Italian Folktales


Chapter 1  Dauntless Little John

There was once a lad whom everyone called Dauntless Little John, since he was afraid of nothing. Traveling about the world, he came to an inn, where he asked for lodgings. "We have no room here," said the innkeeper, "but if you're not afraid, I will direct you to a certain palace where you can stay."

"Why should I be afraid?"

"People shudder at the thought of that palace, since nobody who's gone in has come out alive. In the morning the friars go up with the bier for anyone brave enough to spend the night inside."

So what did Little John do but pick up a lamp, a bottle, and a sausage, and march straight to the palace.

At midnight he was sitting at the table eating, when he heard a voice in the chimney. "Shall I throw it down?"

"Go ahead!" replied Little John.

Down the chimney into the fireplace fell a man's leg. Little John drank a glass of wine.

Then the voice spoke again. "Shall I throw it down?"

"Go ahead!" So another leg dropped into the fireplace. Little John bit into the sausage.

"Shall I throw it down?"

"Go ahead!" So down came an arm. Little John began whistling a tune.

"Shall I throw it down?"

"By all means!" And there was another arm.

"Shall I throw it down?"


Then came the trunk of a body, and the arms and legs stuck onto it, and there stood a man without a head.

"Shall I throw it down?"

"Throw it down!"

Down came the head and sprang into place atop the trunk. He was truly a giant, and Little John raised his glass and said, "To your health!"

The giant said, "Take the lamp and come with me."

Little John picked up the lamp, but didn't budge.

"You go first!" said the giant.

"No, after you," insisted Little John.

"After you!" thundered the giant.

"You lead the way!" yelled Little John.

So the giant went first, with Little John behind him lighting the way, and they went through room after room until they had walked the whole length of the palace. Beneath one of the staircases was a small door.

"Open it!" ordered the giant.

"You open it!" replied Little John.

So the giant shoved it open with his shoulder. There was a spiral staircase.

"Go on down," directed the giant.

"After you," answered Little John.

They went down the steps into a cellar, and the giant pointed to a stone slab on the ground. "Raise that!"

"You raise it!" replied Little John, and the giant lifted it as though it were a mere pebble.

Beneath the slab there were three pots of gold. "Carry those upstairs!" ordered the giant.

"You carry them up!" answered Little John. And the giant carried them up one by one.

When they were back in the hall where the great fireplace was, the giant said, "Little John, the spell has been broken!" At that, one of his leg came off and kicked its way up the chimney. "One of these pots of gold is for you." An arm came loose and climbed up the chimney. "The second pot of gold is for the friars who come to carry away your body, believing you perished." The other arm came off and followed the first. "The third pot of gold is for the first poor man who comes by." Then the other leg dropped off, leaving the giant seated on the floor. "Keep the palace for yourself." The trunk separated from the head and vanished. "The owners of the palace and their children are now gone forever." At that, the head disappeared up the chimney.

As soon as it was light, a dirge arose: "Miserere mei, miserere mei." The friars had come with the bier to carry off Little John's body. But there he stood, at the window, smoking his pipe!

Dauntless Little John was a wealthy youth indeed with all those gold pieces, and he lived happily in his palace. Then one day what should he do but look behind him and see his shadow: he was so frightened he died.


"Dauntless Little John" (Giovannin senza paura)

I begin with a folktale for which I do not indicate, in contrast to my procedure in all the other tales, the particular version I followed. As the versions of it from the various regions of Italy are all quite similar, I let myself be freely guided by common tradition. Not only for that reason have I put this tale first, but also because it is one of the simplest and, in my view, one of the most beautiful folktales.

Italian tradition sharply diverges from the Grimms' "Tale of a Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear" (Grimm no.4) which is no doubt closer to my no.80. The type of tale is of European origin and not found in Asia.

