How's Life Treating You, Viskovitz?
There's nothing more boring than life, nothing more depressing than light, nothing more bogus than reality. For me every waking was a dying-living was being dead.
Jana squeaked, "Wake up, Visko! It's May! They'll end up getting all the best acorns."
With great difficulty I stretched and grudgingly opened one eye. Because in spite of everything, you have to live.
"Just a minute," I croaked. "I have to thaw out."
It was the end of an eight-month hibernation. I was waking up in the gray hereafter, the underworld of dormice.
In the darkness of the den I made out topiform shadows tottering past piles of slumberers, heading out of this sepulcher-souls of those who had passed on, who were transmigrating into wakefulness. As was I.
I rolled onto one side, and all the bones of my mortal remains creaked. I began to recognize the familiar outlines of members of my tribe-nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces, grandparents and great-grandparents, parents and parents-in-law. Some of them were catching forty more winks, curled up under their long furry tails. They were groaning as they gave themselves over to that devastating pleasure.
As my metabolism got into gear I was tortured by pains in my joints, by dehydration, by the distress of every single cell. It was the agony of reawakening, of a torment that would last another four months until the next hibernation. At a time like this there's only hunger that gives you the strength to get to your feet-the knowledge that if you don't fatten up, you won't be able to get back to sleep.
"Up and at 'em!" I said to myself. "At your age you can reasonably expect another three hibernations. And it would be a shame, old dormouse, to miss out on them."
Like a zombie, I hoisted up my body-worn out, wooden, deprived of fats and spirit-and shoved it awkwardly in the direction of the light. My eyes watered in the glare.
"You're thin as a pin, Visko," Jana shouted at me. "Come on-let's go gather acorns." For years she'd been the mate to whom I'd been faithful, not out of any monogamous inclination-which we dormice frankly do not have-but out of laziness and a desire to be bored. She was the ugliest and most depressing female of the whole community, the silliest and most tedious. I'd chosen her for exactly that. Because only a life made up of boredom and frustration leads to fulfilling and magnificent dreams. And those are the moments that count. If the hereafter-that is, wakefulness-is hell, then life-that is, dreaming-will be paradise. Not the other way around.
I didn't feel like venturing out in the branches, so I spied a couple of acorns that had landed on the ground and, at a prudently slow pace, lowered myself along the trunk. I staggered up to one of the nuts, tore off the cap with my paws and sank my molars into the ripe cotyledon. I immediately felt better.
My den was the former nest of a woodpecker hollowed out of a sessiliflore oak. We'd been passing it down in our family for generations. It bore the most fruit of any tree in the woods; all it took to make it to the fall was to pick it clean. My children were already working at it, idly stretched out in the branches. With paternal satisfaction I appreciated their indolent lounging, their dull eyes, their stubborn resistance to life. Then I set off toward the lakeshore.
Because another thing you have to do while you're awake, besides putting on some fat and trying to bore yourself, is to store up oneiric material for the next hibernation. For this we dormice always make the rounds of the most enchanting places. We're looking for inspiration for our stories-characters, incidents. There is yet another way of enriching your imagination, and that is to listen to someone else's dreams, hoping to find in them some idea you can copy. That's what Zucotic, Petrovic and Lopez were doing as they sprawled in a patch of sun under an oak, sweeping up fallen acorns with their tails.
"Good to see you up, Viskovitz," Lopez said. "So tell us how it went."
I cut him off. "Talking wears me out."
There was nothing I could learn from them. Lopez's dreams were horror stories in which everyone ended up in the fangs of a weasel or an otter. In Petrovic's, on the other hand, there were dormice who killed everyone only to end up getting killed by Petrovic himself, one after another, bite by bite. Zucotic, poor guy, suffered from insomnia. If you heard a voice coming from the other world while you were sleeping, it was always him.
My own dreams weren't ones you could talk about in public. They were always about a certain female dormouse, and I can assure you it wasn't Jana. A she-dormouse who exists only in dreams-the masterpiece of my imagination. It had taken me years of ugliness and frustration to succeed in imagining that absolute perfection of murine features, that exact combination of sanctity and sin. I had made her as beautiful as sleep, as seductive as a yawn, as soft as a pillow.
And I named her Ljuba.
Thinking of her always gave me an abrupt and deep desire to sleep. I took three more steps and collapsed next to a tree trunk, out for the count . . .
I found her where I'd left her, in the tropical forest I'd dreamed for her, among hibiscus flowers in the shade of acacias, that fairyland habitat where there are no noises, only music; no odors, only perfume; no uphill, only downhill. There was nothing to poke you and nothing hard to bump into. Everything, even the tree trunks, was lined with furs, flower petals and feathers. There were no predators or rivals. There was no male besides me, and there was no other god but Viskovitz.
I greeted her with a zi-zi
, our dormouse love-call. Then, coming down from a banana tree, I approached, gorgeous and indolent as a rodent god.
"I'm back, my love," I squeaked. "I'm here only for you."
"Right now I have things to do, Visko," she said, sighing. "I'm looking for an oak tree. It's not easy finding an acorn or a beechnut in the middle of these banana trees."
"You have only to ask," I told her, and with a single act of my imagination I made three acorns pop out of the ground, big as watermelons, without any cap and without any husk. Like all enlightened dormice, I knew how to dream while being conscious of dreaming. That made each of these instants immensely richer.
