Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  He slit open the sorcerer’s belly and found the rabbit, cut open the rabbit and found the dove, cut open the dove and found the three eggs. He took the eggs and put them away with great care, then drove the cows back to the barn, where he was received in great triumph. The master wanted him to remain on the farm, but the young man declined and, after making the man a present of the sorcerer’s forest, took his leave.

  When he got back to the silent city, he went at once to the royal palace. The beautiful maiden ran down to meet him, then took him by the hand and led him into the secret chamber of Emperor Scorzone, her father. There she picked up the emperor’s crown and placed it on the youth’s head, saying, “You are now emperor, and I am empress.” She then led him to the balcony. There she took the three eggs and said, “Throw one to the right, one to the left, and one straight before you.”

  The minute the eggs were thrown, all the people began talking and shouting, and silence gave way to a great clamor; carriages again rolled, the army launched into maneuvers, the guard changed and, all together, people and troops cried: “Long live our Emperor! Long live our Empress!” And they remained emperor and empress their whole life long, while we are still as poor as ever.

  (Province of Palermo)

  172

  Out in the World

  There was a widow with two daughters and a son named Peppi, who was at a loss to earn his bread. While mother and daughters were spinning one day, Peppi said, “Listen, Mother; with your leave, I am going out into the world.”

  Along the way, he came to a farm and asked, “Can you use the services of a young man here?” By way of reply, they sicked the dogs on him.

  Peppi moved on and reached another farm as it grew dark. “Viva Maria!” he said.

  “Viva Maria! What can we do for you?”

  “Should you be in need of the services of a young man . . . ”

  “Oh,” he was told, “sit down, sit down. I believe our cowherd is leaving. Wait here while I go ask the master.”

  The man went upstairs and asked the master, who said, “Yes, give him something to eat, and when I come down we’ll discuss the matter.”

  So they set bread and cheese before Peppi, who began eating. As the master was on his way downstairs, he met the cowherd coming up the steps and asked him, “Is it true you are leaving?” “Yes, sir,” answered the cowherd. Then the master went to Peppi and said, “Tomorrow morning, take the cattle out to pasture, my boy, but understand this: if you wish to remain here, all you get is your simple board and nothing more.”

  “I’ll stay,” said Peppi. “God’s will be done.”

  He slept through the night and then, in the morning, took bread and a little food and drove the cattle out to pasture. He would keep them out all day and bring them in at nightfall. The carnival season was approaching, and Peppi came home one day with a long face.

  “Peppi!” said the steward.

  “Oh, me!”

  “What’s the matter?”

  “Nothing!”

  The next morning he was on his way out with the herd, as downcast as ever, when he met the master, who said, “Peppi.”

  “Oh, me!”

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing!”

  “Nothing, Peppi? Why don’t you tell me what it is?”

  “Why should I have to tell you? Carnival is coming, and you couldn’t give me a little money just this one time so I could go and celebrate with my mother and sisters?”

  “What’s that you’re saying? Talk to me about anything under the sun, but don’t ever mention money. If you want bread, you can have all you want. But money, NO!”

  “But what should I do if I had to buy a little meat?”

  “I couldn’t say. The conditions I laid down in the beginning are still the same.”

  It was daylight, and Peppi trudged to the pasture with those confounded cattle. He sat down, gloomy as ever. Suddenly he heard his name called. “Peppi?” After looking all around, he concluded, “With my troubled heart, I imagine I hear things, but it’s all in my head.”

  But about that time he heard his name called again. “Peppi! Peppi!”

  “Who on earth is calling?”

  An ox turned around and said, “I am.”

  “What! You are talking?”

  “Indeed I am. Why are you so long-faced?”

  “Why wouldn’t I be? Carnival time is approaching, and the master won’t give me a cent.”

  “Listen to me, Peppi; when you go in tonight, you must say to him, ‘You couldn’t even give me the old ox?’ The master can’t stand the sight of me, for I’ve never worked willingly, and he’ll make you a present of me. Is that clear?”

