Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “There’s something very strange about that,” said one of them. “He must be dead.”

  Another one spoke. “I’m going to see what they’re saying in the exhibit hall.” The exhibit hall was where they kept the men they had murdered and pickled. The boy was hiding behind the door, and grabbed the brigand and slit his throat the minute he stepped into the room. Then he pitched the remains down into the stable.

  When their companion failed to return, the other five grew worried, and another brigand went to look for him. The boy slit his throat too. So, one by one, all six of them were slain.

  The boy went and brought his mother to the palace, which became their home. Every day he would go hunting while his mother stayed behind in the palace, and they always had plenty to eat and drink.

  One day while the boy was out hunting, a brigand came by, entered the palace, caught sight of the widow, and said, “What! Here by yourself?”

  “By myself?” answered the woman. “I’m waiting for my son to come back from hunting.”

  They struck up a conversation, one thing led to another, and they fell in love.

  From that day on, when the son went out to hunt, the brigand would join the mother. But the widow was constantly telling him, “Please be careful, for if my son should find out about this, that would be the end of you and me.”

  The brigand began saying, “Why don’t we simply kill him, get rid of him once and for all?”

  “But he’s my son!” protested the widow. “I brought him into the world myself!”

  “Is that what’s holding you back? If you gave him life, couldn’t you just as easily take it away from him?”

  Saddened, the woman answered, “You tell me what’s to be done.”

  “Here’s what you should do: pretend to be sick and tell him you need a little of the lioness’s milk. He’ll go to the lioness for it, the lion will eat him alive, and then there’ll be just the two of us and we’ll have peace at last.”

  That’s what the widow did. Feigning sickness, she said to her son, “I’ll die for sure if I don’t get a little of the lioness’s milk.”

  “All right, Mamma,” he said. “I’ll go for some and bring it back to you.”

  He went into the forest and found the lion. “Brother,” said the lion, “what are you seeking around here?”

  “Brother Lion,” the boy answered, “I came to get a little of Sister Lioness’s milk, which I need for my sick mother.”

  “Why, of course,” replied the lion, and filled him a bottle of milk. Then he said, “Brother, I’m also giving you this lion cub. Take good care of him, for he will be a great help to you.”

  The boy returned to his mother with the bottle of milk and the lion cub. Deep fear came over the mother; then she drank the milk and said she was well. The next day the son went hunting with the lion cub, and the brigand came inside. “Would you believe it?” began the widow. “My son came home with the lioness’s milk and a lion cub.”

  The brigand said, “Pretend to be sick a second time and tell him you need the she-bear’s milk. He’ll go out for it, the bear will devour him, and then we’ll have peace and quiet.”

  The son went out for the she-bear’s milk. When he reached the bear’s den, the bear said, “Brother, what business brings you?”

  “Brother Bear,” replied the boy, “I’ve come to you, since my mother is sick and needs a little of Sister Bear’s milk to cure her.”

  “You’re more than welcome to it,” answered the bear, who filled him a bottle of milk and also handed him a bear cub. “Take this bear cub home with you, and you’ll see how helpful he will be to you.”

  When he came in with the she-bear’s milk and a bear cub, his mother almost fainted.

  She told the brigand about it the next morning, and he said, “This son of yours must be some kind of devil. Know what you should do? Pretend to be sick again and say you need the tigress’s milk. This time he won’t get away.”

  The son, who never dreamed he was being deceived, went off for the tigress’s milk. On his arrival, the tigress asked, “Brother, what have you come for?”

  “Sister Tigress, I came because my mother is sick and needs a bit of your milk.”

  “Yes, indeed, brother,” replied the tigress, and filled him a bottle. “Take this tiger cub too, who will be a help to you one day.”

  When his mother saw him come back with the tigress’s milk and a tiger cub, she too said to herself, “This son of mine must be a devil!”

  The brigand didn’t know what to think. “Know what you should do?” he said to the woman. “Tell him to take you down to see the stable. In the stable is a heavy chain. Begin playing around with it and, as though you’re joking, chain up your son. He will let you do it. Then chain him up tight. I’ll be hiding there and, once you have him securely chained, I’ll jump out and kill him.”

  The mother got her son chained up in the stable. The brigand rushed out with his knife, but when the boy saw him he cried, “Lion cub! Bear cub! Tiger cub! Eat this brigand!”

  Out rushed lion cub, bear cub, and tiger cub and devoured him. With one thrust of his arms the boy burst the chain. His mother had already fled and taken refuge under the bed.

  “Lion cub! Bear cub! Tiger cub!” ordered the boy. “Eat that traitress in three mouthfuls!” And that was the end of the deceitful mother.

  The boy mounted his horse and rode off with lion cub, bear cub, and tiger cub, to seek his fortune.

  (Greci di Calabria)


  The Crab with the Golden Eggs

  There was once a bricklayer who was married and had two sons. He fell sick and was no longer able to work. After spending all his savings, he began selling everything he owned, down to the tiles off his roof. One day when the family cupboard was bare, he said, “I’m going hunting to see if I can’t get a few birds.”

