Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  When the little girl stopped talking, the little boy took up from there and told the rest of the story, from the time his mother had married the king up to the moment the good old man had brought them to the hilltop, to the house they were in at that very moment. Listening to this account, the king said to himself, “So this lady is my wife, and these beautiful children are my very own? Why was I ever informed she had given birth to dogs?”

  When the children had finished the tale, the old man said, “Gentlemen, this is your story.” The two men embraced the lady. One of them asked her forgiveness, while the other kissed the children with tears in his eyes. The old man looked on joyfully; he was none other than St. Joseph, and as a sign of his good deed, his staff blossomed all over. “Now that I’ve done my part,” he said, “I’ll give you my blessing,” after which he disappeared.

  (Calabria)

  142

  The Three Chicory Gatherers

  There was a poor mother who had three daughters. When chicory was in season, the three girls would go out with their mother to gather chicory. One day the mother and two of her daughters walked on ahead, while the oldest daughter lagged behind, having spied an enormous chicory plant which she did her best to uproot. She tugged and tugged, but the plant wouldn’t budge. Then she pulled with all her might and the plant came up with so much dirt around the roots that a big hole remained, at the bottom of which was a trapdoor. The girl opened it to find an underground room where a dragon sitting in a chair said, “Mmmm! I smell human flesh! Mmm!”

  “Please don’t eat me,” begged Teresa, “we are poor folks. I’m the daughter of a chicory vendor, and I came here to pick chicory. Poverty drives us to it.”

  “Well, stay here,” replied the dragon, “and look after my house while I go hunting. I’m leaving your dinner here—the hand of a man. If you eat it, I’ll marry you when I come back. But if I find you’ve not eaten it, I’ll cut off your head.”

  Trembling all over, Teresa replied, “Yes indeed, Sir Dragon, I’ll surely eat it!”

  The dragon went hunting, and the poor girl from time to time would go look at that human hand in the pot and draw back in horror. How can I? she thought. How could I ever eat a human hand? It was almost time for the dragon to return, so she threw the hand into the lavatory and poured a bucket of water over it. “Now it’s gone,” she said to herself, “and the dragon will think I ate it.”

  The dragon returned and asked, “Did you eat the hand?”

  “Yessirree, I did . . . It wasn’t bad.”

  “Now we’ll just see,” said the dragon, and shouted, “Hand, where are you?”

  “I’m in the lavatory!”

  “You rascal! You threw it into the lavatory!” He grabbed the girl by the arms, carried her into a room full of beheaded dead persons, and cut off her head too.

  In the evening when the mother came in from gathering chicory and didn’t see Teresa, she asked the other girls, “Where is Teresa?”

  “She stayed right with us,” said the sisters, “up to a certain spot. Then she disappeared.”

  So they all went through the field calling, “Teresa! Teresa!” but there was no answer. They returned home weeping, but even though they had gathered a lot of chicory to sell and then buy food, every mouthful of food bought with that chicory was like poison to them, since they had paid with the loss of Teresa.

  When Teresa still didn’t return, her sister Concetta said, “Mamma, I shall go back to the same fields for chicory, in hopes of finding some trace of Teresa.”

  That she did, and right in the spot where Teresa had last been seen, she spied a big head of chicory. She tugged and tugged and finally uprooted it. There beneath the roots was the trapdoor. Concetta went down and found the dragon sitting in a chair. “Mmmm!” he said. “I smell human flesh!”

  “Please don’t eat me! I’m just a poor girl, and I’ve already lost a sister!”

  “Your sister is here, with her head cut off because she refused to eat a human hand. Now you stay and look after my house. And for dinner you are to eat this human arm. If you do, I’ll marry you. If you don’t, I’ll kill you like your sister.”

  “Yessirree, Sir Dragon, anything you say!”

  The dragon went hunting, and Concetta, utterly horrified, had no idea what to do with the arm all ready for her on a plate and garnished with radishes. After racking her brains, she dug a hole and buried it.

