Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “You’ll have to see that the cocks don’t crow, the clock doesn’t strike, nor the bells ring. Cover the window with a dark cloth with the moon and stars embroidered on it, so that you can’t see when it’s daytime. Once the sun is high in the sky, pull away the cloth, and the fairies will turn into lizards and green reptiles and flee.”

  The next morning, the king had his crier announce this order: SILENCE ALL BELLS AND CLOCKS, AND BUTCHER ALL YOUR COCKS!

  Everything was readied, and that night, at the usual time, the fairies began dancing and making music, while the king’s son sang:

  “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 the fairies went to the window singing:

  “Let the cocks crow not yet,

  The clocks strike not yet,

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

  They danced and sang the whole night long, and they continued to go to the window and, seeing that it was still night, they repeated:

  “Let the cocks crow not yet,

  The clocks strike not yet,

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

  When the sun was directly overhead, the curtain was drawn back. Some fairies became snakes, others green lizards, and they all fled.

  The king’s son and his wife embraced the king and the queen.

  They were always happy as could be,

  While here we are without a penny.



  The Mincing Princess

  Time and again the tale has been told of a king who had a marriageable daughter as lovely as lovely could be. One day he called her and said, “My daughter, you’ve reached the age when it is fitting to marry. I’m going to notify all my fellow monarchs and friends that a grand celebration will be held on a certain day. They’ll all attend, and you will take your pick.”

  The day arrived, and all the monarchs showed up, each one accompanied by his entire family. Of all those present, it was the son of King Garnet that the princess fell in love with. She informed her father of her choice. You are well aware of how news spreads among friends: King Garnet’s son found out he was the lucky man, and rejoiced. Noon rolled around and everybody sat down to the king’s banquet of fifty-seven courses. For dessert, pomegranates were served. Now pomegranates are not to be found in every country, and they were altogether unknown at King Garnet’s court. The prince started in on one, but dropped a seed on the floor. Thinking it might be something very valuable, he bent over to pick it up. When the princess, who hadn’t been able to take her eyes off of him, saw that, she rose from the table and, flushed with anger, ran and locked herself in her room. Her father, the king, followed her to see what was the matter. He found her weeping. “Papa, I really liked that boy, but I now see he’s a small-minded person and I want nothing more to do with him.”

  The king returned to the table, thanked all the monarchs for coming, and bid them goodbye. But that was too much for King Garnet’s son. Instead of leaving, he disguised himself as a peasant and began skirting the palace. Now at the royal palace they were looking for a gardener. Since he knew something about gardening, he applied for the post. An agreement was reached over the salary, instructions were given him, and he became the royal gardener. He had a cottage in the garden and carried to it a trunk containing gifts intended for his betrothed, pretending the trunk was full of his clothing.

  Across the cottage window, he stretched a shawl embroidered in gold. The window of the princess faced upon the garden, and as she looked out, the gleam of the shawl caught her eye. She called the gardener. “Tell me, whose shawl is that?”


  “Will you sell it to me?”


  She then ordered her maids to try to persuade him to sell her the shawl. The maids offered him any amount of money, and even to exchange the shawl for something else of value, but all to no avail. At last the gardener said, “I would give her the shawl, if only she would let me sleep in the first room of her apartment.”

  The maids burst out laughing and ran off to tell the princess. Then, discussing the matter, they said, “But if he’s so foolish as to want to sleep in the first room of your apartment, why not let him? No one will be the wiser for it, it will cost us nothing, no harm can come of it, and you will get the shawl.” So the princess consented. At night when the whole house was sleeping, they called him in and left him there to sleep. They woke him up early the next morning and escorted him out. And he handed over the shawl.

  A week later, the gardener hung up a second shawl more beautiful than the first. The princess wanted it, but for this one the gardener was asking to sleep in the second room of her apartment. “You let him sleep in the first room, so you might as well put him to bed in the second!” reasoned the maids, and it was granted him.

  Another week went by, and the gardener put on display a gown embroidered in gold and adorned with pearls and diamonds. The princess fell in love with it, but to get it there was nothing else to do but let the gardener sleep in the third chamber of her apartment—that is, in the antechamber of the princess’s bedroom. What was there to be afraid of, since that poor gardener was certainly half crazy?

  The gardener stretched out on the floor, as on the other nights, and pretended to sleep. He waited for the moment when everyone would surely be asleep and then, as if seized with a chill, he began to shake all over, while his teeth chattered noisily. He was propped against the princess’s door and, with all his trembling, made it sound like a drum being rolled. The princess woke up and, because of that racket, found it impossible to go back to sleep. She told him to be quiet. “I’m cold!” he moaned, trembling all the more. Unable to calm him down and fearing they would hear him in the palace and learn of her strange pact with the gardener, she finally got up and opened the door. “He’s so simple-minded,” she thought to herself, “no harm can possibly come of it.”