The disappearance of the man limb by limb is not traditional, but a personal touch of my own, to balance his arrival piece by piece. I took the finishing stroke of the shadow from a Sienese version (De Gubernatis, 22), and it is merely a simplification of the more common ending, where Little John is given a salve for fastening heads back on. He cuts his head off and puts it on again--backward; the sight of his rear end so horrifies him that he drops dead.

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 2  The Man Wreathed in Seaweed

A king had his crier announce in the town squares that whoever found his missing daughter would be rewarded with a fortune. But the announcement brought no results, since no one had any idea of the girl's whereabouts. She had been kidnapped one night, and they had already looked the world over for her.

A sea captain suddenly had the thought that since she wasn't on land she might well be on the sea, so he got a ship ready to go out in search of her. But when the time came to sign up the crew, not one sailor stepped forward, since no one wanted to go on a dangerous expedition that would last no telling how long.

The captain waited on the pier, but fearful of being the first to embark, no one approached his ship. Also on the pier was Samphire Starboard, a reputed tramp and tippler, whom no ship captain was ever willing to sign on.

"Listen," said our captain, "how would you like to sail with me?"

"I'd like to very much."

"Come aboard, then."

"So Samphire Starboard was the first to embark. After that, other sailors took heart and boarded the ship.

Once he was on the ship, Samphire Starboard did nothing but stand around all day long with his hands in his pockets and dream about the taverns he had left behind. The other sailors cursed him because there was no knowing when the voyage would end, provisions were scarce, and he did nothing to earn his keep. The captain decided to get rid of him. "See that little island?" he asked, pointing to an isolated reef in the middle of the sea. "Get into a rowboat and go explore it. We'll be cruising right around here."

Samphire Starboard stepped into the rowboat, and the ship sailed away at full speed, leaving him stranded in the middle of the sea. He approached the reef, spied a cave, and went in. Tied up inside was a very beautiful maiden, who was none other than the king's daughter.

"How did you manage to find me?" she asked.

"I was fishing for octopi," explained Samphire.

"I was kidnapped by a huge octopus, whose prisoner I now am," said the king's daughter. "Flee before it returns. But note that for three hours a day it changes into a red mullet and can be caught. But your have to kill the mullet at once, or it will change into a sea gull and fly away."

Samphire Starboard hid his boat and waited out of sight on the reef. From the sea emerged the octopus, which was so large that it could reach clear around the island with its tentacles. All its suckers shook, having smelled a man on the reef. But the hour arrived when it had to change into a fish, and suddenly it became a red mullet and disappeared into the sea. Samphire Starboard lowered fishing nets and pulled them back up full of gurnard, sturgeon, and dentex. The last haul produced the red mullet, shaking like a leaf. Samphire raised his oar to kill it, but instead of the red mullet he struck the sea gull flying out of the net and broke its wing. The gull then changed back into an octopus, whose wounded tentacles spurted dark red blood. Samphire was upon it instantly and beat it to death with the oar. The king's daughter gave him a diamond ring as a token of the gratitude she would always feel toward him.

"Come and I'll take you to your father," he said, showing her into his boat. But the boat was tiny and they were out in the middle of the sea. After rowing and rowing they spied a ship in the distance. Samphire signaled to it with an oar draped with the king's daughter's gown. The ship spotted them and took them aboard. It was the same ship that had earlier discharged and abandoned Samphire. Seeing him back with the king's daughter, the captain said, "Poor Samphire Starboard! Here we thought you were lost and now, after looking all over for you, we see you return with the king's daughter! That calls for a real celebration!" To Samphire Starboard, who'd not touched a drop of wine for months on end, that seemed too good to be true.

They were almost in sight of their home port when the captain led Samphire to a table and placed several bottles of wine before him. Samphire drank and drank until he fell unconscious to the floor. Then the captain said to the king's daughter, "Don't you dare tell your father that drunkard freed you. Tell him that I freed you myself, since I'm the captain of the ship and ordered him to rescue you."

The king's daughter neither agreed nor disagreed. "I know what I'll tell him," she answered.

