Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Catherine explained all the mystery to her husband about the ladies who looked so much alike, and the prince couldn’t apologize enough for what he had done.

  They lived happily ever after,

  While here we sit grinding our teeth.

  (Palermo)

  152

  The Ismailian Merchant

  A king went hunting with his men. The sky clouded up, and it began to pour down rain. The men ran off in every direction, and the king lost his way and took refuge in an isolated cottage.

  In the cottage lived an old man, whom the king asked, “Will you give me shelter?”

  “Come up to the fire and dry yourself, Majesty.”

  The king hung up his wet clothes and stretched out on a couch to sleep. In the night he awakened and heard the old man talking. Finding him nowhere in the house, he went to the door. The sky was clear once more, and the stars had come out. There sat the old man on the doorstep. “To whom are you talking, my good man?” asked the king.

  “I was talking to the planets, Majesty,” answered the old man.

  “What were you telling them?”

  “I was thanking them for the luck they have brought me.”

  “What luck, good man?”

  “They favored me by giving my wife a son tonight, and you too they have favored this same night by giving your wife a daughter. When my son grows up, he will become your daughter’s husband.”

  “You ill-bred old man! How dare you tell me such nonsense! You shall certainly pay for it!” He got dressed again, and at dawn took the road that led back to the palace.

  Along the way he was met by knights and valets who had come in search of him. “We have good tidings, Majesty! The queen gave birth last night to a fine baby girl!”

  The king rode to the royal palace, and the minute he dismounted, in the midst of all the court welcoming him and the nurses showing him the baby, he issued a decree: let all the baby boys born in the city last night be found and slain. Soldiers went through the city, which in an hour’s time they had thoroughly searched. Only one baby boy had been born during the night. They tore it away from its mother, by order of the king, and carried it off to the forest.

  The soldiers were two in number, and when they raised their sword over the baby, they were moved to pity. “Must we really put this innocent creature to death? There’s a dog; let’s kill it and smear its blood on the swaddling clothes, which we’ll take back to the king. We’ll leave the baby here, to the mercy of God.” They did just that, and the baby remained in the forest crying.

  An Ismailian merchant named Giumento happened along, on his way to trade his wares. He heard the child wailing, found him in the bushes, quieted him down, and took him home to his wife. “Wife, this time I bring back something I did not buy—a little baby I found in the middle of the forest. We have no children ourselves and now heaven has given us one.”

  They reared him and kept him with them up to his twentieth year, in all of which time he thought he was the merchant’s own son. On his twentieth birthday the merchant said, “My son, I am growing old and here you are a man now: take charge of my accounts, books, and coffers. You will look after all my trade abroad.”

  The youth packed boxes and suitcases and, accompanied by his servants, left home with the blessing of the merchant and his wife. He arrived in Spain, where news of such a rich merchant reached the royal palace. The king sent for him to come to the palace and show his jewels. Now the king of Spain was the very king who had ordered the baby killed. He called in the princess, who’d grown up to be a beautiful maiden of twenty, and said, “Come see if there’s some jewel here you like.”

  Seeing the young merchant, the princess fell in love with him.

  “What’s the matter, my daughter?”

  “Nothing, Papa.”

  “Do you want any of these things? Speak up.”

  “No, Papa, I desire neither jewels nor precious stones. I want this handsome youth for a husband.”

  The king looked at the merchant. “Tell me who you are.”

  “I am the son of Giumento, an Ismailian merchant. I’m traveling around the world to gain experience in trade, so I’ll be fit to succeed my old father.”

  Considering the vast wealth of the merchant, the king decided to give the youth his daughter in marriage. The boy returned home to invite his father and mother to the wedding. He told them about his meeting with the king and about the marriage engagement. At that, his mother turned pale and began reviling him. “You ungrateful man! So you intend to leave me, do you? You’ve fallen in love with this princess and can’t wait to leave home. Off with you, then, and don’t ever let me see you in this house again!”

  “But, Mother, what have I done to you?”

  “Don’t you ‘Mother’ me! I’m not your real mother, anyway!”

  “What! Then who is my mother, if you’re not?”

  “Goodness knows. You were found in the middle of a forest!” And she told the whole story to the poor boy, who almost fainted.

  In the face of his wife’s anger, Giumento the merchant was helpless. Deeply grieved, he supplied the youth with money and merchandise and let him go his way.

  In despair, the boy came to a forest at night. He threw himself on the ground under a tree and, pounding the earth with his fists, sighed. “Mother, Mother, what is there left for me to do, all alone and miserable. Lovely spirit of my mother, help me!”

  As he wept, there appeared beside him an old man in rags, with a long white beard. “What’s the matter, my son?” he asked. The youth opened up his heart to him, telling him how he couldn’t go back to his betrothed, having found out he was not the real son of the Ismailian merchant.

  “What are you afraid of?” said the old man. “Let’s go to Spain. I am your father, and I will help you.”

  The youth looked at the old man in rags and exclaimed, “You—my father? You’re imagining things!”

  “I assure you, my son, that I am your father. If you come with me, I will bring you prosperity. Otherwise you are doomed.”

