Italian Folktales


Chapter 6  Body-without-Soul

There was a widow with a son named Jack, who at thirteen wanted to leave home to seek his fortune. His mother said to him, "What do you expect to do out in the world? Don't you know you're still a little boy? When you're able to fell that pine tree behind our house with one kick, then you can go."

Every day after that, as soon as he rose in the morning, Jack would get a running start and jump against the trunk of the tree with both feet, but the pine never budged an inch and he fell flat on his back. He would get up again, shake the dirt off, and go back inside.

At last one fine morning he jumped with all his might, and the tree gave way and toppled to the ground, his roots in the air. Jack ran and got his mother who, surveying the felled tree, said, "You may now go wherever you wish, my son." Jack bid her farewell and set out.

After walking for days and days he came to a city whose king had a horse named Rondello that no one had ever been able to ride. People constantly tried, but were thrown just when it appeared they would succeed. Looking on, Jack soon realized that the horse was afraid of its own shadow, so he volunteered to break Rondello himself. He began by going up to the horse in the stable, talking to it and patting it; then he suddenly jumped into the saddle and rode the animal outside straight into the sun. That way it couldn't see any shadow to frighten it. Jack took a steady hold of the reins, pressed his knees to the horse, and galloped off. A quarter of an hour later Rondello was as docile as a lamb, but let no one ride him after that but Jack.

From then on, Jack served the king, who was so fond of him that the other servants grew jealous and plotted to get rid of him.

Now the king had a daughter who had been kidnapped in her infancy by the sorcerer Body-without-Soul, and no one had heard of her since. The servants went to the king claiming Jack had boasted to everybody he would free her. The king sent for him. Jack was amazed and said this was the first he had even heard of the king's daughter. But the fact that anyone had dared make light of the episode concerning his daughter so infuriated the king that he said, "Either you free her, or I'll have you beheaded."

Since there was no calming the king now, Jack asked for a rusty sword they kept hanging on the wall, saddled Rondello, and rode off. Crossing a forest, he saw a lion motioning him to stop. Although a bit uneasy, Jack disliked the idea of running away, so he dismounted and asked what the lion wanted.

"Jack," said the lion, "as you can see, there are four of us here: myself, a dog, an eagle, and an ant. We have a dead donkey to parcel among us. Since you have a sword, carve the animal and give us each a portion." Jack cut off the donkey's head and gave it to the ant. "Here you are. This will make you a nice home and supply you with all the food you'll ever want." Next he cut off the hoofs and gave them to the dog. "Here's something to gnaw on as long as you like." He cut out the entrails and gave them to the eagle. "This is your food, which you can carry to the treetops where you perch." All the rest he gave to the lion, which as the biggest of the four deserved the largest portion. He got back on his horse and started off, only to hear his name called. "Dear me," he thought, "I must have made some mistake in dividing the parts." But the lion said to him, "You did us a big favor and you were very fair. As one good deed deserves another, I'm giving you one of my claws which will turn you into the fiercest lion in the world when you wear it." The dog said, "Here is one of my whiskers, which will turn you into the fastest dog on earth, whenever you place it under your nose." The eagle said, "Here is a feather from my wings which can change you into the biggest and strongest eagle in the sky." The ant said, "I'm giving you one of my tiny legs. Put it on and you will become an ant so small that no one can see you, even with a magnifying glass."

Jack took his presents, thanked the four animals, and departed. As he was uncertain whether the gifts were magic or not, thinking the animals might have played a joke on him, he stopped as soon as he was out of sight to test them. He became lion, dog, eagle, and ant; next ant, eagle, dog, and lion; then eagle, ant, lion, and dog; finally dog, lion, ant, and eagle. Yes, everything worked like a charm! All smiles, he moved onward.

Beyond the forest was a lake, on whose shore stood the castle of Body-without-Soul. Jack changed into an eagle and flew straight to the edge of a closed window. Then he changed into an ant and crawled into the room. It was a beautiful bedchamber where, beneath a canopy, lay the king's daughter asleep. Still an ant, Jack went crawling over her cheek until she awakened. Then he removed the tiny ant leg, and the king's daughter suddently beheld a handsome youth at her side.

"Don't be afraid," he said, signaling silence. "I've come to free you. You must get the sorcerer to tell you what could kill him."

When the sorcerer returned, Jacked changed back into an ant. The king's daughter made a big to-do over Body-without-Soul, seating him at her feet and drawning his head onto her lap. Then she began: "My darling sorcerer, I know you're a body without a soul and therefore incapable of dying. But I live in constant fear of someone finding your soul and putting you to death."

