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Summer  10  A journey with the cows

(Italo Calvino — Estate  10  Un viaggio con le mucche)

The sounds of the city which during summer nights enter, through open windows, the rooms of people who can’t sleep for the heat, the authentic sounds of the nocturnal city, make themselves heard when at a certain hour the anonymous din of motor vehicles dissipates and ceases, and out of the silence come discrete sounds, well defined, graduated according to distance: the step of a nightwalker, the ticking of a nightwatchman’s bicycle, a muffled row from far away; and the snoring from the floors above, a sick person’s groan, an old clock which continues to chime the hours every hour. Until at dawn the orchestra of alarm clocks in working people’s houses begins to play, and a tram passes on its tracks.

So it was that one night Marcovaldo, between his wife and the children sweating in their sleep, was listening with closed eyes to as much of this fine dust of faint sounds as filtered from the cobbled pavement, through the little low window, down into his basement apartment. He heard the cheerful, rapid heel of a woman who was late, the tattered sole of the man who stopped irregularly to pick up cigarette butts, the whistling of someone who felt lonely, and every so often a broken snatch of the words of a conversation between friends, enough to suggest whether they were talking about sport or money. But in the hot night those noises lost any definition, they melted as if cushioned by the sultriness which weighed down on the void of the streets; and yet they seemed to want to impose themselves, to establish their own dominion on that uninhabited kingdom. In each human presence Marcovaldo sadly recognised a brother, pinned down like him even in the holiday period in that oven of concrete, baking hot and dusty, by debts, by the burden of the family, by meagre wages.

And as if the idea of an impossible holiday had suddenly opened to him the doors of a dream, he seemed distantly to hear a sound of bells, and the barking of a dog, and even a brief lowing. But his eyes were open, he wasn’t dreaming, and he tried, bending an ear, to get more of a grip on those vague impressions, or a denial of them; and in reality a sound came to him as if of hundreds and hundreds of steps, slow, scattered, dull, approaching and obliterating every other noise, except just that rusty clanging.

Marcovaldo got up and slipped on his shirt and trousers. ‘Where are you going?’ said his wife, who slept with one eye open.

‘There’s a herd passing along the street. I’m going to look.’

‘Me too! Me too!’ said the children, who knew how to wake up at the right moment.

It was one of those herds which crossed the city in the hours of darkness, at the beginning of summer, making for the mountains, for the alpine pastures. Out in the street with their eyes still half stuck together with sleep, the children saw the stream of dull grey and pied rumps which invaded the pavement and slithered along the walls covered with posters, past the lowered shutters, the posts of no-parking signs, the petrol pumps. Placing their careful hooves down the step at the crossroads, their muzzles pressed with not even a jerk of curiosity into the loins of those that preceded them, the cows left behind them their smell of litter and wild flowers and milk and the languorous sound of their bells, and the city seemed not to concern them, already absorbed as they were in their world of moist meadows, misty mountains and the fords of streams.

By contrast, as if unnerved by the overpowering presence of the city, the cowherds seemed impatient, rushing about in short, useless dashes, at the side of the line, raising their sticks and bellowing in broken, breathy voices. The dogs, to which nothing human is alien, showed their casual confidence by running back and forth with muzzles raised, their bells tinkling, attentive to their work, but you could see that they too were restless and awkward, otherwise they would have let themselves be distracted and would have begun sniffing street corners, streetlamps, spots on the pavement, as is the first thought of every city dog.

‘Daddy,’ said the children, ‘are cows like trams? Do they make stops? Where is the end of the line for cows?’

‘They’re nothing to do with trams,’ explained Marcovaldo. ‘They’re going to the mountains.’

‘Do they wear skis?’ asked Pietruccio.

‘And don’t they get fined if they trample on the meadows?’

‘They’re going to pasture, to eat the grass.’

The only child who didn’t ask questions was Michelino, who, older than the others, already had his own ideas about cows, and was now paying attention simply in order to check them, to observe the harmless horns, the rumps and the variegated dewlaps. So he followed the herd, trotting beside it like the herdsmen’s dogs.

