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Autumn  11  The poisonous rabbit

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  11  Il coniglio velenoso)

When the day comes for leaving hospital, a person already knows it that morning, and if he is by now in good form he wanders along the corridors, practises walking for when he’ll be outside, whistles, acts the cured man with those still ill, not to make them envious but for the pleasure of adopting an encouraging tone. Through the window panes he sees the sun, or the fog if it’s foggy, he hears the noises of the city; and everything is different from before, when every morning he had sensed these things — the light and sound of an unreachable world — entering and awakening him through the bars of that bed. Now, out there, it’s his world again; the cured man recognises this as natural and normal; and all of a sudden he notices the smell of the hospital.

One morning Marcovaldo was sniffing around in this way, cured, waiting for them to write various things for him on his health-insurance document, so he could leave. The doctor took the papers and said to him, ‘Wait here,’ and left him alone in his laboratory. Marcovaldo looked at the white enamelled furniture which he had so hated, the test tubes full of menacing substances, and tried to cheer himself up with the idea that he was about to leave all this behind; but he didn’t experience the degree of pleasure that he had been expecting. Perhaps it was the prospect of going back to work unloading boxes, or of the mischief that his children had surely got up to while he had been away, and more than anything it was the fog outside, which made him feel that he was going to have to step out into the void, to melt into a wet nothingness. In this mood he was looking around, with a vague desire to become attached to something there in the room, but everything he saw spoke to him of torment or discomfort.

It was then that he saw a rabbit in a cage. It was a white rabbit, with long feathery fur, a little pink triangle of a nose, red dumbfounded eyes, and almost furless ears flattened on its back. It wasn’t especially large, but in that narrow cage its crouched oval body was squeezing against the metal framework, from which tufts of fur stuck out, ruffled as the animal softly trembled. Outside the cage, on the table, were the remains of some grass and a carrot. Marcovaldo thought how unhappy it must be, so tightly shut up there, seeing that carrot and not being able to eat it. And he opened the door of the cage for it. The rabbit didn’t emerge; it stayed where it was, with only a slight movement of its muzzle, as if pretending to chew in order to seem unconcerned. Marcovaldo took the carrot, offered it to the rabbit, then slowly withdrew it, inviting the beast to come out. The rabbit followed him, suspiciously bit into the carrot, and then began assiduously gnawing it in Marcovaldo’s hand. The man stroked its back, and meanwhile squeezed it to see if it was fat. It felt a bit bony under the fur. From that, and from the way it was pulling at the carrot, it was clear that they must be keeping it on short rations. ‘If I had it,’ thought Marcovaldo, ‘I’d feed it up until it was a ball.’ And he looked at it with the loving eye of a breeder who manages to maintain in the same attitude of mind a kindly feeling towards the animal and the prospect of a roast dinner. Here, after days and days of miserable confinement in hospital, at the moment of leaving, he was discovering a friendly presence, which would have sufficed to occupy his time and his thoughts. And he had to leave it, to go back to the foggy city, where rabbits were not to be found.

The carrot was almost finished. Marcovaldo took the animal in his arms and walked around looking for something else to give it. He pushed its muzzle towards a little geranium plant in a pot on the doctor’s writing desk, but the beast made it clear it didn’t fancy it. Just at that moment Marcovaldo heard the doctor’s footstep entering; how to explain to him why he was holding the rabbit in his arms? He was wearing his work jacket, tight at the waist. He hastily stuffed the rabbit into it, buttoned it up, and so that the doctor shouldn’t see the bulge bouncing on his stomach, he pushed it round behind him, onto his back. The rabbit was frightened but co-operative. Marcovaldo took his papers and moved the rabbit back onto his chest, since he had to turn round and go out. In that fashion, with the rabbit hidden in his jacket, he left the hospital and went to work.

‘Ah, you’re better at last?’ said Signor Viligelmo the foreman, seeing him arrive. ‘And what have you got growing there?’ And he pointed to Marcovaldo’s chest, where it jutted out.

