Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  That day there was nothing in the house to eat, and her father and sisters were weak from hunger, so what did she do but wash her hands and see the basin fill up with fish! Her sisters became envious and convinced their father that there was something strange behind all this and that he would be wise to lock the girl up in the attic.

  From the attic window the girl looked into the king’s garden, where the king’s son was playing ball. Running after the ball, he slipped and fell, sending the girl into peals of laughter. As she laughed, gold pomegranate seeds rained from her head on the garden. The king’s son had no idea where they came from, for the girl had slammed the window.

  Returning to the garden next day to play ball, the king’s son noticed that a pomegranate tree had sprung up. It was already quite tall and laden with fruit. He went to pick the pomegranates, but the tree grew taller right before his eyes, and all he had to do was reach for a pomegranate and the branches would rise a foot beyond his grasp. Since nobody managed to pluck so much as one leaf of the tree, the king assembled the wise men to explain the magic spell. The oldest of them all said that only one maiden would be able to pick the fruit and that she would become the bride of the king’s son.

  So the king issued a proclamation for all marriageable girls to come to the garden, under pain of death, to try to pick the pomegranates. Girls of every race and station showed up, but no ladders were ever long enough for them to reach the fruit. Among the contestants were the farmer’s two older daughters, but they fell off the ladder and landed flat on their backs. The king had the houses searched and found other girls, including the one locked up in the attic. As soon as they took her to the tree, the branches bent down and placed the pomegranates right in her hands. Everyone cheered, “That’s the bride, that’s the bride!” with the king’s son shouting loudest of all.

  Preparations were made for the wedding, to which the sisters, as envious as ever, were invited. They all three rode in the same carriage, which drew to a halt in the middle of a forest. The older girls ordered the younger one out of the carriage, cut off her hands, gouged out her eyes, and left her lying unconscious in the bushes. Then the oldest girl dressed in the wedding gown and went to the king’s son. He couldn’t understand why she’d become so ugly, but since she faintly resembled the other girl, he decided he’d been mistaken all along about her original beauty.

  Eyeless and handless, the maiden remained in the forest weeping. A carter came by and had pity on her. He seated her on his mule and took her to his house. She told him to look down: the ground was strewn with silver and pearls, which were none other than the girl’s tears. The carter took them and sold them for more than a thousand crowns. How glad he was to have taken the poor girl in, even if she was unable to work and help the family.

  One day the girl felt a snake wrap around her leg: it was the snake she had once befriended. “Did you know your sister married the king’s son and became queen, since the old king died? Now she’s expecting a baby and wants figs.”

  The girl said to the carter, “Load a mule with figs and take them to the queen.”

  “Where am I going to get figs this time of year?” asked the carter. It happened to be winter.

  But the next morning he went into the garden and found the fig tree laden with fruit, even though there wasn’t a leaf on the tree. He filled up two baskets and loaded them onto his donkey.

  “How high a price can I ask for figs in winter?” said the carter.

  “Ask for a pair of eyes,” replied the maiden.

  That he did, but neither the king nor the queen nor her other sister would have ever gouged out their eyes. So the sisters talked the matter over. “Let’s give him our sister’s eyes, which are of no use to us.” With those eyes they purchased the figs.

  The carter returned to the maiden with the eyes. She put them back in place and saw again as well as ever.

  Then the queen had a desire for peaches, and the king sent to the carter asking if he couldn’t find some peaches the way he’d found figs. The next morning the peach tree in the carter’s garden was laden with peaches, and he took a load to court at once on his donkey. When they asked him what he wanted for them, he replied, “A pair of hands.”

  But nobody would cut off their hands, not even to please the king. Then the sisters talked the matter over. “Let’s give him our sister’s.”

  When the girl got her hands back, she reattached them to her arms and was as sound as ever.

