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Spring  9  Good air

(Italo Calvino — Primavera  9  L’aria buona)

‘These children,’ said the national-health doctor, ‘need to breathe a bit of good air, at a certain altitude, to run about in the meadows…’

He was standing between the beds in the basement flat where the family lived, and was pressing his stethoscope onto little Teresa’s back, between her shoulder blades, which were like the wings of a little plucked bird. There were two beds, and the four children, all of them ill, were peeping out from the heads and feet of the beds, with hot cheeks and bright eyes.

‘In meadows like the flower bed in the square?’ asked Michelino.

‘An altitude like a skyscraper?’ asked Filippetto.

‘Air that’s good to eat?’ enquired Pietruccio.

Marcovaldo, tall and thin, and his wife Domitilla, short and stocky, were leaning with one elbow on each side of a rickety chest of drawers. Without moving their elbow, they lifted the other arm and let it drop to their side, muttering together, ‘And where do you want us, eight mouths, loaded with debts… what do you want us to do?’

‘The nicest place we can send them,’ Marcovaldo pointed out, ‘is into the street.’

‘We’ll breathe good air,’ Domitilla added, ‘when we’re evicted and we have to sleep under the stars.’

One Saturday afternoon, as soon as they were better, Marcovaldo collected the children and took them for a walk in the hills. They lived in a district of the city from which the hills were furthest away. To get to the slopes they took a long ride on a crowded tram, and the children only saw the legs of the passengers around them. Little by little the tram emptied; eventually an avenue appeared at the unblocked windows, leading uphill. And so they arrived at the end of the line and began to walk.

It was early spring; the trees were blossoming in the lukewarm sunshine. The children looked around, a bit disorientated. Marcovaldo led them up a little street with steps, which rose amongst the greenery.

‘Why is there a staircase without a house at the top?’ asked Michelino.

‘It’s not a house staircase; it’s like a road.’

‘A road… And how do the cars get up it, with the little steps?’

Around them were garden walls with trees inside.

‘Walls without roofs… Have they been bombed?’

‘They are gardens… sort of courtyards,’ their father explained. ‘The house is inside, there behind those trees.’

Michelino shook his head, unconvinced. ‘But courtyards are inside houses, not outside.’

Teresina asked, ‘Do the trees live in those houses?’

Gradually, as he climbed, Marcovaldo seemed to be throwing off the musty smell of the warehouse in which he shifted packages for eight hours a day, and the damp stains on the walls of his lodging, and the gilded dust that drifted down in the cone of light from the little window, and the fits of coughing in the night. The children now seemed to him less sallow and delicate, almost as if they were already one with the light and the greenery there.

‘Do you like it here?’



‘There are no policemen here. You can pull up the plants, throw stones.’

‘And breathe? Are you breathing?’


‘The air is good here.’

They chewed this over. ‘No, it’s not. It doesn’t taste of anything.’

They climbed almost to the crest of the hill. At one turn, the city appeared below, a borderless expanse superimposed on the grey spider’s web of streets. The children rolled in a meadow as if they’d never done anything else in their lives. A breath of wind got up; it was already evening. In the city a few lights came on in a hazy glow. Marcovaldo felt again a wave of the feeling he had had on arriving in the city as a young man, when he had been attracted by those streets, by those lights, as if he was expecting something from them — who knows what? The swallows hurled themselves headlong over the city.

Then the sadness of having to go back down again took hold of him, and he picked out in the agglutinated mass of the landscape the shadow of his own district; and it seemed to him a leaden wilderness, stagnant, covered with dense scales of roofs and wisps of smoke fluttering over the sticks of chimney pots.

It had turned chilly; perhaps he had better call the children. But seeing them peacefully swinging in the lower branches of a tree, he dismissed the thought. Michelino came up to him and asked, ‘Daddy, why can’t we come and live here?’

‘Oh, silly, there are no houses here, no one lives up here at all!’ said Marcovaldo, annoyed, because actually he was fantasising about being able to live up there.

And Michelino said, ‘ No one? What about those gentlemen? Look!’

The air was turning to grey. Down from the meadows, a company of men was coming, men of various ages, all dressed in heavy grey suits, buttoned up like pyjamas, and all wearing a cap and carrying a stick. They arrived in groups, some of them talking in loud voices or laughing, poking the grass with their sticks or trailing them hooked on their arms by the curved handle.

‘Who are they? Where are they going?’ Michelino asked his father, but Marcovaldo was looking at them silently.

One passed nearby; he was a big man of about forty. ‘Good evening!’ he said. ‘So, what news do you bring us from the city?’

‘Good evening,’ said Marcovaldo, ‘but what news are you speaking of?’

‘Nothing; just a way of talking,’ said the man as he stopped. He had a broad white face, with a single blotch of pink or red, like a shadow, just above his cheeks. ‘I always say that to whoever comes from the city. I’ve been up here for three months, you see.’

‘And don’t you ever go down?’

‘Huh! Only when the doctors let me!’ And he gave a short laugh. ‘And when these here let me!’ And he tapped his chest with his fingers, and gave another little laugh, a bit breathless. ‘Twice already they’ve discharged me as cured, and as soon as I go back to the factory, bam, back to square one. And they send me back up here. Not much fun!’

‘And those guys too?’ said Marcovaldo, pointing to the other men scattered about, and at the same time looking for Filippetto and Teresa and Pietruccio, who had disappeared from view.

‘All holiday companions,’ said the man, and winked. ‘This is the time when we’re free to go out, before retiring… We go to bed early… We’re not allowed to stray beyond the boundaries, you understand…’

‘What boundaries?’

‘We’re still on the sanatorium’s land here, didn’t you know?’

Marcovaldo took Michelino’s hand. The boy had stood there listening and was a bit frightened. Evening was climbing the slopes; down there Marcovaldo could no longer make out his district, and it didn’t seem to have been swallowed by the shade, but to have extended its own shadow everywhere. It was time to go home. ‘Teresa! Filippetto!’ Marcovaldo called, and turned to look for them. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to the man, ‘I can’t see the other children any more.’

The man moved to the edge of an incline. ‘They’re down there,’ he said. ‘They’re picking cherries.’

Marcovaldo saw a cherry tree in a ditch. Around it stood the men in grey. They were pulling the branches towards them with their curved sticks and picking the fruit. And with them were Teresa and the two boys, perfectly happy, picking cherries and taking them from the hands of the men, and laughing with them.

‘It’s late,’ said Marcovaldo. ‘It’s cold. Let’s go home…’

The big man pointed the end of his stick at the strings of lights being lit down there.

‘In the evenings,’ he said, ‘with this stick, I take my walk in the city. I choose a street, a line of streetlights, and I follow it, like this… I stop at the shop windows, I meet people, I greet them… When you’re walking in the city, think of us sometimes; my stick will be following you…’

The children came back crowned with leaves, holding hands with the inmates.

‘It’s so lovely here, Daddy,’ said Teresa. ‘We can come back and play here, can’t we?’

‘Daddy,’ Michelino burst out, ‘why don’t we come and live here too, with these gentlemen?’

‘It’s late! Say goodbye to the gentlemen! Say thank you for the cherries. Come on! Let’s go!’

They made their way home. They were tired. Marcovaldo didn’t answer the children’s questions. Filippetto wanted to be carried in his arms, Pietruccio on his shoulders, Teresa was dragged along by the hand, and Michelino, the eldest, went ahead by himself, kicking the stones.