Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  The boy followed the suggestion, and the Wizard heard the blows of the cudgel and the neighing, and was satisfied. “Listen,” said one of the horses to the youth one day, “would you like to discover your fortune? Go into the garden, where you will see a beautiful pond. Every morning twelve doves come there to drink. They slip into the water, then emerge as twelve beautiful maidens as dazzling as the sun. After hanging their dove clothing on a tree limb, they begin playing. What you must do is hide among the trees and, when they are right in the middle of their game, seize the dress of the most beautiful maiden and hide it under your shirt. She will say to you, ‘Give me my dress! Give me my dress!’ But don’t you dare return it, or she will become a dove once more and fly away with the others.”

  The young man did as the horse had told him; he crouched in a spot where they couldn’t see him and waited for morning. At dawn he heard a flutter of wings that grew louder and louder. Peeping out, he saw a flight of doves. Making himself as small as possible he said, “There they are!” When they reached the fountain, the doves drank, then dived into the water. They returned to the surface as twelve beautiful maidens, who resembled angels from heaven, and began running and frolicking.

  When the time seemed right, the youth crept forward, reached out, seized a dress, and stuffed it under his shirt. At that, all the maidens turned back into doves and flew off. Only one, unable to find her dove dress, remained in the youth’s presence, and all she could say was, “Give me my dress, give me my dress!” The youth started running, with the girl right behind him. At last, after running some distance along a road the horse had shown him, he arrived home and introduced the maiden to his mother. “Mother, this is my bride. Don’t let her out of the house under any circumstances.”

  Before descending the mountain, he had filled his pockets with precious stones. As soon as he got home, he decided to go out and sell them, leaving the maiden with her mother-in-law. “Give me my dress! Give me my dress!” screamed the girl all day long, making a nervous wreck of the old woman, who said, “Merciful heavens, this is driving me crazy! Let’s see if I can find that dress!”

  It occurred to her that her son might have put it away in the chest of drawers. She looked and, sure enough, there was a beautiful dove dress. “Could this be the dress, my daughter?” She’d not taken it fully out of the drawer before the girl seized it, threw it on, turned back into a dove, and flew off.

  The old woman was terrified. “Now what will I do when my son returns? How will I explain the disappearance of his bride?” The words were no sooner out of her mouth than the bell rang and in walked her son; finding his wife gone, he was fit to be tied. “Mamma,” he screamed, “how could you fail me like that!” Then when he had calmed down, he said, “Mamma, give me your blessing; I am going after her.” He tossed a morsel of bread into a knapsack and was off.

  Crossing a forest, he came upon three brigands engaged in a dispute. They hailed him and said, “Come and be our judge, since you are an outsider. We stole three objects and are now arguing over who should get what. You decide for us.”

  “What are the objects?”

  “A purse that each time you open it is full of money, a pair of boots that carry you faster than wind, and a cloak that makes its wearer invisible.”

  “Let me verify,” answered the lad, “if all that is true.” He slipped into the boots, picked up the purse, and wrapped up in the cloak. “Can you see me?” he asked.

  “No!” answered the brigands.

  “Nor will you see any more of me.” He fled in the boots that went like the wind, and arrived on top of Wizard Savino’s mountain.

  Once more he hid near the pond and saw the doves come to drink, his wife in their midst. He leaped out and made off with her dress, which she had hung on the tree.

  “Give me my dress! Give me my dress!” she screamed anew. But this time the youth lost no time in setting it afire and burning it up.

  “That’s right,” said the maiden. “Now I will remain with you and be your bride, but first you must go and behead Wizard Savino, and then turn the twelve horses in the stable back into men. All you need do is pull three hairs out of the mane of each one.”

  So, wearing the cloak that made him invisible, the young man cut off the Wizard’s head, then freed the twelve knights previously transformed into horses, gathered up all the precious stones, and rode home with the maiden, who was none other than the daughter of the king of Spain.

  (Palermo)

  165

  Jesus and St. Peter in Sicily

  I. Stones to Bread

  Once when the Lord was going about the world with the thirteen Apostles, they found themselves out in the country with no bread and they were starving. “Each of you pick up a stone,” directed the Lord. The Apostles each picked up a stone, Peter choosing the tiniest one he could find. Then they continued on their way, each one bent under his burden, except Peter, who moved along with ease. They came to a town and attempted to buy bread, but none was to be had. “Well,” said the Lord, “I will bless you, and the stones will become bread.”

  So he did, and all the Apostles had hearty loaves to eat; but Peter who had picked up that pebble, found in his hand a wee, small roll. Crushed, he asked the Lord, “And what about my dinner, Lord?”

  “Well, my brother, why did you pick up such a small stone? The others, who loaded themselves down, got bread aplenty.”

  They set out again, and once more the Lord told them each to pick up a stone. This time Peter, crafty as he was, took up a rock he could scarcely lift and thus walked with great difficulty, while the others all advanced with light stones. The Lord said to the Apostles, “Boys, we’ll now have a laugh at Peter’s expense.”

