Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “Oh, come, let’s not worry about it.”

  “No, I’m going back for it; a breeze could rise and blow it away.”

  “I’ll fetch it for you, but in the meantime don’t you go near the sea, where the king of Muscovy’s boat is.” At that, he turned back.

  Mariaorsola, however, approached the sea, and there was the king of Muscovy, who seized her and carried her off.

  When Peppino returned with the ring, he looked everywhere for Mariaorsola, but she was nowhere in sight. Then he dived into the sea and swam off. He spotted a boat and waved a white handkerchief.

  “Quick, there’s a man in the sea!” said the boat’s owner. They took him aboard, and Peppino asked, “Have you seen the king of Muscovy’s boat?”

  “No, we haven’t.”

  “Please be so good as to take me to Muscovy.”

  In Muscovy, there was Mariaorsola dressed in queenly attire. When Peppino saw her, he smiled at her, but she looked the other way. There was no possibility of approaching her, so he offered himself to the king as a footman, and was engaged to wait on the table. Finding Mariaorsola alone at the table, he said, “Well, if it isn’t my own Mariaorsola! You no longer recognize me?”

  She made a wry face and turned her back on him; she already had a plan for wrecking him. To one of the king’s pages, she said, “Take all the silver spoons and stuff them into the pocket of that footman.”

  Once the spoons were missed, she ordered, “Search that footman!”

  The spoons were thus found in Peppino’s pocket. “So this is the thief! Throw him into prison and then have him hanged before my windows!”

  Peppino still had some of the lions’ grass and, when they led him to the gallows, he said to his confessor, “I am innocent, so when they hang me, please keep them from breaking my neck and carry me to your house and rub my teeth with this grass. I will then come back to life.”

  At the appointed hour, the confessor said to the hangman, “Be careful not to break his neck.” Then he asked the king’s permission to carry the body home with him. The hangman hanged him, taking care not to break his neck, and the confessor carried the body to his monastery. As soon as the grass touched his teeth, Peppino came back to life and, thanking the confessor, set out on the road.

  He went to the country of the king of the seven crowns. The king’s wife had just died, and the palace was draped in mourning.

  “I wish to enter the palace,” said Peppino to the guard.

  “Do you think they need you right now?” snapped the guard.

  “Tell them I wish to enter.”

  He was so insistent that they finally let him in. “Majesty, I wish to remain alone with the dead queen.” The king therefore ordered everybody out of the room.

  Peppino closed the doors, removed the queen from her coffin, laid her in bed, placed grass between her lips, and she came back to life. Peppino threw open the room. “Majesty, here is your wife.” The palace shed its mourning at once, and the festivities began.

  From that day on, the king always kept Peppino at his side. “Peppino,” he said one day, “I am old, you are now our son, and I am going to give you my seven crowns.”

  “What kings,” asked Peppino, “will attend the coronation of the king of the seven crowns?”

  “The kings of Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, England, Austria, and Muscovy. They are the seven who crown the king of the seven crowns.”

  “I will accept the seven crowns, then,” said Peppino.

  The invitations were sent out, and the king of Muscovy got ready for the journey. His wife, Mariaorsola, made herself a special dress for the occasion, and thus they came to the palace of the king of the seven crowns.

  In the hall, Peppino spotted Mariaorsola at once among all those kings and queens, but she did not recognize him. The coronation was followed by the banquet. After the banquet, wearing the seven crowns, Peppino said, “Now we must each tell a story.”

  So, one by one, they told a story. “Now I’ll tell mine,” said Peppino when it was his turn. “Don’t anyone get up from the table until I have finished.” He told his whole story, beginning with his marriage to Mariaorsola, who sat there on pins and needles. She pleaded a headache, insisting on leaving, but Peppino waved her down. “Nobody get up!”

  At the end of his account, he asked the king of Muscovy, “What does such a woman deserve?”

  “Hang her first,” replied the king of Muscovy, “then burn her, then throw her ashes to the wind.”

  “Let it be done,” ordered Peppino. “Seize the king of Muscovy’s wife”—and she was throttled on the spot.

  And he remained king of the seven crowns.



  The Convent of Nuns and the Monastery of Monks

  There was a tailor who had a daughter named Jeannie. She was a beautiful girl and attended school. So beautiful was she that a youth named Johnny was always following her around, and she was at a loss to escape him. Finally one day she said to her girlfriends, “Shall we found a convent?”

  “Let’s do so,” replied her companions.

  These girls included daughters of kings, knights, and noblemen. Twelve of them got together and told their fathers, “We are going to establish a convent.”

  “What! You’re founding a convent just for yourselves?”

  But the girls were determined to have such a convent, for which they chose a site far from town. They took along ample provisions and all twelve of them settled down in their convent. They elected Jeannie to be their abbess.

  Now Johnny, who was in love with Jeannie, said to his friends, “I haven’t seen Jeannie for ages. Where could she be?”

  “You’re asking us?”

  “Since my beloved has disappeared, I shall become a monk. Why don’t we establish a monastery?”

  So they founded a monastery of monks.

