Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  The little boy, whose name was Peppi, grew up in the palace and played with the king’s daughter, who was his age exactly. They were always together, and when they got older, they fell in love. The councilors noticed it and said to the king, “Majesty, what’s going to happen? You certainly won’t marry your daughter to that poor fellow, will you?”

  The king replied, “What can I do? Can I send him away?”

  “Follow our advice,” said the councilors. “Send him on a trading expedition in your oldest and ricketiest boat. Give the order for him to be abandoned on the open sea. He will drown, and our problem is solved.”

  The king liked the idea, so he said to Peppi, “Listen, you are to go on a trading expedition. You have three days to load your boat.”

  The boy spent the night wondering what cargo he’d best put aboard the vessel. No ideas came to him the first night nor the second. He thought and thought the third night, and finally called on St. Michael the Archangel. St. Michael appeared and said to him, “Don’t be discouraged. Tell the king to have your boat loaded with salt.”

  The next morning Peppi got up in the best of spirits. The king asked him, “Well, Peppi, did you decide on something?”

  “I would like Your Majesty to give me a boatload of salt.”

  The councilors smiled to themselves. “Perfect! With that cargo, the boat will sink right away!”

  The boat sailed off, loaded with salt and towing a smaller vessel.

  “What’s that one?” Peppi asked the captain.

  “Oh, that concerns me,” answered the captain.

  In point of fart, as soon as they reached the open sea, the captain got into the smaller boat, said “Good night,” and left Peppi all by himself.

  Peppi’s boat started leaking and threatened to sink at any moment in the rough sea. “Dear Mother!” called Peppi. “Dear Lord! St. Michael the Archangel! Help me!” In a flash appeared a solid gold ship, with St. Michael the Archangel at the helm. Peppi grabbed the rope they threw him and tied his boat to St. Michael’s, which sped over the sea like a bolt of lightning and glided into an unknown port.

  “Do you come in the cause of peace, or in the cause of war?” voices on shore asked.

  “In the cause of peace!” said Peppi, who was then allowed to land.

  The king of that country extended Peppi and his companion an invitation to dinner (without knowing that the companion was St. Michael).

  “Mind you,” said St. Michael to Peppi, “they don’t know what salt is in this land.” Peppi therefore carried along a bag of it to the palace.

  They sat down to the king’s table and started eating, but nothing had any taste to it. Peppi said, “Why on earth, Majesty, is your food like this?”

  “That’s what we are used to,” replied the king.

  Peppi then sprinkled a little salt over everybody’s food. “See how it tastes now, Majesty.”

  The king took a few bites and exclaimed, “Delicious! Delicious! Have you much of this stuff?”

  “A whole boatload.”

  “What are you charging for it?”

  “An equal weight of gold.”

  “In that case I’ll buy the entire load.”


  After dinner they had the salt unloaded and weighed. In one pan of the scales they put salt, in the other they put gold. So Peppi loaded his boat with gold and, after plugging up the leaks, sailed away.

  The king’s daughter spent her days on the balcony with her telescope trained on the horizon as she waited for Peppi to come back to her. Catching sight of the boat, she went running to her father. “Papa, Peppi’s back! Peppi’s back!”

  As soon as he landed, Peppi greeted the king and then began unloading all that gold. The councilors were livid with rage and said to the king, “Majesty, this is more than we bargained for.”

  “What can I do about it?” said the king.

  “Send him on another expedition.”

  So, a few days later, the king told him to be thinking of another cargo, as he was to go out again. After some thought, Peppi called on St. Michael, who said, “Have a ship loaded with cats.”

  In order to supply Peppi with cats, the king issued a proclamation: LET ALL THOSE PERSONS OWNING CATS BRING THEM TO THE ROYAL PALACE, AND THE KING WILL BUY THEM.

  The boat was soon loaded with cats and went meowing across the sea.

  When they got farther out to sea than the first time, the captain said “Good night” and took his leave. The boat began sinking, and Peppi called on St. Michael the Archangel. In a flash the gold boat was there and, with lightning speed, towed him to an unknown port, where a delegation met them to see if they had come in the cause of peace or of war. “In the cause of peace,” the two said, and were immediately invited to dinner by the king.

  By each person’s plate lay a whisk broom. “What are they for?”

  “You’ll see in just a minute,” answered the king.

  The food was brought in, and in rushed a horde of rats that jumped up on the table and made for the dishes. Each of the guests was supposed to drive them away with the whisk brooms, but that did no good because the rats only came right back and in such numbers that everybody was helpless.

  Then St. Michael said to Peppi, “Open the sack you brought along.” Peppi untied the sack and let out four cats, which pounced on the rats and tore them to bits.

  Overjoyed, the king exclaimed, “What wonderful little creatures! Do you have many?”

  “A whole boatload.”

  “Are you asking a fortune for them?”

  “Just their weight in gold.”

  “Perfect!” The king bought the entire lot of them, and into one plate of the scales went the cats while into the other went the gold. So again, once the boat had been repaired, Peppi sailed home with a boatload of gold.

