Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  And the judge had him sent to the crazy house.

  (Sicily)

  191

  Fra Ignazio

  Each day Fra Ignazio, the lay brother, had to go out begging for the monastery. He preferred to go where there were poor people, since whatever they gave, they gave cheerfully. One person he would never approach, however, was a certain notary named Franchino, a stingy soul who bled the poor.

  One day Notary Franchino, offended with Fra Ignazio for passing him up, went to the monastery to complain to the prior of Fra Ignazio’s rudeness. “Do I seem to you, Father, a person of so little consequence?”

  The prior urged him not to worry, and promised to speak to Fra Ignazio. Satisfied, the notary took his leave.

  When Fra Ignazio returned to the monastery, the prior said, “What do you mean by slighting Notary Franchino? Tomorrow you are to go to him and accept everything he gives you.”

  Fra Ignazio bowed in silence. The next morning he went to the notary, and Franchino filled his knapsacks with every good thing imaginable. Fra Ignazio heaved the sacks onto his back and set out for the monastery. At the first step he took, a drop of blood fell from the sacks, followed by another and still another. People along the way noticing the sacks dripping blood, said, “Well, well! Today is a meat day for Fra Ignazio! The Fathers will have a fine feast for a change!” Without a word Fra Ignazio continued on his way, leaving a trail of blood behind him.

  When he reached the monastery, the brothers, seeing him come in with all that blood, exclaimed, “Fra Ignazio is bringing us meat today! And freshly slaughtered!” They opened the knapsacks, but they contained no meat. “But where did all that blood come from?”

  “Don’t be afraid,” replied Fra Ignazio. “That blood is actually flowing from the knapsacks, since the alms Franchino gave me are not his own earnings, but the blood of the poor people he has robbed.”

  From then on, Fra Ignazio went no more to the notary for alms.

  (Campidano)

  192

  Solomon’s Advice

  Once there was a shopkeeper with a general store. As he went to open up early one morning, what should he find lying on the doorstep but a dead man. Afraid of being arrested, he took off, leaving his wife and three sons. When he got to a certain town, he looked around for work, but found none. At last he heard about a gentleman who was looking for a servant. For want of anything better, he said, “Let’s inquire into that.” The gentleman, whose name was Solomon, was a prophet, and all the citizens went to him for advice. The shopkeeper became Solomon’s devoted servant and enjoyed his master’s highest esteem. He remained with Solomon for twenty years, after which he had the urge to return to his own family, from whom he had heard nothing since his departure. “Master,” he said to Solomon, “I have decided to go back and see my people. Let us settle our accounts, and I will leave.” In the twenty years he had been a servant, he had never taken a cent of the pay that was due him. The master figured out his wages; he owed him three hundred crowns, which he gave him.

  The servant took his leave and was already down the steps, when the master called to him. “Everybody comes to me for advice,” said Solomon, “and there you are going off and asking me nothing.”

  “How much do you charge for a word of advice?” asked the servant.

  “One hundred crowns.”

  The servant thought it over, went back up the steps, and gave him the hundred crowns. “Give me a word of advice.”

  “Do not abandon the old road for the new,” said Solomon.

  “What! Is that all? And to think I paid one hundred crowns to hear that!” exclaimed the servant.

  “That’s so you will remember it,” answered Solomon.

  The servant was on his way back downstairs, when he had second thoughts and returned to say: “As long as I’m still here, give me another word of advice.”

  “That will be another hundred crowns,” replied Solomon. The servant handed him another hundred crowns, and the master pronounced his advice: “Don’t meddle in other people’s business.”

  The servant thought to himself, To be going home now with only a hundred crowns, I might just as well go empty-handed, but with a final word of advice from Solomon. So he paid out his last hundred crowns for this advice: “Postpone anger until tomorrow.”

  He turned to go, and again the master called him, gave him a cake, and said, “Don’t cut this until you’re at the table with all your family.”

  The servant was walking along the road, when he met a band of travelers, who said, “Would you like to come with us? We are going that way and you can travel with us.”

  I gave my master one hundred crowns, thought the servant, for the advice not to abandon the old way for the new, so he did not join those men, but went his own way.

  As he continued along the same road, he soon heard gunfire, shouts, groans: the travelers were being attacked by bandits, who killed every one of them. Praised be those hundred crowns that went to my master! thought the servant. His word of advice has saved my life.

  Darkness descended upon him in a desolate stretch of countryside, and he was unable to find shelter. Finally he saw a solitary house, knocked, asked for a night’s lodging, and was invited in. The master of the house prepared supper, readied the table, and they sat down to eat. After they had finished, he opened a door leading underground, and out came a blind woman. The master poured out soup for her in a death’s head and gave her a bit of reed to use as a spoon. The blind woman ate, then the man led her back underground and closed the door after her.

  Next he turned to the traveler. “What do you have to say about what you just saw?”

  Remembering the second word of advice, the servant replied, “I think you must have your own explanations.”

  Then the master of the house said, “That is my wife. When I used to go away, she would receive another man. Once I came back and found them together. The bowl she eats out of is the man’s head; the spoon is the reed I used to gouge out her eyes. Now what do you think? Did I do right, or wrong?”

