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November 2008
A HYPOTHALAMUS KNIGHT

Nenad Velickovic
My girlfriend thinks that there’s no sex without love, and I, on the contrary, think that there is no love without sex.
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We started to discover this deep distinction between us during the first days of war, when I had my engagement ring melted into armour and when she did the same, turning her ring into the maiden belt of purity. Since then, we haven’t made love for twenty lunar months. We have continued to share our apartment, income, and bed, in which instead of having sex we have had long conversations about our wedding and my reasons for postponing it. (Mostly down to the fact that I’m not the type of guy who wants to marry a future widow.)

It took me several months to understand what was the matter with us, what was the cause of our total sexual failure. To help me understand it, I started to make pocket-calendars. I have fifteen of them now. On one side are dates: four columns and seven rows, making up the twenty-eight days of a lunar month. On the other side there are pictures. Some are photos from sex-magazines, and some are illustrations from old books. The photos are in colour. There are girls like blondy on the tennis court, pictured from the back. She has white sneakers on bare feet. Thin ankles, tanned spindly calves, two little furrows on every knee-curve, two spread thighs. She bents over, waiting for her opponent’s serve. Her short dress has risen up, revealing that she doesn’t wear undies. Below her snowy tight buttocks, where the thighs are close to each other but not completely joined, a tiny hidden forest of bright and curly little hairs is transformed by the sunset into a spot of golden mist.

The illustrations are mostly reproductions of engravings from Renaissance authors’ books. One shows a young man, a gardener, on a swing in a garden, his body reclining on the back of the swing, his legs stretched out in front of him. He has pulled up his shirt and taken off his pants, revealing the “unsheathed sword ready for action”, or “the key of heaven’s door” as the Renaissance writers like to call it. A nun stands above him. She straddles him, with one hand holding his cock and the other holding up her robe and blessing her “martyr” with the second and forefinger.

The calendars on the back of these pictures are useful only to me. I write down the results of my observations, experiences, and opinions in twenty-eight boxes in which the days of the lunar months are inscribed in black by a laser printer. The seven days with the little red crosses are those on which my girlfriend menstruates. Days that I spend on the front line are marked with golden lilies. Since I’m not a skilful painter, they look like half-peeled bananas.

Sundays are marked with the letters “OM” in blue. That’s the period in which she exercises yoga and has muscle-aches for two days. She fasts on Sundays too, to deepen her consciousness and save the humanitarian aid. Once every twenty-eight days she depilates hairs from her bikini area. This day is marked by three orange curls.

We get electricity every seventh night, and this night we spend pouring the water from the bath into the washing-machine. These days I have marked azure blue. Four days are coloured with traffic signs for danger: ovulation period. Three days of the full moon that draw out sorrow from women like the tide from the ocean, are marked by yellow circles. Twice a month she breaks our conversations to smash a moth or to attack a cobweb in the corners, then has to clean up the mess on the doors and windows, and she despairs over the lack of water to wash the carpet and wallpaper. Days like these are marked with a spider’s web.

Every fifth day I wake up with butterflies of fear in my chest. Death is an omnipotent censor in every thought of mine. The fear of death is my psychic tumour which I try to cure by abstention. This day is represented in my calendar by a skull. I stop making plans, give up hope that the war will end, and dismiss wishes, expectations and the idea of happiness. I stare at nothing for hours. My girlfriend does her best: bakes cookies, finds magazines and as a sign of love, bakes a pie. I wonder to myself: What’s the purpose of this? Tomorrow maybe the worms will settle under our skin and crawl into our head.

My calendars are based on statistics, calculus of probabilities, medicine, psychology, and parapsychology. What I don’t know, I ask my friends to calculate for me. Our bio-rhythm is charted by the dates, and blue pluses and minuses in the corners of the boxes. The periods of separation between partners are also marked in the corners, by our horoscope signs. Three, or even four can be found in one single box. Only one is enough for me to give up not just sex that day but even the thought of it, and then to turn over the calendar and enjoy the side with the picture.

Then, after twenty lunar months and sixteen completely filled calendars, after careful corrections and checking, after a few days of doubt and disbelief, a white box showed up. The Long Expected Day.

I was in my bunker. I couldn’t sleep all night because of my excitement and my coughing from the fumes of the oil-lamp which, since it had been filled with machine-oil, stank and gave out soot more than it shone. At two o’clock I went out to take over my guard shift. I sat in the trench for three hours. The hour after that, I drank coffee and waited for dawn to break in order to do that thing, because of which, everything happened as it happened.

I had decided to give my girlfriend a rucksack full of red apples instead of a bouquet of roses. I knew where the apples were, and that no one had picked them. They hung high on a tree, on branches that could not be reached or broken from the ground, but so high that the enemy sniper could see them over all of the roofs and trees.

I climbed the first thick branches and shook the tree. Of course, no apple fell off. The top just trembled a bit as if a sparrow alighted upon it. Still sheltered by the remnants of the roof and the burned chimney, I climbed another stair of branches. Tufts of morning fog slowly passed between me and the sniper’s firing point. My heart beat in my throat, and something whispered to me to give up, not to take a risk on this special day.

But today, one real and undeniable proof of love was needed — something like a rucksack full of red and fragrant apples. Another man might buy them, but then, a man with enough money to buy a rucksack full of apples would also have enough money not to find himself in my situation. Bravery is the prerogative of the poor. The brave rich are fools. I strained my muscles and lifted myself up. Behind the chimney a little forest appeard on top of the rock where the enemy’s bunker was situated. The branches became thin and the tree began to shake harder.

