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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.