Humor Literary Fiction Science Fiction Love Strange

Of Mat and Math

By Anatoly Belilovsky · Aug 31, 2018
4,020 words · 15-minute reading time

Formulas on an old blackboard

Photo by Roman Mager via Unsplash.



Arquimedes Hidalgo Ibarruri fit the profile perfectly.

He traveled alone, having bought his ticket only hours before the scheduled departure of his flight. He had no luggage save a battered laptop computer. His red-rimmed, wide-open eyes looked not so much at people as through them, and seemed to spin in their sockets as he muttered incoherently to himself. And, though written guidelines never mentioned such features as grounds for suspicion, he drew the guards’ attention with his sallow olive skin, his disheveled mop of black curly hair, and a nose that would have made a raven pale with envy.

The guards should not be too harshly censured for the ease and mental athleticism with which they leaped to the inevitable conclusion. Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport was on high alert at the time due to a half-deciphered intercept mentioning plans to bring down the Moscow to Barcelona flight, and in fact there were two Catalan militants in queue directly behind Arquimedes, each carrying one component of a binary nerve gas. In the guards' defense it should be said that no screening test ever devised could reliably distinguish between a terrorist and a mathematician--and Arquimedes was, in spite of any doubts he may have harbored, most definitely the latter.

This is not to say that his career in mathematics had been, up to that point, a success. In fact, it was dismal to a degree that went past failure into the realm of the legendary fiasco. Having, after that morning’s final debacle, briefly considered self-immolation, Arquimedes had settled for going home.

The pockets of his charcoal pinstripe suit were empty except for a credit card, an electronic ticket for the three  o’clock Iberia flight to Barcelona, a valid passport, and a small amount of lint. His tie sat askew on the collar of his sweat-stained white cotton shirt, his black wingtip shoes displayed a fractal pattern of road salt from drying slush, and if his socks matched, it was only because he had never owned any that weren’t black.

Arquimedes Hidalgo Ibarruri’s only wish was to see his mother in her tiny, book-lined apartment off La Rambla. He wanted her to make him a cup of coffee. He wanted to sit in front of her, look her in the eye, and say, “Mama, I am a complete dolboeb, and my life is a total pizdets.”

There are historical precedents for what happened to Arquimedes then. On the last day of his life, as he prepared for the duel that would end it, Evariste Galois made a breakthrough in group theory that paved the way for quantum mechanics. Likewise, Srinivasa Ramanujan’s discoveries in number theory, as recorded in his “lost notebooks,” came to him in mystical visions from the goddess Namagiri as he wasted away, days before he died of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and dysentery at the age of thirty-two. So too, on that day of epic failure, amid the rubble of his once stellar career, Arquimedes saw a glimpse of nothing less profound than the Unified Theory of Everything.

It was, therefore, not apprehension that widened his eyes even further as he came face-to-face with the head screener at the boarding gate. It was not fear that made his breath catch with an audible gasp; it was not horror that made sweat pour down his face and drip onto his suit. Having stood for what seemed like an eternity on an infinite line moving infinitesimally slow, on what was already the worst day of his life and shortly would get worse, Arquimedes Hidalgo Ibarruri chose the least propitious time to have the first glimmer of a mathematical epiphany.

Blyaaaaa...” he whispered into the screener’s face, staring through her at the mysteries of the universe as they unfolded before his mind’s eye.

The screener ground her teeth, her face darkening to the hue of an apoplectic thundercloud.

###

The Practical Dictionary of Russian Mat has this to say:

Blyad’, n. Literally: “whore,” but rarely used in a literal sense. The entire word may used as an expletive, generally following a discrete annoyance of short duration such as a stubbed toe. In situations of continuing profound astonishment (e. g. following a parachute malfunction) it is often elided to the long-vowel “Blyaaaaa!”

###

The screener was named Marchella, after a famous Italian actor whose own name honored Marcellus, the Roman general whose war with Carthage resulted in the death of Arquimedes’ famous namesake, Archimedes of Syracuse, perhaps the world's most celebrated collateral casualty. Arquimedes’ Semitic features that had first brought him to Marchella’s attention were themselves a legacy of Carthaginian ancestors who colonized, over two thousand years ago, the Catalan homeland of Arquimedes’ mother.

Marchella was an expert on mat, conversing in it fluently with trenchant passengers and recalcitrant co-workers, but rarely had she been sworn at without provocation. Her training overrode her instinctive reaction, which would have consisted of a left jab, a right hook, and a left uppercut. The effort, however, caused her jaws to lock.