I imagine the view from the bunker. The sniper’s view is calm, as in a photo; only one tree-crown shakes as if it were his personal wind. He bends down, looks through the gun-sights and as soon as he sees me, a cloud of fog starts to pass by.

The higher I climb, the less I fear the sniper but the more I fear falling on to the rusty nails sticking out of the burnt wood in the ditch under the apple tree. The birds wake up. If the enemy fires, I won’t hear it because of their twittering. It would be easy to break all the branches full of apples but everything tells me not to. To shake the branches would also be a stupid move; half the apples would be smashed and half would be damaged by the thorns and rocks.

I hold the tree with one hand and stretch out with the other, bending the branches towards me. But as soon as I pick one apple, the branch flees back and I must start again. The more I bend, the more the tree bends, and the crackling gets louder. But then I imagine myself opening the rucksack and showing the war-prey to my amazed girlfriend. She likes apples as I like pie.

‘What are you doing up there?’

It was the house-owner and owner of the apple tree. I hadn’t thought of him.

The epilogue of my adventure took place in the command outpost. The owner got my apples and I got an extra digging duty. In fact, I continued where I had abandoned work the day before. We had dug a channel near the brook, diverting its water into a hole three metres wide by two metres long, in order to power a mini hydroelectric power station fashioned from a washing-machine. With this electricity, we would have light at night; we would no longer cough from the oil-lamp soot, or pull on the wrong boots in the dark. But the security commander’s assistant checked our work last night and declared the place chosen by the logistic commander’s assistant to be inadequately concealed from the enemy. So he ordered everything to be buried and covered up with grass.

So, from nine till one o’clock with little pause, I filled in the ground I had dug out yesterday, but I wasn’t angry. On the contrary, I whistled joyfully, so the time I spent digging went along faster. But the officers don’t like you to be joyful while working; they think you are making fools of them. That’s why I was punished with more work after lunch, until my guard shift.

In daytime, only one man guards a trench. That’s annoying because you can’t sleep. You must sit and watch through the loop-hole. Since you can’t see anything through it on account of the ant-hill in front of your eye, this hour and half I spend out of the trench, watching that some control does not surprise me and put me on the front-line for three more days. This merits an award. But if you sit in the trench and stare through the loop-hole, you can neither see anything nor hear anything. And when the officer comes up behind you, you get an “extra” digging duty.

At six o’clock I was able to take a look at the place where the building materials and wood were kept, and to choose a trunk, a bit shorter and thinner than a lamppost. I decided to take it with me, despite the possibility that it might be confiscated from me at the entrance to town, after having hauled it for an hour. This piece of wood could spare my girlfriend three visits to the city garbage dump, and hours of collecting plastic bottles, worn-out shoes and similar high-calorie fuel for our tin furnace.

At seven o’clock we changed guards and went home. We walked for two hours instead of one because of the fog. It was so thick that the man in the middle of the column could not see the man in front. Somebody suggested that everybody take hold of my trunk so we wouldn’t fall on the ice. Bound to the descendant of Odysseus’ mast, we passed in this way through Scylla and Charybdis, successfully passing the sirens and police who might take away the wood, and made it to our part of the city.

Finally I stood in front of my building’s locked door and heard my girlfriend running down the stairs to open it. She saw me standing with the trunk like a knight with a spear, and I pronounced the words of some comedy, ‘Dulcinea, here is your Rocinante!’ She embraced me and the trunk together. Judging by the fire of her kiss and the strength of her embrace, I knew that the calendar had not made a mistake and that the Long Expected Day was here.

We placed the trunk across the kitchen, which smelled of baked pie and steam from my bathing pot. I knew she must have fetched water from the nearby watering-spot at least twice, that she mist have spent the whole day waiting in queues and going back and forth. I took the big red apple from my pocket, polished it on my chest and gave it to her. She wore an outfit I liked: a navy shirt with dark blue stripes and short, wide, white trousers. As if we found ourselves at the seaside in summertime and not in the middle of Bosnia, in the middle of winter, and in the middle of war. To wash such white laundry she would have needed twice as much water as I spent on bathing. I promised myself I would fetch that water tomorrow.

I took off my clothes and got into the bath. A sweat broke out on my body and I shuddered with coldness. In the cold bathroom, steam came out of my mouth like from the laundry-washing pot. At first, she poured water on my body and then soaped me. With great delight and pleasure, she lingered where I eagerly wanted her to: one more proof that today was the Long Expected Day. Then she rinsed me and wiped me with a clean, perfumed and warm towel. Steam still came from my mouth, but I wasn’t cold any more.

In the kitchen the table was set. A pie, yoghurt and cookies with cinnamon. I ate while she looked on and laughed at me. Then she bit the apple as if she were kissing it, showing her white teeth and pushing her tongue against the red apple-skin. The bed in the room was arranged. She took the hot tiles out of it and I jumped out of my bathrobe and crept into the heated bedclothes, which were clean and fragranced with lavender. It was the Long Expected Day.

She put a lit candle on a cupboard near the bed. The windows were darkened by the blinds. Or by the curtains, anyway. She was undressing, while still looking at me. She took off her vest. Her white trousers fell on the floor. She wore black silk underwear. Was it lace maybe? She blew out the candle and drew in next to me. We hugged each other close and remained in that position for a few minutes. Or seconds, anyway. Quite enough for me to fall asleep irretrievably.





© Nenad Velickovic 2006

Translated by Miroslav Prvulovic
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