To be on the safe side, the captain decided to do away with Samphire Starboard once and for all. That night, they picked him up, still as drunk as could be, and threw him into the sea. At dawn the ship was in sight of port. With flags they signaled they were bringing home the king's daughter safe and sound. A band played on the pier, where the king waited with the entire court.

A date was chosen for the king's daughter to wed the captain. On the day of the wedding, the mariners in port saw a man emerge from the water. He was covered from head to foot with seaweed, and out of his pockets and the holes in his clothes swam fish and shrimps. It was none other than Samphire Starboard. He climbed out of the water and went ambling through the city streets, with seaweed draping his head and body and dragging along behind him. At that very moment the wedding procession was moving through the street and came face to face with the man wreathed in seaweed. Everyone stopped. "Who is this?" asked the king. "Seize him!" The guards came up, but Samphire Starboard raised a hand and the diamond on his finger sparkled in the sunlight.

"My daughter's ring!" exclaimed the king.

"Yes," said the daughter, "this man was my rescuer and will be my bridegroom."

Samphire Starboard told the story, and the captain was imprisoned. Green though he was with seaweed, Samphire took his place beside the bride clad in white and was joined to her in matrimony.

(Riviera ligure di ponente)


"The Man Wreathed in Seaweed" (L'uomo verde d'alghe) from Andrews, 7, Menton, told by the widow Lavigna.

This sea tale transfers to an unusual setting a plot well known throughout Europe: that of the younger brother who goes down into the well to free the princess and is subsequently abandoned there himself (cf. my no.78). Andrews's collection of tales presents no more than brief summaries in French; for this tale, then, as well as the following, taken from the same compilation, I gave free rein to my imagination in supplying details, while adhering to the basic plot. I chose the name Baciccin Tribordo (Giovanni Battista Starboard) to replace the original name whose meaning is not very clear. In the original text, the princess is abducted by a dragon instead of by an octopus, and the dragon changes into a barnacle, which seemed to me too easy to catch.

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 3  The Ship with Three Decks

Once there was a poor couple who lived way out in the country. A baby boy was born to them, but there was no one anywhere around to be his godfather. They went into town, but they didn't know a soul there and couldn't have the child baptized without a godfather. They saw a man wrapped in a black cloak on the church doorstep and asked, "Kind sir, would you please be this boy's godfather?" The man agreed, and the child was baptized.

When they came out of the church, the stranger said, "I now must give my godson his present. Take this purse, which is to be used to raise and educate him. And give him this letter when he has learned to read." The father and mother were thunderstruck, but before they could find words of thanks and ask the man his name, he had disappeared.

The purse was full of gold crowns, which paid for the boy's education. Once he could read, his parents gave him the letter, which said:

Dear Godson,

I am going back to repossess my throne after a long exile, and I need an heir. As soon as you read this letter, set out on a journey to your dear godfather, the king of England.

P.S. Along the way, beware of a cross-eyed man, a cripple, and a mangy character.

The youth said, "Father, Mother, farewell. I must go to my godfather." After a few days of walking, he met a traveler who asked, "Where are you going, my lad?"

"To England."

"So am I. We shall travel together."

The youth noticed the man's eyes: one of them looked east, and the other west, so the boy realized this was the cross-eyed man he must avoid. He found a pretext for stopping, then took another road.

He met another traveler sitting on a stone. "Are you going to England? We'll therefore travel together," said the stranger, who got up and limped along, leaning on a stick. He's the cripple, thought the youth, and changed roads again.

He met a third traveler, whose eyes, like his legs, bespoke perfect health. As for any scalp disease, this man had the thickest and cleanest head of black hair you ever saw. As the stranger was also on his way to England, they traveled together. They stopped for the night at an inn, where the youth, wary of his companion, handed over his purse and the letter for the king to the innkeeper for safekeeping. During the night while everybody was sleeping, the stranger rose and went to the innkeeper for the purse, letter, and horse. In the morning the young man found himself alone, penniless, on foot, and with no letter for the king.

