Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  He went to bed, but couldn’t sleep a wink. In the morning—it was Saturday—he set out, head bowed, still wondering what to tell the king. Every time he came to a tree, he bowed and said, “Good day to you, Royal Majesty!” He recommenced the dialogue, but could never get through it. At last, after passing one tree after another, he thought of an answer. “That’s just the answer!” he exclaimed to himself. Again in high spirits, he saluted every tree he came to and repeated the whole conversation, down to the last line; the more he said the answer, the better he liked it.

  At the palace the king was waiting with his whole court to see who would win the bet. Steward Truth removed his cap, and the conversation began:

  “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?”

  “White and lazy!”

  “How is Steer?”

  “Royal Majesty,

  Here the verity:

  There came a lady from high society

  So plump and lovely

  I fell in love with her beauty

  And smote Steer dead out of love for the lady!”

  With that said, Steward Truth bowed his head and added, “Now if you wish to send me to my death, master, send me. But I have spoken the truth.”

  The king, although saddened by the death of the steer, rejoiced over winning the bet and presented Steward Truth with a sack of gold coins. The whole court burst into applause, excepting the minister whose envy cost him his life.

  (Catania)

  188

  The Foppish King

  There was once a king who thought he was handsome. He had a mirror, to which he was constantly saying:

  “Mirror, mirror so gay and fine,

  I beseech thee, give me a sign

  If anyone has looks surpassing mine.”

  His wife paid no attention at first; then, unable to stand the thought of her husband’s vanity any longer, she said to him the next time he repeated those lines:

  “Hush, King, and hear my view:

  Perchance someone’s more handsome than you.”

  The king sprang to his feet and said, “I’m giving you three days: either you tell me who’s handsomer than I, or your head will roll.”

  The queen immediately regretted her remark, but it was too late, and she could already feel the executioner’s ax on her neck. Worried to death, she retired to her chambers and wept for two days straight. On the third day she opened the window to enjoy the sun once more while there was still time. In the street was an old woman who looked as though she were waiting for her. “Majesty, give me alms!” she said.

  “Let me alone, good old soul,” said the queen. “I have enough troubles of my own.”

  The old woman, lowering her voice, said, “I know all about it, and I can help you.”

  The queen looked at her. “Come in,” she said.

  The old woman entered the palace. “What do you know?” asked the queen.

  “I know what the king told you.”

  “Is there a way out for me?”

  “Indeed there is.”

  “Speak, I’ll give you whatever you ask.”

  “I’m not asking for anything. Listen to me. At noon go to the table with the king. Then ask him to do you a favor. ‘Spare your life?’ he will ask. ‘No,’ you will say. ‘In that case,’ he will answer, ‘so be it.’ Then you will say, ‘Handsomer than you is the son of the emperor of France, hidden under seven veils.’”

  The queen followed the old woman’s advice to the letter, and the dialogue unfolded exactly as predicted.

  The king didn’t bat an eyelash. “If the son of the emperor of France is truly handsomer than I,” he said to his wife, “you will then deal with me however you choose.” Three days later the king set out for France, accompanied by a few soldiers. He went before the emperor and requested to see his son.

  “My son is sleeping just now,” said the emperor in a hushed voice, “but come with me.”

  He took him into his son’s room and lifted the first veil. They saw a glow filtering through. He lifted the second veil, and the glow intensified. He lifted the third veil and the fourth, and the light grew ever brighter, flooding the room. Now the last veils were removed, and through ever waxing radiance the prince was seen on his throne, scepter in hand and sword at his side, and so dazzling was he that the king fell down in a swoon. Vinegar and smelling salts were held to his nose, and the empress had him carried into her rooms. The king revived, and remained there three days to recuperate.

  The prince said to his father, the emperor, “Papa, before that king leaves, I want to talk to him.”

  The king was brought in, and this time he was stronger and didn’t faint. They got to talking, in the course of which the prince asked: “Would you like to see me at your house?”

  “If only that were possible!” replied the king.

  “If you wish to see me again,” said the prince, “take these three gold balls and drop them into a golden basin filled with milk clean and pure. I will then appear to you just as you see me here.”

  Upon his return the king said to his wife, “I’m back. Now you may deal with me as you choose.”

  “God bless you!” replied his wife.

  The king told her everything and showed her the three gold balls. But the grief over his lost illusion and the impression made on him by the prince’s radiance were too painful to endure, and he died a few days later.

  After the king was buried, the queen called her most faithful chambermaid and said, “Bring me three gallons of pure milk and leave me by myself.” She filled the basin with the milk, threw in the three gold balls; at once surfaced the sword, then the scepter, then the prince himself. They talked together, after which the prince dived back into the milk and disappeared.

  The next morning the queen sent for more fresh milk and returned to see the prince, repeating the procedure day after day, until the chambermaid finally got tired and said to herself, “There’s witchcraft going on here or some ugly mischief.”

