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11. The Little Girl Sold with the Pears

Once a man had a pear tree that used to bear four baskets of pears a year. One year, though, it only bore three baskets and a half, while he was supposed to carry four to the king. Seeing no other way out, he put his youngest daughter into the fourth basket and covered her up with pears and leaves.

The baskets were carried into the king's pantry, where the child stayed in hiding underneath the pears. But having nothing to eat, she began nibbling on the pears. After a while the servants noticed the supply of pears dwindling and also saw the cores. "There must be a rat or a mole gnawing on the pears," they said. "We shall look inside the baskets." They removed the top and found the little girl.

"What are you doing here?" they asked. "Come with us and work in the king's kitchen."

They called her Perina, and she was such a clever little girl that in no time she was doing the housework better than the king's own maidservants. She was so pretty no one could help loving her. The king's son, who was her age exactly, was always with Perina, and they became very fond of each other.

As the maiden grew up, the maidservants began to envy her. They held their tongues for a while, then accused Perina of boasting she would go and steal the witches' treasure. The king got wind of it and send for the girl. "Is it true you boasted you would go and steal the witches' treasure?"

"No, Sacred Crown, I made no such boast."

"You did so," insisted the king, "and now you have to keep your word." At that, he banished her from the palace until she should return with the treasure.

On and on she walked until nightfall. Perina came to an apple tree, but kept on going. She next came to a peach tree, but still didn't stop. Then she came to a pear tree, climbed it, and fell asleep.

In the morning there stood a little old woman under the tree. "What are you doing up there, my daughter?" asked the old woman.

Perina told her about the difficulty she was in. The old woman said, "Take these three pounds of grease, three pounds of bread, and three pounds of millet and be on your way." Perina thanked her very much and moved on.

She came to a bakery where three women were pulling out their hair to sweep out the oven with. Perina gave them the three pounds of millet, which they then used to sweep out the oven and allowed the little girl to continue on her way.

On and on she walked and met three mastiffs that barked and rushed at anyone coming their way. Perina threw them the three pounds of bread, and they let her pass.

After walking for miles and miles she came to a blood-red river, which she had no idea how to cross. But the old woman had told her to say:

"Fine water so red,
I must make haste;
Else, of you would I taste."

At those words, the waters parted and let her through.

On the other side of the river, Perina beheld one of the finest and largest palaces in the world. But the door was opening and slamming so rapidly that no one could possibly go in. Perina therefore applied the three pounds of grease to its hinges, and from then on it opened and closed quite gently.

Inside, Perina spied the treasure chest sitting on a small table. She picked it up and was about to go off with it, when the chest spoke: "Door, kill her, kill her!"

"I won't, either, since she greased my hinges that hadn't been looked after since goodness knows when."

Perina reached the river, and the chest said, "River, drown her, drown her!"

"I won't, either," replied the river, "since she called me 'Fine water so red.'"

She came to the dogs, and the chest said, "Dogs, devour her, devour her!"

"We won't, either," replied the dogs, "since she gave us three pounds of bread."

She came to the bakery oven. "Oven, burn her, burn her!"

But the three women replied, "We won't, either, since she gave us three pounds of millet, so that now we can spare our hair."

When she was almost home, Perina, who had as much curiosity as the next little girl, decided to peep into the treasure chest. She opened it, and out came a hen and her brood of gold chicks. They scuttled away too fast for a soul to catch them. Perina struck out after them. She passed the apple tree, but they were nowhere in sight. She passed the peach tree, where there was still no sign of them. She came to the pear tree, and there stood the little old woman with a wand in her hand and hen and chicks feeding around her. "Shoo, shoo!" went the old woman, and the hen and chicks reentered the treasure chest.

Upon her arrival, the king's son came out to meet her. "When my father asked what you want as a reward, tell him that box filled with coal in the cellar."

On the doorstep of the royal palace stood the maidservants, the king, and the entire court. Perina handed the king the hen with the brood of gold chicks. "Ask for whatever you want," said the king, "and I will give it to you."

"I would like the box of coal in the cellar," replied Perina.

They brought her the box of coal, which she opened, and out jumped the king's son, who was hiding inside. The king was then happy for Perina to marry his son.



"The Little Girl Sold with the Pears" (La bambina venduta con le pere) from Comparetti, 10, Monferrato, Piedmont.

I changed the name Margheritina to Perina (Pearlet), and I invented the motif of the peartree and the little old woman (in the original, the magic props come from the king's son, who is under a spell), to reinforce the pear/girl link.

Copyright: Italian Folktales Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino,
translated by George Martin,
Pantheon Books, New York 1980