  When Peppi went home at nightfall with a face longer than ever, the master said, “Peppi, what’s troubling you, to be still so glum?”

  “I must speak to you: you couldn’t give me the old ox that is older than time itself? I could at least slaughter him when I got home and soak his tough meat a little.”

  “Take him,” answered the master, “and I’ll even give you a piece of rope to lead him away.”

  The next morning as soon as it was daylight Peppi took the ox, a knapsack, and eight rolls, and set out for his village, his beret on his head. As he was crossing a plain, two horsemen came galloping up shouting, “Look out, there is a bull coming this way! Look out, the bull will kill you!”

  Softly, the ox spoke. “Say to them, Peppi, ‘If I capture it, will you give it to me?’”

  Peppi repeated those words, and the men replied, “What! You’d never capture it, he would kill you and the ox.”

  “Peppi,” said the ox, “get behind me and don’t be afraid.” The bull dashed up, snorting furiously, and locked horns with the old ox. They began thrusting at one another, but the old ox was so tough that the bull was stunned after a bit.

  “Peppi,” said the ox, “Take him and yoke him to me.” Peppi obeyed, bid the horsemen farewell, and moved on.

  Passing through a certain village, he heard a proclamation: WHOEVER FEELS UP TO PLOWING FIFTY ACRES OF LAND IN ONE DAY’S TIME WILL RECEIVE THE KING’S DAUGHTER IN MARRIAGE; OR, IN THE EVENT HE’S ALREADY MARRIED, TWO PILES OF GOLD. BUT WHOEVER TRIES AND FAILS, DIES.

  Peppi put his oxen in a shed and went to present himself to the king. The guards refused to let him in, since he was so ragged, but the king himself appeared and ordered him admitted to the palace.

  He entered and said, “Your Majesty’s humble servant.”

  “What can we do for you?”

  “I heard the proclamation, I have a pair of oxen, and I would like to see what I can do with those fifty acres.”

  “Did you hear the whole announcement?”

  “I heard it: if I fail, my head falls. Majesty, you will have to furnish me with the plow and a little hay, as I’m just passing through here and have nothing at all.”

  “Lead the oxen into my barn and feed them,” directed the king. Peppi took them there, and the old ox said, “Give me a half sheaf of hay and the bull a whole sheaf.” In the morning Peppi took the plow and four sheaves of hay and was off to the field. He had someone show him the land, yoked the oxen, and took his place behind the plow.

  The councilors watched from the balcony facing the field, and said to the king, “Majesty, what are you thinking of? Don’t you see that fellow finishing the plowing? Do you intend to offer your daughter that ugly peasant for a husband?”

  “Just what do you gentlemen advise me to do?” asked the king.

  “At noon send him a roasted hen, some tender celery, and a bottle of drugged wine . . . ”

  They sent a servant to Peppi with this meal. “Come eat while it’s hot!” they advised. All he had left to plow was a triangle of land no bigger than a curate’s hat. He went to eat his lunch, and fed the old ox a half sheaf of hay and the bull a whole sheaf. Then he began nibbling on the pullet and sipping the wine. He drank it all, finished the chicken, and lay back to sleep. The old ox ate his hay, waite
d for the bull to finish his, and allowed Peppi to sleep on for a while. When the bull also had finished eating, the ox began to prod Peppi with his hoof.

  “Ah . . . ah . . . ” mumbled Peppi in his sleep.

  “Get up,” said the ox, “get up, or your head will roll!”

  He arose, washed his face, yoked the oxen and, still half asleep, finished plowing the corner of land, then proceeded to go back over it.

  “There wasn’t enough opium in the wine, confound it!” commented the councilors from the balcony.

  Peppi gave himself wholeheartedly to the task and by ten o’clock in the evening the plowing was all done. He returned to the palace, fed his oxen, and went before the king, saying, “Bless me, Papa.”

  “Oh, have you finished? What do you want, two piles of gold coins?”

  “I’m a bachelor, Majesty. What would I do with gold pieces? I’ve come for my wife.”

