It seems dangerously long since you were last inspired to touch me. Perhaps six months have passed; maybe it’s been more. My sense of time is imprecise. Calendars and clocks belong to the ordinary world that was left behind at the moment you chose me to serve as the substance from which you would form a breathing masterpiece, a live work of art. After all these uncountable years (fifteen? twenty?) I’m used to how your creative energy ebbs and flows. That changing tide is one more mystery to be embraced for its beauty, like the angle of your eyes and the taste of lemons that tarts your mouth. I know not to ask what’s gone wrong or how I can help bring this impasse to an end. You’re already aware that I’d do anything in my power on behalf of the deity in whose holy hands my life is held.
Impotently, I watch your fingers flex with thwarted desire to wield the instruments of your art again. Silence pools the space we share; suspense weighs the common air we breathe. I’m refused the embrace of your magic arms and I’m denied your precious penis. Without the frequent, intense sexual experiences that play an integral role in preserving our sacred union, I drift unmoored from certainty’s dock. It’s my impression that, for you, the importance of our physical encounters lies chiefly in the way they serve to deepen your aesthetical understanding of your human material. Advance exploration of my flesh by your long, thick length permits your knives to slice with supreme authority. In our religion, each expression of love is part of a larger act of creation.
When you’ve withheld yourself from me previously, it’s been for the purpose of sharpening my need for your caresses until I welcome splashes of the strongest acid on my hungry skin and beg for the slice of your blades.
More, I urge you. Harder, I plead.
Now you wear an inward expression, as though searching the labyrinth of your mind for a vision that was once clear but is now elusive. I catch you studying me from across the room with a puzzled look that hints of a gap between your original aspirations for me and what you’ve made of them to date. Perhaps you feel that the aesthetic errors you’ve committed are far too numerous and serious to be corrected. Maybe you realize that it was a mistake to select me in the first place and wrong to think I could be a suitable subject for your talent. Have you reached the point of accepting that it would be best to destroy a flawed work-in-progress and begin anew with canvas whose blankness teems with fresh potential?
I must hope you’ll reject that option for the simple reason that too much effort has been made to give up now. I count on your astonishing pride, your magnificent determination. At any moment, you might glimpse me from a new perspective; perceive a possibility that’s been concealing itself slyly. Your slate-grey eyes will suddenly clear and you’ll reach eagerly for your tools. Our pulses will begin to race at precisely the same instant, at exactly the same breathless rate. We embark on another shared creative adventure.
In the meantime, I try to remain as patient as a slab of unformed stone waiting for the chisel’s next strike. I do what I can in a difficult situation. I increase the pains taken to make myself worthy of your talent. I prime my skin with costly creams and scientifically advanced serums. Extra hours of each day are spent in the gym to render this flesh toned and taut for your implements. My diet becomes more disciplined than ever; I abstain with unremitting exactitude from alcohol and tobacco. I hope you notice and appreciate my efforts. Yet your doubt persists in seeping across the chasm that currently yawns between us. Art is never easy, I remind myself. The creative process is often fraught. With a fickleness that’s wholly foreign to my nature, your muse has deserted you before. But not until now, I sense, has it abandoned you quite like this.
. . .
Simple physiological reasons, unrelated to the forces of inspiration, require spaces of time to separate each of your creative efforts. My flesh has to heal before it can be ready for the next gift of your attention. Before you can perceive how your latest touches affect an ambitious design, an unsightly mess of blood and pus and scabs must be moved beyond. Scars need to form where the scalpels sliced, where acid has burned, where nails were driven. Early on, I came to understand that the value of my flesh lay in the special qualities—texture of tissue, density of muscle mass—that make it capable not only of accepting your ministrations but of recovering from them too.
