Marcovaldo or Seasons in the City (Italo Calvino — Marcovaldo ovvero Le stagioni in città)

Grateful thanks to Arturo Tosi for his essential help

Spring  1  Mushrooms in the city

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  1  Funghi in città)

The wind, blowing into the city from far away, brings to it unusual gifts, noticed only by a few sensitive souls, such as those suffering from hay fever, who sneeze because of the pollen of flowers growing in distant parts.

One day, on the strip of verge of a city road, spores arrived from who knows where in a gust of wind, and mushrooms germinated there. No one except the labourer Marcovaldo noticed them. He took the tram from that spot every morning.

This Marcovaldo had an eye ill-adapted to the life of the city: signposts, traffic lights, shop windows, illuminated notices, advertising hoardings, however studiously designed to catch the attention, never arrested his gaze, which seemed to slide over them as if over desert sands. But a leaf yellowing on a branch, a feather entangled on a roofing tile, never escaped him. There wasn’t a horsefly on a horse’s back, a woodworm hole in a table, a squashed fig skin on the pavement, that Marcovaldo failed to notice, and made an object of his reasoning, as evidence of the changes of the season, the longings of his soul, and the miseries of his existence.

So one morning, waiting for the tram which took him to SBAV Ltd., the firm where he was an odd-job man, he spotted something unusual near the tram stop, in the strip of barren, encrusted earth which runs beside the line of trees in the road: at certain places, by the stumps of the trees, it seemed that bumps were swelling, which here and there were opening up and allowing roundish subterranean substances to surface.

He leant down to tie up his shoelaces and looked more closely; they were mushrooms, genuine mushrooms, actually sprouting in the heart of the city! It seemed to Marcovaldo that the grey, bleak world surrounding him had suddenly become generous with hidden riches, and that one could yet expect something from life here, over and beyond the minimum hourly wage, the inflation-linked contingency payment, child benefits and the high cost of living.

At work he was more than usually distracted; he was thinking that while he was there, unloading parcels and boxes, in the darkness of the earth silent, slow mushrooms, known only to him, were ripening their porous flesh, were absorbing subterranean juices, were breaking the crust of the clods. ‘It would only need one night of rain,’ he said to himself, ‘and they’ll be ready to pick.’ And he couldn’t wait to tell his wife and his six children about the discovery.

‘I’ve got something to tell you!’ he announced over their frugal dinner. ‘Within a week we’re going to eat mushrooms! Gorgeous fried mushrooms! I promise you!’

And to the younger children, who didn’t know what mushrooms were, he rapturously explained the charm of their many varieties, the delicacy of their flavour, and how they should be cooked; and he also dragged his wife Domitilla into the discussion, who up to this point had shown herself somewhat incredulous and amused.

‘And where are the mushrooms?’ asked the children. ‘Tell us where they grow!’

At this request, Marcovaldo’s enthusiasm was checked by cold logic and suspicion. ‘Once I tell them the place,’ he thought, ‘they go looking for them with some gang of urchins as usual, word is spread around the district, and the mushrooms end up in someone else’s pot!’ So it was that this discovery, which had instantly filled his heart with universal love, now threw him into an agitation of possessiveness and beset him with jealous and distrustful fear.

‘I and I only know where the mushrooms are,’ he told the children, ‘and woe betide you if you breathe a word about it.’

The next morning Marcovaldo was full of apprehension as he approached the tram stop. He bent over the verge, and was relieved to see that the mushrooms had grown a little, but not much; they were all still almost hidden by the earth.

He was bending in this way when he realised that someone was at his shoulder. He straightened up with a start and tried to assume an indifferent air. A road sweeper was looking at him, leaning on his broom.

This road sweeper, in whose jurisdiction the mushrooms were located, was young, bespectacled, and a beanpole. His name was Amadigi, and Marcovaldo had disliked him for a long time, perhaps because of those spectacles, which scrutinised the asphalt of the streets in search of any trace of nature which he could destroy with a sweep of his broom.

It was Saturday; and Marcovaldo spent his free half-day wandering near the verge with a distracted air, keeping a distant eye on the road sweeper and the mushrooms, and calculating how much time would be needed for them to grow.

That night it rained. Just as peasants, after months of drought, wake up and jump for joy at the sound of the first drops, so Marcovaldo, alone in the whole city, sat up in bed and called to the family, ‘It’s raining, it’s raining!’ and he breathed the smell of watered dust and fresh mould coming from outside.

At dawn, which was Sunday, with the children and a basket he had borrowed, he ran straight down to the verge. The mushrooms were there, upright on their stems, their caps high above the ground which was still soaked with water. ‘Hurray!’ and they threw themselves into gathering them.

‘Daddy! Look how many that man has picked!’ said Michelino, and his father, raising his head, saw Amadigi standing beside them. He also had a basket full of mushrooms under his arm.

‘Aha, you’re picking them too?’ said the road sweeper. ‘So they are good to eat? I took a few of them but I didn’t know if I could trust them… And anyway, down there on the road some even bigger ones have come up… OK, now I know, I’ll let my relations know. They’re over there arguing about whether it’s a good idea to pick them or leave them…’ And off he went in a hurry.

Marcovaldo was speechless: even bigger mushrooms, which he hadn’t noticed, an unhoped-for harvest, snatched away from under his nose. For a moment he was almost petrified with fury, with mad rage; then — as sometimes happens — the collapse of those private feelings was transformed into a generous impulse. At that hour, lots of people were waiting for the tram, their umbrellas hanging on their arms, because the weather was still damp and uncertain. ‘Hey, you lot! You want to have fried mushrooms tonight?’ Marcovaldo yelled to the folk massed by the tram stop. ‘Mushrooms growing here on the road! Come with me! There’s enough for everyone!’ And he was hard on Amadigi’s heels, followed by a throng of people.

They found mushrooms still there, enough for all; and, lacking baskets, they put them into open umbrellas. Everyone said, ‘Wouldn't it be nice for us all to have lunch together!’ But instead, each person took their mushrooms and went to their own home.

But they did see each other again soon, in fact that same evening, in the same ward of the hospital, after the stomach pumping which had saved them all from the poisoning. It wasn’t serious, because the quantity of mushrooms each person had eaten was fairly small.

Marcovaldo and Amadigi had adjacent beds, and looked at each other with scowls.

Summer  2  The park-bench holiday

(Italo Calvino — Estate  2  La villeggiatura in panchina)

On his way to work each morning, Marcovaldo walked under the green of a tree-lined piazza, a carved-out square of public garden in the midst of four roads. He looked up through the foliage of the horse chestnuts, where they were at their thickest and only let a glimmer of yellow rays penetrate the shade, transparent with sap, and he listened to the off-key racket of invisible sparrows in the branches. They sounded to him like nightingales, and he said to himself, ‘Oh, if only I could once wake up to the twittering of birds and not to the sound of the alarm clock, and the new baby Paulino’s screams, and my wife Domitilla’s rants!’ Or, ‘Oh, if only I could sleep here, alone in the midst of this green cool, and not in my nasty hot room; here in the silence, not with the whole family snoring and talking in their sleep, and the trams rattling down in the street; here in the natural dark of the night, not in the artificial dark of those closed blinds, striped with the reflection of headlights; oh, if only I could see leaves and the sky when I open my eyes!’ It was with these thoughts that every day Marcovaldo began his eight hours — plus overtime — as an unskilled labourer.

In one corner of the piazza, under a dome of horse chestnuts, there was a secluded park bench, half hidden. And Marcovaldo had already selected it as his own. On those summer nights, when he couldn’t get to sleep in a room where five of them were sleeping, he dreamed about the park bench, as a homeless person might dream about a bed in a palace. One night, silently, while his wife was snoring and the children were kicking in their sleep, he got out of bed, dressed, put his pillow under his arm, went out and walked to the piazza.

There, there was cool and peace. Already he was looking forward to the touch of those wooden boards, which he was sure would be soft and welcoming, altogether preferable to his bed’s unyielding mattress; he had looked up for a moment at the stars and had closed his eyes in a sleepiness which soothed all the hurts of the day.

Cool and peace were there, but the bench wasn’t free. Two lovers were sitting on it, looking into each other’s eyes. Marcovaldo discreetly withdrew. ‘It’s late,’ he thought. ‘They’re surely not going to spend the night in the open! They’ll soon finish their billing and cooing!’

But the two of them were definitely not billing and cooing; they were arguing. And when two lovers are arguing you can never tell when it’s going to finish.

He was saying, ‘But won’t you admit that when you said what you said, you knew it would upset me instead of pleasing me like you pretended to think?’

Macrovaldo understood that he was in for the long haul.

‘No, I won’t admit it,’ she answered, just as Marcovaldo had expected.

‘Why won’t you admit it?’

‘I will never admit it.’

‘Oh dear,’ thought Marcovaldo. With his pillow squeezed under his arm, he went for a walk, to look at the moon, which was full, huge above the trees and the roofs. He turned back towards the bench, circling at a little distance so as not to disturb them, but in fact hoping to be a bit of a nuisance and persuade them to leave. But they were too carried away in their discussion to take notice of him.

‘So you admit it?’

‘No, no, I absolutely do not admit it!’

‘But supposing you did admit it?’

‘Even supposing I did admit it, I would never admit what you want me to admit!’

Marcovaldo went back to looking at the moon, then to look at a traffic light a little way away. The traffic light showed yellow, yellow, yellow, continually flashing, again and again. Marcovaldo compared the moon and the traffic light: the moon with its mysterious pallor, yellow too, but with an undertone of green and even blue, and the traffic light with its vulgar little garish yellow. And the moon, utterly calm, radiating its unhurried light, veiled now and then by delicate wisps of clouds, which she majestically let fall over her shoulders; meanwhile the traffic light, always there, constantly going on and off, on and off, breathless, falsely lively, weary and enslaved.

He went back to see if the girl had admitted it; certainly not, she wasn’t admitting it, in fact it was no longer she who wasn’t admitting it, it was he. The situation had completely reversed, and she was saying to him, ‘So, do you admit it?’ and he was saying he didn’t. Half an hour passed in this way. In the end he admitted it, or she did; at any rate Marcovaldo saw them get up and walk away, holding hands.

He ran to the bench and threw himself down on it; but the fact was that in the interim, with all the waiting, something of the sweetness he was expecting to find there he was no longer in a frame of mind to feel; moreover, he no longer remembered his bed at home as being as hard as all that. But these were trifles; his determination to enjoy the night in the open remained firm. His face sank into the pillow and he composed himself for sleep: the kind of sleep to which he had not been accustomed for a long time.

By now he had found the most comfortable position. He wouldn’t move a millimetre for anything in the world. Only it was a shame that in staying like that, his glance didn’t only take in a prospect of trees and sky in such a way that sleep would close his eyes on a vision of absolute serenity; but before him there appeared, in a foreshortened line, a tree, a general’s sword on the top of his monument, another tree, a billboard carrying public notices, a third tree, and then, a bit further away, that fake intermittent moon the traffic light, which continued to blink its yellow, yellow, yellow.

I need to say that recently Marcovaldo’s nervous system had been in such a bad state that, however dead tired he was, it only needed a tiny thing, he only needed to get it into his head that something was bothering him, and he couldn’t sleep. And now it was that traffic light that was bothering him, flashing on and off. It was a long way away over there, a solitary yellow winking eye; there was no need to worry about it. But Marcovaldo must have been suffering from nervous exhaustion; he stared at the light flashing on and off and said to himself, over and over, ‘How well I would sleep if that wretched thing weren’t there! How well I would sleep!’ He closed his eyes and seemed to sense under the eyelids that stupid yellow light, going on, going off; he half-opened them and he could see dozens of traffic lights; he opened them fully, and there it was just as before.

He got up. He had to put a screen between him and the traffic light. He went up to the general’s statue and looked around. At the foot of the monument was a laurel wreath, nice and thick, but now dry and beginning to fall apart, mounted on sticks, with a wide faded band: ‘The Fifteenth Lancers on the Anniversary of their Glory’. Marcovaldo clambered onto the pedestal, lifted up the wreath, and slipped it onto the general’s sabre.

Tornaquinci the night watchman on patrol was crossing the piazza on his bicycle; Marcovaldo posted himself behind the statue. Tornaquinci had seen the shadow of the monument move on the ground; he stopped, full of suspicion. He examined that wreath on the sabre; he knew that something was out of place, but he wasn’t quite sure what the something was. He aimed the beam of his torch up there and read: ‘The Fifteenth Lancers on the Anniversary of their Glory’. He nodded his head in a sign of approval and went on.

So as to let him get further away, Marcovaldo took another turn around the piazza. In a nearby street, a gang of workers was repairing the points on the tram tracks. At night, in the deserted streets, these little groups crouching down in the glow of their welding torches, their voices echoing and then suddenly muffled, have an air of secrecy, as if of folk attending to things which inhabitants of the day must never know about. Marcovaldo approached and stood looking at the flame and at the workmen’s movements with slightly embarrassed attention and with eyes which kept wanting to close in sleep. He looked for a cigarette in his pocket, to keep him awake, but he didn’t have any matches. ‘Anyone give me a light?’ he asked the workmen. ‘With this?’ said the man with the oxyacetylene torch, which threw out a shower of sparks.

Another workman got up and handed him a lighted cigarette. ‘You work nights too?’

‘No, I do days.’

‘So what are you doing up at this hour? We’ll be knocking off soon.’

He went back to the bench. He lay down. Now the traffic light was hidden from his view; now, at last, he could go to sleep.

He hadn’t noticed the noise before. Now that buzz, like a deep intake of breath and at the same time like an interminable rasping and even a crackle, was continuously filling his ears. There is no sound more haunting than that of a welding torch: a kind of whispered scream. Marcovaldo, motionless, huddled there on the bench, his face against the crumpled pillow, found no escape from it, and the noise continued to call to his mind the illuminated scene with the grey torch spewing out golden sparks, the men crouching on the ground with smoked-glass visors covering their faces, the rapid trembling movement of the welding torch in the hand, the pool of shadow around the tool cart, the tall tower, formed like a trellis, reaching up to the wires. He opened his eyes, turned over on the bench, and looked at the stars through the branches. The untroubled sparrows continued to sleep up there in the leaves.

To go to sleep like a bird, to have a wing you can bend your head under, in a world of branches suspended over the terrestrial world, which you’re hardly aware of below, its sound muffled and distant… Once a person begins to disavow his own present state, who knows where he will end up? Now Marcovaldo, in order to get to sleep, needed a certain something, but he didn’t quite know what it was. Not even complete and total silence would work for him now; he needed a background noise softer than silence, a light breeze passing through the thick of undergrowth, or the murmur of water trickling and losing itself in a meadow.

He had an idea and he got up. It wasn’t exactly an idea, because, half dazed with the sleepiness steadily overcoming him, he wasn’t forming any thoughts properly; but it was a kind of recollection that around there somewhere was something connected to the idea of water, to its subdued chatter as it splashes and flows.

As a matter of fact it was a fountain, close by, a grandiose work of sculpture and hydraulics, complete with nymphs, fauns and river gods who interwove gushes, jets and sprays of water. Except that it was dry; at night, in summer, given the meagre flow from the aqueduct, they closed it. Marcovaldo wandered around it a bit like a sleepwalker; more by instinct than by reasoning he knew that a cistern must have a tap. He who has eyes finds what he’s looking for even with eyes closed. He opened the tap; from the shells, from the beards, from the horses’ nostrils fierce jets shot out, a glistening patina veiled the artificial clefts in the rocks, and all that water resounded in the great empty piazza like the organ in a choir loft: a combination of all the gurgling and roaring that water can make. The night watchman Tornaquinci, who was coming back on his bicycle in the pitch dark, putting tickets under doorways, suddenly seeing before his very eyes the fountain exploding like a liquid firework, almost fell off his saddle.

Marcovaldo, trying to open his eyes as little as possible so as not to lose that remnant of sleep which seemed now to be in his grasp, ran and threw himself onto the bench. And yes, now he was as if on the bank of a stream, with woodland above him, and yes, he slept.

He dreamt of a meal. The plate was covered so that the pasta wouldn’t go cold. He uncovered it, and there was a dead mouse, which stank. He looked at his wife’s plate; there was another mouse carcass. Confronting the children were other little mice, smaller but half putrefied too. He took the lid off the soup tureen and saw a cat with its belly in the air; and the stink woke him up.

Not far away was the city dustcart which goes round at night emptying rubbish bins. He made out, in the half light of the headlamps, the crane jerkily creaking, the shadows of the men standing on the mountain of rubbish, guiding with their hands the bucket attached to the pulley, emptying it into the dustcart, bashing it with blows of their shovels, their deep voices fractured like the jerks of the crane: ‘Up… Let it go… Go to hell…’ Then a few metallic clashes like the strokes of solid gongs, and the motor started up again, slowly, only to stop a bit further away and repeat the operation.

But Marcovaldo’s sleep was by now in a zone where noises no longer disturbed him; those falling on his ears, however harsh and rasping, arrived as if swaddled in a soft cushioned halo, perhaps because of the very consistency of the rubbish tamped down in the dustcarts. It was the stink which kept him awake, a stink intensified by an intolerable idea of stink, within which even the noises, those muffled distant noises, and the image of the dustcart with the crane silhouetted against the light, came to his mind not as sound and sight but as stink. And Marcovaldo was filled with longing, vainly pursuing in his nostrils’ fantasy the fragrance of a rose garden.

The night watchman Tornaquinci felt his forehead bathed in sweat as he glimpsed a human shadow run on all fours across a flowerbed, violently tear up some buttercups, and disappear. But he thought it must have been a dog, which was the dog-catchers’ responsibility, or a hallucination, which was a psychiatrist’s responsibility, or a werewolf, which was who knows who’s responsibility, but preferably not his; and he ducked round the corner.

Meanwhile Marcovaldo, returning to his billet, pressed against his nose the twisted mass of buttercups, trying to overwhelm his sense of smell with their perfume, of which he could only squeeze a little from those almost odourless flowers; but the fragrance of dew, of earth and of pressed grass was already a great balm. He threw off his obsession with rubbish and slept. It was dawn.

His awakening was an unexpected opening of broad sky full of sunshine on his head, sunshine which had as if obliterated the leaves and then restored them little by little to his half-blinded sight. But Marcovaldo couldn't linger there, because a shiver had made him jump up: the spray from a hydrant, with which the municipal gardeners were watering the flowerbeds, and which sent cold trickles of water running down his clothes. And all around him the trams, the market lorries, the handcarts, the delivery vans were impatiently on the move, and the workers on their mopeds were racing to the factories, and shops’ iron shutters were crashing upwards, and blinds were rolling up in the windows of the houses, and window panes were sparkling. Dazed, with a dry mouth and eyes sticky with sleep, an aching back and a sore hip, Marcovaldo hurried off to his work.

Autumn  3  The municipal pigeon

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  3  Il piccione comunale)

The routes which migrating birds follow, southward or northward, in autumn or in spring, rarely cross the city. Flocks cut across the sky high above the striped ridges of fields and along the margins of woods; now they seem to follow the curved line of a river or the groove of a valley, now the invisible tracks of the wind. But they veer away as soon as the rows of city roofs appear before them.

However, on one occasion, a flight of autumn woodcocks showed in a segment of sky above a street. And only Marcovaldo noticed it, since he always went with his nose in the air. He was on a delivery tricycle, and seeing the birds he pedalled harder, as if he were pursuing them, seized by a hunter’s fantasy, even though he had never shouldered a rifle except in the army.

And proceeding like that, with his eyes on the flying birds, he found himself in the middle of a crossroads, the traffic light at red, cars all around, and was a hair’s breadth from being run over. While a traffic policeman with a purple face was writing his name and address in a notebook, Marcovaldo was still scanning the sky for a sight of those wings, but they had disappeared.

At work, his fine elicited harsh rebukes.

‘Don’t you even understand traffic lights?’ Signor Viligelmo, the foreman, shouted at him. ‘But what were you looking at, scatterbrain?’

‘I was looking at a flock of woodcock…’ Marcovaldo replied.

‘What?’ And Signor Viligelmo’s eyes lit up. He was an old hunter. And Marcovaldo told him the story.

‘On Saturday I’m going to get the dog and gun,’ said the foreman, suddenly all animated, having already forgotten his outburst. ‘The migration has begun up in the hills. That was obviously a flock the hunters had frightened, so they swerved over the city.’

All that day Marcovaldo’s brain was grinding, grinding like a mill. ‘If on Saturday, as is likely, there will be loads of hunters in the hills, God knows how many woodcocks will come down over the city. And if I get busy, on Sunday I’ll be eating roast woodcock.’

The tenement where Marcovaldo lived had a terraced roof, with metal washing lines strung out for clothes to dry. Marcovaldo climbed up there with three of his children, a can of birdlime, a brush and a sack of maize. While the children scattered maize kernels everywhere, he brushed the parapets, the metal washing lines and the cornices of the chimney pots with birdlime. He put so much on that Filippetto, who was playing, almost got stuck there.

That night Marcovaldo dreamed that the roof was splattered with flailing limed woodcock. His wife Domitilla, more greedily and lazily, dreamed of ready-roasted ducks resting on the chimney pots. Their daughter Isolina, who was romantic, dreamed of hummingbirds to beautify her hat. Michelino dreamed of finding a stork there.

The next day, once an hour, one of the children went to inspect the roof. They just put their head up through the skylight, so that, if the birds were about to land, they wouldn’t be frightened away; then they came back with the news. The news was never good. Until, about midday, Pietruccio came back shouting, ‘They’re there! Daddy, come quick!’

Marcovaldo went up with a sack. Mired in the birdlime was one poor pigeon, one of those grey urban doves, accustomed to the crowds and hubbub of the city’s squares. Fluttering around, other pigeons were contemplating it sadly, while it tried to unstick its wings from the gooey mixture on which it had rashly landed.

Marcovaldo’s family was stripping the meat off the little bones of that scrawny, tough pigeon they had roasted when they heard a knock.

It was the landlady’s maid. ‘The signora wants you! Come at once!’

Very worried, because he was six months behind with the rent and he feared eviction, Marcovaldo went to the signora’s apartment on the piano nobile. As he entered the living room he saw that a visitor was already there: the purple-faced traffic policeman.

‘Come in, Marcovaldo,’ said the signora. ‘They tell me that someone on our roof terrace is trapping the city’s pigeons. Do you know anything about it?’

Marcovaldo felt himself freeze.

