LEAD Action News
Vol 2 no 3
Lead in Literature
"Lead" is the title of a chapter from The Periodic Table, a book by Primo Levi.
Periodic Table by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (Michael Joseph, 1985),
copyright © Giolio Einaudi editore, s.p.a., Torino, 1975,
My name is Rodmund and I come from far away. My country is called Thiuda; at least we call it that, but our neighbours, that is, our enemies, use different names for us - Saksa, Nemet, Alaman. My country is different from this one; it has great forests and rivers, long winters, swamps, mists and rain. My people - I mean those who speak my language - are shepherds, hunters, and warriors: they do not like to cultivate the land, indeed they scorn those who do cultivate it, drive their flocks on their fields, sack their villages, and make slaves of their women. I am neither a shepherd nor a warrior; I am not even a hunter, although my trade is not very different from a hunter's. It ties me to the land, but I am free: I am not a peasant.
My father and all of us Rodmunds in the paternal line have always plied this trade, which consists in knowing a certain heavy rock, finding it in distant countries, heating it in a certain way that we know, and extracting black lead from it. Near my village there was a large bed; it is said that it had been discovered by one of my ancestors whom they called Rodmund Blue Teeth. It is a village of lead-smiths; everyone there knows how to smelt and work it, but only we Rodmunds know how to find the rock and make sure it is the real lead rock, and not one of the many heavy rocks that the gods have strewn over the mountain so as to deceive man. It is the gods who make the veins of metals grow under the ground, but they keep them secret, hidden; he who finds them is almost their equal, and so the gods do not love him and try to bewilder him. They do not love us Rodmunds: but we don't care.
Now, in five or six generations the bed has been exhausted: someone has suggested following it below the ground, digging tunnels, and even tried to do it and lost by it; finally the opinion of the more prudent prevailed. All the men have resumed their former trades, but not I: just as the lead, without us, does not see the light, so we cannot live without lead. Ours is an art that makes us rich, but it also makes us die young. Some say that this happens because the metal enters our blood and slowly impoverishes it; others think instead that it is a revenge of the gods, but in any case it matters little to use Rodmunds that our lives are short, because we are rich, respected, and see the world. In fact the case of my ancestor with the blue teeth is exceptional, because the deposit he had discovered was exceptionally rich: in general, we prospectors are also travellers. He himself, they told me, came from far away, from a country where the sun is cold and never sets, the people live in houses made of ice, and in the sea swim monsters a thousand strides long.
So, after six generations in one place, I began travelling again, in search of rock to smelt or to be smelted by other people; teaching them the art in exchange for gold. We Rodmunds are wizards, that's what we are: we change lead into gold.
I left by myself, heading southward, when I was still young. I travelled for four years, from region to region, avoiding the plains, climbing up the mountain valleys, tapping with my hammer, finding little or nothing: in the summer I worked in the fields; in the winter I wove baskets or spent the gold I had brought with me. By myself, I have said: for us, women serve to provide a male child, so that the race does not die out, but we don't take them along. What use would they serve They don't learn how to find the rock, and in fact, if they touch it when they have their period it crumbles into dead sand and ashes. Better the girls you meet along the way, good for a night or a month, with whom you can make merry without thinking of tomorrow, as instead wives do. It is better to live our tomorrows alone: when the flesh begins to become loose and pale, the belly pains, hair and teeth fall out, gums turn gray, then it is better to be alone.
I arrived at a place from which, on clear days, you could see a chain of mountains to the south. In the spring I began walking again, determined to reach them: I was completely fed up with that sticky, soft earth, good for nothing, good for making clay ocarinas, lacking both secrets and virtue. In the mountains it is different: the rocks, which are the bones of the earth, can be seen uncovered, they ring out under your hobnailed boots, and it is easy to distinguish the different qualities: the plain is not for us. I would ask around where the easiest mountain pass was. I also asked if they had lead, where they bought it, and how much they paid for it: the more money they paid, the more I searched in the vicinity. Sometimes they didn't even know what lead was; when I showed them the chunk of it that I always carry in my bag they laughed at feeling it so soft, and derisively asked me if in my country lead is also used to make ploughs and swords. Most times, however, I could not understand them or make them understand me: bread, milk, a cot, a girl, the direction to take the next day, and that's all.