Always, the periods of recuperation have afforded me secret pleasure. I would shiver at each stinging kiss of the antiseptic that you administer with erotic tenderness; melt beneath the warm, damp cloths that ease my aches; suppress moans as traumatized muscles are massaged. Physical discomfort is a small price to pay for the privilege of your love. Of course I share your excited anticipation for the moment when fresh scars will illuminate your recent handiwork’s results: your happiness must remain paramount always. Yet the disappearance of pain from my flesh is accompanied each time by a sense of loss mixed equally with dread. Subversively, I hope you’ll fail to find that your brilliant masterpiece has been made manifest at last. I can’t help but wonder what will happen when the touch that perfects me is placed. Am I going to be locked away from the eyes of a world that is unequipped to appreciate a miraculous achievement? Will I never again enjoy the honor of hands that have turned to focus on new material? Such questions occur rarely; bear only theoretical weight. A future without you is unconceivable, as the days before you found me belong to some unknown stranger’s forgotten dream. My sole reality is the one substantiated by your touch. I’m ready for it now. Just once more, I silently pray to the God whose divine grace directs the blade you grip.
. . .
“Nothing’s wrong,” I tell myself upon waking one morning to find you gone. Your periodic absences form a regular part of the pattern of our life together. Without checking, I know you’ve taken the black case that is usually concealed in the back of a closet. It will be replenished with funds when you return in what feels like several weeks. On rare occasions when the black case is unlocked in my presence, I glimpse bundles of euros and dollars and rubles, along with a few other objects, such as the passport that bears the name with which you baptized me on the day of your first kiss. Our existence must be costly. There are the sumptuously appointed apartments in the cities each of which we inhabit only as long as it inspires you. There’s the steep price of fine food and exclusive gyms. Our handsome faces deserve to be flattered by expensive haircuts acquired in elite salons; our similarly tall, athletic physiques, which suggest a superior set of twins, demand to be draped with beautiful clothes. An alliance as exalted as ours must be rewarded with the best. Your most withering contempt, I notice, is saved for the artist who accepts a dreary destiny spent starving in shabby rooms.
You’ve made it clear that the source of our livelihood isn’t my concern. How we live, where we love: these are among the questions from which I was liberated at the instant your body first brought mine to life. For all these years, I’ve been free to devote myself wholly to earning your love. Adoring a being of your complexity is a full-time pursuit. Only distantly, only rarely, have I suspected that you absent yourself from my side not merely for financial reasons. You go away also to remind me of the bald truth that I need you in order to continue to draw breath. Fear of an untenable existence without you will inspire me to redouble my efforts to be worthy. Lavishing more care than ever upon the skin that holds value for you, I vow to myself that a touch of your tools will never make me flinch again; however deeply the next screw is inserted into sinew, I won’t gasp. No longer will I beg to be anaesthetized in advance of a particularly demanding procedure or pray to slip into unaided unconsciousness when the pain becomes extreme. You need me to remain alert while you work; my silent participation is essential to the success of each delicate operation. You repeatedly remind me that I’m a valued member of a team. “I couldn’t do it alone,” you say, effortlessly seducing me once more with your smile.
When you’re gone, I must focus on you with such unwavering concentration that your absent image assumes greater substance each lonely day. Again and again, the purity of my belief in you and the strength of my desire for you recreate your solid form. With uncanny timing, in the instant before my extraordinary faith is about to crack, I’ll detect the tattoo of your footsteps approaching our door.
. . .
This time your absence possesses a different shape and texture. It occurs to me that you’ve never gone away during a period of creative crisis before. A special test is being given to me, I gather; say, a more daunting variety of the challenges that have been embraced with eagerness before. Why do I find it difficult to rise appropriately to the occasion now? Skipping visits to the gym, I languish in a corner of our bedroom. My body shivers uncontrollably without your heat; it curls around itself on the cold, hard floor. In the circumstances, sleeping alone in the bed where we make love and art would be obscene. Candles whose calm glow encourages my inner flame for you to burn with similar steadiness go unlit. Unwashed dishes litter the sink and unlaundered clothes are strewn across the bedroom floor. A pure environment has been polluted; our pristine work space been transformed into the most ordinary apartment. Although windows and curtains remain closed against eroding influences from beyond, my vision of you seems to wane further every hour. After five or ten or twenty listless days, I have difficulty in conjuring the nuances of your mouth from memory, or in apprehending the singular shade of your eyes out of thin air.
