Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “Oh, my uncle, I didn’t know you had married!”

  “You didn’t? Now you do. And you’re invited to dine with us one week from today.”

  After extending the invitation, the prince got to thinking about it and was sorry he’d invited the young man. “There’s no telling how much we’ll have to spend now! How stupid I was to ask him to dinner!” But there was no getting out of it; he was going to have to plan for dinner.

  Then the prince got an idea. “Do you know what, princess? Meat is expensive, and we’ll go broke if we have to buy any. Instead of buying meat, I’ll go hunting and bring some back. I’ll take my gun and after five or sue days I’ll bring you lots of game without spending a cent.”

  “Yes, of course, prince,” she answered, “but be quick about it.”

  As soon as the prince was gone, the princess sent Joseph for a lock smith. “Sir,” she said to the locksmith, “make me a key right away to this trapdoor. I lost the one I had and now I can’t open the door.”

  In no time she had a key that fitted perfectly. She went underground and returned with a few sacks of doubloons. With that pile of money, she had all the rooms hung with tapestries. She bought furniture, chandeliers, portals, mirrors, carpets, and everything else they have in princes’ palaces; she even employed a doorman with livery from head to toe and a stick topped with a gold knob.

  The prince came back. “What on earth is this? Where is my house?” He rubbed his eyes, turned around and back, asking, “Where did it go?” And he kept on going round and round.

  “Excellency,” said the doorman, “what is Your Excellency seeking? Why not go inside?”

  “Could this be my house?”

  “If not, whose is it? Walk in, Excellency.”

  “Oh, my goodness!” exclaimed the prince, slapping his forehead. “Every cent of my money has gone into all these things! Wife!”

  He flew into the house, saw the white marble stairs and the tapestries on the walls. “Oh, my goodness, every cent! Wife!”

  He saw the mirrors and rich frames, sofas, divans, armchairs. “Oh, my goodness! Every cent! Wife!”

  He reached his bedroom and threw himself down on his bed.

  “What is the matter, prince?” asked his wife.

  “Oh, my goodness!” he exclaimed in a whisper, “every cent, wife . . . ”

  His wife quickly sent for a notary and four witnesses. The notary arrived and asked, “Prince, what is the matter? Tell me, do you want to make your will?”

  “Every cent . . . my wife . . . ”

  “What? How’s that again?”

  “Every cent . . . my wife . . . ”

  “You want to leave everything to your wife? Yes, I understand. Is this all right like this?”

  “Every cent . . . my wife . . . ”

  As the notary wrote, the prince gasped once or twice more, then gave up the ghost.

  The princess was his sole heir and married Master Joseph when she came out of mourning, and who should get the miser’s money in the end but the master swindler.




  Over and over it has been told that once upon a time there was a king and queen. Every time this queen had a baby, it was a girl. The king, who wanted a son, finally lost patience and said, “If you have one more girl, I shall kill it.”

  Just as she had feared, the poor wife ended up bearing another girl, but the prettiest child you ever saw. Lest her husband kill it, she said to its godmother, “Take this infant and do what you think best.”

  The godmother took it, saying to herself, “What am I to do with a baby girl?” She went into the country and laid it upon a wormwood bush.

  There in the country lived a hermit. In his cave he had a doe suckling some newborn fawns. Every day the doe would go outside for something to eat. One evening when she returned to the cave, the fawns attempted to suckle, but the doe’s udder was empty and the fawns went hungry. The same thing happened the next day, and the next, and the fawns were starving to death. Feeling sorry for them, the hermit followed the doe and discovered that she was going out every day to nurse a baby girl nestled in a wormwood bush. The hermit picked up the baby and carried her into the cave. He told the doe, “Nurse her here and divide your milk between her and your fawns.”

  The baby was gradually weaned and grew by leaps and bounds. The older she got, the lovelier she became. She did the hermit’s housework, and the hermit came to cherish her as if she had been his very own daughter.

  One day another king was out hunting, when right in the middle of everything a fierce storm came up; the wind blew, there was thunder and lightning, and it poured rain. The only available shelter was the hermit’s cave. Seeing the king come in soaking wet, the hermit called, “Wormwood! Wormwood! Bring a chair, light the fire, and make His Majesty comfortable!”

  “Wormwood?” said the king. “What kind of name is that, good hermit?”

  So the hermit told of finding the child in a wormwood bush and naming her after it.

  The minute he laid eyes on the girl, the king said, “Hermit, would you like to give her to me to take back to the palace? You are old; how can this child stay by herself like that in the country? I will provide her with teachers who will instruct her . . . ”

  “Majesty,” replied the hermit, “I am devoted to the child, so for her own good I’m happy for her to go to the palace. The education Your Majesty is able to offer her is a far cry from what a poor hermit could give her.”

  The king bid the hermit goodbye, took Wormwood onto his horse, and rode away with her. At the palace he entrusted her to two noble ladies. Once he was thoroughly acquainted with the girl’s merits, he said, “The best I can do by her is marry her and make her queen.” He married her, and Wormwood became the realm’s queen.