  Not a single bird was to be seen that day, but on the way back home he spied a crab poised on a rock. He took it alive and put it into his gamepouch. “I’ll carry it home to my children to play with,” he told himself.

  The children shut it up in a small cage. The next morning they saw that it had laid an egg. They took it to their father, who exclaimed, “Why, it’s a golden egg!”

  He went out and sold the egg, coming home with six ducats. The crab laid an egg every night, and in no time the bricklayer was a rich man with his daily income of six ducats.

  Next door to the bricklayer lived a tailor, who began to say, “I just can’t understand how this bricklayer has become so rich!” After a little spying, the tailor soon realized that the source of his neighbor’s wealth was the crab. Now the tailor had three children—two boys and a girl. I could marry my daughter to the bricklayer’s son, he thought.

  The nuptials were set. “I’m furnishing my daughter’s dowry,” announced the tailor to the bricklayer, “but you must put up the crab for your son’s dowry.”

  “So long as it is my son’s,” replied the bricklayer.

  When the tailor had the crab in his possession, he carefully examined it and found writing on its belly. The tailor knew how to read, and this is what he read:


  Seeing that, the tailor thought, All I have to do is give this crab to my two sons to eat.

  He killed it and put it on the grill to cook, then went off to get his sons. No sooner had he gone out than the bricklayers’s sons came in. At the sight of the crab on the grill, their mouths began to water.

  “Let’s eat it,” they said. “You take the shell, and I’ll take the claws.” That they did. The tailor returned and found the crab gone. A great dispute arose, and the wedding was called off. Horrified at the misfortune they’d caused, the bricklayer’s two boys said, “Let’s leave home and go out into the world.” At that, they departed.

  In the first town they came to they stopped for the night
at an inn. In the morning upon awakening, the younger brother found a purse full of money beneath his pillow. “Brother,” he said, “here in this place they have taken us for thieves. To tempt us, the lady-innkeeper placed this purse of money under my pillow.” Then he went to give it back to her, saying, “We are no thieves, as this will prove.”

  The woman was thunderstruck but, a sly one from way back, she concealed her surprise and took the purse. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “I have a habit of leaving money lying around.”

  The next day there was another purse like the first under the younger brother’s pillow. “They continue to be suspicious of us here,” he said, “so we’d better move on.” He gave this purse as well to the innkeeper.

  “I assure you I didn’t leave it there on purpose,” said the woman as she took the purse. “I’m so absent-minded.”

  The brothers asked for their bill, paid it, and departed. Night overtook them in a forest, where they slept on the ground, with a rock for a pillow. Next morning, beside the rock, lay the customary purse of money.

  “That confounded innkeeper!” exclaimed the younger brother. “She made it all the way here! This time we’ll not return the money. That will teach her!”

  But since he found the purse every morning wherever he slept, he finally realized he got it by luck and not from the innkeeper.

  Coming to a crossroads, the brothers decided to go their separate ways. “Take this knife,” said the younger to the older. “As long as it gleams, you need have no fear for my safety. When it tarnishes, though, you can mourn for me.”

  “Take this bottle of water,” said the older. “As long as it’s clear, I am all right. When it clouds up, you can mourn for me.”

  They divided the money and bid one another farewell.

  The older brother came to a city where the king had died. The council of ministers made an announcement: “Let us proceed as follows: let us loose a pigeon, and the person on whose head it alights we will crown king.”

  It lit on the older brother’s head, and he found himself surrounded by carriages, an army, and a band. They conducted him to the palace, dressed him as a king, crowned him, and he began to reign.

  The younger brother came to another city and took rooms at an inn opposite the palace of a princess. She was unmarried and spent her days on her balcony. She spied the younger brother on his balcony at the inn, and they entered into conversation. One topic led to the next, and the princess at length said, “If you will so honor me, I’ll expect you at my house for a bit of entertainment.”

  “The honor is all mine,” replied the youth.

  When he arrived, the princess proposed, “Let’s play cards awhile to pass the time.”

  They began playing, but the princess won every round. The youth lost thousands upon thousands of ducats; still he never ran out of money, thanks to the full purse every morning beneath his pillow. The princess was at a loss to understand how he could be so rich. She consulted a sorceress, who explained, “That stranger carries a charm within him, wherefore his money never runs out. In his body is half a crab, and that’s why he finds a full purse under his pillow every morning.”

  “How can I get that charm for myself?” asked the princess.

  “Follow these directions of mine,” replied the sorceress. “Pour him a glass of wine with this medicine in it. The medicine will bring up everything he has on his stomach, including the crab-half. Carefully wash the morsel and swallow it. Then, in the morning, the purse will appear under your pillow instead of his.”

