Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  She had already departed in despair, when she remembered the hermit’s advice and cracked open the walnut. Out of it came a golden tambour and a maiden embroidering with pure gold. The princess began crying. “Hallo! Who wants to buy a fine golden tambour and a maiden embroidering with pure GOLD?” The palace maid looked out and called her inside.

  “What do you want for it?” asked Turk-Dog.

  “I want no money, but only to spend tonight as well with your husband.”

  But this night, too, Turk-Dog put opium in King Pepper’s wine. So one more night the princess sang and wept all in vain.

  For a second night the prisoners in the building next to the palace were kept awake by those songs and laments, and they decided that if King Pepper came out tomorrow, they would call to him from their barred windows and tell him about all the wailing which inspired their pity as well as kept them awake.

  Thus, when King Pepper emerged from the palace into the sunlight, the prisoners poked their hands through the bars and motioned to him, saying, “Majesty, how can you sleep so soundly at night? We hear someone weeping and calling, ‘King Pepper, I am your wife!’ Then we hear her singing that she fashioned you with her own two hands, spending six months molding you, and six more unmolding you. How could you be deaf to all that?”

  King Pepper thought to himself, If I hear nothing, Turk-Dog must be drugging my wine. Tonight I won’t drink any.

  Meanwhile, the poor young lady was in the depths of despair, because only the hazelnut was left. She cracked it open, and out came a little golden basket and a maiden sewing with pure gold. The princess cried out, “Hallo! Who wants to buy a pretty little golden basket and a maiden sewing with pure GOLD?” She was brought inside and made the same bargain as for the previous nights.

  When she was at last alone with a sleeping King Pepper, she was all ready to resume her song, when King Pepper (who had pretended to drink and was now pretending to sleep) opened his eyes and said, “Shhhhh, my wife. We will flee tonight. How did you ever find me?”

  “King Pepper, I never gave up the search!” And she told him of all her trials.

  He explained that Turk-Dog had always held him under a spell and prevented his escape, but that now the spell was weaker while Turk-Dog thought he was drugged.

  They opened the door, made sure Turk-Dog was sleeping her soundest, mounted the princess’s horse one behind the other, and off they sped.

  Finding them gone the next morning, Turk-Dog pulled out her hair, strand by strand, and when no hair was left she tore off her head and perished.

  The couple on horseback reached the palace of the princess’s father. He was standing on his balcony, saw them ride up, and cried, “My daughter! My daughter!”

  They danced and sang and ate and ate,

  But us they gave not e’en a blessed date.



  The Turkey Hen

  Once there was a king and queen. In giving birth to a baby boy, the queen died, leaving the king with two motherless children, the boy and a little girl not much older. The poor father was so griefstricken that he spent his days weeping. He went on like that for a year, and then he too died.

  He had a brother and, before dying, commended the poor orphans to him. Their uncle solemnly promised to look after them, but the minute the king was dead, all his brother could think of was getting the crown for himself and ruling over the kingdom. He was a tyrannical king; he kept his niece and nephew closed up underground, and when the boy reached ten years of age, he began sending him to the fields every day to oversee the men tilling the soil.

  The boy grew up under that daily routine and, up to his seventeenth year, was unaware that he and his sister were royal children. They didn’t even know that the present king was their uncle, but thought he had only taken them in out of charity.

  With Christmas coming on, an old woman who raised geese and turkeys and knew the children’s real rank, took pity on them. She said to herself, “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and those poor children are all alone. If their father, God rest him, were alive, they would have a feast and all kinds of entertainment! The late king would have done fine things for them! Everybody celebrates Christmas, including me, who keeps geese! But those poor dears have nothing. I shall make them a present of one of my turkeys, so they too can celebrate Christmas. But how will I get it to them? I can’t go through the main door, since the guard always stands there . . . . I’ll call the girl to the window.”

  So, on the morning of Christmas Eve, the old woman rose, took the fattest turkey, and began calling through the window, “Young lady, oh, miss! Today is Christmas Eve, and I want to make you a present of this turkey. You and your brother eat it, for me!”

  The girl looked out. “Thank you, thank you very much, kind lady. But what can I give you in return? I have nothing to my name . . . ” She didn’t want to take the gift, but the good old woman was so insistent that the girl finally accepted it.

  That morning being a holiday, the brother didn’t go to the fields, but took the accounts to the king. Waiting for him to come back, the sister put the turkey in a dark room so no one would see it, and locked the door. Left by itself, the turkey began scratching about on the ground and digging. It dug and dug, and at length uncovered a trapdoor. Toward evening the brother came back with something to eat. They sat down to the table, brother and sister, and as they ate she said, “Guess what, brother. This morning a good-hearted old woman made me a present of a turkey hen.”

  “Where did you put it?” asked the brother.

  “I hid it in the dark room, and I’m going to feed it now.”