"I can tell you the secret," replied the sorcerer, "since you're imprisoned here and can't possibly betray me. To slay me would require a lion mighty enough to kill the black lion in the forest. Out of the belly of the dead lion would leap a black dog so swift that only the fastest dog on earth could catch it. Out of the belly of the dead black dog would fly a black eagle that could withstand every eagle under the sun. But if by chance that eagle were slain, a black egg would have to be taken out of its craw and cracked over my brow for my soul to fly away and leave me dead. Does all that seem easy? Do you have any real grounds for worry?"

With his tiny ant ears, Jack took in every word, then crawled back under the window to the ledge, where he again turned into an eagle and soared into the forest. There he changed into a lion and stalked the underbrush until he came face to face with the black lion. The black lion jumped him, but Jack, being the strongest lion in the world, tore it to bits. (Back at the castle, the sorcerer felt his head spin.) The lion's belly was slit open, and out bolted a swift-footed black dog, but Jack turned into the fastest dog on earth, caught him, and they rolled together in a ball, biting each other until the black dog lay dead. (Back at the castle, the sorcerer had to take to his bed.) The dog's belly was slit open and out flew a black eagle, but Jack became the most powerful eagle under the sun and they soared through the sky pecking and clawing each other until the black eagle folded its wings and fell to earth. (At the castle, the sorcerer ran a high fever and curled up under the bedclothes.)

Jack changed back into a man, opened the eagle's craw, and removed the black egg. He returned to the castle and gave it to the king's daughter, who was overjoyed.

"How on earth did you do it?" she asked.

"Nothing to it," replied Jack. "The rest is now up to you."

The king's daughter entered the sorcerer's bedchamber, asking, "How do you feel?"

"Woe's me! I've been betrayed..."

"I brought you a cup of broth. Drink some."

The sorcerer sat up in his bed and bent over to drink the broth.

"Here, let me break an egg into it and give it more body." At that, the king's daughter broke the black egg over his brow and Body-without-Soul died on the spot.

Jack took the king's daughter home to her father. Everyone was overjoyed, and the young couple was married forthwith.

(Riviera ligure di ponente)


"Body-without-Soul" (Corpo-senza-l'anima) from Andrews, 46, Riviera ligure.

This Ligurian Jack differs from fellow heroes and liberators of princesses by his systematic cautiousness bordering on distrust (he is one of the few who, the minute he receives a magic gift, must test it before he is able to believe in it). In that respect he takes after his mother, who will not let him go out into the world until he has given proof of perseverance by felling the tree with his kicks. I have been faithful to the original version while aiming to endow it with a particular rhythm.

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 7  Money Can Do Everything

There was once a prince as rich as cream, who took it into his head to put up a palace right across the street from the king's, but a palace far more splendid than the king's. Once it was finished, he put on its front in bold lettering: MONEY CAN DO EVERYTHING.

When the king came out and saw that, he sent immediately for the prince, who was new in town and hadn't yet visited the court.

"Congratulations," the king said. "Your palace is a true wonder. My house looks like a hut compared with it. Congratulations! But was it your idea to put up the words: Money can do everything?"

The prince realized that maybe he had gone too far.

"Yes it was," he answered, "but if Your Majesty doesn't like it, I can easily have the letters stripped off."

"Oh, no, I wouldn't think of having you do that. I merely wanted to hear from your own lips what you meant by such a statement. For instance, do you think that, with your money, you could have me assassinated?"

The prince realized he had got himself into a tight spot.

"Oh, Majesty, forgive me. I'll have the words removed at once. And if you don't like the palace, just say so, and I'll have it torn down too."

"No, no, leave it the way it is. But since you claim a person with money can do anything, prove it to me. I'll give you three days to try to talk to my daughter. If you manage to speak to her, well and good; you will marry her. If not, I'll have you beheaded. Is that clear?"

The prince was too distressed to eat, drink, or sleep. Day and night, all he thought of was how he might save his neck. By the second day he was certain of failure and decided to make his will. His plight was hopeless, for the king's daughter had been closed up in a castle surrounded by one hundred guards. Pale and limp as a rag, the prince lay on his bed waiting to die, when in walked his old nurse, a decrepit old soul now who had nursed him as a baby and who still worked for him. Finding him so haggard, the old woman asked what was wrong. Hemming and hawing, he told her the whole story.

"So?" said the nurse. "And you're giving up, like that? You make me laugh! I'll see what I can do about all this!"

Off she wobbled to the finest silversmith in town and ordered him to make a solid silver goose that would open and close its bill. The goose was to be as big as a man and hollow inside. "It must be ready tomorrow," she added.