  The dragon returned and asked, “Did you eat the arm?”

  “Yessirree, Sir Dragon, I really had a feast!”

  “We’ll just see now. Arm, where are you?”

  “Underground!” cried the arm.

  So the dragon cut off Concetta’s head as well.

  At home, when Concetta didn’t return, they all went to pieces. “Now two of them are gone,” they wailed.

  The third daughter, Mariuzza, said, “Mamma, we can’t lose two girls like that. I’m going out and look for them.”

  She too found the big chicory plant and uprooted it. She too met the dragon, who told her, “Your sisters are closed up in that room with their heads chopped off. You will come to the same end if you fail to eat this human foot I’m leaving here for you in the soup tureen.”

  Mariuzza humbly replied, “Yessirree, Sir Dragon, I’ll do just as you order.”

  The dragon went hunting. Mariuzza racked her brains for a way out. Then an idea occurred to her: she took the bronze mortar and ground the foot to a powder with the pestle, then poured the powder into a stocking and hid it beneath her clothes on her stomach.

  The dragon returned and asked, “Did you eat the foot?”

  Mariuzza smacked her lips. “I can’t tell you how good it was! I’m still licking my lips!”

  “We’ll just see now. Foot, where are you?”

  “On Mariuzza’s stomach.”

  “Hurrah! Hurrah!” exclaimed the dragon. “You will be my wife!” And he entrusted her with all the keys except the one to the room of those people he had murdered.

  To celebrate their betrothal, Mariuzza served him wine. He emptied one bottle after another until Mariuzza had served him half the wine cellar, and he continued to drink. When she saw he was good and drunk, she said, “Now will you give me that key?”

  “No, that one, no.”

  “Why? Why won’t you give it to me?”

  “Because . . . the dead souls are in there.”

  “If they are dead, you certainly don’t expect them to come back to life, do you?”

  “I can revive them . . . ”

  “Go on! You can?”

  “Of course. I have the salve . . . ”

  “Where do you keep it, then, you fibber?”

  “Uh . . . in the cabinet . . . ”

  “So you’ll never die yourself?”

  “Me, yes . . . the dove in the cage . . . ”

  “What does the dove have to do with it?”

  “If you cut off the dove’s head, you’ll find an egg in its brain . . . and if you break the egg over my forehead . . . I’m done for . . . ” Raving on, he put his head down on the table, dead drunk.

  Mariuzza rummaged through the whole house until she found the dove. She cut off its head, got the egg, and—“crack!”—broke it over the sleeping dragon’s forehead. He started, jerked a few times, then died for good.

  The girl found the salve, opened up the room, and proceeded to anoint the dead people. The first one was a king, who gave a start like someone waking up suddenly. “How I’ve slept! Where am I? Who woke me up?” But Mariuzza paid him no mind and went on anointing the others, her sisters first of all, and then kings, princes, counts, and knights, of whom there seemed to be no end.

  Countless kings and other noblemen wanted to marry the three sisters. Mariuzza said, “Here’s what you must do: Play a round of morra, and the winner will choose the girl he wants.”

  They played morra, and a king won, choosing the oldest girl for himself. Next it was the turn of a prince, who took the second girl. Finall
y another king won, and chose Mariuzza.

  Meanwhile, one of the barons nervously repeated, “Quick! Quick! Why are you wasting so much time? The dragon will return any minute and kill us all again!”

  “Have no fear,” said Mariuzza. “I slew the dragon myself.”

  “Hurrah! Hurrah!” they all shouted. “So we’ve nothing more to fear!” Each of them took a horse, divided up the dragon’s treasure, and rode with the three betrothed to the city. They had a grand wedding celebration, and everyone was happy, especially the three girls’ mother, who didn’t have to go out any more to pick chicory.

  (Calabria)

  143

  Beauty-with-the-Seven-Dresses

  Once there was a father of two boys. Sensing his last hour approach, he called in his older son and said, “Son, I’m about to die. There’s no more hope for me. Tell me which you prefer, my solemn blessing or a sum of money?”