  When the brother, who was weary, had gone to bed, the girl took up the candle and went to look after the turkey. She saw where it had been digging, spied the trapdoor, and said, “Look what the turkey has found!” She opened the trapdoor, and there was a staircase. “I shall go down,” said the girl. She went down the steps and saw a king’s outfit, including helmet, sword, and armor; only the crown was missing. “Whose things are these?” wondered the girl. “No matter, I’m taking them.” And she carried them up to her room.

  Next morning when he woke up, the brother saw helmet, sword, and armor by his bed. “Where did these things come from?”

  “Would you believe it?” answered the sister. “The turkey hen went to digging, and down underneath was a trapdoor and staircase. I went below and found all these things.”

  “But they are for a king!” said the brother.

  “Yes, they are! Isn’t that nice! Put them on, brother, and let me see how you look in them. Go on, put them on!” And she helped her brother into them and clapped her hands for joy.

  In that instant trumpets and drums were heard: it was Christmas Eve, and musicians had come to play under the windows of the royal palace.

  The girl threw open the window, and before all the people in the square appeared the boy dressed as king, in helmet, sword, and armor.

  Everybody began crying, “This is our king! This is our king!”

  Hearing these cheers, the palace guards gave the alert. A great tumult arose in the crowd. The whole court began crying, “What is it? What’s going on?”

  Taking note of the turmoil inside the palace, the people on the outside proceeded to shout, “Down with him!” or else “Hurrah!” Meanwhile people crowded into the square from all over the city, and the greater the uproar grew, the more people it drew.

  Quite pale, the king appeared on the steps, and moved forward to address the people, but they had had quite enough of his tyranny and rushed upon him with stones and clenched fists. So furiously did they beat him that he finally died, as he deserved. Then they took the royal crown and put it on his nephew’s head, amid cheers and fireworks.

  As king, the youth ruled justly, and everyone was happy and loved him. For his part, he was so pleased with the way things had turned out that he made a vow: every Friday all the poor people in the realm were to come to the palace, and he would d
istribute alms to them in person. Poor people from all over came and received alms from him, Friday after Friday. Once after a long and tiring day, he was about to leave when he saw an old blind woman come forward with a maiden about twelve years old. In a voice that inspired pity, the maiden said, “Royal Majesty, be kind to this poor blind soul, that God may reward you.”

  The king gave the old woman alms, but as he did so he eyed the girl, who was very beautiful, and said, “Good lady, come back every Friday, but stay apart from everybody else, don’t mingle with the other poor people, so that I can see you.”

  The two women went off blessing him, and the king remained quite wistful; it seemed like a hundred years before next Friday when he would see if the old woman and the maiden returned. Friday finally came again, and the king looked at every single person until he spotted the two women a little bit apart from the others, according to his instructions. He waved to them, gave them a little more money than usual, then said to the maiden, “Throw away those rags you’re wearing and make yourself a new dress. Wear it next Friday when you return.”

  Next Friday the maiden came in a cotton dress and new shoes, and the king gave her still more money. And so each week she showed up better dressed than the week before, and at last wore a muslin dress that made her look like a rose.

  The king said to her, “Next Friday, you be the first one to come up.”

  The king had fallen in love and was always very wistful at home. His sister noticed it and asked, “What’s the matter, brother?”

  “Nothing . . . I’ve a headache . . . ” At last he couldn’t keep his love a secret any longer and said, “There’s a poor girl I’ve fallen in love with, and I would like to marry her.”

  He never dreamed his sister would consent to his marrying a poor girl. But she was a good soul and loved her brother; besides, she too had known poverty. The only thing she asked was to see the girl.

  Therefore next Friday the king’s sister accompanied her brother when he went to distribute alms. The first in line was the beautiful beggar girl, who was so lovely that the sister said to the king, “Do as your heart commands.” Thus the king married the beggar girl.

  The day of the wedding the king said to his sister, “I’m now getting married, but nothing else will change and you will still be the mistress of the house.”

  The bride, however, now so rich after being so poor, became arrogant. She envied her sister-in-law who was mistress of the house and kept all the keys. Thus, bit by bit, she proceeded to turn her husband against his sister. She had him take the keys away from her, and forced him to scold her, even though she didn’t deserve it in the least. Yet, the poor girl was ever kinder. But the new wife went on so about her sister-in-law to the king that he finally said to her, “Wife, what would you have me do?”

  She answered, “When it’s night, have her taken to the woods and slain. And to make certain they’ve killed her, order her heart brought back along with her amputated hands and bloody gown.” The husband couldn’t refuse. He ordered the executioner to take his sister into the depth of the woods at midnight and kill her, and to bring him back as proof of the deed her heart, hands, and gown.

  Thus was it done. At midnight the poor girl was awakened and seized by two hired assassins. “What do you want of me?”

  “By order of your brother the king, you are to come with us!”

  They packed her into a carriage, and off they went, out into the country. When they reached the woods, the assassins said to each other, “So we must now kill her, for no reason. She’s never done us any harm, poor thing!”

  “I’m not killing her, that’s for sure,” said the other man. “You do it!”

