Iva Pekárková: Levhartice (The She-Leopard)
Translated by Melvyn Clarke
The igloo was growing.
With unperturbed regularity her fellow tribesmen slowly laid the iceblocks one after the other, carefully smoothing down and dousing the clefts between them.
“I don’t want to!” she cried. “No, it’s not fair!”
Here at the North Pole it was bitterly cold and the water quickly froze solid.
“Don’t do that to me!” she implored.
The ice rang out in silvery, threatening tones.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she kept on at them.
The menfolk took no notice of her and kept at it.
“Why? Why? Why?” she echoed across the snowy plain.
Eventually one of them turned round, spat through a hole in his teeth and sniggered: “You’re old.”
He tightened the hooded anorak that she had recently sewn him out of wolfskin and carried on with the iceblocks.
“But I’m not old!” she yelled. “I feel young and full of strength. Surely I’d realize if I were really old.”
“You’re old,” another of them assured her. With his hands in the seal mittens that she had made for him some time ago, he shoved her aside, so she did not get in the way.
“So why do I feel young? Why do I have the feeling that life is just beginning?”
The chief, the chief himself, added another block to the igloo, bent his head in the foxskin cap that she had recently given him and made sure he was sitting properly. He thrust a piece of pemmican that she had dried for him into his mouth and sucked at it with his toothless gums. He looked satisfied, as he always did when he upheld tradition and led his tribe to greater glory. Of course, this igloo was also traditional.
“You’re old,” he lisped wisely.
“I’m twenty winters younger than you are. Why don’t you build a funeral igloo for yourself?” she asked audaciously.
The builders froze mid-movement and shook with quiet laughter: “You are a woman! And you’re old.”
Boom! Another block was added to the construction and the walls began to curve in. Soon the igloo would be ready.
“I’m useful to the tribe! I can sew clothes like few can – how many of you have I clad? I chew skin twice as fast as the young girls. My teeth are still healthy. Look!”
They didn’t look. “You’re old.”
The chief placed the last block on top. He shuffled around the igloo, touching the joints, making sure that the blocks held firmly in place, clicking his tongue in satisfaction.
An icy orifice opened up before her. It was not dark. Sunrays penetrated the frozen snow and there was light inside the igloo. They had thrown a mangy old sealskin down for her. With a gesture that was both routine and lofty the chief motioned her to crawl inside.
The others stood around in a semicircle, waiting with that same ordinary but extraordinary expression. They had built funeral igloos for the elderly often enough, but the thought of death still kindled a special glow in their eyes.
And she cried. Begged. Pleaded. Threatened, albeit without the means. She scratched, bit and kicked. She wept until the tears froze on her cheeks.
Behind the men’s backs appeared the women. Some were young, still without children. Some were from her own generation, just two or three winters younger. The young ones’ faces showed excitement. The older ones also…horror.
And yet they were the ones who called the loudest: “She’s old! That’s the way it has to be!”
They forced her into the igloo and walled up the entrance with the last block. The sounds became muffled and as if in a dream she heard fragments of their speech as they left. Last to leave was the toothless chief. He took up the rear, his legs were swollen and he hobbled more than he liked to admit. He shuffled to his igloo for the living, to the pemmican that she had prepared for him, to the warmth of the tallow candles and the young wives, whom he replaced from time to time.
She beat her fists against the bell-like diaphanous walls. The ice turned pink with the blood, but did not move an inch. She kicked the walls and pounded her head against them. Then she tried to heat them up with her palms, to persuade them to let her out.
But she did not have enough heat in her.
She curled up on the fetid sealskin. The cold permeated her flesh, penetrating to the bone. Her fingers were now icicles, while around her heart she felt the tip of one that would soon grow into its centre and kill her. She knew she was to die, but was no longer afraid. Snow drifted down quietly on the igloo and with each flake she was more convinced that she was now seriously old and deserved to die.
Before her heart froze over she hardly cared any more.
But what was this? From another centre of her body, the place where children were born, from that orifice where it tickled so pleasantly when one of the hunters lay beside her on the fur, a warmth began to spread. A great heat. As if a volcano was being born. She melted the fallen snow, the icicles turned into pools of lukewarm water. She heated it with her warmth and awoke to life. New life? She was not sure, but life it definitely was.
Here and now
Now she knows what is making her warm.
She is making love.
