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Autumn  15  The rain and the leaves

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  15  La pioggia e le foglie)

At work, among various other duties, it was Marcovaldo’s job every morning to water the plant in a pot in the entrance hall. It was one of those green plants that people keep in the house, with a straight slender stem from which, on one side and the other, broad shining leaves on long stalks stick out; one of those plants shaped so like a plant, with leaves shaped so like leaves, that they don’t seem real. But it was a plant nonetheless, and as such it was suffering, because plonked there, between the entry curtain and the umbrella stand, it lacked light, air and dew. Every morning Marcovaldo noticed worrying signs: the stalk of one leaf was drooping as if it could no longer bear the leaf’s weight; another leaf was close to dying, gathering spots as on the cheek of a child with measles; the tip of a third was going yellow; until — flop! — one or another ended up on the floor. Meanwhile (and this was the most heartbreaking thing), the plant’s stem lengthened, lengthened, no longer regularly leafy, but as bare as a stick, with a little fringe at the top which made it look like a palm tree.

Marcovaldo swept the fallen leaves from the floor, dusted those that were healthy, and poured the contents of a half-filled watering can onto the base of the plant (slowly, so the water didn’t spill over and dirty the tiles); the earth in the pot immediately drank up the water. And he gave care and attention to these simple actions as to no other of his jobs: almost a sympathy for the misfortunes of a family member. And he sighed, whether for the plant or for himself is uncertain; because in that spindly shrub yellowing within the company’s walls he recognised a fellow sufferer.

The plant (for that was the only name it had, as if any more precise name were of no use in an environment in which it bore the sole responsibility for representing the vegetable kingdom) had become a part of Marcovaldo’s life to such an extent as to dominate his thoughts at every hour of the day and night. The look with which he now scrutinised the gathering of clouds in the sky was no longer that of the city dweller wondering whether or not to carry an umbrella, but that of the farmer who from day to day is waiting for the end of the drought. As soon as Marcovaldo noticed, raising his head from his work, the curtain of rain which had begun to fall heavily and silently, silhouetted through the warehouse window, he dropped everything, ran to the plant, took the pot in his arms and put it outside in the courtyard.

The plant, feeling the water running over its leaves, seemed to expand so as to offer to the drops the maximum surface possible, and joyfully to take on a colour of the most brilliant green; or at least that’s how it seemed to Marcovaldo, who stopped to gaze at it, quite forgetting to take shelter.

They stayed there in the courtyard, man and plant, facing each other, the man almost experiencing the sensations of a plant in the rain, the plant — unused to the open air and to natural phenomena — stunned almost as much as a man who suddenly finds himself drenched from head to foot and with his clothes soaking wet. Marcovaldo, his nose in the air, sniffed the smell of the rain, a smell reminding him of woods and meadows, so that his mind went chasing after indistinct memories. But amid these memories there appeared, more plainly and closer to hand, that of the rheumatic pains that afflicted him every year; and so he hurriedly went back under cover.

The working day was over; it was time to shut up shop. Marcovaldo asked the warehouse foreman, ‘Can I leave the plant outside, in the courtyard there?’

The foreman, Signor Viligelmo, was a character who shrank from any unduly heavy responsibilities. ‘Are you crazy? Suppose someone steals it? Who’ll carry the can for that?’

But Marcovaldo, seeing the benefit that the plant was drawing from the rain, didn’t feel like putting it back inside; that would have been to squander this gift from the heavens. ‘I could keep it with me until tomorrow morning…’ he suggested. ‘I’ll put in on my luggage rack and take it home… That way I’ll get it to take on as much rain as it can…’

Signor Viligelmo thought for a bit, then made up his mind. ‘As long as you’re responsible for it.’ And he consented.

