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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.