Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “My sister, Majesty.”

  The king looked at the portrait and saw such a beautiful maiden that he could not help but be impressed. Her brother then proceeded to relate all her charms.

  But also present was the squire, who could never resist putting Don Giuseppe in the wrong. He glanced over the king’s shoulder at the portrait and snorted, “Who, this woman? But I know her and have had dealings with the same.”

  “With my sister?” exclaimed the youth. “But she’s never been out of doors! How could you have seen her when no one else has ever laid eyes on her?”

  “Yes, I have had to do with your sister.”

  “Liar!”

  After much arguing back and forth, the king interrupted them. “Let the matter be settled once and for all: if it is true, Squire, that you have had to do with Don Giuseppe’s sister, then you have one month to bring in proof of it. If you produce it, Don Giuseppe will be beheaded. Prove nothing and you will be beheaded.”

  It was a royal order, and final. The squire departed. When he reached Palermo, he began sounding out everybody on this maiden, and they all said she was a rare beauty, but that no one had ever seen her, since she never left the house. Days and days went by, and every day the squire could feel the ax a little closer to his neck. He was thus walking around one evening wringing his hands and saying, “What can I possibly do?” when an old woman approached him. “Please give me something, kind Sir, I’m starving!”

  “Off with you, cursed hag!”

  “Give me something, and I will help you.”

  “I’d like to see the person who could help me right now!”

  “Tell me the trouble, and I’ll help you.”

  So the squire told her everything.

  “What! Is that all? Leave everything to me and consider youself already in possession of the needed evidence.”

  It poured down rain that night, and there was much lightning and thunder. The old woman leaned against the front door, shivering with cold and pitifully weeping. At the sound of her wails, the mistress of the house, who was none other than Don Giuseppe’s sister, said, “Poor old thing! Bring her inside!”

  The front door was opened, and the old woman stepped inside all huddled up. “Brrrrrrrr! I’m freezing to death!”

  The lady immediately seated her at the fireside and had food served to her. Sly as could be, the old woman took in everything, noting in which room the mistress slept. When the mistress at last went off to bed and, exhausted by the long evening of stormy weather, fell asleep, the old woman tiptoed into her bedchamber, lifted the covers, and gazed at the maiden from head to foot. On her right shoulder grew three little hairs that were like three golden threads. With a tiny pair of scissors the old woman snipped them and tied them up in the corner of her handkerchief. Then she drew the covers back over the maiden and quietly returned to her own bed.

  She huddled up again and started wailing anew. “I can’t get my breath! I can’t stay here any longer, let me out!”

  The mistress of the house woke up and said to her maid, “Let that old woman out, or none of us will get a wink of sleep.”

  The squire was walking up and down in front of the palace. The old woman gave him the three hairs and walked away with a handsome reward. The next day the squire sailed back to Spain.

  “Majesty,” he said, going before the king, “here is the sign of Don Giuseppe’s sister! Three gold hairs from her right shoulder!”

  “Woe is me!” said Don Giuseppe, covering his face with his hands.

  “Now I will give you a month’s time: defend yourself, or the sentence will be carried out. Guards!”

  The guards came forth, surrounded the secretary, and marched him off to prison, where he was given one slice of bread and one glass of water daily. But the jailer, seeing what a good person the prisoner was, began smuggling to him the same food as the other prisoners received. What pained Don Giuseppe most of all, however, was that he couldn’t write his sister a single line. He finally appealed to the jailer. “Would you grant me a favor? Would you allow me to write my sister a note, and then post it yourself?”

  The jailer had a big heart and said, “Go ahead.” So Don Giuseppe wrote his sister, telling her everything that had happened and how he was about to be beheaded on her account. The jailer took the letter and posted it.

  The sister, who, having received no word from her brother up to now, was worried, and anxiously read the letter. “My dear little brother!” she cried. “How could such misfortune have befallen us?” She began thinking how she could help him.

  She sold all their possessions and property, and with the proceeds bought as many fine jewels as she could. Then she went to a skillful goldsmith and said, “Make me a beautiful boot set with all my jewels.” Next, she ordered a mourning dress of solid black, and set sail for Spain.

  Upon her arrival in Spain she heard the sound of trumpets, and what should she see but soldiers leading a man blindfolded to the scaffold. Wearing her long black dress, with only a stocking on one foot and the marvelous boot on the other, she began running through the crowd crying, “Have mercy, Your Majesty! Have mercy!”

  For this beautiful lady dressed in black, with one foot so magnificently shod and the other one bare, everyone made way. The king heard her. “Don’t lay a hand on her,” he said to the soldiers. “What is the matter?” he asked her.

  “Have mercy, Majesty, and justice be done! Have mercy, Majesty, and justice be done!”

  “It is granted. Speak!”

  “Majesty, your squire, after enjoying my person, stole my boot that formed a pair with this one”—and she showed the boot set with diamonds and other precious stones.