  Not long afterward, the queen went into labor and brought forth a scorpion. The king nonetheless gave a ball, to which everybody was invited. The girl went dressed as a queen and was the belle of the ball. The king fell in love with her and realized she was his true bride. She laughed golden seeds, wept pearls, and washed fish into the basin, as she told her story from start to finish.

  The two wicked sisters and the scorpion were burned on a pyre sky-high. On the same day the grand wedding banquet took place.

  They put on the dog and high did they soar;

  I saw, I heard, I hid behind the door.

  Then to dine repaired I to the inn,

  And there my story draws to an end.

  (Monferrato)

  13

  The Three Castles

  A boy had taken it into his head to go out and steal. He also told his mother.

  “Aren’t you ashamed!” said his mother. “Go to confession at once, and you’ll see what the priest has to say to you.”

  The boy went to confession. “Stealing is a sin,” said the priest, “unless you steal from thieves.”

  The boy went to the woods and found thieves. He knocked at their door and got himself hired as a servant.

  “We steal,” explained the thieves, “but we’re not committing a sin, because we rob the tax collectors.”

  One night when the thieves had gone out to rob a tax collector, the boy led the best mule out of the stable, loaded it with gold pieces, and fled.

  He took the gold to his mother, then went to town to look for work. In that town was a king who had a hundred sheep, but no one wanted to be his shepherd. The boy volunteered, and the king said, “Look, there are the hundred sheep. Take them out tomorrow morning to the meadow, but don’t cross the brook, because they would be eaten by a serpent on the other side. If you come back with none missing, I’ll reward you. Fail to bring them all back, and I’ll dismiss you on the spot, unless the serpent has already devoured you too.”

  To reach the meadow, he had to walk by the king’s windows, where the king’s daughter happened to be standing. She saw the boy, liked his looks, and threw him a cake. He caught it and carried it along to eat in the meadow. On reaching the meadow, he saw a white stone in the grass and said, “I’ll sit down now and eat the cake from the king’s daughter.” But the stone happened to be on the other side of the brook. The shepherd paid no attention and jumped across the brook, with the sheep all following him.

  The grass was high there, and the sheep grazed peacefully, while he sat on the stone eating his cake. All of a sudden he felt a blow under the rock which seemed to shake the world itself. The boy looked all around but, seeing nothing, went on eating his cake. Another blow more powerful than the first followed, but the shepherd ignored it. There was a third blow, and out from under the rock crawled a serpent with three heads. In each of its mouths it held a rose and crawled toward the boy, as though it wanted to offer him the roses. He was about to take them, when the serpent lunged at him with its three mouths all set to gobble him up in three bites. But the little shepherd proved the quicker, clubbing it with his staff over one head and the next and the next until the serpent lay dead.

  Then he cut off the three heads with a sickle, putting two of them into his hunting jacket and crushing one to see what was inside. What should he find but a crystal key. The boy raised the stone and saw a door. Slipping the key into the lock and turning it, he found himself inside a splendid palace of solid crystal. Through all the doors came servants of crystal. “Go
od day, my lord, what are your wishes?”

  “I wish to be shown all my treasures.”

  So they took him up crystal stairs into crystal towers; they showed him crystal stables with crystal horses and arms and armor of solid crystal. Then they led. him into a crystal garden down avenues of crystal trees in which crystal birds sang, past flowerbeds where crystal flowers blossomed around crystal pools. The boy picked a small bunch of flowers and stuck the bouquet in his hat. When he brought the sheep home that night, the king’s daughter was looking out the window and said, “May I have those flowers in your hat?”

  “You certainly may,” said the shepherd. “They are crystal flowers culled from the crystal garden of my solid crystal castle.” He tossed her the bouquet, which she caught.

  When he got back to the stone the next day, he crushed a second serpent head and found a silver key. He lifted the stone, slipped the silver key into the lock and entered a solid silver palace. Silver servants came running up saying, “Command, our lord!” They took him off to show him silver kitchens, where silver chickens roasted over silver fires, and silver gardens where silver peacocks spread their tails. The boy picked a little bunch of silver flowers and stuck them in his hat. That night he gave them to the king’s daughter when she asked for them.