"Tomorrow? You're crazy!" exclaimed the silversmith.

"Tomorrow I said!" The old woman pulled out a purse of gold coins and continued, "Think it over. This is the down payment. I'll give you the rest tomorrow when you deliver the goose."

The silversmith was dumbfounded. "That makes all the difference in the world," he said. "I'll do my best to have the goose tomorrow."

The next day the goose was ready, and it was a beauty.

The old woman said to the prince, "Take your violin and get inside the goose. Play as soon as we reach the road."

They wound their way through the city, with the old woman pulling the silver goose along by a ribbon and the prince inside playing his violin. The people lined the streets to watch: there wasn't a soul in town that didn't come running to see the beautiful goose. Word of it reached the castle where the king's daughter was shut up, and she asked her father to let her go and see the unusual sight.

The king said, "Time's up for that boastful prince tomorrow. You can go out then and see the goose."

But the girl had heard that the old woman with the goose would be gone by tomorrow. Therefore the king had the goose brought inside the castle so his daughter could see it. That's just what the old woman was counting on. As soon as the princess was alone with the silver goose and delighting in the music pouring from its bill, the goose suddenly opened and out stepped a man.

"Don't be afraid," said the man. "I am the prince who must either speak to you or be decapitated by your father tomorrow morning. You can say you spoke to me and save my life."

The next day the king sent for the prince. "Well, did your money make it possible for you to speak to my daughter?"

"Yes, Majesty," answered the prince.

"What! Do you mean you spoke to her?"

"Ask her."

The girl came in and told how the prince was hidden in the silver goose which the king himself had ordered brought inside the castle.

The king, at that, removed his crown and placed it on the prince's head. "That means you have not only money but also a fine head! Live happily, for I am giving you my daughter in marriage."



"Money Can Do Everything" (Il danaro fa tutto) from Andrews, 64, Genoa, told by Caterina Grande.

This story, of oriental origin (found in the Panchatantra), stresses in its Genoese version a utilitarian and commercial moral all its own. (The final remark of the king was even too harsh along that line, so I decided to give credit also, as it meet, to cleverness...)

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 8  The Little Shepherd

There was once a shepherd boy no bigger than a mite and as mean as could be. On his way out to pasture one day, he passed a poultry dealer carrying a basket of eggs on her head. So what did he do but throw a stone into the basket and break every single egg. Enraged, the poor woman screamed a curse: "You shall get no bigger until you've found lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples!"

From that time on, the shepherd boy grew thin and puny, and the more his mother attended to him, the punier he became. Finally she asked, "What on earth has happened to you? Have you done a bad turn for which someone placed a curse on you?" He then told her about his meanness to the poultry dealer, repeating the woman's words to him, "You shall get no bigger until you've found lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples!"

"In that case," said his mother, "you've no choice but to go in search of this lovely Bargaglina."

The shepherd set out. He came to a bridge, on which a little lady was rocking to and fro in a walnut shell.

"Who goes there?"

"A friend."

"Lift my eyelids a little, so I can see you."

"I'm seeking lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples. Do you know anything about her?"

"No, but take this stone; it will come in handy."

The shepherd came to another bridge, where another little lady was bathing in an eggshell.

"Who goes there?"

"A friend."

"Lift my eyelids a little, so I can see you."

"I'm seeking lovely Bargaglina of the three singing apples. Have you any news of her?"

"No, but take this ivory comb, which will come in handy."

The shepherd put it in his pocket and walked on until he came to a stream where a man was filling a bag with fog. When asked about lovely Bargaglina, the man claimed to know nothing about her, but he gave the shepherd a pocketful of fog, which would come in handy.

Next he came to a mill whose miller, a talking fox, said, "Yes, I know who lovely Bargaglina is, but you'll have difficulty finding her. Walk straight ahead until you come to a house with the door open. Go inside and you'll see a crystal cage hung with many little bells. In the cage are the singing apples. You must take the cage, but watch out for a certain old woman. If her eyes are open, that means she's asleep. If they're closed, she's surely awake."

The shepherd moved on. He found the old woman with her eyes closed and realized she was awake. "My lad," said the old woman, "glance down in my hair and see if I've any lice."

He looked, and as he was delousing her, she opened her eyes and he knew she had fallen asleep. So he quickly picked up the crystal cage and fled. But the little bells on the cage tinkled, and the old woman awakened and sent a hundred horsemen after him. Hearing them almost upon him, the shepherd dropped the stone he had in his pocket. It changed instantly into a steep, rocky mountain, and the horses all fell and broke their legs.