  Waiting for him at the port was the king’s daughter dancing for joy. The porters unloaded gold and gold and more gold, the king was in a dilemma, and the councilors were livid with rage. They said to the king, “Twice we’ve failed. The third time we’ll get him. Let him rest a week, then send him off again.”

  This time when Peppi called him, St. Michael said, “Have them load a boat with beans.”

  When the boat loaded with beans was about to sink, the usual gold vessel showed up, and before you knew it Peppi and St. Michael were putting in somewhere else.

  The ruler of this city was a queen, who invited them both to dinner. After dinner the queen pulled out a deck of cards and said, “Shall we play a round?” So they began a game of lansquenet. The queen was a champion player and had all the men who lost to her imprisoned in a dungeon.

  But there was no way St. Michael could lose, and the queen realized that if she continued to play she would forfeit everything she owned.

  She therefore said, “I am declaring war on you.” They agreed on the time of the war, and the queen drew up all her troops. St. Michael and Peppi were an army of only two, and they rushed into battle with their swords pitted against all the others. But St. Michael the Archangel produced a mighty gust of wind that stirred up a thick cloud of dust. Nobody could see a thing, and St. Michael slipped up to the queen and cut off her head with his sword.

  When the dust finally settled and everyone saw the queen’s head severed from her body, a shout of joy went up, for she was a queen nobody could stand, and the men said to St. Michael, “We choose Your Honor for our king!”

  St. Michael said, “I am king in other parts. Choose your king from among yourselves.”

  They made an iron cage for the queen’s head and hung it up at a street corner, while St. Michael and Peppi descended into the dungeon to free the prisoners. It was crowded with bad-smelling, starving people, and on the ground lay dead bodies alongside the living. Peppi threw out handful after handful of beans, and the men scrambled for them and gulped them down like animals. That way St. Michael and Peppi revived the men, made bean soup for them, and sent them all home.

  Beans were
unknown in that city, so Peppi sold his for their weight in gold. Then with a boatload of gold and an escort of soldiers at his command, he sailed home, announcing his arrival with a volley of cannon fire.

  This time the gold boat as well came into port, and the king welcomed St. Michael the Archangel. At dinner St. Michael said to the king, “Majesty, you have a statue which you honored on a single feast day and then left to gather cobwebs. Why was that? Did you perhaps lack money?”

  The king said, “Oh, yes, that’s St. Michael the Archangel. I’d completely forgotten.”

  Then St. Michael said, “Let’s go see the statue.”

  They got to the chapel and found the statue covered with mold. The stranger said, “I am St. Michael the Archangel and I ask you, Majesty, why you have wronged me like this.”

  The king fell to his knees and said, “Pardon me. Tell me how I can serve you! From now on, your feast will be the most lavishly celebrated of all!”

  The saint replied, “You will celebrate the marriage of your daughter and Peppi, since these two young people are meant to become man and wife.”

  So Peppi married the king’s daughter and became king in his turn.



  The King’s Son in the Henhouse

  It is told that once there was a cobbler with three daughters—Peppa, Nina, and Nunzia. They were as poor as church mice, and although the cobbler went about the countryside to mend shoes, he couldn’t make a cent. Seeing him come home empty-handed, his wife cried, “Wretch! What will I put in the pot today?” He was tired and said to his daughter Nunzia, who was the youngest, “Listen, will you come with me to get something to make soup with?”

  They went off through the fields to pick herbs for soup. They got to the end of a field and, looking for herbs, Nunzia discovered a fenneltop so big that for all she tugged at it she was unable to uproot it and had to call her father. “Father! Father! Just look at what I’ve found. But I can’t pull it up!”

  Her father also tried and tried; the fennel came up and, underneath, a trapdoor stood open. At the door appeared a handsome youth, who said, “Lovely maiden, what are you looking for?”

  “Just what do you expect us to be looking for? We are starving to death and therefore picking a few things to make soup with.”

  “If you are poor, I will make you rich,” said the young man to the cobbler. “Leave your daughter with me, and I will give you a sack of money.”

  “What!” exclaimed the poor father. “Leave you my daughter?” But the youth finally talked him into it, and he picked up the money and left, while Nunzia followed the young man underground.

  Down below was a house so sumptuous that the girl thought she had reached Paradise. She began a life that could have been termed blissful, except that she missed her father and sisters.

  Meanwhile the cobbler had chicken and beef aplenty every day, and was quite well off. One day Peppa and Nina said to him, “Father, will you take us to see our sister?”

  They went to the palace where they had found the fennel, knocked on the trapdoor, and the youth invited them in. Nunzia was delighted to see her sisters again, and showed them around the house. Only one room did she refuse to open.

  “Why not? What’s in there?” asked the sisters, consumed with curiosity.

  “I don’t know. Not even I have ever been in there. My husband has forbidden me to enter that room.”

  Then she went off to arrange her hair, and her sisters insisted on helping her. They undid her tress, inside which they found a key. “This,” whispered Peppa to Nina, “must be the key to the room she wouldn’t show us!” And pretending to dress her hair, they unfastened the key, then stole off to open up the room.

