Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  In the meantime, the other king who wanted to marry Beauty-with-the-Seven-Dresses had died. He had taken his own life, butting his head against the wall upon finding his bride missing the morning of the wedding. Who should inherit his kingdom but the king who kept the farm boy in his service! This king called in the farm boy and ordered him to go to the dead king’s city and announce throughout the realm that he would govern them on behalf of their new king. The farm boy replied that if he was to govern, he needed absolute authority over every citizen, which the king granted him.

  On his arrival at the dead king’s, he had the news published in all the towns, inviting everybody marked by any unusual event to come before the new governor, who would give them each a purse of money.

  The news spread, and the first person to show up to tell her story was the old woman who had stabbed the husband and kidnapped his wife. “You old wretch!” exclaimed the governor. “You have the nerve to come and tell me that?”

  He ordered her seized and thrown into a caldron of boiling water.

  The old woman was followed by the drunkard, who told his story. “You thief!” exclaimed the governor. “You robbed a woman and have the nerve to admit it?” He had him dragged to the gallows and hanged as a dangerous thief. After those two were taken care of, here came the husband to tell his story.

  They recognized one another and fell into each other’s arms. Then the governor went and changed clothes, reappearing in the seven-part frock and every bit as lovely as a rosebud. They had a fine dinner and were reunited with the big brother and the seven ladies. Ciccillo was named king, and thus ended his misfortunes.

  (Calabria)

  144

  Serpent King

  A king and a queen had no children. The queen would pray and fast, but still no children were born to her. She happened to be walking in the fields one day and saw animals of all kinds—lizards, birds, snakes—together with their offspring, and said, “All the animals have young ones—just see the little lizards, the baby birds, the tiny snakes—while I bear nothing at all!” A serpent passed by, with his brood crawling along behind. “I would be satisfied with just a serpent child!” exclaimed the queen.

  Now it happened that she too found herself with child, and the whole court rejoiced with her. At last came the day, and what should she be delivered of but a serpent! The court was dumbfounded, but the queen recalled her remark, realizing her prayer had been answered exactly, and she loved that serpent son as much as if it were a baby boy. She put it in an iron cage and fed it the same thing they ate—soup and meat—at midday and in the evening.

  The serpent ate enough for two and grew bigger every day. When he was enormous, he said to the maid one day when she went into his cage to make up his bed:

  “Tell Papa dear

  That a wife I want in here

  With beauty and money!”

  The maid took fright and didn’t want to enter his cage any more. The queen, however, required her to take his meals in to him, and the serpent repeated:

  “Tell Papa dear

  That a wife I want in here

  With beauty and money!”

  The maid told the queen, who wondered, “What can we do?”

  She called in one of their tenant farmers and said, “I’ll pay whatever you ask if you’ll bring me your daughter.”

  The wedding was celebrated. The serpent seated himself at the banquet table. In the evening the newlyweds went off to bed. At a certain hour the serpent awakened and asked his bride, “What time is it?”

  It was around four in the morning, and the bride replied, “It’s the hour when my father rises, takes his hoe, and goes off to the fields.”

  “So you’re a farmer’s daughter!” exclaimed the serpent, and he bit her on the throat and killed her.

  When the maid came in with breakfast in the morning, she found the bride dead. The serpent said:

  “Tell Papa dear

  That a wife I want in here

  With beauty and money,

  BEAUTY AND MONEY.”

  The queen then called in a cobbler who lived across the street and who also had a daughter. They agreed on the price, and the wedding was celebrated.

  Around five o’clock in the morning the serpent awakened and asked his bride what time it was. “It’s the hour,” she replied, “when my father gets up and starts hammering at his cobbler’s bench.”

  “So you’re a cobbler’s daughter!” said the serpent, and killed her with one bite on the throat.

  Next time, the mother asked for the daughter of an emperor. The emperor was reluctant to give his daughter in marriage to a serpent. He took counsel with his wife who, as the girl’s stepmother, was dying to get rid of her and persuaded her husband to marry his daughter to the serpent king. The emperor’s daughter went to her dead mother’s grave and asked, “Dear Mother, what am I to do?”

  From the grave her mother answered, “Go ahead and marry the serpent, my daughter. But on your wedding day, put on seven dresses, one over the other. When bedtime comes around, say you want no maid, that you will undress by yourself. When you are finally alone with the serpent, say to him, ‘I’ll take off one piece of clothing, and you’ll take off one piece of clothing.’ Then you’ll take off your first dress, and he his first skin. Again say, ‘I’ll take off one piece of clothing, and you’ll take off one piece of clothing.’ He will remove his second skin, and so forth.”

  Everything happened just as the dead mother said it would: for each dress she removed, the serpent removed a skin. Once his seventh skin was off, there stood the handsomest youth in the world. They went to bed. Around two o’clock in the morning the bridegroom asked, “What time is it?”

  “The hour when my father gets home from the theater.”