Now horseless, the cavalrymen returned to the old woman, who then sent out two hundred mounted soldiers. Seeing himself in new peril, the shepherd threw down the ivory comb. It turned into a mountain as slick as glass, down which horses and riders all slid to their death.

The old woman then sent three hundred horsemen after him, but he pulled out the pocketful of fog, hurled it over his shoulder, and the army got lost in it. Meanwhile, the shepherd had grown thirsty and, having nothing with him to drink, removed one of the three apples from the cage and cut into it. A tiny voice said, "Gently, please, or you'll hurt me." Gently, he finished cutting the apple, ate one half, and put the other in his pocket. At length he came to a well near his house, where he reached into his pocket for the rest of the apple. In its place was a tiny, tiny lady.

"I'm lovely Bargaglina," she said, "and I like cake. Go get me a cake, I'm famished."

The well was one of those closed wells, with a hole in the center, so the shepherd seated the lady on the rim, telling her to wait there until he came back with the cake.

Meanwhile, a servant known as Ugly Slave came to the well for water. She spied the lovely little lady and said, "How come you're so little and beautiful while I'm so big and ugly?" And she grew so furious that she threw the tiny creature into the well.

The shepherd returned and was heartbroken to find lovely Bargaglina gone.

Now his mother also went to that well for water, and what should she find in her bucket one day but a fish. She took it home and fried it. They ate it and threw the bones out the window. There where they fell, a tree grew up and got so big that it shut out all the light from the house. The shepherd therefore cut it down and chopped it up for firewood, which he brought inside. By that time his mother had died, and he lived there all by himself, now punier then ever, since no matter what he tried, he couldn't grow any bigger. Every day he went out to the pasture and came back home at night. How great was his amazement upon finding the dishes and pans he'd used in the morning all washed for him when he came home! He couldn't imagine who was doing this. At last he decided to hide behind the door and find out. Whom should he then see but a very dainty maiden emerge from the woodpile, wash the dishes, sweep the house, and make his bed, after which she opened the cupboard and helped herself to a cake.

Out sprang the shepherd, asking, "Who are you? How did you get in?"

"I'm lovely Bargaglina," replied the maiden, "the girl you found in your pocket in place of the apple half. Ugly Slave threw me into the well, and I turned into a fish, then into fishbones thrown out the window. From fishbones I changed into a tree seed, next into a tree that grew and grew, and finally into firewood you cut. Now, every day while you're away, I become lovely Bargaglina."

Thanks to the rediscovery of lovely Bargaglina, the shepherd grew by leaps and bounds, and lovely Bargaglina along with him. Soon he was a handsome youth and married lovely Bargaglina. They had a big feast. I was there, under the table. They threw me a bone, which hit me on the nose and stuck for good.

(Inland vicinity of Genoa)


"The Little Shepherd" (Il pastore che non cresceva mai) from Guarnerio (Due fole nel dialetto del contado genovese collected by P. E. Guarnerio, Genoa, 1892), Torriglia, near Genoa, told by the countrywoman Maria Banchero.

A feature of this Genoese variant of the widespread tale of the "three oranges" includes encounters with creatures like those in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch -- tiny fairies rocking in nutshells or eggshells. We meet the same beings in another Genoese version (Andrews, 51).

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 9  Silver Nose

There was once a widowed washerwoman with three daughters. All four of them worked their fingers to the bone washing, but they still went hungry. One day the oldest daughter said to her mother, "I intend to leave home, even if I have to go and work for the Devil."

"Don't talk like that, daughter," replied the mother. "Goodness knows what might happen to you."

Not many days afterward, they received a visit from a gentleman attired in black. He was the height of courtesy and had a silver nose.

"I am aware of the fact that you have three daughters," he said to the mother. "Would you let one come and work for me?"

The mother would have consented at once, had it not been for that silver nose which she didn't like the looks of. She called her oldest girl aside and said, "No man on earth has a silver nose. If you go off with him you might well live to regret it, so watch out."

The daughter, who was dying to leave home, paid no attention to her mother and left with the man. They walked for miles and miles, crossing woods and mountains, and finally came in sight of an intense glow in the distance like that of a fire. "What is that I see way down there in the valley?" asked the girl, growing uneasy.

"My house. That's just where we are going," replied Silver Nose.

The girl followed along, but couldn't keep from trembling. They came to a large palace, and Silver Nose took her through it and showed her every room, each one more beautiful than the other, and he gave her the key to each one. When they reached the door of the last room, Silver Nose gave her the key and said, "You must never open this door for any reason whatever, or you'll wish you hadn't! You're in charge of all the rooms but this one."