  Inside the room were numerous women: some embroidered, others sewed, and the rest cut out clothes. And they sang:

  “Bundles and clothes we create

  For the king’s son they await!”

  “Ah, our sister is expecting a baby and didn’t tell us!” exclaimed the sisters. But in that instant, the women in the room, realizing they were being observed, went from beautiful to ugly and changed into lizards and green reptiles. Peppa and Nina fled.

  Seeing them so upset, Nunzia asked, “What’s the matter, sisters?”

  “Nothing, we just wanted to tell you goodbye, for we are leaving now.”

  “So soon?”

  “Yes, we must go home.”

  “But what happened to you?”

  “Well, we took the key you had in your hair, and opened that door . . . ”

  “Oh, my sisters! That will be my undoing!”

  As a matter of fact, those women in the room, who were none other than fairies, went to the young man, whom they were holding prisoner there underground, and said, “You must send your wife away. Immediately.”

  “Why?” he asked, with tears in his eyes.

  “You must send her away at once. Orders are orders, is that clear?”

  So the poor husband, whose heart was breaking, had to go to her and say, “You must leave the house at once, it’s the fairies’ order; otherwise I’m done for!”

  “My sisters have brought about my downfall!” she said, bursting into tears. “Now where will I go?”

  “Take this ball of yarn,” he said. “Tie one end to the doorknob and walk off unwinding it. Where the yarn runs out, stop.”

  Sorrowful, Nunzia obeyed; the ball turned and turned as she walked on and on, and it seemed to have no end. She passed under the balcony of a magnificent palace, and there the ball came to an end. It was the palace of King Crystal.

  Nunzia called, and the maids appeared. “Please put me up for tonight,” she said. “I don’t know where to go, and I’m expecting a baby!”—because in the meantime she had discovered that she was with child.

  The maids went to tell King Crystal and the queen, but they replied they would open their door to no one under the sun. Note that many years prior to this, their son had been carried off by the fairies, and they had not seen hide nor hair of him since. They were therefore highly distrustful of strange women.

  “Could I just stay in the henhouse, for one night?” asked the poor thing.

  Moved to pity, the maids persuaded the king and queen to let her stay in the henhouse, and they took her a little bread, as she was starving to death. They wanted to hear her story, but she only shook her head and repeated, “Ah, if you only knew! If you only knew!”

  That very night she gave birth to a fine baby boy, and a maid went at once to tell the queen. “Majesty, you should see the beautiful baby this foreign woman has just had! He looks exactly like your son!”

  Meanwhile the fairies said to the youth, who was still underground, “Did you know your wife gave birth to a fine baby boy? Would you like to come see it tonight?”

  “If only I could! Will you take me to him?”

  That night a knock was heard on the henhouse door. “Who is it?”

  “Open up, it’s me, your baby’s father.” And in walked Nunzia’s husband, who was the king’s son kidnapped by the fairies; they were now bringing him back to see his own son. Behind him came all the fairies, and the henhouse was immediately tapestried and carpeted in gold; the couch was decked with a gold-embroidered counterpane, the baby’s cradle turned gold, and everything glittered, making it look like day, while music played and the fairies sang and danced, and the prince rocked the baby and said:

  “If my father knew

  That you are his son’s son,

  In clothes of gold would you be wrapped,

  In cradles of gold would you be rocked;

  I would be with you day and night in one,

  Sleep, sleep, O royal son!”

  And as they danced, the fairies went to the window and sang:

  “Let the cocks crow not yet,

  The clock strike not yet,

  The time is not yet, not yet, not yet.”

  Let’s leave them and go to the queen. A maid came to her and said, “My queen
, my queen, let me tell you! The strangest things you ever saw are going on in the foreign woman’s roost! It’s no longer a henhouse, but all bright like Paradise. You can hear somebody singing who sounds exactly like your son. Just listen!”

  The queen went to the door of the henhouse and listened. But at that moment a rooster crowed, and nothing more was heard, nor did light shine any longer under the door.

  That morning the queen herself decided to take the foreign woman her coffee. “Will you please tell me who was here last night?”

  “Oh, I’m not at liberty to say, but even if I were, what could I tell you? I wish I knew myself who it is!”

  “But who can it be?” said the queen. “What if it were my son?”—and she went on so, until the foreigner finally told her whole story from the beginning, how she’d gone out for herbs, and all the rest.

  “Then you are my son’s wife?” asked the queen, embracing and kissing her. “Ask him tonight what is needed to free him.”

  That night, at the same time, the fairies gathered with the king’s son. The fairies began dancing, while he rocked his son, singing all the while:

  “If my father knew That you are his son’s son,

  In clothes of gold would you be wrapped,

  In cradles of gold would you be rocked;

  I would be with you day and night in one,

  Sleep, sleep, O royal son!”

  While the fairies danced, the wife said to her husband, “Tell me what is needed to free you!”

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