Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  The captain had her point him out. Oh, yes, the soldier was in his company and had only recently been named quartermaster. The captain invited to his house all his noncommissioned officers—corporals and quartermasters. They gave a banquet, at which Teresina did not appear. While they were eating, the captain had a silver knife and fork slipped into the young quartermaster’s pocket. The knife and fork were missed after a time and a search was made for them. In whose pocket should they be found but that poor innocent young man’s. He was court-martialed and condemned to die before the firing squad. Now the quartermaster had a friend among the soldiers of the squad. He gave the friend a bit of serpent grass and said, “When you fire on me, try to make a great cloud of smoke. While the soldiers are going through the ‘Shoulder arms!’ put a little of this grass in my mouth and on my wounds and leave me lying there.”

  He was shot. Screened by the smoke, his friend stole up and filled his mouth with grass. The prince revived, got up, and went off on all fours.

  For some time the daughter of the king of Naples had been sick and on the verge of death. The doctors could do nothing for her. The king decreed throughout the kingdom:


  Dressed as a doctor, the prince showed up at the royal palace. He crossed a hall packed with worried doctors, reaching the sick girl just as she drew her last breath and died. “Majesty,” said the prince, “your daughter is already dead, but I have a way to cure her yet. Please leave me alone with her.”

  They left him and he drew out of his pocket a little of the grass and put it in the dead girl’s mouth and nose. The king’s daughter started breathing again and was completely well. “Fine, doctor,” said the king, “you will now be my son-in-law.”

  “I’m sorry, Majesty,” said the prince, “but I’m already married.”

  “Well, what favor do you ask?”

  “Majesty, I wish to be general commander of all the armed forces.”

  “By all means.” And the king ordered two grand celebrations, the first in honor of his daughter’s recovery, the second in honor of the new general.

  To his celebration, the general invited all the captains, including the one who had carried his wife off. Nor did the general fail to have a gold knife and fork slipped into the captain’s pocket. The knife and fork were found, and the captain was thrown into prison.

  The general went to question him. “Captain, are you married or single?”

  “Honorable General,” said the captain, “to tell the truth, I am not married.”

  “And that lady who was with you?”

  In that instant she appeared, handcuffed between two soldiers, and cried, “No, no, the captain kidnapped me from our house. I never forgot you . . . ”

  But her words were in vain. The general ordered them both coated with pitch and burned to death. So, after all his many trials and tribulations, he ended up alone and general commander of all the regiments.

  (Province of Agrigento)


  The Peacock Feather

  A king went blind. The doctors had no idea how to cure him. Finally one said that the only way to restore sight to those blind eyes was with a peacock feather.

  Now the king had three sons. He called them in and asked, “My sons, do you love me?”

  “You’re as dear to us, Father, as life itself.”

  “Well, you must get me a peacock feather, so that my sight will be restored. Whichever one of you brings it to me will have my kingdom.”

  The sons departed, the two older boys and their little brother. They didn’t want the little brother to come along, but he wouldn’t hear of being left behind. They entered a forest, and night fell. They all three climbed a tree and went to sleep in the branches. The youngest boy was the first to wake up. It was dawn, and he heard the song of the peacock in the heart of the forest. So he went down the tree and then in the direction of the song. He came to a fountain of clear water and bent over to drink. When he stood up, he saw a feather float down from the sky. He looked up, and there was the bird flying through the air.

  When the brothers found out that the youngest had the peacock feather, they seethed with envy, for he would now inherit the kingdom. Then without a moment’s hesitation, one of them seized him, the other killed him, and together they buried him and took possession of the feather.

  When they got back to their father, they gave him the peacock feather. The king passed it over his eyes, and his sight returned. The minute he could see again, he said, “Where is your little brother?”

  “Oh, Papa, if you only knew! We were sleeping in the forest, and an animal came by. It must have carried him off, for that was the last we saw of him.”

  Meanwhile, in the spot where the boy was buried, a handsome reed came up. A shepherd passed by, saw the reed, and said to himself, “What a fine reed! I shall cut it and make myself a shepherd’s pipe.” That he did, and when he put his lips to it, the reed sang:

  “O Shepherd holding me,

  Play gently, don’t afflict me.

  They slew me for the peacock feather;

  My brother, to be sure, was the traitor.”

  Hearing this song, the shepherd said to himself, “Now that I have this pipe, I can give up herding sheep! I shall go all over the world and earn my living piping!” So he left his flock and went to the city of Naples. As he played his shepherd’s pipe, the king looked out and listened. “Oh, what beautiful music!” he said. “Invite that shepherd inside!”

  The shepherd went in and played in the halls of the king. The king said, “Do let me play a little bit myself.”

  The shepherd handed him the pipe, the king began playing, and the pipe said:

  “O Father holding me,

  Play gently, don’t afflict me.

  They slew me for the peacock feather;

  My brother, to be sure, was the traitor.”

