Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Whiskers bristling, the mouse leveled his muzzle at her, then leaped furiously up and down the table lashing his tail, flying in the guests’ faces, and snapping their beards and wigs: everything his tail hit disappeared immediately—soup tureens, fruit bowls, plates, cutlery and then, one by one, all the guests; the table also disappeared, along with the palace, and all that remained was one vast deserted plain.

  Finding herself along and abandoned in the middle of this wasteland, the princess started crying and saying:

  “Alas, my mouse!

  My loathing has changed to longing!”

  Repeating those words, she set out on foot, with no idea where she was going.

  She met a hermit, who asked, “What are you doing out in these wilds, my good maiden? Heaven help you if you meet a lion or an ogress!”

  “Don’t speak to me of such things,” said the princess. “All I want is to find my mouse. My loathing has changed to longing.”

  “I don’t know what to tell you, my girl,” said the hermit. “Keep on going until you meet a hermit older than I am who might be able to advise you.”

  She continued on her way, constantly repeating, “Alas, my mouse . . . ” until she met the other hermit, who said, “What you must do is dig a hole in the ground, squeeze into it, then see what happens.”

  The poor girl removed the hairpin from her hair, having nothing else to dig with, and dug and dug until she made a hole in the ground the size of herself. Then she squeezed into it and came out in a dark and spacious cave. “Whatever this leads to,” she said, and started walking. The cave was full of cobwebs that stuck to her face, and the more of them she brushed off, the more she then found on her. After a day’s walk she heard rushing water and found herself on the edge of a large fishpond. She put one foot in the water, but the fishpond was deep. She could not go forward, nor could she turn back, for the hole had closed behind her. “Alas, my mouse! Alas, my mouse!” she repeated. At that, water began rising all around her. There was no escape, so she plunged into the fishpond.

  When she was underwater, she saw that she was not underwater, but in a large palace. The first room was all in crystal, the second all in velvet, and the third all in sequins. So she wandered from room to room over precious carpets and lighted by glittering lamps, constantly repeating:

  “Alas, my mouse!

  My loathing has changed to longing!”

  She came to a sumptuously laid table and sat down and ate. Then she went into a bedroom, where she got in bed and went to sleep. Then she heard the rustle made by a mouse scampering about. She opened her eyes, but all was dark. She heard the mouse running through the room, climbing up on the bed, slipping under the covers, and all of a sudden he was stroking her face, emitting little squeaks as he did so. She dared not say anything, and remained huddled up in a corner of the bed trembling.

  The next morning she rose and wandered through the palace again, but still saw no one. That night the table was laid as before, so she ate and went to bed. Once more she heard the mouse running through the room and coming almost up to her face, but she didn’t dare say a word.

  The third night when she heard the rustle, she took heart and said:

  “Alas, my mouse!

  My loathing has changed to longing!”

  “Light the lamp,” said a voice.

  The princess lit a candle, but instead of the mouse she saw a handsome youth.

  “I am the mouse with the smelly tail,” said the young man. “To free me from the spell that transformed me, I had to meet a beautiful maiden who would fall in love with me and suffer all that you have suffered.”

  Imagine the joy of the princess. The couple left the cave immediately and got married.

  They lived happily ever after,

  While here we sit picking our teeth.

  (Caltanissetta)

  183

  The Two Cousins

  Once, it is told, there were two sisters—one a marquise, the other fallen into straitened circumstances. The marquise had an ugly daughter, the other had three daughters who worked with their hands for a living. One day, having no money to pay the rent, they were all put out in the street A footman of the marquise happened by and told her about it, pleading until she agreed to lodge the homeless family in a loft over the front door. In the evening the girls sat and worked by lantern light, so as to save the oil in the lamp.

  But even that struck their tyrannical marquise aunt as wasteful, so she had the lantern extinguished. The girls then spun by moonlight. One evening the youngest sister decided to stay up and spin until the moon set. As the moon descended, she followed it. Thus moving along and spinning, she was caught in a storm and took shelter in an old monastery.

  In the monastery she found twelve monks. “What are you doing here, young lady?” they asked, and she told them.

  The oldest monk said, “May you become lovelier than ever!”

  The second one added, “When you comb your hair, may pearls and diamonds come pouring out!”

  “While you’re washing your hands,” said the third, “may fish and eels emerge from them.”

  The fourth monk spoke. “When you speak, may roses and jasmine issue from your mouth!”

  “May your cheeks,” commanded the fifth monk, “become two lady apples!”

  The sixth said, “When you work, may you be done the minute you begin!”

  They showed her the way back, instructing her to look behind her when she was halfway there. She looked behind her and became radiant like a star. She got home, where the first thing she did was fill a washbasin and plunge her hands into it. Out came a pair of eels that wriggled as though they had just been caught. Her mother and sisters, full of astonishment, made her tell everything. They combed her hair, collected the pearls that fell, and carried them to the marquise aunt.