"Your servant came to me in the night," explained the innkeeper, "for all your belongings. Then he left..."

The youth set out on foot. At a bend in the road he spied his horse tethered to a tree in a field. He was about to untie it, when from behind the tree rushed last night's companion armed with a pistol. "If your don't want to die on the spot," he said, "you must become my servant and pretend I'm the king of England's godson." As he spoke, he removed his black wig, revealing a scalp completely covered with mange.

They set out, the mangy one on horseback, the youth on foot, and at last reached England. With open arms the king welcomed the mangy one, taking him for his godson, while the real godson was assigned to the stables as stable boy. But the mangy one couldn't wait to get rid of his companion, and the opportunity soon presented itself. The king one day said to the false godson, "If you could free my daughter from the spell that holds her prisoner on a certain island, I'd give her to you in marriage. The only difficulty is that nobody who has attempted to free her has ever come back alive." The mangy one lost no time in replying. "Try sending my servant, who is surely capable of setting her free."

The king summoned the youth at once and asked, "Can you set my daughter free?"

"Your daughter? Tell me where she is, Majesty!"

The king would only say, "I warn you that you'll lose your head if you come back to me without her."

The youth went to the pier and watched the ships sail away. He had no idea how to reach the princess's island. An old sailor with a beard down to his knees approached him and said, "Ask for a ship with three decks."

The youth went to the king and had a ship with three decks rigged. When it was in port and ready to weigh anchor, the old sailor reappeared. "Now have one deck loaded with cheese rinds, another with bread crumbs, and the third with stinking carrion."

The youth had the three decks loaded.

"Now," said the old man, "when the king says, 'Choose all the sailors you want,' you will reply, 'I need only one,' and select me." That he did, and the whole town turned out to watch the ship sail off with that strange cargo and a crew of one, who also happened to be on his last legs.

They sailed for three months straight, at the end of which time they spied a lighthouse in the night and entered a port. All they could make out on shore were low, low houses and stealthy movement. At last a voice asked, "What cargo do you carry?"

"Cheese rinds," replied the old sailor.

"Fine," they said on shore. "That's what we need."

It was the Island of Rats, where all the inhabitants were rats, who said, "We'll buy the entire cargo, but we have no money with which to pay you. But any time you need us, you have only to say, 'Rats, fine rats, help us!' and we'll be right there to help you."

The youth and the sailor dropped the gangplank, and the rats came aboard and unloaded the cheese rinds in a flash.

From there the men sailed to another island. It was also night and they could make out nothing at all in port. It was worse than the other place, with not a house or a tree anywhere in sight. "What cargo do you bring?" asked voices in the dark.

"Bread crumbs," replied the sailor.

"Fine! That's just what we need!"

It was the Island of Ants, where all the inhabitants were ants. Nor did they have any money either, but they said, "Whenever you need us, you have only to say, 'Ants, fine ants, help us!' and we'll be right there, no matter where you are."

The ants carried all the bread crumbs down the fore and aft moorings, and the ship cast off again.

It came to an island of rocky cliffs that dropped straight down to port. "What cargo do you bring?" cried voices from above.

"Stinking carrion!"

"Excellent! That's just what we need," and huge shadows swooped down on the ship.

It was the Island of Vultures, inhabited entirely by those greedy birds. They flew off with every ounce of carrion, promising in return to help the men whenever they called, "Vultures, fine vultures, help us!"

After several more months of sailing, they landed on the island where the king of England's daughter was a prisoner. They disembarked, walked through a long cave, and emerged before a palace in a garden. A dwarf walked out to meet them. "Is the king of England's daughter here?" asked the youth.

"Come in and ask Fairy Sibiana," replied the dwarf, showing them into the palace, which had gold floors and crystal walls. Fairy Sibiana sat on a throne of crystal and gold.

"Kings and princes have brought entire armies to free the princess," said the fairy, "and every last one of them died."

"All I have are my will and my courage," said the youth.

