Our summer holiday lasted the whole length of the school vacation: about three months. Preparations began early, usually on St Joseph’s Day (19 March): since we weren’t rich enough to afford a hotel, my parents would tour the still snow-clad valleys of Piedmont looking for lodgings to rent – preferably somewhere served by the railway and not too far from Turin. We didn’t have a car (this was the early thirties, and almost no one did) and for my father, who hated the sultriness of summer anyway, time off was restricted to three days around the August bank holiday. So, just to sleep with the family and in the cool, he would subject himself to the drudgery of a twice-daily train journey out to Torre Pellice or Meana, or any of the other modest villages within a hundred or so kilometres of the city. For our part we went every evening to the station to wait for him. At daybreak he set out again, even on Saturdays, to be in the office by eight.
My mother began the packing around the middle of June. Apart from bags and suitcases, the main load consisted of three wicker trunks, which when full must each have weighed at least two hundredweight; the removal men came and hoisted them miraculously onto their backs and carried them downstairs sweating and cursing. The trunks contained everything: bedclothes, pots and pans, toys, books, provisions, winter and summer clothing, shoes, medicines, utensils – as if we were departing for the Antipodes. Usually we arranged our destination together with other families – relations or friends; it was less lonely like that. In this way we took a part of our city along with us.
The three months went by slowly, and quietly, and dully, and punctuated by the abominable sadism of holiday homework: a contradiction in terms! My father spent only Sundays with us, and those in his own fashion. He was a thorough-going urbanite: the countryside did not agree with him. He disliked the emptiness of the fields, the steepness of the paths, the silence, the flies, the discomforts. The mornings he would spend reading, taciturn and cross; in the afternoon he dragged us off for an ice cream at the only cafe in the village, and then he would retire to play the tarot with the miller and his wife. But for my sister and me the months in the country meant a regularly renewed union with nature: humble plants and flowers whose names it was fun to learn in Italian and dialect; the birds, each with their own song; insects; spiders. On one occasion in the washbasin, a leech, no less, graceful in its swimming, undulating as if in a dance. Another time, a bat that zigzagged dementedly about the bedroom, or a stone marten glimpsed in the twilight, or a mole cricket, a monstrous, obese little insect, neither mole nor cricket, repugnant and menacing. In the courtyard garden well-disciplined tribes of ants rushed about their business, and it was enthralling to observe their cunning and their stubborn stupidity. They were held up as an example in our schoolbooks: ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise’ (Proverbs 6:6). They never took summer holidays. Yes, they may have been virtuous little creatures, but it was the obligatory virtue of prisoners.
The stream was the most interesting place of all. My mother took us down every morning to sunbathe and to paddle in the clear, clean water, while she got on with her knitting in the shade of a willow. You could wade the stream safely from bank to bank, and it was a haven to creatures the like of which we had never seen. On the riverbed black insects staggered along resembling huge ants, each one dragging behind it a cylindrical case made of tiny pebbles or little pieces of vegetation, into which it had threaded its abdomen; only its head and claws poked out. When disturbed, the creatures recoiled like a shot into their little mobile homes.
In mid-air hovered wondrous dragonflies, frozen in flight, iridescent in metallic turquoise; even their buzzing was metallic, mechanical, bellicose. They were miniature war machines, dropping in one stroke, dart-like, on some invisible prey. On the dry, sandy banks green beetles ran nimbly to and fro; the conical traps of the ant lion sprang open. Such ambushes we witnessed with a secret sense of complicity, and hence of guilt, to the extent that my sister, overwhelmed every so often with pity, would use a twig to divert some poor ant on the point of a sudden and cruel death.
Alongside the left bank the water teemed with tadpoles in their thousands. Why only on the left? After much fruitless discussion about sun and shade we noticed that along that side ran a footpath much used by anglers; the trout were wise to this, and kept to the safety of the right bank. Accordingly, to avoid the trout, the tadpoles had established themselves on the left. They aroused conflicting feelings: laughter and tenderness – like puppies, newborn babies and all creatures whose heads seem too big for their bodies – and indignation, because every so often they ate each other. They were chimaeras, impossible creations, yet they sailed along swiftly and surely, propelling themselves with elegant flicks of the tail. Between head and tail they had no body, and this was what seemed incomprehensible and monstrous; all the same, the head had eyes and a mouth – a voracious mouth curiously downturned as if sulking – ever in search of food. We brought a dozen back home and put them, to my mother’s disapproval, in the portable ‘camping’ bidet, slung on its trestle – we had covered the bottom with sand from the bed of the stream. The tadpoles seemed at home there, and sure enough after a few days they began their metamorphosis. This was a novel spectacle, as full of mystery as a birth or a death – enough to make us forget our holiday homework, and for the days to seem fleeting and the nights interminable.