  They took him and washed him from head to foot and dressed him in princely garb, down to a gold watch. And he got married.

  The old ox said to him, “Now that you’re married, you must kill me and put all my bones in a basket and go out and plant them one by one in the soil which you plowed. Leave out only one hoof, which you are to put in your mattress. As for my flesh, tell the cook he can cook it any way he likes—as rabbit meat, hare’s meat, chicken, turkey, capon, and even fish.”

  So Peppi slaughtered the old ox. The king did not want him to do so, as even he had grown fond of him, but Peppi said, “No, Father, we will kill him and then we won’t have to buy any meat for the wedding feast.” And he ordered the cook to prepare the ox meat like that of every kind of animal. A hearty meal indeed resulted; dishes began coming in that delighted everyone present. “This is hare . . . . This is rabbit . . . . This dish here is made from the meat of a young animal . . . . Excellent meat!”

  That evening, when the bride fell asleep, Peppi slipped the ox’s hoof under the mattress, set the basket of bones on his shoulder, and went out to sow them according to the ox’s instructions. Then he came back to bed, without his wife’s having heard a thing. Shortly afterward she awakened and said, “Oh, the dream I just had! There seemed to be many cherries and many apples hanging over my mouth. And many roses and jasmines . . . I still feel as though I saw them all . . . . ” She reached out and picked an apple.

  “I’m not dreaming, this is a real apple!”

  “No, you’re not dreaming,” replied her husband. “These are cherries in my mouth!” And he reached out and picked some cherries.

  The king came in to wish them a good day, and found the bedchamber full of flowers and fruit out of season, which he too proceeded to sample.

  The councilors stepped out on the balcony, and their gaze fell on the field which Peppi had plowed: it was dense with trees of every variety. They called the king. “Look, Your Majesty, are they not trees out there in the field plowed by Peppi?” Squinting, the king said, “Why, they certainly are, beyond any shadow of a doubt! Let’s drive out for a closer look”—and they seated themselves in the carriage.

  When they got there, they saw orange trees, lemon trees, plum trees, cherry trees, grapevines, pear trees—all laden with fruit. The king picked some of each and rode home quite content.

  Now the king had two other daughters, married to princes’ sons, and they began asking their sister, “Does your husband really do all these things?”

  “How should I know?”

  “Silly girl, ask him how he does them.”

  “I’ll ask him tonight.”

  “Fine, and then come tell us immediately.”

  That night, in bed, the bride began putting questions to him; and so that she would be quiet and let him sleep, he told her everything. The next morning she told her sisters, who then told their husbands. When they were all together with the king, the brothers-in-law said, “Shall we make a bet, Peppi?”

  “Such as?”

  “That we can tell you how you got all these trees to grow.”

  “Let’s make a bet.”

  “Very well. You stake everything you have acquired here, and we’ll stake everything we possess.”

  They went to a notary, and the agreement was sealed.

  Then the brothers-in-law told all. Peppi, who trusted his wife, wondered, “And who told them—the sun?”

  He handed over all his possessions and was again as poor as ever. He set out dressed as a peasant and carrying his knapsack. Coming to a hut, he knocked on the door.

  “Who is it?”

  “It’s me, reverend hermit.”

  “What are you seeking?”

  “Could you tell me where the sun rises?”

  “Sleep here tonight, my boy, and tomorrow morning I will send you to another hermit older than I am.”

  The next morning at dawn the hermit gave him a round loaf of bread, and Peppi bid him farewell. After walking a long way he came to another hut occupied by a hermit with a white beard down to his knees.

  “God bless you, reverend father.”

  “What can we do for you?”

  “Could you tell me where the sun rises?”

  “Ah, my son, keep going until you come to another father older than I am!”

  Peppi bid him farewell and continued on to another hut. Kissing the hermit’s hand, he said, “Noble father, God bless you . . . ”

  “What are you seeking?”

  “Could you tell me where the sun rises?”