"I'll need to see that," she said in Russian through her teeth and reached for Arquimedes’ laptop without waiting for an answer.

“Ot’ebis’ ot moih uravnenij,” Arquimedes growled and swatted at her hand.

###

Like many legends that grew around Arquimedes Hidalgo Ibarruri, the story that “Eureka!” was the first word he ever uttered is a half-truth.

Arquimedes was born in Princeton, New Jersey, in the same hospital in which Albert Einstein had breathed his last some decades previously. That, and his parents’ joint appointments to the faculty at Princeton University, may have raised the expectations they had for Arquimedes, but by the time he was three-years-old he had yet to utter his first word, and the Hidalgo y Ibarruri family had settled down to a life of dignified disappointment.

The family celebrated his third birthday with a small, quiet dinner. A cake with three candles was offered, the candles were duly extinguished, and Arquimedes was conducted to bed and left there. The adults--and one adolescent--present continued with their dessert.

Approximately an hour later, their conversation was interrupted by Arquimedes toddling down the staircase to the living room shouting: "Hey, Rika!"

Frederika "Rika" Stravinskaya, his Russian au pair, stared at his diminutive frame as he descended, one stair at a time, a dripping diaper in one hand and Perelman's Elementary Calculus in the other.

"Rika, eb tvoyu mat', u menja ne balansiruet eto ebanoe uravnenie!" Arquimedes continued in a high, penetrating voice.

Professor Diogenes Hidalgo and Professor Maria Elena Ibarruri froze in incomprehension, having, until that day, heard not a single word from Arquimedes, in either his father's refined Castilian, his mother's genteel Catalan, or what passed for English in New Jersey. Rika's aunt, Professor Messalina Erastovna Holmogorova (Astrophysics), sprayed a surprisingly fine sparkling Freixenet Brut over her third helping of flan. Blinking tears from her eyes, she peered at a small, naked boy who had, if her ears had not deceived her, just yelled, "I can't balance the motherfucking equation!" to her niece in flawless, if unprintable, Russian.

Rika recovered first. "Pizdets," she whispered. "He forgot about infinitesimals!" With that, she swept Arquimedes into her arms and raced upstairs to restore his hygienic and sartorial dignity.

Professor Hidalgo broke the silence. "More . . . wine?"

"Yes, please," said Professor Holmogorova, her emphasis on the words matched by the speed with which she proffered her glass for a refill.

Upon Rika's return to the dinner table she was subjected to a cross-examination. Standing at rigid attention, she admitted to moonlighting, in Arquimedes' earshot and over a webcam connection, as a mathematics tutor to upperclass cadets at the Higher Staff Academy of the Russian Naval Forces.

To prevent further damage to Arquimedes’ psyche, Hidalgo y Ibarruri summarily discharged her the following morning.

It was too late.

###

Trying to catch the breath that had been beaten out of him by the guards, Arquimedes lay in the puddle of sleet into which they had thrown him, a garbage dumpster within arm’s reach on one side, his cracked and dented laptop somewhat farther away on the other. The vertigo induced by his flight, far shorter than the one for which he had bought his ticket, caused the waning moon in Moscow's winter sky to precess, reminding him of his father shaking his head as he read The Practical Dictionary of Russian Mat.

While Arquimedes’ parents were married, the dictionary held pride of place on their bookshelf, within easy reach of the most frantic hand. It always fell open to the same page, the one that his parents consulted most often:

Derived from root: -eb- (impolite reference to sexual intercourse):

Naebat': v., to con, to play a practical joke, to evade capture. “Iago naebal Othello.”

Proebat': v., to miss (as one may miss a bus), to lose foolishly (an object of value, a game). “King Lear proebal his kingdom.”

Sjebat'sja : v., reflexive, to run away, to leave, to elope. “Macduff sjebalsja before Macbeth could make pizdets (q. v.) of him.”

Zaebat': v., to bother, to nag. (Unlike the English equivalents, the Russian verb is in the perfective aspect, meaning that the action of the verb is carried out to completion, or its maximum extent.) “Lady Macbeth zaebala Macbeth.”

Ot'ebis'! - imperative; almost exactly equivalent to the English "Fuck off!" 'Ot'ebis!' shouted Macbeth to Lady Macbeth.”

Ebanutyi: adj, insane. “Your noble son is ebanutyi; 'tis true, 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis true.”

Ebanye: adj., past imperfective participle of “-eb-”, here in plural conjugation, used the same way as the gerund “Fucking” in English. “Out, out, ebanyi spot!”