Every morning, indeed, had a surprise in store. The tail of one tadpole began to thicken, close to its root, into a small knot. The knot enlarged, and in two or three days out pushed a pair of webbed feet – but the little creature made no use of them: it let them hang limp, and carried on waggling its tail. A few more days, and a pustule formed on one side of its head; this swelled up, then burst like an abscess, and out came a forelimb already perfectly formed, minute, transparent – a tiny glass hand, already treading water. A little later, and the same happened to the other side, while the tail was already starting to shrink.
This was a dramatic time: one could see that at a glance. It was a harsh and brutal puberty: the tiny creatures began to fret, as if an inner sense had forewarned them of the torment in store for those who change their shape, and they were confounded in mind and body: perhaps they no longer knew who they were. Their swimming was frantic and bewildered, their tails growing ever shorter and their four legs still too weak to use. They circled around in search of something – air for their new lungs, perhaps, or maybe a landing place from which to set forth into the world. I realised that the sides of the bidet were too steep for the tadpoles to climb out, as was clearly their wish, and so I positioned in the water two or three small wooden ramps.
It was the right idea, and some of the tadpoles took advantage of it – but could you still call them tadpoles? Not any more: the larvae had gone; now there were brown frogs as big as beans – but frogs with two arms and two legs, folk like us, who swam breaststroke with difficulty but in the correct style. And they no longer ate each other, so we felt differently towards them, like a mother and father: in some way they were our children, even if our part in their metamorphosis had been more of a hindrance than a help. I sat one in the palm of my hand: it had an ugly mug, but a face nevertheless; it looked at me, winked, and its mouth gaped open. Was it gasping for air, or was it trying to tell me something? Another time it set off determinedly along my finger, as if along a springboard. The next instant it was gone, with one senseless hop into the void.
Bringing up tadpoles, then, was not so easy. Only a few of them cottoned on to our little safety ramps and got out onto dry land. The rest, already deprived of the gills provided for their aquatic infancy, we would find in the morning, drowned, worn out by too much swimming, just like a human swimmer trapped inside a lock. And even those who had understood the purpose of the landing stage, the more intelligent ones, did not always live long. The tadpoles responded to a perfectly natural instinct – the same instinct that has driven us to the moon, that is epitomised in the commandment, ‘Multiply and replenish the earth’ – which spurred them to forsake the stretch of water where they had completed their metamorphosis. It did not matter whither – anywhere else but there. In the wild, for every likely pool, for every bend in the stream, there will be another not far away, or perhaps a damp meadow or a marsh. Thus some do survive, by migrating and colonising new surroundings. Still, even in the most favourable conditions a large proportion of these neo-frogs are bound to die. And it is for this reason that the mother frog exhausts herself laying interminable strings of eggs: she ‘knows’ that the infant mortality rate will be breathtakingly high, and she allows for this as our country forebears did.
Our surviving tadpoles dispersed around the courtyard garden in search of water that wasn’t there. We tried to keep track of them through the grass and the gravel. The boldest, labouring to cross the granite pavement in clumsy hops, was spotted by a robin, who made a quick meal of him. And that very instant the white kitten, our gentle little playmate, who had watched all this transfixed, took a prodigious leap and pounced on the bird, whose mind was still on its lucky catch. She half-killed it, as cats do, and took it off into a corner to toy with its agony.
Primo Levi, c.1950
‘Tadpoles’, by Primo Levi. © Primo Levi, 1986. © 2017, Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Turin. Reproduced by permission of Giulio Einaudi Editore S.P.A. Translation © Simon Rees, 1986. Reproduced with permission.
Photograph of Primo Levi © The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
Artwork © Biodiversity Heritage Library