At that moment a woman’s voice shouted, ‘Signora! Signora!’

‘What is it, Guendalina?’

The washerwoman entered. ‘I’ve just been to hang out the washing on the terrace, and it’s all got stuck there on the lines. I pulled it to get it off, but now it’s torn! The clothes are all ruined! What can it be?’

Marcovaldo rubbed his stomach with his hand, as if he hadn’t managed to digest something.

Winter  4  A city lost in the snow

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  4  La città smarrita nella neve)

That morning the silence woke him up. Marcovaldo dragged himself out of bed with a sense of something strange in the air. He didn’t know what time it was; the light between the slats of the blinds was different from that of any hour of the day or the night. He opened the window. The city was no longer there; it had been replaced by a white sheet. Straining his eyes, he made out, amid the white, a few outlines, almost erased, corresponding to those of the usual view: windows and roofs and street lamps here and there, but lost under all the snow which had fallen on them during the night.

‘Snow!’ shouted Marcovaldo to his wife, or rather he made as if to shout, but his voice was deadened as he uttered. As it had on outlines and colours and perspectives, the snow had fallen on sounds, or rather on the very possibility of making sounds; sounds don’t vibrate in a cushioned space.

He went to work on foot; the snow had stopped the trams. On the road, making his own way, he felt free as he had never felt before. In the city streets all the differences between pavements and carriageways had disappeared, vehicles couldn’t travel along them, and Marcovaldo, even as he sank halfway up his legs at each step and felt the snow leaking into his socks, had become a man in authority, able to walk in the middle of the road, to trample on the flower beds, to overstep the lane markings, to go forward zig-zag.

The streets and avenues opened before him endless and deserted, like shining gorges between mountain rocks. Who knew if the city hidden under that blanket was the same as before, or if during the night it had been exchanged for another? Who knew whether the petrol pumps, the newspaper kiosks, the tram stops were still there under those white mounds, or whether they were just heaps and heaps of snow? As he walked, Marcovaldo dreamed of getting lost in a different city; but his footsteps took him straight to his everyday place of employment, the familiar warehouse, and once he had crossed the threshold Marcovaldo the labourer was amazed to find himself again within its walls, the same as ever, as if the transformation which had wiped out the world outside had spared only his factory.

Waiting there for him was a shovel, longer than he was. The warehouse foreman, Signor Viligelmo, handing it to him, said, ‘Clearing the pavement in front of the works is our job, and that means yours.’ Marcovaldo picked up the shovel and went outside again.

Shovelling snow is no game, especially for someone who hasn’t eaten much, but Marcovaldo felt that the snow was his friend, as if it were an element annulling the walled cell in which his life was imprisoned. And he applied himself to the work at a good rate, tossing great shovelsful of snow from the pavement to the middle of the street.

Sigismondo, unemployed, was also full of gratitude to the snow, because having been hired that morning as one of the municipal shovellers, he had at last before him the prospect of a few days of guaranteed work. But his sentiment led him, rather than to vague fantasies as in Marcovaldo’s case, to quite precise calculations as to how many cubic metres of snow he had to shift in order to clear so many square metres of road; he aimed, in fact, to put himself in a good light with his team leader, and — his secret ambition — to advance his career.

Sigismondo turned round, and what did he see? The stretch of carriageway he had just cleared was again being covered with snow by the chaotic shovelling of a breathless individual over there on the pavement. He almost had a fit. He ran to confront the man, pushing Marcovaldo’s shovel, heaped up with snow, against his chest. ‘Hey, you! Is it you chucking that snow over there?’

‘Eh? What?’ said Marcovaldo, startled, but he admitted, ‘Well, perhaps it is.’

‘OK. Either you take it back sharpish with that shovel of yours, or I’ll make you eat it down to the last snowflake.’

‘But I have to clear the pavement.’

‘And I have to clear the road. So?’

‘Where should I put it?

‘You work for the city?’

‘No. For SBAV Ltd.’

Sigismondo taught him how to heap up the snow on the edge of the pavement, and Marcovaldo re-cleared the whole of Sigismondo’s stretch. Pleased with their work, their shovels planted in the snow, they stood to examine the completed job.

‘Got a fag?’ asked Sigismondo.

They were just lighting half a cigarette each when a snowplough came down the street, throwing up two great white waves which fell back on either side. That morning, every noise was only a whoosh. When the two men looked up, the whole expanse they had cleared was once more covered with snow. ‘What happened? Did it snow again?’ And they looked up at the sky. The snowplough, rotating its great brushes, was already turning the corner.

Marcovaldo learnt how to amass the snow into a compact little wall. If he carried on making little walls like that, he’d be able to build streets for himself alone, streets which would have taken him to a place only he knew, where everyone else would be lost; he’d be able to rebuild the city, to heap up mountains as high as houses, which no one would be able to distinguish from real houses. Or perhaps all the houses had already become snow houses, inside and out: a whole city of snow with its monuments and bell towers and trees, a city which could be demolished with blows of the shovel and remade in another style.

At a particular point on the edge of the pavement there was a heap of snow of impressive size. Marcovaldo was just going to level it to the height of his little walls when he realised that it was a car: the luxurious vehicle belonging to Commendatore Alboino, chairman of the board of administration, all covered in snow. Since the difference between a car and a heap of snow was so slight, Marcovaldo began with his shovel to fashion snow into the shape of a car. And it turned out well; in truth, comparing the two, you couldn’t distinguish which was the real one. To put the finishing touches to his work, he used a few bits of scrap which his shovel had come across: a rusty can was just right to suggest the shape of a headlight; with part of a tap the car door had its handle.

With much bowing and scraping of doormen, ushers and bellhops, chairman Commendatore Alboino exited the front door. Short-sighted and business-like, he marched decisively forward, in a hurry to get to his car, grabbed the protruding tap, pulled, lowered his head and slipped into the heap of snow up to his neck.

Marcovaldo had already turned the corner and was shovelling in the courtyard.

The boys living in the courtyard had made a snowman. ‘He needs a nose!’ said one of them. ‘What can we give him? A carrot!’ And they ran to their respective kitchens to search amongst the vegetables.

Marcovaldo contemplated the snowman. ‘There you have it: in the snow you can’t tell what is made of snow and what is only covered with it. Except in one case: man. Because it’s clear that I am I and not this one here.’

Absorbed in his meditations, he didn’t realise that two men were shouting from the roof, ‘Hey, mate, get away from there a bit!’ They were the men who shift snow off the roof tiles. And all at once, a load of three hundred kilos of snow plunged right on top of him.

The children came back with the carrots they’d snaffled. ‘Oh, they’ve made another snowman!’ There, in the middle of the courtyard, were two identical manikins, side by side.

‘Let’s give them both a nose!’ And they sank two carrots into the heads of the two snowmen.

Marcovaldo, more dead than alive, felt, through the envelopment in which he was buried and frozen, food reach him. And he chewed it.

Mamma mia! The carrot has disappeared!’ The children were very frightened.

The bravest of them didn’t lose his nerve. He had a spare nose, a pepper, and he applied it to the snowman. The snowman swallowed that too.

Then they tried to give him a bit of coal, one of those shaped like a stick, for a nose. Marcovaldo spat it out with all his strength. ‘Help! It’s alive! It’s alive!’ The boys ran away.

In a corner of the courtyard there was a grate from which issued a cloud of heat. Marcovaldo, with a snowman’s heavy tread, took himself over there. The snow melted off him, fell in rivulets over his clothes; and from the snowman there reappeared a Marcovaldo all puffy and bunged up with a cold.

He took the shovel, mainly to warm himself, and set to work in the courtyard. He had a sneeze which had stopped at the top of his nose; it was stuck just there, and couldn’t make up its mind to burst out. Marcovaldo shovelled, his eyes half closed, and the sneeze still stayed perched at the top of his nose. Suddenly, the ‘Aaaah…’ was almost a roar, and the ‘…chooo!’ was louder than a mine exploding. Marcovaldo was slammed against the wall by the blast.

Hardly a blast: the sneeze had caused a veritable tornado. All the snow in the courtyard rose, whirled round as if in a blizzard, and was sucked upwards, pulverised in the sky.

When Marcovaldo, having been stunned, reopened his eyes, the courtyard was completely clear, without even a flake of snow. And before his eyes there appeared the familiar courtyard, the grey walls, the crates in the warehouse: everyday things, sharp-edged and unfriendly.

Spring  5  The wasp treatment

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  5  La cura delle vespe)

Winter passed, leaving behind it rheumatic pains. A pale midday sun came to cheer up the days, and Marcovaldo spent a few hours looking at the leaves sprouting, sitting on a bench, waiting to go back to work. Near him an old man came to sit down, hunched in his much-mended coat; he was a certain Signor Rizieri, a pensioner, alone in the world, and he too was a regular visitor to sunny benches. From time to time this Signor Rizieri jerked, cried ‘Ow!’ and hunched even further in his coat. He was borne down by rheumatism, arthritis and lumbago, which he accumulated during the wet, cold winter and which continued to afflict him all year long. To console him, Marcovaldo told him about the various stages of his own rheumatism, of that of his wife and of his older daughter Isolina, who, poor thing, wasn’t growing up in the best of health.

Every day, Marcovaldo brought with him his lunch, wrapped in newspaper. Sitting on the bench, he unwrapped it and gave the bit of crumpled newspaper to Signor Rizieri, who held out his hand for it impatiently, saying, ‘Let’s see what the news is,’ and always read it with the same interest, even if the paper was two years old.

So it was that one day Signor Rizieri came across an article on a method of curing rheumatism with bee venom.

‘That must be with honey,’ said Marcovaldo, always inclined to optimism.

‘No,’ said Rizieri, ‘with venom, it says here, from the sting,’ and he read him a few passages. They discussed bees at length, speaking of their virtues and of what that cure might cost.

From then on, walking along the avenues, Marcovaldo lent an ear to every buzz, and followed with his eyes every insect flying around him. And so, observing the circling of a wasp with a large abdomen with black and yellow stripes, he saw that it was disappearing into the hollow of a tree and that other wasps were coming out; there was a hum, a coming and going which announced the presence of an entire wasps’ nest inside the trunk. Marcovaldo immediately went on the hunt. He had a glass jar, at the bottom of which there remained two fingers of jam. He left it open near the tree. Soon a wasp buzzed around it and flew inside, attracted by the sugary smell; Marcovaldo swiftly closed the jar with a paper lid.

And as soon as he saw Signor Rizieri, he was in a position to say, ‘Come on, come on, I’m going to give you the injection now!’ showing him the vessel with the enraged imprisoned wasp.

The old man was hesitant, but Marcovaldo didn’t want at any cost to postpone the experiment, and insisted on performing it on the spot, there on their bench; nor was there any need for the patient to undress. With a mixture of fear and hope, Signor Rizieri lifted the hem of his coat, of his jacket and his shirt, and opening a gap in his tattered underpants exposed an expanse of loin where the pain was. Marcovaldo applied the mouth of the vessel to the place, and pulled away the paper which had served as a lid. To begin with, nothing happened; the wasp didn’t move; had it gone to sleep? To wake it up, Marcovaldo banged on the bottom of the jar. It was just the blow that was needed; the insect shot up and drove a sting into Signor Rizieri’s loins. The old man gave a howl, jumped to his feet and began to march like a soldier on parade, rubbing the stung place and uttering a sequence of confused imprecations.

Marcovaldo was well satisfied; the old chap had never been so upright and martial in his stance. But a policeman had stopped nearby, and was looking at them wide-eyed; Marcovaldo took Rizieri by the arm and departed, whistling.

He got home with another wasp in the jar. To convince his wife to submit to the injection was no small matter, but in the end he succeeded. For a while, if nothing else, the only thing Domitilla complained about was the burning of the sting.

Marcovaldo now applied himself full time to catching wasps. He injected Isolina; he gave Domitilla a second dose, since only a sustained course of treatment could bring benefit. Then he decided to inject himself. The children — you know how children are — said, ‘Me too, me too,’ but Marcovaldo preferred to equip them with jars and direct their efforts to hunting fresh wasps, to replenish the daily consumption.

Signor Rizieri came looking for Marcovaldo at home; with him was another old man, Cavalier Ulrico, who had a stiff leg and wanted to begin the treatment immediately.

Word got round; Marcovaldo was now moving into mass production. He always kept half a dozen wasps in reserve, each in its glass jar, ranged on a shelf. He applied the jar to the patients’ hindquarters as if it were a syringe, pulled away the paper lid and, when the wasp had stung, rubbed the place with cotton wool soaked in alcohol, with the casual hand of an experienced doctor. His accommodation consisted of a single room in which the whole family slept. They divided it with an improvised screen; on one side was the waiting room, on the other the operating theatre. Marcovaldo’s wife showed the customers into the waiting room and received the payments. The children took the empty jars and ran to the area of the wasps’ nest for reinforcements. A few times a wasp stung them, but they hardly cried any more because they knew it was good for their health.

That year, rheumatism spread through the population like the tentacles of an octopus. Marcovaldo’s treatment became famous; and one Saturday afternoon he saw his humble garret invaded by a small crowd of afflicted men and women, pressing a hand to their back or their hip, some with the ragged appearance of beggars, others seemingly well-to-do people attracted by the novelty of this remedy.

‘Quick,’ said Marcovaldo to his three boys, ‘take the jars and go and catch as many wasps as you can.’ The boys ran off.

It was a sunny day. Lots of wasps were buzzing in the avenue. The boys usually hunted them a little distance from the tree with the wasps’ nest, targetting isolated insects. But that day Michelino, to save time and to get more of them, began to hunt right next to the entrance to the wasps’ nest. ‘This is how to do it,’ he said to his brothers, and he tried to catch a wasp by putting the jar over it as soon as it settled. But each time, that wasp flew away and returned to settle ever closer to the nest. Now it was right on the rim of the hollow in the trunk, and Michelino was about to lower the container over it when he felt two other large wasps swooping down on him as if they meant to sting him on the head. He defended himself, but he felt the perforation of the stings and, crying out in pain, let go the jar. Anxiety over what he had done immediately nullified the pain; the jar had fallen into the mouth of the wasps’ nest. No further buzzing was heard; no wasp emerged. Michelino, without even the strength to cry out, retreated a step, when from the nest there burst a thick black cloud, with a deafening hum. It was all the wasps breaking out in one infuriated swarm!

The brothers heard Michelino scream and run away faster than he had ever run in his life. He seemed to be steam driven, as the cloud he trailed behind him looked like the smoke from a funnel.

Where does a child flee to when he is being pursued? He flees to his home! That’s what Michelino did.

Passers-by didn’t have the time to work out what was that apparition, part cloud and part human being, which shot along the streets with a roar mingled with a buzz.

Marcovaldo was just saying to his invalids, ‘Be patient; the wasps are on their way,’ when the door opened and the swarm invaded the room. People didn’t even see Michelino running to plunge his head into a basin of water; the whole room was full of wasps and the patients were waving their arms in a vain attempt to drive them away. The rheumatics performed prodigious feats of agility and their stiffened limbs broke loose in furious movements.

The fire brigade came, and then the Red Cross. Lying on his bed in the hospital, unrecognisably swollen by the stings, Marcovaldo dared not react to the curses which his customers were calling down on him from the other beds in the ward.

Summer  6  A Saturday of sun, sand and sleep

(Italo Calvino — Estate  6  Un sabato di sole, sabbia e sonno)

‘For your rheumatism,’ the national-health doctor had said, ‘this summer you need some good sand therapy.’ So one Saturday afternoon, Marcovaldo was exploring the riverbanks, looking for a dry, sunny, sandy spot. But where there was sand, the river offered nothing but the clanking of rusty chains; dredgers and cranes were at work — ancient machines like dinosaurs delving into the river and dumping enormous dollops of sand into the building firms’ lorries parked there amongst the willows. The dredgers’ lines of buckets rose right way up and fell upside down, and the cranes lifted on their long necks a pelican’s craw dribbling gobbets of black mire from the river bed. Marcovaldo bent down to feel the sand; he squeezed it in his hand. It was damp, a mush, a sludge; even where, on the surface, a dry, friable crust was forming in the sun, a centimetre below it was still soaking.

Marcovaldo’s children, whom their father had brought with him hoping to put them to work covering him with sand, were beside themselves with the wish to go swimming. ‘Daddy, Daddy, let’s dive in! We’ll swim in the river!’

‘Are you crazy? See that notice? “Bathing is extremely dangerous.” You’ll drown, you’ll go to the bottom like stones!’ And he explained that where the riverbed had been excavated by the dredgers there remained empty funnels which sucked the current into whirlpools and eddies.

‘The whirlpool, show us the whirlpool!’ The word had a joyful sound for the children.

‘You can’t see it; it gets you by the foot, while you’re swimming, and drags you down.’

‘And that thing there, why isn’t it going down? What is it, a fish?’

‘No, it’s a dead cat,’ Marcovaldo explained. ‘It’s floating because its fur is full of water.’

‘Will the whirlpool get the cat by the tail?’ asked Michelino.

At a certain point, the slope of grassy riverbank widened to a level open space where a great sieve stood. Two sand labourers were sieving a heap of sand, in shovelfuls, and with the same shovels were loading it onto a low, black boat, a sort of barge, which floated there moored to a willow. The two bearded men were working in the blazing sun with their hats and jackets on, but all their clothing was tattered and manky, and their trousers were torn to shreds at the knees, leaving their legs and feet bare.

In that sand, left to dry for days and days, fine, filtered from the sludge, as pale as sand by the seashore, Marcovaldo recognised what he needed. But he had discovered it too late; they were already heaping it up onto that barge to take it away…

No, not yet; the sand men, once the load was in place, uncorked a flask of wine, and having passed it back and forth a few times, taking swigs, they lay down in the shade of the poplars to let the heat of the day pass.

‘While they’re sleeping over there, I can bed down in their sand and give myself the sand therapy,’ thought Marcovaldo, and keeping his voice down he instructed the children, ‘Quick, help me!’

He jumped onto the barge, took off his shirt, trousers and shoes, and buried himself in the sand. ‘Cover me! With the shovel!’ he told the kids. ‘No, not my head, I need that to breathe; it must stay outside. All the rest!’

For the children, it was like building sandcastles. ‘Shall we make play shapes in the sand? No, a castle with battlements! No, no; it gives us a nice track for marbles!’

‘Now go away,’ Marcovaldo puffed, from under his sarcophagus of sand. ‘Wait; first put a paper hat over my forehead and eyes. And then jump onto the bank and go and play further away, in case the sand men wake up and come and find me!’

‘We could make you sail along the river by pulling the barge from the bank with the cable,’ suggested Filippetto, and he had already half-slipped the mooring.

Marcovaldo, immobilised, twisted his mouth and eyes to scold them. ‘If you don’t disappear this minute and you make me get out from under here, I’ll clobber you with the shovel!’ The kids ran off.

The sun beat down, the sand burned, and Marcovaldo, dripping with sweat under his paper hat, felt, in the discomfort of being cooked there, unable to move, the sense of satisfaction which arduous treatments or disagreeable medicines give, when we think: the worse it is, the more it’s a sign it’s doing good.

He fell asleep, lulled by the gentle current which stretched the mooring a little, then relaxed it a little. Stretched and relaxed, the knot, which earlier Filippetto had already half untied, came fully loose. And the barge, loaded with sand, floated freely down the river.

It was the hottest hour of the afternoon. Everything slept: the man buried in the sand, the canopies of the jetties, the deserted bridges, the houses which jutted up, their blinds closed, above the embankments. The river was at low ebb, but the boat, pushed by the current, avoided the mud shoals which surfaced every so often; or a light bump on the bottom was enough to push it back into the channel of deeper water.

At one of these bumps, Marcovaldo opened his eyes. He saw the sunlit sky, where the low clouds of summer were passing. ‘How fast they move,’ he thought of the clouds, ‘and to think that there isn’t a breath of wind!’ Then he saw some electric wires; these were moving like the clouds. He turned his glance to the side, to the extent that the ton of sand on top of him allowed. The right bank was distant, green, and receding rapidly; the left was grey, distant, and also receding at speed. He realised that he was in the middle of the river, and on the move; no voice answered him, he was alone, buried in a sand barge, adrift without oars or rudder. He knew he had to get up, to try to land, to call for help; but at the same time the thought that sand therapy requires complete immobility took precedence in his mind, made him feel a commitment to staying still there as long as he could, so as not to lose precious moments in his treatment.

At that moment he saw the bridge; and from the statues and streetlamps which adorned its balustrades, from the breadth of its arches silhouetted against the sky, he recognised it; he hadn’t thought he had come so far. And as he entered the opaque area of shadow which the vaults projected below, he remembered the rapids. A hundred metres downstream from the bridge, the riverbed took a jump; the barge would be hurled down the cataract, toppling over, and he would be submerged by the sand, by the water, by the barge, with no hope of getting out alive. And yet, even at that moment, his main concern was with the beneficial effects of the sand therapy which would be instantly lost to him.

He awaited the crash. And it came; but it was a thud from below upwards. On the brink of the rapids, in that season of low water, banks of mud had heaped up, some of them greening with stray tufts of reeds and bulrushes. The whole of the barge’s flat keel ran aground there, jolting out its entire load of sand and the man buried in it. Marcovaldo found himself projected into the air as if from a catapult, and at that instant he saw the river beneath him. Or rather: he didn’t actually see the river, he only saw the swarm of people of which the river was full.

On Saturday afternoons, a great crowd of bathers frequented that stretch of river, where the low water only came up to the belly button, and whole groups of schoolchildren splashed about, as did fat ladies, and gentlemen floating on their backs, and girls in bikinis, and tough guys wrestling, and mattresses, footballs, lifebuoys, car tyres, rowing boats, paddle boats, yachts, rubber dinghies, motor dinghies, rescue dinghies, yawls from boating clubs, fishermen with nets, fishermen with lines, old ladies with umbrellas, young ladies with straw hats, and dogs, dogs, dogs, from poodles to Saint Bernards, so much so that you couldn’t see even a centimetre of water across the whole river. And Marcovaldo, flying, was unsure whether he would fall onto a rubber mattress or into the arms of a Junoesque matron. But of one thing he was certain: scarcely a drop of water would touch him.