  Simple-minded or no, the fact is that, from that night on, the princess began expecting a baby. Her anger and shame were boundless. Worried that everybody would soon know, she told the gardener. “There’s nothing else for you to do,” he said, “but flee with me.”

  “With you? I’d rather die!”

  “All right, remain at court until everyone finds out.”

  So she had to resign herself to running away with him. She tied her things up in a small bundle, took a little money, and one night they ran away on foot.

  Along the way they met cowherds and shepherds, passed through fields and pastures. And she asked, “Whose flocks are these?”

  “They belong to King Garnet.”

  “Oh poor me!”

  “Why? What’s the matter?” asked the gardener.

  “Poor me, for refusing his son for a husband!”

  “Too bad for you!” said the gardener.

  “And whose land is all this?”

  “King Garnet’s.”

  “Oh, poor me!”

  Dead tired, they came to the house of the young man, who had told her he was the son of King Garnet’s steward. It was a smoke-blackened hut containing an old bed, a stove, and a fireplace, and next to it were the barn and the henhouse. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Wring a chicken’s neck and cook me some chicken.” The princess obeyed. They spent the night in the hut, and in the morning the youth went out, saying he wouldn’t be back before evening.

  The princess stayed in that humble house by herself, and all of a sudden a knock was heard. She opened the door, and there stood King Garnet’s son dressed from head to toe in royal garb. “Who are you?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”

  “I am the wife of your steward’s son.”

  “That may well be. But you don’t look like an honest woman to me. What if you were a thief? Somebo
dy’s always sneaking up here stealing my chickens.”

  And the prince called the hens and counted them. “One’s missing!” he said. “How’s that? They were all here yesterday at this hour.” Then he began rummaging through the house. In the stove he found the feathers of the hen which the princess had cooked the night before. “So you’re the thief! I’ve caught you red-handed! Be thankful I was the one to catch you. I won’t turn you over to the law!”

  At the shouts of the prince, his mother the queen appeared. She saw the young woman in tears and said to her, “Don’t worry, my son is a strange boy. You will work for me. I’m expecting a little grandson and have to get his baby clothes ready. You will help me sew.” And the queen led her off to make swaddling bands, baby gowns, jackets, and pants.

  When the gardener came home in the evening, the young woman wept and told him everything, saying he was to blame and had to take her away from there at once. But he calmed her down and persuaded her to stay there. “But what will we do?” she asked. “Our baby will come and we won’t have a stitch to put on him!”

  “Tomorrow,” he told her, “when the queen gives you more sewing, take a baby gown and hide it in your bosom.”

  So the next day as she was leaving, the young woman waited until the queen turned her head for a minute, and slipped a baby gown down her bosom. A minute later the prince came in and said to his mother, “Mamma, just who’s working here with you? That thief? You know she’s capable of stealing everything!” At that, he reached out and pulled the baby gown out of her bosom. The young woman could have gone through the floor. But this time as well the queen sided with her. “These are matters that concern women,” she told her son. “What are you doing meddling in them?” She comforted the young woman, who wept as though her heart would break, and told her to come back tomorrow to string a few pearls.

  The young woman returned to the hovel that night and told her husband about her latest misfortunes. “Don’t give them a thought,” he said. “That king is an old skinflint. Just be sure to slip a string of pearls into your pocket tomorrow.”

  The next day, when the queen wasn’t looking, the young woman thrust a string of pearls into her pocket. But when the prince came in, he said, “You’re giving this thief pearls? I’ll just bet at least one string has already found its way into her pocket!” Rummaging in her pocket, he came up with the pearls, and the young woman fainted. Then the queen held smelling salts to her nose, reviving and consoling her.

  The next day while she was working at the queen’s, her labor pains began and she had to go to bed. The queen put her in the prince’s bed, where she gave birth to a fine baby boy.

  In walked the prince. “What, Mamma, this thief in my bed?”

  “Enough of this comedy, my son,” said the queen. “Dear daughter, this son of mine is your husband, whom you refused all because of a little pomegranate seed, and who became a gardener in order to win you.” Everything was now in the open. The princess’s parents were summoned, together with all the neighboring monarchs, and there were three full days of feasting and merrymaking.

  (Province of Trapani)


  The Great Narbone

  It is told, ladies and gentlemen, that there was once a king who had one son. This son, eager to marry, sent painters to all the kingdoms to paint portraits of the most beautiful girls of every class. The first painter to return brought back the portrait of a washerwoman’s daughter, a maiden of rare beauty indeed. When he saw it, the king’s son said, “She’s the one I want!” and, escorted by servants and soldiers, he left for the city where the girl lived.

  The girl was on her way out to wash and carried a bundle of clothes on her head. With a slap, the prince sent the bundle sailing into the river and said, “I am marrying you, and you will be queen.” Taking her by the hand, he said, “Let’s go to your father.” The girl burst into tears.