  “If it struck you as right, that means it was right.”

  “Excellent,” answered the master of the house. “Everyone who says I did wrong is put to death.”

  And the traveler thought to himself, Praised be the second hundred crowns which have saved my life a second time!

  The next evening he reached his town. He looked for his street, his house. The windows were lighted, and there stood his wife with a handsome youth, whom she patted familiarly on the face. The sight made the man so furious that he drew his gun at once, but then he thought, I gave my master one hundred crowns for the advice, Postpone anger until tomorrow.

  So, instead of shooting, he went to a woman living across the street and asked, “Just who lives in that house over there?”

  “That’s the house of a woman who is happiness itself, since her boy came home today from the seminary and said his first Mass, and she can’t make enough fuss over him.”

  And the man thought to himself, Praised be the last hundred crowns, which have saved my life for the third time! He ran back to his house, his wife opened the door, his sons did not recognize him, they all embraced. When the neighbors left, they sat down to the table, and the man cut the cake: in it were the three hundred crowns which Solomon had taken so that his advice would be remembered.

  (Campidano)

  193

  The Man Who Robbed the Robbers

  Six terrible bandits, thriving on murder and robbery, lived in a house on the hill. One of their rooms was packed with money, and whenever they left home, they would hide the house key under a rock.

  One day as a farmer and his son were going after wood, they saw the bandits come out, so the two men hid. Thus they learned where the robbers left the key. When the bandits were well out of sight, the farmer and his son took the key from under the rock, entered the house, and filled their pockets with money. Then they locked the door again, replaced the key, and returned to t
own quite pleased with themselves.

  The next day father and son again robbed the bandits, as they did the day after that. On the third day when the son opened the door he fell into a slimy pit which the bandits had dug right next to the threshold. His father tried his best, but couldn’t pull the boy out. Fearing the bandits would return and, finding the son, also recognize the father, the man cut off the boy’s head and carried it home.

  The bandits came back and found a body in the pit, but had no idea whose it was since it was headless. They decided to hang it from a dead tree on the hilltop, with one robber keeping watch to see who came to mourn the dead soul. Wishing to retrieve the boy’s body, his father consulted a sorceress, who advised him what to do.

  He climbed the hill in the night and hid close to the tree. Another of his sons hid on the other side of the hill making the sound of two rams locking horns by clashing two wooden blocks. The bandit guarding the body hadn’t eaten all day long and, at the sound of those clashes, went to capture the rams to roast. As soon as he was gone, the dead boy’s father untied the body and fled.

  Learning of that, the bandits were determined to take revenge on the dead man’s companion, but they could not find him. One day, much later, they were in the village on business and heard that a local man had recently come into a sizable fortune; he was none other than the father of the dead boy. Right away the bandits ordered a cooper to make them six large casks, with lids on top. Fully armed, each bandit climbed into a cask. They sent the cooper to the rich man, who lived nearby, to ask if he would please keep the casks until their owner called for them, as the cooper had no room to store them himself. The rich man agreed and had the casks placed in the wine cellar. That night, before retiring, a serving woman went to get some wine and heard voices in the casks. Someone was asking, “Well, is it time, yes or no, to come out and kill the master of the house?” At that, the servant flew back up the steps, shaking like a leaf. She awakened the master and told him everything. He sent for officers of the law and they all descended into the cellar and slew the bandits. That was the end of them, while the man who had robbed robbers remained rich and lived at home in peace.

  (Campidano)

  194

  The Lions’ Grass

  There was a carpenter who had a daughter lovely beyond words, but they were quite poor. The girl’s name was Mariaorsola and, since she was so beautiful, her father never let her go out of the house or even look out the window. Opposite the carpenter lived a merchant, who was very rich and had one son. The boy heard that the carpenter had a daughter and went over to his house, asking, “Mr. Anthony, will you make me a table?”

  “Bring me the lumber, which I have no money to buy myself, and I will make the table for you.”

  On the sly, the boy carried him lumber belonging to his parents, who didn’t want him going in such poor people’s houses, and was constantly on the lookout for Mariaorsola. One day when she thought he’d already gone, she came downstairs. Peppino saw her and fell in love.

  “Mr. Anthony,” he said to the carpenter, “I’m asking you for Mariaorsola’s hand in marriage.”

  “My boy,” replied the man, “don’t make fun of us. Mariaorsola is just too poor; your mother and father wouldn’t have her for a daughter-in-law.”

  “I’m not joking,” said Peppino. “Don’t you worry about my mother and father. Mariaorsola suits me, and I shall marry her.”

  So the marriage agreement was concluded behind the back of Peppino’s mother and father.

  But Peppino’s mother heard from the townspeople that her son had just taken a wife and immediately told her husband.

  “What’s to be done?” asked the merchant. “We must send him off!”

  When Peppino came in that night, his father said to him, “You can see that I’m old, so you must sail to the Continent with the wares.”

  “Well,” said the son, “just let me know when you want me to go.”

