Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Not knowing which way to turn, Misfortune ran off, weeping. At daybreak she met a woman doing her laundry.

  “What are you looking at?”

  “I’m lost.”

  “Can you wash and iron?”

  “Yes, indeed.”

  “Well, stay and help me. I’ll do the lathering and you’ll do the rinsing.”

  Misfortune began rinsing the clothes and hanging them up to dry. As soon as they dried, she gathered them up to mend, starch, and press.

  Now these clothes were the prince’s. When he saw them, he was struck by how beautifully they had been done. “Signora Francisca,” he said, “you’ve never done such a good piece of work. I really must reward you for it.” And he gave her ten gold pieces.

  Signora Francisca used the money to dress Misfortune up and buy a sack of flour to bake bread. Two of the loaves were ring-shaped and seasoned with anise and sesame seed. “Take these two ring-shaped loaves to the seashore,” she told Misfortune, “and call my Fate, like this—‘Hallooooo! Fate of Signora Franciscaaaaa!’—three times. At the third call my Fate will appear, and you will give her a ring-shaped loaf and my regards. Then ask her where your own Fate is and do the same with her.”

  Misfortune walked slowly to the seashore.

  “Hallooooo! Fate of Signora Franciscaaaa! Halloooo! Fate of Signora Franciscaaaaa! Hallooooo! Fate of Signora Franciscaaaa!” Signora Francisca’s Fate came out. Misfortune delivered the message, gave her the ring-shaped loaf, and then asked, “Fate of Signora Francisca, would you be so gracious as to inform me of the whereabouts of my own Fate?”

  “Hear me through: follow this mule trail a piece until you come to an oven. Beside the pit of oven-sweepings sits an old witch. Approach her gently and give her the ring-shaped loaf, for she is your Fate. She will refuse it and insult you. But leave the bread for her and come away.”

  At the oven Misfortune found the old woman, who was so foul, bleareyed, and smelly that the girl was almost nauseated. “Dear Fate of mine, will you do me the honor of accepting—” she began, offering her the bread.

  “Away with you! Be gone! Who asked you for bread?” And she turned her back on the girl. Misfortune put the loaf down and returned to Signora Francisca’s.

  The next day was Monday, washday. Signora Francisca put the clothes in to soak, then lathered them. Misfortune scrubbed and rinsed them; when they were dry, she mended and ironed them. When the ironing was finished, Signora Francisca put everything in a basket and carried it to the palace. Seeing the clothes, the king said, “Signora Francisca, you won’t pretend you’ve ever washed and ironed that nicely before!” For her pains, he gave her ten more gold pieces.

  Signora Francisca bought more flour, made two ring-shaped loaves again, and sent Misfortune off with them to their Fates.

  The next time she did his wash, the prince, who was getting married and anxious to have his clothes perfectly laundered for the event, rewarded Signora Francisca with twenty gold pieces. This time Signora Francisca bought not only flour for two loaves; for Misfortune’s Fate she purchased an elegant dress with a hoop skirt, a petticoat, dainty handkerchiefs, and a comb and pomade for her hair, not to mention other odds and ends.

  Misfortune walked to the oven. “Dear Fate of mine, here is your ringshaped loaf.”

  The Fate, who was growing tamer, came forward grumbling to take the bread. Then Misfortune reached out and grabbed her and proceeded to wash her with soap and water. Next she did her hair and dressed her up from head to foot in her new finery. The Fate at first writhed like a snake, but seeing herself all spick-and-span she became a different person entirely. “Listen to me, Misfortune,” she said. “For all your kindness to me, I’m making you a present of this little box,” and she handed her a box as tiny as those which contain wax matches.

  Misfortune went flying home to Signora Francisca and opened the little box. In it lay a piece of braid. They were both somewhat disappointed. “What a piece of nothing!” they said, and stuffed the braid away in the bottom of a drawer.