  A little later he again asked, “What time is it?”

  “The hour when my father sits down to supper.”

  When it was broad daylight he asked once more, “What time is it?”

  “The hour when my father calls for his coffee.”

  At that, the little king kissed her and said, “You are my true bride, but you must tell no one that I am a human being at night, or you will lose me.” At that, he changed back into a serpent.

  One night the serpent said to her, “If you would have me become a human being in the daytime as well, you must follow my instructions.”

  “I’ll do exactly what you say, my husband.”

  “Every night there is music and dancing at the court; you must attend. Everybody will invite you to dance, but you are to dance with no one. When you see a knight come in dressed in red, who will be none other than myself, rise from your seat and dance with me.”

  The hour struck when the court gathered together. The princess entered the ballroom and took a seat. At once princes and marquis came up and invited her to dance, but she replied she was so comfortable there just looking on that she would not get up. The king and queen found that a trifle rude, but assuming that she refused out of regard for her husband who couldn’t attend the ball, they said nothing.

  Suddenly a knight dressed in red entered the ballroom. The princess got up and began dancing with him, and danced with him throughout the evening.

  The ball ended, and as soon as the king and queen were alone with their daughter-in-law, they seized her by the hair, saying. “What do you mean by refusing everyone’s invitation and then dancing the whole evening with that stranger? How dare you embarrass us like that!”

  Upon retiring, the young wife told the serpent how his parents had abused her. “Pay no attention to it,” said her husband. “You must endure this for three nights in a row, and at the end of the third night I will become a man forevermore. Tomorrow night I will be dressed in black. Dance only with me, and if they beat you for it afterward, endure it for my sake.”

  That evening the princess again refused every invitation. But when the knight in black entered, she danced with him.

  “Do you intend to disgrace us like tha
t every evening?” thundered the king and queen. “Either you do what we say, or else!” And they took a stick and beat her black and blue.

  Aching all over and weeping, she told her husband, who said, “Dear wife, just one more night. I will come dressed as a monk.”

  So the third evening, after rejecting all the notables of the court, the princess proceeded to dance with the monk. That was the last straw! Right then and there, in front of everybody, king and queen each snatched up a stick, and blows rained on the girl and on the monk.

  The monk tried to dodge the blows, but unable to avoid them, he suddenly changed into a bird, an enormous bird that crashed through the windowpanes and flew off. “Now see what you’ve done!” exclaimed his wife. “That was your son!”

  When they heard that their drubbing had prevented their son from breaking the spell and turning back into a man for good, the king and queen began tearing out their hair and embracing their daughter-in-law and asking her pardon.

  But the princess replied, “There’s not a minute to lose.” She picked up two bags of money and was off in the direction the bird had flown. She met a glazier weeping over all his broken panes and asked, “What’s the matter, sir?”

  “A furious bird flew through here and wrecked my whole shop.”

  “And what would all that glass have cost, since the bird happens to be mine?”

  “My master told me it was worth fifty crowns.”

  The princess opened one of the bags of money and paid him. “Now please tell me which way he went.”

  “That way, in a perfectly straight line!”

  After going some distance she came to a goldsmith’s shop. The master was not in. His apprentice was keeping shop and weeping. “What’s the matter, young man?” asked the princess.

  “A furious bird flew through here and wrecked everything. Now my master will come back and beat me to death.”

  “What are all these gold objects worth?”

  “Let him kill me, I can’t think any more!”

  “No, I must pay you, for the bird was mine.”

  The boy told her all the prices, drawing up an endless list. “Damages come to six thousand crowns,” he finally said.

  “Here you are. Which way did the bird go?”

  “Straight ahead.”

  The princess moved on, and the apprentice paid his master three thousand crowns, keeping the rest for himself and opening up a shop of his own.

  After some distance the princess came to a tree in which birds of all kinds roosted. Among them she spotted her husband. “Dear husband, do come back home with me!” But the bird didn’t budge.

  The princess climbed the tree. “Please come home, husband!” She wept and begged in a manner that would have drawn tears from a stone. All the other birds in the tree were deeply touched by her pleas and said, “Go on, go on home with your wife. Why don’t you want to?”

  But the bird’s only response was to peck out one of her eyes. The wife went on begging and pleading with him, though, and shedding tears with her other eye. What did the bird then do but peck out that eye too. “Now I’m blind,” wailed the poor thing. “Guide me, dear husband!” But the bird brought down his beak two times, lopping off both her hands.

  Then he flew off, lit on the roof of his parents’ palace, and turned back into a human being. There was great rejoicing at the court, and his mother whispered to him, “You did the right thing in killing that ugly woman!”

  Meanwhile the princess groped her way along the road, saying, “What will become of me now with no hands and no eyes?” A little old woman happened by and asked, “What is the matter, pretty maiden?”

  The princess told her story, and the little old woman, who was the Madonna, said, “Put your arms into this fountain.” She plunged the stumps into the water, and her hands grew back.

