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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.