Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  And we are here ‘midst friends and laughter.

  (Province of Agrigento)


  Animal Talk and the Nosy Wife

  Once there was a young married man who was unable to make ends meet where he lived, so he moved to another town and entered the service of a priest. One day while working in the field, he found a large mushroom, which he carried to his employer. The priest said to him, “Go back to the very same spot tomorrow, dig where the mushroom was growing, and bring me what you find.”

  The farmer dug down and found two vipers. He killed them and carried them to his master. That same day some eels had been brought to the priest, who said to his servant, “They will be for the young man’s dinner. Pick out the two thinnest eels and fry them for him.” The servant made a mistake and fried the vipers, which she then served the farmer. He ate them with relish.

  When dinner was over, the youth looked down and sat the cat and dog, and he heard them talking. The dog said, “I’m supposed to get more meat than you are.” The cat replied, “No, I’m supposed to get the most.”

  “Since I go out with the master,” said the dog, “and you stay at home, I have to have more to eat than you do.”

  “It’s your duty to accompany the master when he goes out,” answered the cat, “just as it’s mine to remain in the house.”

  The farmer realized that, by eating the two vipers, he had acquired the ability to understand the speech of animals.

  He went downstairs to the stable to give the mules their barley and heard them talking to one another. “He ought to give me more barley than he gives you,” the lead mule was saying, “since I carry him on my back.”

  “He owes me every bit as much,” protested the other mule, “since I carry the burdens.”

  After overhearing that discussion, the farmer divided the barley into equal parts. “What did I tell you?” said the second mule. “He’s being very fair.”

  The farmer went back upstairs and was met by the cat, who said, “Listen, I know you understand us when we talk. The master called for the vipers and was told by the serving woman that she served them to you by mistake. Now the master wants to know if you acquired the magic ability to understand animal talk. He read of such things in a book of magic, and will pressure you to admit that you can now understand our speech. But you must deny that ability, or you will die and it will go to the master.”

  After that warning, the farmer boy, regardless of all the priest’s questioning, was careful to admit nothing. The priest finally gave up and dismissed him. On the road the youth met a flock. The shepherds were worried, because every night a few sheep vanished from the flock. “How much will you give me if I see to it that no more disappear?” asked the farmer. The steward replied, “When we see that no more are missing, we’ll give you a mare and a young mule.” The farmer remained with the flock and, that night, went to bed outside on the hay. At midnight he heard voices: they were the wolves calling the dogs. “Oh, brother Vitus!”

  “Yea, brother Nick!” answered the dogs.

  “Can we come after the sheep?”

  “No, you can’t,” replied the dogs, “there’s a shepherd sleeping outside.”

  So for a week the farmer slept outside and heard the dogs warning the wolves not to approach. Therefore no sheep were missing in the morning. On the ninth day he had the faithless dogs killed and new ones put on guard. That night the wolves again cried, “Oh, brother Vitus, can we approach?” And the new dogs answered, “Yes, come right ahead, your friends have been put to death, and we’ll make mincemeat of you.”

  The next morning the shepherds gave the farmer a mare and a young mule, and he departed. When he got home his wife wanted to know whose animals he was leading. “Our own,” he replied.

  “How did you come by them?”

  But the man gave no explanation and remained silent.

  In a neighboring town the fair was in full swing, so the farmer decided to take his wife to it. They both climbed on the mare’s back, and the mule followed along behind. “Mamma, wait for me!” said the mule. And the horse replied, “Come on, step lively, you are light whereas I have two persons on my back!”

  Hearing that exchange, the farmer burst out laughing.

  Her curiosity aroused, his wife asked, “What are you laughing at?”

  “Nothing at all. I was just laughing.”

  “Tell me this minute why you’re laughing, or I’ll dismount and go back home.”

  “Well,” said her husband, “I’ll tell you when we get to Santo.”

  They reached Santo, and the woman started up again. “Now tell me why you were laughing. Just what was so funny?”

  “I’ll tell you when we get home.”

  The wife then refused to attend the fair and insisted on going home immediately. The minute they entered the house, she said, “Now tell me.”

  “Go for the priest,” said the husband, “and then I’ll tell you.”

  In all haste the wife threw on her veil and went for the priest.

  As the husband waited for him, he thought, Now I’ll have to tell her, and I will die. A sad fate! But first I’ll confess my sins and receive communion, so I’ll die in peace.

  As he brooded, he threw a little grain to the hens. The hens hurried up to eat, but the rooster bounded forward flapping his wings and drove them off. The farmer asked the rooster, “Why don’t you let the hens eat?”

  “The hens must do as I say,” replied the rooster, “even if there are great numbers of them. I’m not like you who have only one wife. You let her rule you, and you will now die from telling her you understand our talk.”

  The farmer thought about it, then said to the rooster, “You have more brains than I do.”