  They came to a town full of bakeries, where bread was just then coming out of the ovens. The Apostles all threw away their stones. St. Peter brought up the rear, bent over double under the weight of his rock. When he saw all that bread he flew into a rage and refused to touch it.

  II. Put the Old Woman in the Furnace

  As they walked along, they met a man. Peter went up to him and said, “As you can see, here comes the Lord. Ask him a favor.”

  The man went to the Lord and said, “Lord, my father is old and ailing. Make him strong again, Lord!”

  “The burden of old age,” replied the Lord, “is something no doctor can do anything about! But listen carefully: if you slip your father into the furnace, he’ll come back out as a child!”

  No sooner said than done, the man ran his old father into the furnace, and when he drew him back out, he had become a boy.

  Peter was tickled pink with this procedure. “Now,” he said to himself, “I shall see if I can turn some old soul into a child.” Just then he met a man on his way to ask the Lord to cure his dying mother. “Whom are you seeking?” asked Peter.

  “I’m seeking the Lord, as my mother is advanced in age, sick and infirm, and the Lord alone can restore her to health.”

  “Very well! The Lord isn’t here yet, but Peter is, and he can help you. Know what you have to do? Fire up the furnace, slip your mother into it, and she will be cured.”

  The poor man, knowing that St. Peter was dear to the Lord, believed him. He flew home and slipped his mother into fiery furnace. What else did he expect? The old woman was burned to a crisp.

  “Woe is me!” cried the son. “What a saint for this world and the next! He’s had me burn up Mother!”

  He returned in search of Peter and found the Lord. Hearing what had happened, the Lord split his sides laughing. “Peter, Peter, what have you done?” Peter tried to apologize, but couldn’t get in a word edgewise for the screams of the poor son. “I want my mother! Give me back my mother!”

  The Lord then went to the dead woman’s home and, pronouncing a blessing, revived and rejuvenated the woman. And he spared Peter the punishment he deserved.

  III. A Tale the Robbers Tell

  Time and again it’s been told that in the days when the Lord roamed
the world with the Apostles, he was once overtaken by night on a country road.

  “Peter, how will we manage tonight?” asked the Lord.

  “Down below are shepherds tending their flock. Come with me,” said Peter.

  So they made their way in single file down the hill to the flock.

  “Greetings! Can you give us shelter for the night? We are poor pilgrims who are exhausted and starving to death!”

  “Greetings!” replied the overseer and his shepherds, but none of them budged an inch. They were in the process of rolling out dough on the board, and thought if they offered thirteen persons dinner, they would all go hungry. “Over there is the haystack,” they said. “You can sleep there.”

  The poor Lord and his Apostles drew in their belts and went off to bed without a word.

  They’d scarcely gone to sleep, when they were awakened by an uproar—robbers arriving in a band and shouting, “Hands up! Hands up!” There were curses and the sound of blows and the fleeing footsteps of the shepherds scattering into the countryside.

  When the robbers were in possession of the field, they made a clean sweep of the flock. Then they took a look in the haystack. “Hands up, every one of you! Just who’s in here?”

  “Thirteen poor pilgrims, weary and hungry,” replied Peter.

  “If that’s so, come out. Supper’s on the board, completely untouched. Eat your fill at the expense of the shepherds, for we must flee for our life!”

  Hungry as they were, those poor souls needed no begging. They ran to the board, and Peter exclaimed, “Praised be the robbers! They are more thoughtful of starving poor people than are the rich.”

  “Praised be the robbers!” said the Apostles, and had a hearty meal.

  IV. Death Corked in the Bottle

  There was a rich and generous innkeeper who put up a sign that read: WHOEVER STOPS AT MY INN EATS FREE OF CHARGE. The people poured in all day long and he served every one of them for nothing.

  Once the Lord and his twelve Apostles came to that town. They read the sign, and St. Thomas said, “Lord, until I see it with my own eyes and feel it with my own hand, I won’t believe it. Let’s go inside this inn.”

  So Jesus and the Apostles went inside. They ate and drank, and the innkeeper treated them like royalty. Before leaving, St. Thomas said, “My good man, why don’t you ask a favor of the Lord?”

  So the innkeeper said to Jesus, “Lord, I have a fig tree in my garden, but I never get to eat a single fig. As fast as they ripen, the boys scamper up and eat every one of them. Now I’d like you to ordain that whoever climbs this tree can no longer come down without my permission.”

  “So be it!” said the Lord, and blessed the tree.

  The next morning, the first one to steal figs stayed hanging to the tree by one hand, the second by a foot, while the third was unable to pull his head through a fork of branches. When the innkeeper found them, he gave them a good dressing down, then released them. Once they heard about the magic property of that tree, the little boys of the town steered clear of it, and the innkeeper was at last able to eat his figs in peace.

