Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  All of which goes to show that the people of Pocapaglia were not the dunces they were said to be, and that the proverb,

  In Pocapaglian ways

  The donkey whistles, the master brays,

  merely reflected the malicious grudge the neighboring townspeople bore the Pocapaglians for their peaceful ways and their reluctance to quarrel with anyone.

  “Yes, yes,” was all the Pocapaglians would reply, “but just wait until Masino returns, and you will see who brays more, we or you.”

  Everybody in Pocapaglia loved Masino, the smartest boy in town. He was no stronger physically than anybody else; in fact, he even looked rather puny. But he had always been very clever. Concerned over how little he was at birth, his mother had bathed him in warm wine to keep him alive and make him a little stronger. His father had heated the wine with a red-hot horseshoe. That way Masino absorbed the subtlety of wine and the endurance of iron. To cool him off after his bath, his mother cradled him in the shell of an unripened chestnut; it was bitter and gave him understanding.

  At the time the Pocapaglians were awaiting the return of Masino, whom no one had seen since the day he went off to be a soldier (and who was now most likely somewhere in Africa), strange things started happening in Pocapaglia. Every evening as the cattle came back from pasture in the plain below, an animal was whisked away by Micillina the Witch.

  The witch would hide in the woods at the foot of the hill, and all she needed to do was give one hearty puff, and she had herself an ox. When the farmers heard her steal through the thicket after dark, their teeth would chatter, and everyone would fall down in a swoon. That became so common that people took to saying:

  Beware of Micillina, that old witch,

  For all your oxen she will filch,

  Then train on you her crossèd-eye,

  And wait for you to fall and die.

  At night they began lighting huge bonfires to keep Micillina the Witch from venturing out of the woods. But she would sneak up on the solitary farmer watching over cattle beside the bonfire and knock him out in one breath. In the morning upon awaking, he’d find cows and oxen gone, and his friends would hear him weeping and moaning and hitting himself on the head. Then everybody combed the woods for traces of the stolen cattle, but found only tufts of hair, hairpins, and footprints left here and there by Micillina the Witch.

  Things went from bad to worse. Shut up all the time in the barn, the cows grew as thin as rails. A rake instead of a brush was all that was needed to groom them, from rib to rib. Nobody dared lead the cattle to pasture any more. Everyone stayed clear of the woods now, and the mushrooms that grew there went unpicked and got as big as umbrellas.

  Micillina the Witch was not tempted to plunder other towns, knowing full well that calm and peace-loving people were to be found only in Pocapaglia. There the poor farmers lit a big bonfire every night in the town square, while the women and children locked themselves indoors. The men sat around the fire scratching their heads and groaning. Day after day they scratched and groaned until a decision was finally reached to go to the count for help.

  The count lived high above the town on a large circular estate surrounded by a massive wall. The top of the wall was encrusted with sharp bits of glass. One Sunday morning all the townsmen arrived, with hats in hand. They knocked, the door swung open, and they filed into the courtyard before the count’s round dwelling, which had bars at all the windows. Around the courtyard sat the count’s soldiers smoothing their mustaches with oil to make them shine and scowling at the farmers. At the end of the courtyard, in a velvet chair, sat the count himself with his long black beard, which four soldiers were combing from head to foot.

  The oldest farmer took heart and said, “Your Honor, we have dared come to you about our misfortune. As our cattle go into the woods, Micillina the Witch appears and makes off with them.” So, amid sighs and groans, with the other farmers nodding in assent, he told the count all about their nightmare.

  The count remained silent.

  “We have come here,” said the old man, “to be so bold as to ask Your Honor’s advice.”

  The count remained silent.

  “We have come here,” he added, “to be so bold as to ask Your Honor to help us. If you assigned us an escort of soldiers, we could again take our cattle down to pasture.”

  The count shook his head. “If I let you have the soldiers,” he said, “I must also let you have the captain . . . . ”

  The farmers listened, hardly daring to hope.

  “But if the captain is away in the evening,” said the count, “who can I play lotto with?”

  The farmers fell to their knees. “Help us, noble count, for pity’s sake!” The soldiers around the courtyard yawned and stroked their mustaches.

  Again the count shook his head and said:

  I am the count and I count for three;

  No witch have I seen,

  So, no witch has there been.

  At those words and still yawning, the soldiers picked up their guns and, with bayonets extended, moved slowly toward the farmers, who turned and filed silently out of the courtyard.

  Back in the town square and completely discouraged, the farmers had no idea what to do next. But the senior of them all, the one who had spoken to the count, said, “There’s nothing left to do but send for Masino!”

  So they wrote Masino a letter and sent it to Africa. Then one evening, while they were all gathered around the bonfire as usual, Masino returned. Imagine the welcome they gave him, the embraces, the pots of hot, spiced wine! “Where on earth have you been? What did you see? If you only knew what we have been going through!”