  The third day, he crushed the third head and found a gold key. He slipped the key into the lock and entered a solid gold palace, where his servants were gold too, from wig to boots; the beds were gold, with gold sheets, pillows, and canopy; and in the aviaries fluttered hundreds of gold birds. In a garden of gold flowerbeds and fountains with gold sprays, he picked a small bunch of gold flowers to stick in his hat and gave them to the king’s daughter that night.

  Now the king announced a tournament, and the winner would have his daughter in marriage. The shepherd unlocked the door with the crystal key, entered the crystal palace and chose a crystal horse with crystal bridle and saddle, and thus rode to the tournament in crystal armor and carrying a crystal lance. He defeated all the other knights and fled without revealing who he was.

  The next day he returned on a silver horse with trappings of silver, dressed in silver armor and carrying his silver lance and shield. He defeated everyone and fled, still unknown to all. The third day he returned on a gold horse, outfitted entirely in gold. He was victorious the third time as well, and the princess said, “I know who you are. You’re the man who gave me flowers of crystal, silver, and gold, from the gardens of your castles of crystal, silver, and gold.”

  So they got married, and the little shepherd became king.

  And all were very happy and gay,

  But to me who watched they gave no thought nor pay.

  (Monferrato)

  14

  The Prince Who Married a Frog

  There was once a king who had three sons of marriageable age. In order to avoid any dispute over their choice of three brides, he said, “Aim as far as you can with the sling. There where the stone falls you will get your wife.”

  The three sons picked up their slings and shot. The oldest boy sent his stone flying all the way to the roof of a bakery, so he got the baker girl. The second boy released his stone, which came down on the house of a weaver. The youngest son’s stone landed in a ditch.

  Immediately after the shots, each boy rushed off to his betrothed with a ring. The oldest brother was met by a lovely maiden as fresh as a newly baked cake, the middle brother by a fair girl with silky hair and skin, while the youngest, after looking and looking, saw nothing but a frog in that ditch.

  They returned to the king to tell him about their betrothed. “Now,” said the king, “whoever has the best wife will inherit the kingdom. Here begin the tests.” He gave them each some hemp to be spun and returned within three days, to see which betrothed was the best spinner.

  The sons went to their betrothed and urged them to spin their best. Highly embarrassed, the youngest boy took the hemp to the rim of the ditch and called:

  “Frog, frog!”

  “Who calls?”

  “Your love who loves you not.”

  “If you love me not, never mind. Later you shall, when a fine figure I cut.”

  The frog jumped out of the water onto a leaf. The king’s son gave her the hemp, telling her he’d pick up the spun thread three days later.

  Three days later the older brothers anxiously hastened to the baker girl and the weaver girl to pick up their spun hemp. The baker girl produced a beautiful piece of work; the weaver girl, who was an expert at this sort of thing, had spun hers to look like silk. But how did the youngest son fare? He went to the ditch and called:

  “Frog, frog!”

  “Who calls?”

  “Your love who loves you not.”

  “If you love me not, never mind. Later you shall, when a fine figure I cut.”

  She jumped onto a leaf holding a walnut in her mouth. He was somewhat embarrassed to give his father a walnut while his brothers brought spun hemp. He nevertheless took heart and presented the king with the walnut The king, who had already scrutinized the handiwork of the baker and the weaver girls, cracked open the walnut as the older brothers looked on, snickering. Out came cloth as fine as gossamer that continued to unroll until the throne room was covered with it. “But there’s no end to this cloth!” exclaimed the king. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the cloth came to an end.

  But the father refused to accept the idea of a frog becoming queen. His favorite hunting bitch had just had three puppies, which he gave the three sons. “Take them to your betrothed and go back for them a month later. The one who’s taken the best care of her dog will become the queen.”

