Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  They wound their way through the city, with the old woman pulling the silver goose along by a ribbon and the prince inside playing his violin. The people lined the streets to watch: there wasn’t a soul in town that didn’t come running to see the beautiful goose. Word of it reached the castle where the king’s daughter was shut up, and she asked her father to let her go and see the unusual sight.

  The king said, “Time’s up for that boastful prince tomorrow. You can go out then and see the goose.”

  But the girl had heard that the old woman with the goose would be gone by tomorrow. Therefore the king had the goose brought inside the castle so his daughter could see it. That’s just what the old woman was counting on. As soon as the princess was alone with the silver goose and delighting in the music pouring from its bill, the goose suddenly opened and out stepped a man.

  “Don’t be afraid,” said the man. “I am the prince who must either speak to you or be decapitated by your father tomorrow morning. You can say you spoke to me and save my life.”

  The next day the king sent for the prince. “Well, did your money make it possible for you to speak to my daughter?”

  “Yes, Majesty,” answered the prince.

  “What! Do you mean you spoke to her?”

  “Ask her.”

  The girl came in and told how the prince was hidden in the silver goose which the king himself had ordered brought inside the castle.

  The king, at that, removed his crown and placed it on the prince’s head. “That means you have not only money but also a fine head! Live happily, for I am giving you my daughter in marriage.”

  (Genoa)

  8

  The Little Shepherd

  There was once a shepherd boy no bigger than a mite and as mean as could be. On his way out to pasture one day, he passed a poultry dealer carrying a basket of eggs on her head. So what did he do but throw a stone into the basket and break every single egg. Enraged, the poor woman screamed a curse: “You shall get no bigger until you’ve found lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples!”

  From that time on, the shepherd boy grew thin and puny, and the more his mother attended to him, the punier he became. Finally she asked, “What on earth has happened to you? Have you done a bad turn for which someone placed a curse on you?” He then told her about his meanness to the poultry dealer, repeating the woman’s words to him, “You shall get no bigger until you’ve found lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples!”

  “In that case,” said his mother, “you’ve no choice but to go in search of this lovely Bargaglina.”

  The shepherd set out. He came to a bridge, on which a little lady was rocking to and fro in a walnut shell.

  “Who goes there?”

  “A friend.”

  “Lift my eyelids a little, so I can see you.”

  “I’m seeking lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples. Do you know anything about her?”

  “No, but take this stone; it will come in handy.”

  The shepherd came to another bridge, where another little lady was bathing in an eggshell.

  “Who goes there?”

  “A friend.”

  “Lift my eyelids a little, so I can see you.”

  “I’m seeking lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples. Have you any news of her?”

  “No, but take this ivory comb, which will come in handy.”

  The shepherd put it in his pocket and walked on until he came to a stream where a man was filling a bag with fog. When asked about lovely Bargaglina, the man claimed to know nothing about her, but he gave the shepherd a pocketful of fog, which would come in handy.

  Next he came to a mill whose miller, a talking fox, said, “Yes, I know who lovely Bargaglina is, but you’ll have difficulty finding her. Walk straight ahead until you come to a house with the door open. Go inside and you’ll see a crystal cage hung with many little bells. In the cage are the singing apples. You must take the cage, but watch out for a certain old woman. If her eyes are open, that means she’s asleep. If they’re closed, she’s surely awake.”

  The shepherd moved on. He found the old woman with her eyes closed and realized she was awake. “My lad,” said the old woman, “glance down in my hair and see if I’ve any lice.”

  He looked, and as he was delousing her, she opened her eyes and he knew she had fallen asleep. So he quickly picked up the crystal cage and fled. But the little bells on the cage tinkled, and the old woman awakened and sent a hundred horsemen after him. Hearing them almost upon him, the shepherd dropped the stone he had in his pocket. It changed instantly into a steep, rocky mountain, and the horses all fell and broke their legs.