  Years and years went by. The tree grew old and bore no more fruit. The innkeeper called in a woodcutter to fell the tree, after which he asked, “Could you make me a bottle out of the wood from this tree?” The woodcutter made him the bottle, which retained the magic property of the tree—that is, whoever entered it couldn’t come out without the innkeeper’s permission.

  The innkeeper too grew old, and one day Death came for him. The man said, “By all means, let us be on our way. But first, Death, I’d like to ask you a favor. I have a bottle full of wine, but there’s a fly in it, and I am loath to drink it. Would you please jump in and get the fly out, so I can have one last drink before going off with you.”

  “Oh, if that’s all you’re asking!” said Death, and jumped into the bottle. Then the innkeeper corked the bottle up and said, “I have you now, and you’re not coming out.”

  With Death trapped and corked up, nobody in the world died any more. Everywhere people were seen with white beards down to their feet Taking note of this, the Apostles began dropping hints to the Lord, who finally decided to go and speak with the innkeeper.

  “My dear man,” said the Lord, “do you think it’s appropriate to keep Death shut up all these years? What about those poor old decrepit people who must drag on and on without ever being able to die outright?”

  “Lord,” answered the innkeeper, “do you want me to let Death go? Promise to send me to Paradise, and I’ll unstop the bottle.”

  The Lord thought it over. What am I to do? If I deny him that favor, there’s no telling what a mess I might be in! Therefore the Lord said, “So be it!”

  At that, the bottle was uncorked, and Death was free. The innkeeper was allowed to live a few more years, so as to merit Paradise, and then Death returned for him.

  V. St. Peter’s Mamma

  It’s been said that St. Peter’s mamma was a miser through and through. Never did she give to charity or spend a penny on her fellow man. One day while she was peeling leeks, a poor woman came by begging. “Will you give me a little something, good woman?”

  “That’s right, everybody comes to me begging . . . . Well, take this, and don’t ask for any more!” And she gave her one leaf of a leek.

  When the Lord called her into the next life, he sent her to Hell. The head of Heaven was St. Peter, and as he sat on the doorstep, he heard a voice. “Peter! Just look at how I’m roasting! Son, go to the Lord, talk to him, get me out of this misery!”

  St. Peter went to the Lord. “Lord,” he said, “my mother is in Hell and begging to be let out.”

  “What! Your mother never did a good turn in her whole life! All she has to her credit is one little leek leaf. Try this. Give her the leek leaf to catch hold to, and pull her up to Paradise by it.”

  An angel swooped down with the leek leaf. “Grab hold!” ordered the angel, and St. Peter’s mamma caught hold of the leaf. She was about to be pulled up out of Hell, when all the poor souls there with her and seeing her rise, latched on to her skirts. So the angel drew up not only her but all the others as well. Then that selfish woman screamed, “No! Not you all! Get off! Just me! Just me! You ought to have had a saint for a son, as I did!” She kicked and shook them from her, jerking about so much to get free, that the leek leaf broke in two and St. Peter’s mamma went plummeting to the bottom of Hell.

  (Palermo)

  166

  The Barber’s Timepiece

  Time and again the story has been told about a barber who owned a clock that had run for centuries without being wound up; never did it stop or lose a minute, but always kept perfect time. The barber had wound it up just once, and from then on, ticktock, ticktock, ticktock . . .

  The barber was an old man, so old that he had lost count of the centuries he had lived and the generations of people he had seen. People from all over were accustomed to run to his shop to ask the clock things they needed to know.

  There came the burly farmer, weary and out of sorts, in need of rain for planting time. Seeing the sky forever cloudless, he said, “Tell me, clock, when is it going to rain?”

  The clock ticked:

  Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock,

  I shine, I shine, I shine, I shine,

  No rain, no rain, the sky is mine.

  Come thunder, thunder, thunder, thunder,

  And next year, water, water, water!

  There came an old man leaning on a cane and wheezing from asthma, who asked, “Clock, clock, is there much oil left in my lamp?”

  Right away the clock ticked:

  Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick . . .

  Three score, three score, three score,

  Burns low, burns low, little more;

  Three score past, three score past, three score past:

  Poor wick, poor wick, poor wick! Tick . . .

  There came a youth in love and up in the clouds, who said, “Tell
me, clock, could anyone fare better in love than I?”

  Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock

  replied the clock:

  Be a fool and you will fall:

  Today you cut a figure at a ball,

  Tomorrow lie you ’neath a pall!

  Then came the foremost outlaw in the land, the head of the terrible Camorra, all rigged up in his tasseled beret and long hair and buttons and rings, and muttered in his beard, “Say, clock, how many potentates is there ’at can ’scape my clutches? Speak up, or I’ll bust your guts!”

  And the clock outdid him, muttering in his beard:

  Ticktockticktockticktock,

  Bewarebewarebeware:

  Tidesturn, tidesturn, tidesturn;

  Burnandonedayyouwillburn!

  Next came a poor man, suffering, hungry, half naked, sick all over. “Oh, clock, oh, clock, when will my tribulations end? Tell me, for pity’s sake, when to expect Death?”

 
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