By Primo Levi

A very tall man, dressed in a way Maria had never seen before, was in the kitchen. He had a boat made of newspaper on his head, was smoking a pipe, and was painting the cabinet white.

It was incomprehensible that so much white could be in such a little can, and Maria was bursting with the desire to go and look inside it. Every now and then the man put his pipe down right on top of the cabinet and whistled. Then he stopped whistling and started to sing. Once in a while he took two steps back and closed one eye, and sometimes he also went to spit into the garbage can and then he would wipe his mouth with his cuff. All in all, he did so many strange and new things that it was fascinating to stay and watch him, and when the cabinet was white, he picked up the can and a lot of newspapers that were on the floor and put them all next to the cupboard and began to paint it too.

The cabinet was so smooth, shiny and white that it was almost obligatory to touch it. Maria approached the cabinet, but the man noticed her and said: “Don’t touch. You mustn’t touch.” Maria, rebuked, stopped and asked: “Why?” to which the man answered, “Because it’s not allowed.” Maria thought about it, then asked again, “Why is it so white?” The man thought a little himself, as if the question seemed difficult to him, and then said with a deep voice, “Because of the titanium dye.”

Maria felt an exquisite shudder of fear go through her, just as when the ogre appears in a fairy tale. She looked with care, and saw that the man had no weapons, neither in his hand nor around him; however, he could have one hidden. Then she asked, “How will I die?” and at that point he should have answered, “By the dagger.” Instead he only said, “Not that kind of die — a dye is a coloring agent.”

Obviously, he had to be a very powerful man, yet he didn’t seem to be angry; in fact, he was friendly and good. Maria asked him, “Mister, what’s your name?” He answered, “My name is Felice.” He hadn’t taken his pipe from his mouth, and while he talked his pipe danced up and down, yet it didn’t fall. Maria stood for a time in silence, looking alternately at the man and the cabinet. She wasn’t at all satisfied with that answer and would have wished to ask why his name was Felice, but she didn’t dare, because she remembered that children must never ask why. Her friend Alice was named Alice and was a chiled, and it was really strange for a man as big as that to be named Felice. But little by little it began to seem natural to her for that man to be named Felice, and it even became obvious to her that he couldn’t have any other name.

The painted cabinet was so white that in comparison with it the rest of the kitchen looked yellow and dirty. Maria decided that there was nothing wrong with going to see it from close up — just to see without touching. But while she was advancing on tiptoe, an unexpected and terrible thing happened: the man turned and was next to her in one step. He took a piece of white chalk from his pocket and drew a circle around Maria on the floor. Then he said, “You’re not allowed to go outside that line.” After that he struck a match and lit his pipe, making many strange faces in the process, and went back to varnishing the cupboard.

Maria sat on her heels and examined the circle with care for a long time, but she had to convince herself that there wasn’t any exit. She tried to rub it in one place with her finger, and discovered that the chalk mark really disappeared, but she knew quite well that the man would not have accepted that process as valid.

The circle was plainly magic. Maria sat quietly and peacefully on the floor. Every so often she tried to move until she touched the circle with the tips of her feet and leaned over until she almost lost her balance, but she quickly saw that she still was too far away to be able to reach the cabinet or the wall with her finger. Then she paused to observe how little by little the cupboard, the chairs, and the table all became beautiful and white.

After a very long time the man put down his brush and can and took the newspaper boat off his head, whereupon it could be seen that he had hair like all other men. Then he went out through the balcony, and Maria heard him bustling and walking up and down in the next room. Maria began to call, “Mister!” first softly, then louder, but not too loud, because deep down she was afraid the man would hear.

Finally the man came back to the kitchen. Maria asked, “Mister, can I go out now?” The man looked down at Maria and the circle, laughed loudly, and said, “Yes, obviously, now you can go out.” Maria looked at him, puzzled, and did not move. Then the man took a rag and erased the circle very thoroughly in order to break the spell. When the circle had disappeared, Maria got up and went away skipping, feeling altogether pleased and satisfied.

This translation appeared in Midstream in 1981.

The original Italian version was a chapter in Il Sistema Periodico
which was published in 1975.