Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  “I can’t believe it!” exclaimed the king. “Pears freshly picked at this time of year!”

  “That’s nothing,” replied the fox. “My master takes no account of the pears, he has so much else far more precious.”

  “But how can I repay his kindness?”

  “Concerning that,” said Giovannuzza, “he instructed me to convey his request to you for one thing in particular.”

  “Which is? If Count Peartree is so rich, I can’t imagine what I could do that would be fitting.”

  “Your daughter’s hand in marriage,” said the fox.

  The king opened his eyes wide. “But even that is too great an honor for me, since he is so much richer than I am.”

  “Sacred Crown, if it doesn’t bother him, why should it worry you? Count Peartree truly wants your daughter, and it makes no difference to him whether the dowry is large or not so large, since no matter how big it is, beside all his wealth it will only be a drop in the bucket.”

  “Very well, in that case, please ask him to come and dine here.”

  So Giovannuzza the fox went back to Joseph and said, “I told the king that you are Count Peartree and that you wish to marry his daughter.”

  “Sister, look at what you’ve done! When the king sees me, he will have me beheaded!”

  “Leave everything to me, and don’t worry,” replied the fox. She went to a tailor and said, “My master, Count Peartree, wants the finest outfit you have in stock. I will pay you, in cash, another time.”

  The tailor gave her clothing fit for a great lord, and the fox then visited a horse dealer. “Will you sell me, for Count Peartree, the finest horse in the lot? We won’t look at prices, payment will be made on the morrow.”

  Dressed as a great lord and seated in the saddle of a magnificent horse, Joseph rode to the palace, with the fox running ahead of him. “Giovannuzza,” he cried, “when the king speaks to me, what shall I reply? I’m too scared to say a word in front of important people.”

  “Let me do the talking and don’t worry about a thing. All you need say is, ‘Good day’ and ‘Sacred Crown,’ and I’ll fill in the rest.”

  They arrived at the palace, where the king hastened up to Count Peartree, greeting him with full honors. “Sacred Crown,” said Joseph.

  The king escorted him to the table, where his beautiful daughter was already seated. “Good day,” said Count Peartree.

  They sat down and began talking, but Count Peartree didn’t open his mouth. “Sister Giovannuzza,” whispered the king to the fox, “has the cat got your master’s tongue?”

  “Oh, you know, Sacred Crown, when a man has so much land and wealth to think about, he worries about it all the time.”

  So, throughout the visit, the king was careful not to disturb Count Peartree’s thoughts.

  The next morning, Giovannuzza said to Joseph, “Give me one more basket of pears to take to the king.”

  “Do as you wish, sister,” replied the youth, “but it will be my downfall, you will see.”

  “Put your mind at rest!” exclaimed the fox. “I assure you that you will prosper.”

  He therefore picked the pears, which the fox carried to the king, saying, “My master, Count Peartree, sends you this basket of pears, and would like an answer to his request.”

  “Tell the count that the wedding can take place whenever he likes,” replied the king. Overjoyed, the fox returned to Joseph with the answer.

  “But, sister Giovannuzza, where will I take this bride to live? I can hardly bring her here to this hovel!”

  “Leave that up to me. What are you worried about? Haven’t I done all right so far?”

  Thus a grand wedding was performed, and Count Peartree took the king’s beautiful daughter to be his wife.

  A few days later Giovannuzza the fox announced: “My master intends to carry the bride to his palace.”

  “Fine,” said the king. “I will go along with them, so I can finally see all of Count Peartree’s possessions.”

  Everyone mounted horses, and the king was accompanied by a large body of knights. As they rode toward the plain, Giovannuzza said, “I shall run ahead and order preparations made for your arrival.” As she raced onward, she met a Hock of thousands upon thousands of sheep, and asked the shepherds, “Whose sheep are these?”

  “Papa Ogre’s,” they told her.

  “Keep your voice down,” whispered the fox. “Do you see that long cavalcade approaching? That’s the king who’s declared war on Papa Ogre. Tell him the sheep are Papa Ogre’s, and the knights will slay you.”

