Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

Unable to persuade him, the king removed his crown studded with dazzling gems and threw it into the sea. “Go after it, Nick!”

  “Majesty, the idea! The crown of the kingdom!”

  “The only crown of its kind in the universe,” said the king. “Nick, you must fetch it!”

  “If you order it, Majesty,” replied Nick, “I shall go down. But my heart tells me I’ll never come up again. Give me a handful of lentils. If I escape, you’ll see me emerge. But if the lentils come to the surface, that’s a sign I’ll never return.”

  They gave him the lentils, and Nick plunged into the sea.

  The king waited and waited. After an interminable wait, the lentils floated up. To this day one still awaits the return of Nick Fish.




  Once there was a merchant with three grown-up daughters. The oldest was Rosa, the second Joanna, and the third Ninetta, the most beautiful of the three.

  One day a splendid opportunity for gain came the merchant’s way, and he returned home lost in thought. “What’s the matter, Papa?” asked the girls.

  “Nothing, my daughters. A golden opportunity has just turned up, but I can’t go off and leave you here by yourselves.”

  “Is that all that’s stopping you?” asked the oldest girl. “All you need do is get in provisions enough to last us for the time you’ll be away, seal up the doors with us inside the house, and we’ll see each other again when it’s God’s will to bring you back to us.”

  That’s what the merchant did: he bought a large supply of food and instructed one of his servants to call up to his oldest daughter every morning from the street to see if she had any errands for him to run. Bidding them goodbye, he asked, “Rosa, what do you want me to bring you?”

  “A gown the hue of the sky.”

  “And you, Joanna?”

  “A gown the color of diamonds.”

  “And you, Ninetta?”

  “Please bring me, Father, a beautiful date-palm branch in a silver vase. If you don’t, may your ship move neither forward nor backward.”

  “You wicked girl!” exclaimed her sisters. “Don’t you realize you might cast a spell over your father by such talk?”

  “Not at all,” replied the merchant. “Let her alone. She’s little and can say what she pleases.”

  The merchant departed, and disembarked at just the right place. He made the important deal and then decided to buy the dress Rosa had asked for and the one Joanna had requested, but he forgot all about Ninetta’s date-palm branch. He boarded his ship and gained the open sea, but a frightful storm arose with thunder, lightning, and angry waves, and there the ship sat, moving neither forward nor backward.

  The captain was at his wit’s end. “Where on earth did this storm come from?” At that, the merchant recalled his daughter’s spell and spoke up. “Captain, I forgot to make a certain purchase. If we don’t want to be shipwrecked, we must turn around and go back into port.”

  The instant they turned the helm, the weather changed and, with the wind behind them, they glided back into port. The merchant went ashore, bought the date-palm branch, stuck it in a silver vase, and went back on board. The mariners hoisted the sails and, after three days of smooth sailing, the vessel reached its destination.

  In the meantime, while the merchant was away, the three girls stayed in the house with the doors sealed. They had everything they needed, even a well in the courtyard where they could always get fresh water. One day the oldest sister accidentally dropped her thimble into the well, and Ninetta said, “Don’t worry, sisters; just lower me into the well, and I’ll fetch the thimble.”

  “Go down into the well? You must be joking!” said the oldest.

  “Of course I’ll go down and get the thimble.” So the sisters lowered her into the well.

  Ninetta found the thimble floating on the surface of the water, and she picked it up. But when she raised her head, she noticed a hole in the wall of the well, with light coming through it. She removed a brick and beheld on the other side of the wall a beautiful garden with all kinds of flowers, trees, and fruits. Dislodging more bricks, she made an opening and slipped into the garden, where the finest flowers and fruits were all hers. She filled her apron with them, slipped back into the well, replaced the bricks, and called up to her sisters, “Pull me up!” She returned aboveground as fresh as a rose.

  Seeing her emerge from the well with an apronful of jasmine and cherries, her sisters asked, “Where did you get all those fine things?”

