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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.