  One night the nuns in the convent ran out of provisions. Abbess Jeannie was in charge of procuring food. Looking out of the window, she saw a light in the distance and set out toward it to get more provisions. She came to a house and entered it, but found no one around. There was a table set with twelve glasses, twelve spoons, twelve napkins, and twelve large bowls of well-seasoned macaroni. Jeannie put the twelve bowls of macaroni in a basket and returned to the convent. She rang the dinner bell, the nuns came in, Jeannie gave each one a bowl, and they ate.

  The house where she had procured the macaroni was the monks’ monastery. When the monks returned and found their table stripped, the father superior, who was Johnny, said, “What thieving magpie has made off with our dinner? Tomorrow night someone will have to stand guard!”

  The next night one of them was appointed to keep watch, and was told, “The instant you whistle, we’ll all rush in. Beware of falling asleep.” But in no time the monk was snoring up a storm. The abbess returned, saw the twelve plates of macaroni on the table, looked around her, spied the sleeping monk, put the macaroni in her basket, then picked up the pan and rubbed its grease on the sleeping monk’s face.

  She reached the convent, rang the bell, and they sat down and ate. When the father superior saw the monk with the black face he said, “A fine guard you made!” The next night he appointed another monk to watch. But this one too fell asleep and woke up with a black face. The same thing happened eleven nights in a row, every monk taking his turn, until it finally fell to the father superior to stand guard.

  Johnny only pretended to fall asleep. When Jeannie had filled her basket with macaroni and came over to black his face with the pan, he stood up, saying, “Hold it, you’re not getting away this time!”

  “Oh!” she said. “Please don’t harm me!”

  “I’ll not lay a hand on you, but you must bring me those eleven nuns of yours.”

  “All right, but on condition you won’t harm a hair on their heads.”

  “I promise.”

  So the abbess went off with her basket of macaroni. After she’d given the nuns their s
upper, she said, “Listen, my sisters, we are obliged to go to the monks’ monastery.”

  “And what will they do to us?”

  “They’ll not harm us. They promised.”

  So they went.

  “We want a room to ourselves where we can stay.”

  The superior led them to a room with twelve beds, and the nuns retired for the night.

  The other monks returned and found the table stripped. “What! Even with Reverend Father standing guard, supper still vanished?”

  “Quiet!” ordered the superior. “We’ve caught the thieving magpie.”

  “You don’t mean it!”

  “Yes, and eleven others, and now they will cook macaroni for us.” He went and knocked on the nuns’ door, saying, “Quick, wake up! You must cook macaroni for us.”

  “My nuns,” replied the abbess, “cannot cook without music.”

  “We will play,” said the monks.

  Although half starved, they picked up trumpets and violins and played. But instead of preparing supper, the abbess and her nuns took the mattresses and threw them out the window, tied the sheets to the window ledge, climbed down them and, one by one, dropped onto the mattresses. Back to their convent they ran and bolted the door behind them.

  Meanwhile the monks continued to play, starving to death. “How about that macaroni?” they said. “Isn’t it ready yet?” They knocked on the nuns’ door, but there was no answer. They broke the door down and found the beds empty, with neither sheets nor mattresses. “Well! They pulled a fast one on us! We’ll have to give them a taste of their own medicine!”

  They built a cask and closed up the superior in it. They went to the nuns’ convent and hid until nightfall, when one of the monks rolled the cask up to the door, knocked, and asked the nun who opened the door, “Would you please keep this cask for us overnight?” And he left it inside the door.

  But the abbess knew what was up. “We are done for!” she said to herself. “My sisters,” she announced at the supper table, “there’s no telling what will happen here, but don’t be afraid.” As a matter of fact, while they were still eating, the superior climbed out of the cask and knocked at the refectory door.

  “Who is it?”

  “Open up.”

  The nuns opened the door, and in walked the father superior.

  “Good evening,” said the nuns. “Make yourself at home.” And the superior sat down and ate with them, talking of this and that. At the end of supper he drew a phial from his pocket, saying, “Have a sip, sisters.”

  The nuns drank, but the abbess emptied her little glass into her habit. All the nuns fell asleep but the abbess, who only pretended to sleep. When he saw them all sleeping, the superior tied a rope around the waist of each, for the purpose of lowering them from the window, to which he walked and called the other monks. But Jeannie slipped up behind him, grabbed him by the ankles, and threw him out the window headfirst.

  Then she roused her companions. “Quick, we have to get away from here. We will write our fathers to fetch us, as we’re tired of being nuns!”

  So each one went home. The monks also abandoned their monastery and returned home.

  Johnny was again in love with Jeannie and, with his head all bandaged, went and asked her to marry him. She finally agreed, but before the wedding she made a sugar doll the size of herself.

  On her wedding night, she said to her husband, “Put out the candle when you enter the bedchamber, for at the convent I became accustomed to staying in the dark.”

  When it grew dark, she went into the bedchamber, put the sugar doll in her bed and hid under the bed, from where she could make the doll move its limbs by means of a string. Her husband came into the room, holding a sword. “Well, Jeannie,” he began, “what have you done to me? Do you remember stealing my supper?”