For the first time, I wish that photographs of you, even cheap snapshots, weren’t among the items forbidden by the laws that sustain the system of our love. You emphasize the importance of eliminating evidence that would be viewed as incriminating by the short-sighted world. We live in a state of constant threat from forces of ignorance and envy. Simplistic judgment would deem me to be your prisoner and you to be guilty of unspeakable atrocities. Yes, an unevolved society would love to lock us up; it itches for the incarceration of the likes of you and me. So tickets are burned as soon as travel is completed; receipts for seemingly innocuous purchases are immediately destroyed. Except for the equivocal contents of your black case, no aspect of our living environment betrays the nature of its inhabitants. Tastes, interests, inclinations aren’t on display. Personal artifacts, sentimental souvenirs and treasured trinkets are equally disallowed. Dross of any kind—telephones or television; books or magazines—must not denigrate the spotless essence of our space.
Only once, long ago, did I dare defy this rule. Passing through a square crowded with stalls manned by local artisans, I noticed a display of bracelets fashioned out of colored threads. One of the bands, woven from bright blues and reds, demanded that it be purchased for you. With an intensity whose strength suggested that the emotion had been growing secretly inside me for a number of years, I yearned to fasten the red and blue braid around your wrist like a talisman that would increase your magic powers. When I gave you the bracelet, embarrassed by the flimsiness of the gift, you became incensed. For the first time, you were compelled to subject me to your instruments for a reason that seemed related not to art but to punishment; afterward, for the only time, you admitted that I might require treatment by medical authorities. Look what you’ve done! you raged, gesturing at my splattered blood on the walls. I barely managed to deter you from jeopardizing our life-work by taking me to the emergency room. I begged forgiveness for my selfish thoughtlessness and promised that I wouldn’t repeat the mistake. Although I never saw the bracelet again, a glimpse of blue or scarlet neon still twists my entrails. Your naked wrists, particularly the left one, appear disturbingly vulnerable to this day; their lack of adornment has continued to nag me with the notion that something essential is missing from you. Where hand joins arm—that delicate, complex meeting point—remains the only aspect of your beauty upon which my eyes avoid feasting.
In the rooms where you have left me now are only clothes that could belong to either of us; toiletries that might be anyone’s. His eyes are grey, his shoulders are wide, his fingers are long and slender. My whispered litany sounds mechanical and feeble. It paints a generic portrait that suggests you might be any man at all.
. . .
When the acuteness of my craving for your presence becomes unbearable, I know that you should have returned to me by now. In Tokyo or New York or Paris, you’re shaking your head with disappointment at my failure to maintain the discipline of the truly devout. You sigh at the thought that your grand endeavor might require a disciple who’s more reliably dutiful than me. The prospect of being forced to find someone more suitable for your purpose is surely imposing. You’ve repeatedly implied that it took you many long years of dedicated searching to encounter me. You had to travel to the four corners of the globe and you were obliged to explore smooth flesh on seven continents. Countless beautiful boys of every race were sifted through and then discarded for being wanting.
Fumbling to light candles, I kneel before a glow and plead for another chance to prove my worth.
God is good, God is great, God is just, I begin to chant.
Although long practice has made me expert at shutting out the babble of the world, voices reaching from beyond the room interfere with my attempt to adore you back to me. Puzzlement at the intrusion transforms into curiosity. What language is being spoken in the street below? For as long as I remember, the sole vocabulary and grammar that I’ve been able to understand belong to the esoteric idiom we share; this communication is limited to an expression of your demands and of my obedience. French, Italian and English are no more than varieties of incomprehensible noise, just as any music not issued through your throat is merely clanging dissonance.
He is benevolent, He is forgiving, He is patient…
Sound from the street keeps pricking me more painfully than any of your sharp steel slivers. Have I carelessly neglected to close the glass doors to this bedroom’s third-floor balcony? One of the violating voices, pitched high and deep at once, seems to needle into my ears from just inches away. Other qualities of the repeating call, suggestive of eagerness or of innocence, add to my sense that its source lies in an adolescent boy. As though blown at by his breath, the flame of my faith in you, already tentative, wavers, then goes out.