He's hiding something from me, thought the girl, and resolved to open that door the minute Silver Nose left the house. That night, while she was sleeping in her little room, in tiptoed Silver Nose and placed a rose in her hair. Then he left just as quietly as he had entered.

The next morning Silver Nose went out on business. Finding herself alone with all her keys, the girl ran and unlocked the forbidden door. No sooner had she cracked it than smoke and flames shot out, while she caught sight of a crowd of damned souls in agony inside the fiery room. She then realized that Silver Nose was the Devil and that the room was Hell. She screamed, slammed the door, and took to her heels. But a tongue of fire had scorched the rose she wore in her hair.

Silver Nose came home and saw the singed rose. "So that's how you obey me!" he said. He snatched her up, opened the door to Hell, and flung her into the flames.

The next day he went back to the widow. "Your daughter is getting along very well at my house, but the work is so heavy she needs help. Could you send us your second daughter too?" So Silver Nose returned home with one of the girl's sisters. He showed her around the house, gave her all the keys, and told her she could open all the rooms except the last. "Do you think," said the girl, "I would have any reason to open it? I am not interested in your personal business." That night after the girl went to sleep, Silver Nose tiptoed in and put a carnation in her hair.

When Silver Nose went out the next morning, the first thing the girl did was go and open the forbidden door. She was instantly assailed by smoke, flames, and howls of the damned souls, in whose midst she spotted her sister. "Sister, free me from this Hell!" screamed the first girl. But the middle girl grew weak in the knees, slammed the door, and ran. She was now sure that Silver Nose was the Devil, from whom she couldn't hide or escape. Silver Nose returned and noticed her hair right away. The carnation was withered, so without a word he snatched her up and threw her into Hell too.

The next day, in his customary aristocratic attire, he reappeared at the washerwoman's house. "There is so much work to be done at my house that not even two girls are enough. Could I have your third daughter as well?" He thus returned home with the third sister, Lucia, who was the most cunning of them all. She too was shown around the house and given the same instructions as her sisters. She too had a flower put in her hair while she was sleeping: a jasmine blossom. The first thing Lucia did when she got up next morning was arrange her hair. Looking in the mirror, she noticed the jasmine. "Well, well!" she said. "Silver Nose pinned a jasmine on me. How thoughtful of him! Who knows why he did it? In any case I'll keep it fresh." She put it into a glass of water, combed her hair, then said, "Now let's take a look at that mysterious door."

She just barely opened it, and out rushed a flame. She glimpsed countless people burning, and there in the middle of the crowd were her big sisters. "Lucia! Lucia!" they screamed. "Get us out of here! Save us!"

At once Lucia shut the door tightly and began thinking how she might rescue her sisters.

By the time the Devil got home, Lucia had put her jasmine back in her hair, and acted as though nothing had happened that day. Silver Nose looked at the jasmine. "Oh, it's still fresh," he said.

"Of course, why shouldn't it be? Why would anyone wear withered flowers in her hair?"

"Oh, I was just talking to be talking," answered Silver Nose. "You seem like a clever girl. Keep it up, and we'll never quarrel. Are you happy?"

"Yes, but I'd be happier if I didn't have something bothering me."

"What's bothering you?"

"When I left my mother, she wasn't feeling too well. Now I have no news at all of her."

"If that's all you're worried about," said the Devil, "I'll drop by her house and see how she's doing."

"Thank you, that is very kind of you. If you can go tomorrow, I'll get up a bag of laundry at once which my mother can wash if she is well enough. The bag won't be too heavy for you, will it?"

"Of course not. I can carry anything under the sun, no matter how heavy it is."

When the Devil went out again that day, Lucia opened the door to Hell, pulled out her oldest sister, and tied her up in a bag. "Keep still in there, Carlotta," she told her. "The Devil himself will carry you back home. But any time he so much as thinks of putting the bag down, you must say, 'I see you, I see you!'"

The Devil returned, and Lucia said, "Here is the bag of things to be washed. Do you promise you'll take it straight to my mother?"

"You don't trust me?" asked the Devil.

"Certainly I trust you, all the more so with my special ability to see from a great distance away. If you dare put the bag down somewhere, I'll see you."

"Yes, of course," said the Devil, but he had little faith in her claim of being able to see things a great distance away. He flung the bag over his shoulder. "My goodness, this dirty stuff is heavy!" he exclaimed.

"Naturally!" replied the girl. "How many years has it been since you had anything washed?"