Autumn  7  The lunch box

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  7  La pietanziera)

The joys of that round, flat receptacle known as ‘the lunch box’ consist first of all in its being unscrewable. The mere action of unscrewing the lid makes the mouth water, especially if a person doesn’t know what’s inside — because, for example, it’s his wife who prepares the lunch box for him every morning. Once the lunch box lid is off, one can see the food squashed in there: salami and lentils, or hard-boiled eggs and beetroot, or polenta and stock fish, all carefully arranged within that circumference like the continents and seas on maps of the globe, and giving the appearance, even if there’s not much there, of something substantial and solid. The lid, once unscrewed, serves as a plate, and so you have two receptacles and you can begin to sort out the contents.

The labourer Marcovaldo, having unscrewed the lunch box and rapidly breathed in its smell, reaches for the cutlery which is always carried in his pocket, wrapped in a bundle, ever since he has been eating from the lunch box at midday rather than going home. The first stabs of the fork serve to awaken a little those benumbed comestibles, to confer the distinction and attractiveness of a dish just brought to the table onto foodstuffs which have already been huddling there for a good number of hours. Then he begins to see that the offering is small, and thinks to himself, ‘I’d better eat slowly,’ but already the first forkfuls have been brought, ravenously and in great haste, to his mouth.

With his first taste he feels the sadness of eating cold food, but the joys soon return as he rediscovers the flavours of the family table, transported to an unusual location. Marcovaldo now has taken to chewing slowly; he’s sitting on a bench by an avenue, near his place of work. Since his home is distant and to go there at midday would waste time and make holes in tram tickets, he brings his lunch in a lunch box, bought for the purpose, and eats it in the open, watching the passers-by, and then drinks at a fountain. If it’s autumn and sunny, he chooses places where a few rays penetrate; the shiny red leaves falling from the trees provide a napkin; the salami rinds go to the stray dogs who soon become his friends; and the breadcrumbs are picked up by the sparrows the moment that no one is passing along the avenue.

While eating, he thinks, ‘Why do I enjoy rediscovering the flavour of my wife’s cooking here, while at home, what with the quarrels, the tears, the debts which crop up at every conversation, I don’t get to taste it?’ And then he thinks, ‘Now I remember; these are the leftovers from last night’s supper.’ At which discontent takes hold of him, perhaps because he has to eat leftovers, cold and a little bit rancid, perhaps because the aluminium of the lunch box imparts a metallic taste to the food; but the thought that goes round in his head is, ‘Even the idea of Domitilla manages to upset my lunches a long way away from her.’

At that point, he realises that he has almost finished, and again it seems to him that the dish is something very delicious and rare, and he eats with enthusiasm and devotion its last remains at the bottom of the lunch box, which taste the most of metal. Then, contemplating the empty, greasy receptacle, sadness overtakes him again.

So he wraps and pockets everything, and gets up. It’s still too early to return to work. The cutlery drums against the empty lunch box in the big pockets of his jacket. Marcovaldo goes to a wine shop and has them pour him a glass filled to the brim; or he goes to a café and sips a little cup; then he looks at the pastries in the glass display case, the boxes of sweets and nougat, and persuades himself that it’s not true that he wants them, that in fact he desires nothing; he watches the table football for a moment, to convince himself that he wishes to beguile his time, not his appetite. Back in the street, the trams are crowded again, it’s nearly time to return to work, and off he goes.

It happened that his wife Domitilla, for reasons of her own, bought a large quantity of sausage. And for three evenings in a row Marcovaldo was presented with sausage and turnips for supper. Now that sausage might as well have been dog; the smell alone was enough to destroy the appetite. As for the turnips, that insipid and slimy tuber was the only vegetable Marcovaldo had never been able to tolerate.

At midday, the same thing: his sausage and turnips, cold and fatty there in the lunch box. Forgetful as he was, he always unscrewed the lid with greedy curiosity, not remembering what he had eaten for supper the evening before, and every day there was the same disappointment. On the fourth day, he stuck his fork into it, smelt it one more time, got up from the bench and, holding the open lunch box in his hand, walked off distractedly along the avenue. Passers-by saw this man strolling there with a fork in one hand and a receptacle containing sausage in the other, seemingly unable to decide whether to bring the first forkful to his mouth.

From a window a little boy called, ‘Hey, mister!’

Marcovaldo looked up. On the mezzanine floor of an opulent villa, a boy was standing with his elbows planted on the windowsill, on which a dish had been placed.

‘Hey, mister! What are you eating?’

‘Sausage and turnips!’

‘Lucky you!’ said the boy.

‘Hmm,’ said Marcovaldo vaguely.

‘Imagine: I’ve got to eat fried brains…’

Marcovaldo looked at the dish on the window sill. It was a frittura of brains, soft and curly, like a bank of clouds. His nostrils twitched.

‘Why, don’t you like brains?’ he asked the boy.

‘No. They’ve shut me up here as a punishment because I don’t want to eat them. But I’m going to throw them out of the window.’

‘And you like sausage?’

‘Oh yes, it looks like a snake… We never eat it in our house…’

‘All right, you give me your plate and I’ll give you mine.’

‘Hooray!’ The boy was very pleased. He handed the man his majolica plate with a finely ornamented silver fork, and the man gave him the lunch box with the tin fork.

And so the two of them fell to eating: the boy at the window sill and Marcovaldo sitting on a bench opposite, both of them licking their lips and saying that they has never tasted food so good.

When suddenly, at the boy’s back there appeared a maid with her hands on her hips.

Signorino! My God! What are you eating?’

‘Sausage!’ said the boy.

‘And who gave you that?’

‘That gentleman there,’ and he pointed at Marcovaldo, who interrupted his slow and careful chewing of a mouthful of brain.

‘Throw it out! What a smell! Throw it out!’

‘But it’s good…’

‘And your plate? The fork?’

‘The gentleman’s got it…’ and he pointed again at Marcovaldo, who was holding the fork in the air, on which was skewered a piece of bitten brain.

The woman began to scream, ‘Stop thief! Stop thief! The tableware!’

Marcovaldo got up, looked again for a moment at the frittura left half uneaten, went to the window, put the plate and fork on the window sill, stared disdainfully at the maid, and retreated. He heard the lunch box rolling on the pavement, the boy’s weeping, the window ungraciously being slammed shut. He bent down to pick up the lunch box and the lid. They were a bit dented; the lid didn’t screw properly any more. He shoved everything in his pocket and went to work.

Winter  8  The forest on the autostrada

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  8  Il bosco sull’ autostrada)

Cold takes a thousand forms and has a thousand ways of travelling through the world: on the sea it gallops like a herd of horses; in the countryside it advances headlong like a swarm of locusts; in the city it cuts into the streets like a knife blade and infiltrates the cracks in unheated houses. In Marcovaldo’s home the last sticks of firewood had been finished that evening, and the family, all in their coats, were watching the embers as they paled in the stove, and the little clouds as they issued from their mouths at every breath. They no longer said anything; the little clouds spoke for them; Marcovaldo’s wife let out great long ones, like sighs, the children were engrossed in blowing them like soap bubbles, and Marcovaldo puffed them upwards in shots, like flashes of inspiration which soon disappear.

At last Marcovaldo made a decision. ‘I’m going for wood. Who knows, I might find some.’ He stuffed four or five newspapers between his jacket and his shirt to make a shield against the blasts of air, hid under his coat a long, toothed saw, and so equipped went out into the night, followed by the hopeful glances of his family. He made papery rustles at each step, and every so often the saw popped out above his collar.

Going for wood in the city: easier said than done! Marcovaldo made straight for a little bit of public garden between two streets. There was no one about. He studied the bare trees one by one, thinking of his family waiting for him, their teeth chattering…

While little Michelino’s teeth were chattering, he was reading a book of fables which he had borrowed from the school library. The book told of a boy, the son of a woodcutter, who went out with a hatchet to cut wood in a forest. ‘That’s where we should go,’ said Michelino, ‘to the forest! That’s where there’s wood!’ Born and raised in the city, he had never seen a forest, even at a distance.

No sooner said than done, he ganged up with his brothers; one took a hatchet, one a hook, one a rope, they said goodbye to their mother and went in search of a forest.

They walked through the city lit by streetlamps, and saw only houses; of forests not a trace. They met occasional passers-by, but didn’t dare ask them where they might find a forest. At last they got to where the city’s houses finished and the road became an autostrada.

At the sides of the autostrada, the boys saw the forest: a dense growth of unusual trees obscured the view of the plain. The trees had beautifully fine trunks, straight or slanting, and flat, wide-spreading crowns, in the strangest shapes and of the strangest colours, when a passing car illuminated them with its headlights. Branches shaped like toothpaste, like a face, like cheese, like a hand, like a razor, like a bottle, like a cow, like a tyre, studded with a foliage of letters of the alphabet.

‘Hooray!’ said Michelino. ‘This is the forest!’

And the brothers gazed enchanted at the moon which showed between those strange shadows. ‘How beautiful…’

Michelino promptly reminded them of the purpose for which they had come: to get wood. So they chopped down a tree shaped like a yellow primrose flower, cut it into pieces and took it home.

Marcovaldo returned with his meagre load of damp branches, and found the stove alight.

‘Where did you get that?’ he exclaimed, pointing to what was left of the advertising hoarding, which, being of plywood, had burned very quickly.

‘In the forest!’ said the boys.

‘What forest?’

‘The autostrada forest. It’s full of wood!’

Given that it was so simple, and that they already needed more wood, he might as well follow the boys’ example. Marcovaldo went back out with his saw, and made for the autostrada.

Officer Astolfo of the highway police was a bit short-sighted, and at night, riding on duty on his motorbike, he really needed glasses; but he said nothing about it, for fear that it might damage his career.

That evening, it had been reported that a gang of urchins had been knocking down advertising hoardings. Officer Astolfo went to inspect.

At the sides of the road the jungle of weird images, hectoring and gesticulating, accompanied Astolfo, who scrutinised them one by one, opening wide his near-sighted eyes. And there, in the glare of his motorbike’s headlight, he surprised a naughty boy perched on a hoarding. ‘Hey! What are you doing there? Get down at once!’ The naughty boy didn’t move, and stuck his tongue out at him. Astolfo came closer and saw that it was an advertisement for processed cheese, with a fat baby licking its lips. ‘Okay, okay,’ said Astolfo, and departed at high speed.

A bit later, within the shadow of a huge hoarding, he illuminated a sad, frightened face. ‘Up there! Don’t try to run away!’ But no one ran away; it was a pained human face depicted in the middle of a foot covered in corns: an advertisement for a corn remover. ‘Oh, sorry,’ said Astolfo, and rode off.

The hoarding showing a pill to counteract migraine was a gigantic man’s head, with the man’s hands covering his eyes from the pain. Astolfo passed it, and the headlight illuminated Marcovaldo crouched on the top, trying to cut off a chunk with his saw. Dazzled by the light, Marcovaldo made himself as small as possible and didn’t move a muscle, clinging to one ear of the great head, with the saw already wielded halfway across it.

Astolfo studied it closely and said, ‘Oh, I see: Stappa pills! That’s a good advert! Very clever! The little chap up there with the saw stands for the migraine which cuts the head in two! I got it straight away!’ And off he went, perfectly satisfied.

All was silent and freezing cold. Marcovaldo breathed a sigh of relief, resumed his uncomfortable perch and continued his work. The muffled scrape of his saw against the wood resounded in the moonlit sky.

Spring  9  Good air

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  9  L’aria buona)

‘These children,’ said the national-health doctor, ‘need to breathe a bit of good air, at a certain altitude, to run about in the meadows…’

He was standing between the beds in the basement flat where the family lived, and was pressing his stethoscope onto little Teresa’s back, between her shoulder blades, which were like the wings of a little plucked bird. There were two beds, and the four children, all of them ill, were peeping out from the heads and feet of the beds, with hot cheeks and bright eyes.

‘In meadows like the flower bed in the square?’ asked Michelino.

‘An altitude like a skyscraper?’ asked Filippetto.

‘Air that’s good to eat?’ enquired Pietruccio.

Marcovaldo, tall and thin, and his wife Domitilla, short and stocky, were leaning with one elbow on each side of a rickety chest of drawers. Without moving their elbow, they lifted the other arm and let it drop to their side, muttering together, ‘And where do you want us, eight mouths, loaded with debts… what do you want us to do?’

‘The nicest place we can send them,’ Marcovaldo pointed out, ‘is into the street.’

‘We’ll breathe good air,’ Domitilla added, ‘when we’re evicted and we have to sleep under the stars.’

One Saturday afternoon, as soon as they were better, Marcovaldo collected the children and took them for a walk in the hills. They lived in a district of the city from which the hills were furthest away. To get to the slopes they took a long ride on a crowded tram, and the children only saw the legs of the passengers around them. Little by little the tram emptied; eventually an avenue appeared at the unblocked windows, leading uphill. And so they arrived at the end of the line and began to walk.

It was early spring; the trees were blossoming in the lukewarm sunshine. The children looked around, a bit disorientated. Marcovaldo led them up a little street with steps, which rose amongst the greenery.

‘Why is there a staircase without a house at the top?’ asked Michelino.

‘It’s not a house staircase; it’s like a road.’

‘A road… And how do the cars get up it, with the little steps?’

Around them were garden walls with trees inside.

‘Walls without roofs… Have they been bombed?’

‘They are gardens… sort of courtyards,’ their father explained. ‘The house is inside, there behind those trees.’

Michelino shook his head, unconvinced. ‘But courtyards are inside houses, not outside.’

Teresina asked, ‘Do the trees live in those houses?’

Gradually, as he climbed, Marcovaldo seemed to be throwing off the musty smell of the warehouse in which he shifted packages for eight hours a day, and the damp stains on the walls of his lodging, and the gilded dust that drifted down in the cone of light from the little window, and the fits of coughing in the night. The children now seemed to him less sallow and delicate, almost as if they were already one with the light and the greenery there.

‘Do you like it here?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘There are no policemen here. You can pull up the plants, throw stones.’

‘And breathe? Are you breathing?’

‘No.’

‘The air is good here.’

They chewed this over. ‘No, it’s not. It doesn’t taste of anything.’

They climbed almost to the crest of the hill. At one turn, the city appeared below, a borderless expanse superimposed on the grey spider’s web of streets. The children rolled in a meadow as if they’d never done anything else in their lives. A breath of wind got up; it was already evening. In the city a few lights came on in a hazy glow. Marcovaldo felt again a wave of the feeling he had had on arriving in the city as a young man, when he had been attracted by those streets, by those lights, as if he was expecting something from them — who knows what? The swallows hurled themselves headlong over the city.

Then the sadness of having to go back down again took hold of him, and he picked out in the agglutinated mass of the landscape the shadow of his own district; and it seemed to him a leaden wilderness, stagnant, covered with dense scales of roofs and wisps of smoke fluttering over the sticks of chimney pots.

It had turned chilly; perhaps he had better call the children. But seeing them peacefully swinging in the lower branches of a tree, he dismissed the thought. Michelino came up to him and asked, ‘Daddy, why can’t we come and live here?’

‘Oh, silly, there are no houses here, no one lives up here at all!’ said Marcovaldo, annoyed, because actually he was fantasising about being able to live up there.

And Michelino said, ‘ No one? What about those gentlemen? Look!’

The air was turning to grey. Down from the meadows, a company of men was coming, men of various ages, all dressed in heavy grey suits, buttoned up like pyjamas, and all wearing a cap and carrying a stick. They arrived in groups, some of them talking in loud voices or laughing, poking the grass with their sticks or trailing them hooked on their arms by the curved handle.

‘Who are they? Where are they going?’ Michelino asked his father, but Marcovaldo was looking at them silently.

One passed nearby; he was a big man of about forty. ‘Good evening!’ he said. ‘So, what news do you bring us from the city?’

‘Good evening,’ said Marcovaldo, ‘but what news are you speaking of?’

‘Nothing; just a way of talking,’ said the man as he stopped. He had a broad white face, with a single blotch of pink or red, like a shadow, just above his cheeks. ‘I always say that to whoever comes from the city. I’ve been up here for three months, you see.’

‘And don’t you ever go down?’

‘Huh! Only when the doctors let me!’ And he gave a short laugh. ‘And when these here let me!’ And he tapped his chest with his fingers, and gave another little laugh, a bit breathless. ‘Twice already they’ve discharged me as cured, and as soon as I go back to the factory, bam, back to square one. And they send me back up here. Not much fun!’

‘And those guys too?’ said Marcovaldo, pointing to the other men scattered about, and at the same time looking for Filippetto and Teresa and Pietruccio, who had disappeared from view.

‘All holiday companions,’ said the man, and winked. ‘This is the time when we’re free to go out, before retiring… We go to bed early… We’re not allowed to stray beyond the boundaries, you understand…’

‘What boundaries?’

‘We’re still on the sanatorium’s land here, didn’t you know?’

Marcovaldo took Michelino’s hand. The boy had stood there listening and was a bit frightened. Evening was climbing the slopes; down there Marcovaldo could no longer make out his district, and it didn’t seem to have been swallowed by the shade, but to have extended its own shadow everywhere. It was time to go home. ‘Teresa! Filippetto!’ Marcovaldo called, and turned to look for them. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to the man, ‘I can’t see the other children any more.’

The man moved to the edge of an incline. ‘They’re down there,’ he said. ‘They’re picking cherries.’

Marcovaldo saw a cherry tree in a ditch. Around it stood the men in grey. They were pulling the branches towards them with their curved sticks and picking the fruit. And with them were Teresa and the two boys, perfectly happy, picking cherries and taking them from the hands of the men, and laughing with them.

‘It’s late,’ said Marcovaldo. ‘It’s cold. Let’s go home…’

The big man pointed the end of his stick at the strings of lights being lit down there.

‘In the evenings,’ he said, ‘with this stick, I take my walk in the city. I choose a street, a line of streetlights, and I follow it, like this… I stop at the shop windows, I meet people, I greet them… When you’re walking in the city, think of us sometimes; my stick will be following you…’

The children came back crowned with leaves, holding hands with the inmates.

‘It’s so lovely here, Daddy,’ said Teresa. ‘We can come back and play here, can’t we?’

‘Daddy,’ Michelino burst out, ‘why don’t we come and live here too, with these gentlemen?’

‘It’s late! Say goodbye to the gentlemen! Say thank you for the cherries. Come on! Let’s go!’

They made their way home. They were tired. Marcovaldo didn’t answer the children’s questions. Filippetto wanted to be carried in his arms, Pietruccio on his shoulders, Teresa was dragged along by the hand, and Michelino, the eldest, went ahead by himself, kicking the stones.

Summer  10  A journey with the cows

(Italo Calvino — Estate  10  Un viaggio con le mucche)

The sounds of the city which during summer nights enter, through open windows, the rooms of people who can’t sleep for the heat, the authentic sounds of the nocturnal city, make themselves heard when at a certain hour the anonymous din of motor vehicles dissipates and ceases, and out of the silence come discrete sounds, well defined, graduated according to distance: the step of a nightwalker, the ticking of a nightwatchman’s bicycle, a muffled row from far away; and the snoring from the floors above, a sick person’s groan, an old clock which continues to chime the hours every hour. Until at dawn the orchestra of alarm clocks in working people’s houses begins to play, and a tram passes on its tracks.

So it was that one night Marcovaldo, between his wife and the children sweating in their sleep, was listening with closed eyes to as much of this fine dust of faint sounds as filtered from the cobbled pavement, through the little low window, down into his basement apartment. He heard the cheerful, rapid heel of a woman who was late, the tattered sole of the man who stopped irregularly to pick up cigarette butts, the whistling of someone who felt lonely, and every so often a broken snatch of the words of a conversation between friends, enough to suggest whether they were talking about sport or money. But in the hot night those noises lost any definition, they melted as if cushioned by the sultriness which weighed down on the void of the streets; and yet they seemed to want to impose themselves, to establish their own dominion on that uninhabited kingdom. In each human presence Marcovaldo sadly recognised a brother, pinned down like him even in the holiday period in that oven of concrete, baking hot and dusty, by debts, by the burden of the family, by meagre wages.

And as if the idea of an impossible holiday had suddenly opened to him the doors of a dream, he seemed distantly to hear a sound of bells, and the barking of a dog, and even a brief lowing. But his eyes were open, he wasn’t dreaming, and he tried, bending an ear, to get more of a grip on those vague impressions, or a denial of them; and in reality a sound came to him as if of hundreds and hundreds of steps, slow, scattered, dull, approaching and obliterating every other noise, except just that rusty clanging.

Marcovaldo got up and slipped on his shirt and trousers. ‘Where are you going?’ said his wife, who slept with one eye open.

‘There’s a herd passing along the street. I’m going to look.’

‘Me too! Me too!’ said the children, who knew how to wake up at the right moment.

It was one of those herds which crossed the city in the hours of darkness, at the beginning of summer, making for the mountains, for the alpine pastures. Out in the street with their eyes still half stuck together with sleep, the children saw the stream of dull grey and pied rumps which invaded the pavement and slithered along the walls covered with posters, past the lowered shutters, the posts of no-parking signs, the petrol pumps. Placing their careful hooves down the step at the crossroads, their muzzles pressed with not even a jerk of curiosity into the loins of those that preceded them, the cows left behind them their smell of litter and wild flowers and milk and the languorous sound of their bells, and the city seemed not to concern them, already absorbed as they were in their world of moist meadows, misty mountains and the fords of streams.

By contrast, as if unnerved by the overpowering presence of the city, the cowherds seemed impatient, rushing about in short, useless dashes, at the side of the line, raising their sticks and bellowing in broken, breathy voices. The dogs, to which nothing human is alien, showed their casual confidence by running back and forth with muzzles raised, their bells tinkling, attentive to their work, but you could see that they too were restless and awkward, otherwise they would have let themselves be distracted and would have begun sniffing street corners, streetlamps, spots on the pavement, as is the first thought of every city dog.

‘Daddy,’ said the children, ‘are cows like trams? Do they make stops? Where is the end of the line for cows?’

‘They’re nothing to do with trams,’ explained Marcovaldo. ‘They’re going to the mountains.’

‘Do they wear skis?’ asked Pietruccio.

‘And don’t they get fined if they trample on the meadows?’

‘They’re going to pasture, to eat the grass.’

The only child who didn’t ask questions was Michelino, who, older than the others, already had his own ideas about cows, and was now paying attention simply in order to check them, to observe the harmless horns, the rumps and the variegated dewlaps. So he followed the herd, trotting beside it like the herdsmen’s dogs.

When the last group had passed, Marcovaldo took the children by the hand to put them back to bed, but he couldn’t see Michelino. He went down into their room, and asked his wife, ‘Has Michelino come back?’