  “What difference does it make? Let me down again tomorrow, and we’ll get the rest.”

  Now that garden belonged to the crown prince of Portugal. Finding his flowerbeds stripped, he took his poor gardener severely to task.

  “I’m completely in the dark. How could such a thing possibly happen?” the gardener was careful to answer. But the prince ordered him to keep a sharper lookout from then on, if he knew what was good for him.

  The next day Ninetta was all ready to go down into the garden. She said to her sisters, “Girls, let me down!”

  “Are you drunk or out of your mind?”

  “I’m neither drunk nor crazy. Let me down.” And they had to let her down.

  She pulled out the bricks and stepped into the garden. After gathering a good apronful of flowers and fruit, she cried, “Pull me back up!” But while she was leaving, the prince came to the window and saw her hop away like a hare. He ran into the garden, but she was already gone. He called the gardener, “Which way did that girl go?”

  “What girl, Majesty?”

  “The one who’s picking the flowers and fruit in my garden.”

  “I saw nothing at all, Majesty, I swear.”

  “Very well, tomorrow I will take your place.”

  So the next day, hidden behind a hedge, he saw the girl slip through the bricks into the garden and fill her apron with flowers and fruit up to her chin. Out he jumped and tried to grab her, but with the speed of a cat she jumped back through the hole in the wall and closed it up with the bricks. The prince examined the entire wall, but found no spot where the bricks were loose. He waited for her the next day, and the next, but Ninetta had received such a scare upon being discovered that she stopped going down into the well. The prince, who had found her as beautiful as a fairy, was so upset that he fell sick. But none of the doctors in the kingdom could say what his trouble was. The king consulted all the physicians, wise men, and philosophers. First one and then another spoke, and finally the floor was given to a certain Wisebeard. “Majesty,” said this Wisebeard, “ask your son if he likes a certain young lady. That would explain everything.”

  The king sent for his son and asked him. The boy told him everything, saying he’d have no peace until he married this girl. Wisebeard said, “Majesty, have three days of social affairs at the palace, and issue a decree for fathers and mothers of every station in life to bring their daughters, under pain of death.” The king was in agreement, and issued the decree.

  Meanwhile the merchant had returned from his trip, had the doors unsealed, and given the dresses to Rosa and Joanna, and the date-palm branch in the silver vase to Ninetta. Rosa and Joanna were dying for a ball to be given somewhere and began working on their outfits. But Ninetta stayed shut up in her room with her date-palm branch and thought of neither parties nor balls. Her father and sisters said she was crazy.

  When the decree was announced, the merchant went home and told his daughters. “How wonderful! How simply wonderful!” exclaimed Rosa and Joanna. But Ninetta shrugged her shoulders and said, “You two go, I have no desire to.”

  “Oh, no, my daughter,” said her father. “You must go, under pain of death; death is nothing to play with.”

  “What difference does it make whether I go? Do you expect the whole world to know you have three daughters? Just say you have two.”

  They argued back and forth, and the evening of the first ball Ninetta stayed home.

sp; No sooner had her sisters left than Ninetta turned to her date-palm branch:

  “Lovely date-palm, Gràttula-Beddàttula,

  Come forth and dress up Nina,

  Make her more beautiful than ever.”

  At those words, out of the date-palm branch came one fairy, then another, then many, many more, all carrying gowns and jewels without equal. They gathered round Nina, and some bathed her, some plaited her hair, some dressed her. In no time they had her fully clothed and decked with necklaces, diamonds, and other precious stones. When she was one dazzling jewel from head to toe, she got into a carriage, rode to the palace, climbed the stairs, and left everyone open-mouthed with admiration.

  The prince recognized her and ran immediately to tell the king. Then he approached her, bowing and asking, “How are you, madam?”

  “As well in winter as in summer.”

  “What is your name?”

