Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  As usual, the clock provided an answer:

  Tick Tock, Tick Tock, Tick Tock,

  For him who sings no song,

  Life may be very long.

  Thus, all sorts of people came to see this wonderful clock, spoke to it, and received an answer. It could say when fruit trees would bear, when winter and summer would arrive, when the sun would rise and set, and how many years people had lived. In short, it was a timepiece without equal, an ingenious creation, and there was nothing under the sun it did not know. Everybody would have liked to have it in his house, but no one could, since it was enchanted; people therefore longed in vain to own it. But everyone, whether he wanted to or not, secretly or openly had to praise the old master barber who had been clever enough to make this unique timepiece and make it run forever and ever, without anyone being able to break it or take possession of it, except the artist who fashioned it.

  (Inland vicinity of Palermo)

  167

  The Count’s Sister

  The tale has been told over and over that once upon a time there was a count just rolling in wealth. He also had an eighteen-year-old sister as lovely as the sun and moon. He jealously guarded the girl, keeping her locked up all the time in a wing of his palace, so that no one had ever seen or talked to her. Now the beautiful little countess, having had quite enough of being shut up, began slowly making a hole in the wall of her room. She worked on it at night, and kept the spot concealed by day with a painting. Flanking the count’s palace was the prince’s, and the opening made by the countess came through into the prince’s chambers, right behind another painting, in such a way that it was not visible.

  One night, the little countess pushed the picture slightly aside and looked into the prince’s room. She saw a precious lamp burning, and addressed it:

  “Golden light, silver light,

  Does your prince sleep, or watch in the night?”

  And the lamp relied:

  “Come in, my lady, have no fear;

  My prince is sleeping soundly here.”

  She went in and lay down beside the prince. He awakened, took her in his arms, kissed her, and asked:

  “Whence do you come, where do you live, dear lady?

  From what country could you be?”

  Laughing, she answered:

  “Prince, dear prince, you ask awry;

  Love me, love me, do not pry!”

  When the prince woke up again and found that radiant goddess gone, he dressed in haste and summoned his council. “Council! Council!” The council convened, and the prince related what had taken place, asking in conclusion, “What must I do to keep her with me?”

  “Sacred Crown,” replied the council, “when you take her in your arms, tie her hair around one of your arms. That way when she’s ready to leave she will have to wake you up.”

  Night fell, and the young countess asked:

  “Golden light, silver light,

  Does your prince sleep, or watch in the night?”

  The lamp answered:

  “Come in, my lady, have no fear:

  My prince is sleeping soundly here.”

  In she went and slipped under the covers.

  “Whence do you come, where do you live, dear lady?

  From what country could you be?”

  “Prince, dear prince, you ask awry;

  Love me, love me, do not pry!”

  So they fell asleep, but not before the prince had fastened the countess’s lovely hair to his arm. The countess pulled out a pair of scissors, cut off her hair, and left. The prince woke up. “Council! Council! The goddess left me her hair and vanished!”

  “Sacred Crown,” replied the council, “put your head through the fine gold chain she wears around her neck.”

  The next night the countess returned:

  “Golden light, silver light,

  Does your prince sleep, or watch in the night?”

  And the lamp answered:

  “Come in, my lady, have no fear:

  My prince is sleeping soundly here.”

  When the prince had her in his arms, he again asked:

  “Whence do you come, where do you live, dear lady?

  From what country could you be?”

  As usual, she answered:

  “Prince, dear prince, you ask awry;

  Love me, love me, do not pry!”

  The prince put his head through her gold necklace, but as soon as he was fast asleep she cut the chain and vanished. “Council! Council!” he called when it was day, and related what happened. The council said, “Sacred Crown, take a basin of saffron water and put it under the bed. When she removes her nightgown, throw it into the saffron water . . . . That way, when she puts it back on to go off, she will leave a trail behind her.”

  At nightfall, the prince prepared the basin of saffron water and went to bed. At midnight she said to the lamp:

  “Golden light, silver light,

  Does your prince sleep, or watch in the night?”

  And the lamp answered:

  “Come in, my lady, have no fear;

  My prince is sleeping soundly here.”

  Awakening, the prince put the usual question to her:

  “Whence do you come, where do you live, dear lady?

  From what country could you be?”

  And she gave the usual answer:

  “Prince, dear prince, you ask awry;

  Love me, love me, do not pry!”

  When the prince was sound asleep, she eased out of bed without making a sound and made ready to leave, but her nightgown was soaking wet in the saffron water. Silently she wrung the gown out and slipped away without leaving a trace.