  Now horseless, the cavalrymen returned to the old woman, who then sent out two hundred mounted soldiers. Seeing himself in new peril, the shepherd threw down the ivory comb. It turned into a mountain as slick as glass, down which horses and riders all slid to their death.

  The old woman then sent three hundred horsemen after him, but he pulled out the pocketful of fog, hurled it over his shoulder, and the army got lost in it. Meanwhile, the shepherd had grown thirsty and, having nothing with him to drink, removed one of the three apples from the cage and cut into it. A tiny voice said, “Gently, please, or you’ll hurt me.” Gently, he finished cutting the apple, ate one half, and put the other in his pocket. At length he came to a well near his house, where he reached into his pocket for the rest of the apple. In its place was a tiny, tiny lady.

  “I’m lovely Bargaglina,” she said, “and I like cake. Go get me a cake, I’m famished.”

  The well was one of those closed wells, with a hole in the center, so the shepherd seated the lady on the rim, telling her to wait there until he came back with the cake.

  Meanwhile, a servant known as Ugly Slave came to the well for water. She spied the lovely little lady and said, “How come you’re so little and beautiful while I’m so big and ugly?” And she grew so furious that she threw the tiny creature into the well.

  The shepherd returned and was heartbroken to find lovely Bargaglina gone.

  Now his mother also went to that well for water, and what should she find in her bucket one day but a fish. She took it home and fried it. They ate it and threw the bones out the window. There where they fell, a tree grew up and got so big that it shut out all the light from the house. The shepherd therefore cut it down and chopped it up for firewood, which he brought inside. By that time his mother had died, and he lived there all by himself, now punier than ever, since no matter what he tried, he couldn’t grow any bigger. Every day he went out to the pasture and came back home at night. How great was his amazement upon finding the dishes and pans he’d used in the morning all washed for him when he came home! He couldn’t imagine who was doing this. At last he decided to hide behind the door and find out. Whom should he then see but a very dainty maiden emerge from the woodpile, wash the dishes, sweep the house, and make his bed, after which she opened the cupboard and helped herself to a cake.

  Out sprang the shepherd, asking, “Who are you? How did you get in?”

  “I’m lovely Bargaglina,” replied the maiden, “the girl you found in your pocket in place of the apple half. Ugly Slave threw me into the well, and I turned into a fish, then into fishbones thrown out the window. From fishbones I changed into a tree seed, next into a tree that grew and grew, and finally into firewood you cut. Now, every day while you’re away, I become lovely Bargaglina.”

  Thanks to the rediscovery of lovely Bargaglina, the shepherd grew by leaps and bounds, and lovely Bargaglina along with him. Soon he was a handsome youth and married lovely Bargaglina. They had a big feast. I was there, under the table. They threw me a bone, which hit me on the nose and stuck for good.

  (Inland vicinity of Genoa)

  9

  Silver Nose

  There was once a widowed washerwoman with three daughters. All four of them worked their fingers to the bone washing, but they still went hungry. One day the oldest daughter said to
her mother, “I intend to leave home, even if I have to go and work for the Devil.”

  “Don’t talk like that, daughter,” replied the mother. “Goodness knows what might happen to you.”

  Not many days afterward, they received a visit from a gentleman attired in black. He was the height of courtesy and had a silver nose.

  “I am aware of the fact that you have three daughters,” he said to the mother. “Would you let one come and work for me?”

  The mother would have consented at once, had it not been for that silver nose which she didn’t like the looks of. She called her oldest girl aside and said, “No man on earth has a silver nose. If you go off with him you might well live to regret it, so watch out.”

  The daughter, who was dying to leave home, paid no attention to her mother and left with the man. They walked for miles and miles, crossing woods and mountains, and finally came in sight of an intense glow in the distance like that of a fire. “What is that I see way down there in the valley?” asked the girl, growing uneasy.

  “My house. That’s just where we are going,” replied Silver Nose.

