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THE WOLF PIT IN CIAN DE PRUVÌN - North Western Ligurian Appennines

The following text has been written by don Sandro Lagomarsini, present keeper of the Museo Contadino di Cassego (Museum of local peasantry in Upper Vara Valley, NW Appenines Italy),  using texts collected from  oral sources during 1970-80’s and conserved in the Museum’s files.

It is only the third of May, but already the cattle must be taken to pasture.  In the Gagliardo family, this is Vincenzino’s job, even though he is only 13. His two sisters, 15 and 18 years old, are in domestic service in the town.

This last winter, of 1858 to 1859, has been really terrible.  The first snow fell at the start of November and melted only in mid-March. Stocks of food, for both people and animals, are fast running out.

It has been a winter of wolves. They have roamed about the snowy mountaintops, but have also approached the houses. From one family they stole bread that was being cooked in their kitchen. They also attacked a soldier while he was on his way home at night for a brief break from the Army. He managed to save himself by climbing up the chestnut tree planted by his father forty years ago, twenty meters from the house. Agostino (the soldier) called for help but in his house there was no rifle and the wolves circled round all night long.

The seed seller arrived soon this year. Potatoes and maize have already been sown, in the hope that another cold snap will not come.

It is daylight. Vincenzino has put on an old jacket of local fabric composed by sheep wool and hemp. He will lay down on it when the cows will lie down to ruminate on pasture. This evening it will serve to protect his head and shoulders which are stuffed with a bundle of fresh grass.

In his satchel, under the watchful gaze of his mother, he had put two slices of “polenta” and a slice of cheese. But he also has four potatoes, taken secretly from the small pile left down after the sowing: he will cook these on a fire. He also takes a little sickle.

Vincenzino, as usual, takes three of the four animals from their stall: two calves and a dry cow, together with three more cows he held at his uncle Giovanni’s place. It takes nearly an hour to reach the common pastures.  As usual shepherds from a nearby town have arrived first. About ten families send their animals to the common pastures. People from his town always arrive last.

But this morning seems different. From far away an unusual noise is heard: voices calling, perhaps crying for help.  Vincenzino can just make out something in the distance, towards Cian de Pruvìn. A group of men seem occupied with something difficult, right next to the wolf pit site.

Vincenzino does not hesitate. He leaves his cows with a friend, who is younger than him and who regards Vincenzino as his superior. He reassured Teresina, the old granny who is always on the pasture and keeps an eye on the handful of little shepherds, with a “I’ll be back soon” and he runs towards Cian de Pruvìn.

Some people have dug a wolf pit right at the centre of that windy ridge that during the winter is covered with ice. A few shrubs and branches allow the unwary to pass right over the three meters deep pit, covered with branches, from which it’s impossible to escape.

When Vincenzino arrived, he did not immediately grasp who were the protagonists and who the spectators. Certainly the wolf was the protagonist that now was dead and hung by its feet to a pole, ready for transportation. Perhaps another central character was the travelling coppersmith, recognizable by his ashen face, who was sitting near a copper cauldron and his tool box, while he watches the special type of anvil nearby.

Vincenzino approached a group of newly arrived people and so he heard, from them all, the whole story. The travelling coppersmith was following, in the night, the road over a hill, towards Vincenzino’s town. He didn’t remember the wolf pit at Cian de Pruvìn and so he fell into it. But the pit was already occupied by a wolf, which had fallen in before him. Each was as surprised as the other. But the wolf bared its teeth, from around a meter away.  Then the coppersmith remembered the lighter in his pocket and began to flick the flames on and off to scare or at least distract the wolf. Then the coppersmith remembered the anvil, stuck in the earth by its long sharp-pointed part that he uses to patch cauldrons and, carefully, took it out of the box and pointed it at the wolf. At dawn, the first shepherds’ children passed by. The coppersmith heard them and the children ran to call the adults for help.

Vincenzino wanted to stay longer, but he had to go back to the pasture-meadow. From the shepherd’s town, with some of his shepherd friends, he continued to follow the procession of men. In the afternoon a harmonica could be heard and also the young people at the pasture began to dance.

Old Teresina began to tell a tale that in the year of the Great Hunger (1816) she too had encountered a wolf.  He had tried to carry away a sheep and she had stood in his way with her stick and her hob-nailed clogs and had scared it away.

Vincenzino was sleeping. When he woke up the sun was setting. The potatoes were still in their satchel. He had not used the sickle as usual, no bundle of fresh herbs will be carried home but Vincenzino hopes to have his parents’ forgiveness telling at home the story of this unusual day.