  So the next day when the queen sent her after milk, she broke a crystal glass and ground it up into fine particles in the mortar, then threw this glass dust into the milk. When the queen dropped in the three gold balls, the scepter rose, but covered with blood. Then the prince appeared, dripping blood from head to foot, for coming through the milk, he had to pass right through those tiny splinters, which cut all his veins. “Ah!” he said, “you have betrayed me!”

  “No!” replied the queen. “It is not my fault, forgive me!” But he had already disappeared into the golden basin.

  At the royal palace of France, the emperor’s son was found covered with wounds from head to foot, and the court doctors were unable to cure him. His father issued a proclamation that any doctor or surgeon who healed his son could name his reward. In the meantime the city dressed in mourning, and the bells tolled constantly.

  From the moment she had seen the prince wounded, the queen knew no more peace, so she left for France dressed as a man in shepherd’s clothing. The first night she was overtaken by darkness in a forest. She crouched under a tree to say her prayers. Nearby was a circular clearing where, at midnight, all the Devils of Hell converged and sat in council, with their chief in the center; all the Devils in turn told him of their mischief, and finally came Lame Devil’s turn to speak.

  “What about you, clumsy thing?” everybody said to him. “You always bungle everything.”

  “Not this time I didn’t! After all the years I’ve worked, I finally did something stupendous!” And he told all about the king and queen and the prince, and what he had caused the chambermaid to do. “But the prince has only three more days to live, and then we’ll bring him here with us.”

  The chief Devil spoke. “But is there no cure for this prince?”

  “There is,?
?? replied Lame Devil, “but I’m not revealing it.”

  “You can tell us.”

  “No. What if someone overheard?”

  “Silly! Could anyone come snooping around here at this hour without dying of fright?”

  “Well, listen. You’d have to go into the forest of the monastery where the glass herb grows, fill two knapsacks with it, grind it in a mortar, drain off the juice into a glass, and douse him with it from head to foot. He would then be as sound again as ever.”

  Hearing that, the queen couldn’t wait for dawn to break in order to go look for the monastery and the glass herb. After walking a great distance she reached the monastery and called the monks who proceeded to exorcise her without opening the door.

  “Don’t exorcise, I am baptized.”

  Hearing that, they opened the door, and she asked them to please give her two knapsacks of the glass herb, and the monks went and picked it for her. The next day she reached the prince’s city, where all the houses were draped in mourning. Dressed as a shepherd, she approached the guard, who refused to let her in. The emperor looked out about that time and asked the shepherd what he wanted.

  “Dismiss all the surgeons, Majesty, leave me alone with the prince, and tomorrow he will be well.”

  The emperor, who was by now at his wit’s end, agreed and left the shepherd alone with his son, instructing the servants to procure all he asked for. The shepherd called for a mortar and crushed the herb. He requested a glass, into which he drained the juice. He poured the juice over the prince’s wounds which, one by one, closed and disappeared.

  He sent for the emperor and showed him his son, again well and more handsome than ever. The emperor wanted to load him down with treasure, but the shepherd refused everything and insisted on leaving. “Take this ring, at least, as a souvenir,” said the prince, handing him a ring.

  The queen went home as fast as she could and, the minute she arrived, went and fetched a little milk clean and pure, obtaining it herself rather than sending the chambermaid for it. She poured it into the basin and dropped in the three gold balls. The prince appeared, but brandished his scepter at her.

  “No, I did not betray you,” cried the queen, throwing herself at his feet. “On the contrary, I saved your life, and here is the ring you gave me!”

  The king lingered in doubt, so she told him the whole tale. A deep love sprang up between them and they married with the consent of the emperor of France, while the chambermaid was condemned to death.

  Their life was happy and long;

  But we, poor we, sing another song.

  (Acireale)

  189

  The Princess with the Horns

  It is told that once there was a father of three sons, and the man had nothing to his name but a house. The house was sold with the understanding that three bricks in the center of one of the walls would still belong to the father of three sons. When he was about to die, he decided to make a will. “But what will you bequeath?” asked his neighbors. “You have no possessions.” His sons didn’t even want to send for the notary, but he came all the same, and the dying man dictated this will to him: “To my oldest son I leave the first brick, to the middle boy the second one, to the youngest the third.”

  With their father dead and gone, the three boys, scapegraces that they were, knew hunger and want. The oldest son said, “I can no longer live in this town. I shall remove the brick my father left me, and go out into the world.”

  When he went for the brick, the lady who now owned the house said she would pay him if he would leave it where it was and not mar her wall. “No, madam,” he replied, “my father left me that brick, and I’m taking it.” He dislodged the brick and found a tiny purse which, together with the brick, he carried off with him.

  Along the way he grew hungry and pulled out the purse. “O purse, give me two pennies to buy some bread!” He opened the purse, and there were the two pennies.

  “O purse, give me one hundred crowns!” he tried saying, and then, in the purse, he found one hundred crowns.

