A Story From: Italy
Read Time: 20 to 30 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
The only reason people even knew about the Ogre’s feathers is that once in a while one of them fell to the ground and was discovered by some lucky villager. But there was no time to wait for that.
“I would gladly get a feather from the Ogre for you,” one of the court advisers assured the king, “but with my wife and eight children at home, I’m really not free to try.” Another said, “Certainly I wish I could do it, truly, but with my aging mother to take care of, I must sadly decline.”
One by one, each officer at court offered one reason or excuse why he could not attempt the journey.
“I’ll go,” said one of the court attendants in the back of the room.
All heads spun around. “I have no family that depends on me,” said the court attendant. “I’m honored to serve my king.”
The others clapped his back with admiration and relief.
“Very well,” the king mumbled. “But be quick about it.”
That afternoon the court officers led the young man outside the castle. They showed him the road he needed to take to get to the mountain where the Ogre lived. “Do you see that mountaintop?” said one. “When you get closer, you’ll see that the mountain actually has seven small peaks. At the furthest of the seven is the one where you’ll find the Ogre’s cave. I would go myself, as you know, if I could.” (The others murmured, “as would I,” and “surely, surely, I would.”) “Anyway, good luck to you.” They all spun around and walked very quickly back to the castle.
The court attendant hoisted a blanket in which he had wrapped food and provisions over one shoulder, and set out toward the mountaintop he had been shown. By the end of the day, he came to an inn where he rented a room for the night. Sharing stories with the innkeeper, the attendant told the old man the purpose of his mission. “Surely you know the danger of trying to get the Ogre’s feather!” the innkeeper cried out. Lowering his voice, he said, “If you are able, would you bring back a feather for me, too? And would you ask the Ogre if he knows anything about the whereabouts of my daughter who has been missing for years? I moved to this inn to still my grief, but I haven’t given up looking for her and never will.”
The young man nodded sympathetically and agreed to bring the innkeeper a feather from the Ogre and to ask the question about his daughter, if he could.
The next day, the attendant reached the edge of a river. Soon a ferry approached, and the ferryman offered him a ride across the river for a few coins. The young man paid the fee and as they rowed over together the ferryman asked the traveler where he was going. When he told the ferryman of his quest, the ferryman said, “If you are able, would you bring back a feather for me? And would you ask the Ogre why I have been stuck on this ferry for so many years and cannot get off?”
The young man said he would surely get him a feather and ask the question if he could. At the other side of the river, he continued his journey, climbing as the terrain rose, and was heartened to see the distant mountaintop coming into view more clearly than ever. In fact, he could start to make out several separate peaks.
Following a road used by villagers in nearby towns, the attendant came to a crossroads and stopped to eat his lunch. Two noblemen, also at the crossroads, were despairing over how their fortunes had suddenly disappeared. They noticed the stranger and struck up a conversation with him. Learning the purpose of the young man’s mission one of them said, “If you can, would you bring back a feather for us, too? And would you ask the Ogre why our fortunes vanished overnight, and if there’s anything we can do about it?”
The young man agreed, and the noblemen were amazed. “You are going to help us, perfect strangers to you?” they said. “Why not?” said the attendant. The two noblemen exchanged glances and one of them said, “Tell us, what do you know about the Ogre?”
The young man said he knew the monster lived in a cave at the last of seven peaks. Said the noblemen, “Ah, if that’s all you know, my friend, surely you are doomed!” He leaned forward. “Listen carefully and we’ll tell you what you must do. You must wait till sundown to approach the cave because that’s when the Ogre is away, and the only time when his senses are less sharp. When you get inside the cave you must go all the way to the end of it. It will be very dark, so take these candles and matches to light your way. At the end of the cave, look for a door. Knock on it; if you’re lucky, the Ogre’s wife will be there. Take our word – she’s your only hope to get the feathers, and to escape with your very life.”
Grateful for the information, the attendant went on his way. It wasn’t long before he came to the mountaintop he had been traveling toward, and could see all seven peaks spread before him.
As he hiked toward the seventh peak, the woods darkened and became harsher, and brambles and thick vines seemed to clutch at his legs. At last, he reached the seventh peak, and there indeed was a cave that must belong, he felt sure, to the Ogre. Stepping inside, he was glad for the candles and matches, since it was pitch dark. By candlelight he made his way to the end of the cave, where there was a large wooden door.
He knocked and the door creaked open. Much to his surprise, the Ogre’s wife was not a monstrous giantess but a beautiful maiden, dark-haired and dark-eyed, though tired-looking and worn down.
“Why are you here?” she breathed. “The moment my husband comes home and catches a whiff of a stranger, he will eat you alive!”