  “Ah, my name . . . ”

  “Where do you live?”

  “In a house with a door.”

  “On what street?”

  “On Whirlwind Lane.”

  “Madam, you will be the death of me.”

  “As you will!”

  And so, genteelly conversing, they danced away the whole evening, leaving the prince quite out of breath, while she was still as fresh as a rose. When the ball was over, the king, who was concerned about his son, inconspicuously instructed his servants to follow the lady and find out where she lived. She got into her carriage, but noticing she was being trailed, she undid her hair, and pearls and precious stones fell onto the road. The servants were upon them at once, like chickens going after feed, and the lady was completely forgotten. She had the horses whipped to a gallop and vanished.

  Arriving home before her sisters, she said:

  “Lovely date-palm, Gràttula-Beddàttula,

  Come down and undress Nina,

  Make her just the same as ever.”

  At that, she found herself stripped of her finery and dressed in her usual housedress.

  Her sisters came home. “Ninetta, Ninetta!” they exclaimed, “you don’t know what a lovely ball you missed. There was a beautiful lady there who looked a little like you. Had we not known you were here at home, we would have mistaken her for you.”

  “Yes, I was here all the time with my date-palm branch.”

  “But tomorrow you just have to come with us.”

  Meanwhile, the king’s servants returned to the palace empty-handed. “You good-for-nothing creatures!” said the king. “The idea of neglecting my orders for a few trifles! Heaven help you if you don’t follow the lady all the way home tomorrow evening!”

  The next evening as well Ninetta refused to accompany her sisters to the ball. “She’s lost her mind,” they said, “over her date-palm branch! We’re going, though!” And they were off. Ninetta turned at once to the branch.

  “Lovely date-palm, Gràttula-Beddàttula,

  Come forth and dress up Nina,

  Make her more beautiful than ever.”

  And the fairies plaited her hair, dressed her in gala robes, and covered her with jewels.

  At the palace everyone stared with admiration, especially her sisters and her father. The prince was by her side at once. “Madam, how are you?”

  “As well in winter as in summer.”

  “What is your name?”

  “Ah, my name . . . ” And so on.

  The prince let matters be, and invited her to dance. They danced the whole evening long.

  “Goodness me!” said one sister to the other. “That lady is the spitting image of Ninetta!”

  While the prince accompanied her to her carriage, the king signaled to the servants. Seeing herself followed, Ninetta pulled out a handful of gold pieces. But this time she aimed at the faces of the servants, hitting some on the nose and others in the eyes. Thus they lost sight of the carriage and went crawling back to the palace, looking so much like whipped dogs that even the king felt sorry for them. But he said, “The final ball is tomorrow evening. You must find out something by hook or by crook.”

  Meanwhile Ninetta was saying to her branch:

  “Lovely date-palm, Gràttula-Beddàttula,

  Come down and undress Nina,

  Make her just the same as ever.”

  In the twinkling of an eye she was changed back to her usual self, and her sisters arrived and told her once more how much that elegant and bejeweled lady resembled her.

  The third evening was like the previous ones. Nina went to the palace lovelier and more radiant than she had ever been. The prince danced with her even longer than before and melted with love, like a candle.

  At a certain hour as Ninetta was preparing to leave, she was called before the king. Shaking like a leaf, she went up and bowed.

  “Maiden,” said the king, “you have made sport of me for the past two nights, but the third night you won’t get away with it.”

  “But what on earth have I done, Majesty?”

  “What have you done? You have made my son fall madly in love with you. Don’t expect to escape.”

  “What sentence awaits me?”

  “You are sentenced to become the prince’s wife.”

  “Majesty, I am not free. I have a father and two older sisters.”

  “Have the father brought to me.”

  When the poor merchant heard he was wanted by the king, he thought, A royal summons bodes ill. Having several frauds on his conscience, he got goose pimples. But the king pardoned him on every count, and asked him for Ninetta’s hand for his son. The next day they opened up the royal chapel for the marriage of the prince and Ninetta.