  From that night on, the prince awaited his goddess in vain, and he was very sad. But nine months later, upon awakening one morning, he found in bed beside him a beautiful baby boy that looked like a cherub. He dressed in haste, crying, “Council! Council!” He showed the council the baby, saying, “This is my son. What can I do now to get his mother back?”

  “Sacred Crown,” answered the council, “pretend he is dead. Put him in the middle of the church and give orders for all the women in the city to come and mourn him. The one who wails most of all will be his mother.”

  The prince did that very thing. All sorts of women came, saying, “Son, son!” then departed as freely as they had come. At last appeared the young countess; with tears streaming down her cheeks, she began pulling out her hair and crying:

  “Son, dear son!

  I was much too beautiful,

  And so I cut my locks;

  I was much too beautiful,

  And so I cut my chain;

  I was much too vain,

  And so a saffron gown is now my gain.”

  The king and the council and everybody began crying, “She’s the mother! She’s the mother!”

  At that moment a man pushed forward with his sword unsheathed. It was the count, who raised the blade over his sister. But the prince jumped between them and said:

  “Halt, O Count, here is the key:

  Count’s sister is she, and wedded to me!”

  And they got married in that very church.

  (Inland vicinity of Palermo)

  168

  Master Francesco Sit-Down-and-Eat

  Once upon a time, it has been said over and over, there was a cobbler named Master Francesco, and since he was the laziest man alive, everyone called him Master Francesco Sit-Down-and-Eat. He had five daughters, each lovelier than the other, and all as good as gold. But with that father of theirs who worked little and earned even less, they were at a loss to make ends meet. He got up late, dressed, and off to the tavern he went, where he would spend every penny the daughters had earned.

  At last they told him that, for better or worse, he had to go to work. So he picked up cobbler’s bench, lasts, and hammer, threw them over his shoulder, and went through town crying, “Shoe repairs! Shoe repairs!” But knowing him for the chief lazybones and drunkard in town, peo
ple would have nothing to do with him. Realizing he would starve to death in his own town, he went to another town three miles away, where he cried, “Shoe repairs! Shoe repairs! Come one, come all and get your shoes repaired!” He cried himself hoarse, but still no one brought him any work, while his pangs of hunger became ever sharper.

  Night fell, and lo and behold a lady called to him from a large mansion. He went inside and found her in bed. “Fix this worn shoe for me.”

  Master Francesco fixed it for her the best he could, and the lady paid him a groat, saying, “I know you have five daughters. I am sick and need someone to wait on me. Would you let me have one of your daughters for a maid?”

  “I certainly will, my lady,” replied Master Francesco. “I’ll send her to you tomorrow.”

  Back home, he told his daughters everything and said to the oldest, “You will be the one to go tomorrow.”

  In the morning, the daughter went to the lady who exclaimed, “Ah, so you did come, my child! Sit down here and give me a kiss. I want you to be happy here with every comfort and joy anyone could ask for. As you can see, I am bedridden, so you will be in charge of the house. Go now, my child, sweep the house, make things tidy, then tidy up yourself and put on your best dress, so that my husband will find everything in order when he returns.”

  The girl began sweeping and, in order to sweep under the bed, raised the bedspread which came all the way to the floor. What should she then see but a long, long hairy tail that came out from under the sheet and reached all the way under the bed.

  Woe is me! she thought to herself. Just look at the mess I’m in now! She’s an ogress, not a lady! At that, she backed slowly away from the bed.

  “You listen to me!” said the lady, whose voice had already changed, “Sweep everywhere but under the bed. Is that clear?”

  The girl pretended she was going to sweep another room, but sneaked out of the house and returned home. “What, you’re back already?” exclaimed her father.

  “Father, that is an ogress, not a lady; beneath the bed she has a black hairy tail this long. Say what you will, I’m not going back.”

  “Stay at home, then,” said Master Francesco, “and we’ll send the second girl there.” The second girl got the same attention and words from the lady as the first, but she too spied the tail and went running home.

  Now Master Francesco was greedy for the lady’s generous pay; with it he could eat and dress without having to do a lick of work himself. So he sent the next daughter to the lady, and then the next, and finally the youngest, and every one of them came flying back home frightened to death by the awful black hairy tail.

  “We’re better off here,” they said, “better off at home working our fingers to the bone day and night and wearing our old rags than scarcely turning a hand for good food and clothing from the ogress, who would eat us in the end! Father, if that appeals to you so much, go to the ogress yourself.”

  The father knew no peace until he had entered the lady’s service himself. The work was so very easy, and he could eat and dress like a prince.