Marcovaldo crossed the city in the pouring rain, bent over the handlebars of his moped, cowled in a waterproof windcheater. He had tied the pot behind him on the luggage rack, and moped, man and plant seemed a single thing; indeed the hunched, enwrapped man disappeared, and a plant on a moped was the only thing visible. Every so often, from under his hood, Marcovaldo looked round to see a dripping leaf waving behind his back; and each time it seemed to him that the plant was growing taller and leafier.

Marcovaldo had no sooner arrived home — an attic apartment with a window ledge over the roofs — with the pot in his arms, than the children began to dance around it.

‘The Christmas tree! The Christmas tree!’

‘Of course it isn’t; what are you thinking of? It’s a long time till Christmas,’ Marcovaldo protested. ‘Be careful of the leaves; they’re delicate!’

‘We’re already packed in this place like sardines in a tin,’ grumbled Domitilla. ‘If you bring a tree in here, we’ll have to move out…’

‘But it’s only a little plant! I’m going to put it on the window ledge…’

The shadowy outline of the plant on the window ledge was visible from the room. At supper, Marcovaldo didn’t look at his plate, but through the window panes.

Since they had left their basement flat for the attic, Marcovaldo’s and his family’s lives had greatly improved. But living under the roofs still had its disadvantages: for example, a few drops of rain leaked through the ceiling. The drops fell in four or five exact places, at regular intervals, and Marcovaldo put down basins or saucepans there. On rainy nights when everyone was in bed, the tic-toc-tuc of the many little drops could be heard, which made Marcovaldo shudder as if with a presentiment of rheumatism. That night, however, each time he woke from his restless sleep and lent an ear, the tic-toc-tuc seemed a cheerful little melody to him; it told him that the rain was still falling, gently and uninterruptedly, and was nourishing the plant, pushing the sap up through its slender stalks, extending the leaves like sails. ‘Tomorrow, when I look out, I’ll find it’s grown bigger!’ he thought.

But for all that he had thought about it, he couldn't believe his eyes when he opened the window in the morning; the plant now obstructed half the window, the leaves had at least doubled in number, and were no longer drooping under their own weight but outstretched and pointed like swords. He descended the stairs with the pot pressed to his chest, tied it onto the luggage rack and raced to work.

It had stopped raining, but the day was still uncertain. Marcovaldo hadn’t got down from the saddle when a few more drops began to fall. ‘Since the rain’s doing it so much good, I’ll leave it in the courtyard again,’ he thought.

In the warehouse, he went every so often to put his nose out of the window which gave onto the courtyard. This distraction from his work wasn’t to the foreman’s liking. ‘Hey, what’s the matter with you today, looking out the window?’

‘It’s growing! Come and see for yourself, Signor Viligelmo!’ And Marcovaldo beckoned with his hand, and spoke almost sotto voce, as if the plant mustn’t overhear. ‘Look how it’s growing! Can’t you see how it’s grown?’

‘Yes, it’s grown a good bit,’ admitted the foreman, and for Marcovaldo this was one of those satisfactions which life in a factory hardly ever grants its workers.

It was Saturday. Work stopped at one o’clock and no one went back until Monday. Marcovaldo would have wished to take the plant home with him again, but now that it was no longer raining he couldn’t find a reason for doing so. But the sky wasn’t clear; there were black cumulus clouds scattered here and there. He went to see the foreman who, as an enthusiastic meteorologist, had a barometer hanging over his desk. ‘What’s the forecast, Signor Viligelmo?’

‘Bad, still bad,’ the foreman said. ‘At any rate, it’s not raining here, but in the district where I live it is. I’ve just telephoned my wife.’

‘In that case,’ Marcovaldo immediately suggested, ‘I’ll take the plant on a trip to where it’s raining,’ and — no sooner said than done — he went out to secure the pot on the luggage rack of his moped.

This is how Marcovaldo spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday: bouncing on the saddle of his moped with the plant behind, peering at the sky, looking for a cloud which seemed to him well-intentioned, and then racing along the streets until he met rain. From time to time, turning round, he saw that the plant was a little taller: as tall as the taxis, as tall as the delivery vans, as tall as the trams! And with ever broader leaves, from which the rain splashed onto his waterproof hood as if from a shower head.