  The day Peppino told Mariaorsola, “I’m going to have to go away,” the young wife burst into tears. He left her a handful of money, saying, “Be happy, now; don’t worry, and don’t forget me at any time.”

  The next day when he left his house to start on his trip, Mariaorsola peeped out of the window and heard him telling people on the street, “Farewell! I’m going away and will return in one year.”

  At the sound of Peppino’s voice, Mariaorsola went into a swoon. She was put to bed and, from that day on, hovered between life and death.

  After a year, Peppino returned to Port Torres and immediately sent a message to his house announcing his arrival and requesting a cart for the wares he was bringing. Mother, father, and friends came to meet him. After greeting them, he asked all of a sudden, “How is everybody on our street?”

  “They’re all fine,” he was told, “except Mr. Anthony’s daughter, Mariaorsola. “If she’s not already dead, she will be in no time. She’s been in bed ever since you went away.”

  Peppino fainted. They put him in a carriage, carried him home, and sent for the doctor. He was heartbroken over Mariaorsola, but the doctor didn’t know what was wrong with him, and his mother went to pieces.

  Note that, before going away, Peppino had told two close friends about his secret marriage. These friends went to the doctor and said, “It so happens that the young man was recently married behind the back of his parents, and his wife has been gravely ill from the time he went away. That’s his whole trouble, and until he has that young woman back, he won’t recover.”

  The doctor went and told the boy’s parents. “What shall we do?” the father asked his wife, who grew even more upset upon hearing of her son wedding a poor girl.

  “Rather than have him die, it is better to see him married to the carpenter’s daughter,” answered the mother, and sent over to find out how Mariaorsola was.

  “Mariaorsola is dying,” replied the bride’s mother. “In all the time she’s been sick, you’ve never asked me about her, and now that she’s about to die you think of her!”

  “I will take her to my house,” said Peppino’s mother.

  “Leave her be, she’s dying, I tell you.”

  But Peppino’s mother insisted and, picking up Mariaorsola, carried her to the merchant’s house, where the girl was laid on a sofa in front of Peppino’s bed.

  “Peppino,” called his mother, “look at your Mariaorsola.”

  At those words, Peppino gradually revived and stepped out of bed. “Mariaorsola!”

  Seeing Peppino at her bedside, Mariaorsola also gradually revived.

  So they got well. And when they were strong once more they celebrated their marriage and loved each other immeasurably.

  After a short period of happiness, Mariaorsola fell ill. “Listen, Peppino,” she said, “if I die you must recite the office of the dead before my body.” And, lo and behold, she died!

  They carried her away, and Peppino had forgotten to recite the office.

  That night he thought of it. “Oh dear, I forgot!”—and he ran to church at once and knocked.

  “Who is it?” called the sacristan.

  “Please come down.” And when the sacristan appeared, Peppino said, “Open up the tomb of that dead woman, and I’ll give you ten crowns.”

  “How can I do that? Suppose people hear about it?”

  “Nobody will know. It’s pitch-dark.”

  So the sacristan opened the tomb and left him. Peppino knelt and began reciting the office. As he continued, he heard roars, and into church rushed two lions. The lions started fighting. One knocked the other off his feet and bit him to death. The living lion then ran off and snatched some of the grass growing there in the cloister of the church, forced open the dead lion’s mouth, and rubbed the grass over his teeth. The dead lion came back to life, and together the two lions ran off.

  Peppino, having meanwhile finished reciting the office, said to himself, “Let’s see if I can bring Mariaorsola back to life!” He took a little of the grass, rubbed the de
ad girl’s teeth with it, and she got up. “What have you done, Peppino?” she said. “I was very happy with things the way they were!”

  Peppino gave her his cloak and took her by the arm.

  “What’s going on?” asked the sacristan. “What are you doing, taking the dead woman away?”

  “Let me go, my wife is alive!”

  He took her home, put her to bed, and warmed her up with heavy warm clothing. Then he lay down beside her and slept.

  It must have been about seven o’clock in the morning when Peppino’s mother knocked at his door. “Who is it?” called Mariaorsola.

  Hearing the dead woman’s voice, the mother-in-law fell down the steps, struck her head, and died.

  A little later, the servant girl went up and knocked. “Who is it?” asked Mariaorsola. “Are you still there knocking?”

  The servant girl too was frightened out of her wits, fell down the steps, struck her head, and lay there dead.

  When Peppino woke up, Mariaorsola said, “It’s impossible to get any sleep in this house. They’re always knocking on the door.”

  “And you answered?”

  “Of course I did.”

  “What have you done? They thought you were dead!”

  Peppino opened the door and saw his mother and the servant girl lying dead at the foot of the stairs. “Oh, me, what misfortune has befallen us!” he said to himself. “But I must keep quiet about it and not frighten my wife!” And with the lions’ grass he brought the two dead women back to life.

  When Mariaorsola was sick, she had made a vow to go to the church of St. Gavino if she got well. “Tomorrow,” she said to her husband, “let’s go to St. Gavino’s.”

  They set out, but after a while she said, “Peppino, I forgot and left my ring on the windowsill.”

 
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