An evening with Mr Popotamus

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

‘Hippopotamus’, a short story from Kävelymusiikkia pienille virtahevoille (‘Passacaglia for small hippopotami’, Tammi, 1958). Introduction by Tuula Hökkä

Someone came gasping up behind me at high speed, stopped, and thrust a bundle under my arm, whispering hoarsely and agitatedly: ‘Keep hold of this, hide it! They’re after me –’ And before I’d woken up to what was going on he’d disappeared round a corner.

I was holding a warm living creature, a hippopotamus. Presumably stolen from some zoo or some private person who loved hippopotami; perhaps the man was a sailor and had brought the animal from abroad.

However it was, the hippo needed a safe place. I decided to take it home; I’d had cats and dogs, hadn’t I? – and once a little marmot. I’d always longed for a giraffe. OK, a hippo was just as good. After all, I could put an ad in the paper later: ‘Found: a hippopotamus. Hippo returned on production of identification marks.’

I took it home and offered it milk. I left the kitchen for a moment to check what the encyclopaedia said about hippopotamus diet, and when I came back the hippo had put an apron on and was busying itself with something next to the stove. I went over to look: it was a mayonnaise salad.

‘Rrrosoll, rrosoll,’ it said, giving me a friendly smile. The traditional Finnish vegetable salad!

But I was confused and embarrassed, and I didn’t understand what he was saying: I’m so poor at picking up foreign speech. But anyway I was able to decide that Mr Hippopotamus was well-informed as a person. Evidently he must have learned his cuisine in a circus. Most likely the man had stolen him from some peripatetic circus-show.

The hippo laid the table, setting out the salad, pouring milk to drink, serving eggs and cold tongue, and offering me some as well. Personally he was a vegetarian and denied himself the tongue – for ethical reasons I suppose – and instead took a tin of asparagus out of the cupboard, swiftly and expertly warmed the asparagus, and had a delicious meal ready in no time at all. Then he sat at the table, spread a napkin over his knees and began tucking in.

When we’d finished I wanted to wash up, but he wouldn’t allow that and began doing it himself – more deftly than I could ever have done it.

When he’d finished and the dishes were neatly back in the cupboard he went to the sitting room and took something to read from the bookshelf. It was Eliot – Four Quartets, and some other stuff. He settled into the easy chair and made himself comfortable. He was concentrating earnestly, but eventually the room’s warmth and his short-sightedness began to make him sleepy and he dropped off. The Eliot fell over his ears like a bird perching there with stiff dangling wings, the spine and the pages softly trembling in time with his snores … hr-r-r-r-…

From under the Eliot peeped a moist blunt muzzle like a size-nine galosh. I carefully removed the book and looked at what he was reading. I saw the following lines:

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we
go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

I felt a deep oppression, and for a moment it was as if all the world’s clocks were telling the time in a threatening way. I didn’t dare read on. I wanted to put the book quickly back on his face before he noticed anything. But he’d already had time enough to wake. He rose and went over to the desk. First he gave me a look from intelligent shiny-as-enamel eyes, as if to ask, ‘May I?’ Those porcelain spheres of his held small specks of golden pigment that darted from the centre or ran to the edges, magnetically drawn by the motions of his thought.

He began making notes in the margins of the Eliot. Later, during my solitary years, I’ve studied his language, but so far I’ve only been able to make out a couple of fragmentary sentences: ‘… smells of carbolic is one; and alongside the following cerebral lines of ‘Gerontion’ – ‘In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger / In depraved May …’ – he’d written, in his round upright curlicued handwriting, ‘Why not hippopot…’ More I haven’t yet managed to decipher. But that much provides a key in any case. I’ve hopes of publishing his Eliot commentary later.

He also read other poetry, and an ardent favourite was Luis Palés Matosi, who must have been very close to his heart:

O noble O honeycoloured Duke of Marmalade,
where are your alligators now, the beautiful smiling alligators
and the round blue shadow of your African baobab tree
and your fifteen women with their scent of mud and
primeval forest?

Now you no longer feast on juicy bambino-pies
and the tame ape no longer grooms your fleas at the time of siesta,
your sweet call no longer follows the slim – ankled giraffe’s passage
over the savannah’s hot level silence…

The poem was long and bold, a celebration of warm mud, and at the conclusion he whinnied with admiration. Then he wept.

All at once he straightened up and pushed the book away. His belly was now gleaming and unwrinkled. He rose, and his bearing was dignified and cultivated.

Then he played me some classical music.

Everything went forward extremely agreeably and skilfully. Since he had extremely short legs, he first screwed the piano stool down to its lowest, perched on the edge and, with charming twists of his buttocks, sidled to the centre; and then, taking firm hold of the piano and levering with his arms, he artfully elevated himself to the full height. You could clearly see he’d come from a circus and loved acrobatics. Altogether, he looked very sweet sitting there at the piano and exercising his hippopotamic musicianship.

