The wasp treatment

The Age recently reported that a British doctor, suspended in the United Kingdom after reports that she tried to buy black widow spider and deathstalker scorpion venom, was looking for work in Victoria.

Rapinder Adekola, who has been living on a property in Dereel in Victoria’s south-west, said she was the victim of false allegations and a “set-up by British police”.

The 42-year-old general practitioner said in an email to The Age that she left Britain after “continuous harassment and victimisation” and was willing to work in areas of need in Australia.

The doctor and her husband, James, according to London’sDaily Telegraph, had “planned to research the use of poisons to develop a new form of pain relief”.

Which made us at CI think of Italo Calvino’s marvellous story, The Wasp Treatment:

The Wasp Treatment

by Italo Calvino

Winter departed and left rheumatic aches behind. A faint noonday sun came to cheer the days, and Marcovaldo would spend a few hours watching the leaves sprout, as he sat on a bench, waiting to go back to work. Near him a little old man would come and sit, hunched in his overcoat, all patches: he was a certain Signor Rizieri, retired, all alone in the world, and also a regular visitor of sunny park benches. From time to time this Signor Rizieri would jerk and cry—”Ow!”—and hunch even deeper into his coat. He was a mass of rheumatism, arthritis, lumbago, collected during the damp, cold winter, which continued to pursue him for the rest of the year. To console him, Marcovaldo would explain the various stages of his own rheumatic pains, as well as those of his wife and of his oldest daughter, Isolina, who, poor thing, was turning out to be rather delicate.

Every day Marcovaldo carried his lunch wrapped in newspaper; seated on the bench he would unwrap it and give the crumpled piece of newspaper to Signor Rizieri, who would hold out his hand impatiently, saying: “Let’s see what the news is.” He always read it with the same interest, even if it was two years old.

And so one day he came upon an article about a method of curing rheumatism with bee venom.

“They must mean honey,” Marcovaldo said, always inclined to be optimistic.

“No,” Rizieri said, “venom, it says here: the poison in the sting.” And he read a few passages aloud. The two of them discussed bees at length, their virtues, attributes, and also the possible cost of this treatment.

After that, as he walked along the avenues, Marcovaldo pricked up his ears at every buzz, his gaze followed every insect that flew around him. And so, observing the circling of a wasp with a big black-and-yellow-striped belly, he saw it burrow into the hollow of a tree, where other wasps then came out: a thrumming, a bustle that announced the presence of a whole wasp-nest inside the trunk. Marcovaldo promptly began his hunt. He had a glass jar, in the bottom of which there was still a thick layer of jam. He placed it, open, near the tree. Soon a wasp buzzed around it, then went inside, attracted by the sugary smell. Marcovaldo was quick to cover the jar with a paper lid.

And the moment he saw Signor Rizieri, he could say to him: “Come, I’ll give you the injection!”, showing him the jar with the infuriated wasp trapped inside.

The old man hesitated, but Marcovaldo refused to postpone the experiment for any reason, and insisted on performing it right there, on their bench: the patient didn’t even have to undress. With a mixture of fear and hope, Signor Rizieri raised the hem of his overcoat, his jacket, his shirt; and opening a space through his tattered undershirts, he uncovered a part of his loins where he ached. Marcovaldo stuck the top of the jar there and slipped away the paper that was acting as a lid. At first nothing happened; the wasp didn’t move. Had he gone to sleep? To waken him, Marcovaldo gave the bottom of the jar a whack. That whack was just what was needed: the insect darted forward and jabbed his sting into Signor Rizieri’s loins. The old man let out a yell, jumped to his feet, and began walking like a soldier on parade, rubbing the stung part and emitting a string of confused curses.

Marcovaldo was all content; the old man had never been so erect, so martial. But a policeman had stopped nearby, and was staring wide-eyed; Marcovaldo took Rizieri by the arm and went off, whistling.

He came home with another wasp in the jar. To convince his wife to allow the sting was no easy matter, but in the end he succeeded. For a while, at least Domitilla complained only of the wasp sting.

Marcovaldo started catching wasps full tilt. He gave Isolina an injection, and Domitilla a second one, because only systematic treatment could bring about an improvement. Then he decided to have a shot himself. The children, you know how they are, were saying: “Me, too; me, too,” but Marcovaldo preferred to equip them with jars and set them to catching more wasps, to supply the daily requirements.

Signor Rizieri came to Marcovaldo’s house looking for him; he had another old man with him, Cavalier Ulrico, who dragged one leg and wanted to start the treatment at once.

Word spread; Marcovaldo now had an assembly-line set up: he always kept half a dozen wasps in stock, each in its glass jar, lined up on a shelf. He applied the jar to the patient’s behind as if it were a syringe, he pulled away the paper lid, and when the wasp had stung, he rubbed the place with alcohol-soaked cotton, with the nonchalant hand of an experienced physician. His house consisted of a single room, in which the whole family slept; they divided it with a makeshift screen, waiting-room on one side, doctor’s office on the other. In the waiting-room Marcovaldo’s wife received the clients and collected the fees. The children took the empty jars and ran off towards the wasps’ nest for refills. Sometimes a wasp would sting them, but they hardly cried anymore, because they knew it was good for their health.

That year rheumatic aches and pains twisted among the population like the tentacles of an octopus; Marcovaldo’s cure acquired great renown; and on Saturday afternoon he saw his poor garret invaded by a little throng of suffering men and women, pressing a hand to their back or hip, some with the tattered aspect of beggars, others looking like well-off people, drawn by the novelty of this treatment.

“Hurry,” Marcovaldo said to his three boys, “take the jars, go and catch as many wasps as you can.” The boys went off.

It was a sunny day, many wasps were buzzing along the avenue. The boys usually hunted them at a certain distance from the tree where their nest was, trying to catch isolated insects. But that day, Michelino, to save time and catch more, began hunting right at the entrance to the nest. “This is the way to do it,” he said to his brothers, and he tried to catch a wasp by putting the jar over it the moment it landed. But, every time, that wasp flew away and came back to light closer and closer to the nest. Now it was at the very edge of the hollow in the trunk, and Michelino was about to lower the jar on it, when he felt two other big wasps fling themselves on him as if they wanted to sting him on the head. He shielded himself, but he felt the prick of the stings and, crying out in pain, he dropped the jar. Immediately, dismay at what he had done erased his pain: the jar had fallen into the mouth of the nest. No further buzzing was heard, no more wasps came out; Michelino, without even the strength to yell, took a step backwards. Then from the nest a thick, black cloud burst out, with a deafening hum: all the wasps were advancing at once in an enraged swarm!

His brothers heard Michelino let out a scream as he began running as he had never run in his life. He seemed steam-driven, as that cloud he trailed after him seemed the smoke from a chimney.

Where does a child run when he is being chased? He runs home! And that’s what Michelino did.

The passers-by didn’t have time to realize what that sight was, something between a cloud and a human being, darting along the streets with a roar mixed with a loud buzz.

Marcovaldo was saying to his patients: “Just one moment, the wasps will soon be here,” when the door opened and the swarm invaded the room. They didn’t even see Michelino, who went to stick his head in a basin of water: the whole room was full of wasps and the patients flapped their arms in the futile effort to drive them away, and the rheumatics performed wonders of agility and the benumbed limbs were released in furious movements.

The fire department came, and then the Red Cross. Lying on his cot in the hospital, swollen beyond recognition by the stings, Marcovaldo didn’t dare react to the curses that were hurled at him from the other cots of the ward by his patients.

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