Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

The gardener listened, his heart in his mouth. As soon as the dragon man and dragon-woman fell asleep and began snoring, he ripped a knotty branch from the tree, jumped to the ground and, dealing two hearty blows, sent them both to kingdom come. Then he drew blood from the dragon-man’s windpipe, scraped fat from the dragon-woman’s scruff, and rushed home as fast as his legs would carry him. He awakened his wife and said, “Quick, boil this stuff!” Then he took it and greased the rosemary shrub, twig by twig. The maiden emerged, and the bush dried up. The gardener took her by the hand and led her into his house, put her to bed, and served her a bowl of tasty hot broth.

  The king came back from the war, and the first thing he did was take his flute out to the garden. He played three notes, then another three—yes, he was in the mood to make music! He went up to the rosemary bush and found it all dried up, with every leaf gone.

  In bestial fury he rushed up to the gardener’s house.

  “Your head will roll this very day, wretch!”

  “Majesty, calm down and step inside for a minute. I have something wonderful to show you!”

  “Something wonderful, my foot! Your head will roll, for sure!”

  “Just come inside, and then do whatever you like!”

  The king went in and found Rosemary in bed, as she was still convalescing. She looked up and said, her eyes full of tears, “Your sisters beat me nearly to death, but the poor gardener saved my life!”

  The king was overjoyed to find Rosemary again; he had only contempt for his sisters and deep gratitude for the gardener. When the maiden was completely well, he decided to marry her, and he wrote his uncle king that the rosemary plant he stole had become a lovely young lady, and he invited him and the queen to the wedding. The king and queen, who had given up all hope of ever hearing of the plant again, went wild with joy when the messenger presented them with the letter stating that the plant was really a beautiful maiden, their daughter. They set sail at once and “Boom! Boom!” went the cannons in salute as they pulled into port where Rosemary stood awaiting them. The wedding took place, and all of Spain rejoiced and feasted.

  (Palermo)

  162

  Lame Devil

  Lame Devil lived in Hell. Men were dying and coming straight to Hell and face to face with Lame Devil, who asked, “Well, friends, what brings you here? Why is everyone coming down below?”

  “All because of women,” the dead would reply.

  From hearing this answer over and over, Lame Devil was filled with curiosity and the ever-growing desire to satisfy it: just what was this business involving women all about?

  He dressed up in the guise of a knight and betook himself to Palermo. There on a balcony stood a girl, and he found her very much to his liking; so he proceeded to saunter up and down the street. The more he strolled, the more he liked her, and he sent word asking for her hand in marriage. No dowry was required, he would take her with just the clothes on her back, but on one condition: that she would ask for everything she wanted while still engaged, because once they were married he wanted to hear no more requests.

  The girl agreed, and the knight showered her with gifts and clothes enough for a lifetime. They got married, and one evening when there was a gala performance at the theater, they went out together for the first time. Now one knows how women do when they get to the theater: she started out eyeing the marquise’s outfit and the countess’s jewelry, when she spied the baroness wearing a hat totally unlike any of her own three hundred hats, and she was consumed with desire for one like it. But she had agreed to ask her husband for nothing more. The new wife pulled a long face indeed. Noticing it, her husband asked, “Rosina, what’s wrong? Something is the matter, I know.”

  “No, no. Nothing . . . ”

  “But you don’t look well.”

  “I assure you, nothing is the matter with me.”

  “If something is wrong, you’d better tell me.”

  “Well, if you must know, it’s quite unfair for the baroness to have a particular kind of hat I don’t have and for me not to be able to ask for one like it! That’s what the matter is!”

  Lame Devil exploded like a firecracker. “Zounds! So it’s true that men all go to Hell through the fault of you women! I understand now.”

  He walked off and left her right there in the theater.

  He returned to Hell and proceeded to tell a fellow devil of his every thing that had resulted from taking a wife. The fellow devil said he too would like to see what marriage was like, only he wanted a king’s daughter, to discover if it was the same old story even in royal families.