  Whatever the sum he named, the purse provided it. In no time he was rich enough to build a palace opposite the king’s. He looked out of his palace, and who should look back at him from the king’s palace but the king’s daughter. They began courting, and he made friends with the king, at whose palace he was always welcome. Seeing that he was so much richer than her father, the princess said, “I’ll marry you only when you reveal the source of all your money.”

  Big fool that he was, he trusted her and showed her the purse. She feigned indifference, but drugged his wine and then replaced his purse with another one that looked just like it. When the poor boy realized this, he was obliged to sell everything he owned to make ends meet, and once more he was as poor as a church mouse, with nothing at all to his name.

  Meanwhile, he got word that his middle brother was rich. He looked him up, embraced and kissed him, then asked how he had grown rich. The brother told that, running out of money, he had dislodged the brick left him and found a cloak, which he put on and became invisible to everybody around him. Starving to death, he entered a shop and made off with a loaf of bread, without anyone seeing him. Then he robbed silversmith, haberdasher, and king’s messenger, until he was rolling in money.

  “Since that’s how it is, dear brother,” said the oldest boy, “will you do me a favor and lend me your cloak for something special? Then I’ll return it.” Out of love for his brother, the middle boy lent him the cloak.

  He put it on, left the house, and was now invisible to everyone he met. Without a minute’s delay and outdoing his brother, he started stealing right and left, taking everything he came across. When his possessions were nicely replenished, he returned to the king’s palace. “Where on earth,” asked the princess, seeing him now richer than ever, “did all that come from? Tell me, and we’ll get married at once.”

  Still as gullible as ever he again divulged everything, and showed her the cloak. Again she served him drugged wine, and replaced the cloak with another just like it. When he woke up, he wrapped himself in the cloak and, thinking himself invisible, roamed through the palace in search of his purse. But the guards mistook him for a thief, gave him a good thrashing, and threw him out.

  Wondering what to do next, the poor boy decided to return to his birthplace and eke out a living the best he could. Upon his arrival he learned that his little brother was a millionaire living in a large palace, with hordes of servants. “I’ll go to my little brother,” he said to himself. “He certainly won’t send me away.”

  The little brother, who had given him up for dead, welcomed him with open arms and told how he had grown rich. “Just listen to this: our father, as you know, left me the last brick. One day when I was desperate for money I decided to pull the brick out and sell it. Behind the brick I found a horn. As soon as I saw it I had the urge to play it and, when I blew it, out came countless soldiers, saying, ‘At your orders, General!’ I removed the horn from my lips, and the soldiers retreated. Realizing now what I could do, I visited towns and cities with my soldiers, fighting battles and wars and collecting all the money I could. When I had enough to last me a lifetime, I came back here and built this palace.”

  When the oldest brother heard all that, he begged to borrow the horn, promising to return it as soon as he had finished with it. He took the horn off to a city renowned for its wealth, played it, and watched the soldiers come pouring out. Once the plain was covered with them, he gave the order to plunder the city. The soldiers needed no coaxing, and returned loaded down with gold, silver, and treasures of all kind. So he reappeared before the princess richer than ever.

  But he had fallen into the trap twice, and he fell into it once more. He told his secret, and the princess drugged his wine and exchanged horns with him. When he woke up, the king and queen turned him out quite rudely for getting drunk. Deeply mortified, he took his wealth and set out for another town.

  As he made his way through a forest, out r
ushed twelve robbers. He began playing the horn, expecting the soldiers to come flying to his defense; but blow as he would, the robbers took everything and beat him unmercifully for being so presumptuous. They left him lying on the ground half dead but still holding the horn in his mouth and blowing it. Then he realized that it wasn’t the magic horn. Believing that he had ruined himself and his brothers, he decided to jump off a cliff.

  He looked for an appropriate cliff, went up to its mossy edge, and jumped. But halfway down, a fig tree was jutting out, and he remained hanging from its branches. The tree was laden with black figs. I’ll at least die on a full stomach, he thought to himself, and proceeded to eat fig after fig.

  He ate ten, twenty, thirty, only to discover he had sprouted a horn for every fig eaten. They grew on his head, on his face, on his nose, and he now had more branches than the tree that held him. As though his case hadn’t been hopeless enough before, he now found himself so monstrous that he was more determined than ever to end his life.

  He threw himself out of the fig tree and dropped through empty space, but with all those horns, he caught on another fig tree a hundred feet below. It was laden with still more figs than the other tree, but with white figs. “I couldn’t possibly sprout another horn—there’s no more room; doomed however you look at it, I might as well eat my fill.” At that, he started on the white figs. He’d eaten scarcely three, when he realized he had three horns less. He continued eating and saw that for every white fig he ate, a horn vanished. He ate enough to make them all disappear, and ended up with smoother skin than ever.

  When all of his horns were gone, he came down the white fig tree and climbed back up the cliff to the other fig tree. He picked a goodly supply of black figs, tied them up in his scarf, and went off to the city. Disguised as a farmer, he took his figs to the royal palace in a basket. Now this was fruit out of season. The guard immediately called to him and invited him in. The king bought the whole basket, and he took leave, kissing the king’s knee.

 
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