Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “Don’t be afraid, we’re not here to rob you,” said a corporal. “We’re looking for someone born after only seven months. No matter who it is, the king wants him.”

  “Oh,” replied the washerwoman, “as a matter of fact, I have a son born prematurely after only seven months.” She went into the house and got him for the soldiers. The young man, thin as a rail, joined the king at the head of the soldiers to go and free the princess. He struck the rock three times with the stick, and the cavern opened. The princess was there waiting for them and rode off with her father, the young man, and the soldiers.

  Along the way they saw an old woman in a garden. “Ma’am,” they said to her, “should a man come by asking about us, we’ve not been by—all right?”

  “Huh?” answered the old woman. “You want some beans for your soup tonight?”

  “Perfect!” they exclaimed, “You’re just the person we need.”

  Soon the brigand himself came by, having found the cavern wide open and his wife gone. “Have you seen a woman go by with the army?” he asked the old woman.

  “Huh? You’re making marmalade to go with tea?”

  “Marmalade my eye! A seven-months’ man and the king and his daughter.”

  “Ah! A pound of parsley and basil!”

  “No, no, NO! The king’s daughter with soldiers!”

  “No, not salty cucumbers!”

  The bandit shrugged his shoulders and stormed off. “But, sir,” she called after him, “why did you take offense? Whoever heard of salty cucumbers?”

  Back in the safety of her father’s house, the princess got married again shortly afterward, this time to the king of Siberia. Her first husband, the bandit, however, continued to pursue her and formed a plot. He dressed up as a saint and had himself put into a picture. It was a big picture with a heavy frame fastened by three bolts, and the bandit stood inside, like a saint, behind a thick glass. The picture was taken to the king of Siberia to purchase. When he saw it, he found it so beautiful and lifelike that he bought it to hang over his bed. When no one was in the room, the bandit came out and placed a bewitched paper under the king’s pillow. When the queen saw that saint’s picture over her husband’s bed, she gave a start, for it looked like her first husband, the bandit. But the king took her to task for being afraid of the picture of a saint.

  They went to bed. Once they were asleep, the bandit turned the first door bolt to come out. The queen awakened at the sound and pinched her husband to make him listen too, but the king continued to sleep, since the magic property of that paper kept whoever had it under his pillow fast asleep. The bandit turned the second bolt, and the king slept on, while the queen was paralyzed with fear. He turned the third bolt, stepped out, and said to the queen, “I will now cut off your head. Put your neck firmly on the pillow.”

  To prop her neck up high, the queen took her husband’s pillow too, and in the process, the enchanted paper fell on the floor. At once the king awakened, sounded the trumpet he wore around his neck night and day, as is customary with kings, and the soldiers came running from all directions. They saw the bandit, slew him, and that was that.



  The Seven Lamb Heads

  An old woman had a granddaughter. The granddaughter always stayed home and did the housework while the old woman went out shopping. One day she brought home seven little lamb heads. She gave them to her granddaughter and said, “Atanasia, I’m going out. Cook these seven little heads for me, and we’ll eat them when I return.”

  The girl put the heads on to cook. A cat sat nearby and, smelling the aroma that issued from the casserole, said:

  “Mew mew mew mew mew MEW,

  Half for me and half for YOU!”

  So the girl took one of the seven lamb heads, divided it, gave half to the cat, and ate the other half herself. The cat ate, then said once more:

  “Mew mew mew mew mew MEW,

  Half for me and half for YOU!”

  The girl cut another head in two, one part for the cat and one for herself. The cat, however, was still not satisfied, and meowed anew:

  “Mew mew mew mew mew MEW,

  Half for me and half for YOU!”

  In short, one by one, the seven heads after being halved ended up in the cat’s belly and Atanasia’s. When they were all gone the girl started worrying, scratching her head and saying, “Now what will I do when Granny comes back?” Seeing no other solution, she opened the door and fled.

  When Granny returned and found the house door wide open, and half the bones from the heads on the floor and the other half in the dish, and no sign of her granddaughter, she began saying, “Every last one, she ate every last one . . . . Every last one, she ate every last one . . . . ” And she proceeded to turn the house upside down, saying, “She ate every last one . . . ”

  She flew out of the house without looking where she was going. She took a few steps, started thinking, then shook her head. “Every last one, she ate every last one . . . and for the life of her she couldn’t calm down.

  Meanwhile, Atanasia walked and walked until she came to a forest and saw thousands of roses. “How beautiful!” she exclaimed and, using some cotton thread she had with her, she made herself a crown of roses, a necklace, and two bracelets. Putting them on, she then lay down under a tree and went to sleep. In the morning, the king was hunting in the forest and saw the girl as she slept there. He gazed at her for a long time and liked her so much that he fell in love with her. He awakened her and said, “I am the king. Will you marry me?”

  “As you can see,” replied Atanasia, “I am a poor girl. How can I ever hope to marry you?”