  Her father was furious. “Go and joke with your own kind, and leave us poor people to our own worries!”

  “On my honor,” replied the prince, “I want your daughter for my wife, and you will receive a pope’s income.”

  He left them a great sum of money, had the daughter outfitted like a queen, and departed. Back at the palace following the wedding, there was a whole week of gala balls, then the couple settled down in their own quarters and loved each other dearly.

  Meanwhile war was declared on the prince’s father by the king of Africa. The prince went to the kingdom’s defense, leaving his wife in his father’s safekeeping. He went to war, and in the first battle, he was the victor.

  Let’s leave him at war and turn to his wife. One of the king’s ministers had begun making eyes at this princess, but the first time he tried to approach her, she slapped him.

  Stung to the quick, the minister went flying to the king and said, “Majesty, as Your Highness can see, your daughter-in-law is in league with the cook and certain others . . . ”

  The king wrote his son, who replied, “Whatever you see fit to do with my wife, do it.”

  The king showed the minister the letter and asked, “What shall her sentence be?”

  “Majesty, let us select two ruffians to take her to the woods and kill her.”

  Thus was it done. The princess suspected nothing; she only knew she was to go to the country, and had put on her jewels. “But where are we going?” she asked after a certain distance.

  “Keep walking and be quiet!” said one of the men, who pulled out his knife and pricked her to keep her moving. Arriving in the darkest part of the woods, they decided it was time to kill her. “Why must you kill me?” wept the poor girl. “Take my jewels in exchange for my life!”

  The ruffians took the jewels and spared her life. The princess remained there, alone and bitter. A goatherd came by and, in exchange for a present of money, gave her a man’s suit of clothing. She hid her own royal clothing under a mulberry tree and marked the trunk with a cross in order to be able to find it again.

  She set out on the road dressed as a man, and ran into four thieves.

  “Who goes there?” asked the thieves.

  “A fugitive from justice,” replied the princess.

  “But who are you?”

  “The Great Narbone.”

  “Oh, we have heard of you, we know of your prowesses . . . ” and they took her with them into a cave. Other thieves joined them, some twenty in all, and learning that this was the Great Narbone, so illustrious in valor, they made a big to-do over him and named him their chief.

  “Since you confer such an honor on me,” said Narbone, “what I say from now on, goes. Let’s put that in writing, each of us signing in our own blood.”

  “Yessirree,” said the thieves, and they all drew blood from their arms and signed the pledge of obedience to the chief.

  While they were doing that, the watch came in and reported that twelve silversmiths were going by with their cargoes. “Who will look after this robbery?” wondered the thieves.

  “I’ll see to it myself with two of you,” said Narbone.

  Taken by surprise, the silversmiths fired their guns, but the thieves fired even more guns, so the silversmiths fled, leaving behind twelve loads of gold objects. (They got away, thanks to the Great Narbone.)

  The thieves took the treasures and cried, “Long live the Great Narbone!”

  The prince came back from the war, closed himself up in his room, and wept. Noblemen went and tried to console him. “Prince, why all this weeping? You’ll cry your eyes out. Come to the country with us and forget everything.”

  They went hunting in the country and were caught by the thieves and carried into the cave. “You are the prince, are you not?” asked the Great Narbone. “Is your father’s minister still alive?”

  “Very much so,” said the prince.

  “Write him a letter at once,” ordered the Great Narbone, “and have him come to the cave of the Great Mountain.”

  The prince wrote, and the minister had no choice but to
come. The thieves were on the lookout; as soon as they saw the minister they seized him and took him to the cave. Chief Great Narbone had a fine feast prepared and invited everyone to dinner—the twenty-four thieves, plus the prince, the minister, and himself, who made twenty-seven. While dining, he said, “Now, honorable minister, explain that business about the prince’s wife.”

  The minister began trembling. “I know nothing about it . . . ”

  “Don’t tremble, tell the prince what happened. Just what designs did you have on his wife?”

  When the minister refused to talk, Great Narbone pointed a pistol at him, saying, “Either you tell the whole story, or I’ll blow your brains out!”

  Stuttering, the minister started his tale.

  “Majesty,” said the thieves’ ringleader to the prince, “did you hear what really happened?” Drawing a large knife, he cut off the minister’s head and stood it in the center of the table.

  “That takes care of that wicked soul, Majesty! Now we can go on with our dinner! Throw the body out of the cave!” And with bloody hands, he went back to his food.

  When dinner was over, he excused himself, went to the mulberry tree for the princess’s clothing, and put it on. When the prince saw her come in and realized that it was his wife, he wept tenderly and asked her forgiveness.

  The princess had the thieves pardoned and they all rode on horseback, with the carriage of the prince and princess in their midst, to the palace. Just imagine the celebrations! The thieves returned to their towns as rich men and committed no more robberies.

  They lived happily ever after,

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