  He took off his belt, moistened it, made sure it was as flexible as flexible could be, and proceeded to wait. His wife returned and said, “The priest is on his way. Now tell me why you were laughing.”

  The husband took his belt and lashed the daylights out of her. In walked the priest. “Who wanted to go to confession?”

  “My wife.”

  The priest took the hint and left. In a little while the wife came to, and her husband said, “Did you hear what I was supposed to tell you, wife?”

  “I’m not interested any more.”

  And from that day on, she wasn’t the least bit nosy.

  (Province of Agrigento)


  The Calf with the Golden Horns

  It is told that there was a husband and a wife with two children—a boy and a girl. The wife died, and the husband remarried. His new wife had a daughter who was blind in one eye.

  The husband was a farmer and went out to work the fields of a certain estate. His wife couldn’t stand the sight of her stepchildren. She baked bread and sent them to her husband with it. But she directed them to another estate in the opposite direction, so as to lose them for good. The children came to a mountain and called their father: “Papa! Papa!” But there was no answer; all they heard was an echo of their calls.

  They were lost, and wandered at random through the countryside. Soon the little boy became thirsty. They found a fountain, from which he wanted to drink. But the little girl, who had a sixth sense and knew of the hidden properties of fountains, asked:

  “Fountain, fountain dear,

  What must he fear

  Who would quench his thirst right here?”

  And the fountain replied:

  “Whoever drinks of me, be it lad or lass,

  Will for sure become a little ass.”

  So the little brother remained thirsty, and they moved on. They came to another fountain, and he was all ready to bend over and drink, but his little sister asked:

  “Fountain, fountain dear,

  What must he fear

  Who would quench his thirst right here?”

  The fountain replied:

  “Whoever drinks of me, be it lad or lass,

  Will thereafter be a wolf, alas!”<
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  The little brother again refrained from drinking, and they moved on. They came to still another fountain, and the little sister asked:

  “Fountain, fountain dear,

  What must he fear

  Who would quench his thirst right here?”

  The fountain replied:

  “Whoever drinks of me, be it lad or lass,

  Will become a little calf, alas!”

  The sister forbade her brother to drink, but his thirst by now was so intense that he said, “If I must choose between dying of thirst and becoming a little calf, I’ll become a little calf,” and he bent over and drank. Right away he turned into a little calf with golden horns.

  So the little sister continued on with her brother who was now a calf with golden horns. They kept going until they came to the sea. On the shore stood a beautiful cottage where the king spent his holidays. The king’s son was at the window and saw the beautiful maiden walking along the strand with a little calf.

  “Come up here to me,” he said.

  “I will,” she replied, “if you allow my little calf to come with me.”

  “Why are you so fond of him?” asked the king’s son.

  “I love him because I raised him myself, and I don’t want him out of my sight a minute.”

  The prince fell in love with the maiden and married her; the little calf with the golden horns lived with them, and the three were always together.

  Meanwhile, the father, who had come home and found his children missing, was deeply grieved. One day, to forget his sorrow, he went out to gather fennels. He came to the seashore and saw the prince’s cottage. At the window stood his daughter; she recognized him, but he didn’t know who she was.

  “Come in, kind sir,” she said, and her father went in. “Don’t you know me?” she asked.

  “To tell the truth, you do look familiar.”

  “I am your daughter!”

  They fell into each other’s arms. She told him her brother had become a little calf, but that she had married the king’s son. The father was quite pleased to learn that the daughter he had given up for lost had made such a fine march and also that his son was alive, even if he was now a little calf.

  “Now, Father, empty your sack of fennels, and I’ll fill it with money.”

  “Goodness knows how happy your stepmother will be!” said the father.

  “Why not tell her to come here to live, along with her daughter who’s blind in one eye?” said the daughter.

  The father agreed, and returned home.

  “Who gave you this money?” asked the wife, filled with amazement when he opened the sack.

  “Wife! Would you believe I have found my daughter and that she’s married to a prince and wants us all to come and live with her—me, you, and your daughter that’s blind in one eye.”

  Hearing that her stepdaughter was still alive, the woman was consumed with rage, but she replied, “Oh, what wonderful news! I can’t wait to see her!”

  So, while the husband stayed behind to settle his affairs, the wife and the daughter who was blind in one eye went to the prince’s cottage. The prince was out, and when the stepmother found herself alone with her stepdaughter, she seized her and threw her out the window, which looked straight down into the sea. Then she dressed the daughter who was blind in one eye in her stepsister’s clothes and said, “When the prince returns, you will start crying and tell him: ‘The calf with the golden horns put out my eye, and now I’m blind in that eye!’” After giving those instructions, she went back home, leaving the girl there by herself.

  The prince returned and found her in bed weeping. “Why are you crying?” he asked, thinking it was his wife.