  “What are we to say, then?”

  “I don’t know! Try, ‘They belong to Count Peartree!’”

  When the king came up to the flock, he asked, “Who owns this superb flock of sheep?”

  “Count Peartree!” cried the shepherds.

  “My heavens, the man really must be rich!” exclaimed the king, overjoyed.

  A bit farther on, the fox met a herd of thousands upon thousands of pigs. “Whose pigs are these?” she asked the swineherds.

  “Papa Ogre’s.”

  “Shhhhhhhh, see all those soldiers coming down the road on horseback? Tell them they are Papa Ogre’s, and they’ll kill you. You must say they are Count Peartree’s.”

  When the king approached and asked the swineherds whose pigs those were, they told him, “Count Peartree’s,” and the king was quite glad to have a son-in-law so rich.

  Next the king’s party met a vast herd of horses. “Whose horses are these?” asked the king. “Count Peartree’s.” Then they saw a drove of cattle. “Whose cattle?” “Count Peartree’s.” And the king felt ever happier over the fine match his daughter had made.

  Finally Giovannuzza reached the palace where Papa Ogre lived all alone with his wife, Mamma Ogress. Rushing inside, she exclaimed, “Oh, you poor things, if you only knew what a horrible destiny is in store for you!”

  “What has happened?” asked Papa Ogre, scared to death.

  “See that cloud of dust approaching? It”s a regiment of cavalry dispatched by the king to kill you!”

  “Sister fox, sister fox, help us!” whimpered the couple.

  “Know what I advise?” said Giovannuzza. “Go hide in the stove. I’ll give the signal when they’ve all gone.”

  Papa Ogre and Mama Ogress obeyed. They crawled into the stove and, once inside, pleaded with Giovannuzza. “Giovannuzza dear, close up the mouth of the stove with tree branches, so they won’t see us.” That was just what the fox had in mind, and she completely stopped up the opening with branches.

  Then she went and stood on the doorstep, and when the king arrived, she curtseyed and said, “Sacred Crown, please deign to dismount; this is the palace of Count Peartree.”

  The king and the newlyweds dismounted, climbed the grand staircase, and beheld such wealth and magnificence as to leave the king speechless and pensive. “Not even my palace,” he said to himself, “is half so beautiful.” And Joseph, poor man, stood gaping beside him.

  “Why,” asked the king, “are there no servants around?”

  In a flash, the fox answered, “They were all dismissed, since my master wanted to make no arrangements whatever before first knowing the wishes of his beautiful new wife. Now she can command what best suits her.”

  When they had scrutinized everything, the king returned to his own palace, while Count Peartree remained behind with the king’s daughter in Papa Ogre’s palace.

  Meanwhile Papa Ogre and Mamma Ogress were still closed up in the stove. At night the fox went up to the stove and whispered, “Papa Ogre, Mamma Ogress, are you still there?”

  “Yes,” they answered in a weak voice.

  “And there you will remain,” replied the fox. She lit the branches, made a big fire, and Papa Ogre and Mamma Ogress burned up in the stove.

  “Now you are rich and happy,” said Giovannuzza to Count Peartree and his wife, “and must promise me one thing: when I die, you must lay me out in a beautiful coffin and bury
me with full honors.”

  “Oh, sister Giovannuzza,” said the king’s daughter, who had grown quite fond of the fox, “why do you talk about death?”

  A little later, Giovannuzza decided to put the couple to the test. She played dead. When the king’s daughter saw her stretched out stiff, she exclaimed, “Oh, Giovannuzza is dead! Our poor dear friend! We must have a very beautiful coffin built at once for her.”

  “A coffin for an animal?” said Count Peartree. “We’ll just pitch her out the window!” And he grabbed her by the tail.

  At that, the fox jumped up and cried, “Penniless man! Faithless, ungrateful wretch! Have you forgotten everything? Forgotten that your prosperity is due to me? You’d still be living on charity, if it hadn’t been for me! You stingy thing! Ungrateful, faithless wretch!”