  “Well, go ahead and try it, brother!” replied Lame Devil. “Do you know how we can work it? I will steal into the body of the king of Spain’s daughter. With a devil inside her, she will be taken sick, and the king will decree: ‘Whoever cures my royal daughter will be rewarded with her royal hand in marriage.’ You will come on the scene dressed as a doctor, I will leave her body when I hear your voice, she will be well, and you will marry her and become king. Does that suit you?”

  They went through with the scheme, and everything happened as planned, up to the moment the fellow devil was brought to the sick princess’s bedside. As soon as he was alone, he began saying in a low voice, “Brother Lame Devil! Eh, brother, it’s me. You can come out now and let the princess get her breath! Do you hear me, Lame Devil?”

  But one should always be wary of devils’ promises. Lame Devil, as a matter of fact, did hear the voice. “What? What is it? Ah, yes, yes indeed; I’m quite comfortable, so why should I move?”

  “Brother, what did you promise me? Are you joking? The king is beheading those who try but fail to cure his daughter! Brother Devil! Eh, brother!”

  “Yes, I’m very comfortable right where I am. And you expect me to move out?”

  “What are you saying? My very life is at stake!”

  “Oh, don’t talk to me. Go on! I wouldn’t even leave here under fire!" The poor fellow devil begged and pleaded, but all in vain. The time allotted to him was drawing to a close, so the sham doctor went to the king and said, “Majesty, to cure your daughter I need only one thing: for you to order the cannons on your frigates fired.”

  The king went to the window: “Frigates, fire!”

  “Boom! Boom! Boom!” went the cannons on the frigates.

  Lame Devil, who saw nothing from his present vantage point inside the princess, asked, “Brother, what’s the meaning of all those cannonades?”

  “A ship is coming into port, and they are firing a welcome.”

  “Who’s arriving?”

  The fellow devil went to the window. “Oh! It’s your wife arriving!”

  “My wife!” exclaimed Lame Devil. “My wife! I’m getting out of here! I’m clearing out this very instant! I can’t even stand the smell of her!”

  Out of the princess’s mouth shot a streak of fire as Lame Devil fled, and in the same instant the princess was cured.

  “Majesty! She’s well, Majesty!” called the fellow devil.

  “Hurrah!” replied the king. “Daughter and crown are now yours.” So began the fellow devil’s woes.

  May you who tell this story, or hear it,

  Stay always clear, clear of the Pit.

  (Palermo)

  163

  Three Tales by Three Sons of Three Merchants

  There were once three sons of three merchants, and they all three decided to go hunting together. They went to bed early, and at midnight one of them awakened, saw the moon, and mistook it for the sun. He dressed in his hunting outfit, took his dogs, and went to rouse his friends. They all three set out while it was still night. The sky clouded up and rain came pouring down, but the hunters could find no tree with foliage thick enough to shelter them. They saw a light and discovered a palace.

  “Is this any time to be knocking?” asked the maid. “It happens to be the middle of the night.”

  “Won’t you give us shelter?” asked the hunters.

  “I’ll go ask
the mistress of the house,” replied the maid. “Madam, at the door are three men, soaking wet; shall I let them in?”

  “Yes.”

  So they came inside and sat down before the lady of the house, a beautiful widow, who said, “Put on these clothes that belonged to my poor husband and give your own a chance to dry out. And have something to eat. Then each of you must tell me a story—something that has happened to you personally. I’ll marry the one who tells the most hair-raising, bloodcurdling tale.”

  The oldest boy began.

  “Well, madam, I am the son of a merchant. Once my father sent me out on business. Along the way I was joined by a man all muffled up, whom I had never seen before, but who seemed to know his way around those parts. At nightfall he said, ‘Come with me; I know a good place to sleep.’ We entered a solitary house, and the door closed behind me. I found myself in a large room, in the middle of which stood an iron cage full of men locked up inside. ‘Who are you?’ I inquired of them, and they gave me to understand by signs that I too would be caged with them. But they could not speak because a giant stood guard over them, the very one who had men caught and then locked them up. I too was grabbed by the giant and thrown into the cage. ‘What happens next?’ I asked my fellow prisoners. ‘Keep quiet!’ they said. ‘Every morning the giant eats one of us.’ So we lived in silent fear, huddling up together whenever the giant reached into the cage.