  The young man looked him in the eye and said to himself, “Doomed in any case, what have I to lose by going along with him?” He took the old man onto his horse, and they eventually came to Spain.

  He went to the king, who asked, “Where is your father?”

  “Right here,” said the youth, pointing to the old man in rags.

  “That man? And you have the impudence to come and ask for my daughter’s hand?”

  “Majesty,” the old man cut in, “I am the old man who spoke with the planets and announced to you the birth of your daughter and of my son who would marry her. This boy here is none other than that son of mine.”

  The king was furious. “Get out, uncouth old man! Guards, seize him!”

  The guards came forward, at which the old man pulled open the rags covering his chest, and there gleamed the emperor’s Golden Fleece.

  “The emperor!” cried king and guards in unison.

  “May the Holy Crown forgive me!” said the king, kneeling at the emperor’s feet. “I knew not to whom I spoke. This is my daughter; do with her as you will.”

  The emperor was a man who had tired of court life, so he spent his days traveling about the world by himself in disguise, conversing with the stars and planets.

  Everyone hugged and kissed, and a date for the wedding was set. The Ismailian merchant and his wife were called to Spain, where the boy welcomed them with open arms, saying, “Mother and Father—for you were a real mother and father to me!—turning me out of the house was the making of me! Although I’m marrying the princess, you will remain with me always.”

  The two old people were moved to tears of love. The emperor’s son married the king’s daughter, and there was great rejoicing throughout the city.

  They lived happily ever after,

  While here we are picking our teeth.

  (Palermo)

  153

  The Thieving Dove

  Th
ere was once a king and queen’s daughter with such beautiful long hair that she would let no hairdresser touch it, but always combed and arranged it herself. One day while she was dressing her hair, she laid her comb down on the window ledge. A dove lit on the ledge, took the comb in his beak, and flew off with it.

  “Oh, my goodness! The dove has taken my comb off!” cried the princess, but by then the dove was already a good distance away.

  The next morning the princess was again at the window fixing her hair when the dove returned, seized her hair clasp, and flew off. The third day, she had no sooner done her hair and still had the cloth around her shoulders than down dipped the dove, grabbed hold of the cloth, and made off with it. This time the maiden, truly vexed, climbed down a silken ladder and ran after the dove. But instead of fleeing like all other doves, this one waited for her to approach, then took off only to light a little farther away. The maiden became more and more angry. By a series of short flights, the dove had advanced into the forest, with the princess right behind it. In the heart of the forest stood a solitary hut, and the dove flew inside. The door happened to be open, and the princess caught sight of a handsome youth, whom she asked, “Did you see a dove fly in carrying a cloth?”

  “Yes,” replied the young man, “I am that very dove.”

  “You?”

  “Yes.”

  “How can that be?”

  “The fairies have cast a spell over me, and I can’t go out in human guise until you have sat at the window of this hut for a year, a month, and a day, in sunlight and in starlight, with your eyes fixed on the mountain across the way, where I shall fly as a dove.”

  Without the least hesitation, the princess took a seat at the window. The dove flew off and came to rest on the mountain. One day went by, then another, then a third, and the princess kept her seat, her eyes trained on the mountain. Weeks passed, and the princess sat on through sunlight, moonlight, and starlight, as though she were made of wood. And little by little she turned dark, ever darker, until she was as black as pitch. Thus passed a year, a month, and a day, and the dove turned back into a man and came down the mountain. When he saw how black the princess had become, he exclaimed, “Phew! What a sight you are! Aren’t you ashamed to show yourself after becoming so ugly for the sake of a man? Off with you!” And he spit on her.

  The poor girl was mortified. She trudged off and, passing through a field and weeping, she meet three fairies.

  “What’s the matter?” asked the fairies.

  Weeping, she told them her story.

  “Don’t worry,” they said. “You won’t stay like that for long.” The first fairy stroked the girl on the face, and she was beautiful once again, but far more so than originally; now she was as radiant as the sun. The second fairy clothed her in an empress’s gown, while the youngest fairy presented her with a basket of jewels. “Now,” announced the fairies, “we will be with you at all times disguised as your maidservants.”

  Thus they set out and reached the city whose king happened to be that youth. In the twinkling of an eye, the fairies had a palace put up opposite the king’s, but a hundred times more beautiful than his. The king looked out, saw the wonder, and thought he was dreaming. At one of the windows appeared a girl who seemed to be an empress, and the king was charmed. “If he starts paying you court,” said the fairies, “encourage him.” The first day the king stared, the second day he winked, finally he asked if he might call on her. The first couple of times the princess said no, then at last, “Well, Majesty, if you want to visit me, you must prepare a landing stage from my balcony to yours—a carpet of rose petals two inches thick.”

  The king didn’t even let her finish before he’d given orders for the landing stage. Hundreds of women began picking roses, and picked and picked, pulling off petals by the bushels, a thing never before seen.

  When the landing stage of rose petals was ready, the fairies said to the princess, “Dress as a grand empress; we shall follow you as your ladies-in-waiting. When you are halfway across the landing stage, make believe you’ve been stuck by a thorn, and leave the rest to us.”