Silver Nose set out for the washerwoman's, but when he was only halfway there, he said to himself, "Maybe...but I shall see if this girl isn't emptying my house of everything I own, under the pretext of sending out laundry." He went to put the bag down and open it.

"I see you, I see you!" suddenly screamed the sister inside the bag.

"By Jove, it's true! She can see from afar!" exclaimed Silver Nose. He threw the bag back over his shoulder and marched straight to Lucia's mother's house. "Your daughter sends you this stuff to wash and wants to know how you are..."

As soon as he left, the washerwoman opened the sack, and you can imagine her joy upon finding her oldest daughter inside.

A week later, sly Lucia pretended to be sad once more and told Silver Nose she wanted news of her mother.

She sent him to her house with another bag of laundry. So Silver Nose carried off the second sister, without managing to peep inside because of the "I see you, I see you!" which came from the bag the instant he started to open it. The washerwoman, who now knew Silver Nose was the Devil, was quite frightened when he returned, for she was sure he would ask for the clean wash from last time. But Silver Nose put down the new bag and said, "I'll get the clean wash some other time. This heavy bag has broken my back, and I want to go home with nothing to carry."

When he had gone, the washerwoman anxiously opened the bag and embraced her second daughter. But she was more worried than ever about Lucia, who was now alone in the Devil's hands.

What did Lucia do? Not long afterward she started up again about news of her mother. By now the Devil was sick and tired of carrying laundry, but he had grown too fond of this obedient girl to say no to her. As soon as it grew dark, Lucia announced she had a bad headache and would go to bed early. "I'll prepare the laundry and leave the bag out for you, so if I don't feel like getting up in the morning, you can be on your way."

Now Lucia had made a rag doll the same size as herself. She put it in bed under the covers, cut off her own braids, adn sewed them on the doll's head. the doll then looked like Lucia asleep, and Lucia closed herself up in the bag.

In the morning the Devil saw the girl snuggled down under the covers and set out with the bag over his shoulder. "She's sick this morning," he said to himself, "and won't be looking. It's the perfect time to see if this really is nothing but laundry." At that, he put the bag down and was about to open it. "I see you, I see you!" cried Lucia.

"By Jove, it's her voice to a tee, as though she were right here! Better not joke with such a girl." He took up the bag again and carried it to the washerwoman. "I'll come back later for everything," he said rapidly. "I have to get home right away because Lucia is sick."

So the family was finally reunited. Since Lucia had also carried off great sums of the Devil's money, they were now able to live in comfort and happiness. They planted a cross before the door, and from then on, the Devil kept his distance.



"Silver Nose" (Il naso d'argento) from Carraroli, 3, from Langhe, Piedmont.

Bluebeard in Piedmont is Silver Nose. His victims are not wives but servant girls, and the story is not taken from chronicles about cruel feudal masters as in Perrault, but from medieval theological legends: Bluebeard is the Devil, and the room containing the murdered women is Hell. I found the silver nose only in this version translated from dialect and summarized by Carraroli; but the Devil-Bluebeard, the flowers in the hair, and the ruses to get back home were encountered all over Northern Italy. I integrated the rather meager Piedmont version with one from Bologna (Coronedi S. 27) and a Venetian one (Bernoni, 3).

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

Chapter 10  The Count's Beard

The town of Pocapaglia was perched on the pinnacle of a hill so steep that its inhabitants tied little bags on the tail feathers of their hens to catch each freshly laid egg that otherwise would have gone rolling down the slopes into the woods below.

All of which goes to show that the people of Pocapaglia were not the dunces they were said to be, and that the proverb,

In Pocapaglia ways
The donkey whistles, the master brays,

merely reflected the malicious grudge the neighboring townspeople bore the Pocapaglians for their peaceful ways and their reluctance to quarrel with anyone.

"Yes, yes," was all the Pocapaglians would reply, "but just wait until Masino returns, and you will see who brays more, we or you."

Everybody in Pocapaglia loved Masino, the smartest boy in town. He was no stronger physically than anybody else; in fact, he even looked rather puny. But he had always been very clever. Concerned over how little he was at birth, his mother had bathed him in warm wine to keep him alive and make him a little stronger. His father had heated the wine with a red-hot horseshoe. That way Masino absorbed the subtlety of wine and the endurance of iron. To cool him off after his bath, his mother cradled him in the shell of an unripened chestnut; it was bitter and gave him understanding.

At the time the Pocapaglians were awaiting the return of Masino, whom no one had seen since the day he went off to be a soldier (and who was now most likely somewhere in Africa), strange things started happening in Pocapaglia. Every evening as the cattle came back from pasture in the plain below, an animal was whisked away by Micillina the Witch.