  The marquise immediately asked for all the details and decided to send out her own daughter, who stood sorely in need of beauty. She made her wait on the balcony all evening long and, when the moon started down, told her to follow it.

  The girl found the monastery of the twelve monks, who recognized her right away as the marquise’s daughter. The oldest monk said, “May you grow still uglier!”

  The second monk took up from there. “When you comb your hair, may countless serpents crawl from it!”

  “When you wash,” said the third, “may countless green lizards issue from you!”

  “When you speak,” added the fourth, “may a world of filth squirt from you!”

  With that, they dismissed her.

  The marquise was anxiously awaiting her, but when the girl returned uglier than ever, her mother nearly died from the shock. She asked her what had happened, and almost died from the stench that poured from her mouth when she spoke.

  Meanwhile, the pretty little cousin was sitting before the door when a king came by. He saw her, fell in love, and asked for her hand in marriage. The marquise aunt consented. The girl left for the king’s country, accompanied by the marquise aunt as her most important relative. After going a certain distance, the king rode on ahead to prepare for her arrival at the palace. No sooner was he out of sight than the marquise seized the bride, tore out her eyes, thrust her into a cave, and put her own daughter in the carriage.

  When the king saw the ugly cousin step from the carriage dressed as a bride, he took fright. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked scarcely above a whisper. The girl opened her mouth to answer, and her breath nearly knocked him over. The marquise told a tale about sorcery being worked on them along the way, but the king didn’t believe a word of it and sent them both to prison.

  The poor blind girl there in the cave began calling for help, and a little old man passing by heard her. Seeing how badly off she was, he carried her to his house, which then filled up with pearls, diamonds, roses, eels, and jasmine. He filled two baskets with all those things and went and stood under the king’s windows.

  “Tell him,” the girl had advised, “that you
’re selling them in exchange for eyes.”

  The marquise called him immediately, gave him one of her niece’s eyes, and took all the beautiful things, with the intention of telling the king her daughter produced them. The old man carried the eye back to the girl, who put it in place once more.

  The next day he returned to the palace with two more baskets. The marquise, who was anxious to convince the king that her daughter continuously produced eels and jasmine, immediately paid with the other eye. But the king was not to be taken in, for every time he went up to the girl, her breath was still the same.

  Now that she had her sight back, the pretty cousin could embroider. She embroidered a large square of material with her own portrait, displaying it for sale on the boulevard on which the king’s palace stood. The king came by, saw the portrait, shuddered, and asked the old man who had embroidered it. The old man revealed everything. The king had the maiden brought to the palace, boiled the marquise and her daughter in oil, and lived happily from then on with his little queen.

  (Province of Ragusa)

  184

  The Two Muleteers

  Once, so the tale goes, there were two muleteers who were friends. One of the men put all his trust in God, the other put all his in the Devil. One day as they traveled along together, one of them said to the other, “Friend, it is the Devil who helps us.”

  “No,” replied the other, “whoever trusts in God is helped by God.” They argued back and forth, and finally the man with faith in the Devil said, “Friend, let’s bet a mule.”

  At that moment a knight dressed in black rode by (it was the Devil in disguise), and they asked him which one of them was right. “You are right,” replied the knight, “it is the Devil who helps you.”

  “You see?” said the man, and took the mule. But his friend wasn’t convinced, so they bet again, submitting this time to the judgment of a knight dressed in white (still the Devil, in a new disguise). And so, staking one mule after the other and constantly running into the Devil in disguise, the man with faith in God lo?t all his mules. “In spite of everything, I still believe I am right,” he said. “I would even bet my eyes on it.”

  “Very well, let’s make still another bet,” said his friend. “If you win, you’ll get back all your mules. If I win, you’ll give me your eyes.”

  They met a knight dressed in green and asked him who was right. “That’s easy,” answered the knight. “The one who helps you is the Devil.” And he spurred his horse onward.

  So the man who trusted in the Devil took out the eyes of the one who trusted in God and left him blind and disheartened in the middle of the country.

  The poor man began groping his way about and finally found a cave, into which he slipped for the night. It was full of bushes, and the muleteer had just hidden in them when he heard a crowd of people enter. All the Devils in the world were meeting in that cave, and the head Devil questioned them one by one on what they had accomplished. One of the Devils told of disguising himself as a knight and causing a certain poor soul to gamble away everything he owned, down to his very eyes.

  “Fine,” said the head Devil. “His sight will never return unless he places in the sockets two blades of this grass growing here at the mouth of the grotto.”

  “Ha, ha, ha!” laughed the Devils. “Can you picture him discovering the secret of that grass?”

  The poor muleteer hiding there and trembling was overjoyed, but he held his breath and waited anxiously for the Devils to depart so he could go pick that grass and recover his sight.

  But the Devils went on telling stories. “I,” said another, “caused a fishbone to stick in the throat of the king of Russia’s daughter, and no doctor can get it out, despite the king’s promise to heap riches on the man who succeeds. Nobody can do a thing, unaware that all that’s needed are three drops of juice from those sour grapes on the vine growing on the girl’s balcony.”