"Well, then, you must undergo three trials. If you fail, you'll not get away from here alive. Do you see that mountain shutting out the sun from my view? You must level it by tomorrow morning. When I wake up I want the sunlight streaming into my room."

The dwarf came out with a pickax and led the youth to the foot of the mountain. The young man brought the pickax down once, and the blade snapped in two. "Now how am I going to dig?" he wondered, then remembered the rats on the other island. "Rats, fine rats, help me!"

He'd not got the words out of his mouth before the mountain was swarming with rats from top to bottom. They dug and gnawed and clawed, while the mountain dwindled and dwindled and dwindled...

Next morning Fairy Sibiana was awakened by the first rays of sun streaming into her room. "congratulations!" she said to the youth, "but you're not done yet." She led him to the palace's underground vaults, in the center of which was a room with a ceiling as high as a church's and containing one big heap of peas and lentils that reached the ceiling. "You have this whole night to separate the peas from the lentils into two distinct piles. Heaven help you if you leave one single lentil in the pea pile, or one single pea in the lentil pile."

The dwarf left him a candle wick and went off with the fairy. As the wick burned down to nothing, the youth continued to stare at the huge pile, wondering how any human could ever accomplish so intricate a task. Then he remembered the ants on the other island. "Ants, fine ants," he called, "help me!"

No sooner had he said those words than the entire cellar teemed with those tiny insects. They converged on the heap and, with order and patience, made two separate piles, one team of ants carrying peas and the other lentils.

"I'm still not defeated," said the fairy when she saw the task completed. "A far more difficult trial now awaits you. You have from now till dawn to fetch me a barrel of the water of long life."

The spring of long life was at the top of a steep mountain infested with savage beasts. Scaling the mountain was out of the question, much less while carrying a barrel. But the youth called, "Vultures, fine vultures, help me!" and the sky darkened with vultures circling down to earth. The youth attached a phial to the neck of each, and the vultures soared in a grand formation straight to the spring on the mountaintop, filled their phials, and flew back with them to the youth, who poured the water into the barrel he had waiting.

When the barrel was full, hoofbeats were heard retreating. Fairy Sibiana was fleeing for dear life, followed by her dwarfs, while out of the palace ran the king of England's daughter, cheering: "I'm safe at last! You set me free!"

With the king's daughter and the water of long life, the youth returned to his ship, where the old sailor was all ready to weigh anchor.

The king of England scanned the sea every day through his telescope. Seeing a ship approach that was flying the English flag, he ran to port overjoyed. When the mangy one beheld the youth safe and sound and escorting the king's daughter, he was fit to be tied and resolved to have him killed.

While the king was celebrating his daughter's return with a grand banquet, two grim-looking fellows came to get the youth, saying it was a matter of life and death. Puzzled, he followed them. When they got to the woods, the two fellows, who were assassins hired by the mangy one, drew their knives and cut the youth's throat.

Meanwhile at the banquet, the king's daughter was more and more worried, since the youth had gone off with that sinister pair and not returned. She went out looking for him and, reaching the woods, found his body covered with wounds. But the old sailor had brought along the barrel containing the water of long life, in which he immersed the youth's body, only to see him jump right back out as sound as ever and so handsome that the king's daughter threw her arms around his neck.

The mangy one was livid with rage. "What's in that barrel?" he asked.

"Boiling oil," replied the sailor.

So the mangy one had a barrel of oil heated to boiling and announced to the princess: "If you don't love me I'll kill myself." He stabbed himself with his dagger and leaped into the boiling oil. He was instantly scalded to death. Also his black wig had flown off when he leaped, revealing his mangy head.

"Ah, the mangy one!" exclaimed the king of England. "The cruelest of all my enemies. He finally got what was coming to him. So you, valiant youth, are my godson! You shall marry my daughter and inherit my kingdom!" And so it was.

(Riviera ligure di ponente)


"The Ship with Three Decks" (Il bastimento a tre piani) from Andrews, 2 and 27, Menton, told by Giuanina Piombo dite La Mova, and by Angelina Moretti.

