Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “Baldellone, O dear brother,

  Buried here amid dark verdure,

  While the author of your fate

  Now plays queen to my intended mate.”

  The gardener took aim and was about to fire, when the shadow said, “Put down your gun! I was baptized and confirmed the same as you were. Come closer and look at me.” So saying, she lifted her veil, showing a face of matchless beauty. Then she undid her braids, and out of her hair poured pearls and precious stones. “Tell the king this,” said the maiden, “and tell him I’ll meet him here tomorrow night.” The sky grew light, and the maiden changed into a serpent and wriggled away.

  The next night at the usual time the shadow had scarcely appeared and said,

  Baldellone, O dear brother,

  when the king went up to her. The maiden lifted her veil and told an amazed king her story.

  “Tell me, how can I free you?” said the king.

  “Here’s what you can do: leave tomorrow on a horse that runs like the wind and go all the way to the Jordan River. Dismount on its bank, and you will see four fairies bathing in the water—one with a green ribbon around her tress, another with a red one, a third with a blue one, and the last with a white one. Take away their clothes lying there on the riverbank. They will want them again, but don’t dare give them back! Then the first fairy will throw you her green ribbon, the second her red ribbon, the third her blue ribbon; but only when the fourth fairy has thrown you her white ribbon, and then her tress, shall you return their clothes, for my evil spell by then will be lifted.”

  The king needed to hear no more. He left the next morning at dawn and put his kingdom behind him. After traveling a great distance, thirty days and thirty nights later, he reached the Jordan River, found the fairies, and did everything prescribed by Baldellone’s sister. When he had the white ribbon and the tress in his hand, he said, “I’m now leaving you, but you can be sure I’ll repay you.”

  Back in his kingdom, he ran at once to the garden, called the serpent, and stroked her with the tress. Pippina immediately changed back into the most beautiful maiden ever seen. She attached the tress to her hair, and from then on had nothing more to fear.

  The king called the gardener and said, “Now listen to what you must do. Take a large ship, put Baldellone’s sister on board, and sail off in the night. Return to port a few days later under a foreign flag and leave everything else to me.”

  The gardener carried out the plan down to the tiniest detail, and three days later turned the ship around and hoisted the English flag. From the royal palace you could see the sea. The king looked out and said to the queen, “What ship is this? Look! It’s one of my relatives arriving. Let’s go and meet him.”

  The queen, who was always ready to show off, dressed in the twinkling of an eye. She went on board and found herself face to face with Pippina. If I weren’t certain Baldellone’s sister became a black serpent, she thought, I’d swear this is she . . .

  After much fanfare, they disembarked with the newcomer, heaping praise on her beauty. “Tell me,” said, the king to the queen, “what punishment would a person deserve for harming a creature like this?”

  “Oh,” answered the queen, “who could be so wicked as to hurt this jewel?”

  “But supposing there were someone, what would he deserve?”

  “He would deserve to be thrown through this window and then burned alive!”

  “And that’s just what we are going to do!” snapped the king. “This lady is Baldellone’s sister whom I was supposed to marry, and you, envious soul, came along and made her turn into a serpent, so you could take her place. You are now going to pay for deceiving me and for making this poor dear suffer. You have already pronounced your sentence with your own lips. Guards! Seize this wicked woman, throw her through the window, and burn her to death at once!”

  No sooner said than done. The liar was dashed through the window and burned right there on the ground next to the palace. The king asked Baldellone’s sister to forgive him for hanging her innocent brother. She replied, “Let’s let bygones be bygones and go see what can be done in the garden.”

  They went to the tomb and raised the stone cover. Baldellone’s body was almost intact. With a small brush, Pippina applied a certain salve to his neck, and Baldellone began breathing again, then moving, then rubbing his eyes like someone awakening, and finally he stood up. The scene was indescribable. They hugged and kissed, and the king, giving orders for grand festivities, sent for the merchant and his wife and married Pippina in great pomp.