  A month later, the baker girl’s dog had turned into a big, fat mastiff, having got all the bread he could eat. The weaver’s dog, not nearly so well supplied, was now a half-starved hound. The youngest son came in with a small box. The king opened it and out jumped a tiny, beribboned poodle, impeccably groomed and perfumed, that stood on its hind legs and marched and counted.

  “No doubt about it,” said the king, “my youngest son will be king, and the frog will be queen.”

  The wedding of all three brothers was set for the same day. The older brothers went for their brides in garlanded carriages drawn by four horses, and the brides climbed in, decked with feathers and jewels.

  The youngest boy went to the ditch, where the frog awaited him in a carriage fashioned out of a fig leaf and drawn by four snails. They set out. He walked ahead while the snails followed, pulling the fig leaf with the frog upon it. Every now and then he stopped for them to catch up with him, and once he even fell asleep. When he awakened, a gold carriage had pulled up beside him. It was drawn by two white horses, and inside on velvet upholstery, sat a maiden as dazzling as the sun and dressed in an emerald-green gown.

  “Who are you?” asked the youngest son.

  “I am the frog.”

  He couldn’t believe it, so the maiden opened a jewel case containing the fig leaf, the frog skin, and four snail shells. “I was a princess turned into a frog, and the only chance I had of getting my human form back was for a king’s son to agree to marry me the way I was.”

  The king was overjoyed and told his two older sons, who were consumed with envy, that whoever picked the wrong wife was unworthy of the crown. So the youngest boy and his bride became king and queen.

  (Monferrato)

  15

  The Parrot

  Once upon a time there was a merchant who was supposed to go away on business, but he was afraid to leave his daughter at home by herself, as a certain king had designs on her.

  “Dear daughter,” he said, “I’m leaving, but you must promise not to stick your head out the door or let anyone in until I get back.”

  Now that very morning the daughter had seen a handsome parrot in the tree outside her window. He was a well-bred parrot, and the maiden had delighted in talking with him.

  “Father,” she replied, “it just breaks my heart to have to
stay home all by myself. Couldn’t I at least have a parrot to keep me company?”

  The merchant, who lived only for his daughter, went out at once to get her a parrot. He found an old man who sold him one for a song. He took the bird to his daughter, and after much last-minute advice to her, he set out on his trip.

  No sooner was the merchant out of sight than the king began devising a way to join the maiden. He enlisted an old woman in his scheme and sent her to the girl with a letter.

  In the meantime the maiden got into conversation with the parrot. “Talk to me, parrot.”

  “I will tell you a good story. Once upon a time there was a king who had a daughter. She was an only child, with no brothers or sisters, nor did she have any playmates. So they made her a doll the same size as herself, with a face and clothes exactly like her own. Everywhere she went the doll went too, and no one could tell them apart. One day as king, daughter, and doll drove through the woods in their carriage, they were attacked by enemies who killed the king and carried off his daughter, leaving the doll behind in the abandoned carriage. The maiden screamed and cried so, the enemies let her go, and she wandered off into the woods by herself. She eventually reached the court of a certain queen and became a servant. She was such a clever girl that the queen liked her better all the time. The other servants grew jealous and plotted her downfall. ‘You are aware, of course,’ they said, ‘that the queen likes you very much and tells you everything. But there’s one thing which we know and you don’t She had a son who died.’ At that, the maiden went to the queen and asked, ‘Majesty, is it true you had a son who died?’ Upon hearing those words, the queen almost fainted. Heaven help anyone who recalled that fact! The penalty for mentioning that dead son was no less than death. The maiden too was condemned to die, but the queen took pity on her and had her shut up in a dungeon instead. There the girl gave way to despair, refusing all food and passing her nights weeping. At midnight, as she sat there weeping, she heard the door bolts slide back, and in walked five men: four of them were sorcerers and the fifth was the queen’s son, their prisoner, whom they were taking out for exercise.”

 
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