  “If that’s all that is bothering you,” answered the king, “don’t give it a thought. I want you, so you have to become my wife.”

  The girl blushed, and nodded in agreement.

  “Come to the palace with me, then.”

  “Of course, but I left Granny at home and must go get her.”

  The king sent a carriage for Granny, and at the wedding banquet seated her by her granddaughter. It was a sumptuous feast, and the old woman leaned over and whispered in her granddaughter’s ear, “Every last one, you ate every last one . . . ”

  “Hush up, will you!” said the granddaughter.

  “What,” broke in the king, “are the wishes of madam your aunt?”—which is how he referred to her.

  “She wants a dress like mine,” replied the bride.

  “Let one be made for her at once,” ordered the king.

  After dinner, conversation began, and the old woman went on whispering to her granddaughter, “Every last one, you ate every last one . . . ”

  “What does madam your aunt want?” asked the king.

  “She wants,” explained Atanasia, “a ring like mine.”

  “Let one be made for her at once,” ordered the king.

  But the old woman was already starting up again. “Every last one of them, you ate every last one . . . ”

  “What does madam your aunt want?”

  But Atanasia had had enough by then and replied: “She’s a hungry old skinflint and even in the midst of all this royal splendor she can’t take her mind off those messy lamb heads!”

  Outraged by such greed, the king called the guards and ordered her head chopped off in the middle of the town square.

  Where her head fell, a tree sprang up. It was a weeping willow, and at every wind that swayed it, you could hear: “Every last one, she ate every last one . . . Every last one, she ate every last one . . . ”



  The Two Sea Merchants

  Once there were two friends. One of them had a son, whereas the other one had no children at all. But they both loved this boy with all their heart. They were sea merchants, very important ones, who sailed the seven seas. One day the childless merchant had to sail off for his wares. As he got ready to leave, his friend’s son begged to go along to get some experience in sailing and tradin
g, and he pleaded with his father to let him accompany his godfather. Neither father nor godfather wanted him to go, but the boy kept after them until they finally agreed for him to leave on a ship that would sail with his godfather’s.

  While they were on the high seas, a storm came up, so furious that the two ships lost sight of one another. The godfather’s ship came through all right, but the young man’s vessel went to the bottom of the sea and all its crew drowned. The youth fortunately found a plank to straddle, and floated until he reached land. There he wandered about with little hope, and entered a forest inhabited by wild animals. Fearful of the animals, he spent the night in the top of an oak tree. At daybreak, after making sure there were no wild beasts around, he came down the tree and continued on through the forest until he arrived at a high wall that seemed to have no beginning or end. Climbing a nearby tree, the youth reached the top of the wall; on the other side was a city, and the wall had been built to protect it from wild animals.

  The youth somehow made it down the other side and entered the city. “Now I’ll go buy something to eat,” he decided, and turned into a street flanked by shops. He entered a bakery and asked for bread, but the baker did not reply. He went into a pork butcher’s shop and asked for some salami, but the pork butcher did not reply. He went around to all the shops, but no one paid any attention to him.

  “I shall go to the king at once and protest!” said the youth to himself, and marched straight to the royal palace. “May I have a word with the king?” he asked the guard. But the guard remained silent. Upset and disheartened because no one would talk to him, the youth entered the palace and proceeded through the rooms. He came to the most beautiful chamber of them all, containing a royal bed, a royal bedside table and a royal washstand, and thought to himself, Since nobody is saying anything to me, I’m going to lie down and go to sleep.

  At once two lovely young ladies came tripping out and, in total silence, prepared a table and served him supper. He dined, and then went to bed.

  So began a life of ease in that silent city. One night as he slept in the royal bed, there approached, veiled from head to toe and accompanied by two maids of honor, a maiden of marvelous appearance, who asked, “Are you steady and courageous?”


  “If so, I will tell you my secret. I’m the daughter of Emperor Scorzone who, before dying, cast a spell over this city and all the citizens, servants, army, and myself. This spell is enforced by a sorcerer. But if you stay with me every night for a whole year without looking at me or revealing my secret to a soul, the spell will be broken, and I’ll be the empress and you the emperor, hailed by all the people.”

  “I am steady and courageous,” replied the young man.

  But a few days later, he told her that, in order to stay calmly at her side for a whole year, he first had to go and say goodbye to his father, mother, and godfather, and he promised to return to her without delay. The empress wasn’t at all sure she should let him go, but he pleaded so much that she had a ship readied for him and a few of her treasures put aboard. She gave him a wand, explaining, “Take this wand and command, and you’ll find yourself instantly where you wish to be. But remember to reveal my secret to no one.”

  The youth boarded the ship, tapped the wand, and found himself in the port of his father’s city. He ordered his treasures carried to the best inn, where he took lodgings. “Do you know any sea merchant here?” he asked the people.

  “In this city there are two,” he was told, “two friends and important merchants, but they’ve recently been reduced to poverty.”

  “How’s that?”