  (Palermo)

  151

  Catherine the Wise

  Here in Palermo they tell, ladies and gentlemen, that once upon a time there was a very important shopkeeper in the city. He had a daughter who, from the time she was weaned, proved so wise that she was given her say on every single matter in the household. Recognizing the talent of his daughter, her father called her Catherine the Wise. When it came to studying all sorts of languages and reading every kind of book, no one could hold a candle to her.

  When the girl was sixteen, her mother died. Catherine was so grief-stricken that she shut herself up in her room and refused to come out. There she ate and slept, shunning all thought of strolls, theaters, and entertainment of any kind.

  Her father, whose life centered on this only child of his, thought it advisable to hold a council on the matter. He called together all the lords (for, even though a shopkeeper, he was on familiar terms with the best people) and said, “Gentlemen, you are aware I have a daughter who is the apple of my eye. But ever since her mother’s death, she’s been keeping to the house like a cat and won’t for the life of her stick her head outside.”

  The council replied, “Your daughter is known the world over for her vast wisdom. Open up a big school for her, so that as she directs others in their studies, she will get this grief out of her system.”

  “That’s a splendid idea,” said the father, and called his daughter. “Listen, my daughter, since you refuse every diversion, I have decided to open a school and put you in charge of it. How does that suit you?”

  Catherine was instantly charmed. She took charge of the teachers herself, and they got the school all ready. Outside they put up a sign: WHOEVER WISHES TO STUDY AT CATHERINE THE WISE’S IS WELCOME, FREE OF CHARGE.

  Numbers of children, both boys and girls, flocked in at once, and she seated them at the desks, side by side, without distinction. Someone piped up, “But that boy there is the son of a coal merchant!”

  “That makes no difference: the coal merchant’s son must sit beside the prince’s daughter. First come, first served.” And school began. Catherine had a cat-o’-nine-tails. She taught everyone alike, but woe to those that didn’t do their lessons! The reputation of this school even reached the palace, and the prince himself decided to attend. He dressed up in his regal clothes, came in, found an empty place, and Catherine invited him to sit down. When it was his turn, Catherine asked him a question. The prince didn’t know the answer. She dealt him a back-handed blow, from which his cheek still smarts.

  Crimson with rage, the prince rose, ran back to the palace, and sought out his father. “A favor I beg, Majesty: I wish to get married! For a wife, I want Catherine the Wise.”

  The king sent for Catherine’s father, who went at once, saying, “Your humble servant, Majesty!”

  “Rise! My son has taken a fancy to your daughter. What are we to do but join them in matrimony?”

  “As you will, Majesty. But I am a shopkeeper, whereas your son is of royal blood.”

  “That makes no difference. My son himself wants her.”

  The shopkeeper returned home. “Catherine, the prince wants to wed you. What do you have to say about that?”

  “I accept.”

  The wool for the mattresses was not wanting, no more than the chests of drawers; in a week’s time everything needed had been prepared. The prince assembled a retinue of twelve bridesmaids. The royal chapel was ope
ned, and the couple got married.

  Following the ceremony the queen told the bridesmaids to go and undress the princess for bed. But the prince said, “There’s no need of people to undress or dress her, or of guards at the door.” Once he was alone with his bride, he said, “Catherine, do you remember the slap you gave me? Are you sorry for it?”

  “Sorry for it? If you ask for it, I’ll do it again!”

  “What! You’re not sorry?”

  “Not in the least.”

  “And you don’t intend to be?”

  “Who would?”

  “So that’s your attitude? Well, I’ll now teach you a thing or two.” He started unwinding a rope with which to lower her through a trapdoor into a pit. “Catherine,” he said when the rope was ready, “either you repent, or I’ll let you down into the pit!”

  “I’ll be cooler there,” replied Catherine.

  So the prince tied the rope around her and lowered her into the pit, where all she found was a little table, a chair, a pitcher of water, and a piece of bread.