  “Well, what are we going to do? We have to present the king with heart, hands, and gown smeared with blood. We’ve no choice but to kill her.”

  At that instant a bleating was heard: it was a little lamb that had strayed and remained behind in the woods for the night. They seized it and said to the princess, “Take off your gown, and we’ll slay the lamb and take its heart. But as much as we hate to do it, we have to cut off your hands; that is an order. You just have to bear it!” They did what they said they would and carried off the lamb’s heart and the bloody hands wrapped in the gown.

  The princess remained there with blood spurting from her wrists. At the sight of those poor remains, the king couldn’t keep back his tears, and said, “My sister, you were so happy over my marriage, and now you are dead through my wife’s doing!” Thus, thinking back to the past, he regretted what he’d done and called out, weeping, “My sister! My sister!”

  While he grieved, his sister was in the woods with the blood running out of her veins. It so happened that an English lord came riding through the woods right then in his small carriage. Hearing moans, he drew near, saw her, and asked who had wounded her. The princess answered that wild animals had eaten her hands, and the Englishman remembered that he had some cloth in his carriage and gave it to her to stanch the blood. Then he invited her to get in, and took her off with him. The lord was married, but had no children. You can just imagine the happy life the girl led at his house. So she wouldn’t be without hands, the lord had some wax ones made for her.

  In spite of all her sorrows, the princess, who was twenty, was as beautiful and fresh as a rose. She was on the balcony when a foreign king came down the street and saw her. He liked her and asked the Englishman for her hand in marriage. The lord consented to the match, but in all honesty told him the girl had wax hands. The king said that made no difference, so he married her and took her off with him to the palace.

  In a few months’ time the princess began expecting a baby, when war was declared against her husband, who led his army to fight the enemy.

  While he was away, the princess gave birth to two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. But the ministers, who disliked being ruled by a woman, especially one whose origin was a mystery to them, decided to take advantage of the circumstances and get rid of her.

  So what did they do but write the king and tell him his wife had brought forth two little dogs, because of which they were awaiting orders from him as to what they should do with the queen.

  The king nearly died from the shock and wrote back for them to await his return when he himself would see what was to be done. But the ministers, who were bent on getting rid of the queen at all costs, woke her up in the middle of the night, strapped a knapsack to her, putting a baby in each side of it, and abandoned her on a deserted shore.

  The poor soul started weeping. Alone, hungry and thirsty, with those two stubs for hands, she had no idea how she would manage. She came to a pool of water and bent over to drink from it. While she was bending over, one of the babies slipped out of the rucksack and disappeared under the water. Just imagine her grief: there she was handless and unable to fish him up.

  In that instant a handsome old man appeared before her, saying:

  “Plunge in your stub

  And get back hand and babe.”

  The princess immersed her mutilated arm in the water and felt her hand grow back. She grabbed the child at once and took him back in her arm. With that movement, the other baby slipped out of the knapsack and disappeared under the water.

  Again the old man said:

  “Plunge in your stub

  And get back hand and babe.”

  So she got her other hand back and fished out the child and then she was able to nurse them both. Next, the good old man led her to a hilltop where a beautiful house stood. He invited her in, saying, “Remain here, and you will want for nothing. I will not abandon you.”

  Let’s leave the princess and return to the king who was her husband. At the end of the war he came home, and how great was his grief on finding his wife gone! He asked for an explanation, but the ministers told him they were as much in the dark as he was: she had left in the night with the two little dogs she had brought forth. The king knew no more peace without his wife, and began combing the countryside in sea
rch of her.

  Meanwhile, the queen’s brother, from the moment he regretted his deed, kept to the house and let his beard grow down to his knees, out of grief over killing his innocent sister. And he imprisoned his wife who had been the cause of his injustice. His ministers kept after him until they finally got him to go out hunting one day for the sake of a little exercise. Once in the country, absorbed as he was in thought, he strayed from the ministers and lost his way. All of a sudden it began to rain, and the king took shelter under an oak tree.

  It so happened that the other king as well, the husband out looking for his wife, was going through those same woods, and took refuge under the oak. Thus they met for the first time, for although they were both kings, they’d never seen each other before in their whole life. They spied a light and headed toward it in the rain. That light came from the good old man’s house where their sister and wife lived.

  They knocked. The old man answered the door and immediately offered them shelter. They went inside, and there was the queen. She recognized them, but they did not recognize her.

  “Since it is raining,” said the old man to her, “these two gentlemen here need shelter and ask hospitality of us.”

  “We are honored to have them here,” she replied. “I was just getting supper for my children.”

  “So we’ll all eat together,” said the old man.

  They were almost at the end of supper when the old man said to the two children, “Dear children, tell us a nice story now, so we’ll hear you too.”

  The little girl, who was the more eager, then started talking. She told the story of her mother, from the time she had been taken to the woods by the hired assassins up to the moment of her marriage. Hearing those details, the brother said to himself, “But in that case she’s none other than my sister!”

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