Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  Before becoming a saint, St. Anthony had been a swineherd, and a certain piglet from his herd had always refused to leave him, and followed him wherever he went. So St. Anthony, with his piglet and his fennel staff, showed up on Hell’s doorstep and knocked. “Open up, I’m cold and want to get warm!”

  Right away the Devils at the door saw that this was no sinner, but a saint, and, they said, “No indeed! We know you! You won’t get in here!”

  “Let me in, I’m so cold!” begged St. Anthony, while the pig rooted against the door.

  “The pig can come in, but not you!” said the Devils, and they cracked open the door just enough for the animal to squeeze through. As soon as St. Anthony’s pig was inside Hell, he began running around rooting everywhere, throwing the whole place into an uproar. The Devils scampered behind him picking up firebrands, raking up pieces of cork, standing up the tridents he knocked over, putting pitchforks and torture tools back in their places. It was maddening, but they could neither catch the pig nor drive him out.

  At last they turned to the saint, who had remained on the doorstep. “That confounded pig of yours is playing havoc with Hell! Come get him out!”

  St. Anthony stepped inside Hell, tapped the pig with his staff, and the animal quieted down on the instant.

  “As long as I’m here,” said St. Anthony, “I may as well sit down a minute and warm up,” and he seated himself on a sack of cork, holding out his hands toward the fire.

  Every now and then a devil ran by him, on his way to inform Lucifer of some soul or other on earth whom he had lured into sin. And each time St. Anthony would whack him on the back with his fennel staff.

  “We dislike these jokes,” said the Devils. “Keep that stick quiet.”

  St. Anthony held the staff up, letting it lean on him, with the point jutting out on the floor. The first Devil that came by crying, “Lucifer! One more soul for sure!” tripped, and fell on his face.

  “That will do! You’ve vexed us quite enough with this stick,” declared the Devils, “so we are now going to burn it up!” They grabbed it and thrust the tip into the flames.

  In that instant the pig began to tear up the place once more, sending cords of wood flying into the air along with hooks and torches. “If you want me to quiet him,” said St. Anthony, “you’ll have to give me back my staff.” They handed it to him and the pig calmed down immediately.

  Now the staff was made out of fennel, and fennel wood has a spongy pith, so that if a spark of glowing cinder gets into it, it goes on burning in secret, with no outward sign of fire. The Devils were therefore unaware that St. Anthony’s staff contained fire. After preaching to the Devils, the saint took his staff and his piglet and left, and the Devils breathed a sigh of relief.

  Back on earth, St. Anthony raised the staff with the fiery point and, waving it around, he scattered sparks as though blessing the people. And he sang:

  “Fire, fire

  For every shire!

  Fire to the universe I deliver,

  Nevermore may you shiver!”

  From that time on, to man’s great satisfaction, there was fire on earth. And St. Anthony returned to his desert to meditate.

  (Logudoro)

  198

  March and the Shepherd

  There was a shepherd who had more sheep and rams than there were grains of sand by the sea. With such a large flock, he was always worrying lest one of the animals die. Winter was long, and the shepherd constantly pleaded with the months: “December, do be kind to me! January, please don’t kill off my animals with your freezes! February, be good to me, and I will honor you eternally!”

  The months paused to lend an ear to the shepherd’s prayers and, highly appreciative of the least show of homage, they granted his requests. They sent down neither rain nor hail nor animal diseases of any kind, and the sheep and rams continued to graze throughout the winter without catching so much as a cold.

  Then came March, the most cantankerous month, and things continued to go smoothly. The last day of the month arrived, and the shepherd saw his worries at an end. They were now on the threshold of April, of springtime, and the flock was safe. The shepherd stopped pleading and started hooting and swaggering. “Little old March, March my boy, nightmare of flocks, who’s afraid of you now? Lambs? I certainly am not. It’s spring at last, and you can’t harm me now, so you might as well march right off, March, to you know where!”

  Hearing that ungrateful shepherd dare address him so disrespectfully, March felt his blood boil. Buttoned up in his raincoat, he ran to the house of his brother April and said:

  “April, I fain would ask a favor:

  Three days lend thy brother

  To punish yon shepherd

  For being so absurd.”

  April, who loved his brother March, lent him the three days. The first thing March did was to whip around the world enlisting all the winds, tempests, and pestilences that were abroad, which he then unleashed on the shepherd’s flock. The first day all the rams and sheep took sick and died. The second day it was the lambs’ turn. By the third day not a single living animal was left in the flock; all the shepherd now had were his eyes for shedding tears.

  (Corsica)

  199

  John Balento

  Once in a small town there was a very poor cobbler who worked his fingers to the bone mending old shoes. His name was John Balento, and although short in stature, he had brains. One day as he was sewing up a shoe, he accidentally drove the awl through his finger. “Ouch, OUCH!” he cried. “Poor me!” The neighbors heard, but paid no attention; they didn’t care what happened to John Balento. But John’s cries aroused the curiosity of all the flies in town, who came running to see what was the matter in the cobbler’s house. One lit on the wounded finger and sucked the blood oozing from it; the others spied a bowl of noodles ready to serve and swarmed over it.