The witch would hide in the woods at the foot of the hill, and all she needed to do was give one heavy puff, and she had herself an ox. When the farmers heard her steal through the thicket after dark, their teeth would chatter, and everyone would fall down in a swoon. That became so common that people took to saying:

Beware of Micillina, that old witch,
For all your oxen she will filch,
Then train on you her crossed-eye,
And wait for you to fall and die.

At night they began lighting huge bonfires to keep Micillina the Witch from venturing out of the woods. But she would sneak up on the solitary farmer watching over cattle beside the bonfire and knock him out in one breath. In the morning upon awaking, he'd find cows and oxen gone, and his friends would hear him weeping and moaning and hitting himself on the head. Then everybody combed the woods for traces of the stolen cattle, but found only tufts of hair, hairpins, and footprints left here and there by Micillina the Witch.

Things went from bad to worse. Shut up all the time in the barn, the cows grew as thin as rails. A rake instead of a brush was all that was needed to groom them, from rib to rib. Nobody dared lead the cattle to pasture any more. Everyone stayed clear of the woods now, and the mushrooms that grew there went unpicked and got as big as umbrellas.

Micillina the Witch was not tempted to plunder other towns, knowing full well that calm and peace-loving people were to be found only in Pocapaglia. There the poor farmers lit a big bonfire every night in the town square, while the women and children locked themselves indoors. The men sat around the fire scratching their heads and groaning. Day after day they scratched and groaned until a decision was finally reached to go to the count for help.

The count lived high above the town on a large circular estate surrounded by a massive wall. The top of the wall was encrusted with sharp bits of glass. One Sunday morning all the townsmen arrived, with hats in hand. They knocked, the door swung open, and they filed into the courtyard before the court's round dwelling, which had bars at all the windows. Around the courtyard sat the court's soldiers smoothing their mustaches with oil to make them shine and scowling at the farmers. At the end of the courtyard, in a velvet chair, sat the count himself with his long black beard, which four soldiers were combing from head to foot.

The oldest farmer took heart and said, "Your Honor, we have dared come to you about our misfortune. As our cattle go into the woods, Micillina the Witch appears and makes off with them." So, amid sighs and groans, with the other farmers nodding in assent, he told the count all about their nightmare.

The count remained silent.

"We have come here," said the old man, "to be so bold as to ask Your Honor's advice."

The count remained silent.

"We have come here," he added, "to be so bold as to ask Your Honor to help us. If you assigned us an escort of soldiers, we could again take our cattle down to pasture."

The count shook his head. "If I let you have the soldiers," he said, "I must also let you have the captain..."

The farmers listened, hardly daring to hope.

"But if the captain is away in the evening," said the count, "who can I play lotto with?"

The farmers fell to their knees. "Help us, noble count, for pity's sake!" The soldiers around the courtyard yawned and stroked their mustaches.

Again the count shook his head and said:

I am the count and I count for three;
No witch have I seen,
So, no witch has there been.

At those words and still yawning, the soldiers picked up their guns and, with bayonets extended, moved slowly toward the farmers, who turned and filed silently out of the courtyard.

Back in the town square and completely discouraged, the farmers had no idea what to do next. But the senior of them all, the one who had spoken to the count, said, "There's nothing left to do but send for Masino!"

So they wrote Masino a letter and sent it to Africa. Then one evening, while they were all gathered around the bonfire as usual, Masino returned. Imagine the welcome they gave him, the embraces, the pots of hot, spiced wine! "Where on earth have you been? What did you see? If you only knew what we have been going through!"

Masino let them have their say, then he had his. "In Africa I saw cannibals who ate not men but locusts; in the desert I saw a madman who had let his fingernails grow twelve meters long to dig for water; in the sea I saw a fish with a shoe and a slipper who wanted to be king of the other fish, since no other fish possessed shoe or slipper; in Sicily I saw a woman with seventy sons and only one kettle; in Naples I saw people who walked while standing still, since the chatter of other people kept them going; I saw sinners and I saw saints; I saw fat people and people no bigger than mites; many, many frightened souls did I see, but never so many as here in Pocapaglia."

The farmers hung their heads in shame, for Masino had hit a sensitive spot in suggesting they were cowards. But Masino was not cross with his fellow townsmen. He asked for a detailed account of the witch's doings, then said, "Let me ask you three questions, and at the stroke of midnight I'll go out and catch the witch and bring her back to you."

"Let's hear your questions! Out with them!" they all said.

"The first question is for the barber. How many people came to you this month?"

