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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.