  The girl followed along, but couldn’t keep from trembling. They came to a large palace, and Silver Nose took her through it and showed her every room, each one more beautiful than the other, and he gave her the key to each one. When they reached the door of the last room, Silver Nose gave her the key and said, “You must never open this door for any reason whatever, or you’ll wish you hadn’t! You’re in charge of all the rooms but this one.”

  He’s hiding something from me, thought the girl, and resolved to open that door the minute Silver Nose left the house. That night, while she was sleeping in her little room, in tiptoed Silver Nose and placed a rose in her hair. Then he left just as quietly as he had entered.

  The next morning Silver Nose went out on business. Finding herself alone with all the keys, the girl ran and unlocked the forbidden door. No -sooner had she cracked it than smoke and flames shot out, while she caught sight of a crowd of damned souls in agony inside the fiery room. She then realized that Silver Nose was the Devil and that the room was Hell. She screamed, slammed the door, and took to her heels. But a tongue of fire had scorched the rose she wore in her hair.

  Silver Nose came home and saw the singed rose. “So that’s how you obey me!” he said. He snatched her up, opened the door to Hell, and flung her into the flames.

  The next day he went back to the widow. “Your daughter is getting along very well at my house, but the work is so heavy she needs help. Could you send us your second daughter too?” So Silver Nose returned home with one of the girl’s sisters. He showed her around the house, gave her all the keys, and told her she could open all the rooms except the last. “Do you think,” said the girl, “I would have any reason to open it? I am not interested in your personal business.” That night after the girl went to sleep, Silver Nose tiptoed in and put a carnation in her hair.

  When Silver Nose went out the next morning, the first thing the girl did was go and open the forbidden door. She was instantly assailed by smoke, flames, and howls of the damned souls, in whose midst she spotted her sister. “Sister, free me from this Hell!” screamed the first girl. But the middle girl grew weak in the knees, slammed the door, and ran. She was now sure that Silver Nose was the Devil, from whom she couldn’t hide or escape. Silver Nose returned and noticed her hair right away. The carnation was withered, so without a word he snatched her up and threw her into Hell too.

  The next day, in his customary aristocratic attire, he reappeared at the washerwoman’s house. “There is so much work to be done at my house that not even two girls are enough. Could I have your third daughter as well?” He thus returned home with the third sister, Lucia, who was the most cunning of them all. She too was shown around the house and given the same instructions as her sisters. She too had a flower put in her hair while she was sleeping: a jasmine blossom. The first thing Lucia did when she got up next morning was arrange her hair. Looking in the mirror, she noticed the jasmine. “Well, well!” she said. “Silver Nose pinned a jasmine on me. How thoughtful of him! Who knows why he did it? In any case I’ll keep it fresh.” She put it into a glass of water, combed her hair, then said, “Now let’s take a look at that mysterious door.”

  She just barely opened it, and out rushed a flame. She glimpsed countless people burning, and there in the middle of the crowd were her big sisters. “Lucia! Lucia!” they screamed. “Get us out of here! Save us!”

  At once Lucia shut the door tightly and began thinking how she might rescue her sisters.

  By the time the Devil got home, Lucia had put her jasmine back in her hair, and acted as though nothing had happened that day. Silver Nose looked at the jasmine. “Oh, it’s still fresh,” he said.

  “Of course, why shouldn’t it be? Why would anyone wear withered flowers in her hair?”

  “Oh, I was just talking to be talking,” answered Silver Nose. “You seem like a clever girl. Keep it up, and we’ll never quarrel. Are you happy?”

  “Yes, but I’d be happier if I didn’t have something bothering me.”

  “What’s bothering you?”

  “When I left my mother, she wasn’t feeling too well. Now I have no news at all of her.”

  “If that’s all you’re worried about,” said the Devil, “I’ll drop by her house and see how she’s doing.”

  “Thank you, that is very kind of you. If you can go tomorrow, I’ll get up a bag of laundry at once which my mother can wash if she is well enough. The bag won’t be too heavy for you, will it?”