  The following week when Signora Francisca took clean wash back to the palace, she found the prince quite depressed. Being on familiar terms with him, the washerwoman asked, “What’s the matter, my prince?”

  “What’s the matter? Here I am all ready to get married, and now we find out that my betrothed’s bridal gown lacks a piece of braid which cannot be matched anywhere in the kingdom.”

  “Wait a minute, Majesty,” said Signora Francisca, and ran home, rummaged through the drawer, and came back to the prince with that special piece of braid. They compared it with what was on the bridal dress: it was identical.

  The prince said, “You have saved the day for me, and I intend to pay you the weight of this piece of braid in gold.”

  He took a pair of scales, placing the braid in one plate and gold in the other. But no amount of gold made the scales balance. He then tried measuring the braid’s weight with a steelyard, but this too was unsuccessful.

  “Signora Francisca,” he said, “be honest. How can a little piece of braid possibly weigh so much? Where did you get it?

  Signora Francisca had no alternative but to tell the whole story, and the prince then wanted to see Misfortune. The washerwoman dressed her up (they had gradually accumulated a little finery) and took her to the palace. Misfortune entered the throne room and gave a royal curtsy; she was a monarch’s daughter and by no means ignorant of courtly decorum. The prince welcomed her, offered her a seat, then asked, “But who are you?”

  “I am the youngest daughter of the king of Spain, who was dethroned and imprisoned. My bad luck forced me out into the world where I have endured insults, contempt, and many beatings”—and she told him all.

  The first thing the prince did was send for the weavers whose silk and braid the Evil Fate had cut up. “How much did this damage cost you?”

  “Two hundred gold crowns.”

  “Here are your two hundred gold crowns. Let me tell you that this poor maiden you cast out is the daughter of a king and queen. That is all, be gone!”

  Next he summoned the owners of the shop where the Evil Fate had tapped the casks. “And how much damage did you suffer?”

  “Three hundred crowns’ worth.”

  “Here are your three hundred crowns. But think twice next time before thrashing a poor king’s daughter. Now out of my sight!”

  He dismissed his original betrothed and married Misfortune. For matron of honor he gave her Signora Francisca.

  Let us leave the happy couple and turn out attention to Misfortune’s mother. After her daughter’s departure, fortune’s wheel began to turn in her favor: one day her brother and nephews arrived at the head of a mighty army and reconquered the kingdom. The queen and her children moved back into their old palace and all the comforts and luxuries they had formerly enjoyed. But in the back of their minds they thought of the youngest daughter, of whom they had heard absolutely nothing in all the time she had been gone. Meanwhile the prince, upon learning that Misfortune’s mother had regained her kingdom, sent messengers to inform her of his marriage to her daughter. Ever so pleased, the mother set out for her daughter’s with knights and ladies-in-waiting. Likewise with knights and ladies-in-waiting, the daughter rode to meet her mother. They met at the border, embraced over and over, with the seven sisters standing around, every bit as moved as their mother, while there was great rejoicing in one kingdom and the other.

  (Palermo)

  150

  Pippina the Serpent

  There was once a merchant with five children—four little girls and a boy. The boy was the oldest, a handsome youth by the name of Baldellone. The luck of the merchant shifted, and he went from rich to poor. The only way he could get along now was on charity, and to make matters even worse his wife began expecting another baby. Seeing his parents in such dire straits, Baldellone kissed them goodbye and left for France. He was an educated youth, and when he got to Paris he entered the service of the royal palace and
was finally promoted to captain.

  Back home, meanwhile, the merchant’s wife said to her husband, “The baby is about to be born, and we have no baby things. Let’s sell the dining room table, the only thing we have left, so we can get baby things.”

  They called in secondhand dealers passing through the street and sold them the table. That way the merchant was able to buy all the necessaries for the baby. The baby was “born, a girl of matchless beauty, and father and mother were so moved that they burst into tears. “Dear daughter, it breaks our heart to see you born into such poverty!”