  “What are all these flies doing here?” cried John. “Shoo! Get out!” He tried to fan them away with a piece of leather, but they were stubborn and continued swarming over the bowl of noodles. So John Balento swung his fist through the swarm with such force that a real slaughter resulted. On the ground he counted one thousand dead and five hundred wounded. “A master stroke if there ever was one!” he said to himself. “People think I’m good for nothing, but if I try, I too can make my mark!”

  He took a dry twig, dipped it in ink, and wrote in great big letters on a band of cloth: MEET JOHN BALENTO WHO HAS JUST KILLED ONE THOUSAND AND WOUNDED FIVE HUNDRED. He then attached this banner to the big hat he wore.

  Reading it, all the country people burst out laughing and asked, “How many, John?”

  “I slew one thousand and wounded five hundred!”

  So spread John Balento’s fame, from mouth to mouth and town to town. In a year’s time John Balento was known far and wide as one of the boldest paladins in the kingdom.

  Meanwhile the cobbler had left thread, awl, cobbler’s wax, knife, and bench, and gone out into the world to seek his fortune. He rode a donkey that was all skin and bones, and carried neither belongings nor money. After a three days’ ride through the forest, he came to an inn. Riding up to the door, he cried, “Here comes John Balento who slew one thousand and wounded five hundred!”

  Now the inn was full of robbers. Hearing the name of such a famous hero, the robbers were seized with fear and made a mad dash through doors and windows, fleeing in every direction, leaving their dinner untouched and abandoning shiny arms and sturdy horses. John took his time dismounting and then went to the table. “Eat your fill, illustrious paladin,” said the innkeeper. “I’ll always be grateful to you. Your mere presence has taken a band of robbers off my hands.”

  “That’s nothing compared to other exploits of mine,” replied John Balento, with his eyes on his plate and his mouth full.

  When he had eaten his fill, he chose the finest steed—the ringleader’s own horse—climbed into the saddle, and said to the innkeeper, “Send me word if you ever need
help. No one will wrong you and get away with it as long as John Balento is alive!” He spurred the horse and galloped off, amid the bows of innkeeper and servants.

  Now John had never been on horseback before. He hung on with his knees and felt as if he were being bounced into the air at every step. “O my dear awls!” he said to himself; “O my thread, what was I thinking of to put you aside!” But he continued to travel and soon learned to stay in the saddle; everywhere he was received with highest honors.

  At length he ended up in the land of the giants. At the sight of him, the giants, stout as chestnut trees and tall as poplars, threw open their ovensized mouths, smacked their lips, and indicated they planned to eat him whole. John shook like a leaf.

  “So you are John Balento, who slew one thousand and wounded five hundred!” cried the chief of the giants. “Do you want to fight me? Come on across the river.”

  “Listen,” said John, “you had better let me go my way. You know what I’m like . . . . Take pepper, for instance; it’s little but powerful! If I touch my sword, then heaven help you!”

  The giants talked the matter over, then in a milder tone they said, “All right, we will let you go. But first prove your strength to us. See that rocky mass over there? We want you to roll it over here, so we can make a millstone for our mill. If you succeed, we will be your subjects and you will be our king.”

  John Balento cupped his hands around his mouth and started shouting. “Get out of the way, everybody living in the valley, run for your life! The illustrious John Balento will now set into motion the Giantstone and commit a massacre! Take to your heels, everybody!”

  All the poor families began stampeding out of the valley. In the end even the giants took fright; first one and then another fled, and in no time they were all flying as fast as their legs would carry them, shouting as they ran, “Look out for John Balento, slayer of one thousand and wounder of five hundred!”

  When the last soul had disappeared from sight, John spurred his horse, forded the river, and made his way through the land of the giants as calmly as you please. His fame preceded him, growing greater by the day.

  After riding some distance, he came upon two armies that were ready to clash. The king was there surrounded by his generals, and they were all in low spirits; if the king lost this battle he would forfeit throne and crown, and die. At the sight of John Balento, he felt hopeful once more.

  “Famous John Balento,” said the king, “Heaven sends you to lead us to victory. Take command of my army.”

  John felt the time had come to speak the truth. “Majesty,” he said, “I’m not the person you think I am; I’m nothing but a poor cobbler. The only things I can handle are awl and thread . . . . ”

  “Yes, yes,” interrupted the king. “But let’s save all that talk for later. Time is running short! You are our general. Here is my horse all saddled and ready to go, my armor, and my sword!”

  Protest as he would, they forced him into the coat of mail, put him in the saddle, and the king’s spirited horse bounded off, neighing. At the sight of the general bearing down on the enemy, all the other horsemen followed, plunged furiously into battle, and wiped out the enemy in a flash.

  With the battle won, the soldiers began celebrating their victory, but the general was nowhere in sight. Where could he be? They found him four leagues away: he had galloped clear through the enemy ranks and kept going. The horsemen brought him back in triumph to the king.

  “If you had kept up with me,” said John to the king, who bowed to him in gratitude, “we would have conquered three kingdoms and three crowns by now. Anyhow, we won the battle, so let’s be content with that! Farewell!”