‘I’ve got a hot compress, against the cramps,’ said Marcovaldo.

At that moment the rabbit jumped, and Marcovaldo jerked as if he were an epileptic.

‘What’s up with you?’ said Viligelmo.

‘Nothing; I’m hiccupping,’ Marcovaldo answered, and he pushed the rabbit round behind his back with his hand.

‘You’re still a bit off colour, I can see that,’ said the boss.

The rabbit was trying the crawl up Marcovaldo’s back, and he screwed up his shoulders to make it go down.

‘You’ve got the shivers. Go home for another day. Make sure you’re better tomorrow.’

Marcovaldo arrived home holding the rabbit by the ears, like a successful hunter.

‘Daddy! Daddy!’ the children shouted, running around him. ‘Where did you get it? Will you give it to us? Is it a present?’ And straight away they wanted to get hold of it.

‘So you’re back?’ said his wife, and from the look she gave him Marcovaldo understood that the time of his stay in hospital had only served to cause her to accumulate new reasons for resentment against him. ‘A live animal? And what do you want to do with it? It’ll make a mess everywhere.’

Marcovaldo cleared the table and placed the rabbit in the middle, where it flattened itself as if trying to disappear. ‘Woe betide anyone who touches it!’ he said. ‘It’s our rabbit, and it’ll fatten up peacefully until Christmas.’

‘But is it a male or a female?’ asked Michelino.

Marcovaldo hadn’t thought about the possibility that it might be a female. Immediately, a new plan came into his mind: if it was a female, they could get her to produce baby rabbits, and set up a breeding colony. And already, in his fantasy, the damp walls of their home were vanishing and he saw a green farm in the fields.

However, it was in fact a male. But this idea of breeding rabbits had now lodged in Marcovaldo’s head. It was a male, but a very beautiful male, for which it would be possible to seek a spouse and the means to start a family.

‘And what are we going to give it to eat, when there’s not enough for us?’ said his wife sharply.

‘Leave the thinking to me,’ said Marcovaldo.

The next day, at work, he removed a leaf from each of certain green plants in pots in the management’s offices which he had to take outside every day, water and put back — broad leaves, bright on one side and dark on the other — and he stuffed them into his jacket. Then he asked a female employee who arrived with a bunch of flowers, ‘Did your sweetheart give them to you? And won’t you make me a present of one?’ And he pocketed that too. To a lad who was peeling a pear, he said, ‘Let me have the peel.’ And so, with here a leaf, there a bit of peel, a petal somewhere else, he hoped to feed the animal.

At this point, Signor Viligelmo sent for him. ‘Have they found out about the shortage of leaves on the plants?’ Marcovaldo wondered, accustomed always to feeling guilty.

In the foreman’s office was the doctor from the hospital, two officers from the Red Cross and a city police officer. ‘Listen,’ said the doctor. ‘A rabbit has disappeared from my laboratory. If you know anything about it, you’d better not try to be clever. Because we’ve injected it with the germs of a terrible disease and it could spread it across the whole city. I’m not asking you if you’ve eaten it, because you wouldn’t be alive now if you had.’

An ambulance was waiting outside. In great haste they jumped in, and with a continuous wailing of the siren they drove down streets and avenues to Marcovaldo’s house; and on the road there lay a trail of leaves and peel and flowers that Marcovaldo was sadly throwing out of the window.

That morning, Marcovaldo’s wife just didn't know what to put in the pot. She looked at the rabbit which her husband had brought home the previous day, and which was now in an improvised cage, full of scraps of paper. ‘It’s come just at the right moment,’ she said to herself. ‘We’ve got no money; the monthly wage has already gone on medicines the national health won't pay for; the shops aren't giving us any more credit. Getting up a breeding farm, or waiting for Christmas to roast it: ridiculous! Here we are skipping meals, and we still have to fatten up a rabbit!’