Actually, no. She’s fucking, screwing, humping, bonking, having it away, banging, enjoying entirely normal, unperverse, unsafe sex between two adults, who are both entirely in agreement and in accord with this intercourse. More than in agreement, quite enthusiastic! Carried away, beyond themselves, somewhere in intermediate time and space…
…they are in a hotel room, not the most inexpensive hotel. The guy is making an effort. He would be ashamed to invite her to a cheap hotel, and he is unaware that Milla is no snob. She would screw, hump or bonk with him on a mangy mattress in the alcove behind his house or fuck, bang or have it away with him on a park bench or beneath a bush on the fragrant, erotically – immorally – soft and damp earth, swarming with worms and new life, intoxicatingly smelling of the roots of the being that might yet grow here, or who would have intercourse with him under a bridge, in a car, on the back seat of a bus, or put on a long, pleated skirt, so he could lean her up against a high fence in a malodorous corner behind the station, where it stinks of urine and asphalt and there are no security cameras.
But this guy was unaware. He paid for the hotel, so as not to cause her any offence. He thought Milla would be particular. Of course he was wrong. In this respect he was a conformist.
He also thought that Milla was not bothered about him. He thought she liked to make love with anybody who paid for a hotel, that is, if he appealed to her, and if she wanted to. Perhaps he also thought – they never actually spoke about it – that he himself was not that important, that he was replaceable, and that their stay here and now in this hotel, which was disproportionately expensive, their love-making, their screwing, their sex was rather a matter of chance. Of course he was not wrong. In this respect he was a realist.
The sex was fine. It was marvellous, like most sex in this life of Milla’s. Perhaps she had learnt to choose well. Previously she had enjoyed lots of sex. Average, ordinary, routine sex, boring to death. For many years and decades she lay on her back (how else?) and tried to persuade herself that the earth had at last moved. That the ceiling had imperceptibly rocked after all. That the crack in the plaster beneath the ceiling had extraordinarily symbolic meanings that she would not have noticed in an unenergized state….
Countless times Milla counted the thrusts – one, two, three, four, five, six…and countless times she was astonished when she actually managed to come at one hundred, as she had planned. (And then she inwardly burst out laughing, because he came at one hundred and one – and Milla was overcome by the suspicion that this happily shared orgasm, so tender, so honest, so filmic, was no more than shared mathematics – calculated and calculating…after all, he, too, must have counted to one hundred and so hoped for the same as she had. How else would they have managed it?)
Milla was a veteran of boring sex performed out of habit, because there was actually nobody better at it, as well as a veteran of loving sex without passion and passionate sex out of hatred. She was a veteran of the notion that faithfulness is a virtue that outweighs all boredom.
Except this had all passed when they bricked her into the igloo.
In her new life – right from the start – Milla had turned her twat into a major thoroughfare. At the time this suited her.
She was forty-two – an age when a lot of women supposedly leave good manners behind them. When they want to fuck anybody and everybody. An age when they supposedly long to belong to everyone – and they want to have it under control. (Of course they do not belong to anybody, and they have nothing at all under control.) An age when they supposedly want to be good. Marvellous. Beautiful where it is most important, because they are no longer beautiful to look at. An age when they long to stun the guys, floor them, when they long to invent positions that never fit in the Kama Sutra, to exercise their pelvic floor for hours every day and work out their pubococcygeus muscle, so as to win the Olympics if cocksucking and grinding ever happen to be made disciplines.
They know that guys are nonplussed, albeit perhaps a little afraid of such women, as if the crack in their crutch were a shark’s jaw, a great maw full of teeth and pleasure, which if they want will tenderly take them in its grip, with its unknown velvetiness, and if they want it will devour them.
For Milla this was a pleasant period, unexpected and intoxicating, imbued with unimaginable powers (and if anybody had ever told her about them, she would have thought they were crazy). Even now, a good year after she had been infected by the bonking virus, she could not believe her eyes, and thought she was perhaps dreaming: her naïve ideas about love were fulfilled one after the other. On her list of everything she still wanted to get to know before her menopause started once and for all, she could cross items off every day: Yes, I have now had a secondary school pupil – though true, he wasn’t actually a virgin. Yes, I have now had an Arab, a black guy, a Pakistani, and each of them had their charm, even though they were all kind of wishy-washy… Yes, I forced a lad who was twenty-five years my junior to be quite good for once – and I heard him out as he swore I was definitely not over thirty. Yes, I inspired one guy a good fifteen years older than me to get it up three times in a row, and heard him out as he swore he’d never had it like that with anybody else and he wanted to marry me. I found out what it can be like when you do it with two guys at the same time (and I accepted their gratitude, though it was they who should have accepted mine), as well as what it can be like when you find your partner a woman who is willing to do a threesome, and then for a long time you receive his gratitude and assurances that that was the first time…
Milla’s second life was full – of what?