Prosperous sea trading, with unusual cargos coming into ports where the merchandise is highly prized, is a metaphor of luck in the popular mind. It recurs in diverse folktales and is woven into various plots (cf. my no.173, from Sicily). In this tale from the Italian Riviera border, the curious motifs of the ship with three decks and of the isles inhabited by animals are incorporated into the widespread type featuring the enchanted filly (in one of Andrews's versions, advice is given by the horse) and grateful animals (cf. my nos. 24 and 79). I have freely rendered the two versions summarized in French by Andrews.

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 4  The Man Who Came Out Only at Night

Long ago there lived a poor fisherman with three marriageable daughters. A certain young man asked for the hand of one of them, but people were wary of him since he came out only at night. The oldest daughter and then the middle daughter both said no to him, but the third girl said yes. The wedding was celebrated at night, and as soon as the couple was alone, the bridegroom announced to his bride: "I must tell you a secret: I am under an evil spell and doomed to be a tortoise by day and a man at night. There's only one way to break the spell: I must leave my wife right after the wedding and travel around the world, at night as a man and by day as a tortoise. If I come back and find that my wife has remained loyal to me all along and endured every hardship for my sake, I'll become a man again for good."

"I am willing," said the bride.

The bridegroom slipped a diamond ring on her finger. "If you use it to a good end, this ring will help you in whatever situation you find yourself."

Day had dawned, and the bridegroom turned into a tortoise and crawled off to begin his journey around the world.

The bride went about the city in search of work. Along the way, she came across a child crying and said to his mother, "Let me hold him in my arms and calm him."

"You'd be the first person to do that," answered the mother. "He's been crying all day long."

"By the power of the diamond," whispered the bride, "may the child laugh and dance and frolic!" At that, the child started laughing, dancing, and frolicking.

Next, the bride entered a bakery and said to the woman who owned it, "You'll have no regrets if you hire me to work for you." The owner hired her, and she began making bread, saying under her breath, "By the power of the diamond, let the whole town buy bread at this bakery as long as I work here!" From then on, people poured in and out with no sign of a letup. Among the customers were three young men who saw the bride and fell in love with her.

"If you let me spend a night with you," one of them said to her, "I'll give you a thousand francs."

"I'll give you two thousand," said another.

"And I'll make it three thousand," said the third.

She collected the three thousand francs from the third man and smuggled him into the bakery that very night.

"I'll be with you in a minute," she told him, "after I've put the yeast into the flour. While you're waiting, would you please knead the dough a little bit for me?"

The man began kneading, and kneaded and kneaded and kneaded. By the power of the diamond, he couldn't for the life of him take his hands out of the dough, and therefore went on kneading till daylight.

"So you finally finished!" she said to him. "You really took your time!"

And she sent him packing.

Then she said yes to the man with the two thousand francs, brought him in as soon as it grew dark, and told him to blow on the fire a moment so that it wouldn't go out. He blew and blew and blew. By the power of the diamond, he had to keep right on blowing up to the next morning, with his face bulging like a wineskin.

"What a way to behave!" she said to him in the morning. "You come to see me, but spend the night blowing on the fire!"

And she sent him packing.

The next night she brought in the man with the thousand francs. "I have to add the yeast," she told him. "While I'm doing that, go shut the door."

The man shut the door, which by the power of the diamond came open again right away. All night long he closed it only to see it immediately reopen, and in no time the sun was up.

"Did you finally close this door? Well, you may now open it again and get out."

Seething with rage, the three men denounced her to the authorities. In that day and time there were, in addition to policemen, women officers who were called whenever a woman was to be brought into custody. So four women officers went to apprehend the bride.

"By the power of the diamond," said the bride, "let these women box one another's ears until tomorrow morning."

The four women officers began boxing one another's ears so hard that their heads swelled up like pumpkins, and they still went on striking each other for all they were worth.