At the same moment, perhaps satisfied by his success in disturbing my devotions, the boy ceases calling. I’m suspended in silence that becomes broken by a cry sounding like it carries across a greater distance than before. The boy must be moving away through the street below. His waning voice pulls at me like a barbed hook.
Abandoning my posture of supplication, I rise stiffly to move toward the glass balcony doors. Despite being properly closed, they’ve failed to perform a muffling duty. Aware of the heretical nature of my act, I open the doors and step onto our balcony for the first time since you brought me here.
Though I believed it to be morning, blurred light indicates dusk. The air’s softness and warmth suggests early summer in some southern landscape. My senses recoil as I wonder about what they’ve registered—when did you stop being my only weather, my sole geography?—then sharpen to inspect an unknown view.
The street below appears too narrow to permit automobile access; its sidewalks are still more slender. Cobblestoned surfaces gleam, as though a recent rain has fallen without my knowledge. Through gathering darkness, I strain to no avail to see a boy who might have called me. Does he conceal himself just out of sight, grinning with delight at the ease with which he’s been able to lead me into temptation? At one end of the block, several women in black carry brimming shopping baskets; in the other direction, a little girl sits on a chair in a doorway with a tray balanced on her knees. It appears to hold brightly colored materials that her hands are busily working. I look up to the building facing ours; it seems almost close enough for me to touch. I can nearly reach blue pots of red flowers on the balcony opposite the one on which I stand. Though I’m as ignorant of the name of these blossoms as I am of the stars emerging into the sky above, their perfume is as familiar as your breath’s. Dark and cold and raw as a freshly dug grave’s dirt, the scent curls uninvited into my senses and whispers a question through my blood.
Have I been here before?
Impossible. We move frequently from one city to another in search of fresh settings to stir your spirit. Invariably, these relocations occur as soon as I’m able to travel after a session with your scalpel. According to that principle, I suddenly realize, we should have left here by now. Is this apparent alternation of a fixed pattern partly to blame for my current unease?
Certainly, it’s my understanding that we never return to a landscape that’s turned stale for you. Can there be another reason why we don’t go back to where we’ve been before? A factor that has nothing to do with art? One connected, instead, to the stricture that no proof of our presence can be left behind in any place whose air we’ve breathed?
I inhale deeply. The scent of the blossoms across the street has become confused by a richer one. All around me the air is pungent with the sizzling of garlic in olive oil. Although sure I’ve fed my body the precise amount of nourishment that it needs for maximum health and beauty, according to your instruction, my belly is stabbed by the kind of pain that attests to prolonged starvation. Gripping the balcony rail, I close my eyes in order to encourage a vision of you to relieve my hunger. After one minute or one hour, my fruitless effort is interrupted by a ringing bell. Another religion besides yours exists, the tolling tells me. The loud clangs must originate from nearby; they harshly insist that it’s impossible I haven’t once heard them until now. I open bewildered eyes. Rising above the rooftops before me, several streets away, a cathedral’s spires point toward patterns of stars pricked into the night’s black skin.
Below, a little girl no longer sits in a doorway halfway down the block. She’s left her chair behind; it appears like an abandoned throne waiting to be reassumed. In the distance, a guitar is being plucked. The air vibrates and the strings of my heart twang. Streetlights switch on. Each lamp is encased within a glass octagon that softens its glow. In both directions, globes of spaced light invite my eyes to follow, with a promise that they lead to a sphere of illumination unbound by darkness.
. . .