Sex that was not boring but not all that significant either? A bus-sized inferiority complex being treated in vain? Sadness and despair that she had nobody to share it with, so she buried all that deep within herself and systematically sought somebody out with a cock so long and therapeutic that it could prick and suck the poison from that painful heart?
But the fact is she unexpectedly grew younger.
She had heard it before: When a woman comes to London she loses ten years. At the time she couldn’t imagine how this worked – and she still couldn’t. Some said that London was full of quite handsome men and ugly old women, so there was nothing to be surprised about – the guys were totally into an averagely nice-looking Slav, even if she was on the well-worn side. Others said it only looked that way, and the guys were polite but cold fish, and the idea that they liked her more was an illusion – they only chatted her up because she was available (and not every foreign woman was available). And she wasn’t being serious at all – here there’s a higher turnover of partners than at home, even if just in some circles – the guys screw more and look for more and more slags willing to do it with them, so it can sometimes look like they are personally interested, but that is bollocks.
There were shitloads of theories, but the fact was irrefutable: they did not have mirrors that lied and when Milla looked into one, she was still the same forty-two year old with a hint of wrinkles around her eyes and a posterior like three hundred geldings, without make-up as usual and wearing the cheapest supermarket-bought T-shirt and jeans. She was not a day younger than the old woman who was entombed in ice by her tribe, just so they didn’t have to look at her.
In Britain people did see her! In Prague she’d had the feeling for a couple of years that she’d somehow inadvertently put on some garment that made her invisible. As she did not intend to do any stealing or spying, she found this quite inconvenient. The fact that her husband didn’t see her and her daughters didn’t notice her was something she could get used to. It was worse when strangers would bump into her in the street. They always shook in disgust and fright: how could this old woman have just risen out of the pavement in front of them? She learnt to sidle along walls and keep out of the way of everybody whose path appeared to cross hers. As is typical of girls from her generation, Milla always blamed herself first. In this case it was clear: she couldn’t be seen and she got in the way. She kept out of the way of passers-by so as not to harm them.
London cured her. Suddenly she could be seen. Guys made way for her in front of doors and said “After you, miss”, while some actually caught sight of her as she passed by and followed her with one eye, without looking disgusted.
That’s the way it is. London is therapeutic.
Even if they had the same unsparing mirrors, the guys were not like that.
Here and now
“Do you think we should…again?” the guy said.
For quite some time now he had been stroking this, mouthing that, rubbing one thing in his fingers and taking another thing in his hands.
Not that she hadn’t noticed. Milla (now she was no longer twenty) had a body that was excellently trained. Trained to be pleasured. It was an excellently aligned instrument (now she was no longer twenty), an excellently attuned autopilot, whose task was to absorb and remember everything it liked and to forget everything it didn’t. Unfortunately this only worked for sex, but that was not to be dismissed.
Milla’s nipples (now that she no longer had breasts anywhere at all) responded to touch reliably and predictably like the buttons on a radio. They obediently broadcast signals where they were meant to, exciting her and compelling her to mewl and purr like a cat and moistly cuddle up to the enquiring finger, because the doo-da that she had had for as long as she could remember between her legs now also operated reliably. She shook imperceptibly and thought about here. And now. She did not actually think. She was here.
The guy liked this.
They made love again.
Then at some point she stretched out her arm to look at her watch.
“Do you have to go?” the guy asked. He looked disappointed. It was only half past nine and after all the hotel wasn’t cheap.
Milla fastened the strap to her wrist. She said nothing.
“Really?” said the guy. “Alright then. I’ll give you a lift.”
It was not till Milla was past forty that she finally learnt how to lie.
If she had not been through a demanding (albeit free) course in lying, eyewash, invention, mystification and confusion of enemies (and friends), circumlocution and bodily deception or in plain English plain bullshitting, there would have been absolutely no point to her escape across the Channel.
