People often wonder about porcupines. After all: how do they manage to procreate? And what about the poor mother-to-be that has to deliver a spike-covered baby (as if birthing isn’t enough of a hassle already)? It stands to reason that it must happen from time to time, given that these rodents only live for about fifteen years. The fact that we still have them rummaging around for tubers and roots, surely implies a new generation from time to time.
Tonight, this is the question that prompts a prolonged silence as the patrons at the bar contemplate the impossibility of a bachelor porcupine actually managing to have his way – even with a willing maiden of his fancy. After all – is the pain worth the pleasure?
“I think they must be great at long-distance relationships. Maybe they’ve perfected it? If those quills are 30 cm and longer, do you think males have the reach?” Vetfaan shudders at the thought. “Maybe that’s why they’ve remained on all fours and not evolved the ability to walk on their hind feet, like we do. Imagine strolling down the street with a flagpole.”
“You’re being vulgar, Vetfaan. Sis man! Hoisting the poor animal by its own petard like that…” Precilla shakes her head. Men! So obsessed with such thoughts – politics and sex: they connect everything with one or both of these things. Women are so much more practical in summing up situations.
When Gertruida walks in, she is greeted by an anxious chorus. If anybody knows the answer, it’ll be her. She listens to the question, gets that and-you-don’t-even-know-that look, and settles down at the counter.
“Well, first of all the porcupine must find a mate. Seeing that they may roam up to twenty kilometers a day and are solitary animals, scientists think they rely on their keen sense of smell to locate a companion. Of course they can run, but their usual gait is a shuffling step, accompanied by the ever-present rustle of quils.”
Servaas casts his mind back to his courting days with Siena. These days young people do it with cellphones and all kinds of electronic means. It wasn’t so easy back then. He first had to ask her father’s permission to come and visit – not because he was such a difficult man; it was simply the way they did it in those days. Once he knew he was welcome, it was quite something to prepare for the ride over to their farm. The horse had to be groomed, the saddle shined and the stirrups cleaned. Then of course, he had to wash and iron his best shirt. It was unthinkable to go visiting in the casual clothes that seem to be the norm these days. Minimum requirements: jacket, tie and some wild flowers.
“Then, after searching high and low, the male will find the female. They’ll circle, and then progress to a lengthy foreplay, which involves a lot of nose rubbing and sniffing.”
They call that necking? Gosh! With Siena it was months before he was allowed to hold her hand. They’d sit in the voorhuis and talk. Most often, she’d have some crocheting to do – a handy excuse to avoid physical contact. They’d talk about the weather, the harvest and their families. Mostly about the weather, though. The drought broke many an uncomfortable silence.
Later, when her parents saw he was serious about visiting, they were allowed to listen to the radio and eventually even use the gramophone. Her parents were strict about dancing, so that wasn’t an option. And then, after months of agony, Siena proposed a picnic. He can’t remember where they went, but that was the first time she held his hand. It was exquisite…
“If the female approves the male’s advances, she’ll allow him to pee all over her. It’s got something to do with pheromones, they say.”
That’s disgusting! The urinating bit – not the pheromones. They had been married for many years before he first heard about the magic fragrances people don’t even know about. Silent, odourless attractors that allow couples to be comfortable with each other. That was there, since the first tine he set his eyes on her. He knew this plain girl with the steady gaze saw more of a man in him than he realised himself. She made him feel good – almost invincible, even strong and sometimes clever and witty. They laughed a lot. It must have been pheromones.
“Finally, she’ll present herself to him, drawing the quills away so he may approach safely. And don’t think it’s a once-off quickie. She’ll demand repeat performances until he is totally exhausted.”
Siena was a lady. Everything she did, she did with style and grace. That’s why the other women in the district respected her so much. In the church, the social societies and at the agricultural show, she was the one to organise and advise. She made her dresses herself, to the envy of her friends and family.
But once the curtains were drawn and the candle blown out, she exhibited a passion few would ever guess at. She’d drive him mad with desire, teasing and taunting until he begged…and then the fun began….
“Porcupines are interesting creatures. They represent one of the few species of animals that indulge in mating, even when the female isn’t fertile. With other words, she’ll allow intercourse as a way to keep her family together. Casual sex, if you want. It is one way of getting the male to stock up their pantry with tubers and bones. Quite clever, those ladies are.”
Yes, Servaas thinks, Siena sure kept him busy…
“Hey, Servaas, you seem lost in thought tonight. Did you hear the interesting talk Gertruida gave? All about porcupines and how they live. She taught me quite a lot.”
“Huh?” He dabs his eyes with his handkerchief. “No. Just thinking, you know. Old people do that sometimes.”
“Did you know how porcupines make love?”
Servaas takes a deep breath, exhales, and manages to smile. “Yes, Vetfaan, I do. Had some first-hand experience, a long time ago.”
“Then why didn’t you tell us before Gertruida came in?”
“Because I didn’t want to remember. Too painful.”
And, with that, Servaas shuffles out into the darkness, where an old man can return to the throbbing ache of the tender memories he’ll carry to his grave. Much like sexual the habits of a lowly rodent, they represent something some people find hard to understand.
Servaas sighs: he knows there is a difference between humans and porcupines, however. The quills of porcupines are smooth, you can pull them out quite easily. The quills of love, alas, are barbed.