I waken to find that I neglected to close the bedroom curtains before finally falling asleep. Bright daylight banishes last night’s confusion as I move with cautious deliberation through morning. Supplements that assist in maintaining my youth and beauty for your labors of love are measured carefully, swallowed dutifully. I shave without studying my eyes in the mirror to avoid being saddened that they’re not yours. In the shower, I abstain from examining the surfaces that I wash; lather with the lightest possible touch. It might be a stranger’s body that is receiving my ablutions. Only near the very beginning of your work, when my skin remained almost blank, would curiosity urge me to steal glances at it in a full-length mirror. Was that shape carved into my chest suggestive of a sail? Did the mark on one thigh resemble a wing? Had you burned a crucifix onto my right calf? My speculation felt sinful. I quickly learned to refrain from prying inspections that, intuition told me, you would take as a violation of your unfolding vision.
I make my way through streets and plazas toward the gym. Despite the sun’s warmth, I’m dressed in full-length athletic wear that conceals from public view the patterns you’ve placed upon my limbs. After today’s exercise, the gym shower will be avoided to prevent exposure of my shoulders and back, belly and torso. Only my face and neck and hands remain scrupulously unmarked; for all anyone except us knows, the rest of my body is also as blank as a page of an unwritten bible. You sneer at tattoos flaunted on the surfaces of strangers and compare those superficial designs to the crayoned scribbles of silly children. Art as profoundly deep as yours must be withheld from shallow sight. You take delight in the way eyes are drawn to my beauty and are denied access to its full extent with equal ease. You laugh at how effortlessly our rarely encountered neighbors are duped by your dazzling smile. Only pitifully stunted senses could ever be deceived with such facility, you patiently point out.
Except when you’re away, I rarely walk through the streets alone. The experience is always frightening. Unprotected by your shielding presence, I’m vulnerable to being overwhelmed by random sights and stray sounds. Newspaper headlines, obscure as hieroglyphics, scream from kiosks to make me wonder if another natural disaster has occurred or if opposing governments are at war. Cinema posters declare that, dissidently, stars other than you are being worshipped in the dark. Eager to inflict their ersatz beauty upon my eyes, boys whistle everywhere around me.
Without your guidance, I’m in constant danger of losing my way, and a language barrier would make it difficult to ask for directions to steer me safely back to you. Especially in this city’s maze of twisting streets, it’s vital that when alone I adhere to the well-known path that runs between gym and home. My eyes remain lowered to my feet except to lift in search of several landmarks offering assurance that I haven’t strayed off course.
A siren’s wail causes me to look up from the sidewalk when I shouldn’t. On the corner ahead of me, a man turns into what proves to be a passageway that runs too narrowly between buildings on either side to allow much access by sunlight. Except for the man who has just entered it, the dim alley appears deserted.
Despite the obscurity into which he moves, I recognize the stranger’s impressive physique, and apprehend the exact measure of his height and weight immediately. His clothes aren’t able to camouflage the swell and curve of the only muscles ever traced by my tongue. The span of these wide shoulders has been calculated a hundred thousand times by my lips; the breadth of this back has been calibrated just as often by my gaze.
I freeze in place.
Here or anywhere, I know just one man. This must be you; this can’t be you. You’re in some distant city. I’m certain of that. If you were anywhere nearby, I’d be aware of the fact. My senses are so keenly attuned to you that I’m able to detect your presence a mile away. Left behind in our apartment while you venture out to replenish essential supplies, for example, I can tell how many blocks separate us at any given moment and can hear each beat of your proximate heart.
I follow the advancing figure. Although he doesn’t look back, I suspect that the man knows I’m behind him and that he’s luring me forward into danger. His stride is purposeful, swift. My strong legs weaken with dread. Learning that this man is you would lead to a wealth of further discoveries whose nature I’ll never be ready to bear. In the same instant that I wonder whether our bond is actually as fragile as one forged by paper chains, the man becomes swallowed by shadow.
I’m alone in a dark alley lined by buildings that seem empty and abandoned and locked. The air has turned cold and dank; its silence resembles that of a tunnel running far below the raucous surface of the world. Only the sound of my pulse is audible. It beats a message whose code my mind requires a moment to decipher.
I’ve been here before.