  Masino let them have their say, then he had his. “In Africa I saw cannibals who ate not men but locusts; in the desert I saw a madman who had let his fingernails grow twelve meters long to dig for water; in the sea I saw a fish with a shoe and a slipper who wanted to be king of the other fish, since no other fish possessed shoe or slipper; in Sicily I saw a woman with seventy sons and only one kettle; in Naples I saw people who walked while standing still, since the chatter of other people kept them going; I saw sinners and I saw saints; I saw fat people and people no bigger than mites; many, many frightened souls did I see, but never so many as here in Pocapaglia.”

  The farmers hung their heads in shame, for Masino had hit a sensitive spot in suggesting they were cowards. But Masino was not cross with his fellow townsmen. He asked for a detailed account of the witch’s doings, then said, “Let me ask you three questions, and at the stroke of midnight I’ll go out and catch the witch and bring her back to you.”

  “Let’s hear your questions! Out with them!” they all said.

  “The first question is for the barber. How many people came to you this month?”

  The barber replied:

  “Long beards, short beards,

  Fine beards, coarse beards,

  Locks straight, locks curly,

  All I trimmed in a hurry.”

  “Your turn now, cobbler. How many people brought you their old shoes to mend this month?”

  “Alas!” began the cobbler:

  “Shoes of wood, shoes of leather,

  Nail by nail I hammered back together,

  Mended shoes of satin and shoes of serpent.

  But there’s nothing left to do,

  All their money is spent.”

  “The third question goes to you, rope maker. How much rope did you sell this month?”

  The rope maker replied:

  “Rope galore of every sort I sold:

  Hemp rope, braided, wicker, cord,

  Needle-thin to arm-thick,

  Lard-soft to iron-strong . . .

  This month I couldn’t go wrong.”

  “Very well,” said Masino, stretching out by the fire. “I’m now going to sleep for a few hours, I’m very tired. Wake me up at midnight and I’ll go after the witch.” He put his hat over his face and fell asleep.

  The farmers kept perfectly quiet until
midnight, not even daring to breathe, for fear of awaking him. At midnight Masino shook himself, yawned, drank a cup of mulled wine, spat three times into the fire, got up without looking at a soul, and headed for the woods.

  The farmers stayed behind watching the fire burn down and the last embers turn to ashes. Then, whom should Masino drag in by the beard but the count! A count that wept, kicked, and pleaded for mercy.

  “Here’s the witch!” cried Masino, and asked, “Where did you put the mulled wine?”

  Beneath the farmers’ amazed stares, the count tried to make himself as small as possible, sitting on the ground and shrinking up like a cold-bitten fly.

  “The thief could have been none of you,” explained Masino, “since you had all gone to the barber and had no hair to lose in the bushes. Then there were those tracks made by big heavy shoes, but all of you go barefoot. Nor could the thief have been a ghost, since he wouldn’t have needed to buy all that cord to tie up the animals and carry them away. But where is my mulled wine?”

  Shaking all over, the count tried to hide in that beard of his which Masino had tousled and torn in pulling him out of the bushes.

  “How did he ever make us faint by just looking at us?” asked one farmer.

  “He would smite you on the head with a padded club. That way you would hear only a whir. He’d leave no mark on you, you’d simply wake up with a headache.”

  “And those hairpins he lost?” asked another.

  “They were used to hold his beard up on his head and make it look like a woman’s hair.”

  Until then the farmers had listened in silence, but when Masino said, “And now, what shall we do with him?” a storm of shouts arose: “Burn him! Skin him alive! String him up for a scarecrow! Seal him in a cask and roll him down the cliff! Sew him up in a sack with six cats and six dogs!”

  “Have mercy!” said the count in a voice just above a whisper.

  “Spare him,” said Masino, “and he will bring back your cattle and clean your barns. And since he enjoyed going into the woods at night, make him go there every night and gather bundles of firewood for each of you. Tell the children never to pick up the hairpins they find on the ground, for they belong to Micillina the Witch, whose hair and beard will be disheveled from now on.”

  The farmers followed the suggestion, and soon Masino left Pocapaglia to travel about the world. In the course of his travels, he found himself fighting in first one war and another, and they all lasted so long that this saying sprang up:

  Soldier fighter, what a hard lot!

  Wretched food, the ground for a cot.

  You feed the cannon powder:

  Boom-BOOM! Boom-BOOM! Boom louder!

  (Bra)

  11

  The Little Girl Sold with the Pears

  Once a man had a pear tree that used to bear four baskets of pears a year. One year, though, it only bore three baskets and a half, while he was supposed to carry four to the king. Seeing no other way out, he put his youngest daughter into the fourth basket and covered her up with pears and leaves.

  The baskets were carried into the king’s pantry, where the child stayed in hiding underneath the pears. But having nothing to eat, she began nibbling on the pears. After a while the servants noticed the supply of pears dwindling and also saw the cores. “There must be a rat or a mole gnawing on the pears,” they said. “We shall look inside the baskets.” They removed the top and found the little girl.