  “Now wash your face,” instructed the Madonna. She washed her face, and her eyes reappeared.

  “And now take this magic wand. It will give you everything you ask for.”

  The princess commanded a handsome palace across from the king’s, and at once had a palace studded with diamonds inside and out, with a golden mother hen and a brood of chicks strutting through the rooms. Many golden birds also flew through the high-ceilinged halls, through which servants and doormen in golden livery passed. She sat on a throne herself, closed off from view by a canopy and muslin curtains.

  Upon looking out the window in the morning, the king’s son beheld the palace. “Papa, Papa!” he exclaimed. “Look at that wonderful palace!” No matter which way he turned, all he saw were golden animals strutting and flying. “What important people they must be to have a palace like that put up in a single night!”

  At that moment the princess stood up and put her head through the curtains, and the king’s son saw her. “Papa, Papa! What an extraordinary young woman! I want her for my wife!”

  “Go on, there’s no telling who she is! Do you think she would even look at you? You’re wasting your time even thinking about her.”

  But the king’s son had made up his mind, and sent her a cloth embroidered in gold. The beautiful neighbor took it and threw it to the mother hen and her brood. The maid went home and told the prince, and the king and queen said to him: “What did we tell you? She’s not the least bit interested in you.”

  “But I like her!” he said, and sent her a ring. She gave it to the birds to peck on. The maid who had delivered it was ashamed to go back to the lady’s palace any more.

  After much thought, the prince had a coffin built, stretched out inside, and had himself carried by his neighbor’s palace. When she saw him in the coffin, she came outside and leaned over the box to look at him. He raised up and recognized her. “My wife! How happy I am to find you again! Come on back to our palace!”

  She looked at him with eyes of steel. “Have you forgotten what you did to me?”

  “I was under a spell, dear wife.”

  “But to free you, I danced with you for three evenings, and your parents beat me.”

  “Had you not done so, I would have remained a serpent.”

  “And when you were a bird, were you still a serpent? You pecked out my eyes and lopped off my hands with your beak!”

  “Had I not done so, I would have remained a bird, dear wife.”

  She thought it over, then said, “In that case, you were right. Let us go back together as man and wife.”

  When the king and queen heard the whole story, they asked her forgiveness, sent for her father who was an emperor, and made music and danced for an entire month.

  (Calabria)

  145

  The Widow and the Brigand

  Once there was a poor widow who had one son, and together they went out looking for work. As they walked along, the boy threw stones at the birds and brought a few down. In the evening, when it grew dark in the mountains, the boy lit a fire and said to his mother, “You stay here and cook these birds while I go and see if I can get something else.”

  He went off into the country and came to a place where a statue stood. In the statue’s hand was a rope, and the pedestal bore this inscription: WHOEVER TAKES THIS ROPE AND GIRDS HIMSELF THEREWITH WILL HAVE INVINCIBLE STRENGTH.

  The boy took the rope and tied it about his waist. At once he felt new strength flow through him, and he caught hold of a tree and pulled it up, roots and all.

  But let’s leave the son and go back to the mother. Near the fire passed a brigand on horseback. He saw the widow, went up to her, and extended her an invitation to go off on horseback with him, if she would.

  “Let me alone,” replied the widow. “My son will be back any minute now and kill you.”

  But this woman, who was still young and beautiful, had captured the brigand’s fancy, and he refused to leave her. “Go on!” he told her. “Do you think I’m afraid of your son?”

  In that very instant the boy arrived, girt with the magic rope. The brigand said, “Your son is no bigger than that?”


  “Who are you? What are you doing here?” said the boy.

  “What am I doing? I’m going to kill you, that’s what!”

  “You just watch out,” replied the boy, and dealt the brigand a backhanded slap, knocking him from his horse. Then he cut off his head, dug a grave, and buried head and body. That was the end of the brigand. The boy then mounted his victim’s horse. “I’m off again,” he told his mother. “Wait here for me.” And away he galloped.

  After riding a good while he came to a field in the middle of which stood a very tall palace. He rode all around it, but found no doors. He circled it one more time and found a door wide open. After tying up his horse, he went inside and climbed the stairs to the floor above. There was a table set for seven, with seven loaves of bread. The plates were laden with food and the bottles were full of wine, so he ate and drank a little bit from every one of them, and took a nibble of each loaf of bread. Then he went looking for a place where he could hide and see who came in, and found a room where they stored men they had murdered and pickled.

  While he was there, in rushed six brigands and took their places at the table. One of them said, “Somebody has been eating out of my plate!”

  Another echoed, “Mine too!”

  And everybody else chimed in, “Mine too!”

  They were baffled, but began eating as usual. When the meal was over, they noticed one empty place at the table. They counted themselves and discovered only six men present.

  “Shouldn’t there be seven of us?” they asked. “One of our number didn’t return.”

 
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