The barber replied:

"Long beards, short beards,
Fine beards, coarse beards,
Locks straight, locks curly,
All I trimmd(sic) in a hurry."

"Your turn now, cobbler. How many people brought you their old shoes to mend this month?"

"Alas!" began the cobbler:

"Shoes of wood, shoes of leather,
Nail by nail I hammered back together,
Mended shoes of satin and shoes of serpent.
But there's nothing left to do,
All their money is spent."

"The third question goes to you, rope maker. How much rope did you sell this month?"

The rope maker replied:

"Rope galore of every sort I sold:
Hemp rope, braided, wicker, cord,
Needle-thin to arm-thick,
Lard-soft to iron-strong...
This month I couldn't go wrong."

"Very well," said Masino, stretching out by the fire. "I'm now going to sleep for a few hours, I'm very tired. Wake me up at midnight and I'll go after the witch." He put his hat over his face and fell asleep.

The farmers kept perfectly quiet until midnight, not even daring to breathe, for fear of awaking him. At midnight Masino shook himself, yawned, drank a cup of mulled wine, spat three times into the fire, got up without looking at a soul, and headed for the woods.

The farmers stayed behind watching the fire burn down and the last embers turn to ashes. Then, whom should Masino drag in by the beard but the count! A count that wept, kicked, and pleaded for mercy.

"Here's the witch!" cried Masino, and asked, "Where did you put the mulled wine?"

Beneath the farmers' amazed stares, the count tried to make himself as small as possible, sitting on the ground and shrinking up like a cold-bitten fly.

"The thief could have been none of you," explained Masino, "since you had all gone to the barber and had no hair to lose in the bushes. Then there were those tracks made by big heavy shoes, but all of you go barefoot. Nor could the thief have been a ghost, since he wouldn't have needed to buy all that cord to tie up the animals and carry them away. But where is my mulled wine?"

Shaking all over, the count tried to hide in that beard of his which Masino had tousled and torn in pulling him out of the bushes.

"How did he ever make us faint by just looking at us?" asked one farmer.

"He would smite you on the head with a padded club. That way you would hear only a whir. He'd leave no mark on you, you'd simply wake up with a headache."

"And those hairpins he lost?" asked another.

"They were used to hold his beard up on his head and make it look like a woman's hair."

Until then the farmers had listened in silence, but when Masino said, "And now, what shall we do with him?" a storm of shouts arose: "Burn him! Skin him alive! String him up for a scarecrow! Seal him in a cask and roll him down the cliff! Sew him up in a sack with six cats and six dogs!"

"Have mercy!" said the count in a voice just above a whisper.

"Spare him," said Masino, "and he will bring back your cattle and clean your barns. And since he enjoyed going into the woods at night, make him go there every night and gather bundles of firewood for each of you. Tell the children never to pick up the hairpins they find on the ground, for they belong to Micillina the Witch, whose hair and beard will be disheveled from now on."

The farmers followed the suggestion, and soon Masino left Pocapaglia to travel about the world. In the course of his travels, he found himself fighting in first one war and another, and they all lasted so long that his saying sprang up:

Soldier fighter, what a hard lot!
Wretched food, the ground for a cot.
You feed the cannon powder:
Boom-BOOM! Boom-BOOM! Boom louder!



"The Count's Beard" (La barba del Conte). Published here for the first time, collected by Giovanni Arpino in July 1956, in certain villages of southern Piedmont: Bra (told by Caterina Asteggiano, inmate of a home for old people, and Luigi Berzia), in Guarene (told by Doro Palladino, farmer), in Narzole (told by Annetta Taricco, servant woman), and in Pocapaglia.

This long narrative, which writer Giovanni Arpino has transcribed and unified from different versions with variants and additions from Bra and surroundings, cannot in my view be classified as a folktale. It is a local legend of recent origin in part (I am thinking, for instance, of the geographical particulars given), that is, not prior to the nineteenth century, and containing disparate elements: explanation of a local superstition (the hairpins of Witch Micillina), antifeudal country legend such as one finds in many northern countries, curious detective-story structure la Sherlock Holmes, many digressions nonessential to the story (such as the trip from Africa back to town -- which Arpino tells me also exists as a separate story -- and all the allusions to Masino's past and future adventures which lead to the conclusion globetrotter from a country whose inhabitants are reputed to be contrastingly slow and backward), verse (of which Arpino and I have presented only as much as we could effective translate), and grotesque images which seem rooted in tradition, such as the sacks under the hens' tails, the oxen so thin that they were curried with the rake, the count whose beard was combed by four soldiers, etc....

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,

translated by George Martin,

Pantheon Books, New York 1980

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