Now she was able to stretch out for her watch and in the same movement lie to her guy: “I have a partner. We live together. I love him – and if I’m unfaithful to him because of you –you and countless others – that doesn’t actually mean anything. You are no paragon of virtue either, and would I ever say you don’t like your wife? Yes, it’s time to take me home and drop me off round the corner, a couple of hundred yards from my house. I don’t mess around with my love. I can’t risk losing my home base, either through you or through anybody else. My lawful home.”
All this was the lie that Milla told her guy, while he bought it hook, line and sinker. Or was he just lying to himself?
Milla merely reached out for her watch on the bedside table.
London is marvellous! Excellent. Two-storeyed for the most part, just as she had been taught at grammar school twenty years earlier by her English teacher, who was in love with an Englishman. The Englishman abandoned her and disappeared Lord knows where, but even then she never fell out of love with England, which she had never actually visited. That was in the 1980s.
Even in the twenty-first century London is two-storeyed, at least out in the suburbs where the immigrants live. It is a thousand interconnected little villages, concatenated into parallel rows of little houses, some of which are divided in half, because, well, why not? More desperate people can be crammed into them that way. More money can be made.
Milla lived in one of those divided houses.
Several other people lived there too, but not Milla’s life partner.
The half-house was also divided vertically. In the embedded ground floor in the green twilight behind the hedge there lived a Polish couple, quickly cobbled together from the two previous ones from opposite ends of Poland, whose only thing in common was that they both wanted to save on the rent and they could haggle over the money in their own language.
On the mezzanine there was a kitchenette and bathroom together with a toilet and an idiot from Senegal who wet the seat every time. On the first floor in the largest room, with a view of the street there was an uncertain number of Jamaicans (probably) of more than two sexes, who periodically regrouped and changed their base of operations, as do small-time drug dealers in London’s outlying suburbs, who move from flat to flat, so the police don’t not find them. Each regrouping brought with them the sound of new (but entirely the same) reggae and hip-hop CDs, a new (but entirely the same) smell of increasingly fine skunk, new (and quite different) shit in the toilet, because the latest newcomers had not yet learnt how to flush, and the new (but entirely the same) faces of the madly cool youngsters in their fashionably half-mast trousers, who preferred to creep up the stairs with a fashionable hobble than to ignominiously hitch up their trousers. They stared radiantly at Milla and sighed a blithe “hello”, as if in this narrow corridor with tastelessly threadbare carpet they had not passed a woman who could be their mother (if scum like that ever gave birth), but an aetherial being from a magic world whose name they dared not ask, but with whom they had now fallen in love.
Sure they were adolescents. Shabby, daft, zonked out, but they could see her! This did her good on the quiet and she sometimes wondered if it had something to do with race. London was unusually well-appointed when it came to people of different colours. She did not know of a similar place. But she was in no mood to deal with this identity problem now. She answered with an abrupt “hello” and carefully frowned. Then she fled into her room and hurriedly locked herself in. She refused to get involved with anybody in the house. No way.
A considerable amount of the pleasure that she had from these “chance” relations consisted in the fact that they did not know where to find her. They only knew what Milla lied to them about. She liked being mysterious.
And here in a house where they all used the same bath, cooked on the same stove and stole food from the same fridge, she could be everything except mysterious.
Milla lived on the second mezzanine, six steps higher than the dealers. She reigned up there in the highest space with a window overlooking the garden (i.e. the concrete backyard full of rubbish, where if she looked down below a flower grew, or if she looked up above, the charming sculptural group of four chimneys on the roof of the house opposite) and she felt just fine there. In the middle of the microroom, between the sagging bed and the wardrobe whose door kept opening, she placed an easel reaching up to the ceiling, and persuaded herself that the grey light penetrating the glass, which could only be cleaned from the inside, was the much-sought-after northern light, so greatly desired by painters and diamond polishers.
It had been Milla’s third London base in a little over a year. She had been driven out of her last two (which she was also to blame for slightly), but she swore she’d not be hounded out of this one. A room the size of a goods elevator that was no longer going anywhere, but which shook with the sounds of the house and the street, as if it were still suspended from cables, made the most fantastic home that Milla could have wished for.
The you pillow
She used to hug it while sometimes crying, but hardly ever these days. It was huge, satisfying, stuffed full, huggable and did not talk back. At least not as a rule. It was able to cuddle like few guys could, it smelled of lavender fabric softener and made no demands on her.
It helped Milla not to go mad, and it was called you.