  “The son of one of them, mind you, was lost at sea, but the boy’s father refused to believe it was a simple accident. He blamed his friend and brought a lawsuit against him. In the suit both men lost every penny to their name.”

  Hearing that, the young man sent for his father, who did not recognize him. “I would like,” said the boy, “to enter into a commercial transaction with you and your colleague, considering that you are experienced sea merchants.”

  “Impossible!” replied the father. “My colleague and I have gone bankrupt because of a lawsuit over my son, who met his death through the fault of my colleague.”

  “That doesn’t matter,” said the youth. “I’ll put up all the capital myself.”

  And he ordered a fine dinner prepared and also invited his father’s friend and the men’s wives. When they found themselves face to face at the inn, the two friends and their wives scowled at one another, now being enemies. They tried to eat, but the two friends, angry as they were with each other, couldn’t swallow a thing. Then the youth picked up a forkful from his own plate and extended it to his father, saying, “Father, accept this morsel given you by your son, who is right here safe and sound.”

  They all jumped to their feet. Mad with joy, everybody grabbed and kissed one another, weeping for happiness. The youth divided his treasures between father and godfather so they could continue their trading, then said, “Now I bid all of you farewell, for I must be off again.”

  “Where are you going?” asked his mother.

  “I can’t tell you that.”

  But his mother kept on and on asking him until he finally told her about Emperor Scorzone’s daughter, whom he was not allowed to look upon and see how beautiful she was.

  “Listen,” said his mother, “I’ll give you a Tenebrae candle, so that when she goes to sleep, you can light it and see what she looks like.”

  The young man boarded his ship, tapped the wand, and found himself back in the port of Emperor Scorzone’s city. He went to the royal palace, where the emperor’s daughter was waiting for him. At night they retired, and he could hardly wait to look upon her beauty. While she was sleeping, he picked up the candle, lit it, and began to uncover the girl. But a drop of molten wax fell on her, scalding her bare flesh. She woke up. “Traitor! You have revealed my secret! Now you won’t be able to free me!”

  “Woe is me! But I will still try to free you! Is there no other way?”

  “You must go into the forest, fight with the sorcerer who enforces the spell, and kill him!”

  “Yes. And after I’ve killed him?”

  “Slit open his belly; there you will find a rabbit. Cut open the rabbit and you will find a dove. Cut open the dove and you will find three eggs. Guard those eggs with your life and bring them back here without breaking them. Then the city and all of us in it will be free. Otherwise we’ll be under the spell forevermore, and you along with us. Take this wand and go out and fight!”

  The young man left, armed with the wand. He came upon a drove of cows and, in their midst, cowherds and the owner of the cattle. “Sir,” he said to the owner, “would you give me a piece of bread? I have gone astray in these parts.”

  The owner of the livestock fed and kept him on as a cowherd. The cowherds were told one day, “Take the cows to pasture, but whatever you do, don’t let them stray into the forest, for in there lives a sorcerer who kills not only human beings but cows as well.”

  The youth went out with the herd and, when the cows were close to the forest, with shouts and whacks he drove them right on in. The owner threw up his hands. “And now,” he asked, “who’s going into the forest after them?”

  None of the herdsmen were willing, so the owner sent the new cowherd, together with another boy. They entered the forest, and the boy was scared to death.

  The sight of the cows in the forest infuriated the sorcerer, who came rushing out with an iron club surmounted with six bronze spikes. Gripped with fear, the boy crouched in the underbrush. But the young man stood his ground and waited for the sorcerer to approach.

  “Traitor! How dare you come and tear up my forest!”

  “I come to destroy not just your forest but you along with it!” the youth replied, and the fight began.

  They fought and fought, throughout the day. They were tired at last, but neither of them had yet received a scratch. The sorcerer said:

  “Had I soup of bread and wine,

  I’d quarter you like a swine!”

  The young man answered:

  “Had I soup of milk and bread,

  I’d chop off your head!”

  So they bid one another farewell, agreeing to continue their fight the next day. The youth rounded up the cows and, together with the boy, drove them back to the barn.

  Seeing them back alive, all the men were speechless. The boy told of the fierce combat between the new cowherd and the sorcerer, repeating their exchange of words and the sorcerer’s wish for soup of bread and wine and the youth’s for soup of milk and bread. So the owner ordered a pail of milk and bread readied for tomorrow and instructed the boy to carry it to the forest and have it all ready for the youth.

  They again drove the cattle into the forest, where the sorcerer reappeared, and the fight started all over. Right in the thick of it, the sorcerer said:

  “Had I soup of bread and wine,

  I’d quarter you like a swine!”

  But there was no soup of bread and wine. Then the youth said:

  “Had I soup of milk and bread,

  I’d chop off your head!”

  And right away the boy passed him the pail of milk and bread. The young man took a ladleful, poured it into his mouth, and immediately dealt the sorcerer a blow on the head that sent him crashing to the ground stone dead.

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