  The king was dumbfounded. He turned to the squire. “And you were able to do such a deed! After taking your pleasure with this young woman, you stole her boot! And you now have the nerve to stand before me!”

  The squire fell into the trap. He replied, “But, Majesty, I never saw this lady before!”

  “What do you mean you never saw me! Be careful what you say!”

  “I swear I never saw you before!”

  “If that is so, then why did you claim to have had dealings with me?”

  “When did I ever say that?”

  “When you swore you had known the sister of Don Giuseppe, so as to send him to his death!”—whereupon she made herself known to the king.

  The squire was forced to confess his fraud. Seeing the sister’s innocence, the king ordered Don Giuseppe freed and brought to his side, while the squire was blindfolded and led to the scaffold. Brother and sister embraced, weeping for joy. “Off with his head!” ordered the king, and the squire was beheaded then and there. The king returned to the palace with the brother and sister and, seeing how beautiful and virtuous she was, he asked her to marry him.

  They were as happy as happy could be,

  While here we sit, picking our teeth.

  (Palermo)

  160

  The Left-Hand Squire

  Once, it is told, there was a king of Spain who had a left-hand squire and a right-hand squire. The left-hand squire was married to a “Madonna,” so beautiful, gracious, and modest was she. In all the time he had been at court, the right-hand squire had never laid eyes on that beautiful countenance, and was half angry over this.

  He took to telling the king, “Majesty, you can’t imagine what a handsome wife the left-hand squire has! A magnificent lady indeed, Majesty!”

  On another day, he said, “Majesty, this morning I caught a glimpse of your squire’s wife, and the sight left me speechless. There simply aren’t words to tell you how lovely she is!”

  And still another time. “Would you believe, Majesty, that the left-hand squire’s lady grows lovelier all the time?”

  Overnight the king was filled with desire to see this beauty for himself. He mounted his horse and rode with his knights up to the left-hand squire’s palace. At that very moment the lady happened to be at the window. The king felt hi
s heart skip several beats. He looked at her as they rode by, but that was all he could do, since it was unfitting for a king to stop and stare up at a window, lest the people gossip. He came back by the palace on his way home, but the lady, modest soul that she was, had withdrawn from the window. Unable to let matters rest, the king went home to his palace and ordered no one to leave it until his return: he had got the bright idea of calling on the lady while her husband was under orders to stay inside the royal palace.

  He dressed up as a soldier and went to the left-hand squire’s palace. He rang the bell, and the door was answered by the maid, who asked, “What do you wish?”

  “I must speak to the lady of the house.”

  “What do you wish of my lady?”

  “I have to talk to her.”

  “My lady is resting and cannot receive you.”

  “I shall come inside anyway.”

  “No, you cannot.” She gave him a shove and was about to shut the door in his face, when the king unbuckled his soldier-jacket and showed her the Royal Fleece.

  The maid fell to her knees. “Pardon me, Majesty! I did not recognize you!”

  “That is all right,” replied the king. “You prove that you are a faithful maidservant. Now I wish you merely to let me look on the princess’s face, and I will leave.”

  “Of course, Majesty”—and on tiptoe she led him to where her lady was resting. She was in a deep sleep, when one’s face becomes rosier, and the king grew weak in the knees at the beautiful sight. He removed one of his gloves, laid it on the canopy, and reached out to caress her; but he checked himself in time.

  He stood there contemplating her to his heart’s content, then all of a sudden turned away and departed.

  When the king got home, the knights and all the court were free to leave. The left-hand squire returned to his house and went to his wife. What should meet his eye as he entered the bedchamber but the glove the king had placed on the canopy and forgotten. The squire might just as well have beheld the Devil. From that day forward, he no longer looked at his wife.

  The poor lady, innocent as a lamb, knew not what to make of this change of heart in her husband and, keeping to herself and never complaining, she grew thin and wrinkled.

  Her maidservant would say, “My lady, wherefore are you always sad and alone, while other ladies go to balls and the theater?”

  One day that evil-hearted right-hand squire chanced to walk by the left-hand squire’s residence, and whom should he see on the balcony but the poor princess, now thin as a rail. Even this evil-hearted man was moved to pity and told the king about it. “Would you believe, Majesty, the once exquisitely beautiful wife of the left-hand squire has fallen off and faded beyond recognition.”

  The king grew thoughtful and, after much pondering, slapped his forehead. “Oh, dear, what have I done!”

  Two days later, he gave orders for a court banquet. Every knight was to bring his wife or, if unmarried, his sister or some other lady of his household. The left-hand squire had no choice but to take his wife, since he had neither sister nor anyone else he could bring. He summoned the maidservant and instructed her to tell his wife to get herself the most beautiful outfit conceivable, sparing no expense, since she was invited to the banquet at the court.

  At the banquet, the lady was seated beside her husband, who sat on the king’s left. The king proceeded to ask his guests about their life, questioning everyone except his left-hand squire and the squire’s wife. At last he turned to her. “And how have you spent your life, my lady?”

