translated by Tim Parks
There was a town where everything was forbidden.
Now, since the only thing that wasn't forbidden was the game tip-cat, the town's subjects used to assemble on meadows behind the town and spend the day there playing tip-cat.
And as the laws forbidding things had been introduced one at a time and always with good reason, no one found any cause for complaint or had any trouble getting used to them.
Years passed. One day the constables saw that there was no longer any reason why everything should be forbidden and they sent messengers to inform their subjects that they could do whatever they wanted.
The messengers went to those places where the subjects were wont to assemble.
"Hear ye, hear ye," they announced, "nothing is forbidden any more."
The people went on playing tip-cat.
"Understand?" the messengers insisted. "You are free to do what you want."
"Good," replied the subjects. "We're playing tip-cat."
The messengers busily reminded them of the many wonderful and useful occupations they had once engaged in and could now engage in again. But the subjects wouldn't listen and just went on playing, stroke after stroke, without even stopping for a breather.
Seeing that their efforts were in vain, the messengers went to tell the constables.
"Easy," the constables said. "Let's forbid the game of tip-cat."
That was when the people rebelled and killed the lot of them.
Then without wasting time, they got back to playing tip-cat.
Italo Calvino (1923-1985). Born in Cuba. Grew up in San Remo, Italy. One of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. Extremely versatile, Calvino produced superb examples of neo-realism, modern fables, science fiction, fantasy and OuLiPo experimentalism. Numbers in the Dark is a representative cross-section of his life's work. Tip-cat is a game that involves hitting a stick across a certain distance and trying to estimate the number of hops it will take a player to cover the same distance.