When the women officers failed to return with the culprit, four male officers were sent out to look for them. The bride saw them coming and said, "By the power of the diamond, let those men play leapfrog." One of the male officers dropped down at once on all fours; a second one moved up, put his hands on the officer's back, and leaped over him, with the third and fourth following in his tracks. Thus began a game of leapfrog.

Right at that point, a tortoise came crawling into view. It was the husband returning from his trip around the world. He saw his wife, and behold! He was again a handsome young man, and a handsome young man he remained, by his wife's side, up to a ripe old age.

(Riviera ligure di ponente)


"The Man Who Came Out Only at Night" (L'uomo che usciva solo di notte) from Andrews, 14 and 21, Menton, told by Iren Gena and Irene Panduro.

A tale full of oddities, the most striking of which is that of women constables, given as a historical fact regarding a particular police system. In Andrews's first variant, the bridegroom turns into a toad.

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 5  And Seven!

A woman had a daughter who was big and fat and so gluttonous that when her mother brought the soup to the table she would eat one bowl, then a second, then a third, and keep on calling for more. Her mother filled her bowl, saying, "That makes three! And four! And five!" When the daughter asked for a seventh bowl of soup, her mother, instead of filling the bowl, whacked her over the head, shouting, "And seven!"

A well-dressed young man was passing by just then and saw the mother through the window hitting the girl and crying, "And seven!"

As the big fat young lady captured his fancy immediately, he went in and asked, "Seven of what?"

Ashamed of her daughter's gluttony, the mother replied, "Seven spindles of hemp! I have a daughter so crazy about work that she'd even spin the wool on the sheep's back! Can you imagine that she's already spun seven spindles of hemp this morning and still wants to spin? To make her stop, I have to beat her."

"If she's that hard-working, give her to me," said the young man. "I'll try her out to see if you're telling the truth and then I'll marry her."

He took her to his house and shut her up in a room full of hemp waiting to be spun. "I'm a sea captain, and I'm leaving on a voyage," he said. "If you've spun all this hemp by the time I return, I'll marry you."

The room also contained exquisite clothes and jewels, for the captain happened to be very rich. "When you become my wife," he explained, "these things will all be yours." Then he left her.

The girl spent her days trying on dresses and jewels and admiring herself in the mirror. She also devoted much time to planning meals, which the household servants prepared for her. None of the hemp was spun yet, and in one more day the captain would be back. The girl gave up all hope of ever marrying him and burst into tears. She was still crying when through the window flew a bundle of rags and came to rest on its feet: it was an old woman with long eyelashes. "Don't be afraid," she told the girl. "I've come to help you. I'll spin while you make the skein."

You never saw anyone spin with the speed of that old woman. In just a quarter of an hour she had spun every bit of hemp. And the more she spun, the longer her lashes became; longer than her nose, longer than her chin, they came down more than a foot; and her eyelids also grew much longer.

When the work was finished, the girl said, "How can I repay you, my good lady?"

"I don't want to be repaid. Just invite me to your wedding banquet when you marry the captain."

"How do I go about inviting you?"

"Just call 'Columbina' and I'll come. But heaven help you if you forget my name. It would be as though I'd never helped you, and you'd be undone."

The next day the captain arrived and found the hemp all spun. "Excellent!" he said. "I believe you're just the bride I was seeking. Here are the clothes and jewels I bought for you. But now I have to go on another voyage. Let's have a second test. Here's twice the amount of hemp I gave you before. If you spin it all by the time I return, I'll marry you."

As she had done before, the girl spent her time trying on gowns and jewels, eating soup and lasagna, and got to the last day with all the hemp still waiting to be spun. She was weeping over it when, lo and behold, something dropped down the chimney, and into the room rolled a bundle of rags. It came to rest on its feet, and there stood an old woman with sagging lips. This one too promised to help, began spinning, and worked even faster than the other old woman. The more she spun, the more her lips sagged. When the hemp was all spun in a half-hour, the old woman asked only to be invited to the wedding banquet. "Just call 'Columbara.' But don't forget my name, or my help will have been in vain and you will suffer."