After a moment’s hesitation, I continue forward instead of retracing my steps. My progress is cautious and blind. I finally reach the end of the passage and emerge into glaring sunlight. My eyes water and blink. They fail to spot a familiar figure among the throng that passes in both directions along the sidewalk where I’m paused. Strangers’ shoulders bump me. Cars careen down the wide avenue in front of me. I have no idea where it leads.
The safest course of action would be to return through the passageway to the familiar terrain on its other end. Yet I can’t reenter this dark alley. Not now, not ever. Far too many years have already been spent in the kind of obscurity that it contains.
. . .
Light has almost left the sky by the time I find my way to our street. I must have wandered lost for hours. Of my long search for home, I remember only crossing a bridge suspended above a river upon which boats were being raced by teams of rowing boys. Drops of water, scattered through the air by flashing oars, smarted my sight like your stinging acids. Despite the caustic quality of the vision, I lingered on the bridge until the boats were out of view.
Surely you’ve returned home during my absence; only the pull of your magnetic heart could have drawn me safely back without a map. At the sound of my approach, our apartment door is going to open. As soon as it clicks shut behind me, before we can make it to the bedroom, our bodies will have fitted together on the floor. The flavor of lemons, tart and sweet at once, will fill my mouth then spread through my blood with each ensuing thrust and parry.
Just as likely, I’ll be met by fists that batter my flesh with the message that the weakness of my faith has compelled your absence to last longer than was necessary, longer than you wanted. You’ll make me pay the price.
As I climb the stairs, with a mixture of hope and trepidation, it occurs to me that your desire for my body matches mine for yours whenever you return. Are separations equally painful for both of us? After replenishing the black case with funds, do you force yourself to linger in a distant locale? You mistakenly fear that acceding too quickly to pressing need for me would result in your being greeted with a pallid pretence of passion upon your return? Rocking back and forth before a candle in a lonely hotel room, you pray that one day my ardor for your arms will not be diminished by their unbroken embrace? The possibility that you might be prey to such unfounded doubt strikes me with the kind of revolutionary force that can cause a long-entrenched autocracy to topple.
The apartment proves empty. For a moment, I suspect that during my absence it has been violated by someone who flung the contents of cupboards and closets about in a frantic search for something of value. Could this intruder have been you? Did you come back to retrieve an essential item with a haste that would allow you to leave before I returned? No. A trace of your scent fails to tinge the apartment’s air. Accepting responsibility for the disorder, I leave it untouched. Wandering lost for so long has exhausted my strength. I’m too spent to consider making a second attempt to visit the gym today. Too weary to change out of gym clothes or shower or prepare a meal. Able only to light candles, I kneel before the votive flames.
My God is all-knowing and all-powerful. He is patient and He is wise…
The voice whose boyish timbre disturbed last evening’s devotion calls again. My scalp tingles; hairs stiffen on my arms. This time the deep, high call insinuates its sound between my pores and into the dark chambers below, until becoming muffled then muted by my dense walls of flesh.
I step out the balcony. The quality of light suggests that I was moved to stand here at exactly the same instant last evening. The perfume of the flowers reaching from across the way seems stronger and more insistent. The same little girl is sitting on a chair in the same doorway, with the same tray balanced across her knees. Again her flying fingers appear to perform an intricate operation with the materials spread over the tray. How is she able to see what she’s doing despite the dimness? As though in answer to my question, to prove she can work blindly, she looks up from her activity without slackening its pace. One hand lifts to wave to me. Woven seamlessly into an uninterrupted procedure, sustained for just a flash, the gesture resembles a sign of recognition made to someone who’s known well. From beneath my skin, a choked voice calls out once. When the girl’s hand lowers and her eyes turn back toward her tray, I’m left with the impression of having been signaled to direct my attention to an essential sight that must not be ignored.
I look across the expanse of rooftops stretching before me, until the already clear air assumes a greater degree of transparency.