  “From time to time the giant would get bored and pick up a guitar and play. Once while he was playing, the strings snapped. ‘If someone inside the cage can fix a guitar, I’ll set him free,’ he said. Right away I said in a loud voice, ‘Sir, I am a guitar maker and my father is a guitar maker, the same as my grandfather and all my relatives.’ The giant said, ‘We shall see,’ and pulled me from the cage. I picked up the guitar, tightened here, loosened there, and finally got it fixed. Then the giant patted me on the head and handed me a ring. ‘Slip the ring on your finger and you will be free,’ he said. I did, and found myself at once outside. I started running through the countryside until I ended up once more before the giant’s door. ‘What! I’m back where I started from?’ I began running in the opposite direction, and ran and ran until I again stood before that door. ‘I can’t get away from here!’ I cried. In that instant I heard someone go, ‘Pss! Pss!’ I looked up and there at one of the upstairs windows stood a little girl who said softly, ‘Throw away that ring if you want to escape!’ I tried to remove it, but ended up exclaiming, ‘I can’t get it off!’ ‘Cut off your finger! Hurry!’ ‘I have no knife!’ I replied. ‘Here’s one!’ said the child, throwing it down to me. Beside the door was the base of a column; I placed my hand on it and, one stroke, cut off the finger with the ring on it. Then I was able to flee and return to my father’s house.”

  Throughout the account the lady had exclaimed, “Oh, you poor dear!” Now she drew a sigh of relief and turned to the second hunter, who began:

  “It happened, madam, that once my father, a merchant, gave me a sum of money for a business transaction. I embarked and was sailing on the open sea when a mighty storm arose, forcing us to throw all our cargo overboard. The tempest was followed by total calm, and we stayed put in the middle of the sea. Our provisions ran out quickly, and we had nothing more to eat. ‘Gentlemen,’ said the captain, ‘famine is upon us. We will all write our names now on slips of paper, and every morning there will be a drawing. The man whose name is drawn will be killed and served up to those remaining.’ Just imagine, madam, the fear that gripped us on hearing that announcement! But what else could we do, if we didn’t want to starve to death in a body? Every morning, then, lots were drawn, and the man whose turn it was to die was cut up and served to all the rest of us.

  “Finally only two of us remained—the captain and myself. The next morning we drew lots. I had resolved that if it fell to the captain, I would slay him; but that if I turned out to be the unlucky one, I would fight for my life. It proved to the captain’s turn who, poor man, held forth his hands, saying, ‘Here I am, my brother.’ It grieved me to do so, but I summoned up the courage and slew him. I quartered him, stringing up one of the quarters on the ropes. An eagle swooped down and made off with that quarter of human flesh. I hung up another quarter; back came the eagle and took it. I was quite upset. The third quarter was also devoured by the eagle. Only the last quarter remained and, as the eagle landed to take possession of it, I seized the bird by the feet. The eagle soared upward and across the sky, with me hanging on for dear life. Coming close to a mountain, I let go. Plunging this way and that, I finally reached flat earth and returned home.”

  “Oh, you poor, poor thing!” exclaimed the lady. “That too was a frightful experience. Now it is your turn,” she said to the third hunter.

  “Madam, my story will make your hair stand on end. I too was entrusted by my father, mind you, with a commercial venture. At nightfall I took lodgings at an inn. After dinner I retired to my room and knelt by my bed, as I always do at night, to say my prayers. At a certain place in my prayers, I bent over to kiss the floor, and what should I see under the bed but a man! I looked closer: he was dead. ‘This man was killed last night,’ I thought to myself, ‘and everyone who sleeps in this bed no doubt meets the same fate.’ So what did I do? I picked up the corpse and put it in the bed, while I stretched out under the bed and held my breath. One or two hours went by, and I heard the door open. It was the innkeeper with a knife in his hand, and the scullery boy with a hammer; the innkeeper’s wife brought up the rear with a lamp.