  “Oh,” said the king to the queen, “just listen to this pipe. Here, you play a little bit.” The queen began playing, and the shepherd’s pipe said:

  “O Mother holding me . . . ”

  and so on. The queen also was dumbfounded and begged her middle son to play too. He shrugged his shoulders and claimed it was all nonsense, but in the end he had to obey; he’d no sooner put his lips to it than the pipe sang out:

  “O brother who seized me . . .

  but it stopped right there, since the boy was shaking like a leaf and passed the pipe to his big brother, saying, “You play! You play!”

  But the elder brother refused, saying, “You’ve all gone crazy with that shepherd’s pipe!”

  “I order you to play!” cried the king.

  So the oldest boy, pale as a ghost, proceeded to play:

  “O brother who slew me,

  Play gently, you afflict me.

  You killed me for the peacock feather,

  You were, to be sure, my betrayer.”

  At those words the king fell to the floor, stunned with grief. “You wicked boys!” he cried. “To get the peacock feather yourselves, you killed my child!”

  The two brothers were burned to death in the town square. The shepherd was named captain of the guards. And the king spent the rest of his days secluded in his palace, sorrowfully playing the shepherd’s pipe.

  (Province of Caltanissetta)


  The Garden Witch

  There was once a cabbage patch. It was a time of famine, and two women were out looking for something to eat. “Friend,” said one of them, “let’s go into this garden and pick cabbages.”

  “But someone is surely guarding it,” answered the other woman.

  The first one went to see. “There’s not a soul around. Let’s go in.”

  They went into the garden and each picked an armful of cabbages; they carried them home, prepared a good supper, and the next day returned for two more armfuls.

  Now that gar
den belonged to an old woman, who came home and discovered that her cabbages had been stolen. “I’ll take care of that,” she said to herself. “I’ll get a dog and tie him to the gate.”

  The friends saw the dog, and one of them said, “No indeed, I’m not going in this time for cabbages.”

  “Don’t be silly,” replied the other one. “We’ll get two cents’ worth of hard bread and throw it to the dog. That way we can do what we wish.”

  They bought the bread and, before the dog could go “Bow-wow!” threw it to him. He dived into the bread and remained perfectly quiet. The friends got their cabbages and left.

  The old woman appeared and saw what had happened. “So you let them pick cabbages right under your nose! You’re not fit to be a watchdog! Get up!” In his place she put a cat. “When it meows, I’ll dash out and nab the thieves!”

  The two friends returned for cabbages and spied the cat. They bought two cents’ worth of lung, and before the cat could go “Mew” they threw him the lung and he kept quiet. The old woman appeared and, finding neither cabbages nor thieves, had it out with the cat.

  “Now who will I put here? The rooster! This time the thieves won’t get away from me.”

  “No, indeed, I’m not going in this time,” said one of the two friends. “There’s the rooster!”

  “Throw him some grain,” said the other, “and he won’t crow.”

  While the rooster pecked on the grain, they cleaned out the cabbage patch. The rooster finished the grain, then crowed, “Cockadoodledo!” The old woman appeared, found the cabbages missing, grabbed the rooster, and wrung his neck. Then she said to a peasant, “Dig a grave the size of me!” She stretched out in it and had herself covered over with dirt, leaving only an ear above ground.

  The next morning the women returned, looked all around, but saw no one in the garden. The old woman had had the grave dug in the path the two women would take. Going in, they didn’t notice anything unusual; but coming out with their arms full of cabbages, the first friend saw the ear sticking out of the ground and exclaimed: “Oh, friend, look at this wonderful mushroom!” She bent over and began tugging on the mushroom. She pulled and pulled with all her might. She gave one final jerk, and out jumped the old woman.

  “Ah-HA!” cried the witch. “So you’re the ones who picked my cabbages! Just let me get my hands on you now.” She seized the woman who had yanked her by the ear. The other one took to her heels and escaped.

  “Now I’m going to eat you whole,” said the old woman, clutching the thief.

  “Wait,” said the woman. “I’m expecting a baby. If you let me go, I promise that, boy or girl, when it’s sixteen, I’ll give it to you. Do you agree?”

  “I agree!” replied the witch. “Pick all the cabbages you like and be gone. But remember your promise.”

  Shaking like a leaf, the woman made her way back home. “Ah, friend, you fled to safety, but I got caught, and I promised the old woman that I’ll give her the son or daughter born to me when the child turns sixteen!” Two months later, she gave birth to a baby girl. “Ah, poor daughter!” sighed her mother. “I’ll nurse and raise you, and you’ll be eaten alive!” And she wept.

  When the girl was almost sixteen, she was out buying oil for her mother one day and met the witch. “And whose daughter are you, lass?”

  “Signora Sabedda’s.”

  “You’ve really grown up . . . . I’m sure you’re delicious . . . . ” Caressing her, she continued, “Here, take this fig home to your mother and, when you hand it to her, say, ‘What about your promise?’”

  The girl went to her mother and told her everything. “ . . . And she told me to say, ‘And what about your promise?’”