He played some Bach. But as he couldn’t reach the pedals, the Bach sounded somewhat more like Scarlatti. It was as if Bach were being played on the mandolin. The lofty, severe, orthodox music had taken on an extremely jovial and carefree tone: witty, graceful, somewhat portly. Possibly the style was bizarre and busy, though the stiffness of the rhythm was partly the result of his personal inclination. In this manner he was intensifying Bach’s own blunt and unusual harmony.

After all, it was beautiful, this somewhat sanguine Bach. ‘What’s the piece called?’ I asked politely. ‘Who composed it?’ I asked though I clearly recognised a diminutive Bach composition behind the dance rhythm.

‘Ludi, Ludi,’ he said in a soft husky voice and skilfully repeated a figure with a melancholy melody but a carefree, light-hearted rhythm.

‘A prelude, is it?’

‘Popotamus Ludi. Popotamus Bach.’

So it was his own composition. Counterpoint: a prelude and fugue, Hippopotamus Amphibius Bach…. I felt an ardent respect for him, gratitude even, since he’d come to share my solitude; and I placed a glass of brandy on the coffee table for him. He savoured the golden-yellow liquid slowly – there was a great deal of the sensitive connoisseur in him, as I was able to confirm later. He lit a long slim filter-cigarette and sank into reverie. He wrinkled his belly into many deep intellectual folds and meditated. His little gentle eyes took on an absent expression; probably he was practicing yoga.

Undoubtedly he had to settle some pressing problem that was not pure1y philosophical, for suddenly he looked at me with bright, serious – seemingly polished – eyes and said, with a kind of appeal:

‘Mssrs, Mssrs.’

As far as I could make out, he spoke a guttural language containing loanwords from several major languages but differing considerably in the simplicity of the syntax. It is more economical than any other language known to me, completely free from conjunctions. Because I was somewhat acquainted with guttural speech – it has an extra depth-dimension: several sounds are generated deep in the throat – I guessed that he was indicating Messieurs, Messieurs, and I delicately directed him to the bathroom. (Mssr, mssrs are totally labial and dental vocalisations. but without any of the rounding, lightening effect of vowel-sounds. Overall, the language has a slightly tightlipped, dissonant, clipped effect, not unlike that of modern music.)

He returned contentedly, and I sensed a slight 4711 odour. So he liked cologne as well. Possibly he suffered powerfully from perspiration, as can hap pen with corpulent persons. (A propos, later he asked me for a chamber pot, as more in line with his general habits. I realised that he was uncomfortable on a lavatory bowl, with his emphatically pyknic body. A chamber pot was no great injury to his dignity: he was in no way vain but overcame every obstacle as unselfconsciously as he washed the dishes, studied Eliot or practised his version of yoga.)

When night came, he, as any tactful gentleman would, excused himself from sharing my bedroom with me – I realised he wanted to protect me from unpleasant gossip – but asked instead to be allowed to sleep in the bathroom. Only now did he give way to his primal instincts. half-fill the bath, and sleep all night in the water. I allowed him to follow his individual tendencies, even though I feared he might catch cold in such a long-drawn-out bath.

He had another rather extraordinary requirement: he absolutely had to have a nightcap. When there wasn’t one, he settled for a tea cosy, which did indeed form an extremely warm and comfortable headgear. In addition, he wanted an alarm clock on the edge of the bath. It was small and had a soft ring, and since the nightcap completely covered his ears, he inserted the clock under the nightcap, on the top of his head. That he was so dependent on time seemed extremely odd to me (and I again remembered the Eliot poem, finding it disturbing). Why he behaved thus I’d no idea; only later did I realise that everything somehow occurred on a time – plane – that he had broken time and shifted backwards, and that he’d only remain with me as long as he could hold back the hours and minutes: time. But all this is so difficult to get one’s head round; solving the problem would require the advanced mathematical skills of an Einstein or migratory birds. And so I’ll give up attempting any further explanation and simply relate how it all happened.

In the morning he rose to make coffee early – it made me surmise that in the circus he’d been trained as a servant, literary scholar and time-keeper – and I woke to find coffee had been brought straight to my bed. My thanks made him very happy, and he went contentedly off to do the morning housework, which had always been neglected by me.

When I went off to my job at the bank, he stayed behind, waxing the floor. (He’d also made a natty invention: a small vacuum-cleaner from a bicycle pump and an old funnel. It’s useless now he’s gone, for the amount of dust these days exceeds the suction-power of the pump.)

At the bank I told my colleagues what a good friend and helper I’d found, but they all laughed it off and no one believed me.

I was deeply hurt by this. But the worst of it was that a disastrous doubt began to take hold of me too. Along with the doubt came a profound distress and anxiety, and when I finally got home I was overwhelmed by enormous pain and despair.