When the last group had passed, Marcovaldo took the children by the hand to put them back to bed, but he couldn’t see Michelino. He went down into their room, and asked his wife, ‘Has Michelino come back?’

‘Michelino? Wasn’t he with you?’

‘He began to follow the herd and who knows where he’s gone,’ thought Marcovaldo, and rushed back into the street. The herd had already crossed the square, and Marcovaldo had to look for the street into which it had turned. But it appeared that on that night several herds were crossing the city, each on a different street, each headed for its own valley. Marcovaldo tracked down and caught up with one herd, then realised it wasn’t his; at one junction he saw that four streets further on another herd was moving forward in parallel to him, and he ran over there; there the cowherds told him that they had met another herd going in the opposite direction. And so, until the last sound of cowbells had faded in the light of dawn, Marcovaldo continued to dash about to no avail.

The police superintendent to whom he went to report his son’s disappearance said, ‘Behind a herd? He’ll have gone to the mountains, to have a holiday, lucky boy. You’ll see, he’ll come back fat and suntanned.’

The superintendent’s opinion was confirmed a few days later by an employee at the firm where Marcovaldo worked, just back from the first slot of holidays. At a mountain pass he had met the lad; he was with the herd, he sent greetings to his father, and he was fine.

Marcovaldo’s thoughts, in the dusty heat of the city, were with his fortunate son, who was surely now passing the hours in the shadow of a pine tree, whistling with a blade of grass in his mouth, keeping an eye on the cows moving slowly in the meadow below, and listening to the trickle of waters in the shade of the valley.

But the boy’s mother couldn’t wait for him to come back. ‘Will he come by train? By bus? It’s a week already… It’s a month already… It’ll be bad weather there…’ And she gave herself no peace, although having one fewer at the table each day was at least some consolation.

‘Lucky him; he’s out there in the fresh air, filling himself with butter and cheese,’ said Marcovaldo, and whenever there appeared to him at the end of the street, lightly veiled in the heat, the jagged white and grey of the mountains, he felt as if he had sunk into a well, by whose light, up above, he seemed to see shimmering fronds of maples and chestnuts, with Michelino up there, idle and happy, amongst milk and honey and blackberry bushes.

But from evening to evening he too was waiting for his son’s return, although not thinking, as the boy’s mother was, about the times of trains and buses; he was listening at night for footsteps on the street, as if the little window in the room were the mouth of a seashell, echoing the sounds of the mountain when you put your ear to it.

And then, one night, having suddenly got up to sit on the bed, it wasn’t an illusion; he heard approaching on the pavement that unmistakeable clattering of cloven hooves, mixed with the clanging of bells.

They ran into the street, he and the whole family. Slowly and heavily, the herd was returning. And in the midst of the herd, astride the rump of a cow, his hands gripping its collar, his head jiggling at every step, there, half asleep, was Michelino.

They lifted him down bodily. They embraced him and kissed him. He was half stunned.

‘How are you? Was it nice?’

‘Oh… yes…’

‘And did you want to come home?’


‘Are the mountains beautiful?’

He stood there, in front of them, his brows furrowed, with a hard look.

‘I worked like a mule,’ he said, and spat in front of him. He had taken on the face of a man. ‘Every evening, carrying the buckets to the milkers, from one beast to another, one beast to another, and then emptying them into the churns, in a hurry, always in more of a hurry, until late. And early in the morning, rolling the churns down to the lorry to take them to town… And counting, always counting: the animals, the churns, and you were in trouble if you made a mistake.’

‘But could you go to the meadows? When the animals were at pasture?’

‘There was never time. Always something to do. For the milk, the bedding, the manure. And all for what? With the excuse that I didn’t have a work permit, how much did they pay me? A pittance. But if you think I’m going to give you any now, you’re mistaken. Come on, let’s go to bed. I’m dead tired.’

He shrugged his shoulders, blew his nose and went into the house.

The herd continued to move away down the street, leaving behind it the mendacious and languorous smells of hay and the sounds of bells.