  “Ah, my son . . . . Who knows, you might make it there. Here, take this pin and walk on. You will hear a lion roar and you will call out, ‘Brother lion, your brother the hermit sends greetings along with this pin to get the thorn out of your paw. In return, you are asked to arrange for me to talk to the sun.’”

  Peppi did as he was fold and removed the thorn from the lion’s paw. “You have given me a new lease on life!” exclaimed the lion.

  “Now you are asked to arrange for me to talk to the sun.”

  The lion guided him to a vast sea of black water. “Here the sun shows himself, but there first appears a serpent, to whom you must say, ‘Brother serpent, your brother the lion sends greetings; in return, you are asked to arrange for me to speak to the sun.’”

  The lion left him, and Peppi saw the water stir. The serpent appeared, and Peppi repeated word for word what the lion had instructed him to say. “Make haste,” replied the serpent, “jump into the water and slip under my wings, or the sun’s rays will burn you.”

  Peppi got beneath one wing. The sun rose, and the serpent said, “Go on, Peppi, tell the sun what you have to tell him before he gets away.”

  “O treacherous sun, only you could have betrayed me. You shouldn’t have done so, traitor!”

  “I betrayed you?” replied the sun. “No, it was not I. Do you know who did? Your wife, to whom you revealed your secret.”

  “Well, excuse me, sun,” replied Peppi. “But there is a favor only you can do for me: if you would set at half-past twelve tonight, I could recover my possessions.”

  “Of course, I’ll gladly do you this favor.”

  Peppi thanked him for everything and departed. Back home his wife had his broth waiting for him. He ate and then sat outside for a while. His princely brothers-in-law passed by and he called to them, “Brothers, let us make another bet.”

  “Just what are you staking? Your property is all gone.”

  “Well, I’ll stake my life, and you two can put up my property.”

  “Very well, then, you stake your life and we’ll stake your property and also our own. But what, by the way, is this bet?”

  Then Peppi said, “When does the sun set?”

  “Of all things, he’s gone mad and no longer knows when the sun sets!” the brothers-in-law told each other; to him they replied, “What? At half-past nine o’clock, that’s when it sets!”

  “Wrong! I say it sets at a half-past midnight!”

  They had the agreement drawn up in writing, then proceeded to watch the sun. At half-p
ast nine the sun was about to go down, when Peppi said to him, “O sun, is this how you keep the promise you made me?”

  Then the sun remembered and, instead of setting, lingered on and on, up to half-past midnight.

  “What did I tell you?” said Peppi.

  “You are right,” replied the brothers-in-law, and gave him back his possessions at once along with their own.

  “Now,” said Peppi, “I intend to show you the heart of a peasant”—as they still called him. He gathered up all their belongings and returned them, saying, “Take all of this back; I have no desire for the property of others, but only for my own.”

  He went back to his old way of life with his wife. The king insisted on embracing him and, removing his crown, placed it on Peppi’s head. The brothers-in-law, as one might expect, were furious, but what could they do? The following day there was a magnificent feast, with all the relatives present. Everyone was happy as course after course followed, concluding at long last with coffee, ices, and cassata. So goes the story of Peppi, who started out as a starving cowherd and ended up the wealthiest and happiest of kings.

  (Salaparuta)

  173

  A Boat Loaded with . . .

  The parents of a certain little boy were very loyal to St. Michael the Archangel. They never let a year pass without celebrating his feast. The father died, and the mother continued to keep St. Michael’s day every year with the little money she had left. Then came a year when she found herself penniless and with nothing more to sell in order to observe the feast. She therefore took the child off to sell to the king.

  “Majesty,” she said to the king, “will you buy this little boy of mine? I’m asking only twelve crowns, or whatever you want to give me for him, just so I can keep St. Michael’s day.”

  The king gave her one hundred gold pieces and kept the little boy. Then he got to thinking. Just imagine, this poor woman has sold her own son so as to be able to honor St. Michael the Archangel, while here I am king and pay him no honor at all. He therefore had a chapel built, bought a statue of St. Michael the Archangel, and celebrated his feast. But once the feast was over, he threw a veil over the statue and thought no more about the saint.

 
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