  They were as happy as happy could be,

  While here we sit, tap-tapping our teeth.




  Once, so the story goes, there were seven children, all of them girls and daughters of a king and queen. War was declared on their father. He was captured and dethroned, while his wife and children were left to shift for themselves. To make ends meet, the queen gave up the palace, and they all squeezed into a hovel. Times were hard, and it was a miracle if they got anything to eat. One day a fruit vendor came by. The queen stopped him to buy a few figs. While she was making her purchase, an old woman passed, asking for alms. “Goodness me!” said the queen. “I wish I could help you, but I can’t I am poor too.”

  “How do you happen to be poor?” asked the old woman.

  “You don’t know? I am the queen of Spain, humbled by the war waged against my husband.”

  “You poor thing. But do you know why everything is going badly for you now? You have under your roof a daughter who is truly ill-starred. You’ll never prosper again as long as she stays at home.”

  “You don’t mean I should send one of my daughters away?”

  “Alas, my good lady, that’s the only solution.”

  “Who is this ill-starred daughter?”

  “The one who sleeps with her hands crossed. Tonight while your daughters are sleeping, take a candle and go and look at them. The one you find with her hands crossed must be sent away. Only in that way will you recover your lost domains.”

  At midnight the queen took the candle and filed past the beds of her seven daughters. They were all asleep, some with hands folded, others with their hands under their cheeks or pillows. She came to the last girl, who happened to be the youngest, and found her sleeping with her hands crossed. “Oh, my poor daughter! I really am obliged to send you away.”

  As she said that, the young lady awakened and saw her mother holding a candle and weeping. “What’s wrong, Mother?”

  “Nothing, my daughter. An old beggar-woman happened by and explained that I’ll prosper only after sending away that daughter of mine who sleeps with her hands crossed. The unfortunate girl turns out to be you!”

  “That’s all you’re weeping over?” replied the daughter. “I’ll dress and leave at once.” She put her clothes on, tied her perso
nal effects up in a bundle, and was off.

  After going a great distance she came to a desolate moor where only one house stood. She approached, heard the sound of a loom, and saw some women weaving.

  “Won’t you come in?” said one of the weavers.

  “Thank you.”

  “What is your name?”


  “Would you like to work for us?”

  “I certainly would.”

  She set to work sweeping and doing the housework. In the evening, the women said to her, “Listen, Misfortune, we are going out tonight. After we’ve locked the door on the outside, you are to lock it on the inside. When we return in the morning, we’ll unlock it on the outside, and you’ll unlock it on the inside. You must see that no one steals the silk, braiding, or cloth we have woven.” With that, they left.

  When midnight struck, Misfortune heard a snipping of scissors. Candle in hand, she rushed to the loom and beheld a woman with a pair of scissors cutting all the gold cloth from the loom, and she realized her Evil Fate had followed her here. In the morning her mistresses returned; they unlocked the door from the outside, and she unlocked it from the inside. As soon as they came in, their eyes fell on the shreds littering the floor. “You shameless wretch! Is this how you repay us for taking you in? Begone with you!” And they dismissed her with a kick.

  Misfortune walked on through the countryside. Before entering a certain town, she stopped before a shop where they sold bread, vegetables, wine, and other things, and asked for alms. The shopkeeper’s wife gave her a bit of bread and a glass of wine. When the shopkeeper returned, he took pity on her and told his wife to let her stay and sleep in the shop that night on the sacks. The shopkeeper and his wife slept upstairs, and in the middle of the night they heard a commotion below. Rushing downstairs to see what was going on, they found the casks uncorked and wine running all over the house. At that, the husband went looking for the girl and found her atop the sacks groaning as though caught in a nightmare. “Shameless wretch! Only you could be responsible for all this mess!” He took a stick and beat her, then put her out of the shop.

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