  “Fox,” begged Count Peartree all flustered, “forgive me, dear friend, please forgive me. I meant no harm, the words just slipped out, I spoke without thinking . . . ”

  “This is the last you’ll see of me”—and she made for the door.

  “Forgive me, Giovannuzza, please, remain with us . . . ” But the fox ran off down the road, disappeared around the bend, and was never seen again.

  (Catania)

  186

  The Child that Fed the Crucifix

  One day a God-fearing farmer found a little baby boy abandoned in his field. “Poor innocent thing,” he said. “What inhuman soul could have left you here to your fate? Don’t be afraid. I’ll carry you home and raise you myself.”

  From that day on, things began going marvelously well for him. The trees were laden with fruit, the wheat shot up and yielded grain galore, the vines provided the richest harvest ever. In a word, the farmer had never before known such prosperity.

  The child grew, and the bigger he got, the wiser he became. But living way off in the country like that, he had never seen a church or a holy picture, nor did he know of our Lord and the saints. One day the farmer had to go to Catania. “Will you go with me?” he asked the child.

  “As you wish, sir,” replied the child, and set out with the farmer for the city.

  When they came to the cathedral, the farmer said, “I must now go about my business. Go into church and wait for me there until I finish.”

  The child entered the cathedral and, seeing the gold-embroidered vestments, the rich altar cloths, the flowers, the candles, he was full of amazement, never having beheld their likes before.

  He made his way slowly to the high altar and saw the crucifix. He knelt on the steps and addressed the crucifix: “Dear Friend, why have they nailed you to this cross? Have you committed some crime?”

  And the head on the crucifix nodded Yes.

  “Oh, poor friend, you mustn’t do that any more, seeing how you now have to suffer!”

  And the Lord again nodded Yes.

  He went on like that for a good while talking to the crucifix, until all the services were over. The sacristan was ready to lock up, but he saw that little country boy kneeling at the high altar. “Hey, there! Get up, it’s closing time!”

  “No,” replied the child, “I’m staying. Otherwise that poor soul will be all alone. First you nailed him to the cross, and now you’re going off and leaving him to his fate. Isn’t it true, friend, that it will make you happy for me to remain here with you?”

  And the Lord nodded Yes.

  Hearing the child talk to Jesus, and seeing Jesus respond, the sacristan was terrified and ran and told the pastor everything. The pastor replied, “He is surely a holy person. Leave him in church and take him a dish of macaroni and a little wine.”

  When the sacristan took him the macaroni and the wine, the child said, “Put everything down right there, and I’ll come and eat at once.”

  Then he turned to the crucifix and said, “Friend, you must be hungry. Goodness knows how long ago you last ate anything. Have a little macaroni.” He took the dish, climbed up on the altar, and began tendering the Lord forkfuls of macaroni. And the Lord opened his mouth and ate. Then the child said, “Friend, aren’t you thirsty? Have a little of my wine.” He held a glass of wine to the Lord’s lips, and the Lord opened his mouth and drank.

  But once he had divided his food and wine with the Lord, he fell down dead, while his soul flew off to heaven and gave praise to God. But the pastor had hidden behind the altar and witnessed everything. Thus he saw that after sharing his dinner with the Lord, the child crossed his arms, while his soul separated from his body and flew heavenward in song. The pastor rushed over to the child’s body lying before the altar: he was dead. Immediately the pastor had it announced throughout the city that a saint lay in the cathedral, and he had him placed in a gold coffin. Everyone rushed in and knelt around the coffin. Even the farmer came, gazed at the little body in the gold coffin, and recognized his son. “Lord,” he said, “you gave him to me, and you took him from me and made him a saint!” Then he returned home, and everything he set about was a success; thus, he became rich.

  But of the money he earned, he gave amply to the poor. He lived a devout life and, when he died, he had a place in Paradise. May that be the lot of us all!