  The princess did as she was told and now she was the one to find all the money. The young man was reduced to poverty and had no choice but to sell everything he owned and resume his travels through the world. He walked and walked until he was too weak from hunger to go any farther. He dropped down in a meadow and, so as to have something in his mouth at least, he reached out and pulled a handful of grass, which he ate. It happened to be a species of chicory, and no sooner did he bite into it than he changed into a donkey. “At least I won’t be hungry any longer,” he reasoned, “since I’ll feed on grass.” He next nibbled a plant resembling cabbage. As soon as he bit into it, lo and behold, he changed back into a man. “These plants will be the making of me!” he concluded, and picked a specimen of the grass that changed one into a donkey and a specimen that changed one back into a man. Then he dressed as a gardener and went to hawk these herbs under the princess’s window. “Chicory, chicory, fine chicory for sale!”

  The princess called him in, saw the tender white chicory, tasted it at once, and changed into a donkey. The youth immediately put a halter on her and led her down the palace steps, without anyone suspecting it was the princess.

  He rode the donkey to a place where a large group of men were working for the king. He got them to hire him with his donkey and made the animal carry double loads of rock, beating it to keep it stepping.

  “Why are you so hard on that poor donkey?” the men would ask.

  “That’s my business,” he would answer. The men went and told the king.

  The king sent for him. “Why do you want to break that animal down?”

  “That’s what it deserves,” said the youth, who noticed that the king wore a knife on his belt, the knife given him by none other than his little brother.

  “Give me the money I gave you at the crossroads,” said the younger brother.

  “How dare you speak like that to a sovereign!” said the king.

  “And how should I speak to you? I recognize you. You are my brother! Here is the bottle you gave me!”

  The brothers recognized one another and embraced. The younger one told about the donkey which was a princess. “If she returns your half of the crab,” advised the royal brother, “turn her back into the lady she was.”

  They gave the donkey the particular medicine that made everything come up, and she spit out the crab-half. Then they fed her the plant that looked like cabbage, and she became a lady once more.

  The king named his brother general, and I have remained just what I always was.

  (Greci di Calabria)


  Nick Fish

  Once upon a time in Messina there was a mother with a son named Nick, who spent all his time, day and night, swimming in the sea. His mother was constantly calling to him from the shore, “Nick! Oh, Nickie! Come out of the water, will you? You’re no fish, are you?”

  But he would always swim farther out. From so much yelling, the poor mother got a kink in her intestines. One day when he’d made her scream herself hoarse, she pronounced a curse on him. “Nick, may you turn into a fish!”

  Obviously heaven was listening that day, for the curse took effect: in a flash, Nick became half fish and half man, with webfeet like a duck and a frog’s throat. Never more did Nick set foot on land, which upset his mother so much that soon after she died.

  The rumor reached the king that there was a creature in the sea of Messina who was half man and half fish. The king therefore ordered all his sailors that if any of them saw Nick to tell him the king wanted to talk to him.

  One day as a sailor headed his boat toward the open sea, he saw Nick swimming nearby. “Nick!” he said. “The king of Messina wishes a word with you!”

  So Nick Fish immediately swam up to the king’s palace.

  The king smiled as he approached. “Nick Fish,” he said, “you are such an expert swimmer, I would like for you to swim around the whole island of Sicily and tell me where the sea is deepest and what is to be seen in that spot!”

  Following orders, Nick Fish swam around the entire coast of Sicily. In a short time he was back. He related that on the floor of the sea he had seen mountains, valleys, caves, and all kinds of fish. The only time he’d been frightened was when he passed by the lighthouse, since he’d been unable to find the bottom at that point.

  “Well,” asked the king, “what is Messina built on? You must go down and see.”

  Nick dived in and remained under water a w
hole day. Then he came back up and said to the king, “Messina is built on a rock, which rests on three columns: one of them is sound, another is splintered, and the third is broken.

  O Messina, Messina,

  One day you will be leaner!”

  The king was amazed, and decided to carry Nick Fish to Naples to see the floor of the volcanoes. Nick went down and afterward related that first he’d found cold water, then hot water and, in certain places, springs of fresh water. The king was skeptical, so Nick asked for two bottles, filling one with hot water and the other with fresh water.

  But the king was tormented in the back of his mind by the notion that at Lighthouse Point the sea was bottomless. He took Nick Fish back to Messina and said, “Nick, tell me approximately how deep the water is here at the lighthouse.”

  Nick went down and stayed for two days. When he returned to the surface he informed the king he had not seen the bottom, since a column of smoke was pouring from beneath a rock and clouding the water.

  The king, who could no longer contain his curiosity, said, “Dive from the roof of the lighthouse.”

  The lighthouse stood at the very tip of the promontory and in bygone times had lodged a sentinel who would signal the tides with a trumpet and hoist a flag to warn vessels to keep to the deep. Nick Fish leaped from that lookout. The king waited one day, then a second, then a third, but there was still no sign of Nick. Finally he emerged as pale as a ghost.

  “What’s the matter, Nick?” asked the king.

  “I nearly died of fright,” he explained. “I saw a fish in whose mouth alone a large ship would fit! So he wouldn’t swallow me, I hid behind one of the three columns that hold up Messina!”

  The king listened open-mouthed, and was as anxious as ever to know how deep the water was at Lighthouse Point. But Nick said, “No, Majesty, I’m too frightened to dive one more time.”

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]