I found no one there. I looked for him in the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, everywhere, but in vain. He was gone: Gone.

But supper was prepared, and in the passageway I found a thin silver chain, with almost invisible letters inscribed on it: Popotamus.

All this was a total mystery to me. Nevertheless, my reason, which is always perplexed and troubled and needing an explanation for everything, suggested the chain was a zoological tally, restraining collar, or identification tag – or perhaps a circus manager’s award of merit, a sort of necklace or inscribed name-chain for a well-trained hippopotamus.

That evening I ate alone. I stared at the checks in the tablecloth, now so unpoetic, devoid of life, and I remembered his intelligent, sympathetic eyes, saying to me: ‘Look at the check work of music woven into the tablecloth. Relish those atoms of pork-tongue, they’re so good and they’ll bring you wisdom. They contain a secret – did you know? They’re not just physics and chemistry, there’s a particle of something else in them – of eternity. That’s why I’m here. To teach you –’

I burst into tears. It was all so sad. Everything seemed alien and unreal now the hippopotamus was gone. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer, I began looking for him in the most impossible places: under the desk, in the waste paper basket, in the rubbish bin, the soap box, the lavatory bowl. When I flushed the lavatory it gruntled like the hippo; the turned-off hot-water tap whistled as he did on the piano stool, before playing his portly improvised Bach. Everything reminded me of him – even the galoshes. Not that he’d have worn galoshes: I mean the look of his muzzle. Finally I found a dusty tattered piece of rubber under the bookcase. It was the shape of an ungainly animal, possibly a hippopotamus; it had a tail like the valve on a bicycle inner-tube; it was the sort of children’s toy you can blow up and play with in the water.

The toy animal was split – it had been inflated too much. Its belly was torn, its soul gone. All that was left was a dirty little shred of inert grey rubber.

I threw it away and sorrowfully I went to lie down on the sofa. My head ached. I’d never felt so lonely as this. The hippopotamus was gone.

Time goes slowly. In my yearnings I’ve even tried to revile the hippopotamus. I’ve reflected that hippopotami are uncleanly animals that wallow in the shallows and rear up into the sunlight covered in mud. According to several studies they’ve got a severe Oedipus tendency and are very ready to use their tails to splash their filth into people’s eyes.

But all this is no help in my desperate love. No reviling is any use to me.

Why had he rejected me?

But sometimes, in moments of trust and calm, I again feel an inexplicable joy and feel that someone is near me. It’s particularly likely to happen in the rain. I hear familiar footsteps following me in the street and, though I can’t see anyone, I feel I’m not alone. The happiest moments are under my umbrella; it acts like a large drum – collecting drops of eternity and the sounds and signs of an unknown universe enveloping me. The umbrella’s resounding hood sends me answers I don’t understand. It’s then that I have the clearest feeling that there are two of us.

At first I thought it was all my imagination – I was seeing the umbrella as a big jellyfish that I was swimming under in the downpour, in the endless rain. Other jellyfish were moving towards me: how unearthly it was, swimming like this in an amorphous element, a sweet metaphorical sea.

But it wasn’t unreal, it was real. A person turns to imagery in search of comfort; but this was true. I had a revelation. It happened like this:

I was at a street corner waiting for a taxi; I was going to a fancy-dress ball. It was raining – the sort of long steady downpour you feel might last forever. I was wearing a lace evening dress, and the hem was trailing on the wet pavement. Looking anxiously down at my skirt and my silver shoes I was suddenly aware that my hemline was slowly rising. There was someone underneath.

The way the cloth stirred suggested the creature hidden there might have the shape of a hippopotamus. From under the hem a shiny moist muzzle came into view. Then eyes appeared, and finally ears as well like two small wrinkled upside-down mushrooms. A little hippopotamus was looking me in the eye, happily, and smiling a little; then it stole back into hiding again, and I’ve never seen it since.

But that whole evening it went trotting along under my skirt, invisibly but faithfully – as just a being like myself, who understood me: like a protective spirit.

That evening I was happy. Usually, at fancy-dress balls, I’m lonely and unhappy. Now, in a hidden way, the atmosphere was full of smiles and good wishes, tempting invitations. I swam along confidently on the saxophone’s yellow waves and responded to unspoken messages. Everything had meaning, every detail conveyed a strange unreal happiness – which would be a real happiness if I so wished.

How all this is bound up with the hippopotamus I don’t know. But when I got home I put the hippo’s necklace round my left ankle. It brings me luck, protects me, carries the spirit of the hippo’s river.

If I lost it, I’d lose something unspeakable, a sympathy, and the music woven into the checkwork. Actually I’d be dead therefore. But it’s there still, tarnished but strong, radiant though no resplendent. Come and see for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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