  “The calf, with a thrust of his horns, blinded me in one eye. Ooo, Ooo!”

  At once the king cried, “Call the butcher and have him slaughter the calf!”

  Hearing that, the little calf ran to the window overlooking the sea and said:

  “Sister, O sister,

  They whet the knife

  To take my life,

  They ready the bowl

  As my blood’s last goal!”

  And from the sea came this reply:

  “In vain do you wail;

  I lie within a whale!”

  Hearing that, the butcher was afraid to slaughter the calf, and said to the prince, “Majesty, come hear what the calf is saying.”

  The prince approached and heard:

  “Sister, O sister,

  They whet the knife

  To take my life,

  They ready the bowl

  As my blood’s last goal!”

  And from the sea the voice answered:

  “In vain do you wail;

  I lie within a whale!”

  The prince immediately sent for two sailors, and they began fishing for the whale. They caught him, opened his mouth, and out came the prince’s wife, safe and sound.

  The stepmother and stepsister who was blind in one eye were thrown into prison. As for the calf, they sent for a fairy who changed him into a handsome young man because, in the meantime, he had grown up.

  (Province of Agrigento)


  The Captain and the General

  Once upon a time in Sicily there was a king who had one son. This son married Princess Teresina. When the wedding festivities were over, the prince sat down in his room very sad and worried. “What’s the matter?” asked his bride.

  “I was thinking, Teresina dear, that we must take an oath: the first one of us to die must be waked by the other for three days and three nights closed up in the tomb.”

  “Oh, if that’s all that bothering you!” said the bride. She picked up his sword, and they kissed the cross on the hilt to seal their pledge.

  One year later, Princess Teresina was taken sick and died. The prince gave her a grand funeral and, that night, picked up sword, two pistols, and a purse on gold and silver coins, went into church, and had the sacristan let him down into the tomb. He said to the sacristan, “Three days from now, come and listen at the tomb. If I knock, open up; if I haven’t knocked by nightfall, that will mean I’m coming back no more.” Then he gave the sacristan one hundred crowns for his pains.

  Closed up in the tomb, the prince lit the torch, opened the coffin, and wept as he gazed upon his deceased wife. Thus the first night went by. On the second, a hissing was heard at the back of the tomb, and out crawled a huge and fierce serpent, followed by a brood of young snakes. Mouth open, the serpent made a lunge for the dead woman, but the prince pointed his pistol at him and planted a bullet in his head. At the shot, the little serpents turned and wriggled away. The prince remained there in the tomb, with the dead serpent at the foot of the coffin. In a short while here came the young serpents back, each carrying in his mouth a wad of grass. They crawled around the dead serpent, putting grass on his wound, in his mouth, over his eyes, and rubbing his body with it. The serpent opened his eyes again, writhed, and was quite sound once more. He turned about and fled, followed by his young.

  The prince lost no time in taking up the grass left there by the serpents, putting it in his wife’s mouth and strewing it over her body. She began breathing again, color flowed back into her face, and she got up, saying, “Ah, how I’ve slept!”

  They embraced and immediately sought the hole through which the serpents had entered; it was large enough for the couple to crawl through also. They came out into a meadow dense with that serpent grass, and the prince gathered a large sheaf, which they carried off with them. They went to Paris in France and rented a palace beside the river.

  A little later the prince decided to become a merchant. He left his wife with a woman of good morals to help with the housework and, once he had bought a ship, he departed. He promised to return in a month and to signal his arrival, when the ship came in sight of the palace, with three blank cannon shots.

  No sooner was he gone than a captain of the Neapolitan army came down the street and saw Teresina at the window. He
began flirting with her, but Teresina withdrew. Then the captain called to an old woman and said, “Ma’am, if you can arrange for me to meet the lovely young lady who lives in this palace, there will be two hundred crowns waiting for you!”

  The old woman went and begged Teresina to please help her, since they wanted to seize her possessions. “I have a chest full of things,” she explained, “and they will confiscate it. Would you be so good, madam, as to keep it at your house for me?”

  Teresina agreed, and the old woman had the chest brought in. At night, out of the chest jumped the captain. He seized the lady and spirited her away to his ship. They went to Naples where the captain and Teresina, forgetting her husband, lived as man and wife.

  One month later, her husband’s ship came up the river and fired three cannon shots, but no wife appeared on the balcony. Finding the house empty, with no sign of her, the man sold all his goods and traveled through the world until he reached Naples, where he enlisted as a soldier. One day the king ordered a gala military parade, in which all the soldiers marched. As the captains filed by, arm-in-arm with their wives, the soldier-prince recognized Teresina with her arm in the captain’s. Teresina also recognized the prince among the soldiers and said, “Look, Captain, there’s my husband there among the soldiers. What shall I do?”

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