  Without beating around the bush, the son replied, “Give me the money, for with just the blessing I’d go hungry.”

  Then the father called his younger son and put the same question to him.

  “Money matters little to me,” said the younger boy. “I prefer your solemn blessing.”

  The father died and they carried him to the cemetery. The little boy, who’d received only the solemn blessing, wept heartily, while the big boy, who’d inherited all the property, was thinking of the best way to use it. He ended up opening a café and taking his place behind the counter, while the little brother, whose name was Francesco, went out into the world to seek his fortune.

  One evening after walking quite a distance, he saw a little light far ahead of him and said, “If the Lord so wills, I must get to that place.” He thus came to a house and knocked. Accompanied by seven ladies, Beauty-with-the-Seven-Dresses came down and offered him food and shelter. In the morning Beauty got into conversation with the young man, and was so taken with his good looks and manners, that she ended up saying she wanted him for her husband. She was a very beautiful and gracious maiden, and a few days later they got married.

  One day while they were looking out the window at the garden, Beauty said to her husband, “Ciccillo, do you see that fine seven-part frock there?” (She spoke of it that way, since it included seven dresses, one inside the other.) “Do you see that seven-part frock hanging on the tree?”

  “I certainly do!” he answered. “Why do you ask me?”

  “I’m going to tell you. If a bird should light on the frock and you caught it, you wouldn’t see me any more. If you shot the bird, the frock would fly away, and I would go through fire and water. Should worse come to worst, dress in a red outfit, which has already been laid out in this room, and leave home in search of me. I’ll see to it that you find me again.”

  It happened one day that while the husband was out hunting and shooting birds, a bird lit right on the seven-part frock. So wrapped up in the hunt was Ciccillo that, without thinking, he fired at the bird. The seven-part frock immediately soared into the air and vanished from sight. Ciccillo then remembered his wife’s warning. Frantic, he ran back to the palace at once, fearing the worst. When Beauty saw him, she asked, “What’s the matter?” but he dared not tell her. Then she looked up at the tree and found the seven-part frock gone. At that, she began pulling out her hair and saying, “I’ve been betrayed! Betrayed! Now they’ll come and take me away. Remember, if that happens, husband, to dress in red and don’t abandon me.”

  Let’s leave them and follow the seven-part frock which had taken flight at the shot. On and on it flew until it reached a palace, went through the window, and came to rest before the table of a king who was in the process of writing. The king scrutinized the seven-part frock and wondered whose it was. He asked all around, but no one knew a thing about it. Then an old woman, aware of the king’s inquiries about the owner of the seven-part frock, went to the palace, announcing, “Majesty and lords, I can find the owner of this dress.”

  “What will it take to do so?” asked the king.

  “Here’s what I need. Fix me a bottle of drugged rosolio and a pound of sweets that have also been drugged. Leave everything else to me. Then I’ll need a carriage with a good driver; I’ll ride in it with a dagger concealed in my bosom.”

  The king provided her with all those things, and the old woman rode off in style.

  When they had gone a certain distance, she said to the coachman, “Wait for me here and be sure to come when I call you.” It was raining, but the old woman walked straight up to the palace of Beauty-with-the-Seven-Dresses. She knocked at the front door, and the husband came down with the seven ladies to let her in. The old woman asked for shelter for the night because it was raining, and he gladly welcomed her and invited her to table with them. At the table the old woman pulled out the rosolio and sweets, which were all drugged, and said, “These are not fit for important people like you, but do eat them for my sake. My daughter has just married, and I brought along this little bit so that you can celebrate the occasion too.”

  Once the sweets were eaten, the couple and all the other guests dropped to the floor like pears. The old woman then pulled out the dagger and thrust it all the way through the husband. Then she called the coachman, who was waiting outside, and the two of them together picked up Beauty, one by the head, the other by the feet, and carried her into the carriage as she slept. Once they had her inside, they galloped off to the king.