I got through a broad pass at the height of the summer, with a sun that at midday was almost perpendicular over my head, and yet their were still splotches of snow on the upland meadows. Just a bit lower down were flocks, shepherds, and paths: you could see the bottom of the valley, so deep that it still seemed immersed in the night. I descended, found villages, one rather large village on a stream, where the mountain folk came down to barter livestock, horses, cheese, pelts, and a red liquid they called wine. I almost burst out laughing whenever I heard them speak: their language was a crude and indistinct gurgle, an animal-like gur-gur, so much so that it was surprising to see that they nevertheless actually had weapons and tools like ours, some of them even more ingenious and elaborate. The women spun, as they did back home. They build houses of rock, not so pretty but solid; some houses, though, were made of wood, suspended a few feet above the ground since they rested on four or six wooden blocks topped by disks of smooth stone; I believe these stones served to prevent the invasion of mice, and this seemed to me an intelligent invention. The roofs were not made of straw but of broad, flat stones. They did not know beer.
I immediately saw that on high, along the valley's sides, there were holes in the rock and cascades of rubble: the sign that in these parts too some people were prospecting. But I did not ask any questions to avoid arousing suspicion; a foreigner like myself aroused too much already. I went down to the stream, which was rather swift (I remember that its water was turbid and a dingy white, as if it had been mixed with milk, something which in my parts was unheard of), and I set about patiently examining the stones: this is one of our tricks, the stones in a stream come from afar and speak clearly to him who understands. There was a little of everything: flint stones, green stones, lime stones, granite, iron-bearing stones, even a little of what we call galmeida, all stuff that did not interest me; and yet I had the fixed idea that in a valley formed like that, with certain white striations on the red rock and with so much iron thereabouts, lead rocks could not be missing.
I walked down along the stream, partly on the boulders, partly wading wherever I could, like a hunting dog, with my eyes glued to the ground, when lo and behold! a little below the confluence with another, smaller stream, I saw a stone among millions of other stones, a stone almost the same as all the others, a dingy white stone with small black speckles, which brought me to a halt, tense and motionless, exactly like a hunting dog pointing. I picked it up. It was heavy. Next to it was another like it but smaller. We rarely make mistakes: but just to be sure I crushed it and took a fragment as big as a nut along with me to test it. A good prospector, a serious one, who does not want to tell lies either to others or himself, should not trust in appearances, because the rock, which seems dead, instead is full of deception: sometimes it changes its nature even while you're digging, like certain snakes that change colour so you won't see them. A good prospector, therefore, carries everything with him: a clay crucible, pieces of charcoal, touchwood and steel, and another instrument that is secret and I can't mention and is used precisely to find out whether the rock is good or not.
That evening I found an out-of-the-way spot, built a hearth, on which I put the well-layered crucible, heated it for half an hour, and then let it cool. I broke it open and there it was - the shiny heavy little disk which can be scored by your fingernail, which makes your heart leap with joy and the fatigue of the long walk vanish from your legs, and which we call "the little king."
At this point we are far from finished; on the contrary, most of the work is still to be done. You have to go back up the stream, and at every branching look around to see whether the good stone continues to right or left. I went up for quite a distance along the big stream and the stone was always there but became more and more sparse; then the valley narrowed to a gorge so profound and steep that climbing it was out of the question. I asked the shepherds thereabouts and they gave me to understand by dint of gestures and grunts that there really was no way of getting around that gorge, but if you went back down to the big valley you would find a small road, about so wide, which ran through a pass they called something like Tringo and descended just above the gorge, ending up in a place where there were horned beasts that mooed and therefore (I thought) also grazing land, shepherds, bread, and milk. I started walking, easily found the road and Tringo, and from there went down to a very beautiful country.
Straight in front of me in a long tunnel-like view I saw a valley green with larches, and in the distance mountains white with snow at the height of the summer: the valley ended at my feet in a vast meadow dotted with huts and flocks. I was tired; I walked farther down and stopped by the shepherds. They were distrustful, but they knew (even too well) the value of gold, and they put me up for a few days without bothering me. I took advantage of this to learn a few words of their language - they called mountains "pen", meadows "tza", the snow of summer "roisa", sheep "fea", their houses "bait", which are made of rock in the lower part, where they keep the livestock, and of wood above, with stone rests as I have already said, where they live and store hay and provisions. They were cantankerous people, who spoke little, but they had no weapons and did not treat me badly.