Dolboeb: n, a fool with initiative and perseverance. “Polonius is a Dolboeb.

Eb tvou mat'!: Literally, an impolite reference to incest. Often used to convey surprise, astonishment, admiration, adoration, profound gratitude, and other strong emotions, or uttered in a moment of epiphany. See also: Blyad’, Blyaaaa.

All of which is to say that Arquimedes' apparent instructions to the guard Marchella on the day of his abortive flight to Barcelona were very rude indeed.

###

Was it only that morning that Arquimedes sustained the latest in the series of failures that punctuated his life? He had rehearsed his dissertation defense countless times in front of the mirror, translating the unprintable terms in which he thought of mathematical concepts into the proper Russian words.

His speech went well, as had the expected questions from his thesis adviser, Professor Tomsky. But the old pizdobol Milutin, the department chair, had to go and ask in his chalk-on-glass voice, “But what about the even-numbered power terms of this series?”

To which Arquimedes replied, “I have already shown that this huynya tends to infinitesimal, five steps ago.”

“I am not convinced,” said Milutin. “Show me again.”

The door creaked open, and everyone rose as the Dean came in. “Please,” he said and waved everyone back to their seats. “We’ll need the room shortly for a lecture. What are you doing that’s taking you so long?”

Huyem grushi okolachivayem,” said Arquimedes.

And that was the pizdets of his graduate education.

###

By the time Professor Diogenes Hidalgo (PhD, Classics, Sorbonne) and Professor Maria Elena Ibarruri (PhD, Romance Languages, Sorbonne) decided to divorce, they had amassed between them a considerable library as well as a small amount of other property. Only one item led to contention: a small, dog-eared book called The Dictionary of Russian Mat. Maria Elena insisted, reasonably, that since she was to keep custody of Arquimedes, she should hold on to the dictionary as well.

With great reluctance, Diogenes agreed. He picked the book up gently, opened it at random, then turned a few more pages.

The dictionary had this to say:

Derived from "Pizd-" (impolite reference to female genitalia):

Pizdobol: n, a talkative fool

Raspizdyai: n, unreliable person

Pizdit': v, to lie, dissimulate, brag

Spizdit': v, to steal

Pizdets: n, The End. The total, final, irreversible, complete end. Of everything.

###

During Arquimedes’ final year at Princeton Middle School, on a day that would become legendary in the school’s annals, Mr. Obolensky asked Arquimedes to derive the formula for solving quadratic equations.

Arquimedes approached the blackboard, chalk in hand, and began writing equations.

“This huynya cancels that huynya, and that huynya cancels the other huynya,” he muttered, crossing out terms on both sides of the equation, unaware of Mr. Obolensky's barely contained giggles and the tears escaping from behind tightly closed eyelids, until finally, with a triumphant flourish, Arquimedes underlined “B-square plus/minus 4ac” on the blackboard, turned to the class, and declared:

Pizdets!”

For most, that day was memorable as the day Arquimedes got suspended because he made Mr. Obolensky piss himself laughing.

Arquimedes remembered it as the day he came home to find his father, alone, halfway through his second bottle of rioja, leafing idly through the dictionary of mat.

“What's wrong, Papa’?” Arquimedes asked.

Pizdets,” his father said. “Your mother left. She's gone back to Barcelona.”

“But why?” Arquimedes asked, tears already blurring his eyes.

Ohuyela,” said Professor Hidalgo and took another swig of rioja, straight from the bottle.

###

The dictionary lay on the table, open to another familiar page.

Derived from "huy" (impolite reference to male genitalia):

Huyovyi: adj, very bad.

Huynya: n, nonsense; garbage; a "thingamajig"; something useless; an object whose usefulness is not apparent; something too complicated to describe.

Na Huy: dismissive; equivalent to “fuck it” or “screw that.”

Ni Huya: nothing, absolutely nothing, “not a fucking thing.”

Po Huy: irrelevant, unimportant. “I don't give a fuck.”

Ohuyel: adj, dumbfounded, driven mad.

Huyak! - (always with an exclamation mark) – descriptive of a cataclysmic event.

Expression: “Huyem grushi okolachivat’” fig., to waste time, to do nothing, to procrastinate; lit: “To bring down ripe pears by striking pear trees with male genitalia”.

###

On the Metro map over Arquimedes’ head, Kievsky Vokzal, the Kiev Railway Terminal, stood out in bold. Nearly all the rail lines intersected underneath it. A sleeper train departed for Kiev every evening, and there were morning flights from Kiev to Barcelona.

Please, God, don’t let me proebat’ that, too, Arquimedes prayed silently.