‘Michelino? Wasn’t he with you?’

‘He began to follow the herd and who knows where he’s gone,’ thought Marcovaldo, and rushed back into the street. The herd had already crossed the square, and Marcovaldo had to look for the street into which it had turned. But it appeared that on that night several herds were crossing the city, each on a different street, each headed for its own valley. Marcovaldo tracked down and caught up with one herd, then realised it wasn’t his; at one junction he saw that four streets further on another herd was moving forward in parallel to him, and he ran over there; there the cowherds told him that they had met another herd going in the opposite direction. And so, until the last sound of cowbells had faded in the light of dawn, Marcovaldo continued to dash about to no avail.

The police superintendent to whom he went to report his son’s disappearance said, ‘Behind a herd? He’ll have gone to the mountains, to have a holiday, lucky boy. You’ll see, he’ll come back fat and suntanned.’

The superintendent’s opinion was confirmed a few days later by an employee at the firm where Marcovaldo worked, just back from the first slot of holidays. At a mountain pass he had met the lad; he was with the herd, he sent greetings to his father, and he was fine.

Marcovaldo’s thoughts, in the dusty heat of the city, were with his fortunate son, who was surely now passing the hours in the shadow of a pine tree, whistling with a blade of grass in his mouth, keeping an eye on the cows moving slowly in the meadow below, and listening to the trickle of waters in the shade of the valley.

But the boy’s mother couldn’t wait for him to come back. ‘Will he come by train? By bus? It’s a week already… It’s a month already… It’ll be bad weather there…’ And she gave herself no peace, although having one fewer at the table each day was at least some consolation.

‘Lucky him; he’s out there in the fresh air, filling himself with butter and cheese,’ said Marcovaldo, and whenever there appeared to him at the end of the street, lightly veiled in the heat, the jagged white and grey of the mountains, he felt as if he had sunk into a well, by whose light, up above, he seemed to see shimmering fronds of maples and chestnuts, with Michelino up there, idle and happy, amongst milk and honey and blackberry bushes.

But from evening to evening he too was waiting for his son’s return, although not thinking, as the boy’s mother was, about the times of trains and buses; he was listening at night for footsteps on the street, as if the little window in the room were the mouth of a seashell, echoing the sounds of the mountain when you put your ear to it.

And then, one night, having suddenly got up to sit on the bed, it wasn’t an illusion; he heard approaching on the pavement that unmistakeable clattering of cloven hooves, mixed with the clanging of bells.

They ran into the street, he and the whole family. Slowly and heavily, the herd was returning. And in the midst of the herd, astride the rump of a cow, his hands gripping its collar, his head jiggling at every step, there, half asleep, was Michelino.

They lifted him down bodily. They embraced him and kissed him. He was half stunned.

‘How are you? Was it nice?’

‘Oh… yes…’

‘And did you want to come home?’

‘Yes…’

‘Are the mountains beautiful?’

He stood there, in front of them, his brows furrowed, with a hard look.

‘I worked like a mule,’ he said, and spat in front of him. He had taken on the face of a man. ‘Every evening, carrying the buckets to the milkers, from one beast to another, one beast to another, and then emptying them into the churns, in a hurry, always in more of a hurry, until late. And early in the morning, rolling the churns down to the lorry to take them to town… And counting, always counting: the animals, the churns, and you were in trouble if you made a mistake.’

‘But could you go to the meadows? When the animals were at pasture?’

‘There was never time. Always something to do. For the milk, the bedding, the manure. And all for what? With the excuse that I didn’t have a work permit, how much did they pay me? A pittance. But if you think I’m going to give you any now, you’re mistaken. Come on, let’s go to bed. I’m dead tired.’

He shrugged his shoulders, blew his nose and went into the house.

The herd continued to move away down the street, leaving behind it the mendacious and languorous smells of hay and the sounds of bells.

Autumn  11  The poisonous rabbit

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  11  Il coniglio velenoso)

When the day comes for leaving hospital, a person already knows it that morning, and if he is by now in good form he wanders along the corridors, practises walking for when he’ll be outside, whistles, acts the cured man with those still ill, not to make them envious but for the pleasure of adopting an encouraging tone. Through the window panes he sees the sun, or the fog if it’s foggy, he hears the noises of the city; and everything is different from before, when every morning he had sensed these things — the light and sound of an unreachable world — entering and awakening him through the bars of that bed. Now, out there, it’s his world again; the cured man recognises this as natural and normal; and all of a sudden he notices the smell of the hospital.

One morning Marcovaldo was sniffing around in this way, cured, waiting for them to write various things for him on his health-insurance document, so he could leave. The doctor took the papers and said to him, ‘Wait here,’ and left him alone in his laboratory. Marcovaldo looked at the white enamelled furniture which he had so hated, the test tubes full of menacing substances, and tried to cheer himself up with the idea that he was about to leave all this behind; but he didn’t experience the degree of pleasure that he had been expecting. Perhaps it was the prospect of going back to work unloading boxes, or of the mischief that his children had surely got up to while he had been away, and more than anything it was the fog outside, which made him feel that he was going to have to step out into the void, to melt into a wet nothingness. In this mood he was looking around, with a vague desire to become attached to something there in the room, but everything he saw spoke to him of torment or discomfort.

It was then that he saw a rabbit in a cage. It was a white rabbit, with long feathery fur, a little pink triangle of a nose, red dumbfounded eyes, and almost furless ears flattened on its back. It wasn’t especially large, but in that narrow cage its crouched oval body was squeezing against the metal framework, from which tufts of fur stuck out, ruffled as the animal softly trembled. Outside the cage, on the table, were the remains of some grass and a carrot. Marcovaldo thought how unhappy it must be, so tightly shut up there, seeing that carrot and not being able to eat it. And he opened the door of the cage for it. The rabbit didn’t emerge; it stayed where it was, with only a slight movement of its muzzle, as if pretending to chew in order to seem unconcerned. Marcovaldo took the carrot, offered it to the rabbit, then slowly withdrew it, inviting the beast to come out. The rabbit followed him, suspiciously bit into the carrot, and then began assiduously gnawing it in Marcovaldo’s hand. The man stroked its back, and meanwhile squeezed it to see if it was fat. It felt a bit bony under the fur. From that, and from the way it was pulling at the carrot, it was clear that they must be keeping it on short rations. ‘If I had it,’ thought Marcovaldo, ‘I’d feed it up until it was a ball.’ And he looked at it with the loving eye of a breeder who manages to maintain in the same attitude of mind a kindly feeling towards the animal and the prospect of a roast dinner. Here, after days and days of miserable confinement in hospital, at the moment of leaving, he was discovering a friendly presence, which would have sufficed to occupy his time and his thoughts. And he had to leave it, to go back to the foggy city, where rabbits were not to be found.

The carrot was almost finished. Marcovaldo took the animal in his arms and walked around looking for something else to give it. He pushed its muzzle towards a little geranium plant in a pot on the doctor’s writing desk, but the beast made it clear it didn’t fancy it. Just at that moment Marcovaldo heard the doctor’s footstep entering; how to explain to him why he was holding the rabbit in his arms? He was wearing his work jacket, tight at the waist. He hastily stuffed the rabbit into it, buttoned it up, and so that the doctor shouldn’t see the bulge bouncing on his stomach, he pushed it round behind him, onto his back. The rabbit was frightened but co-operative. Marcovaldo took his papers and moved the rabbit back onto his chest, since he had to turn round and go out. In that fashion, with the rabbit hidden in his jacket, he left the hospital and went to work.

‘Ah, you’re better at last?’ said Signor Viligelmo the foreman, seeing him arrive. ‘And what have you got growing there?’ And he pointed to Marcovaldo’s chest, where it jutted out.

‘I’ve got a hot compress, against the cramps,’ said Marcovaldo.

At that moment the rabbit jumped, and Marcovaldo jerked as if he were an epileptic.

‘What’s up with you?’ said Viligelmo.

‘Nothing; I’m hiccupping,’ Marcovaldo answered, and he pushed the rabbit round behind his back with his hand.

‘You’re still a bit off colour, I can see that,’ said the boss.

The rabbit was trying the crawl up Marcovaldo’s back, and he screwed up his shoulders to make it go down.

‘You’ve got the shivers. Go home for another day. Make sure you’re better tomorrow.’

Marcovaldo arrived home holding the rabbit by the ears, like a successful hunter.

‘Daddy! Daddy!’ the children shouted, running around him. ‘Where did you get it? Will you give it to us? Is it a present?’ And straight away they wanted to get hold of it.

‘So you’re back?’ said his wife, and from the look she gave him Marcovaldo understood that the time of his stay in hospital had only served to cause her to accumulate new reasons for resentment against him. ‘A live animal? And what do you want to do with it? It’ll make a mess everywhere.’

Marcovaldo cleared the table and placed the rabbit in the middle, where it flattened itself as if trying to disappear. ‘Woe betide anyone who touches it!’ he said. ‘It’s our rabbit, and it’ll fatten up peacefully until Christmas.’

‘But is it a male or a female?’ asked Michelino.

Marcovaldo hadn’t thought about the possibility that it might be a female. Immediately, a new plan came into his mind: if it was a female, they could get her to produce baby rabbits, and set up a breeding colony. And already, in his fantasy, the damp walls of their home were vanishing and he saw a green farm in the fields.

However, it was in fact a male. But this idea of breeding rabbits had now lodged in Marcovaldo’s head. It was a male, but a very beautiful male, for which it would be possible to seek a spouse and the means to start a family.

‘And what are we going to give it to eat, when there’s not enough for us?’ said his wife sharply.

‘Leave the thinking to me,’ said Marcovaldo.

The next day, at work, he removed a leaf from each of certain green plants in pots in the management’s offices which he had to take outside every day, water and put back — broad leaves, bright on one side and dark on the other — and he stuffed them into his jacket. Then he asked a female employee who arrived with a bunch of flowers, ‘Did your sweetheart give them to you? And won’t you make me a present of one?’ And he pocketed that too. To a lad who was peeling a pear, he said, ‘Let me have the peel.’ And so, with here a leaf, there a bit of peel, a petal somewhere else, he hoped to feed the animal.

At this point, Signor Viligelmo sent for him. ‘Have they found out about the shortage of leaves on the plants?’ Marcovaldo wondered, accustomed always to feeling guilty.

In the foreman’s office was the doctor from the hospital, two officers from the Red Cross and a city police officer. ‘Listen,’ said the doctor. ‘A rabbit has disappeared from my laboratory. If you know anything about it, you’d better not try to be clever. Because we’ve injected it with the germs of a terrible disease and it could spread it across the whole city. I’m not asking you if you’ve eaten it, because you wouldn’t be alive now if you had.’

An ambulance was waiting outside. In great haste they jumped in, and with a continuous wailing of the siren they drove down streets and avenues to Marcovaldo’s house; and on the road there lay a trail of leaves and peel and flowers that Marcovaldo was sadly throwing out of the window.

That morning, Marcovaldo’s wife just didn't know what to put in the pot. She looked at the rabbit which her husband had brought home the previous day, and which was now in an improvised cage, full of scraps of paper. ‘It’s come just at the right moment,’ she said to herself. ‘We’ve got no money; the monthly wage has already gone on medicines the national health won't pay for; the shops aren't giving us any more credit. Getting up a breeding farm, or waiting for Christmas to roast it: ridiculous! Here we are skipping meals, and we still have to fatten up a rabbit!’

‘Isolina,’ she said to her daughter, ‘you’re a big girl now; it’s time for you to learn how to cook rabbit. You begin by killing and skinning it, and then I’ll tell you what to do next.’

Isolina was reading a magazine of romantic stories. ‘No,’ she whined, ‘you begin by killing and skinning it, and then I’ll come and see how you cook it.’

‘A lot of use you are!’ said her mother. ‘I haven’t the heart to kill it. But I know it’s very easy to do. You just take it by the ears and give it a sharp jab on the nape of the neck. Then we’ll see about skinning it.’

‘We won't see about anything,’ said her daughter, without lifting her nose from the magazine. ‘I won't be giving any jabs to the nape of the neck of a living rabbit. And I’m not thinking of skinning it either.’

The three children had been standing wide-eyed, listening to this conversation.

The mother was lost in thought for a moment; she looked at them, and then said, ‘Children…’

The children with one accord turned their backs on their mother and left the room.

‘Children, wait!’ she said. ‘I meant to ask you if you’d like to go out with the rabbit. We’ll put a nice ribbon round its neck and you can take it for a bit of a walk.’

The children stopped and looked at each other. ‘A walk where?’ asked Michelino.

‘Well, just a little stroll. Then go and see Signora Diomira, take her the rabbit and ask her please to kill it and skin it. She’s so good at that.’

The mother had hit the right note. Children, we know, are taken by whatever pleases them the most, and for the rest they prefer not to think about it. So they found a long, lilac-coloured ribbon, tied it round the animal’s neck, and used it as a lead, tearing it from each other’s hands and dragging behind them the reluctant and semi-strangled rabbit.

‘Say to Signora Diomira,’ their mother told them, ‘that she can keep a leg! No, better tell her: the head. Oh, she can decide.’

The children had only just left when Marcovaldo’s apartment was invaded by nurses, doctors, traffic wardens and policemen. Marcovaldo was in the midst of them, more dead than alive. ‘Is the rabbit that was taken from the hospital here? Quick, show us where it is without touching it; it’s carrying the germs of a terrible disease!’ Marcovaldo took them to the cage, but it was empty. ‘Already eaten?’ ‘No, no!’ ‘So where is it?’ ‘It’s gone to Signora Diomira’s house!’ And they resumed the chase in that direction.

They knocked on Signora Diomira’s door. ‘The rabbit? What rabbit? Are you mad?’ Seeing her house invaded by unknown intruders, in white coats and in uniform, looking for a rabbit, the old lady almost had a stroke. She knew nothing about Marcovaldo’s rabbit.

In fact, the three children, wishing to save the rabbit from death, had the idea of taking it to a safe place, playing with it for a while and then letting it go; and instead of stopping on Signora Diomira’s landing, they decided to get up to a roof terrace. They were going to tell their mother that the rabbit had torn its lead and escaped. But no animal seemed so little inclined to flight as that rabbit. It was a job to make it climb all those stairs; it crouched frightened at each step. In the end they took it in their arms and carried it up bodily.

On the terrace, they wanted to make it run; it didn’t run. They tried putting it on a ledge to see if it would walk like a cat; but it seemed to be suffering from vertigo. They tried hoisting it onto a television aerial to see if it could keep its balance; no, it fell. Bored, the children tore off the lead, let the animal free at a place where it had a view of the slanting and angular sea of streets and roofs, and departed.

When it was alone, the rabbit began to move. It tried a few steps, looked around, changed direction, turned round; then, with little hops and jumps, it made its way across the roofs. It was an animal that had been born a prisoner; its desire for liberty had no wide horizons. It had known no happiness in life other than being able to stop still for a moment without being frightened. Now it could move, without anything around frightening it, perhaps as never before in its life. The place was unusual, but a firm idea of what was and was not unusual had never managed to form in its mind. And from the time when it had felt a vague and mysterious pain gnawing within itself, the whole outside world interested it less and less. So it went about on the roofs; and the cats which saw it jump didn’t understand what it was and shrank back scared.

Meanwhile, from dormer windows, skylights, roof terraces, the rabbit’s itinerary had not gone unnoticed. And people began to put out bowls of salad on their window sills, spying from behind the curtains, or stuck the core of a pear on the tiles with a piece of string tied round it, or laid a trail of little pieces of carrot on the ledge, leading to their own dormer window. And a watchword gained currency amongst all the families who lived under the roofs: ‘Today, rabbit stew,’ or ‘Rabbit fricassee,’ or ‘Roast rabbit’.

The animal had noticed these ploys, these silent offers of food. And although it was hungry, it was wary. It knew that whenever humans tried to attract it by offering it food, something unclear and painful happened: they either stuck a syringe into its flesh, or a scalpel, or they shoved it by force into a straightjacket, or they dragged it about with a ribbon round its neck… And the memory of these misfortunes became one with the pain which it felt within itself, with the slow deterioration of organs which it experienced, with its premonition of death. And with hunger. But as if it knew that, of all these discomforts, only hunger could be alleviated, and as if it recognised that these treacherous human beings could offer it, beside cruel sufferings, a sense, which nonetheless it needed, of protection, of domestic warmth, it decided to surrender, to take part in the human game; then let come what may. So it began to eat the little scraps of carrot, following the trail which, it well knew, would make it once again a prisoner and a martyr, but one returning for perhaps the last time to taste the good earthy flavour of vegetables. There it was, approaching a skylight window, there was a hand reaching out to grab it; but suddenly the window closed and it was left outside. This was an event outside its experience: a trap which refused to spring. The rabbit turned round and looked for other evidence of snares in the vicinity, so as to choose to which of them it would be most convenient to surrender. But all around, the leaves of salad had been withdrawn, the lengths of string thrown away, the people lying in wait had disappeared, windows and roof lights been barred, the roof terraces depopulated.

What had happened was that a police van had crossed the city, bellowing from a loudspeaker, ‘Attention! Attention! A white rabbit with long fur has been lost; it is infected with a serious contagious disease! Whoever finds it should know that its flesh is poisonous, and even touching it can transmit harmful germs! Whoever sees it should report it to the nearest police station, hospital or fire station!’

Terror spread along the roofs. Each person stood guard, and as soon as they spotted the rabbit passing with a floppy jump from one roof to the next, they gave the alarm and all disappeared as if at the approach of a swarm of locusts. The rabbit moved ahead, balanced on the coping stones; this sense of solitude, just at the moment when it had discovered the need to be close to human beings, seemed to it even more threatening, intolerable.

Meanwhile Cavalier Ulrico, an old hunter, had loaded his rifle with hare cartridges, and had taken up a position on a roof terrace, behind a chimney pot. When he saw the white shadow of the rabbit emerge from the fog, he fired; but such was his emotion at the thought of the malevolent powers of the beast that the spray of pellets spattered like hail at some distance from its target, on the tiles. The rabbit heard the shot echoing around, and a pellet went through one of its ears. It understood; this was a declaration of war; from now on all relations with humans were broken off. And in contempt of them, of what it sensed in some way to be an unfeeling ingratitude, it decided to end its own life.

A roof covered with sheet metal descended obliquely, ending in the void, in the opaque nothingness of fog. The rabbit positioned itself there on all four paws, cautiously to begin with, then with a sense of abandonment. And slipping in this way, devoured and besieged by its pain, it moved towards death. On the very edge, the gutter held it back for a second, then it toppled down…

And finished in the gloved hands of a fireman, hoisted to the top of a portable ladder. Prevented even from performing this extreme gesture of animal dignity, the rabbit was loaded into the ambulance, which departed at high speed towards the hospital. Also on board were Marcovaldo, his wife and children, admitted for observation and for a series of vaccine tests.

Winter  12  The wrong stop

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  12  La fermata sbagliata)

For people who have taken a dislike to their inhospitable homes, the favoured refuge on cold evenings is always the cinema. Marcovaldo’s passion was for films in colour, on the big screen whose scope can embrace the widest horizons: prairies, rocky mountains, equatorial forests, islands where folk go about with flowers on their heads. He would see the film twice, and only leave the cinema when it closed; and in his thoughts he continued to inhabit those landscapes and breathe in those colours. But the journey home on a drizzly evening, waiting at the tram stop for the number 30, the realisation that his life had known no scenario other than trams, traffic lights, basement lodgings, gas stoves, washing on the line, warehouses and packing areas, caused the splendour of the film to fade from him into a colourless, grey sadness.

That evening, the film he had seen was set in the forests of India; from marshy undergrowth clouds of steam arose, and snakes slithered along lianas and climbed over the statues on ancient temples swallowed up by the jungle.

Leaving the cinema, he opened his eyes onto the street, closed them again, opened them again; he could see nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even a hand’s breadth from his nose. In the hours that he’d been inside, fog had invaded the city: thick, opaque fog, enfolding objects and sounds, squashing distances into a dimensionless space, merging lights into the darkness which transformed them to glimmers without shape or position.

Marcovaldo made his way automatically to the 30 tram stop and banged his nose against the signpost. At that moment, he realised he was happy; the fog, obliterating the world around him, let him retain before his eyes the visions of the panoramic screen. Even the cold was lessened, almost as if the city had been swaddled in a cloud like a blanket. Marcovaldo, wrapped in his overcoat, felt protected from every exterior sensation, hovering in the void, and he could colour this void with images of India, of the Ganges, the jungle, of Calcutta.

The tram arrived, evanescent as a ghost, its bell clanging slowly; things around barely maintained their solid existence; for Marcovaldo, standing that evening at the rear of the tram, turning his back to the other passengers, staring out of the windows at the void of the night interspersed only by indistinct presences and a few shadows even blacker than the darkness, it was the perfect situation for daydreaming, for projecting before him, wherever he was going, an uninterrupted film on a borderless screen.

Fantasising like this, he had lost count of the stops; he suddenly wondered where he was; he saw that the tram was already almost empty; he peered out of the windows, trying to make sense of the glimmers that shone through, decided that his was the next stop, ran to the door just in time, and alighted. He glanced around, seeking some point of reference. But the few shadows and lights which his eyes could pick out didn’t combine into any known likeness. He had mistaken his stop and he didn’t know where he was.

If he met a passer-by, he could easily ask the way; but whether it was the lonely spot, the time of day, or the inclement weather, not a shadow of a human being was to be seen. At last he saw such a shadow, and waited for it to approach. No, it was receding, or perhaps it was crossing the street, or making its way down the middle of the road. It could be a cyclist, not a pedestrian, on a bicycle without lights.

Marcovaldo shouted, ‘Excuse me! Excuse me, mister! Do you know where Via Pancrazio Pancrazietti is?’

The shape was receding still further; it was almost lost to sight. It said, ‘That way…’ But there was no way of telling in which direction it was pointing.

‘Left or right?’ shouted Marcovaldo, but he didn’t know whether he was addressing the void.

An answer came, or the echo of an answer: an ‘…eft’ which also have been an ‘…ight’. But since the one man didn’t see which way the other had turned, left or right meant nothing.