  The princess set forth on the rose petals, dressed in the pink gown of an empress. The king eagerly awaited her at the other end, but he was forbidden by the princess to set foot on the landing stage. Halfway across, she screamed, “I’m dying! A thorn has stuck me!” And she pretended to faint. The fairies picked her up and carried her back to her palace. The king wanted to run to her assistance, but was checked by the princess’s original order to stay off the landing stage.

  From his palace he could see doctors and chemists coming and going, and in the end even a priest came with the viaticum. The king alone was not allowed to go to her. It was rumored that the thorn had caused her legs to swell and that she was fast sinking. Forty days later it was learned that the malady had subsided and the empress was improving. When word went out that she was well, the king renewed his pleas for a meeting with her. So the fairies said to the girl, “Tell him you will visit him, but that you want a landing stage made of three inches of jasmine petals. And when you are halfway across, pretend to be stuck by another thorn.”

  At once the king had all the jasmine blossoms in the kingdom picked and made into a thick carpet. When all was ready, she started out dressed as an empress. At the other end the king watched with his heart in his mouth, lest she be pricked anew. Halfway across, she screamed, “Ouch! I’m dying! A thorn has gone through my foot!” She swooned, and her ladies picked her up in their arms and carried her back to the palace. The king tore out his hair.

  He sent his servants to her repeatedly, but there was no way to see her, much less cross the landing stage, and he knocked his head against the wall in desperation. He ended up sick in bed, but continued to send over messengers to find out how the empress was getting along. Finally he requested permission to come to her, sick as he was, since he wanted to ask for her hand in marriage.

  “Tell him,” replied the princess, “that I would approach him only if I saw him laid out in a coffin.”

  Receiving that answer, the king, who by now had lost his mind, had a coffin prepared with candles around it, and pretending to be dead had himself carried past the empress’s windows. “Behold, Majesty,” they said to her, “our dead king.”

  The maiden went to the balcony and said, “Phew! Down with you! You did all this for the sake of a woman?” And she spit on him.

  Hearing that, the king recalled what he had done to the good maiden as black as pitch, who he then realized wasn’t too different from the beautiful empress he had fallen in love with. All of a sudden it dawned on him that the black maiden and the empress were one and the same. You can imagine how upset he was! He almost changed from a false corpse into a real one.

  But the three ladies-in-waiting arrived and informed him their mistress was expecting him. The king went in and asked her forgiveness. The royal chapel was immediately opened, and they got married. The king was anxious to keep the three fairies with them, but they bid the couple farewell and departed.

  (Palermo)

  154

  Dealer in Peas and Beans

  Once upon a time in Palermo there was a certain Don Giovanni Misiranti, who at noon would dream of dinner and in the evening of supper, and at night he would dream of them both. One day when hunger was gnawing at his stomach, he went outside. “Oh, my luck!” he said to himself. “So you have left me!” Walking along, he spied a bean on the ground. He bent over and picked it up. Sitting down on a roadside post, he studied the bean and thought, What a fine bean! I’ll plant it in a pot at once, and a bean plant will come up, with lots of nice pods. I’ll dry the pods, then plant the beans in a basin and have many more pods . . . Between now and the next three years, I’ll lease a garden, plant the beans, and no telling how many will come up then! The fourth year I’ll rent a storehouse and become an important dealer . . .

  Meanwhile he had set off on foot again, and gone past St. Anthony’s Gate. There was a whole
row of stores, with a woman sitting before one of the entrances.

  “My good woman, are these stores for rent?”

  “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Who is interested?”

  “My master,” he replied. “Whom does one discuss the matter with?”

  “With the lady who lives upstairs.”

  Don Giovanni Misiranti began thinking, and went off to see a friend of his.

  “For St. John’s sake,” he said to his friend, “you mustn’t refuse me. Lend me one of your outfits for twenty-four hours.”

  “Of course, my friend.” So Don Giovanni Misiranti got all dressed up, down to gloves and watch. Then he went to a barber to be shaved and, now spruce, passed back through St. Anthony’s Gate. He had the bean in the pocket of his waistcoat and glanced at it every now and then on the sly. The woman was still sitting there, and he said, “My good woman, are you the one my servant asked about stores for rent?”

  “Yes, sir; have you come to look at them? Follow me, and I’ll take you to my master’s wife.”

  With his chest thrust out, Don Giovanni Misiranti followed the woman and introduced himself to the wife of the stores’ owner. Seeing a gentleman before her with all the accessories—hat, gloves, and gold watch chain—the lady made a big to-do over him, and then they began discussing the matter at hand. Right in the middle of their conversation, a lovely young lady entered the room. Wide-eyed, Don Giovanni Misiranti asked, “Is she related to you?”

  “She’s my daughter.”

  “Single?”

  “Yes, she’s still single.”

  “I’m happy to hear that. I too am single.”

  Shortly afterward, he said, “Now that we’ve reached an agreement on the stores, I think we ought to come to one regarding the daughter. What does the lady think?”

 
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