"But now, my treasure, come take care of me," I ordered. "I don't have a whole hibernation to play around with, just a little nap. Look at that bed of blossoms, it seems to me an ideal place . . ."
It isn't pleasant to hear someone say no to you in your own dream. Notwithstanding the progress I'd made in training my oneiric creativity, I hadn't yet succeeded in subjecting to my control a strong character such as I'd given Ljuba. She gave me no rest.
"I'm tired of being treated like a little doll and obeying your whims," she snorted, shaking her whiskers. "It's easy for you. For you this is only a dream, and you can do anything you want with it. For me it's the only life I have-I want you to let me live it . . ."
"You know it's not your only life-you know I'll bring you back to life in every dream I'll have."
"Sure, they all say that. Meanwhile, you don't give me the time to eat or express a thought. You make me live in this ridiculous soporific world of yours, without dormice, without oak trees, in this eternal dusk. You don't let me have babies, you don't let me have a life of my own . . ."
"But I let you dream . . ."
"Oh, right-but what can I dream if all I know is this fairy-tale world of yours?"
"Let's not argue about it now, my treasure, I really have just a little time. Cheer up and come over here."
As usual, it ended up that to make her feel "alive," as she called it, I had to dream all the vulgarities of life for her: sunrise, oaks, beeches, and maybe even Zucotic. I was more tired than when I fell asleep. It took at least an hour for Ljuba to come close enough to me to let me feel the touch of her sweet-smelling fur. Then she slowly stretched out on the moss in a come-hither way and mewed two provocative zi-zis.
"No, Ljuba," I warned her. "You know that's not what I want."
The problem with Ljuba was that she never wanted to do with me those things that boy and girl dormice do in dreams-that is, sleep. To share the magic moment of nodding off, the wickedness of yawning, the passion of dozing, the final fusion of bodies in one devastating slumber, the fusion of souls in a single triumphant dream.
When she was with me, she wanted to gather nuts, make love, have children and all those banalities. But at the crucial moment, just when her eyelids were beginning to close, she always refused to let herself go. So it always ended with my having to do without that perfect pleasure, and this time, too, seemed it wasn't going to be any different.
But she started by saying, "Okay, Visko. I want to make you happy. Let's do it. This time it suits me, too."
I couldn't believe my ears.
Suddenly I felt a paw on my neck and I woke up. I was understandably furious. If I'd had the strength I would have been capable of murder. Anyone who wakes you up doesn't deserve anything else. A big sack of fur was weighing me down.
"Visko!" I heard it squeak.
It was a familiar voice. I lifted my muzzle and saw a female dormouse. I said to myself, "What the hell's going on?" Not only was she absolutely gorgeous, but she was more like Ljuba than Ljuba herself. She was the quintessence of Ljuba.
"There are you, Viskovitz, the one who's always dreaming me," she said, chuckling.
I looked around, perplexed. What was Ljuba doing in reality? "Ljuba? What are you doing here?"
"I told you I wanted to do what you asked me to, but I prefer to do it here, not in that silly dream."
If this was a joke, it was truly in poor taste. I'd heard people say that reality is a dream, but I'd never believed it: who could be so perverse as to make a dream out of stuff like that?
"I don't know who sent you, Ljuba, but they've certainly made a mistake. Look, this is no place for you. Do you smell that stench? It's acid rain, nitrates, sulfur. Every square inch of this neighborhood is polluted. Here you have to wear yourself out to live. It's full of noise, disease. There are martens, owls, weasels. There's man. I have an extremely jealous mate and fourteen children. It's a cursed reality, Ljuba, you'll never be happy here, you'll never find peace . . ."
"That's not necessarily so . . ."
"Believe me, sweetness."
"Not anymore, Visko."
She curled her tiny lips in an enigmatic sweet smile and squeaked out: "All this exists only because I have chosen to imagine it, Visko. This isn't 'life,' it's my hibernation. The reason you were always dreaming me is that I willed it. I didn't ever tell you because I wanted it to come as a surprise. It amused me to toy with you."
"That's good, that's really good. And I suppose you dreamed Jana, Zucotic and all the others?"
"Certainly. I made them such losers because I wanted you all to myself, dear. You don't believe it? Watch this."
Before my eyes I saw three acorns pop out of the ground-big as watermelons, without caps, without husks.
"Until today, Visko, I was too shy. It's not easy to go up to someone and say, 'You're the dormouse of my dreams.' I wanted you to look for me, I wanted you to dream me. I wanted to test you. Now I know that you love me, my treasure, I'm not afraid. I want to make you happy. We don't have any more time to lose, Visko, all dreams come to an end. Come."
She made a bed of chamomile blossoms appear, and she lay down on it.
"The reality is that I am even lazier and sleepier than you, Visko, and there is nothing I wish for more than to sleep in your arms, than to hear you snore in my sleep." She opened her mouth in a yawn that was so brazenly open it seemed that her very soul would slip out . . .
Exulting, I melted away. I didn't fully understand who was dreaming whom, but under my fur, my heart dissolved in an ocean of blessedness. With one thankful blink of my eyelids, I blessed all that dreariness-that foul lake and that polluted forest, that suffocating air and that sterile earth. That whole desolate worn-out world: only a yawn away from bliss.
Copyright © 2003 by Alessandro Boffa Translated by John Casey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.