Marcovaldo was now walking towards another glimmer which seemed to come from the opposite pavement, a bit further down. However, the distance was much greater; he had to cross a sort of square, with a little grassy island in the middle, and arrows — the only intelligible sign — showing which way round the cars had to go. It was late, but surely there must be a few cafés or taverns still open. The illuminated sign which began to be decipherable said ‘Bar…’ and then went out. A blade of darkness like a shutter fell over what must have been a lighted window. The bar was closing, and it was still, he seemed to understand at that moment, a long way away.

So he might as well focus on another light; as he walked, Marcovaldo didn’t know if he was following a straight line, if the luminous point towards which he was heading was always the same, or if it was doubling or tripling or changing its position. The fine particles of a slightly milky blackness into which he was moving were so minute that he already felt them infiltrating his overcoat, which soaked them up like a sponge between each thread of the material, as if through a sieve.

The light he arrived at was the smoky doorway of a tavern. Inside, people were seated or standing at the bar. But whether it was the poor lighting, or the fog which had penetrated everywhere, even here the figures seemed blurred, just like those in some taverns you see at the cinema, set in ancient times or in distant countries.

‘I was looking… if by chance you gentlemen knew… for Via Pancrazietti,’ he began to say, but the tavern was noisy, there were laughing drunks who thought he was drunk, and the enquiries he managed to make, the explanations he managed to obtain, were themselves foggy and blurred. All the more so as, to warm himself, he ordered — or rather, he let people standing at the bar press on him — a quarter litre of wine, to begin with, and then another half litre, then a few more glasses which, with great slaps on the back, he was offered by the others. The result being, when he left the tavern, that his ideas as to where his house was were no clearer than before; on the other hand the fog seemed more than ever to contain all the continents and every colour.

With the warmth of the wine in his body, Marcovaldo walked for a good quarter of an hour, with steps which continually felt the need to range from left to right to take account of the width of the pavement (if he was still following a pavement) and hands which continually felt the need to grope the walls (if he was still following a wall). The fog in his thoughts, as he walked, was thinning out; but the fog outside remained thick. He remembered that in the tavern they had told him to take a particular avenue, follow it for a hundred metres, then ask again. But now he didn’t know how far he had travelled from the tavern, or whether he had just gone in circles round the block.

The places around seemed uninhabited, bounded by brick walls like factory enclosures. At one corner there was definitely a plaque with the name of the street, but the light from the streetlamp hanging in the middle of the carriageway didn’t reach it. To get closer to the words, Marcovaldo shinned up the post of a no-parking sign. He got close enough to put his nose against the plaque, but the writing was faded and he didn’t have matches to illuminate it better. Above the plaque, the wall ended in a flat, wide top, and by leaning from the post of the no-parking sign Marcovaldo managed to climb onto it. He had glimpsed a big whitish sign stuck on the top of the wall. He took a few steps along the top, up to the sign; here the streetlamp lit up the black letters on a white background, but the words ‘Entrance is strictly prohibited to unauthorised persons’ offered him no enlightenment.

The top of the wall was wide enough for a person to keep his balance and walk along it; so, now that Marcovaldo came to think about it, it was better than the pavement, because the streetlamps were just at the right height to illuminate his footsteps, laying down a bright stripe which cut through the darkness. At a certain point the wall ended, and Marcovaldo found himself up against the capital of a pillar; no, it took a right turn and carried on…

In this way, what with corners, recesses, bifurcations and pillars, Marcovaldo’s progress followed an irregular pattern; quite often he thought that the wall was about to end, and then found that it continued in a different direction; amid so many deviations he no longer knew in which direction he had turned, and therefore on which side he would need to jump if he wished to get back down to the street. To jump… And supposing the difference in height had increased? He squatted on top of a pillar and tried to peer down, on one side and the other, but not a single ray of light shone up from the ground; it could be a matter of a little leap of two metres or at an abyss. There was nothing for it but to carry on upwards.

The escape route soon came into view. It was a flat, whitish open space, touching the wall; maybe it was the roof of a building — of concrete, as Marcovaldo realised once he had begun to walk on it — stretching into the darkness. He instantly regretted having started across it; now he had lost any point of reference, he had left behind the line of streetlamps, and any step he took might bring him to the edge of the roof, or beyond, into the void.

The void really was a chasm. From below, little lights shone up, as if at a great distance; and if they were streetlamps down there, the ground must be much lower even than that. Marcovaldo found himself suspended in a space beyond his imagination; sometimes, high up, green and red lights appeared, arranged in irregular shapes like constellations. Studying those lights with his nose in the air, he soon happened to take a step into the void and fell headlong.

‘I’m dead!’ he thought, but at that very moment he found himself sitting on soft earth; his hands probed the grass; he had fallen uninjured into the middle of a meadow. The low lights, which had seemed to him so distant, were so many little lamps in rows at ground level.

It was an unusual place to put lights, but useful, because they traced a path for him. And now his feet no longer trod on grass but on asphalt, illuminated by those beams of light at ground level. Around him there was nothing: only coloured flashes very high up, appearing and disappearing.

‘An asphalt road must lead somewhere,’ thought Marcovaldo, and he set off down it. He came to a turn-off, or rather to a crossroads, with each branch of road flanked by those little low lights, and with enormous white numbers painted on the ground.

He began to be discouraged. What was the point of choosing a direction, when all around there was nothing but this flat grass prairie and the emptiness of fog? It was at this point that he saw, at the height of a man, a movement of beams of light. A man, a real man with open arms, dressed, it seemed, in a yellow jumpsuit, was waving two luminous bats like those which station masters have.

Marcovaldo ran towards this man, and before even getting to him, he began to say, all out of breath, ‘Hey, sir, help, I’m here, I’m stuck in this fog, how do I… can you hear me?’

‘Don’t worry,’ answered the calm and courteous voice of the man in yellow, ‘above a thousand metres there’s no fog; you’re quite safe to proceed. The steps are a little further on; the others have already boarded.’

It was an unclear but encouraging statement. More than anything, Marcovaldo was happy to feel that not far away there were other people; on he went to join them without asking any further questions.

The mysteriously announced steps were indeed a little stairway flanked by two handrails, which showed whitely in the gloom. Marcovaldo ascended. On the threshold of a little door a young woman greeted him in such cordial terms that it seemed impossible that she was actually addressing him.

Marcovaldo offered profuse expressions of gratitude. ‘My sincere respects, signorina! Every good wish!’ Cold to the bone and soaked to the skin as he was, he couldn’t believe that he had found shelter under a roof…

In he went, blinking as his eyes were dazzled by the light. He wasn’t in a house. Then where was he? He thought he must be in a bus, a long bus with lots of empty seats. He sat down; normally he took the tram, not the bus, to get home, because the ticket was a bit cheaper, but on this occasion he had got lost in such a remote district that buses must be the only form of public transport. How fortunate that he had arrived just in time for what must be the last run of the day! And how soft and welcoming were the seats! Now that he knew this, Marcovaldo decided that he would always take the bus, even if the passengers were obliged to submit to certain obligations — ‘You are requested,’ a loudspeaker was saying, ‘to refrain from smoking and to fasten your seatbelts,’ — and even if the roar of the engine starting up was excessively loud.

A man in uniform was passing between the seats. ‘Excuse me, signor conductor,’ said Marcovaldo, ‘do you know if there’s a stop near Via Pancrazio Pancrazietti?’

‘Beg pardon, sir? The first stop is Bombay, then Calcutta and Singapore.’

Marcovaldo looked around. In other seats impassive, bearded, turbaned Indian men were sitting. There were a few women too, wrapped in embroidered saris, with a spot of lacquer on their foreheads. Through the windows, the night showed full of stars, now that the aeroplane, having crossed the thick blanket of fog, was flying through the great heights of the upper air, in a limpid sky.

Spring  13  Where the river is bluer

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  13  Dov’è più azzurro il fiume)

There was a time when the simplest foods contained threats, hidden dangers and frauds. Not a day went by without some newspaper reporting horrifying discoveries facing shoppers at the market: cheese was made of plastic, butter with tallow candles, the percentage of arsenic from insecticides concentrated in fruit and vegetables was higher than that of vitamins, chickens stuffed with synthetic pills to fatten them up could turn anyone who ate a chicken leg into a chicken. ‘Fresh’ fish had been fished the previous year in Iceland and had make-up put on their eyes so it seemed they’d been caught yesterday. A mouse had popped out of certain bottles of milk; it wasn’t clear whether it was alive or dead. From some bottles of oil it wasn’t the golden juice of the olive that flowed, but the fat of old mules, cunningly distilled.

At work or in the café, Marcovaldo listened to these things being discussed, and each time he felt as if a mule had kicked him in the stomach, or a mouse had run down his throat. At home, when his wife Domitilla came back from shopping, the sight of her shopping bag, which once had brought him such joy, with the celery, the aubergines, the coarse, porous paper around the packages from the grocer and the pork butcher, now struck fear into him, as if enemy presences had infiltrated the walls of the house.

‘All my efforts must be directed,’ he promised himself, ‘to providing the family with food which hasn’t passed through the hands of treacherous speculators.’ In the mornings, going to work, he sometimes met men with rod and line and rubber boots, heading for the riverbank. ‘That’s the way to go,’ Marcovaldo said to himself. But the river there in the city, which collected rubbish, wastewater and sewage, inspired a profound repugnance in him. ‘I must look for a place,’ he said to himself, ‘where the water is really water, and the fish are really fish. That’s where I’ll throw my line.’

The days were beginning to lengthen; on his moped, Marcovaldo ventured after work to explore the river in its course upstream from the city, and its little tributaries. He was most interested in the stretches where the water ran furthest from the asphalt road. He made his way along tracks, through scrubby willows, as far as his moped would allow, then, leaving it in a bush, continued on foot until he arrived at the stream. Once he got lost; he wandered along steep overgrown slopes, having lost sight of any track, and no longer knowing on which side the river was; then suddenly, pushing aside a few branches, he saw, a few metres below, the silent water. It was a widening of the river, almost a calm little pond, so blue in colour that it seemed like a mountain lake.

Emotion didn’t prevent him from looking closely down through the gentle ripples of the current. And there they were; his determination had been rewarded! A flash, the unmistakeable dart of a fin cutting through the surface, and then another, and yet another: a happy sight his eyes could hardly believe. This was the place where all the fish in the river congregated, a fisherman’s paradise, perhaps still undiscovered by anyone except him. On the way back — it was already growing dark — he stopped to carve marks on the bark of the elms, and to pile up stones at particular spots, so as to be able to find the track again.

Now he only needed to get hold of equipment. In truth, he had already thought about it; amongst his neighbours and the people working at his firm he had already identified ten or a dozen passionate fishermen. With half-suggestions and hints, promising to tell each of them, as soon as he was sure of it himself, about a place full of tench known only to himself, he managed to borrow, with a bit from one person and a bit from another, the most complete collection of fishing gear ever seen.

At this point he lacked nothing: rod, line, hooks, bait, landing net, boots, fish basket, a morning (at last!) with two hours — six to eight — to spend before going to work, the river with the tench… What was to stop him catching them? And sure enough, he only had to throw out his line and he caught them; the unsuspecting tench swallowed the bait. Seeing that it was so easy with the line, he tried with the net; the tench were so obliging as to fall over themselves into it.

When the time came to leave, his fish basket was almost full. He looked for a track, walking upstream by the river.

‘Hey, you!’ At a bend in the bank, amongst the poplars, a chap was standing with an official’s cap on, staring unpleasantly at him.

‘Me? What’s the problem?’ said Marcovaldo, fearing an unknown threat to his tench.

‘Where did you catch those fish there?’

‘Eh? Why?’ Marcovaldo’s heart was already in his mouth.

‘If you’ve caught them downstream, throw them away at once. Didn’t you see the factory upriver here?’ And he pointed to a long, low building, beyond the willows, which had come into view now that Marcovaldo had followed a bend in the river, and which was belching smoke into the air and a dense cloud of an incredible colour, between turquoise and violet, into the water. ‘You must at least have seen the colour of the water! It’s a paint factory. The river is poisoned because of that blue, and so are the fish. Throw them back now, or I’ll confiscate them!’

Marcovaldo would by now have liked to throw them far away as soon as he could, just to get rid of them, as if the smell alone were enough to poison him. But he didn’t want to look an idiot in front of the official. ‘And suppose I caught them further up?’

‘Then that’s another matter. I’ll confiscate them and fine you. Above the factory there’s a fishing reserve. D’you see the sign?’

‘To be honest,’ said Marcovaldo quickly, ‘ I’m carrying the rod and line like this so my friends will think I’ve caught them, but actually I bought the fish from the fishmonger in the village near here.’

‘No problem, then. There’s just the tax to pay, to take them back to town; we’re outside the city limits here.’

Marcovaldo had already opened the fish basket and was emptying it into the river. Some of the tench must still have been alive, because they darted away perfectly happy.

Summer  14  Moon and GNAC

(Italo Calvino — Estate  14  Luna e Gnac)

Night lasted twenty seconds, and GNAC lasted twenty seconds. For twenty seconds you could see the blue sky flecked with black clouds, the sickle of the golden crescent moon fringed by an impalpable halo, and then stars which, the more you looked at them, the more their spiky tininess thickened to the dust cloud of the Milky Way; all this viewed in great haste, each detail on which your eye settled being a fragment of the whole which was then lost to you, because the twenty seconds suddenly finished and GNAC began.

GNAC was a part of the advertising sign SPAAK-COGNAC on the roof opposite, which lit up for twenty seconds and went dark for twenty, and when it was lit up nothing else could be seen. The moon suddenly faded, the sky became uniformly black and flat, the stars lost their brilliance, and the male and female cats that for the last ten seconds had been uttering their amorous miaows, moving languidly towards each other along the gutters and the roof edges, now, during GNAC, crouched on the tiles with their fur bristling in the phosphorescent neon light.

At the window of the attic apartment where they lived, contrasting currents of thought were going through the minds of Marcovaldo’s family. It was night, and Isolina, who was a big girl now, felt herself transported by the moonlight, her heart consumed with yearning, and even the most muffled crackle from a radio on the lower floors of the building came to her ears like the melody of a serenade; GNAC came on, and that radio seemed to take on a different rhythm, a jazz rhythm, and Isolina thought of brightly lit dance halls, and of her, poor thing, left up in the attic all alone. Pietruccio and Michelino gazed wide-eyed into the night and let themselves be invaded by a warm, cuddly fear of being surrounded by forests full of brigands; then, GNAC!, and they leapt up with thumbs erect and index fingers extended, one against the other: ‘Hands up! I’m Superman!’ Domitilla, their mother, at each plunge into darkness, thought, ‘We must get the children to bed; this air can’t be good for them. And Isolina showing herself at the window at this time of night: it’s improper!’ But then everything was luminous and electric again, outside and in, and Domitilla felt as if she were being introduced into the home of a distinguished family.

Fiordaligi, on the other hand, a melancholy youth, saw, each time GNAC went out, the faintly illuminated window of a dormer apartment within the loop of the G, and behind the glass the face of a moon-coloured, neon-coloured, light-shining-in-the-night-coloured girl, her mouth still almost that of a child which, as soon as he smiled at her, opened a little tiny bit and seemed to widen into a smile; when suddenly out of the darkness that pitiless G of GNAC stood out again, and the face lost its outlines, was transformed into a faint pale shadow, and he could no longer tell from the girlish mouth whether it had responded to his smile.

In the midst of this storm of passions, Marcovaldo was trying to teach his children the positions of the heavenly bodies.

‘That is the Big Dipper, one two three four and there’s the handle; that is the Little Dipper; and the Pole Star shows us north.’

‘And that other one, what does that show?’

‘That one shows us C. It’s nothing to do with the stars. It’s the last letter of the word COGNAC. But the stars show us the points of the compass: north, south, east, west. The moon has its bulge towards the west. Bulge to the west, waxing moon. Bulge to the east, waning moon.

‘So the cognac is waning, Daddy? The C has its bulge to the east!’

‘It’s got nothing to do with waxing or waning; it’s writing put there by the Spaak company.’

‘And which company put the moon there?’

‘No company put the moon there. It’s a satellite, and it’s always the same.’

‘If it’s always the same, why does it change its bulge?’

‘Those are its quarters. You’re only seeing a piece of it.’

‘And you only see a piece of COGNAC.’

‘That’s because the roof of the Pierbernardi building, which is higher, is in the way.’

‘Is it higher than the moon?’

And so, with each illumination of GNAC, Marcovaldo’s stars were muddled up with terrestrial businesses, and Isolina transformed a sigh into the panting breath of a hummed mambo, and the girl in the garret disappeared in that dazzling, cold ring of light, hiding her response to the kiss that Fiordaligi had finally plucked up the courage to blow her from the tips of his fingers, and Filippetto and Michelino played at aerial machine-gun fire with their fists before their faces — ‘Ta-ta-ta-ta’ — against the luminous lettering, which went dark after twenty seconds.

‘Ta-ta-ta… Daddy, did you see how I put it out with only one burst?’ said Filippetto, but already, without the neon light, his warlike fantasy had vanished and his eyes were filling with sleep.

‘I wish you had!’ his father exclaimed. ‘I wish you had shot it to pieces. Then I would show you Leo — that’s the lion — and Gemini — that’s the twins.’

‘The lion?’ Michelino was fired with enthusiasm. ‘Wait!’ He’d had an idea. He took his catapult, loaded it with the little stones of which he always kept a supply in his pocket, and fired a volley of pebbles with all his strength at GNAC.

They could hear the hail of pebbles spattering on the tiles of the roof opposite, on the sheet metal of the eaves, the clinking of struck windowpanes, the clang of a pebble banging on the casing of a streetlamp, and a voice in the street: ‘It’s raining stones. Hey up there! Rascal!’ But the luminous sign had gone out for its twenty seconds just at the moment of the shot. And in the attic they all began mentally to count: one two three, ten eleven, up to twenty. They counted nineteen, they held their breath, they counted twenty, they counted twenty-one twenty-two, fearing that they had counted too fast, but no, nothing, GNAC didn’t light up again; it remained a black, barely decipherable squiggle on its supporting frame, like vines on a pergola. ‘Aaah!’ they all shouted, and the dome of the sky, infinitely studded with stars, rose above them.

Marcovaldo froze, his hand in mid-air for the smack he was going to give Michelino. He felt as if he were projected into space. The darkness which now reigned at rooftop level made a kind of opaque barrier, cutting out the world below, where yellow, green and red hieroglyphs, the blinking eyes of traffic lights, the luminous progress of empty trams, and invisible cars spilling in front of them cones of light from their headlights, continued to swirl. From that world there ascended only a diffuse phosphorescence, insubstantial as smoke. And when they looked up, no longer dazzled, the whole prospect of space opened to them, the constellations deepened, the firmament revolved on every side, a sphere containing everything and contained within no limits, and only one thinning of its weft, like a breach, opened towards Venus, making it stand out alone above the backdrop of the earth, with its fixed stab of light exploded and concentrated in one spot.

Suspended in this sky, the new moon, rather than offering the abstracted appearance of a half moon, revealed its true nature as an opaque sphere lit all around by the slanting rays of the sun now lost to the earth, but still keeping — as can only be seen on certain nights in early summer — its warm colour. And Marcovaldo, looking at that narrow strand of moon, slivered between shadow and light, felt a nostalgic longing, a desire to step onto a beach which had miraculously remained sunlit in the night.

So they remained there at the window of the attic, the children scared by the immeasurable consequences of their action, Isolina rapt as if in ecstasies, and Fiordaligi, alone in the group, descrying the dimly lit garret and, at last, the girl’s moonlike smile. The children’s mother roused herself: ‘Now then, now then, it’s late; what are you doing leaning out of the window? You’ll catch a chill, with that bright moon!’

Michelino pointed his catapult upwards. ‘And I’ll put the moon out!’ He was grabbed and bundled off to bed.

So, for the rest of that night and the whole of the night following, the illuminated sign on the roof opposite only said SPAAK-CO, and from Marcovaldo’s garret the firmament could be seen. Fiordaligi and the moonlike girl blew each other kisses from the tips of their fingers, and perhaps, using sign language, might have managed to arrange a meeting.

But on the morning of the second day, on the roof amongst the framework of the illuminated sign, the slight forms of two electricians in overalls stood out, checking the tubes and the wires. With the air of an old-timer predicting the weather to come, Marcovaldo stuck his nose out of the window and said, ‘Tonight will be a GNAC night again.’

Someone knocked at the door of the garret. They opened. It was a bespectacled gentleman. ‘I do beg your pardons; might I take a look from your window? Thank you.’ And he introduced himself: ‘Dottor Godifredo, illuminated advertising executive.’

‘We’re ruined! They want to make us pay for the damage!’ thought Marcovaldo, with a murderous look at his children, forgetful of his astronomical raptures. ‘Now he’s looking from the window and he’s worked out that the stones couldn’t have been fired from anywhere but here.’ He tried to own up: ‘They’re only kids, you know, they fire little stones like that, at sparrows, I don’t know how it came about that they damaged that Spaak sign. But I’ve punished them, oh, have I punished them! And you can be sure that it won’t happen again.’

Dottor Godifredo looked at Marcovaldo attentively. ‘To tell you the truth, I work for Cognac Tomawak, not for Spaak. I’ve come to look at the possibility of an illuminated advertisement on that roof. But tell me, tell me all the same; I’m interested.’

So it was that half an hour later Marcovaldo concluded a contract with Cognac Tomawak, Spaak’s principal competitor. The children were to fire their catapult at GNAC every time the sign was reactivated.

‘That should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,’ said Dottor Godifredo. He wasn’t wrong. Already on the verge of bankruptcy because of the high cost of sustained advertising campaigns, Spaak saw the continual breakdowns of its finest illuminated advertisement as a bad omen. The sign which now said COGAC, now CONAC, now CONC introduced the thought of insolvency to creditors’ minds; at a certain point the advertising agency refused to make further repairs if its arrears weren’t paid; the extinguished sign increased alarm amongst the creditors. Spaak collapsed.

In Marcovaldo’s sky the round disc of the full moon showed in all its splendour.

It was in its last quarter when the electricians returned to clamber on the roof opposite. And that night, in letters of fire, letters twice as tall and thick as before, COGNAC TOMAWAK could be read, and there was no more moon nor firmament nor sky nor night, only COGNAC TOMAWAK, COGNAC TOMAWAK, COGNAC TOMAWAK lighting up and going dark every two seconds.

The person worst affected of all was Fiordaligi; the moonlike girl’s little window had disappeared behind an enormous, impenetrable W.