  As a matter of fact, the lady treated him like a prince, offering him fine clothes, tasty dishes, gold rings, joys, and comforts. All he had to do was go to market, then come home and tidy the bedchamber, after which he was free to sit down, stretch out his legs, and lounge about for the rest of the day. In no time Sit-Down-and-Eat grew fatter and fatter. When he could get no plumper, the lady called him to her. “Yes, my lady?” he said approaching the bed.

  The ogress sneered, grabbed him by the arm, digging her nails into him, and said:

  “Sit-Down-and-Eat, Eat-and-Sit-Down,

  On which part should I first to town,

  Your head, your feet, or under gown?”

  Shaking like a leaf, Master Francesco answered in a whisper:

  “Believe your daughters, it is meet,

  Else be eaten, starting with your feet.”

  So the ogress seized him by the feet and sucked him completely up in one long gulp, without leaving a single bone.

  “The girls were at peace and didn’t pine

  For Master Francesco who died like a swine;

  Let whoever tells or hears this story

  Never die a death so gory.”

  (Inland vicinity of Palermo)

  169

  The Marriage of a Queen and a Bandit

  Once, they say, there was a king and queen who had a daughter they wanted to marry off. The king had a proclamation posted for all monarchy and holders of noble titles to assemble at the royal palace to be reviewed. They all assembled, while the king and his daughter watched them parade by. The first one that captured his daughter’s fancy was going to be her husband. Filing past in first place were all the kings, next the princes, then the barons, knights, and professors. The king’s daughter saw no king she liked, nor any prince. The barons came up, but neither did they appeal to her. It was the same with the knights.

  The professors passed, and she pointed at one of them. “Father, my husband will be that one.” He was a foreign professor whom no one knew. Since the king had made a promise, he had no choice but give his daughter in marriage to the professor. After the wedding, the bridegroom wished to be off at once. The bride bid her mother and father goodbye, and the couple departed, followed by the army. After half a day’s march, the soldiers said to the bridegroom, “Your Highness, let us now have lunch.”

  “This is no time for lunch,” replied the bridegroom.

  A bit further on, they repeated the proposal, only to be told a second time, “This is no time for lunch.”

  Exasperated, the soldiers answered, “In that case, you and your royal bride go on to the country where you’re headed.”

  “And you and the entire military staff may go your way too,” replied the man. So the soldiers turned back, and the newlyweds continued on by themselves.

  They came to a desolate, rocky terrain covered with wild vegetation. “We are home,” announced the bridegroom.

  “What! There’s no house here!” protested the king’s daughter, growing worried.

  The bridegroom tapped his stick three times, and an underground cavern sprang open. “Walk in,” he ordered.

  “I’m afraid.”

  “Get in there, or I’ll kill you!”

  The bride went in. The cavern was full of dead people, young and old, piled up on top of each other.

  “See these bodies?” asked the bridegroom. “Your job will be this: take each one of them and stand them up in a row against the wall. Every night I’ll bring in a fresh cartload of them.”

  So began the married life of the king’s daughter. She picked up the dead people from off the pile and stood them up against the wall, so that they took up less space and left room for more bodies. And every evening her husband came in with a cartload of new dead people. It was hard work, because dead people are particularly heavy. Nor could she ever get out of the cavern, for the opening had even disappeared.

  The king’s daughter had brought with her a little furniture, including an old chest of drawers, a gift from an aunt who was something of a fairy. One day when the bride opened a drawer, the chest spoke: “At your command, little mistress!”

  Without delay she said, “I wish to get out of here and go home.”

  At that, a white dove flew out of the chest and said, “Write your father a letter and put it in my bill.”

  The bride wrote the letter, which the dove carried to the king and waited for an answer. The king wrote: “My daughter, find out immediately how to leave your cavern, and trust in my help.”

  When the dove came back to the girl with her father’s answer, she decided to get on her husband’s good side that evening, in order to draw the secret out of him. “Do you know what I dreamed?” she said. “That I left the cavern.”

  “It takes more than a dream to get out!” replied the husband.

  “Why? What does it take?” she asked in an innocent manner.

  “Well, to begi
n with, you have to have someone born prematurely like myself, after seven months, to strike the stick three times on the rock. Then the cavern will open.”

  As soon as the dove relayed to the king the secret about the person born after seven months’ time, the king sent soldiers through city and country to find someone born after only seven months. A washerwoman hanging out things to dry saw that bustle of troops and thought to herself, They’ll steal my sheets, so she began hurriedly pulling them off the line.

 
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