By now it was a tree on two wheels, charging through the city to the puzzlement of traffic wardens, drivers and pedestrians. And at the same time the clouds raced along the ways of the wind, sprinkling one district with rain and then leaving it; and the passers-by one by one held out their hands and closed their umbrellas; and along streets and avenues and across squares Marcovaldo chased after his cloud, hunched over the handlebars, wrapped in his hood from which only his nose poked out, with the moped sputtering at full speed, keeping the plant in the trajectory of the raindrops, as if the trail of rain which the cloud hauled behind it had become tangled in the leaves, so that everything advanced together, dragged by the same force: wind, cloud, rain, plant, wheels.

On Monday Marcovaldo went to see Signor Viligelmo empty-handed.

‘And the plant?’ asked the foreman straight away.

‘It’s outside. Come.’

‘Where?’ said Viligelmo. ‘I don’t see it.’

‘It’s that one there. It’s grown a bit…’ and he pointed to a tree which reached up to the second storey of the building. It was no longer planted in the old pot but in a sort of barrel, and instead of his moped Marcovaldo had had to get hold of a moped-cum-delivery truck.

‘Now what?’ said the foreman, enraged. ‘How can we get it into the entrance hall? It won’t go through the doors any more!’

Marcovaldo shrugged his shoulders.

‘The only thing,’ said Viligelmo, ‘is it to take it back to the nursery and exchange it for another one of the right size!’

Marcovaldo climbed back into the saddle. ‘I’ll go.’

He resumed his race around the city. The tree filled the middle of the streets with green. Worried traffic wardens stopped him at every junction; then, when Marcovaldo explained that he was taking the plant to the nursery to get rid of it, they let him continue. But, driving round and round, Marcovaldo could not decide to go down the street where the nursery was. He didn’t have the heart to be separated from his own creation, now that he had revived it so successfully; it seemed to him that never in his whole life had he taken so much satisfaction as from this plant.

And so he continued to shuttle back and forth along streets, across squares, along embankments and over bridges. And verdure as from a tropical forest spread over him until it covered his head, his back and his arms, until he disappeared into the green. And all those leaves and leaf stalks and the stem too (which had remained very slender) wobbled and wobbled as if from a continuous earth tremor, whether bursts of rain were still falling and hitting them, or the raindrops were becoming scarcer, or they had stopped completely.

The rain ceased. It was getting towards dusk. At the ends of the streets, in the space between the houses, stood the blurred light of a rainbow. The plant, after that fierce growth spurt which had extended it while the rain had lasted, was practically exhausted. Marcovaldo, continuing his aimless dash, didn't notice that behind him the leaves, one by one, were turning from deep green to yellow — golden yellow.

For a while now, a procession of motor scooters and cars and bicycles and children had started following the tree travelling around the city, without Marcovaldo realising it, and were shouting, ‘The baobab! The baobab!’ and with loud ‘Ooohs’ of admiration were observing the yellowing of the leaves. When a leaf broke off and flew away, many hands were raised to grab it in its flight.

The wind began to blow; in the gusts the golden leaves were whisked spinning into mid-air. Marcovaldo still thought he had at his back the dense green tree, when suddenly — perhaps feeling no longer sheltered from the wind — he turned round. The tree was no more; there was only a skinny stick from which bare stalks radiated, with one last yellow leaf still there at the top. By the light of the rainbow everything else seemed black: the people on the pavements, the house frontages on either side; and against that black, in mid-air, the shining golden leaves were spinning, spinning by the hundred; and hundreds of red and pink hands rose from the shadows to grab them; and the wind lifted the golden leaves towards the rainbow at the ends of the streets, towards the hands and the shouts; and it broke off even the last leaf, which turned from yellow to orange, then to red, violet, blue, green, then yellow again, and then disappeared.