Autumn  15  The rain and the leaves

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  15  La pioggia e le foglie)

At work, among various other duties, it was Marcovaldo’s job every morning to water the plant in a pot in the entrance hall. It was one of those green plants that people keep in the house, with a straight slender stem from which, on one side and the other, broad shining leaves on long stalks stick out; one of those plants shaped so like a plant, with leaves shaped so like leaves, that they don’t seem real. But it was a plant nonetheless, and as such it was suffering, because plonked there, between the entry curtain and the umbrella stand, it lacked light, air and dew. Every morning Marcovaldo noticed worrying signs: the stalk of one leaf was drooping as if it could no longer bear the leaf’s weight; another leaf was close to dying, gathering spots as on the cheek of a child with measles; the tip of a third was going yellow; until — flop! — one or another ended up on the floor. Meanwhile (and this was the most heartbreaking thing), the plant’s stem lengthened, lengthened, no longer regularly leafy, but as bare as a stick, with a little fringe at the top which made it look like a palm tree.

Marcovaldo swept the fallen leaves from the floor, dusted those that were healthy, and poured the contents of a half-filled watering can onto the base of the plant (slowly, so the water didn’t spill over and dirty the tiles); the earth in the pot immediately drank up the water. And he gave care and attention to these simple actions as to no other of his jobs: almost a sympathy for the misfortunes of a family member. And he sighed, whether for the plant or for himself is uncertain; because in that spindly shrub yellowing within the company’s walls he recognised a fellow sufferer.

The plant (for that was the only name it had, as if any more precise name were of no use in an environment in which it bore the sole responsibility for representing the vegetable kingdom) had become a part of Marcovaldo’s life to such an extent as to dominate his thoughts at every hour of the day and night. The look with which he now scrutinised the gathering of clouds in the sky was no longer that of the city dweller wondering whether or not to carry an umbrella, but that of the farmer who from day to day is waiting for the end of the drought. As soon as Marcovaldo noticed, raising his head from his work, the curtain of rain which had begun to fall heavily and silently, silhouetted through the warehouse window, he dropped everything, ran to the plant, took the pot in his arms and put it outside in the courtyard.

The plant, feeling the water running over its leaves, seemed to expand so as to offer to the drops the maximum surface possible, and joyfully to take on a colour of the most brilliant green; or at least that’s how it seemed to Marcovaldo, who stopped to gaze at it, quite forgetting to take shelter.

They stayed there in the courtyard, man and plant, facing each other, the man almost experiencing the sensations of a plant in the rain, the plant — unused to the open air and to natural phenomena — stunned almost as much as a man who suddenly finds himself drenched from head to foot and with his clothes soaking wet. Marcovaldo, his nose in the air, sniffed the smell of the rain, a smell reminding him of woods and meadows, so that his mind went chasing after indistinct memories. But amid these memories there appeared, more plainly and closer to hand, that of the rheumatic pains that afflicted him every year; and so he hurriedly went back under cover.

The working day was over; it was time to shut up shop. Marcovaldo asked the warehouse foreman, ‘Can I leave the plant outside, in the courtyard there?’

The foreman, Signor Viligelmo, was a character who shrank from any unduly heavy responsibilities. ‘Are you crazy? Suppose someone steals it? Who’ll carry the can for that?’

But Marcovaldo, seeing the benefit that the plant was drawing from the rain, didn’t feel like putting it back inside; that would have been to squander this gift from the heavens. ‘I could keep it with me until tomorrow morning…’ he suggested. ‘I’ll put in on my luggage rack and take it home… That way I’ll get it to take on as much rain as it can…’

Signor Viligelmo thought for a bit, then made up his mind. ‘As long as you’re responsible for it.’ And he consented.

Marcovaldo crossed the city in the pouring rain, bent over the handlebars of his moped, cowled in a waterproof windcheater. He had tied the pot behind him on the luggage rack, and moped, man and plant seemed a single thing; indeed the hunched, enwrapped man disappeared, and a plant on a moped was the only thing visible. Every so often, from under his hood, Marcovaldo looked round to see a dripping leaf waving behind his back; and each time it seemed to him that the plant was growing taller and leafier.

Marcovaldo had no sooner arrived home — an attic apartment with a window ledge over the roofs — with the pot in his arms, than the children began to dance around it.

‘The Christmas tree! The Christmas tree!’

‘Of course it isn’t; what are you thinking of? It’s a long time till Christmas,’ Marcovaldo protested. ‘Be careful of the leaves; they’re delicate!’

‘We’re already packed in this place like sardines in a tin,’ grumbled Domitilla. ‘If you bring a tree in here, we’ll have to move out…’

‘But it’s only a little plant! I’m going to put it on the window ledge…’

The shadowy outline of the plant on the window ledge was visible from the room. At supper, Marcovaldo didn’t look at his plate, but through the window panes.

Since they had left their basement flat for the attic, Marcovaldo’s and his family’s lives had greatly improved. But living under the roofs still had its disadvantages: for example, a few drops of rain leaked through the ceiling. The drops fell in four or five exact places, at regular intervals, and Marcovaldo put down basins or saucepans there. On rainy nights when everyone was in bed, the tic-toc-tuc of the many little drops could be heard, which made Marcovaldo shudder as if with a presentiment of rheumatism. That night, however, each time he woke from his restless sleep and lent an ear, the tic-toc-tuc seemed a cheerful little melody to him; it told him that the rain was still falling, gently and uninterruptedly, and was nourishing the plant, pushing the sap up through its slender stalks, extending the leaves like sails. ‘Tomorrow, when I look out, I’ll find it’s grown bigger!’ he thought.

But for all that he had thought about it, he couldn't believe his eyes when he opened the window in the morning; the plant now obstructed half the window, the leaves had at least doubled in number, and were no longer drooping under their own weight but outstretched and pointed like swords. He descended the stairs with the pot pressed to his chest, tied it onto the luggage rack and raced to work.

It had stopped raining, but the day was still uncertain. Marcovaldo hadn’t got down from the saddle when a few more drops began to fall. ‘Since the rain’s doing it so much good, I’ll leave it in the courtyard again,’ he thought.

In the warehouse, he went every so often to put his nose out of the window which gave onto the courtyard. This distraction from his work wasn’t to the foreman’s liking. ‘Hey, what’s the matter with you today, looking out the window?’

‘It’s growing! Come and see for yourself, Signor Viligelmo!’ And Marcovaldo beckoned with his hand, and spoke almost sotto voce, as if the plant mustn’t overhear. ‘Look how it’s growing! Can’t you see how it’s grown?’

‘Yes, it’s grown a good bit,’ admitted the foreman, and for Marcovaldo this was one of those satisfactions which life in a factory hardly ever grants its workers.

It was Saturday. Work stopped at one o’clock and no one went back until Monday. Marcovaldo would have wished to take the plant home with him again, but now that it was no longer raining he couldn’t find a reason for doing so. But the sky wasn’t clear; there were black cumulus clouds scattered here and there. He went to see the foreman who, as an enthusiastic meteorologist, had a barometer hanging over his desk. ‘What’s the forecast, Signor Viligelmo?’

‘Bad, still bad,’ the foreman said. ‘At any rate, it’s not raining here, but in the district where I live it is. I’ve just telephoned my wife.’

‘In that case,’ Marcovaldo immediately suggested, ‘I’ll take the plant on a trip to where it’s raining,’ and — no sooner said than done — he went out to secure the pot on the luggage rack of his moped.

This is how Marcovaldo spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday: bouncing on the saddle of his moped with the plant behind, peering at the sky, looking for a cloud which seemed to him well-intentioned, and then racing along the streets until he met rain. From time to time, turning round, he saw that the plant was a little taller: as tall as the taxis, as tall as the delivery vans, as tall as the trams! And with ever broader leaves, from which the rain splashed onto his waterproof hood as if from a shower head.

By now it was a tree on two wheels, charging through the city to the puzzlement of traffic wardens, drivers and pedestrians. And at the same time the clouds raced along the ways of the wind, sprinkling one district with rain and then leaving it; and the passers-by one by one held out their hands and closed their umbrellas; and along streets and avenues and across squares Marcovaldo chased after his cloud, hunched over the handlebars, wrapped in his hood from which only his nose poked out, with the moped sputtering at full speed, keeping the plant in the trajectory of the raindrops, as if the trail of rain which the cloud hauled behind it had become tangled in the leaves, so that everything advanced together, dragged by the same force: wind, cloud, rain, plant, wheels.

On Monday Marcovaldo went to see Signor Viligelmo empty-handed.

‘And the plant?’ asked the foreman straight away.

‘It’s outside. Come.’

‘Where?’ said Viligelmo. ‘I don’t see it.’

‘It’s that one there. It’s grown a bit…’ and he pointed to a tree which reached up to the second storey of the building. It was no longer planted in the old pot but in a sort of barrel, and instead of his moped Marcovaldo had had to get hold of a moped-cum-delivery truck.

‘Now what?’ said the foreman, enraged. ‘How can we get it into the entrance hall? It won’t go through the doors any more!’

Marcovaldo shrugged his shoulders.

‘The only thing,’ said Viligelmo, ‘is it to take it back to the nursery and exchange it for another one of the right size!’

Marcovaldo climbed back into the saddle. ‘I’ll go.’

He resumed his race around the city. The tree filled the middle of the streets with green. Worried traffic wardens stopped him at every junction; then, when Marcovaldo explained that he was taking the plant to the nursery to get rid of it, they let him continue. But, driving round and round, Marcovaldo could not decide to go down the street where the nursery was. He didn’t have the heart to be separated from his own creation, now that he had revived it so successfully; it seemed to him that never in his whole life had he taken so much satisfaction as from this plant.

And so he continued to shuttle back and forth along streets, across squares, along embankments and over bridges. And verdure as from a tropical forest spread over him until it covered his head, his back and his arms, until he disappeared into the green. And all those leaves and leaf stalks and the stem too (which had remained very slender) wobbled and wobbled as if from a continuous earth tremor, whether bursts of rain were still falling and hitting them, or the raindrops were becoming scarcer, or they had stopped completely.

The rain ceased. It was getting towards dusk. At the ends of the streets, in the space between the houses, stood the blurred light of a rainbow. The plant, after that fierce growth spurt which had extended it while the rain had lasted, was practically exhausted. Marcovaldo, continuing his aimless dash, didn't notice that behind him the leaves, one by one, were turning from deep green to yellow — golden yellow.

For a while now, a procession of motor scooters and cars and bicycles and children had started following the tree travelling around the city, without Marcovaldo realising it, and were shouting, ‘The baobab! The baobab!’ and with loud ‘Ooohs’ of admiration were observing the yellowing of the leaves. When a leaf broke off and flew away, many hands were raised to grab it in its flight.

The wind began to blow; in the gusts the golden leaves were whisked spinning into mid-air. Marcovaldo still thought he had at his back the dense green tree, when suddenly — perhaps feeling no longer sheltered from the wind — he turned round. The tree was no more; there was only a skinny stick from which bare stalks radiated, with one last yellow leaf still there at the top. By the light of the rainbow everything else seemed black: the people on the pavements, the house frontages on either side; and against that black, in mid-air, the shining golden leaves were spinning, spinning by the hundred; and hundreds of red and pink hands rose from the shadows to grab them; and the wind lifted the golden leaves towards the rainbow at the ends of the streets, towards the hands and the shouts; and it broke off even the last leaf, which turned from yellow to orange, then to red, violet, blue, green, then yellow again, and then disappeared.

Winter  16  Marcovaldo at the supermarket

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  16  Marcovaldo al supermarket)

At six in the evening the city fell into the hands of consumers. All day the great business of the productive population was production; they produced consumer goods. At a particular hour, as if by the flicking of a switch, they stopped production and, ready steady go!, they all threw themselves into consumption. Every day an impetuous blossom scarcely had time to open behind the lighted shop windows, the red salami to dangle, the towers of porcelain plates to rise to the ceiling, the rolls of fabric to unfurl their drapes like peacocks’ tails, when, lo and behold, all at once the crowd of consumers broke in, to dismantle, to gnaw, to fondle, to pillage. An uninterrupted line snaked along every pavement and under every arcade, extended through the glass doors into the shops around all the counters, nudged ahead by each person’s elbows in each person’s ribs, like the regular throbbing of pistons. Consume!, and they handled the goods and put them back again and picked them up again and tore them from each other’s hands. Consume!, and they instructed the pasty-faced salesladies to display linen and yet more linen on the counter tops. Consume!, and the spools of coloured string spun like tops, the sheets of flowery paper flapped their wings with a squawk, folding the purchases into little packages and the little packages into bigger packages and the bigger packages into parcels, each tied up with its own bow. And away went the parcels, the bigger packages, the little packages, the shopping bags, the handbags, whirling around the cash desk in a traffic jam, hands searching in handbags looking for purses and fingers searching in purses looking for change, while down below, amid a forest of unknown legs and overcoat hems, children no longer held by the hand got lost and began to cry.

On one of these evenings Marcovaldo was taking the family for a walk. Being penniless, their enjoyment was to watch other people shopping; in the matter of money, the more goes round, the more those who have none hope, ‘Sooner or later a little bit of it will end up in my pockets.’ Instead, in Marcovaldo’s case, with his small wage and his numerous family, and with bills and debts to pay, the money drained away as soon as he got it. Notwithstanding, it was always a fine thing to look, particularly when taking a tour of the supermarket.

The supermarket was self-service. It had those trolleys, like iron baskets on wheels, and each customer pushed his trolley and filled it with every item of God’s plenty. Marcovaldo took a trolley at the entrance too, as did his wife and each of the four children with him. And so they made their way in procession with their trolleys before them, between banks of shelves crammed with mountains of things to eat, pointing out the salami and the cheeses and naming them, as if they recognised in the crowd the faces of friends, or at least of acquaintances.

‘Daddy, can we take this one?’ the children asked at every moment.

‘No, don’t touch, it’s forbidden,’ said Marcovaldo, remembering that at the end of this tour the checkout lady was waiting for them, to do the sums.

‘So why has that lady taken them over there?’ they insisted, seeing all those fine ladies who, having come in only to buy two carrots and a bunch of celery, hadn’t been able to resist when faced with a pyramid of cans, and bong! bong! bong!, with a gesture between distraction and resignation, dropped clanging into their trolley tins of peeled tomatoes, peaches in syrup, anchovies in oil.

Well, if your trolley is empty and the others are full, you can control yourself up to a certain point; then a kind of envy takes hold of you, a broken-heartedness, and you can’t resist any longer. So Marcovaldo, having advised his wife and children not to touch anything, performed a swift turn at a crossroads between the banks of shelves, disappeared from his family’s view, and, taking from a shelf a box of dates, put it in his trolley. He only wanted to experience the pleasure of carrying it around for ten minutes, to show off his acquisitions just like the others, and then to return it to the place from which he had taken it. Just this box, and also a red bottle of pepper sauce, and a little packet of coffee, and a blue pack of spaghetti. Marcovaldo was sure that, as long as he did it discreetly, he could at least for a quarter of an hour taste the joy of one who knows how to select an item, without even having to pay a penny for it. But what a disaster should the children see him! They’d begin to copy him straight away, and who knows what confusion would result!

Marcovaldo tried to cover his tracks, pursuing a zig-zag route between the departments, now following busy maidservants, now ladies dressed in furs. And as one or the other raised a hand to take a sweet-smelling yellow pumpkin or a box of triangular cheese portions, he did the same. The loudspeakers broadcast cheerful background tunes; the customers moved or halted, following the music’s rhythm, and at the appropriate moment extended an arm, took an item and put it in their chariot, all to the sound of the music.

Marcovaldo’s trolley was now crammed with merchandise; following his footsteps, he penetrated the less frequented aisles, where products with ever less decipherable names were enclosed in boxes with illustrations which didn’t make clear whether he was dealing with fertiliser for lettuce or lettuce seed or lettuce good and proper or poison for lettuce caterpillars or birdseed to attract the birds that eat the caterpillars or condiment for salad or for a dish of roast birds. Still, Marcovaldo helped himself to two or three boxes.

On he went between two high hedges of shelves. Suddenly the aisle ended and he was in a long, empty, deserted space with neon lights that made the tiles glisten. Marcovaldo stood there, alone with his cargo of stuff. At the end of that empty space there was the exit with the checkout.

His first instinct was to hurl himself forward, head down, pushing the trolley before him like an armoured car, and escape from the supermarket with his booty before the checkout lady could give the alarm. But at that moment there appeared from another aisle next to him a trolley even more heavily laden than his own, and the person pushing it was his wife Domitilla. And from another aisle another trolley appeared, and Filippetto was pushing it with all his might. This was a place where the aisles of many departments converged, and from each outlet there emerged one of Marcovaldo’s children, all pushing their trolleys freighted like commercial shipping. Everyone had had the same idea, and now meeting again they realised that they had assembled a collection of samples of everything the supermarket had to offer.

‘So are we rich, Daddy?’ asked Michelino. ‘Will we have enough to eat for a year?’

‘Back! Quick! Get away from the checkout!’ Marcovaldo cried, executing an about-turn and hiding with his rations behind the shelves; and he fled, bent double as if under enemy fire, retreating in order to lose himself in the supermarket’s departments. A rumble resounded at his shoulders; he turned and saw his whole family who, pushing their wagons like a train, were galloping at his heels.

‘The bill for this lot will come to a million!’

The supermarket was as large and intricate as a labyrinth; one could wander here for hours and hours. With so many provisions at their disposal, Marcovaldo and his family could have spent the entire winter there without leaving. But the loudspeakers had just interrupted the piped music, and they announced, ‘Your attention, please! The supermarket will close in fifteen minutes! You are requested to make your way speedily to the checkout!’

It was time to abandon the load: now or never. As the loudspeaker repeated itself, the crowd of customers was gripped by a furious rage, as if it were a question of the final minutes in the last supermarket in the whole world, a rage in which one couldn’t decide whether to take everything there or to leave it behind; in short, there was a headlong rush around the banks of shelves, and Marcovaldo, Domitilla and the children took advantage of it to return goods to the shelves or to slip them into other people’s trolleys. The restitution was done a little at random: the flypaper on the shelf with the ham, a spring cabbage amongst the cakes. They didn’t realise that one lady, instead of a trolley, was pushing a pram with a new-born baby on board; they tucked a fiasco of Barbera in there.

Having to deprive themselves of things without even having tasted them was suffering which brought tears to the eyes. And so, at the same moment that they let go of a tube of mayonnaise, a bunch of bananas presented itself to them, and they took it; or a roast chicken instead of a nylon scrubbing brush; under this system, the more their trolleys emptied, the more they refilled.

The family with their provisions ascended and descended the escalators, and everywhere, on every floor, they found themselves at compulsory exit ways where a checkout lady on sentry duty was aiming an adding-up machine which rattled like a machine gun at everyone making as if to leave. Marcovaldo and his family’s perambulations increasingly resembled those of caged animals, or of inmates in a brightly lit prison with coloured panels on the walls.

In one place, the panels of a wall had been taken down. A ladder had been left there, with hammers and carpenters’ and builders’ equipment. A firm was building an extension to the supermarket. Their day’s work done, the workers had gone, leaving everything just as it was. Marcovaldo, provisions to the fore, went through the hole in the wall. It was dark there; on he went. And the family, with their trolleys, came behind.

The rubber wheels of the trolleys bumped on uneven ground, as if the cobbles had been taken up, with sandy stretches, then onto a walkway of loose planks. Marcovaldo proceeded, balancing on one of the planks; the others followed him. Suddenly they saw, before, behind, above, below, a multitude of distant lights, and all around, a void.

They were on an edifice of scaffolding planks, at the height of seven-storey houses. The city opened before them in a luminous dazzle of windows and signs and electric sparks from tram antennae; higher up was the sky, studded with stars and red lights on the masts of radio stations. The scaffolding shook under the weight of all the merchandise suspended there. Michelino said, ‘I’m scared.’

From the darkness a shadow advanced. It was an enormous mouth, without teeth, which opened and extended on a long metal neck: a crane. It descended towards them, stopped at their height, its lower jaw resting on the edge of the scaffolding. Marcovaldo tipped up his trolley, spilled the goods into the iron jaws, and walked on. Domitilla did the same. The children copied the parents. The crane closed its jaws with all the supermarket’s booty inside, and with a creaking of its pulley withdrew its neck and moved away. Below, the rotating luminous multi-coloured written messages flamed into life, with their invitations to purchase the products for sale in the great supermarket.

Spring  17  Smoke, wind and soap bubbles

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  17  Fumo, vento e bolle di sapone)

Every day, the postman deposited a few envelopes in tenants’ letterboxes; only in Marcovaldo’s was there never anything, because no one ever wrote to him, and were it not for a final demand for payment of electricity or gas bills from time to time, his letterbox would have had no use at all.

‘Daddy, there’s post!’ shouted Michelino.

‘No chance!’ Marcovaldo answered. ‘It’s just adverts as usual!’

A folded blue and yellow flyer was sticking out of all the letterboxes. It said that to get up a good soap lather, Blancasol was the finest product available; anyone who took the blue and yellow flyer to a shop would receive a sample free of charge.

Since these flyers were narrow and long, some of them were protruding from the mouths of the letterboxes; others had been screwed up and thrown on the ground or were only a little bit crumpled there, because many of the tenants, when opening the letterboxes, used immediately to throw away all the publicity literature cluttering them up. Filippetto, Pietruccio and Michelino, by a mixture of picking them up from the ground, removing them from letterbox mouths, and even fishing them out with wire, began to make a collection of Blancasol vouchers.

‘I’ve got the most!’

‘No, count them! I bet you I’ve got the most!’

Blancasol’s publicity campaign had covered the whole district, door to door. And door to door the brothers busied themselves in covering the district, accumulating the vouchers. From some doorways people chased them away, shouting, ‘Rascals! What have you come to steal? I’m phoning the police!’ Other people were glad that the boys were helping to clear all the paperwork dumped there every day.

In the evening, Marcovaldo’s two modest rooms were full of blue and yellow Blancasol leaflets; the children counted and recounted them and stacked them in bundles, like bank tellers with banknotes.

‘Daddy, since we’ve got so many, could we open a laundry?’ asked Filippetto.

At that time, the world of detergent production was in a state of great agitation. Blancasol’s publicity campaign had spread alarm amongst rival firms. For the launch of their products, these firms were posting in all the city’s letterboxes coupons offering ever larger free samples.