  “My promise?” repeated the mother, and burst into tears.

  “Why are you weeping, Mother?”

  But the woman made no reply. After weeping a while, she said, “If you run into the old woman again, tell her, ‘I’m still quite small.’”

  But the girl was already sixteen and ashamed to say she was quite small. So the next time the witch crossed her path and asked, “What did your mother tell you?” she replied:

  “I’m a big girl already . . . ”

  “Well, come along with your grandmother who has so many beautiful presents for you,” said the witch and seized the girl.

  She took her home and locked her up in the chicken coop and stuffed her full of food to fatten her up. After a short space of time, she decided to see if the girl was fat, and said, “Let me have a look at your little finger.”

  The girl picked up a mouse that had his nest in the chicken coop and showed the witch the mouse’s tail instead of her finger.

  “My goodness, you’re thin, still too thin, my little one. Keep on eating.”

  But a little later, the temptation to gobble her up was just too much, so the witch led the girl out of the chicken coop. “My, you’re the picture of health! Let’s heat up the stove now for me to bake bread.”

  They made up the bread. The girl heated the oven, swept it out, and got it all ready.

  “Now put the bread in,” said the witch.

  “Granny, I don’t know how to put the bread in. I can do everything but that.”

  “I’ll show you how. Slide the bread over here to me.”

  The girl passed the bread, and the witch put it in the oven.

  “Now pick up the large slab that closes the oven.”

  “How do I lift the slab, Granny?”

  “I’ll do it myself!” said the witch.

  When she bent over, the girl grabbed her by the legs and shoved her inside the oven. Then she picked up the large slab and closed the oven, with the witch inside. She ran home immediately to tell her mother, and the cabbage patch was now all theirs.

  (Province of Caltanissetta)


  The Mouse with the Long Tail

  It is told that once there was a king who had a daughter beautiful beyond words. Marriage proposals came to her from kings and emperors everywhere, but her father refused to give her to anyone, because every night he was awakened by a voice saying, “Don’t marry off your daughter! Don’t marry off your daughter!”

  The poor girl would look at herself in the mirror and ask, “Why can’t I marry, beautiful as I am?” Nor could she stop worrying about it. One day while they were all at dinner, she asked her father, “Father, why can’t I marry, beautiful as I am? Listen to me: I’m giving you two days, and if in that time you don’t find someone to betroth me to, I shall kill myself.”

  “If you put it that way,” replied the king, “here’s what you have to do: dress up in your Sunday best, go to the window, and the first passer-by will be your husband. And that’s that!”

  The daughter obediently went to the window in her Sunday best, and what should come down the street but a small mouse with a tail a mile long that smelled to high heaven! The mouse stopped and studied the king’s daughter at the window. And the instant she felt those eyes on her she drew away screaming. “Father, what have you done to me? The first passer-by to look at me turns out to be a mouse. Surely you don’t expect me to marry a mouse?”

  Her father stood in the center of the room with his arms crossed. “I do indeed, daughter. What I said goes. You must marry the first interested passer-by.” Without delay he wrote and invited all princes and court grandees to his daughter’s gala wedding banquet.

  With great pomp the guests appeared and took their places at the table. They had all sat down, but the bridegroom was nowhere in sight. Then a scratching was heard on the door, and who should it be but the small mouse with the smelly tail. A lackey in livery opened the door and asked, “What do you want?”

  “Announce me,” said the mouse. “I’m the mouse who’s come to wed the princess.”

  “The mouse who’s come to wed the princess!” announced the butler.

  “Bring him in,” said the king.

  The mouse scampered in, darted across the floor, climbed up the armchair next
to the princess’s, and sat down.

  At the sight of the mouse there beside her, the poor maiden turned her head in disgust and shame. But the mouse pretended not to notice, and the more she turned away, the closer he moved to her.

  The king told the story to all the guests who, in approval of the king’s whims, smiled and said, “Yes, indeed, the mouse ought to be the princess’s husband.”

  Their smiles gave way to laughter, and they proceeded to laugh right in the mouse’s face. Mortified, the mouse took the king aside and said, “Listen, Majesty, either you warn these people not to make light of me, or suffer the consequences.”

  He scowled so intensely that the king agreed and, upon their return to the table, ordered everyone to respect the betrothed and cease laughing.

  The food was brought in, but the mouse, being short and seated in the armchair, didn’t reach up to the table. A cushion was placed under him, but that wasn’t enough, so he went and sat in the center of the table.

  “Any objections?” he asked, glancing about defiantly.

  “No, no one objects,” the king assured him.

  But among the guests was a very fastidious lady who could hardly keep quiet at the sight of the mouse poking his mouth into her food and dragging that long, smelly tail over her neighbors’ plates. Once the mouse had finished eating her food and turned to that of the other guests, she blurted out, “How filthy! Who ever saw anything so disgusting! I can’t believe my eyes when I see such things at the king’s table!”

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