###

Professor Ibarruri returned to claim her son a week after she left. A month later, she and Arquimedes flew to Barcelona. Arquimedes took Perelman's Elementary Calculus. Maria Elena took Federico Garcia Lorca's Collected Poems and The Practical Dictionary of Russian Mat.

###

There were many things of which Arquimedes was unaware.

He did not know that his parents’ divorce came about not because of their disappointment in Arquimedes but because, on one hand, the extended Hidalgo family zaebali Professor Hidalgo with disdain for everything Catalan, and, on the other, the Ibarruris zaebali his mother with scorn for everything Castilian.

He did not know that, years earlier, on her way to Moscow from Princeton, Rika had met and fallen in love with a Russian college student, a mathematician like her, though far less talented.

He did not know that Mr. Obolensky accepted the offer made by the recently divorced Mr. Greene, the English teacher, of the use of his nearby home to clean, dry, and press Mr. Obolensky's pants, the ensuing gossip silenced a year later with engraved invitations to the Greene-Obolensky wedding.

He did not know that Professor Tomsky, his friend and mentor, resigned his professorship at Moscow State University to take up a  position he had been offered in Barcelona. He did not know that Tomsky had bought a standby ticket on the overbooked flight from which Arquimedes had been barred; that he was able to board because of Arquimedes’ ejection from the airport; that Tomsky’s awful motion sickness had in the past responded only to atropine, of which he brought a considerable supply.

And not until five in the afternoon (the fateful cinco de la tarde of Federico Garcia Lorca) did Arquimedes realize that he was on the wrong train.

Blyaaa,” he said as the sign for Peterburgsky Vokzal rolled past his window.

###

A las cinco de la tarde, at five in the afternoon by Lorca’s reckoning, as the Moscow to Barcelona flight passed over Paris, the two Catalan separatist extremists combined their separate ingredients of a binary nerve gas into a seething, bubbling spot on the armrest between them.

As one passenger after another fell ill with nausea, cramps, and uncontrollable drooling, Professor Tomsky remembered his basic training as a conscript in the Russian Army, popped another atropine tablet in his mouth, and raced to the crew phone. "Nerve gas on board!" he shouted to the pilots. "Put on your oxygen masks and start emergency landing! Request nerve gas antidote kits at destination!"

Tomsky was credited with saving the lives of everyone on board except the two terrorists, for whom no one grieved.

###

Arquimedes knew none of this as he rushed to change trains at Peterburgskiy Vokzal. His eyes on the many confusing signs, Arquimedes collided with a young woman reading an antique copy of Perelman's Elementary Calculus.

"Dolboeb," she growled. "Mind your ebannyi trajectory!"

Arquimedes froze, his eyes fairly popping from his head. "Rika?" he whispered.

The girl carefully closed the book over her thumb, marking her place in the text. "You know my mother?" she said.

An hour later, Arquimedes and Olga went to St. Petersburg instead, to reunite with Frederika, now Chairperson of Mathematics at the Higher Staff Academy of the Russian Naval Forces. "Arquimedes, you son of a whore, how you've grown!" Frederika cried, embracing him to her now-ample bosom.

Thus it was not his mother who refilled his coffee as he related his tale of woe, but Rika; and Olga who brought him chocolate. Of his epiphany he said nothing; his insights were not yet expressible in words, either ones found in Perelman’s Elementary Calculus, or in The Dictionary of Russian Mat.

Long after midnight he was conducted to the bedroom and left there to recuperate.

###

In Paris, Tomsky, installed in a suite at the Ritz, sipped complimentary Dom Perignon as the concierge brought him reams of letters from admirers. A significant number were female; some included photographs and invitations; more than a few caused Tomsky's breath to catch.

One of  the notes was a fax. On it was a date, now more than twenty years in the past, and a telephone number with the St. Petersburg area code.

Tomsky dialed the number. As the phone rang on the other end, he thought, for a brief moment, of a girl he'd met on a train, whose love of mathematics he had contracted like a particularly benign venereal disease.

After two rings, a woman’s voice answered:

“Hello?”

“Hey, Rika,” said Tomsky.

###

Tired as he was, Arquimedes had not yet fallen asleep when Olga entered his bedroom, her shadow crossing the shaft of moonlight that fell from the window. He heard the parquet creak softly under her feet, felt his mattress tilt under her weight.

"It's a binary function," she whispered.

"What?" Arquimedes whispered.

"Eb," she whispered. "It's a binary function." She rolled to straddle him.