‘Isolina,’ she said to her daughter, ‘you’re a big girl now; it’s time for you to learn how to cook rabbit. You begin by killing and skinning it, and then I’ll tell you what to do next.’

Isolina was reading a magazine of romantic stories. ‘No,’ she whined, ‘you begin by killing and skinning it, and then I’ll come and see how you cook it.’

‘A lot of use you are!’ said her mother. ‘I haven’t the heart to kill it. But I know it’s very easy to do. You just take it by the ears and give it a sharp jab on the nape of the neck. Then we’ll see about skinning it.’

‘We won't see about anything,’ said her daughter, without lifting her nose from the magazine. ‘I won't be giving any jabs to the nape of the neck of a living rabbit. And I’m not thinking of skinning it either.’

The three children had been standing wide-eyed, listening to this conversation.

The mother was lost in thought for a moment; she looked at them, and then said, ‘Children…’

The children with one accord turned their backs on their mother and left the room.

‘Children, wait!’ she said. ‘I meant to ask you if you’d like to go out with the rabbit. We’ll put a nice ribbon round its neck and you can take it for a bit of a walk.’

The children stopped and looked at each other. ‘A walk where?’ asked Michelino.

‘Well, just a little stroll. Then go and see Signora Diomira, take her the rabbit and ask her please to kill it and skin it. She’s so good at that.’

The mother had hit the right note. Children, we know, are taken by whatever pleases them the most, and for the rest they prefer not to think about it. So they found a long, lilac-coloured ribbon, tied it round the animal’s neck, and used it as a lead, tearing it from each other’s hands and dragging behind them the reluctant and semi-strangled rabbit.

‘Say to Signora Diomira,’ their mother told them, ‘that she can keep a leg! No, better tell her: the head. Oh, she can decide.’

The children had only just left when Marcovaldo’s apartment was invaded by nurses, doctors, traffic wardens and policemen. Marcovaldo was in the midst of them, more dead than alive. ‘Is the rabbit that was taken from the hospital here? Quick, show us where it is without touching it; it’s carrying the germs of a terrible disease!’ Marcovaldo took them to the cage, but it was empty. ‘Already eaten?’ ‘No, no!’ ‘So where is it?’ ‘It’s gone to Signora Diomira’s house!’ And they resumed the chase in that direction.

They knocked on Signora Diomira’s door. ‘The rabbit? What rabbit? Are you mad?’ Seeing her house invaded by unknown intruders, in white coats and in uniform, looking for a rabbit, the old lady almost had a stroke. She knew nothing about Marcovaldo’s rabbit.

In fact, the three children, wishing to save the rabbit from death, had the idea of taking it to a safe place, playing with it for a while and then letting it go; and instead of stopping on Signora Diomira’s landing, they decided to get up to a roof terrace. They were going to tell their mother that the rabbit had torn its lead and escaped. But no animal seemed so little inclined to flight as that rabbit. It was a job to make it climb all those stairs; it crouched frightened at each step. In the end they took it in their arms and carried it up bodily.

On the terrace, they wanted to make it run; it didn’t run. They tried putting it on a ledge to see if it would walk like a cat; but it seemed to be suffering from vertigo. They tried hoisting it onto a television aerial to see if it could keep its balance; no, it fell. Bored, the children tore off the lead, let the animal free at a place where it had a view of the slanting and angular sea of streets and roofs, and departed.

When it was alone, the rabbit began to move. It tried a few steps, looked around, changed direction, turned round; then, with little hops and jumps, it made its way across the roofs. It was an animal that had been born a prisoner; its desire for liberty had no wide horizons. It had known no happiness in life other than being able to stop still for a moment without being frightened. Now it could move, without anything around frightening it, perhaps as never before in its life. The place was unusual, but a firm idea of what was and was not unusual had never managed to form in its mind. And from the time when it had felt a vague and mysterious pain gnawing within itself, the whole outside world interested it less and less. So it went about on the roofs; and the cats which saw it jump didn’t understand what it was and shrank back scared.