  The next morning, according to custom, the father and mother came to greet the new wife.

  “You can’t come in,” said the prince. “Catherine isn’t feeling well.”

  Then he went and opened the trapdoor. “What kind of night did you spend?”

  “Pleasant and refreshing,” replied Catherine.

  “Are you considering the slap you gave me?”

  “I’m thinking of the one I owe you now.”

  Two days went by, and hunger began to gnaw at her stomach. Not knowing what else to do, she pulled a stay out of her corset and started making a hole in the wall. She dug and dug, and twenty-four hours later saw a tiny ray of daylight, at which she took heart. She made the hole bigger and peered through it. Who should be passing at that moment but her father’s clerk. “Don Tommaso! Don Tommaso!” Don Tommaso couldn’t imagine what this voice was, coming out of the wall like that. “It’s me, Catherine the Wise. Tell my father I have to talk to him right away.”

  Don Tommaso returned with Catherine’s father, showing him the tiny opening in the wall. “Father, as luck would have it, I’m at the bottom of a pit. You must have a passageway dug underground from our palace all the way here, with an arch and a light every twenty feet. Leave everything else to me.”

  The shopkeeper agreed to that and in the meantime he brought her food regularly—roast chicken and other nourishing dishes—and passed it through the opening in the wall.

  Three times a day the prince peered through the trapdoor. “Are you sorry yet, Catherine, for the slap you gave me?”

  “Sorry for what? Just imagine the slap you are going to get from me now!”

  The workers finally got the underground passage dug, with an arch and a lantern every twenty feet. Catherine would pass through it to her father’s house after the prince had looked in on her and reclosed the trapdoor.

  It wasn’t long before the prince was fed up with trying to get Catherine to apologize. He opened the trapdoor. “Catherine, I’m going to Naples. Have you nothing to tell me?”

  “Have a good time, enjoy yourself, and write me upon your arrival in Naples.”

  “So I should go?”

  “What? Are you still there?”

  So the prince departed.

  As soon as he shut the trapdoor, Catherine ran off to her father. “Papa, now is the time to help me. Get me a brigantine ready to sail, with housekeeper, servants, festive gowns—all to go to Naples. There let them rent me a palace across from the royal palace and await my arrival.”

  The shopkeeper sent the brigantine off. Meanwhile the prince had a frigate readied, and he too set sail. She stood on her father’s balcony and watched him leave, then she went aboard another brigantine and was in Naples ahead of him. Little vessels, you know, make better time than big ones.

  In Naples Catherine would come out on the balcony of her palace each day in a lovelier gown than the day before. The prince saw her and exclaimed, “How much like Catherine the Wise she is!” He fell in love with her and sent a messenger to her palace. “My lady, the prince would like very much to pay you a visit, if that won’t inconvenience you.”

  “By all means!” she replied.

  The king came regally dressed, made a big fuss over her, then sat down to talk. “Tell me, my lady, are you married?”

  “Not yet. Are you?”

  “Neither am I, isn’t it obvious? You resemble a maiden, my lady, who captured my fancy in Palermo. I should like you to be my wife.”

  “With pleasure, Prince.” And a week later they got married.

  At the end of nine months Catherine gave birth to a baby boy that was a marvel to behold. “Princess,” asked the prince, “what shall we call him?”

  “Naples,” said Catherine. So they named him Naples.

  Two years went by, and the prince decided to leave town. The princess didn’t like it, but he had made up his mind and couldn’t be swayed. He drafted a document for Catherine saying the baby was his firstborn and in time would be king. Then he left for Genoa.

  As soon as the prince had gone, Catherine wrote her father to send a brigantine to Genoa immediately with furniture, housekeeper, servants, and all the rest, and have them rent her a palace opposite the royal palace of Genoa and await her arrival. The shopkeeper loaded a ship and sent it off to Genoa.