  Softly, the poor lady replied in verse:

  “A vine was I, a vine am I;

  He pruned me once, though now no more.

  I know not why

  My master tends his vine no more.”

  Then the squire answered her:

  “A vine were you, a vine are you yet;

  I pruned you once, though now no more.

  The reason is the lion’s threat,

  And thus your master tends his vine no more.”

  The king realized that the vine was the lady, who had been deserted by her husband upon finding the glove on the canopy. Now aware of all the harm his curiosity had wrought, he said:

  “About this vine of which you speak:

  I raised its leaves and saw the stalk,

  But touched it not,

  To keep my crown from blot;

  I swear by it the truth to speak.”

  Now one knows that when kings swear by their crown, they are taking the gravest of oaths, so when the squire heard that his wife was innocent, he was utterly speechless.

  After the banquet, the king took the couple aside and told them how the glove had found its way to the lady’s bed, and he thus concluded his account. “I admired the maidservant’s fidelity to her lady and, even more, the integrity of this lady who never looked at any man but her husband. Forgive me for all the grief I have caused you.”

  (Palermo)

  161

  Rosemary

  There was once a king and queen who had no children. Strolling in the garden one day, the queen noticed a rosemary bush with many seedlings growing around it, and said, “Just look at that! A mere rosemary bush has all those children, while I am a queen and childless!”

  Not long afterward, the queen herself became a mother. But she was delivered not of a baby, but a rosemary bush! She planted it in an exquisite pot and watered it with milk.

  They received a visit from a nephew of theirs, who was the king of Spain. “Royal aunt,” he asked, “what plant is this?”

  “Royal nephew,” replied his aunt, “that is my daughter, and I water her four times daily with milk.”

  The nephew was so charmed with the plant that he planned to steal it. He took it, pot and all, and carried it aboard his yacht, purchased a nanny goat for milk, and ordered the anchors raised. During the voyage he milked the goat and fed the rosemary plant four times a day. When he disembarked at his city, he had the bush planted in his garden.

  This youthful king of Spain loved to play the flute, and every day he circled through the garden playing and dancing. As he played and danced, a comely maiden with long hair emerged from the rosemary foliage and began dancing beside him.

  “Where do you come from?” he asked her.

  “From the rosemary bush,” she answered.

  When the dance was done, she disappeared into the rosemary foliage and was seen no more. From that day forward, the king would rush through all his official business to go into the garden with his flute. He would play, and the lovely maiden would come out of the rosemary bush; they would dance and converse, holding hands.

  At the height of the romance, war was declared against the king, and he had to go off to battle. “Rosemary, my dear,” he said, “do not come out of your plant until I return. When I get back I will play three notes on the flute, and then you can come out.”

  He summoned the gardener and instructed him to water the rosemary bush four times a day with milk. He added that if he found the plant withered upon his return, the gardener would be beheaded. With that, he was off.

  Now the king had three sisters, girls with much curiosity, who had been wondering for some time why their brother spent hours on end in the garden with his flute. While he was away at war, they proceeded to inspect his bedchamber and found the flute. They picked it up and carried it to the garden. The oldest girl tried to play it and drew forth one note. The second girl took the instrument from her hands, blew, and produced another note. Then the youngest, in her turn, also sounded one note. Hearing the three notes and believing the king to be back, Rosemary jumped out of the bush. “Ah!” exclaimed the sisters. “Now we understand why our brother spent all his time in the garden!” Malicious girls that they were, they caught hold of the maiden and beat her unmercifully. All but dead, the poor thing fled back to the rosemary bush and out of sight.

  When the gardener came by, he found the shrub partially withered, with its leaves fading and drooping. “Wo
e is me! Now what will I do when the king returns?” He ran inside his house and said to his wife, “Farewell, I must flee for my life. Water the rosemary with milk”—and he was gone.

  Mile after mile the gardener walked through the countryside, finding himself in a forest when night fell. Fearful of wild animals, he climbed a tree. At midnight, beneath the tree, a dragon-woman and a dragon-man had agreed to meet. Cold chills went over the gardener crouched in the treetop as he listened to their fierce snorting.

  “What’s new?” asked the dragon-woman.

  “What do you expect?” answered the dragon-man.

  “Don’t you ever have anything of interest to tell me?”

  “As a matter of fact, I do: the king’s rosemary bush has withered.”

  “How did that happen?”

  “Well, the king went off to war, his sisters started playing his flute, and out of the rosemary came the enchanted girl. The sisters all but killed her with their blows. So the bush is withering away.”

  “And there’s no way to save it?”

  “Yes, there is a way . . . ”

  “Tell me.”

  “It’s not something to be repeated; the trees around us have eyes and ears.”

  “Go on, tell me. Who could be out here listening in the middle of the forest?”

  “Well, I’ll tell you this secret: one would have to take the blood from my windpipe and the fat from the nape of your neck and boil them together in a pot, then grease the whole rosemary bush with the solution. The shrub will dry up completely, but the girl will emerge well and healthy.”

 
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