In the following days Marcovaldo’s children were worked off their feet. Every morning, the letterboxes were blossoming like peach trees in spring: leaflets with green, pink, sky-blue or orange designs promised shining white washing to whoever used Spumador or Lavolux or Saponalba or Limpialin. For the children, the collection of coupons broadened with ever new categories. At the same time, the collection area broadened too, extending to the doorways of other streets.

Naturally, such manoeuvres could not pass unnoticed. The boys in the neighbourhood were not slow to work out what Michelino and his brothers were hunting for all day, and those leaflets, to which up until then none of them had paid any attention, became coveted booty. There was a period of rivalry between the various groups of urchins, in which collection in one area rather than another was the cause of disputes and skirmishes. Then, after a series of swaps and negotiations, an agreement was arrived at: an organised system of collection was more profitable than chaotic plunder. And the gathering of leaflets became so methodical that as soon as the little chap from Candofior or Risciaquick did the rounds of the doorways, his route was spied on and stalked, step by step, and the material just distributed was immediately requisitioned by the kids.

Of course, Filippetto, Pietruccio and Michelino were still in charge of the operation, because it had been their idea in the first place. They even managed to convince the other lads that the coupons were common property, and had to be kept all together. ‘Like in a bank!’ explained Pietruccio.

‘Are we the bosses of a laundry or a bank?’ asked Michelino.

‘Whichever, we’re millionaires!’

The boys could no longer sleep for excitement, and they made plans for the future.

‘Once we’ve claimed all these samples we’ll make a huge pile of detergent.’

‘Where will we put it?’

‘We’ll have to rent a warehouse!’

‘Why not a ship?’

Advertising, like flowers and fruit, is seasonal. After a few weeks, the detergent season stopped; the only things in letterboxes were notices about corn removers.

‘Shall we start collecting these too?’ someone suggested. But the idea of concentrating on redeeming the riches accumulated in detergents prevailed. They had to go to particular shops to be given one sample for each coupon; but this new stage of their plan, apparently so very straightforward, turned out to be much longer and more complicated than the first.

Operations were to be conducted in open order: one boy at a time in one shop at a time. They could present as many as three or four coupons together, as long as they were of different brands, and if the shop assistants wanted to give a sample of one brand only and not of another, the boy had to say, ‘My mum wants to try them all to see which is the best.’

Things became complicated when, as happened in many shops, the free sample was only provided to those making purchases; mothers had never seen their children so keen to run errands to the grocer.

In brief, the transformation of vouchers into stock became a lengthy process and involved additional costs, because purchases made with coins from mothers’ purses were small, and there were many grocers’ shops to be reconnoitred. To get hold of funds, there was nothing for it but to embark immediately on the third stage of the plan, which was the sale of the detergent already collected.

They decided to go selling it from house to house, ringing the doorbells. ‘Signora! May I interest you in this? Perfect washing powder!’ And they proffered the box of Risciaquick or the sachet of Blancasol.

‘Yes, yes, I’ll take it, thank you,’ a person said, and as soon as she had taken the sample she closed the door in the boys’ faces.

‘What? What about paying?’ And they hammered on the door with their fists.

‘Paying? Isn’t it free? Be off, you rascals!’

As a matter of fact, representatives of the various brands were going from house to house just at this time, giving away samples free; this was a new publicity drive undertaken by the whole detergent industry, since the gift-voucher campaign had had such scant success.

Marcovaldo’s home seemed like a grocer’s warehouse, filled as it was with products from Candofior, Lampialin and Lavolux; but from all that quantity of goods there wasn’t the means to earn even a penny; it was stuff to be given away, like water from drinking fountains.

Naturally, before long word began to spread amongst the firms’ representatives that certain boys were making their own identical tour from door to door, selling the same products that the reps were offering gratis. Waves of pessimism are frequent in the world of commerce; it began to be said that while people responded to their gifts by saying that they didn’t know what to do with all these detergents, they did on the other hand buy from the people selling them. The research departments of the various firms got together, and specialists in ‘market research’ were consulted; the conclusion arrived at was that such unfair competition could only be maintained by receivers of stolen goods. The police, after regular denunciations against unknown persons, began to comb the district in search of the thieves and the stolen goods’ hiding place.

From one moment to another, detergent became as dangerous as dynamite. Marcovaldo was scared: ‘I don't want even a gram of that powder in my house!’ But no one knew where to put it; they just didn’t want it in the house. It was decided that the children would throw the whole lot into the river.

It was first light; a cart arrived on the bridge, pulled by Pietruccio and pushed by his two brothers, loaded with boxes of Saponalba and Lavolux, followed by another little cart pulled by Uguccione, the concierge’s son, followed by several others too. Halfway across the bridge they stopped, let a cyclist pass who turned round out of curiosity, then, ‘Let’s go!’ Michelino began throwing the boxes into the river.

‘Idiot! Can’t you see they’re floating?’ shouted Filippetto. ‘We’ve got to dump the powder in the river, not the boxes!’

And from the boxes opened one by one, there softly fell a white cloud, settling on the current which seemed to absorb it, to reappear in a swarm of tiny little bubbles, and then seemed to sink to the bottom. ‘This is how to do it!’ And the boys continued to unload tons and tons.

‘Look, down there!’ shouted Michelino, and pointed downstream.

Below the bridge there were rapids. Where the current opened onto the drop, the little bubbles were no longer to be seen; they popped up again further down, but now they had become big swelling bubbles, one pushing the other up from below, a wave of soap suds rising, growing to enormous size, already as high as the rapids, a whitish froth like the contents of a barber’s bowl stirred with a shaving brush. It seemed that all those competitive brands’ powders were pointedly giving proof of their effervescence; the river was overflowing its banks with lather, and the fishermen, who at first light were already there in their waders, pulled in their lines and fled.

A breath of wind blew through the morning air. A cluster of bubbles broke off from the surface of the water and flew away, ever so gently. It was dawn, and the bubbles were coloured pink. The boys saw them passing high above their heads and cried, ‘Oooh…’

The bubbles flew, following the invisible tracks of currents of air over the city, turning down streets at the height of the roofs, always avoiding ledges and gutters. By now the compactness of the cluster had dissipated; one after another, the bubbles had flown away separately, each one holding a different course as regards height, speed and direction, and drifting in mid-air. It was as if they were multiplying; indeed, they really were, because the river continued to overflow with froth like a pan of milk on the fire. And the wind… The wind lifted high the slobber and ruffles and heaps which lengthened into iridescent garlands (the rays of the low sun, slanted across the roofs, had now taken possession of the city and the river) and invaded the sky above the wires and the aerials.

Dark shadows of workers were rushing to factories on sputtering mopeds, and the greeny-blue swarm hovering above them followed them as if each were dragging behind him a cluster of balloons tied to the handlebars with a long string.

It was from a tram that people noticed it. ‘Quick, take a look! Do take a look! What is that up there?’ The tram driver stopped and got out; all the passengers got out and looked up at the sky; bicycles and mopeds and cars and news vendors and bakers and all the morning passers-by stopped, amongst them Marcovaldo who was on his way to work, and everyone put their noses in the air, following the flight of the soap bubbles.

‘It’s not some atomic thing, is it?’ asked an old lady, and fear spread amongst the people, and anyone who saw a bubble descending on top of them ran away shouting, ‘It’s radioactive!’

But the bubbles continued their fluttering progress, iridescent and fragile and light, so that a breath was all that was needed, and — puff! — they were no more; and soon the people’s alarm subsided as quickly as it had arisen. ‘Ridiculous, radioactive! It’s soap. Soap bubbles, like children have.’ And a frenzied merriment took hold of them. ‘Look at that one! And that one! And that one!’ — because they saw some enormous ones flying, of unbelievable dimensions, and when the bubbles touched each other they popped, they doubled and tripled, and through these transparent domes the sky, the roofs, the skyscrapers took on shapes and colours that had never before been seen.

The factories began to belch black smoke from their chimneys, as on every morning. And the swarms of bubbles met the plumes of smoke, and the sky was divided between currents of black smoke and currents of iridescent froth, and they seemed to be struggling against each other in eddies of wind, and for a moment, just a moment, it seemed that the tops of the smokestacks might be surmounted by the bubbles, but soon there was such an intermingling — of smoke capturing the rainbow of froth and orbs of soap suds capturing a veil of specks of soot — that nothing was clear any more. Until at a certain point Marcovaldo looked and looked at the sky and couldn’t see bubbles any more, but only smoke, smoke, smoke.

Summer  18  The whole city to himself

(Italo Calvino — Estate  18  La città tutta per lui)

For eleven months of the year, the population loved their city, and critics impugned it at their peril; the skyscrapers, the cigarette machines, the wide-screen cinemas were all indisputable contributors to the city’s unfailing charm. The only inhabitant to whom this feeling could not be attributed with certainty was Marcovaldo; but what he thought was, in the first place, difficult to know, given his limited powers of communication, and, in the second place, it mattered so little that it came to the same thing.

At a certain point in the year, the month of August began. And a change of general sentiment was immediately in evidence. No one had a good word for the city any more; the same skyscrapers and pedestrian underpasses and car parks, which had been so beloved the day before, had become antipathetic and irritating. The population wished only to get away as soon as possible; and they were in such a mad rush to cram trains and clog motorways that by the 15th of the month they had indeed all departed. Except for one. Marcovaldo was the only inhabitant not to leave the city.

In the mornings he went out to walk around the centre. The streets stretched ahead, broad and endless, empty of traffic, deserted; the facades of the buildings, from the grey wall of lowered shop shutters to the countless slats of Venetian blinds, had been sealed off like defensive bastions. All year Marcovaldo had dreamed of being able to use the roads as roads: that is, by walking in the middle. Now he could do it, and he could pass traffic lights at red, cross the road slantwise, and stop in the middle of the squares. But he understood that the pleasure wasn’t so much in doing these unaccustomed things as in seeing everything through a different lens: the streets as valley bottoms or dry river beds, the buildings as ranges of precipitous mountains or sheer cliff faces.

Agreed, it was the lack of something that caught the eye; but not the absence of the line of parked cars, or of the traffic jam at the crossroads, or of the flow of the crowd through the doors of the department store, or of the little island of people standing waiting for the tram; what was lacking to fill the empty spaces and to bend the rectangular surfaces was, perhaps, a flood caused by a burst water main, or an invasion of tree roots along the avenues breaking through the tarmac. Marcovaldo looked around, searching for the flowering of a different city, a city of tree bark and fish scales and blood clots and nervous systems under the city of paint and tar and glass and plasterwork. And here was the apartment block in front of which he passed every day, revealed to him in reality as a quarry of grey porous sandstone; the wooden fence around a building site was made of pine planks, still green, with knots which looked like buds; on the sign for a big fabric store there rested a swarm of little clothes moths, asleep.

You could say that as soon as the city had been deserted by humans it had been leased to inhabitants hidden until the day before, who now had the upper hand; Marcovaldo’s stroll followed for a short time the route of a line of ants, then let itself be diverted by the flight of a stray beetle, then lingered to accompany the sinuous progress of an earthworm. It wasn’t only animals invading the scene; Marcovaldo noticed that on the newsstands, on the northerly side, a thin film of mould was forming, and that the dwarf trees in pots in front of the restaurants were straining to push their leaves beyond the shadowy limit of the pavement. But did the city still exist? That agglomeration of synthetic materials which constrained Marcovaldo’s days now revealed itself as a mosaic of separated stones, each clearly distinguished from the others to the eye and to the touch through their hardness and warmth and consistency.

And so, forgetting the function of pavements and zebra crossings, Marcovaldo was wandering up and down the streets with the zig-zag motion of a butterfly, when suddenly the radiator of a convertible driven at a hundred kilometres an hour stopped a millimetre from his hip. Half out of fear, half from the blast of air, Marcovaldo leapt upwards and fell back senseless.

With a great screech the car braked, almost turning round on itself. A group of young men in shirtsleeves jumped out. ‘They’re going to beat me up,’ thought Marcovaldo, ‘because I was walking in the middle of the road!’

The young men were armed with strange items of equipment. ‘At last we’ve found him! At last!’ they said, surrounding Marcovaldo. ‘So here,’ said one of them, holding a silver stick close to his mouth, ‘here is the only inhabitant remaining in the city on the Feast of the Assumption. Excuse me, sir, would you give your impressions to our viewers?’ And he thrust the little silver stick under Marcovaldo’s nose.

A beam of dazzling light shot out, it was as hot as an oven, and Marcovaldo was about to faint. They had pointed spotlights at him, TV cameras, microphones. He babbled something; at every three syllables he uttered, the young man interrupted him, turning the microphone towards himself. ‘Ah, so, you mean…’ and went on to speak for ten minutes.

In short, they interviewed him.

‘And can I go now?’

‘But of course. We thank you most warmly. On the other hand, if you have nothing else to do, and you’d like to earn a few thousand lire… would you mind staying here to give us a hand?’

The whole square was turned upside down: lorries, towing trucks, cameras on dollies, batteries, lighting systems, teams of men in overalls lounging around from one side to the other, sweating profusely.

‘There she is, she’s arrived! She’s arrived!’ And from an open-top custom-built limousine a film star emerged.

‘OK, lads, we can start the fountain shoot!’

The director of the TV programme Follie di Ferragosto began issuing instructions for filming the famous diva plunging into the principal fountain of the city.

They had given Marcovaldo, the odd-job man, the task of shifting a bank of spotlights on a heavy pedestal around the square. The vast space now buzzed with machinery and the hissing of lamps, it echoed with hammer blows on the improvised metal scaffolding and with shouted orders… Marcovaldo was dazzled and dazed. To his eyes, the everyday city had usurped the place of that other city, glimpsed for a mere moment, or perhaps only dreamed.

Autumn  19  The obstinate cats’ garden

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  19  Il giardino dei gatti ostinati)

The city of cats and the city of humans live one inside the other, but they are not the same city. Few cats remember the time when there was no difference; streets and squares for humans were also streets and squares for cats, and so were lawns, courtyards, balconies and fountains. People and creatures lived in a broad, diverse space. But for several generations now, domestic felines have been prisoners of an uninhabitable city; the streets stream continuously with the deadly traffic of vehicles built to squash cats; in every square metre of ground where a garden or an area of open ground or the remnants of a former demolition used to feature, condominiums or apartment blocks of social housing or new flamboyant skyscrapers now tower. Every entranceway is crammed with parked cars; one by one, the courtyards have been roofed over with concrete slabs and transformed into garages or cinemas or warehouses or workshops. And where a wavy plateau of low roofs, finials, terraces, water tanks, balconies, skylights and corrugated-iron sheds used to extend, now there is a general elevation of every empty space capable of being elevated; the uneven intermediate spaces between the lower ground of the street and the upper sky of the lofts have disappeared; a cat from a recent litter seeks in vain the itinerary of its ancestors, the foothold for the supple leap from balustrade to ledge to gutter, or the agile scramble on the tiles.

But in this vertical city, this squashed city where all the empty spaces tend to be filled up, and every concrete block to be interconnected with other concrete blocks, a kind of anti-city, a negative city, appears, consisting of vacant slivers between wall and wall, of minimum distances prescribed by building regulations between two constructions, between the backs of two constructions; it’s a city of cavities, light shafts, air vents, driveways, internal lobbies, basement access ways, a sort of network of dry canals on a plain of plasterwork and tarmac; and across this network, grazing the walls, the former population of cats still runs.

Sometimes, to pass the time, Marcovaldo would follow a cat. It was the lunch break between noon and three, when everyone except Marcovaldo went home to eat, and he — who brought his lunch in a bag — set his table between the boxes in the warehouse, chewed his mouthful, smoked half a cigar and went for a wander around, alone and idle, waiting for the restart. During this time, a cat which poked its head out of a window was always a welcome companion, and a guide in new explorations. Marcovaldo had made friends with a tabby, well fed, with a sky-blue ribbon round its neck, obviously accommodated near some well-to-do family. This tabby had, in common with Marcovaldo, the habit of taking a stroll straight after lunch; their friendship grew naturally from that.

Following his tabby friend, Marcovaldo had taken to looking at places through the round eyes of a cat, and even if these were the familiar surroundings of his firm, he saw them in a different light, as settings for feline adventures, access to which was practicable only to light padded paws. Although from the outside the district seemed to host few cats, on every day of his wanderings Marcovaldo made the acquaintance of some new muzzle, and a miaow, a snarl, a stretching of the fur on an arched spine were enough for him to intuit the ties, intrigues and rivalries between them. In those moments he believed that now he’d entered into the secret of feline society; and here he felt himself scrutinised by pupils which became slits, surveyed by antennae of taut whiskers, and all the cats around him sat there as inscrutable as sphinxes, the pink triangle of their noses converging on the black triangle of their lips; the only things that moved were the tips of their ears, with a quivering flick like radar. He reached the end of a narrow air space, between filthy blind walls; and, looking around, Marcovaldo saw that all the cats which had guided him there had disappeared, all together, he didn’t know where, even his tabby friend, leaving him alone. Their realm had territories, ceremonies and customs which he was not permitted to discover.

On the other hand, from the city of cats there opened unsuspected glimpses into the city of humans; and one day the very same tabby led him to the discovery of the grand Ristorante Biarritz.

Anyone who wished to see the Ristorante Biarritz had only to assume the posture of a cat: that is, to stretch out on all fours. Cat and man proceeded in this way around a kind of cupola, at the base of which were several little low rectangular windows. Following the tabby’s example, Marcovaldo looked down. There were skylights whose panes were opened a crack to let air and light into the sumptuous room. To the sound of gypsy violins, partridges and quails were circling on silver salvers balanced on the fingers of white-gloved waiters in tailcoats. Or, to be more precise, above the partridges and pheasants the salvers were circling, as were the white gloves above the salvers, and suspended over the patent-leather shoes of the waiters was the gleaming parquet floor, from which hung dwarf palms in pots and table cloths and glassware and buckets like bells with a bottle of champagne for a clapper; it was all upside down because Marcovaldo, for fear of being seen, didn’t want to poke his head through the little window, and confined himself to looking at the room reflected in reverse in the slanted pane.

But more than the windows which gave onto the restaurant, it was those which gave onto the kitchens which interested the cat; looking into the restaurant one could see, distantly and as if transformed, that which in the kitchens was in evidence — in solid substance and within a paw’s range — as a plucked bird or a fresh fish. And indeed it was to the kitchens that the cat wanted to lead Marcovaldo, whether as a gesture of disinterested friendship or perhaps rather in the hope of the man’s assistance in one of its incursions. But Marcovaldo didn’t want to tear himself away from his vantage point over the room: to begin with, from fascination with the gaiety of the atmosphere, and then because something there had arrested his attention. So much so that, overcoming his fear of being seen, he poked his head further and further down.

In the middle of the restaurant, right under that window, was a little glass fish tank, a kind of aquarium, in which some big trout were swimming. A distinguished customer approached, with a bald shiny skull, dressed in black and with a black beard. An old tail-coated waiter was following him, holding a net, as if he were hunting butterflies. The gentleman in black looked at the trout with a grave, attentive air; then he raised a hand and with a slow, solemn gesture pointed at one of them. The waiter plunged the net into the tank, pursued the designated trout, caught it, and made for the kitchens, holding the net in which the fish was writhing in front of him like a lance. The gentleman in black, as grave as a magistrate who had pronounced a capital sentence, went to sit down to await the return of the trout, fried à la meunière.

‘If I can find a way of throwing a line from up here and get one of those trout to bite,’ thought Marcovaldo, ‘I couldn’t be accused of theft, but at worst of unauthorised fishing.’ And without paying attention to the miaowings calling him towards the kitchen, he went off to get his fishing gear.

No one in the crowded saloon of the Biarritz saw the fine long line, armed with hook and bait, drop down and down into the fish tank. The fish saw the bait, and threw themselves on it. In the mêlée one trout succeeded in biting the worm, and immediately it began to ascend, to ascend, leaving the water, flashing silver, flying high above the laden tables of the trolleys of antipasti, above the blue flame of the burners for crêpes Suzette, and disappeared into the window in the sky.

Marcovaldo flicked the rod with the speed and force of an experienced fisherman, so that the fish finished up behind his back. No sooner had the trout touched the floor than the cat leapt. The fish lost what little life still remained to it between the tabby’s teeth. Marcovaldo, who at that moment had let go the line so as to turn and grab the fish, saw it snatched from under his nose, hook and all. He swiftly put a foot on the rod, but the jerk had been so strong that only the rod remained with the man, while the tabby escaped with the fish, dragging behind it the fishing line. The treachery of a puss cat! It had disappeared.

But on this occasion it didn’t escape him: there was that long line following it and showing the way it had taken. Althought he’d lost sight of the cat, Marcovaldo pursued the end of the line; here it glided over a wall, scaled a balcony, snaked through a gate, was swallowed in a basement… Marcovaldo, advancing into territories ever more feline, crawling on flat roofs, clambering over parapets, managed always to keep his eye on that mobile trail — perhaps a second before it disappeared — which showed him the route taken by the thief.

Now the line wound along the pavement by a street crowded with traffic, and Marcovaldo, running behind, nearly managed to grasp it. He threw himself onto his belly on the ground; there, he had it! He succeeded in grabbing the end of the line before it sneaked through the bars of a gate.

Behind a half-rusted gate and two bits of wall held together by climbing plants was a little uncultivated garden, with a villa, apparently abandoned, at the end. A carpet of dead leaves covered the pathway, and dead leaves lay everywhere under the branches of the two plane trees, actually forming little mountains on the flowerbeds. A layer of leaves was floating on the green water of a pond. All around, huge buildings rose, skyscrapers with thousands of windows, like so many eyes focussed disapprovingly on that little quadrant with two trees, a few tiles and countless yellow leaves, surviving right in the middle of a district clogged with heavy traffic.

And in this garden, settled on the capitals of the posts and on the balustrades, stretched out on the dead leaves covering the flowerbeds, climbing up tree trunks or drainpipes, motionless on four paws and with their tails in the shape of a question mark, sitting down to wash their muzzles, were striped cats, black cats, white cats, spotted cats, tabby cats, angora, Persian, family cats, stray cats, cats fragrant and cats scabby. Marcovaldo realised that he’d finally reached the heart of the cats’ kingdom, their secret island. And, overcome by that feeling, he’d almost forgotten about his fish.