  Catherine also took a brigantine and reached Genoa before the prince. She settled down in her new palace, and when the prince saw this beautiful young lady with her royal coiffure, jewels, and wealth, he exclaimed, “How much like Catherine the Wise she is, and also my wife in Naples!” He dispatched a messenger to her, and she sent back word she would be happy to receive the prince.

  They began talking. “Are you single?” asked the prince.

  “A widow,” answered Catherine. “And you?”

  “I’m a widower, with one son. By the way, you look just like a lady I used to know in Palermo, not to mention one I knew in Naples.”

  “Really? We all have seven doubles in the world, so they say.”

  Thus, to make a long story short, they became man and wife in one week’s time.

  Nine months later, Catherine gave birth to another boy, even handsomer than the first. The prince was happy. “Princess, what shall we call him?”

  “Genoa!” And so they named him Genoa.

  Two years went by, and the king grew restless once more.

  “You’re going off like that and leaving me with a child on my hands?” asked the princess.

  “I am drawing up a document for you,” the prince reassured her, “stating that this is my son and little prince.” While he made preparations to leave for Venice, Catherine wrote her father in Palermo for another brigantine with servants, housekeeper, furniture, new clothes and all. The brigantine sailed off to Venice. The prince departed on the frigate. The princess left on another brigantine and arrived before he did.

  “Heavens!” exclaimed the prince when he beheld the beautiful lady at her casement. “She too looks exactly like my wife in Genoa, who looked exactly like my wife in Naples, who looked exactly like Catherine the Wise! But how can this be? Catherine is in Palermo shut up in the pit, the Neapolitan is in Naples, the Genoese in Genoa, while this one is in Venice!” He sent a messenger to her and then went to meet her.

  “Would you believe, my lady, that you look like several other ladies I know—one in Palermo, one in Naples, one in Genoa—”

  “Indeed! We are supposed to have seven doubles in this life.”

  And thus they continued their customary talk. “Are you married?” “No, I’m a widow. And you?” “I am a widower, with two sons.” In a week’s time they were married.

  This time Catherine had a little girl, radiant like the sun and moon. “What shall we call her?” asked the prince.

  “Venice.” So they baptized her Venice.

  Two more years went by. “Listen, princess, I have to go back to Palermo. But first, I’m drawing up a doc
ument that spells out that this is my daughter and royal princess.”

  He departed, but Catherine reached Palermo first. She went to her father’s house, walked through the underground passage and back into the pit. As soon as the prince arrived, he ran and pulled up the trapdoor. “Catherine, how are you?”

  “Me? I’m fine!”

  “Are you sorry for that slap you gave me?”

  “Have you thought about the slap I owe you?”

  “Come, Catherine, say you’re sorry! Otherwise I’ll take another wife.”

  “Go right ahead! No one is stopping you!”

  “But if you say you’re sorry, I’ll take you back.”

  “No.”

  The prince then formally declared that his wife was dead and that he intended to remarry. He wrote all the kings for portraits of their daughters. The portraits arrived, and the most striking was of the king of England’s daughter. The prince summoned mother and daughter to conclude the marriage.

  The entire royal family of England arrived in Palermo, and the wedding was set for the morrow. What did Catherine do in the meantime but have three fine royal outfits readied for her three children—Naples, Genoa, and Venice. She dressed up like the queen she actually was, took the hand of Naples, clothed as crown prince, climbed into a ceremonial carriage, followed by Prince Genoa and Princess Venice, and they drove off to the palace.

  The wedding procession with the prince and the daughter of the king of England was approaching, and Catherine said to her children, “Naples, Genoa, Venice, go and kiss your father’s hand!” And the children ran up to kiss the prince’s hand.

  At the sight of them, the prince could only admit defeat. “This is the slap you were to give me!” he exclaimed, and embraced the children. The princess of England was dumbfounded; she turned her back on everybody and stalked off.

 
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