into the kettle, which was just the place for her. The cook received a handsome present. And the king with Carol, Sun, and Moon, lived happily ever afterward.

  Whether a long tale or a short tale,

  Let’s hear yours, now you’ve heard mine.



  The Handmade King

  Once there was a king whose wife had died and left him with a daughter on his hands. The daughter had reached marriageable age, and there came asking for her hand sons of kings, marquis, and counts, but she rejected them all.

  Her father sent for her and asked, “Daughter, why is it you do not wish to marry?”

  “Papa,” she replied, “if you would have me marry, give me one hundred and seventy-six pounds of flour and the same measure of sugar, for I want to create my betrothed with my own two hands.”

  The king shrugged his shoulders and said, “All right, you shall have them.” He gave her the sugar and the flour, and the daughter shut herself up in her chamber with a kneading trough and a sieve and began sifting flour. Six months she devoted to the sifting and refining, and six months to the kneading and shaping. When the kneading and molding was done, she disliked the way it had turned out, so she undid it and started over. The second time it finally came out the way she wanted it, and she stuck in a pepper for a nose. Standing him in a niche, she called her father and said, “Papa, Papa, look at my betrothed. His name is King Pepper.”

  Her father looked him over and found him to his liking. “He is handsome, but he doesn’t talk!”

  “Just you wait! In time he will speak.”

  Every day the king’s daughter went before King Pepper in the niche and said:

  “O King Pepper, made by hand,

  But pen to paper put I not;

  Six months to refine thee,

  Six months to fashion thee,

  Six months to undo thee,

  Six months to redo thee,

  Six months in the niche,

  And thou shall speak our speech!”

  And for six months the girl continued to sing him that little song. At the end of six months, King Pepper started talking.

  “I can’t talk to you,” he said. “I must first speak to your father.”

  The girl ran to her father. “Come here quick, Father, my betrothed is talking!”

  The king came and began talking with King Pepper of this and that, and in the end King Pepper asked for the hand of his daughter. Overjoyed, the king gave orders for a grand banquet and invited King Pepper to dinner. Preparations began for the wedding, which took place two days hence in the presence of all the reigning monarchs from nearby and faraway.

  Among these sovereigns was also a queen named Turk-Dog. The minute Turk-Dog laid eyes on King Pepper, she was infatuated with him and secretly resolved to steal the handmade king from his bride.

  Following the nuptials, the newlyweds began to lead a very happy life, but King Pepper never went outdoors. At last the king commented on it to his daughter. “My daughter, why is it you and your husband never go out? An excursion every now and then would do you so much good!”

  “Yes, Papa, you are right. As a matter of fact, I feel like a drive in our carriage this very day.”

  They had the horses harnessed, and the princess went out for a drive with King Pepper. Turk-Dog, who was forever on the lookout for a chance to kidnap King Pepper, began following them in her carriage. When they reached the country, King Pepper decided to get out and walk around a bit. Suddenly a strong gust of wind arose and swept King Pepper away. He was blown right up to the carriage of Turk-Dog, who put out her cloak and caught him. His wife and the coachman looked everywhere for him, but nowhere was he to be found. Griefstricken, the princess returned to the palace. “And your husband?” inquired her father.

  “A gust of wind swept him away! I shall shut myself up in my room with my misery, and I don’t want to hear another thing.”

  But she didn’t stay shut up for long. Unable to stand her grief any longer, she took a horse and a purse of money, asked for her father’s blessing, and rode off in search of King Pepper.

  One night in a forest, she was listening to the cry of animals, when she saw a light and knocked at a house. “Who goes there?”

  “A good Christian soul. Please give me shelter this night, so the animals won’t eat me.”

  “To these parts come no Christians, only animals and serpents. If you are a Christian, make the sign of the cross.”

  “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”

  The door opened, and there stood an old man with a long beard, who said, “Princess, what are you doing roaming around this countryside infested with wild animals?”

  “I’m out seeking my fortune. I molded myself a husband with my own two hands”—and she told him her story.

  “Princess,” said the old man, “you must first find your husband. Meanwhile take this chestnut and don’t lose it. Tomorrow morning, continue on your way until you come to another house; there you will find my brother, and you will ask him!”

  The next day the princess found the other hermit, who gave her a walnut to keep with the chestnut, and he told her the way to their third brother’s house. The third hermit, who was older than the other two put together, gave her a hazelnut and said, “Go this way until you come to a large palace. Adjoining this palace, which belongs to Turk-Dog, is an uglier one, which is the prison. When you are under the palace windows, break open the chestnut and out will come treasure which you are to hawk. At the sound of your voice, Turk-Dog’s maid will appear and invite you inside. Turk-Dog will ask how much you want for the item you are selling. Don’t ask for money; just say you want to be left alone with Turk-Dog’s husband. He is none other than King Pepper. If you don’t manage to speak to King Pepper tonight, break open the walnut and proceed to sell its contents. If
you don’t succeed the second night either, then break open the hazelnut.”

  When she got to the palace, the princess broke open the chestnut. Out of it came a golden loom, with a maiden seated at it and weaving pure gold. The princess began crying. “Hallo! Who wants to buy a lovely loom, together with a maiden weaving pure GOLD?”

  The palace maid looked out the window and said to Turk-Dog, “Majesty, Majesty, look what wonderful things are for sale! Do buy them to go in your gallery, for they are rare indeed.”

  The princess was invited inside and upstairs. Turk-Dog asked her, “What do you want for these things?”

  “I want no money, but only to spend one night in a room by myself with Your Majesty’s husband.”

  Turk-Dog was unwilling to allow that, but her maid talked her into it, so Turk-Dog served King Pepper drugged wine, put him to bed, and then told the seller of the loom, “You may go in now.”

  The princess couldn’t for the life of her awaken King Pepper. She sang to him:

  “O King Pepper, made by hand,

  But pen to paper put I not;

  Six months to refine thee,

  Six months to fashion thee,

  Six months to undo thee,

  Six months to redo thee,

  But now Turk-Dog possesses thee;

  Awake, my king, and let us flee!”

  But King Pepper heard nothing. Thus, daylight overtook her singing and weeping.

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