The fish had remained hanging by the line from the branch of a tree, out of range of the cats’ jumps; it must have fallen from the mouth of its pillager in some clumsy movement, perhaps to preserve it from the attacks of the others, perhaps to display it as extraordinary plunder. The line was twisted and Marcovaldo, however much he wrenched it, couldn’t free it. A mad struggle had meanwhile broken out among the cats to reach this unreachable fish, or rather to have the right to attempt to reach it. Each cat wished to prevent the others from jumping; they hurled themselves one against the other, they came to blows in mid-air, they wheeled round clinging to each other, with hisses, howls, snarls, terrible miaowings; in the end a general battle broke out in a whirlwind of crackling dry leaves.

Marcovaldo, after numerous unavailing jerks, now sensed that the line had been freed, but he was careful not to pull it; the trout would have fallen right into the midst of the mêlée of infuriated felines.

It was at that moment that a strange rain began to fall over the garden walls: fish bones, fish heads, tails, even bits of lung and guts. The cats were instantly distracted from the dangling trout, and hurled themselves onto the new booty. This was a good moment for Marcovaldo to pull the line and recover his fish. But before he’d had the presence of mind to move, two withered yellow hands emerged through one of the villa’s shutters; one hand brandished a pair of scissors, the other a frying pan. The hand with the scissors hovered above the trout; the hand with the pan was extended beneath it. The scissors cut the line, the trout fell into the pan, hands, scissors and pan withdrew, the shutter closed: all in the space of a second. Marcovaldo had no idea what was going on.

‘Are you a cat lover too?’ A voice behind him made him turn round. He was surrounded by little ladies, some of them ancient, wearing on their heads hats no longer in fashion, others younger, seemingly spinsters, and all carrying in their hands or in bags scraps of meat or fish in paper wrappers, some of them even with a saucepan of milk. ‘Will you help me throw this package over the gate to those poor beasts?’

These ladies, all cat lovers, met at about this time at the garden of dead leaves to bring food to their charges.

‘But tell me, why are these cats all here?’ inquired Marcovaldo.

‘Where else should they go? This garden is the only place left! Cats from other districts come here too, from kilometres and kilometres away…’

‘And the birds too,’ added another lady. ‘Hundreds and hundreds of them are reduced to living here in these few trees.’

‘And the frogs, they’re all in that pond, and they croak and croak at night… You can hear them even from the seventh floor of the buildings around…’

‘But whose is this villa?’ asked Marcovaldo. By now not only the little ladies but other people too were standing at the gate: the petrol-pump attendant opposite, the lads from a workshop, the postman, the fruit and veg seller, a few passers-by. And no one, women or men, needed a second invitation to reply; everyone wanted to say their piece, as always happens in a discussion involving mystery and controversy.

‘It belongs to a marchesa, she lives there, but we never see her…’

‘The construction firms have offered her millions and millions for this tiny plot of land, but she doesn’t want to sell…’

‘What do you expect her to do with all those millions, an old lady alone in the world? She prefers to hold onto her house, even if it’s falling to bits, rather than be forced to move…’

‘It’s the only land not built on in the city centre… It goes up in value every year… They’ve made her offers…’

‘Offers only? Intimidation too, threats, harassment… You know what developers are like!’

‘And she’s resisted, resisted, for years…’

‘She’s a saint… Without her, where would these poor animals have gone?’

‘Do we really suppose that stingy old woman cares anything for the animals? Have you ever seen her give them anything to eat?’

‘But what do you expect her to give the cats, if she’s got nothing for herself? She’s the last descendant of a ruined family!’

‘She hates the cats! I’ve seen her running after them and hitting them with an umbrella!’

‘Because they trample on her flowerbeds!’

‘What flowers are you talking about? This garden has always been full of weeds when I’ve seen it!’

Marcovaldo realised that there were widely differing opinions about the old marchesa; some saw her as an angelic creature, others as a miser and an egoist.

‘And it’s the same with the little birds: she never gives them a crumb of bread!’

‘She gives them hospitality; don’t you think that’s enough?’

‘Hospitality to the mosquitoes, you mean. They all come from here, from that pond. In summer the mosquitoes eat us alive, and it’s all the fault of that marchesa!’

‘And the mice? This villa is swarming with mice. They’ve got their burrows under the dead leaves, and they come out at night…’

‘So far as the mice are concerned, the cats see to that…’

‘Oh, your cats! If we had to rely on them…’

‘Why? What have you got against cats?’

Here the discussion degenerated into a general brawl.

‘The authorities should intervene; they should compulsorily purchase the villa!’ shouted one.

‘By what right?’ protested another.

‘In an up-to-date district like ours, a dump like this… It should be prohibited…’

‘But I’ve chosen my apartment precisely because it has a view over this bit of green…’

‘Some green! Think about the fine high-rise they could put here!’

Marcovaldo would also have liked to say his piece, but he couldn’t get a word in edgeways. At last, all in one breath, he exclaimed, ‘The marchesa has stolen a trout from me!’

The unexpected news provided the old lady’s enemies with new arguments, but her defenders used it as proof of the destitution into which the unfortunate gentlewoman had fallen. On either side, all were agreed that Marcovaldo should go and knock on her door to request an explanation.

It wasn’t clear whether the gate was locked or open; but it opened with a push and a mournful creak. Marcovaldo made his way through the leaves and the cats, climbed the steps to the front door, and knocked loudly.

At the window (the same from which the frying pan had appeared) the shutter was raised, and in that narrow space could be seen a round, deep-blue eye, a lock of tinted hair of an indefinable colour, and the driest of dry hands. A voice saying, ‘Who’s there? Who’s knocking?’ was accompanied by a cloud smelling of fried oil.

Signora marchesa, I’m the man with the trout,’ Marcovaldo explained. ‘I don’t mean to bother you, it was only to tell you that the trout, in case you didn’t know, that cat stole it from me, it was I who caught it, and in fact the line…’

‘The cats, always the cats!’ said the marchesa, hidden behind the blind, with a sharp and slightly nasal voice. ‘All my misfortunes stem from the cats! No one knows what I have to endure! I’m a prisoner of those vile animals day and night! And with all the filth which people throw over the walls, to insult me!’

‘But my trout…’

‘Your trout! What do you expect me to know about your trout?’ And the marchesa’s voice became almost a scream, as if she wanted to disguise the sound of oil sizzling in the pan which issued from the window along with the savour of fried fish. ‘How can I understand anything with all the stuff which rains down on my house?’

‘Yes, but did you take my trout or not?’

‘With all the damage I suffer because of the cats! Oh, I’d really like to see how you’d manage! I’m not responsible for anything! If I could only begin to tell you what I’ve lost! With the cats which have been invading my house and garden for years! My life is in thrall to these animals! Go and find their owners, to refund your losses! Losses? A life destroyed; I’m a prisoner here; I can’t move a step!’

‘But, excuse me, who is forcing you to stay?’

From the crack in the shutter, sometimes a round, deep-blue eye appeared, sometimes a mouth with two protruding teeth; for a moment the whole face was visible, and Marcovaldo had the confused impression of a cat’s muzzle.

‘It’s the cats, it’s they who are keeping me prisoner! Oh, if only I could leave! What wouldn’t I give for a little apartment all to myself, in a modern, clean block! But I can’t get out… They follow me round, they block my steps, they trip me up…’ The voice became a whisper, as if it were confiding a secret. ‘They’re afraid that the land will be sold… They won’t leave me… they don’t allow… When the developers come to offer me a contract, you should see them, the cats! They get in the way, they put out their claws, they even chased a lawyer away! Once I had the contract here, I was just about to sign it, and they pounced from the window, they knocked over the inkwell, they tore up the papers…’

Marcovaldo suddenly remembered the time, the warehouse, the foreman. He retreated on tiptoe over the dead leaves, while the voice continued to issue between the slats of the shutter, enveloped by a cloud of — so it seemed — oil from a frying pan. ‘They even scratched me… I’ve still got the marks… I’m abandoned here, at the mercy of these devils…’

Winter came. An efflorescence of white flakes adorned the branches, the capitals of the posts and the cats’ tails. In the snow the dead leaves turned to mush. Few cats were to be seen taking a turn there; the cat-loving ladies were even fewer. Packages of fish bones were only offered to a cat who presented itself at a person’s door. For a long while, no one had seen the marchesa. No smoke rose any longer from the villa’s chimney.

On one day of snowfall, many cats returned to the garden as if it were spring, and miaowed as on a moonlit night. The neighbours realised that something had happened; they went and knocked on the marchesa’s door. She didn’t answer; she was dead.

By spring, a construction company had established an impressive building site where the garden had been. The diggers were excavating to a great depth to lay the foundations, concrete was being poured into steel shuttering, an enormously high crane was handing bars to the workers building the scaffolding. But how could they get on with their work? The cats wandered all over the scaffolding planks, knocking over bricks and buckets of mortar, and scuffling in the heaps of sand. When a piece of shuttering was ready to be lifted, there was a cat perched on it, snarling fiercely. Wilier felines climbed onto the masons’ back as if to purr, and there was no way of dislodging them. And the birds continued to make their nests in all the latticework; the crane’s cabin looked like an aviary… And you couldn’t pick up a bucket of water without finding it full of frogs, croaking and jumping…

Winter  20  Father Christmas’s children

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  20  I figli di Babbo Natale)

For the world of industry and commerce, there is no kinder or more charitable season of the year than Christmas and the weeks preceding it. The quavering sound of bagpipes echoes in the streets; and big businesses, which until the day before were coldly intent on calculating turnover and dividends, open their hearts to tender feelings and smiles. The only thought of their boards of management is that of bringing joy to their neighbours, sending gifts accompanied by messages of good wishes both to sister firms and to individuals; each firm feels an obligation to buy a large stock of products from a second firm to send as presents to other firms; these firms in their turn buy other goods from another firm as presents for yet other firms; the windows of the businesses stay lit until late, especially in the warehouses, where staff work overtime to wrap up packages and boxes; beyond the misted window panes, on pavements encrusted with ice, the bagpipe players, descended from dark mysterious mountains, advance, stop at the crossroads in the centre, a bit dazzled by too many lights, by excessively decorated shop windows, and with bowed heads give breath to their instruments; at which sound the wearisome contests of interest amongst men of affairs subside and give place to a new competition: who can offer, in the most elegant manner, the most conspicuous and original gift.

At SBAV that year, the public relations department suggested that Christmas gifts should be delivered to the houses of distinguished customers by a man dressed as Father Christmas.

The idea received the unanimous approval of the management. A complete Father Christmas costume was purchased: white beard, red cap and greatcoat edged with fur, top boots. Trials were initiated to see which of the workers it would best fit, but one man was too short and the beard touched the ground, one was too fat and couldn’t get the coat on, another was too young, while another was too old and it wasn’t worth the trouble of making him up.

While the head of the personnel department was summoning other possible Father Christmases from various quarters, the assembled directors were seeking to develop the idea further: the human relations department wanted the Christmas boxes for the workers to be presented by Father Christmas in a collective ceremony; the commercial department wanted him also to make a tour of the shops; the publicity department was concerned that the name of the firm should stand out, even suggesting that four balloons be attached to a string with the letters S, B, A, V.

Everyone was caught up in the busy, convivial atmosphere which spread across the festive, productive city; nothing is nicer than to sense the flux and flow of material goods combined with the goodwill each person feels towards others; and this, this more than anything — as the skirling sound of the bagpipes reminds us — is what counts.

In the warehouse, the goodwill — material and spiritual — passed through Marcovaldo’s hands as goods to load and unload. And it wasn’t only in loading and unloading that he took part in the general festivity, but also in thinking that at the bottom of that labyrinth of hundreds of thousands of packages one package was waiting for him alone, prepared for him by the human relations department; and, even more, in working out how much he was due at the end of the month, what with the Christmas bonus and his overtime hours. With that money, he too would be able to tour the shops, buying, buying, buying, so as to give, give, give presents, as his own sincerest feelings and the general interests of industry and commerce required.

The head of the personnel department came into the warehouse with a false beard in his hand. ‘Hey, you!’ he said to Marcovaldo. ‘Let’s see how you look in this beard. Excellent! You are Father Christmas. Come upstairs, quick. You’ll get a special bonus if you do fifty home deliveries a day.’

Disguised as Father Christmas, Marcovaldo drove across the city in the saddle of the three-wheeler delivery van, loaded with packages wrapped in multi-coloured paper, tied with beautiful ribbons and decorated with little sprigs of mistletoe and holly. The white cotton-wool beard was a bit itchy but served to protect his throat from the air.

His first trip was to his own apartment, because he couldn’t resist the temptation of surprising his children. ‘To begin with,’ he thought, ‘they won’t recognise me. How they’ll laugh, after that!’

The children were playing on the stairs. They barely turned round. ‘Hi, Daddy.’

Marcovaldo was disappointed. ‘But… don’t you see what I’m wearing?’

‘What should you be wearing?’ asked Pietruccio. ‘You’re Father Christmas, aren’t you?’

‘And you recognised me straight away?’

‘Of course! And we recognised Signor Sigismondo whose get-up was better than yours!’

‘And the concierge’s brother-in-law!’

‘And the twins’ father from across the road!’

‘And Ernestina’s uncle; she’s the girl with the ponytail!’

‘All dressed as Father Christmas?’ asked Marcovaldo, and the disappointment in his voice wasn’t only for the failed surprise to his family, but because he felt that the prestige of his firm had in some way been injured.

‘Yes, just like you,’ answered the children. ‘The usual boring Father Christmas with the false beard.’ And, turning away, they resumed their games.

It so happened that the public relations departments of numerous firms had simultaneously had the same idea; and they had recruited a large number of people, mainly the unemployed, pensioners or pedlars, and dressed them in the red coat and cotton-wool beard. The children, who to begin with had enjoyed recognising acquaintances and local characters in disguise, got used to it after a while and paid no more attention.

It seemed that they were deeply absorbed in the game they were playing. They were assembled on a landing, sitting in a circle. ‘May I know what you’re plotting?’ asked Marcovaldo.

‘Leave us in peace, Daddy. We have to get the presents ready.’

‘Presents for who?’

‘For a poor child. We have to find a poor child and give it presents.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘It’s in our reading book.’

Marcovaldo was about to say, ‘You are poor children!’ but during that week he had been so persuaded to think of himself as an inhabitant of the land of Cockaigne, where everyone buys things and enjoys themselves and exchanges presents, that he didn’t think it well-mannered to speak of poverty, and he preferred to declare, ‘Poor children don’t exist any more!’

Michelino got up and asked, ‘And is that why you don’t bring us presents, Daddy?’

Marcovaldo’s heart bled. ‘I’ll be getting overtime pay,’ he said hurriedly, ‘and then I’ll bring you some.’

‘How are you getting that?’ asked Filippetto.

‘Delivering presents,’ said Marcovaldo.

‘For us?’

‘No, for other people.’

‘Why not for us?’ You should bring us presents first…’

Marcovaldo tried to explain. ‘Because I am definitely not the Father Christmas of the human relations department; I’m the Father Christmas of the public relations department. You understand?’

‘No.’

‘Never mind.’ But since he wanted in some way to be forgiven for having arrived empty-handed, he had the idea of taking Michelino with him, carrying the boy behind him on his delivery round. ‘If you’re good, you can come and watch your father taking presents to the people,’ he said, bestriding the saddle of the three-wheeler.

‘Let’s go! Maybe I’ll find a poor child,’ said Michelino, and he jumped aboard, clinging onto his father’s back.

Touring the streets of the city, Marcovaldo could not avoid meeting other red-and-white Father Christmases, exactly like him, driving vans or three-wheelers or opening shop doors for customers loaded with packages or helping them carry their packages to the car. And all these Father Christmases displayed a focussed and business-like air, as if they were committed to the task of maintenance of the enormous machinery of the festive season.

And Marcovaldo, just like them, rushed from one address to another, as marked on his list, got down from the saddle, sorted through the packages on the back, took one, offered it to whoever opened the door, reciting the phrase, ‘SBAV wishes you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year,’ and took his tip.

This tip could in fact be considerable, and Marcovaldo might have thought himself satisfied, but something was lacking. Each time, before ringing the bell, with Michelino behind him, he had a premonition of the amazement of whoever opened the door at seeing Father Christmas there in person; he was expecting a warm welcome, curiosity, gratitude. And each time he was greeted like the postman who brings the newspaper every day.

He rang at the door of a sumptuous dwelling. A governess opened it. ‘Oh, yet another package. Who’s it from?’

‘SBAV wishes…’

‘All right, bring it in here,’ and she preceded Father Christmas along a carpeted corridor adorned with tapestries and majolica vases. Michelino, wide-eyed, followed his father.

The governess opened a glass door. They entered a room with an enormously high ceiling, so high that a great fir tree stood within it. It was a Christmas tree lit with glass baubles of all colours, and its branches were hung with presents and sweets of all shapes and sizes. Heavy crystal lamps hung from the ceiling, and the highest branches of the tree were tangled in the sparkling pendants. On a great table was arrayed glassware, silverware, tins of candied fruits and boxes of bottles. Toys, scattered across a large carpet, looked as if they belonged in a toy shop; most of them were complicated electronic gadgets and models of spaceships. On that carpet, in an uncluttered corner, was a child of about nine, lying flat on his face, with a sulky and bored look. He was leafing through a picture book, as if everything around him had nothing to do with him.

‘Gianfranco, Gianfranco, get up,’ said the housekeeper. ‘Have you seen? Father Christmas has come back with another present.’

‘Three hundred and twelve,’ sighed the child, without raising his eyes from the book. ‘Put it there.’

‘It’s the three-hundred-and-twelfth present to arrive,’ said the governess. ‘Gianfranco is such a clever boy; he keeps count; he doesn’t lose track of one. Counting is his great passion.’

Marcovaldo and Michelino left the house on tiptoe.

‘Daddy, is that child a poor child?’ asked Michelino.

Marcovaldo was concentrating on reorganising the load on the three-wheeler, and didn’t answer straight away. But after a moment he quickly exclaimed, ‘Poor? What are you saying? Do you know who his father is? He’s the president of the United Company for Enhancing Christmas Sales! He’s Commendatore…’

He stopped, because he couldn’t see Michelino. ‘Michelino, Michelino, where are you?’ He had disappeared.

‘I bet he saw another Father Christmas going by, muddled him up with me and climbed on the back…’ Marcovaldo continued his round, but he was a bit thoughtful, and he couldn’t wait to get home.

At home, he found Michelino, good as gold, along with his brothers.

‘Now tell me; where did you rush off to?’

‘Home, to get the presents… Yes, the presents for that poor child…’

‘Eh? Who?’

‘The child who looked so sad… The one in the villa with the Christmas tree…’

‘Him? But what presents could you give him?’

‘Oh, we’d done them up nicely… Three presents, wrapped in silver paper.’

The younger brothers added, ‘We all went to take them to him. You should have seen how happy he was!’

‘Well I never!’ said Marcovaldo. ‘He needed your presents to be happy!’

‘Yes, yes, ours… And he rushed to tear off the paper to see what they were…’

‘And what were they?’

‘The first one was a hammer: that big round wooden hammer…’

‘And what did he do?’

‘He jumped for joy! He grabbed it and began to use it!’

‘How?’

‘He smashed all the toys! And all the glasses! Then he got the second present…’

‘What was that?’

‘A catapult. You should have seen him, how pleased he was. He shattered all the glass baubles on the Christmas tree. Then he started on the lamps…’

‘Enough, enough, I don’t want to hear any more! And… the third present?’

‘We didn’t have any more presents to give, so we wrapped a box of kitchen matches in silver paper. It was the present he liked the most. He said, “They never let me touch matches.” He began to light them, and…’

‘And?’

‘He set light to everything!’

Marcovaldo was pulling his hair out. ‘I’m ruined!’

The next day, arriving at work, he felt a storm brewing. In great haste he put on his Father Christmas costume, loaded the packages for delivery onto the three-wheeler, amazed that up to now no one had said anything to him, when he saw three bosses coming towards him: the head of public relations, the head of publicity and the head of the sales department.

‘Stop!’ they said. ‘Unload everything immediately!’

‘This is it!’ Marcovaldo said to himself, already seeing himself being sacked.

‘Quick! We have to change the packages!’ said the sales boss. The United Company for Enhancing Christmas Sales has opened a campaign to launch the Wrecking Gift!’

‘It’s a bolt from the blue…’ remarked one of them. ‘They should have thought of it sooner…’

‘A spur-of-the-moment discovery by the company president,’ explained another. ‘It seems that his child has received some hyper-modern presents, Japanese I think, and for the first time he was seen enjoying himself…’

‘And what is more,’ added the third boss, ‘the Wrecking Gift can be used to destroy articles of all kinds; which means that it speeds up the pace of consumption and restores vigour to the market… All this in the twinkling of an eye and within a child’s capability… The president of the United Company has seen a new horizon opening, and he’s in the seventh heaven of enthusiasm…’

‘But,’ asked Marcovaldo in a thin voice, ‘did this child really destroy a lot of stuff?’

‘It’s difficult to say, even approximately, given that the house burnt down…’

Marcovaldo went back into the street lit up as if it were night, crowded with mothers and children and uncles and grandparents and packages and balloons and rocking horses and Christmas trees and Father Christmases and chickens and turkeys and panettoni and bottles and bagpipe players and chimney sweeps and chestnut sellers making pans of chestnuts jump on their blazing black stoves.

And the city seemed smaller, gathered into a luminous glass phial, buried in the dark heart of a wood, amongst centuries-old trunks of chestnut trees and an endless mantle of snow. From somewhere in the darkness could be heard the howling of a wolf; young hares had a sett buried in the snow, in the warm red earth under a layer of chestnut husks.

A white leveret emerged in the snow, twitched its ears, and ran about under the moon, but it was white and couldn’t be seen, as if it wasn’t there. Only its paws left imprints in the snow, like little clover leaves. Nor could the wolf be seen, because it was black and it stayed in the deep darkness of the wood. Only if it opened its mouth could its sharp white teeth be seen.

There was a line where the completely black wood stopped and the completely white snow began. The young hare ran on one side, the wolf on the other.

The wolf saw the leveret’s paw prints in the snow and followed them, but staying always in the black, so as not to be seen. At the point where the prints stopped, the leveret should be, and the wolf emerged from the black, opened wide its red throat and sharp teeth, and bit the wind.

The leveret was a little further on, invisible; it rubbed an ear with a paw, and escaped leaping.

Is it here? Is it there? No, is it a bit further on?

All that could be seen was the expanse of snow, as white as this page.