Meanwhile, from dormer windows, skylights, roof terraces, the rabbit’s itinerary had not gone unnoticed. And people began to put out bowls of salad on their window sills, spying from behind the curtains, or stuck the core of a pear on the tiles with a piece of string tied round it, or laid a trail of little pieces of carrot on the ledge, leading to their own dormer window. And a watchword gained currency amongst all the families who lived under the roofs: ‘Today, rabbit stew,’ or ‘Rabbit fricassee,’ or ‘Roast rabbit’.

The animal had noticed these ploys, these silent offers of food. And although it was hungry, it was wary. It knew that whenever humans tried to attract it by offering it food, something unclear and painful happened: they either stuck a syringe into its flesh, or a scalpel, or they shoved it by force into a straightjacket, or they dragged it about with a ribbon round its neck… And the memory of these misfortunes became one with the pain which it felt within itself, with the slow deterioration of organs which it experienced, with its premonition of death. And with hunger. But as if it knew that, of all these discomforts, only hunger could be alleviated, and as if it recognised that these treacherous human beings could offer it, beside cruel sufferings, a sense, which nonetheless it needed, of protection, of domestic warmth, it decided to surrender, to take part in the human game; then let come what may. So it began to eat the little scraps of carrot, following the trail which, it well knew, would make it once again a prisoner and a martyr, but one returning for perhaps the last time to taste the good earthy flavour of vegetables. There it was, approaching a skylight window, there was a hand reaching out to grab it; but suddenly the window closed and it was left outside. This was an event outside its experience: a trap which refused to spring. The rabbit turned round and looked for other evidence of snares in the vicinity, so as to choose to which of them it would be most convenient to surrender. But all around, the leaves of salad had been withdrawn, the lengths of string thrown away, the people lying in wait had disappeared, windows and roof lights been barred, the roof terraces depopulated.

What had happened was that a police van had crossed the city, bellowing from a loudspeaker, ‘Attention! Attention! A white rabbit with long fur has been lost; it is infected with a serious contagious disease! Whoever finds it should know that its flesh is poisonous, and even touching it can transmit harmful germs! Whoever sees it should report it to the nearest police station, hospital or fire station!’

Terror spread along the roofs. Each person stood guard, and as soon as they spotted the rabbit passing with a floppy jump from one roof to the next, they gave the alarm and all disappeared as if at the approach of a swarm of locusts. The rabbit moved ahead, balanced on the coping stones; this sense of solitude, just at the moment when it had discovered the need to be close to human beings, seemed to it even more threatening, intolerable.

Meanwhile Cavalier Ulrico, an old hunter, had loaded his rifle with hare cartridges, and had taken up a position on a roof terrace, behind a chimney pot. When he saw the white shadow of the rabbit emerge from the fog, he fired; but such was his emotion at the thought of the malevolent powers of the beast that the spray of pellets spattered like hail at some distance from its target, on the tiles. The rabbit heard the shot echoing around, and a pellet went through one of its ears. It understood; this was a declaration of war; from now on all relations with humans were broken off. And in contempt of them, of what it sensed in some way to be an unfeeling ingratitude, it decided to end its own life.

A roof covered with sheet metal descended obliquely, ending in the void, in the opaque nothingness of fog. The rabbit positioned itself there on all four paws, cautiously to begin with, then with a sense of abandonment. And slipping in this way, devoured and besieged by its pain, it moved towards death. On the very edge, the gutter held it back for a second, then it toppled down…

And finished in the gloved hands of a fireman, hoisted to the top of a portable ladder. Prevented even from performing this extreme gesture of animal dignity, the rabbit was loaded into the ambulance, which departed at high speed towards the hospital. Also on board were Marcovaldo, his wife and children, admitted for observation and for a series of vaccine tests.