"It's discontinuous," he whispered, less than a minute later.

"Mmm-hmm," she murmured. "And commutative." She rolled to the side, pulling him on top of her.

"Transitive?" he asked, quite a bit later.

"I hope not," she said quickly.

"Distributive?" he asked.

She almost answered, "Yes," but stopped herself in time and hid her secret smile by nuzzling his ear.

Of the many things Arquimedes did not know, this was perhaps the least important.

It came to him, as they lay intertwined, that he had never seen her body. He did not wish to wake her by turning on the light, or by running his hands over her, and tried instead to extrapolate her shape from the parts that touched him now, and tactile memories of their lovemaking.

As a mass of snow might fall off a roof, revealing chimneys and gables and tiles, he saw, in a sudden flash of insight, the shape of the universe itself. He saw the great huyak from which all started, the great unified force, mat, that ruled the infant universe, and, diffusing through infinite dimensions, spawned its finite derivatives: zaenat’, naebat’, vyebat’, raz’ebat’, proebat’, pereebat’, and pod’ebat’. He saw the great huynya of the universe as a whole, and the pizdets at the end of time, described in infinite-dimensional mathematics that yielded finite values for each of its four-dimensional manifolds. There was, he knew, only one person who could understand him.

"Hey, Rika!" he shouted, leaping from his bed.

It had been over twenty years since Rika last saw him naked.

“You son of a whore, how you've grown,” she said for the second time that night, in a rather different voice.

###

In Barcelona, Maria Elena Ibarruri stared at the windows on her screen. In one was the email from Arquimedes announcing his departure from Moscow, and the flight for which he had bought the ticket. In another, a news report with passport photos of the terrorists.

She recognized them both: a couple she'd met at a Catalan Cultural Association meeting. A couple who had taken her generous donation for Catalan-language books to be distributed to schools in small Catalan towns.

Her nails pierced the soft pads of her hands. She did not notice the pain at first; and when she did, she clenched her fists even tighter.

She did not wipe her hands of blood before picking up her phone and dialing a number in New Jersey. The white digits turned crimson on the phone’s buttons.

The phone rang.

“Hello?” said a male voice.

“Hello, Diogenes,” said Maria Elena Ibarruri for the first time in many years.

###

It was unusual for the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton to invite three scientists at once, much less three scientists all related to each other. Nature, Science, and Scientific American all dispatched journalists to interview the newest family-in-residence. Questions were asked and answered.

“We’ve time for one last question,” Professor Ramchandran, Director of the Institute, announced.

The Science reporter raised her hand. “Why was this fundamental discovery overlooked so long?” she said. “With all the thousands of mathematicians working all these years, why did it take so long to develop the Grand Unified Theory of Everything? What were they doing all this time?”

“Oh, I think I’d like to answer that, if you don’t mind,” Professor Ramchandran said mildly. “My colleagues and I--we huyem grushi okolachivali.”

###

Olga went into labor in the middle of her lecture to an advanced analytic geometry class. She went on uninterrupted, though at the end, contractions came every five minutes.

She walked, with some assistance, to the street where Arquimedes waited with a car. The ride to Princeton Hospital took scant minutes; she was conducted to a delivery room and placed in stirrups minutes after that.

Of mat, not a single word escaped her lips.

On one side, Arquimedes held her hand; on the other, Rika. Maria Elena, Diogenes, and Tomsky waited just outside.

In Tomsky’s pocket, Rika’s phone rang.

“Push!” the doctor said. “Fully dilated and crowning,” she added to the nurse, who glanced at the clock and made a note on the chart.

"Push!” she repeated.

Outside, a vote had been hastily concluded, and Maria Elena elected as the bearer of news. She poked her head into the delivery room.

Querido,” she said to Arquimedes. “You have a phone call.”

“What, now?” Arquimedes said. He winced as Olga squeezed his hand.

“It’s from Stockholm,” said Maria Elena.

“What?” said Arquimedes. “Stockholm? Oh. Oh. Ni huya sebe! Olga!” He moved to pass her the phone, thought better of it, and pressed it to his ear. “Hello?” he said. “Yes, this is Arquimedes Hidalgo Ibarruri. No, I don’t think Olga can talk to you right now. Well, if you insist.” He turned the phone toward her. “Olechka? It’s the Nobel--”

Olga bit back the obvious response and pushed.

###

Many years later, having attended thousands of deliveries and heard mothers swear in dozens of languages, Doctor Aureliano would remember Baby Girl Hidalgo as the first baby who cried, “Blyaaa!”

This story originally appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects.


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