  “What! You wish to be on your way already? And here I wanted to give you my daughter in marriage!” said the king.

  But John was not to be persuaded. He would accept nothing at all, and resumed his travels through the world.

  After going a good way, he came to the kingdom of the Amazons. As everyone knows, the Amazons, famous women warriors, had their own kingdom, headed by a queen, and no man was allowed inside their boundaries. Whoever fell into their hands was cut into pieces and fed to the dogs, while his hide was used to make drums. The queen of the Amazons was a cruel woman who had never smiled or laughed in her whole life.

  John Balento landed in their midst. The Amazons captured him, threw him into chains, and dragged him before the queen. The court of the Amazons with all those horses was full of flies. The horses swished their tails, the Amazons fanned themselves with fans; but John, who was in chains and unable to move, had flies all over him.

  “You are as good as dead!” announced the queen. “Such is our law. Why did you enter my kingdom?”

  Hanging his head, John said to himself, “O my awls, my thread, my bench! If I’d stuck by you, I wouldn’t be in all this mess now!”

  “Listen,” continued the queen, “I don’t like to kill a poor youth as though he were a dog. Speak the truth, and your life will be spared: did you really and truly slay a thousand and wound live hundred?”

  “In one blow, Majesty.”

  “How did you do it?”

  “Take off my chains, and I’ll show you.”

  The queen ordered the chains removed at once. All around him, on horseback, the Amazons stared at him. There wasn’t a sound, save that of the horsetails and the fans and the buzz of the flies.

  “How did I do it? Like this!”—and John Balento swung his fist through the flies swarming about him and killed them all. “Count them.”

  “So they were flies! Oh, me, Oh, my!” And all the Amazons burst out laughing, holding their sides and rocking on the backs of their horses. The one who laughed loudest was the queen. “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Mercy me! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Ouch! I’ve never laughed so much . . . John Balento, you are the first person in my whole life to make me laugh! And with your skill in killing flies, you are a real godsend for my kingdom! Stay with us and you will be my husband.”

  The nuptials were celebrated amid gala festivities and balls, and the cobbler became king of the Amazons.

  So goes my little tale.

  Now it is your turn

  All of us to regale.

  (Corsica)

  200

  Jump into My Sack

  Many, many years ago, in the barren mountains of Niolo, lived a father with twelve sons. A famine was raging, and the father said, “My sons, I have no more bread to give you. Go out into the world, where you will certainly fare better than here at home.”

  The eleven older boys were getting ready to leave, when the twelth and youngest, who was lame, started weeping. “And what will a cripple like me do to earn his bread?”

  “My child,” said his father, “don’t cry. Go with your brothers, and what they earn will be yours as well.”

  So the twelve promised to stay together always and departed. They walked a whole day, then a second, and the little lame boy fell constantly behind. On the third day, the oldest brother said, “Our little brother Francis, who’s always lagging, is nothing but a nuisance! Let’s walk off and leave him on the road. That will be best for him too, for some kind-hearted soul will come along and take pity on him.”

  So they stopped no more to wait for him to catch up, but walked on, asking alms of everyone they met, all the way to Bonifacio.

  In Bonifacio they saw a boat moored at the dock. “What if we climbed in and sailed to Sardinia?” said the oldest boy. “Maybe there’s less hunger there than in our land.”

  The brothers got into the boat and set sail. When they were halfway across the straits, a fierce storm arose and the boat was dashed to pieces on the reefs, and all eleven brothers drowned.

  Meanwhile the little cripple Francis, exhausted and frantic when he missed his brothers, screamed and cried and then fell asleep by the roadside. The fairy guardian of that particular spot had seen and heard everything from a treetop. As soon as Francis was asleep, she came down the tree, picked certain special
herbs, and prepared a plaster, which she smoothed on the lame leg; immediately the leg became sound. Then she disguised herself as a poor little old woman and sat down on a bundle of firewood to wait for Francis to wake up.

  Francis awakened, got up, prepared to limp off, and then realized he was no longer lame but could walk like everyone else. He saw the little old woman sitting there, and asked, “Madam, have you by chance seen a doctor around here?”

  “A doctor? What do you want with a doctor?”

  “I want to thank him. A great doctor must certainly have come by while I was sleeping and cured my lame leg.”

  “I am the one who cured your lame leg,” replied the little old woman, “since I know all about herbs, including the one that heals lame legs.”

  As pleased as Punch, Francis threw his arms around the little old woman and kissed her on both cheeks. “How can I thank you, ma’am? Here, let me carry your bundle of wood for you.”

  He bent over to pick up the bundle, but when he stood up, he faced not the old woman, but the most beautiful maiden imaginable, all radiant with diamonds and blond hair down to her waist; she wore a deep blue dress embroidered with gold, and two stars of precious stones sparkled on her ankle-boots. Dumbfounded, Francis fell at the fairy’s feet.

  “Get up,” she said. “I am well aware that you are grateful, and I shall help you. Make two wishes, and I will grant them at once. I am the queen of the fairies of Lake Creno, mind you.”

  The boy thought a bit, then replied, “I desire a sack that will suck in whatever I name.”

 
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