  “Of course not. I can carry anything under the sun, no matter how heavy it is.”

  When the Devil went out again that day, Lucia opened the door to Hell, pulled out her oldest sister, and tied her up in a bag. “Keep still in there, Carlotta,” she told her. “The Devil himself will carry you back home. But any time he so much as thinks of putting the bag down, you must say, ‘I see you, I see you!’”

  The Devil returned, and Lucia said, “Here is the bag of things to be washed. Do you promise you’ll take it straight to my mother?”

  “You don’t trust me?” asked the Devil.

  “Certainly I trust you, all the more so with my special ability to see from a great distance away. If you dare put the bag down somewhere, I’ll see you.”

  “Yes, of course,” said the Devil, but he had little faith in her claim of being able to see things a great distance away. He flung the bag over his shoulder. “My goodness, this dirty stuff is heavy!” he exclaimed.

  “Naturally!” replied the girl. “How many years has it been since you had anything washed?”

  Silver Nose set out for the washerwoman’s, but when he was only halfway there, he said to himself, “Maybe . . . but I shall see if this girl isn’t emptying my house of everything I own, under the pretext of sending out laundry.” He went to put the bag down and open it.

  “I see you, I see you!” suddenly screamed the sister inside the bag.

  “By Jove, it’s true! She can see from afar!” exclaimed Silver Nose. He threw the bag back over his shoulder and marched straight to Lucia’s mother’s house. “Your daughter sends you this stuff to wash and wants to know how you are . . . . ”

  As soon as he left, the washerwoman opened the sack, and you can imagine her joy upon finding her oldest daughter inside.

  A week later, sly Lucia pretended to be sad once more and told Silver Nose she wanted news of her mother.

  She sent him to her house with another bag of laundry. So Silver Nose carried off the second sister, without managing to peep inside because of the “I see you, I see you!” which came from the bag the instant he started to open it. The washerwoman, who now knew Silver Nose was the Devil, was quite frightened when he returned, for she was sure he would ask for the clean wash from last time. But Silver Nose put down the new bag and said, “I’ll get the clean wash some other time. This heavy bag has broken my back, and I want to go home with nothing to carry.??
?

  When he had gone, the washerwoman anxiously opened the bag and embraced her second daughter. But she was more worried than ever about Lucia, who was now alone in the Devil’s hands.

  What did Lucia do? Not long afterward she started up again about news of her mother. By now the Devil was sick and tired of carrying laundry, but he had grown too fond of this obedient girl to say no to her. As soon as it grew dark, Lucia announced she had a bad headache and would go to bed early. “I’ll prepare the laundry and leave the bag out for you, so if I don’t feel like getting up in the morning, you can be on your way.”

  Now Lucia had made a rag doll the same size as herself. She put it in bed under the covers, cut off her own braids, and sewed them on the doll’s head. The doll then looked like Lucia asleep, and Lucia closed herself up in the bag.

  In the morning the Devil saw the girl snuggled down under the covers and set out with the bag over his shoulder. “She’s sick this morning,” he said to himself, “and won’t be looking. It’s the perfect time to see if this really is nothing but laundry.” At that, he put the bag down and was about to open it. “I see you, I see you!” cried Lucia.

  “By Jove, it’s her voice to a tee, as though she were right here! Better not joke with such a girl.” He took up the bag again and carried it to the washerwoman. “I’ll come back later for everything,” he said rapidly. “I have to get home right away because Lucia is sick.”

  So the family was finally reunited. Since Lucia had also carried off great sums of the Devil’s money, they were now able to live in comfort and happiness. They planted a cross before the door, and from then on, the Devil kept his distance.

  (Langhe)

  10

  The Count’s Beard

  The town of Pocapaglia was perched on the pinnacle of a hill so steep that its inhabitants tied little bags on the tail feathers of their hens to catch each freshly laid egg that otherwise would have gone rolling down the slopes into the woods below.

 
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