Shortlisted in the Almond Press Short Story Competition 2015. The entry was anthologised in the Apocalypse Chronicles, and is available for purchase here.
"Jenny wakes up and in her hurry to get out of bed straddles her legs wide enough for me to catch a glimpse of her underwear."
The Anatomy of Desire
By Selma Carvalho
The worst of our lives had been lived and now we were free.
Outside my window, in the commune I share with 200 others, the rain is a mere drizzle of pure, ice-cold water. Fifty years ago, it would have been dirty as dishwater; a putrid flow of contaminants raining down incessantly until all hope of surviving it had vanished. The prophecies about climate change had all come true. Before the rains, were endless days of sun. The trees stood singed as if a volley of thunderbolts had burnt them standing up and a carpet of arid land unfurled itself over the plains.
All that is a thing of the past. I live in an old disused air-hangar converted into a large dormitory. There are hundreds of these abandoned airfields littered across the country, rigid in structure and Spartan in furnishing except for the complex gadgetry left behind in the control rooms. We can’t find a purpose for the gadgetry. We’re told to use them as aids for the simulation games we play all day, which they say will eventually coax our nerve centres to feel empathy.
I stretch my legs on the bed I’m sitting on. They ache occasionally from the shrapnel embedded in them and on rainy days from the cold. I see Jenny turning in her sleep two beds down from mine. She is what, in the old days, we would call a white woman and I, a red-blooded brown man. But we did away with racial classifications which only served to disunite us. We realised that individual histories and identities were dangerous. So we began the process of erasing past lives; tore up the flags, burnt the history books, deleted the archived memory projects and eradicated every shred of nationalist pride instilled in the dark heart of man. In a clean strike we eradicated the collective and the individual. We were triumphant.
Jenny wakes up and in her hurry to get out of bed straddles her legs wide enough for me to catch a glimpse of her underwear. It is white and damp and it curves perfectly over her mound which rises and falls gently as if it was alive and breathing all on its own. It is not quite the expected V-shape but more like a capital U with its bottom flattened out. From either side emerge stray stringy pubic hair and two long caramel coloured legs which she now dangles effortlessly off the bed. Above the underwear, her frail torso sprouts like a young tree of bony branches and large-sized cushiony pink buds with hook-like nipples, carelessly falling out of her terrycloth bathrobe.
I stare out the window trying to ignore the stiffening between my legs. Such sensory processing is unlawful. If the authorities get wind of it, that I, a former Lieutenant in the war, was experiencing such things there would be repercussions; long counselling sessions, in solitary confinement, where a white-coat would try to cure me.
The smell of the disinfectant in the room is overwhelming and Martha is already shuffling about the dormitory changing the bed-linen. Martha occasionally remembers the time before the war but she was a young girl then and is happy to live in the new age. ‘I couldn’t live like that,’ she tells me, ‘with everyone doing exactly as they pleased. It was chaos. It was.’
Ginger our communal cat comes by my bed. Overfed and fat, she has two tails. This is not how things used to be. Cats had one tail back then, which they would wiggle delightfully if you placed them on your lap, and purr contentedly. But then came the campaigns by animal rights activists. Culling and euthanasia were strictly forbidden and punishable by law. Owners were mandated to clone those that eventually died, and that’s when their DNA started mutating until the domesticated tabby became a caterwauling predator lacerating their unsuspecting owners to death.
I can see Jenny. I’m one of the lucky ones; my peripheral vision still works. Most people lost that ability in the years of rapid mutations. She is sitting with her legs tucked under her. She is so young; born after the apocalyptic wars. She doesn’t know any world except the one she was born into. Has she taken lovers? Has a man ever pulled down her pants and penetrated her? It can’t be of course.
The lack of interest in sexual activity began first somewhere in the east and then spread. Children were the first casualty. People simply chose not to have children. Then they chose not to fall in love or cohabit. For a long time, and I remember this well because my generation called it, d’une sorte de morte, we simply had recreational sex. We mastered the techniques and prolonged the orgasm but eventually, it felt too great an effort and we preferred to pleasure ourselves with stimulation devices and holographic aids. That, in the end, saved us. The laboratories took over the production of human beings based on a demand and supply statistical model. That’s when the relentless race for resources came to a halt.
I try to concentrate on the rain coming down. I begin to count the drops; making mental notes of the times they hit the aluminium gutter before running its length and cascading downwards.
I try to pray. I can’t remember any of the prayers I’d been thought as a child. That was something else we fought hard to eradicate; the myth of the divine protector. The tyrannical dictator residing in the popular imagination as God, had to be ruthlessly destroyed; sometimes with bombs and sometimes with cold reasoning. I am proud of the part I played. I was head of the anti-religious squad and oversaw the imprisonment of countless clerics and the mass burnings of religious books. Yet, as I stand here, I feel that old familiar lump at the back of throat and I recognise it as that most despairing of human prayers – hope.
The rain has stopped. I wrap an oversized coat around me and go for a walk. The air feels fresh and clean. I cross the field of red poppies. The bees have made a comeback. The field is fenced in by barbed wire, beyond which are the grey slums of derelict malls and museums, without sewage or water or electricity. We couldn’t save everyone; just a few decided to live by the new rules which would ensure our survival. There are others that live beyond the fence, but we don’t know much about their lives. Occassionally, the air is rent with the smell of singed flesh, electrocuted as they try to climb over the fence.
I turn back and find Jenny walking in the field. She bends to pick up a poppy. She is wearing black tights which reveal the gentle swell of her young buttocks; the twin orbs separated by a deep cleft.
I turn and walk away.
‘Wait up,’ she shouts motioning to me to slow down.
She catches up and begins walking apace.
‘I want to ask you something,’ she says, her breathing hard and unconstrained. It feels odd to hear breathing like that; uneven and full of possibility.
‘Some of us girls were talking and we thought maybe, since you’re one of the older ones in the commune, you would know.’
‘What do you need to know?’
‘I want to know what sex is?’
I feel like the wide-eyed eleven year old I was when I’d asked my mother the same question. She had looked away in embarrassment but the next day an anatomically correct and instructive book had appeared on my writing desk. It told me nothing about the anatomy of desire. That I learnt the following year at the encouragement of my mother’s friend.
‘The girls, those of us I mean, who were asked to keep going with the empathy simulation games are beginning to feel things now, that we don’t understand.’
This was dangerous territory.
‘Talk to your Advisor?’
‘He wasn’t very helpful.’
‘I don’t see how I can help.’
‘I want to know if sex is the same as feeling empathy?’
Yes. And other words too.
Loving, lusting, wanting, desiring, bonding, breeding, withdrawing, feeling pain, inflicting pain, depression, a living death.
How could she know sex when she hadn’t experienced any of that?
‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’
‘You must or…’
‘Or what?’ There was nothing left in our world that a young girl could use against an old horny man.
‘I watch you every morning. I know what you’re looking at. That’s why I wake up with my legs wide open.’
I walk away. Ahead of me the bees are learning anew to pollinate. I feel myself slipping into a blurry unconsciousness and I imagine that’s what death feels like.