  The doll nodded, “Yes.”

  “Do you remember throwing me out the window and cracking my skull?”

  The doll nodded, “Yes, I do.”

  “And you have the nerve to admit it?”

  He lifted his sword and thrust it into the sugar doll’s heart.

  “There, Jeannie, I’ve killed you! Now I will drink your blood!” And he passed his tongue over the sword. “Jeannie! You were sweet in life and you are sweet in death!” He was pointing the sword at his own heart, when out leaped Jeannie. “Stop!” she cried. “Don’t kill yourself, I am alive!”

  They embraced, and from that time on, they were one happy couple.



  The Male Fern

  The proudest young man in Gallura was a bandit, whom not even the law had ever managed to nab. One night after a party, while the whole countryside slept, the bandit, with his gun slung over his shoulder, was crossing a field where a solitary church stood, when suddenly out of the brush sprang a wild boar and started running around the church. The man took aim, fired, and killed it.

  The path led right up to the church. When the bandit was a short distance from the door, he heard singing and laughter inside the church. Pausing to listen, he thought to himself, What with this wild boar and so many merry souls, a fine little party could be got up, and I could continue on my way early tomorrow morning. So he entered the church, dragging the dead boar behind him. “A wild boar for this charming gathering!” he cried, and all the people there, men and women, burst out laughing, joined hands, and began dancing in a ring. The bandit was about to give them his hands, when he noticed the empty eye sockets of every one of them, and realized that this was not a ball of the living but of the dead.

  Dancing with unflagging gaiety, the dead tried to put him in the middle of the circle, and a female ghost brushing by him said, “Come with me, and I will tell you where the three flowers of the male fern grow!” The youth was eager to join her, having heard that the discovery of the three flowers of the male fern would make everyone invulnerable to gunshot. But at that moment, one of the dead men left the group and approached him. The bandit recognized him: it was his godfather.

  “Beware, godson,” said the dead godfather; “whoever penetrates the circle of the dead will nevermore leave it. If you don’t do your best to get away now, tomorrow you too will be one of the dead. But just as I answered for you in life, so will I save you from death. Come in nonetheless and dance with us, but right in the middle of everything, sing these lines:

  ‘Dance and sing, dance and sing,

  Go now, enjoy your fling!

  Come time for our fine fling,

  Then we will dance and sing, dance and sing!’”

  The bandit went at once to the woman who had promised to reveal where the male fern grew, and she said to him, “Whoever would have the three flowers must go on the first day of August all the way to the bend in the river, where the cock’s crow is never heard. The three flowers will blossom at midnight. No matter what happens, guard against all fear, and pick them.”

  “I will pick them,” declared the bandit, “and no one will ever die again from gunshot.”

  The dead woman laughed. “That’s what you think! You are now in the circle of the dead and will be with us forevermore.” Dancing, she held his hand.

  At that, the bandit realized the time had come for the lines learned from his godfather, and he sang out:

  “Dance and sing, dance and sing,

  Go now, enjoy your fling!

  Come time for our fine fling,

  Then we will dance and sing, dance and sing!”

  Hearing that song, all the dead souls groveled in a heap, crying. In a flash the bandit reached the door, jumped on his horse, and fled. The dead struck out after him, but were never able to catch him.

  On the first of August, the bandit set out for the river. The night was fair, but all of a sudden at midnight a storm broke, unleashing hail, lightning, thunder, and tongues of fire. The bandit held his ground, waiting for the flowers to blossom. Lo and behold, during a flash of lightning, he saw one flower of the male fern blossom, and picked it.

  Next was heard the sound of thousands of hoofbeats, and out charged droves of wild boars, stags, bulls, cows, and every other kind of animal, maddened by the storm. It looked as though the man would be trampled to death any moment, but he fearlessly held his ground and waited for the fern to blossom. Then, bringing up the rear, crawled a serpent which clutched his ankle, slowly made its way up his leg and trunk, and wrapped around his neck; the man felt himself being choked to death, but still didn’t budge. Finally the serpent looked him in the eye, let out a shrill hiss, and vanished. And the bandit noticed that the second flower had blossomed, and picked it.

  At this point the bandit was satisfied he had already made man invulnerable to gunfire and, now sure of himself, he waited for the third flower to blossom. All of a sudden the silence was broken by approaching hoofbeats and the din of shots. The bandit was calm at first; but a squad of armed policemen appeared on the ridge, pointed their guns at him, and he said: “The police would have to find me before the third flower has blossomed and while it is still possible to die from a bullet wound!” He thus took fright, trained his gun on the squad, and fired a shot.

  Immediately police and horses vanished, and along with them the flowers of the male fern. The third flower never blossomed—so much the worse for the soul of the man who failed to hold out—while bullets continue to go their own sweet and fatal way.



  St. Anthony’s Gift

  Once upon a time the world had no fire. Men were cold and went to St. Anthony, who was off in the desert, to ask for help, since they could no longer endure all that cold weather. St. Anthony took pity on them and, as fire was confined to Hell, he decided to go down and get some.

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