  “‘He’s sound asleep,’ they said. ‘Let him have it!’ The innkeeper positioned his knife on the dead man’s head, the scullery boy struck it with his hammer, and the woman said, ‘Now take him and put him under the bed; we’ll throw the one from last night out the window.’ Under the window was a deep ravine, and I could just feel, every bone in my body broken. But the innkeeper said, ‘Let’s leave everything as it is for the rest of the night. Tomorrow we’ll be able to see what we’re doing.’ They went off, and I breathed freely once more. I settled down to wait for daylight. When the sun came up I went to the window and signaled to the towns on the other side of the ravine. Officers of the law were dispatched to the inn to set me free and arrest the innkeeper and his household.”

  The lady began deliberating as to which of the three stories was the most frightful and, say what you will, she has yet to make up her mind.

  (Palermo)

  164

  The Dove Girl

  There was once a lad who led a dog’s life. One day when he was particularly miserable, having nothing to eat, he went down and sat by the sea, hoping to think of a way out of his plight. After a while he looked up and saw a Greek heading for the same spot. The man asked, “What’s troubling you, my lad? You look so worried.”

  “I’m starving to death, that’s what. I’ve nothing to eat, nor hope of getting anything.”

  “Oh, lad, cheer up! Come with me, and I will give you food, money, and whatever else you desire.”

  “What do I do in return for all that?” inquired the young man.

  “Nothing. With me, you will work only one time out of the whole year.”

  The poor boy couldn’t believe his ears! They put their signatures to the agreement and, for quite some time, the youth had absolutely nothing to do. Then one day the Greek called him and said, “Saddle two horses; we are leaving.” He got everything ready, and they departed. After a long ride they came to the foot of a steep mountain. “Now,” said the Greek, “you must scale the mountain, to the top.”

  “How can I do that?” asked the lad.

  “That’s my secret.”

  “But suppose I don’t wish to.”

  “We made an agreement you would work once a year. Like it or not, the time has come. You must go to the top and throw down to me all the stones you find up there.”

  With that, he took a horse, killed it, flayed it, and ordered the lad inside the hide. An eagle flying overhead at that moment spied th
e horse, swooped down, seized it in his claws, and soared off with it, with the youth inside. The eagle came to rest on the summit of the mountain, and the boy leayed out of the hide. “Throw me down the stones!” cried the Greek from below. The young man looked about him: a far cry from stones! There lay brilliants, diamonds, and gold ingots as thick as tree trunks! He peered down the slope and saw the Greek who, from that distance, looked no bigger than an ant and continued to order, “Come on, throw those stones down to me!”

  The boy thought to himself, Now if I throw him the stones, he will leave me up here on the mountaintop, and I won’t have any way to get back down. I’d better hold on to the stones and try to get out of this predicament by myself.

  Surveying the mountain summit, his eyes fell on what looked like the opening to a well. He lifted the lid, lowered himself through the opening and lo and behold, there he was inside a magnificent palace! It was the residence of Wizard Savino.

  “What are you doing on my mountain?” queried the Wizard when he saw the boy. “I’m going to roast you and have a feast. You came to steal my stones for that thief of a Greek. Every year he tries to pull the same thing on me, and every year I make a meal off his henchman.”

  Quaking in his boots, the boy fell on his knees before the Wizard and swore he had no stone on his person.

  “If you are telling the truth,” replied Wizard Savino, “your life will be spared.” He went up, counted the stones, and saw that they were all still there. “Very well,” said the Wizard, “you were telling the truth. I’m taking you into my service. I have twelve horses. Every morning you will give each horse ninety-nine blows with a cudgel. But make sure I hear those blows from where we are right now. Is that clear?”

  The next morning the young man entered the stable with a thick cudgel in his hand. He felt sorry for the horses, though, and couldn’t bring himself to beat them. One of the horses then turned around and addressed him. “Please don’t beat us. We were once men like yourself, and Wizard Savino turned us into horses. Cudgel the ground instead, and we will neigh as though you are beating us.”

 
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