  The king was madly in love with her. One day he said, “Wormwood, I am obliged to go away for a while. No matter how short a time I’ll be away, it pains me more than I could ever say to leave you.”

  The king departed. One evening outside the kingdom, he found himself in the company of princes and knights, and each man began singing the praises of his own wife. “Go on, boast all you want,” said the king, “but none of you could have a wife as wonderful as mine.”

  At that, one of the knights turned to him. “Majesty, I bet that if I went to Palermo in your absence, I could make time with your wife.”

  “Impossible!” replied the king. “Totally impossible!”

  “Shall we bet on it?” urged the knight.

  “Let’s,” answered the king.

  They agreed on the stakes: a fief. They agreed on the length of time: one month. Then the knight departed. In Palermo he strolled day and night under the windows of the royal palace. The days went by without his getting so much as a glimpse of the queen: the windows were always shut.

  Then one day as he was walking there, quite downcast, an old woman approached, begging for alms. “Get away from here,” he said, “don’t bother me!”

  “What’s troubling you, sir, and making you so gloomy?”

  “Get away, let me alone!”

  “Tell me what’s bothering you, sir; maybe I can help you.”

  So the knight told her about the bet and his desire to enter the palace, or at least to find out what the queen looked like.

  “Put your mind at rest, sir; I’ll see to everything.”

  The old woman packed a basket with eggs and fruit, went to the palace, and asked to speak to the queen. When she was alone with the queen, she embraced her and whispered in her ear, “My daughter, you don’t know me, but I’m a relative of yours, and it gives me joy to bring you these few things.”

  The queen was unacquainted with her relatives; for all she knew, the old woman could have been one. She therefore trusted her, invited her to live at the palace, and ordered everyone to respect her. At any hour of the day or night the old woman was allowed to go in and out of the queen’s room and do whatever she ple

  One day while the queen was sleeping, the old woman entered her room. She approached the bed, peeped under the cover, and saw that the queen’s bare back was graced by a very beautiful mole. Then with a pair of scissors the old woman cut the tiny hairs sprouting from the mole and put them away, after which she left the palace, quite pleased with herself. When the knight had these hairs in his possession and heard the old woman’s description of the queen, he could no longer contain himself for joy. He rewarded the old woman with a goodly sum of money and departed. On the appointed day he went before the king and the other knights, who were quite anxious to know who would win the bet. The knight spoke: “Majesty, I apologize for what I’m about to tell you. Is it true, or isn’t it, that your wife is such and such—” and he gave a minute description of her face.

  “That is correct,” replied the king, “but that proves nothing. You could have heard those things without ever actually seeing her in the flesh.”

  “In that case, Majesty, listen carefully: is it true, or isn’t it, that your wife has a mole on her left shoulder?”

  The king turned pale. “Well, yes.”

  The knight handed the king a locket. “Majesty, I hate to tell you, but here is proof that I have won the bet”—and with trembling hands the king opened the locket and saw the hairs from the queen’s mole. He hung his head in silence.

  Without delay the king returned to his palace. Happy to see him back after such a long absence, the queen came out to meet him, laughing. The king neither greeted nor embraced her. He ordered horses harnessed to a carriage and said to his wife, “Climb up,” while he too climbed up and sat beside her, taking the reins himself.

  Bewildered, the queen looked at him with apprehension, but the king didn’t open his mouth. When they reached the foot of Mount Pellegrino, the king reined in the horses and said “Get down.” The queen alighted and the king, without dismounting, dealt her a resounding blow with his whip that knocked her down. Then he whipped the horses to a gallop and disappeared from sight.

  That day a doctor and his wife were on their way up to the Sanctuary of St. Rosalie, in fulfillment of a vow made before the birth of their son. Bringing up the rear was their Moorish slave, Ali. When they got to the foot of Mount Pellegrino they heard the sound of moaning. “Who can it be?” said the doctor. Going in the direction of the moans, they found a young woman lying on the ground, wounded and half dead. The doctor bandaged her up the best he could and said to his wife, “Let’s put off our trip until another day and try to help this young woman. We’ll carry her home and see if we can cure her.”

  That they did. Lodged and nursed by the doctor and his wife, the young woman got well. But no matter how many questions they put to her, she refused to talk about her past or say how her misfortune had come about. In spite of that, the doctor’s wife, pleased over finding a young woman so good and virtuous, grew quite fond of her and engaged her as a maid.

  One day the doctor said to his wife, “Dear, it is time we fulfilled our promise to St. Rosalie. We’ll leave our little girl with the maid and depart with Ali.”

  The next morning they left early, while the maid and the little girl were still sleeping. After going a short distance, Ali slapped his forehead. “Master, Ali forget! No basket lunch!”

  “Go back at once and get it!” said his master. “We’ll wait for you here.”

  Now this slave, seeing how his owners had taken such a liking to the maid, had developed a mortal hatred for the poor young woman. Forgetting the lunch basket was a mere pretext. Running back home, he found the young woman and the child still sleeping. He approached with a butcher knife and slit the little girl’s throat. Then he rejoined his owners.