  “What are you doing here?” they asked. “Come with us and work in the king’s kitchen.”

  They called her Perina, and she was such a clever little girl that in no time she was doing the housework better than the king’s own maidservants. She was so pretty no one could help loving her. The king’s son, who was her age exactly, was always with Perina, and they became very fond of each other.

  As the maiden grew up, the maidservants began to envy her. They held their tongues for a while, then accused Perina of boasting she would go and steal the witches’ treasure. The king got wind of it and sent for the girl. “Is it true you boasted you would go and steal the witches’ treasure?”

  “No, Sacred Crown, I made no such boast.”

  “You did so,” insisted the king, “and now you have to keep your word.” At that, he banished her from the palace until she should return with the treasure.

  On and on she walked until nightfall. Perina came to an apple tree, but kept on going. She next came to a peach tree, but still didn’t stop. Then she came to a pear tree, climbed it, and fell asleep.

  In the morning there stood a little old woman under the tree. “What are you doing up there, my daughter?” asked the old woman.

  Perina told her about the difficulty she was in. The old woman said, “Take these three pounds of grease, three pounds of bread, and three pounds of millet and be on your way.” Perina thanked her very much and moved on.

  She came to a bakery where three women were pulling out their hair to sweep out the oven with. Perina gave them the three pounds of millet, which they then used to sweep out the oven and allowed the little girl to continue on her way.

  On and on she walked and met three mastiffs that barked and rushed at anyone coming their way. Perina threw them the three pounds of bread, and they let her pass.

  After walking for miles and miles she came to a blood-red river, which she had no idea how to cross. But the old woman had told her to say:

  “Fine water so red,

  I must make haste;

  Else, of you would I taste.”

  At those words, the waters parted and let her through.

  On the other side of the river, Perina beheld one of the finest and largest palaces in the world. But the door was opening and slamming so rapidly that no one could possibly go in. Perina therefore applied the three pounds of grease to its hinges, and from then on it opened and closed quite gently.

  Inside, Perina spied the treasure chest sitting on a small table. She picked it up and was about to go off with it, when the chest spoke: “Door, kill her, kill her!”

  “I won’t, either, since she greased my hinges that hadn’t been looked after since goodness knows when.”

  Perina reached the river, and the chest said, “River, drown her, drown her!”

  “I won’t, either,” replied the river, “since she called me ‘Fine water so red.’”

  She came to the dogs, and the chest said, “Dogs, devour her, devour her!”

  “We won’t, either,” replied the dogs, “since she gave us three pounds of bread.”

  She came to the bakery oven. “Oven, burn her, burn her!”

  But the three women replied, “We won’t, either, since she gave us three pounds of millet, so that now we can spare our hair.”

  When she was almost home, Perina, who had as much curiosity as the next little girl, decided to peep into the treasure chest. She opened it, and out came a hen and her brood of gold chicks. They scuttled away too fast for a soul to catch them. Perina struck out after them. She passed the apple tree, but they were nowhere in sight. She passed the peach tree, where there was still no sign of them. She came to the pear tree, and there stood the little old woman with a wand in her hand and hen and chicks feeding around her. “Shoo, shoo!” went the old woman, and the hen and chicks reentered the treasure chest.

  Upon her arrival, the king’s son came out to meet her. “When my father asked what you want as a reward, tell him that box filled with coal in the cellar.”

  On the doorstep of the royal palace stood the maidservants, the king, and the entire court. Perina handed the king the hen with the brood of gold chicks. “Ask for whatever you want,” said the king, “and I will give it to you.”

  “I would like the box of coal in the cellar,” replied Perina.

  They brought her the box of coal, which she opened, and out jumped the king’s son, who was hiding inside. The king was then happy for Perina to marry his son.

  (Monferrato)

  12

  The Snake


  A farmer went out mowing every day, and at noon one or the other of his three daughters would bring him his lunch. On a certain day it fell to the oldest girl to go. By the time she reached the woods, though, she was tired and sat down on a stone to rest a minute before proceeding to the meadow. No sooner had she taken a seat than she felt a strong thud underneath, and out crawled a snake. The girl dropped the basket and ran home as fast as her legs would carry her. That day the father went hungry and when he came in from the field he scolded his daughters angrily.

  The next day the middle girl started out. She too sat down on the stone, and the same thing occurred as the day before. Then the third girl said, “It’s my turn now, but I’m not afraid.” Instead of one lunch basket, she prepared two. When she felt the thud and saw the snake, she gave it one of the baskets of food, and the snake spoke. “Take me home with you, and I will bring you luck.” The girl put the snake in her apron and then went on to her father with his lunch. When she got back home, she placed the snake under her bed. It grew so rapidly that soon it was too big to fit under the bed, so it went away. Before leaving, however, it bestowed three charms on the girl: weeping, she would shed tears of pearl and silver; laughing, she would see golden pomegranate seeds fall from her head; and washing her hands, she would produce fish of every kind.

 
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