The attendant told her about his ailing king, and the three other requests for feathers and advice. She pulled him inside and closed the door. “Quickly!” she said. “You must move someplace where he cannot smell you. Hide under our bed where the goose-feathers blanket and pillows will disguise your scent.” She ushered him under the large bed, then returned to the cave’s door, opened it, fanned the air to push it outside the door, and went over to her stove where she energetically stirred the dinner in the pot so its fragrance would also mask the trail of human scent. She then returned to the bedroom and whispered to her hideaway, “I’ll try to help you, but you must be careful and be very still and quiet. I’ve been waiting for a chance to escape for a long time. If things go well, we might both escape with our lives. If you reveal yourself, we will surely perish.”
In a few minutes, the Ogre returned. At once he loudly announced, “Wife! I smell a man. I will catch the man for my dinner!”
“Oh, husband,” said the maiden with a light smile, “what human would come here? You are so hungry you must be imagining things.”
“I know the smell of humans!” he insisted, and started sniffing the tables and the corners.
“Dear,” she said soothingly, “you must be terribly hungry. Come have dinner.” And she placed before him a heaping bowl, which he devoured almost instantly, and guzzled it down with a goblet of wine. “I still smell it,” he said, frowning at her suspiciously.
“Oh, husband,” she said again. “You must be very tired. You’re starting to dream about humans, and you are just thinking that you smell them. Come to bed and rest.”
As the Ogre climbed into bed he said, “You must be right, wife. I must be starting to dream because the smell of human seems as strong as if it was right in this room.” But soon he was snoring. After a few minutes the maiden rolled toward him, plucked one feather, and handed it to the young man under her bed.
“Ouch!” the Ogre said with a start. “What are you doing?”
“Husband, I’m sorry. I was having the strangest dream, and I must have rolled over on one of your feathers.”
“What was your dream?”
“I dreamt there were two noblemen, not far from here, who lost their fortune overnight.”
“Your dream is a fact,” said the Ogre sleepily. “There are two noblemen nearby who lost their fortune. What they don’t know is that in the garden between their two estates there is a fountain. And if they dug at the mouth of the fountain and killed the snake that’s plugging a hole, that fountain would spew gold and silver and their fortune would be restored.”
“Ah,” she said. “Good night then.” Soon he was snoring again. After a few minutes, she rolled over, plucked a second feather and quickly handed it to the young man under the bed.
“What is with you tonight?” he roared. “That hurt!”
“I’m so sorry,” she said as sweetly as she could. “I must have rolled over on your feather again because I was having another strange dream.”
“What is it this time?”
“I dreamt of a ferryman who has been stuck on his ferry for years and wonders how he can get off.”
“Your dreams are true enough tonight,” said the Ogre. “The only way the ferryman can escape is if he charters a customer across the river and jumps out before he is paid. Then the one left on the ferry is the one who will be stuck.”
“Ah, I see,” she said. “Good night then.”
“I hope this is the end of your dreams!” he said. “Now leave me be.” Moments later he was snoring again. For a third time the maiden rolled toward him, plucked two feathers this time, and handed them to her stowaway under the bed.
“By thunder!” yelled the Ogre. “I am not having a moment’s peace with you tonight! Is it another of your dreams?”
“Yes,” she said. “I dreamt of an innkeeper who wonders the whereabouts of his daughter who has been missing for years.”
“That is easy enough to solve,” he scoffed. “His daughter is you.”
The next day at breakfast, the Ogre insisted he still smelled the scent of man. “And I’m not hungry or tired, either.” She ushered him out the door as quickly as she could, saying she had a feeling it would be a very good day for him, and not a moment to waste.
As soon as the coast was clear, she and the attendant, clutching his four feathers, escaped out the cave and down the mountainside to freedom. They traveled by way of the crossroads, where the young man found the two noblemen. He gave them the Ogre’s feather and told them what they must do. Once at the river’s edge, they jumped aboard the ferry. The ferryman was delighted to have a magical feather, but when he asked the secret of his freedom, they said they would tell him only after they were across the other side. Once safely alighted, they told him what he must also do.
Next they went to the inn. The innkeeper was delighted beyond words to see his long-lost daughter. He urged them both to stay, sensing their feelings for one another, but the young man insisted he must return to the castle with all due speed, since the king was still quite ill and desperately needed the Ogre’s feather.
The attendant and the maiden returned to the castle where they were announced, much to the astonishment of the court advisers, who had long since assumed the attendant had been lost as another victim of the Ogre. Even more astonished was the king himself, when after a single brush of the Ogre’s feather, his malady, which had seemed to grab his very lungs, disintegrated and his vigor and health swept back over him. Soon seated again on the throne, he was happy to grant the young couple permission to marry, and he even set them up in a royal guesthouse, where they lived happily for the rest of their lives.
As for the Ogre? He was furious when he realized he had been tricked. He chased the scent of the two humans from the cave to the river’s edge, where he climbed aboard the ferry to take him across. But the moment the ferry reached the other side, the ferryman, who knew the secret of his freedom, leapt ashore, leaving the Ogre behind on the ferry forevermore.
A Italian folktale retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2006. All rights reserved.