  When the young woman awakened she felt herself drenched with blood, then saw the child with its throat slit next to her. “Oh, my heavens!” she screamed. “Those poor, poor parents! Woe is me! What will I ever tell them?” In a panic, she opened a small window through which she fled into the countryside, running as fast as her legs would carry her. She came to a desolate plain, in the middle of which stood an old palace in partial ruin. The young woman entered it, but there was not a living soul in sight. She spied an old dilapidated sofa on which she sank down and promptly fell asleep, exhausted from fright and running.

  Let us leave the young woman sleeping and turn back to that king who didn’t want any daughters. In time his wife revealed that the daughter she had borne was not dead but had been entrusted to her godmother and heard from no more. The king couldn’t rest after hearing that, and one day he said, “My wife, I’m leaving home and will return only when I have news of my daughter.” After traveling far, he was overtaken by night on a desolate plain. He saw an old palace in partial ruin and went inside.

  Let us leave this father in search of his daughter and go back to that king who had abandoned his wife at the foot of Mount Pellegrino. The more he thought about it, the more he was assailed with misgivings and remorse. “What if that knight was lying? What if my wife was actually innocent? Could she still be alive? Could she be dead by now? Here in this palace without her there’s no peace for me. I shall go to the four corners of the globe and return only when I’ve had some news of her.”

  After traveling far, he was overtaken by night on a desolate plain. He saw an old palace in partial ruin and went inside. Another king was already there resting in an armchair. He took a seat nearby.

  Let us leave that king and take up the doctor. Back from his pilgrimage, he entered his house expecting to see his little girl; instead, he found the house deserted and the child slain. His first impulse was to go and say to the slave, “Ali, we’ll go after that wicked woman, to the ends of the earth if necessary, and we’ll slay her the way she murdered our little girl.”

  So he set out. On a deserted plain night overtook him in the vicinity of an old palace in partial ruin. He entered and found two kings sitting in armchairs side by side. The doctor and Ali sat down in the two armchairs opposite them. So they sat, all four of them silent, each one lost in his own thoughts.

  In the middle of the room was a lantern, which said, “I want oil.”

  Then into the room walked a little oil cruet, which said to the lantern, “Come on down lower.”

  The lantern let himself down, and the cruet poured oil into him. Then the cruet said to the lantern, “Have you anything of interest to tell me?”

  “What would you like to hear? Yes, there is something that might interest you.”

  “Tell me.”

  “Listen,” began the lantern, “there was a king who, wishing no more daughters, told his wife that if one more girl were born to her, he would kill the baby. To save the child, the wife had her whisked away. Listen to this: the child grew up and married a king. This king, misled by a knight, took her to Mount Pellegrino, struck her, and left her lying unconscious on the ground. A doctor came that way and heard a groan . . . ”

  Bit by bit as the lantern advanced in the story, the men seated in the armchairs looked up one by one, opened their eyes wide, and nearly jumped out of their seats at all they heard, while Ali shook like a leaf.

  “Just listen to this,” pursued the lantern. “What should the doctor and his wife see when they approached but a lovely young woman lying wounded on the ground. He took her home and later entrusted his little girl to her care. There was a slave who loathed the young woman, so what did he do but kill the little girl and make the blame fall on the young woman . . . ”

  “Poor young woman!” sighed the cruet. “And where is she now? Is she living or dead?”

  “Sh . . . ” said the lantern. “She’s upstairs sleeping on a sofa. Here are her father the king and her husband the king who, regretful of the evil turns they have done her, are both out looking for her. And there’s the doctor seeking to kill her, thinking she murdered his baby.”

  The father king and the husband king and the doctor had risen. The doctor immediately seized Ali, just barely in time to prevent his escape. Al
l three of them fell on him and tore him apart.

  Then they ran upstairs and knelt before the couch on which Wormwood was sleeping.

  “She’s mine!” said the father king. “She’s my daughter!”

  “She’s mine!” said the husband king. “She’s my wife!”

  “She’s mine!” said the doctor. “I saved her life!”

  In the end she went to the king who was her husband. He invited her father and the doctor to the palace for a gala celebration of her return, and from then on they were all one happy family.



  The King of Spain and the English Milord

  A king said to his son on the boy’s eighteenth birthday, “Time is going by, old age is drawing nigh. Why don’t you take a wife? If we die, who will inherit the kingdom?”

  The son was not overly impressed by these words, and he said to his father, “We still have much time to think about that, Father.”

  But the king continued dropping hints to his son about getting married, until the son shut him up by replying, “Father, please understand that I will marry only when I’ve found a girl as white as ricotta and rosy as a rose.”

  At that, the king summoned his councilors. “Gentlemen, I have the honor to inform you that the prince will take a wife when he finds a maiden as white as ricotta and rosy as a rose. What is your advice?”

  The wise councilors replied, “Majesty, select a few of your grandees, supply each with a portrait painter, servants, coachmen, lackeys, and all the rest, and send them around the world in search of this maiden. At the end of a year’s time it will be incumbent upon the prince to marry the best one among the maidens they find.”

  So the grandees set out from the court, each with a master painter and a battery of servants, coachmen, and lackeys. One went to one kingdom, another to another, and they visited all the kingdoms of the earth.

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