  The infant grew by leaps and bounds and, when she was about fifteen months old, she began walking all by herself and playing in the straw where her father and mother slept. One day while playing in the straw, she called out, “Mamma, Mamma! Look, look!” and held out hands full of gold pieces.

  Her mother couldn’t believe her eyes. She took the coins, slipped them into her blouse, called in a baby-sitter, and ran to market. She bought this and that, shopping to her heart’s content, and by noon they were finally able to have a real meal, for a change.

  “Do tell me, Pippina, where did you get those nice shiny little things?” prodded the baby’s father. And she answered, “Right here, Papa,” pointing to a hole in the straw. In it was a jar full of coins. All you had to do was thrust in your hand for it to fill up with money.

  So the family was able to hold up its head once more and resume its former way of living. When the child was four, her father said to his wife, “Wife, I think it’s time to have a charm put on Pippina. We certainly have the money, so why not have her charmed?”

  To have children charmed in those days, people would go halfway to Monreale, to a place where four fairy sisters lived. They took Pippina there in a coach and presented her to the four sisters. The fairies explained what to prepare, agreeing to come to the merchant’s house on Sunday for their ceremony.

  So on Sunday, right on time, the four sisters arrived in Palermo, where they found everything ready for them. They washed their hands, mixed up a bit of Majorcan flour, made four fine pies, and sent them off to be baked.

  In a little while the baker’s wife smelled a delightful aroma coming from the oven. Unable to check her gluttony, she pulled out one of the pies and ate it. Then she made another one exactly like it, only with regular flour and water drawn from the trough in which she washed the oven broom. But it rivaled the others in shape, and no one could distinguish it from the original three.

  When the pies were back in the merchant’s house, the first fairy cut one of them, saying, “I charm you, lovely maiden, so that every time you brush your hair, pearls and other precious stones will come pouring forth.”

  “And I,” said the second fairy, cutting another pie, “I charm you to become more lovely yet than you already are.”

  The third fairy stood up. “And I charm you so that every fruit out of season you might desire will instantly be there.”

  “I charm you,” began the fourth fairy, cutting into the pie filled with oven sweepings, when a cinder flew out of it and landed in her eye. “Ouch! That hurt!” exclaimed the fairy. “Now I’m going to put you under a monstrous spell. When you see the sun, you shall become a black serpent!” At that, the four sisters vanished.

  The father and mother burst into tears: their baby girl wouldn’t be able to see the sun any more!

  But let’s leave them and turn to Baldellone, who was bragging in France about his father’s vast wealth while, for all he knew, his parents didn’t have a penny to their name. But with his constant big talk he impressed everyone; as the proverb says:

  He who goes abroad

  Presents himself as count, duke, or lord.

  The king of France was curious as to whether there was any truth to all this wealth of Baldellone, so he dispatched a squire to Palermo with instructions on what to observe and report back. The squire went to Palermo, asked for Baldellone’s father, and was directed to a handsome palace with countless liveried doormen. He entered and beheld rooms with walls of gold, and valets and servants galore. The merchant gave the squire a royal welcome, invited him to the table and, when the sun had set, brought in Pippina. The squire was charmed at the sight of her; never before had he seen such a lovely maiden. He returned to France and told the king.

  The king sent for Baldellone. “Baldellone, go to Palermo, run to your house and fetch me your sister Pippina, whom I wish to marry.”

  Baldellone, who didn’t even know he had a sister, could make little sense out of all this talk, but he obeyed the king and departed for Palermo. Now in Paris Baldellone had a girl friend, who insisted that he take her with him to Palermo.

  Upon his arrival in Palermo, Baldellone found his family prosperous once more. He renewed his old ties with them, met his sister, and announced that the king of France wanted to marry her. That delighted everyone. But when the girl who had come from France with Baldellone saw Pippina, she was consumed with envy and began plotting to undo her and become queen herself.