  (Catania)

  187

  Steward Truth

  Once there was a king who had a nanny goat, a lamb, a ram, and a steer. Being deeply attached to these animals, he wanted them in the care of only a reliable person. Now the most reliable soul he knew was a farmer everyone called Steward Truth, since he had never in his whole life told a lie. The king sent for him and entrusted the animals to him. “Every Saturday,” said the king, “you will come to the palace and report to me on each one of them.” So every Saturday Steward Truth came down the mountain, went before the king, removed his cap, and had this conversation:

  “Good day to you, Royal Majesty!”

  “Good day to you, Steward Verity! How is Nanny?”

  “White and rascally!”

  “How is Lamb?”

  “White and lovely!”

  “How is Ram?”

  “Fat and lazy!”

  “How is Steer?”

  “Quite fat, never fear!”

  The king took him at his word, and after this conversation, Steward Truth went back up the mountain.

  But among the king’s ministers was one who envied the esteem in which the king held the steward, and one day he said to the king, “Is it possible that old steward really can’t tell a lie? Let’s bet that next Saturday he tells one.”

  “I’ll stake my head on it that he won’t!” exclaimed the king.

  So they made the bet, each one staking his life. Time passed, Saturday was now only three days off, and the more the minister thought about it, the less confident he was of finding a way to make the steward tell a lie.

  He pondered morning, evening, and night, and his wife seeing him so worried, asked, “What’s the matter? Why this ill-humor?”

  “Let me alone,” he replied. “To tell you about it would really fix things!”

  But she begged so sweetly that she finally wormed it out of him. “Oh, is that it? I’ll do something about it,” she said.

  The next morning the minister’s wife dressed in her finest outfit, her richest gems, and a star of diamonds on her brow. Then she climbed into her carriage and drove to the mountain where Steward Truth pastured nanny goat, lamb, ram, and steer. When she arrived, she got out of the carriage and began to look around her. At the sight of a beautiful lady the likes of whom he had never seen before, the poor farmer was thrown into a sea of confusion. He bustled about and did his best to give her a fitting welcome.

  “Dear steward,” she began, “would you do me a favor?”

  “Noble lady,” he replied, “only ask me. Whatever you wish, I will do.”

  “As you can see, I’m expecting a baby, and I long for roasted beef liver. I’ll simply die if you don’t give it to me.”

  “Noble lady,” said the steward, “ask me for anything you like except that one thing, which I cannot give you. T
he steer belongs to the king and is his dearest animal.”

  “Poor me!” groaned the woman. “I really will die if you don’t satisfy this desire of mine. Steward, dear steward, please! The king will know nothing about it, and you can tell him the steer fell down the mountain!”

  “No, I can’t say that,” said the steward, “nor can I give you the liver.”

  Then the woman started moaning and groaning, and threw herself down and truly looked as though she were about to die. She was so beautiful that the farmer’s heart melted; he killed the steer, roasted the liver, and served it to her. Overjoyed, the woman ate it in two bites, bid the steward a hasty farewell, and drove off in her carriage.

  The poor steward remained there by himself, weighed down with shame. “Now what will I tell the king, come Saturday? When he asks me, ‘And how is Steer?’ I’ll no longer be able to say, ‘Quite fat, never fear!’” He picked up his staff, planted it in the ground, and hung his cape on it. He moved back, then took a few steps forward, bowed and, facing the staff, began speaking:

  “Good day to you, Royal Majesty!”

  And then, speaking now like the king, now in his own voice, he continued:

  “Good day to you, Steward Variety! How is Nanny?”

  “White and rascally!”

  “How is Lamb?”

  “White and lovely!”

  “How is Ram?”

  “White and lazy!”

  “How is Steer?”

  There he remained speechless. He began stuttering to the staff: “Royal Majesty . . . I took him to pasture . . . and he went plunging off a mountain peak . . . and broke every bone in his body . . . and then he died . . . ” And he became all flustered.

  “No,” he reflected, “I won’t tell the king that, that is a lie!” He planted his staff in another place, draped his cape back on it, repeated the act, the bow, the conversation, but at the question, “How is Steer?” he again faltered. “Majesty, he was stolen . . . by thieves . . . ”

 
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