When I was rested I resumed my search, still with the stream system, and I wound up slipping into a valley parallel to the larch valley, long, narrow, and deserted, without meadows or woods. The stream which ran through it was rich in good rock: I felt I was close to what I was searching for. It took me three days, sleeping in the open: in fact, without sleeping at all, I was that impatient, passing the night staring at the sky so that dawn would break soon.
The deposit was quite out of the way, in a very steep gully: the white rock cropped out here and there amid sickly grass, within a hand's reach, and all you had to do was dig two or three feet to find the black rock, the richest of all, which I had never yet seen but which my father had described to me. A compact rock without slag, to put a hundred men to work for a hundred years. What was strange was that someone must have already been there: you could see, half hidden behind a rock (which certainly had been put there on purpose), the opening to a tunnel, which must have been very old, because from its vault hung stalactites as long as my fingers. On the ground there were stakes of rotted wood and a few corroded bone fragments; the rest must have been carried off by the foxes - in fact there were footprints of foxes and perhaps of wolves: but a half skull that protruded from the mud was certainly human. This is a difficult thing to explain, but it has already happened more than once that someone, who knows when, coming from who knows where, at some remote time, perhaps before the Flood, finds a vein, does not say anything to anyone, tries by himself to dig out the rock, leaves his bones there, and then the centuries pass. My father told me that in whatever tunnel or cave you may dig you find the bones of the dead.
In short, the deposit was there: I made my tests, I built as best I could a furnace there in the open, I went down and came back up with wood, I melted down as much lead as I could carry on my back, and I returned to the valley. I didn't say anything to the people on the pastureland; I continued down the Tringo and came to the large village on the other side, which was called Sales. It was market day, and I put myself on show with my piece of lead in my hand. A few people began to stop, to weigh it and ask me questions, of which I only understood half; it was clear that they wanted to know what it was good for, how much it cost, and where it came from. Then an alert-looking fellow with a plaited woollen cap came up to me, and we understood each other pretty well. I showed him that you could beat that stuff with a hammer: in fact, right there and then I found a hammer and a curbstone and showed him how easy it is to fashion it into slabs and sheets: then I explained to him that with the sheets, welding them on one side with a red-hot iron, you could make pipes. I told him that wooden pipes, for example, the rainpipes in that town Sales, leak and rot; I explained to him that bronze pipes are hard to make and when they are used for drinking water cause stomach trouble, and that instead lead pipes last forever and can be joined together very easily. Putting on a solemn face, I also took a random shot and explained to him that with a sheet of lead you can also line coffins for the dead, so that they don't grow worms but become dry and thin, and so the soul too is not dispersed, which is a fine advantage; and still with lead you can cast small funeral statues, not shiny like bronze, but in fact a bit dark, a bit subdued, as is suitable to objects of mourning. Since I saw that these matters interested him greatly, I explained that, if one goes beyond appearances, lead is actually the metal of death: because it brings on death, because its weight is a desire to fall, and to fall is a property of corpses, because its very colour is dulled-dead, because it is the metal of the planet Tuisto, which is the slowest of the planets, that is, the planet of the dead. I also told him that, in my opinion, lead is a material different from all other materials, a metal which you feel is tired, perhaps tired of transforming itself and that does not want to transform itself anymore: the ashes of who knows how many other elements full of life, which thousands upon thousands of years ago were burned in their own fire. These are things I really think; it is not that I invented them to close the deal. That man, whose name was Borvio, listened to all this with his mouth agape, and then he told me that it really must be as I said, and that that planet is sacred to a god who in his town was called Saturn and is depicted with a scythe. This was the moment to get down to brass tacks, and while he was still there mulling over my blandishments, I asked him for thirty pounds of gold for handing over the deposit, the technique of smelting the lead, and precise instructions on the principal uses of the metal. He made me a counter offer of bronze coins with a boar imprinted on them, coined God knows where, but I made the motion of spitting on them: gold, and cut the nonsense. Anyway, thirty pounds are too much for someone travelling on foot, everyone knows that, and I knew that Borvio knew it: so we concluded the deal for twenty pounds. He insisted that I accompany him to the deposit, which was only right. When we got back to the valley, he gave me the gold: I checked all twenty ingots, found them genuine and of good weight, and we got beautifully drunk on wine to celebrate.
It was also a farewell drunk. It is not that that country did not please me, but many reasons impelled me to continue my journey.
(Continued in LEAD Action News Vol 2 No 4 Spring 1994).§
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Updated 12 November 2012