  “Speak quietly,” advised the head Devil; “the stones have eyes, and the bushes have ears.”

  Just before dawn the Devils departed, and the muleteer was able to come out of the bushes and grope his way to the grass that restored lost eyesight. He found it and saw again as well as ever. Without delay, he set out for Russia.

  In Russia all the doctors were assembled in conference in the princess’s bedchamber. Seeing the muleteer arrive shabby and dusty from all the ground he had covered, they burst out laughing. But the king, who was present, said, “So many have tried, let’s give him a chance too.” And he had the room cleared, in order to leave the muleteer alone with the princess. The man then went to the balcony, picked three sour grapes, and squeezed them one by one into the princess’s mouth. The princess began to stir again and was well in a flash.

  Just imagine her father’s joy. No reward was too great for the muleteer. The king loaded him down with gold, which the king’s men helped him home with. Having given him up for dead, the muleteer’s wife took him for a ghost when he walked in.

  Her husband told her everything and showed her his treasure. They constructed a large palace. His muleteer friend came by and, seeing him with eyes as good as ever and rolling in wealth, asked, “Dear friend, how did you do it?”

  “Didn’t I tell you that the man who puts his trust in God is helped by God?” he said, and told him his story.

  “Tonight,” said the friend to himself, “I shall go to that cave and see if I can’t get rich too.”

  The Devils assembled, and the same Devil as before told of the muleteer listening to their secrets, regaining his eyesight, and curing the king of Russia’s daughter.

  “Didn’t I tell you,” said the head Devil, “that the stones have eyes and the bushes have ears? Quick, let’s set fire to all this brushwood here.”

  They burned up the underbrush, and the man hiding in it was reduced to ashes. He thus learned how it is that the Devil helps you.

  (Province of Ragusa)

  185

  Giovannuzza the Fox

  There was once a poor man who had an only son, and the boy was as simple-minded and ignorant as they come. When his father was about to die, he said to the youth, whose name was Joseph, “Son, I am dying, and I have nothing to leave you but this cottage and the pear tree beside it”

  The father died, and Joseph lived on in the cottage alone, selling the pears from the tree to provide for himself. But once the season for pears was over, it looked as though he would starve to death, since he was incapable of earning his bread any other way. Strangely enough, the season for pears ended, but not the pears. When they’d all been picked, others came out in their place, even in the middle of winter; it was a charmed pear tree that bore fruit all year long, and so the youth was able to go on providing for himself.

  One morning Joseph went out as usual to pick the ripe pears and discovered they’d already been picked by somebody else. “How will I manage now?” he wondered. “If people steal my pears, I’m done for. Tonight I shall stay up and keep watch.” When it grew dark he stationed himself under the pear tree with his shotgun, but soon fell asleep; he woke up to find that all the ripe pears had been picked. The next night he resumed his watch, but fell asleep right in the middle of it, and the pears were again stolen. The third night, in addition to the shotgun, he carried along a shepherd’s pipe and proceeded to play it under the pear tree. Then he stopped playing, and Giovannuzza the fox, who was stealing the pears, thinking Joseph had fallen asleep, came running out and climbed the tree.

  Joseph aimed his gun at her, and the fox spoke. “Don’t shoot, Joseph. If you give me a basket of pears, I will see to it that you prosper.”

  “But, Giovannuzza, if I let you have a basketful, what will I then eat myself?”

  “Don’t worry, just do as I say, and you will prosper for sure.”

  So the youth gave the fox a basket of his finest pears, which she then carried to the king.

  “Sacred Crown,” she said, “my master sends you this basket of pears and begs your gracious accepta
nce of them.”

  “Pears at this time of year?” exclaimed the king. “It will be the first time I’ve ever eaten any in this season! Who is your master?”

  “Count Peartree,” replied Giovannuzza.

  “But how does he manage to have pears in this season?” asked the king.

  “Oh, he has everything,” replied the fox. “He’s the richest man in existence.”

  “Richer than I am?” asked the king.

  “Yes, even richer than you, Sacred Crown.”

  The king was thoughtful. “What could I give him in return?” he asked.

  “Don’t bother, Sacred Crown,” said Giovannuzza. “Don’t give it a thought; he’s so rich that whatever present you made him would look paltry.”

  “Well, in that case,” said the king, very embarrassed, “tell Count Peartree I thank him for his wonderful pears.”

  When he saw the fox back, Joseph exclaimed, “But Giovannuzza, you’ve brought me nothing in return for the pears, and here I am starving to death!”

  “Put your mind at rest,” replied the fox. “Leave everything to me. Again I tell you that you will prosper!”

  A few days later, Giovannuzza said, “You must let me have another basket of pears.”

  “But, sister, what will I eat if you carry off all my pears?”

  “Put your mind at rest and leave everything to me.”

  She took the basket to the king and said, “Sacred Crown, since you graciously accepted the first basket of pears, my master, Count Peartree, takes the liberty of offering you a second basket.”

 
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