The captain returned and asked before he even got into the house, "Did you spin it all?"

"I just now finished!"

"Take these clothes and jewels. Now, if I come back from my third voyage and find you've spun this third load of hemp, which is much bigger than the other two, I promise we'll get married at once."

As usual, the girl waited until the last day without touching the hemp. Down from the roof's gutter fell a bundle of rags, and out came an old woman with buckteeth. She began spinning, spinning even faster, and the more she spun, the longer grew her teeth.

"To invite me to your wedding banquet," said the old woman, "you must call 'Columbun.' But if you forget my name, it would be better if you'd never seen me."

When the captain came home and found the hemp all spun, he was completely satisfied. "Fine," he said, "now you will be my wife." He ordered preparations made for the wedding, to which he invited all the nobility in town.

Caught up in the preparations, the bride thought no more of the old women. On the morning of the wedding she remembered that she was supposed to invite them, but when she went to pronounce their names, she found they had slipped her mind. She cudgeled her brains but, for the life of her, couldn't recall a single name.

From the cheerful girl she was, she sank into a state of bottomless gloom. The captain noticed it and asked her what the matter was, but she would say nothing. Unable to account for her sadness, the bridegroom thought, This is perhaps not the right day. He therefore postponed the wedding until the day after. But the next day was still worse, and the day following we won't even mention. With every day that passed, the bride became gloomier and quieter, with her brows knit in concentration. He told her jokes and stories in an effort to make her laugh, but nothing he said or did affected her.

Since he couldn't cheer her up, he decided to go hunting and cheer himself up. Right in the heart of the woods he was caught in a storm and took refuge in a hovel. He was in there in the dark, when he heard voices:

"O Columbina!"

"O Columbara!"

"O Columbun!"

"Put on the pot to make polenta! That confounded bride won't be inviting us to her banquet after all!"

The captain wheeled around and saw three crones. One had eyelashes that dragged on the ground, another lips that hung down to her feet, and the third teeth that grazed her knees.

Well, well, he thought to himself. Now I can tell her something that will make her laugh. If she doesn't laugh over what I've just seen, she'll never laugh at anything!

He went home and said to his bride, "Just listen to this. Today I was in the woods and went into a hovel to get out of the rain. I go in and what should I see but three crones: one with eyelashes that dragged on the ground, another with lips that hung down to her feet, and the third with teeth that grazed her knees. And they called each other: 'O Columbina,' 'O Columbara,' 'O Columbun!'"

The bride's face brightened instantly, and she burst out laughing, and laughed and laughed. "Order the wedding banquet right away. But I'm asking one favor of you: since those three crones made me laugh so hard, let me invite them to the banquet."

Invite them she did. For the three old women a separate round table was set up, but so small that what with the eyelashes of one, the lips of the other, and the teeth of the third, you no longer knew what was what.

When dinner was over, the bridegroom asked Columbina, "Tell me, good lady, why are your lashes so long?"

"That's from straining my eyes to spin fine thread!" said Columbina.

"And you, why are your lips so thick?"

"That comes from always rubbing my finger on them to wet the thread!" said Columbara.

"And you, how on earth did your teeth get so long?"

"That's from biting the knot of the thread!" said Columbun.

"I see," said the bridegroom, and he turned to his wife. "Go get the spindle." When she brought it to him, he threw it into the fire. "You'll spin no more for the rest of your life!"

So the big, fat bride lived happily ever after.

(Riviera ligure di ponente)


"And Seven!" (E sette!) from Andrews, 4, 23, 47. (The first two were collected in Menton, the third near Ventimiglia.)

Marriage anecdotes and fairy-tale initiation motifs (the secret name to remember) are blended in this old story widespread in Europe (of English, Swedish, or German origin, according to scholars), subjected to literary treatment in the seventeenth century in Naples (Basile, IV, 4) and well known throughout Italy.

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

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