  In a few days, Baldellone had to depart with Pippina. “Goodbye, Papa.” “Goodbye, dear son.” “Farewell, Pippina.” “Farewell, Mamma, so long little sisters.” Then they were off. To reach Paris, one travels first by sea, then overland. Baldellone closed Pippina up in the ship, and never let her see a single ray of sunshine, while his girl friend kept her company. When the ship pulled into port, he had his sister and his friend taken off board in a large sedan chair sealed against the sun. Baldellone’s friend was furious at the thought they were nearing Paris where Pippina would soon become queen, while she herself would be only a captain’s wife.

  “Pippina,” she began, complaining, “it’s stifling in here; let’s open a curtain!”

  “Please, my sister, you will be my undoing!”

  After a while she started up again. “Pippina, I’m burning up in here!”

  “No you’re not, be calm . . . ”

  “Pippina, I’m suffocating.”

  “Even so, you know good and well I can’t open this thing!”

  “Really?” At that, the woman snatched a penknife and rent the leather ceiling of the sedan chair. A ray of sunlight shone straight down upon Pippina, and she changed into a black serpent that went wriggling down into the dusty road and disappeared under a nearby hedge of the king’s garden.

  Seeing the chair arrive empty, Baldellone let out a cry. “My poor sister! And poor me! How will I ever tell the king, who is expecting her?”

  “What are you worrying about?” said his friend. “Tell him I am your sister, and all will be well.” Baldellone ended up doing exactly that.

  When the king saw her, he turned up his nose slightly. “Is this the beauty without compare? No matter; a king’s promise is a king’s promise. I have no choice but to marry her.”

  He married her, and they lived together. Baldellone was fit to be tied: not satisfied to deprive him of his sister, that traitress had then abandoned him for the king! The new queen was well aware Baldellone would never forgive her for those two things, so she began scheming to get him out of the way as well.

  “Majesty,” she said, “I’m sick and need figs.”

  Figs were out of season, and the king replied, “Just where do you expect to find figs this time of year?”

  “They are to be had. Tell Baldellone, and he will go after them.”

  “Baldellone!”

  “Yes, Majesty?”

  “Go pick a few figs for the queen.”

  “Figs at this time of year, Majesty?”

  “In season, out of season, that’s all the same to me. I said figs, and figs it must be. Otherwise your head will roll.”

  Sad and downcast, Baldellone went to the garden and burst into tears. Lo and behold, out of the flowerbed crawled a black serpent, who asked, “What’s the matter?”

  “My sister!” exclaimed Baldellone. “Now I too am in great difficulty!” and he informed her of the king’s command.

  “Oh, that’s nothi
ng to fret about. I have special power to bring forth fruit out of season. You want figs, you say? All right!” A beautiful basket of ripe figs appeared.

  Baldellone ran to the king at once with them. The queen ate every last one of them, and it’s a shame they didn’t poison her! Three days later she was hankering for apricots. Pippina the serpent brought forth apricots.

  Her next craving was for cherries, so Pippina produced cherries. Then came a call for pears. But we forgot to say that the charm worked for figs, for apricots, and for cherries, but not for pears.

  Baldellone was sentenced to die. He asked one last favor: that his grave be dug in the royal garden. “Granted,” replied the king. Baldellone was hanged and buried, and the queen drew a sigh of relief.

  One night the gardener’s wife awakened and heard a voice in the garden saying:

  “Baldellone, O dear brother,

  Buried here amid dark verdure,

  While the author of your fate

  Now plays queen to my intended mate.”

  The woman woke her husband up. They tiptoed outside and saw a dark shadow wriggling away from the captain’s tomb.

  In the morning, when the gardener went out as usual to make a bouquet of flowers for the king, he found the flowerbeds strewn with pearls and precious stones. He carried them to the king, who was greatly amazed.

  The next night the gardener stood watch with his gun. At midnight a shadow loomed beside the tomb, saying:

 
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