  The king was anxiously awaiting them, and when the old woman arrived, he had Beauty-with-the-Seven-Dresses put in a room by herself until she should awaken. In the morning he went to her and found her awake and weeping over her misfortune. He tried to comfort her a bit, then all of a sudden asked, “When shall we get married?” At that proposition, Beauty began screaming at the top of her voice. Since there was no way to quiet her, the king took to his heels. A month later, he returned and repeated his proposal. Beauty replied, “When you find a man dressed entirely in red.” The king drew a sigh of relief, and telegraphed at once throughout the world. But Ciccillo was dead, stabbed by that old woman, and the man dressed in red was not to be found.

  One day the big brother who had opened up a café went broke; reduced to poverty, he decided to change countries and try his luck elsewhere. He happened to take the same road as his brother Ciccillo, and when the seven ladies answered the door, they thought he was the dead man, so much did the two resemble one another.

  “You’ve risen from the dead?” they asked.

  “What!” he replied, amazed.

  “Or maybe you had a brother who looked like you?”

  “Yes, I did,” he said. “But why do you ask me?”

  “Come with us and you will see,” answered the ladies, drawing him into a room where there was a dead man. This dead man was his brother, and the minute he saw him he began weeping and wailing. “Oh, my brother! My brother!” The ladies comforted him, telling him how Ciccillo had been treacherously slain, and they invited him to remain there with them.

  While this youth was standing on the doorstep one morning, he saw two lizards, a little one and a big one. The big one killed the little one, then went and pulled up a herb, with which it rubbed the dead little lizard until it revived. Seeing that, the young man thought, Who knows but what my brother might revive if rubbed with that same herb. It certainly won’t hurt to try. He pulled the herb, rubbed his brother’s entire body with it, and he too came back to life. He asked about his wife at once and, remembering her warning, he dressed in red and left home to look the world over for her.

  New that very day Beauty was to marry the king: they’d not been able to find the man in red, whom she had finally given up for dead. He came into the city where the marriage was to be celebrated, and the inhabitants, at the sight of a man dressed in red after so much fruitless searching on their part, stopped him and carried him to the king. The king hastened to tell Beauty that the man in red had been found, thus fulfilling her one condition and clearing the way for the wedding. Beauty r
eplied that she first had to talk to the man in red, alone and behind closed doors, so he was brought into her room, where they spent the night relating their misfortunes and making plans for the future. Beauty had all the keys of the palace, and once the king was fast asleep, they got up, loaded two donkeys with sacks of money, and fled.

  After traveling all day long it grew dark again and they saw a stable. They made their bed the best they could on the hay under a loft. In the loft above, a drunkard snored and tossed in his sleep. Tossing and turning, he fell from the loft and ended up between the husband and wife, sinking down into the hay without even waking up or ceasing to snore. In the morning Beauty was the first one awake, and called her husband, “Ciccillo, get up, it’s late. Let’s get on our donkeys with the money and be off.” Her husband was still fast asleep, though, and didn’t hear her. But the drunkard, at the mention of money, answered right off the bat, “By all means, let’s be on our way!” It was still dark, and the two of them groped their way to the donkeys laden with money and left. When it was day, Beauty realized her companion was not her husband and began to protest. His only response was to reach out and knock her to the ground, leaving her there weeping as he made off with the two donkeys. She had no idea how to find her husband again, for she had already gone a good way with the drunkard. She went back until she came to a haystack and saw a farm boy. She begged and pleaded with him until he gave her his clothes, and thus dressed as a man, she was able to continue her journey in less peril.

  Not a trace of her husband was to be found. In order to support herself, she therefore decided to work for a miller, who happened to be miller to the king’s notary. She kept the miller’s accounts and wrote such a beautiful hand that the notary, who had never seen such fine writing, asked the miller who kept his accounts. Learning that a farm boy did, the notary took Beauty into his service, and she kept the notary’s accounts, which were presented to the king. The king too was impressed with the beautiful writing and just had to have the talented farm boy to work for him.

 
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