Over there, past the cathedral and far beyond reach of ordinary vision, a boy stands on a third-floor balcony whose design is identical to mine. He has just come home from the river. With the approach of the summer regatta, the rowing club trains well into dusk, when swathes of neon become cast across darkening water by cafés on either bank. Twelve boats break apart paths of brilliant red and blue in turn; oars scatter shining jewels above a black surface that continues to ripple long after it has been disturbed. On the balcony, the boy straightens shoulders broadened by carving a long blade through heavy water three times a week after school; like the muscles unfolding like unwanted wings from his back, their development makes him uneasy for reasons he can’t understand. Seeking solace, the boy feels his left wrist for the gift made to wear there by a friend. Esperanza’s chair in the doorway halfway down the block below stands empty. She probably completed today’s work quota early. Her blind fingers must have flown more swiftly than ever to finish the number of bracelets deemed necessary by her older sister, who sells them from a Plaza de la Encarnación stall. The profits are never enough. “Those poor girls,” the boy’s mother often sighs, pushing him out the door with a plate of meat to take to the cellar where Selena and Esperanza live six steps below the doorway in which the latter sits seven days a week with her tray of threads. In the kitchen behind the boy, his mother is preparing the evening cena. A scent of garlic and olive oil drifts forward to meet the cooler one cast by geraniums upon the balcony across the narrow street. The two scents twine around the boy as tightly as the red and blue amulet woven by Esperanza for his wrist.
. . .
The cathedral bell begins to toll. Each peal seems to strike with greater force than the one before. A final, twelfth ring shatters the glass air, allowing me to see the present more lucidly, permitting me sight of a now equally transparent past.
This city is named Sevilla. The neighbourhood surrounding me, known as La Alfalfa, is a ten-minute walk from the balcony of the home in the Macarena where I was born. Once upon a time, the labyrinth of twisting streets that separate here from there could be navigated in my sleep. I played childhood games in every plaza dotting this maze; I drank from each fountain to grace these squares. At a similarly short distance from here flows the Guadalquivir, on whose placid surface I rowed after school as a boy, and on whose north bank you found me at age sixteen. It was dusk. Lamps spaced like measured promises along the promenade above the river had just switched on and starlings had ceased their shrieking. In the orange trees, leaves glinted darkly, rustled softly. Music carried across the water from Triana cafés on the opposite bank. Sounding faint and clear at once, the flamenco could have been travelling from close by or from far away. The dark form that filled a bench beside me might have been made of solid or shadow. As leaves swayed overhead, the shape shifted like an illusion making way for a dream.
You brought me back here to the beginning for a reason. Now I know why. It was the last thing you could do for me and for you. This is your final gift to us.
As the sound of the bell fades, I feel an interior stirring. A descendent voice reaches toward my surface. It has already lost much of its boyish timbre; solitary confinement in darkness has begun its work without delay. Soon a lonely boy will only be able to moan weakly. After ten or twenty years in his small cell, he’ll give up whimpering to be released. In silence, he waits for the sole opportunity for freedom that might possibly arrive; prays for his imprisonment to be ended by the single means with the power to achieve it.
An ordinary kitchen knife won’t do; only one of your scalpels can penetrate the tough walls of my flesh. I move toward the bedroom closet. At the back of the small dark space, your black case has been waiting for me all along. It opens with a simple click that tells me it was never locked.
By candlelight, I study the contents of the case. Rather than bundles of currency, it holds several dozen photographs of a nude boy. His face looks familiar. At first, I believe that you must have secretly taken snapshots of me long ago, and that you kept them in defiance of your rigid rule against allowing clues of this kind to collect. Even the enormous album of your heart wasn’t large enough to contain them. You wished to preserve, with photographic clarity, every detail of the beauty possessed by my body at the point when it originally attracted your attention. You couldn’t bring yourself to destroy images that have enabled you to indulge in sentimental remembrance of love’s first flowering and to wallow wistfully before evidence of its fading. Or perhaps your reason for hanging onto these photographs has nothing to do with nostalgia. Maybe they’re required for me to complete your creative process. Maybe study of the snapshots will allow me to know what work remains to be done to the skin that you started with.
Candles spit a command for me to look more closely at the photographs, and to learn that none of them are of me. Each image shows a different yet similar boy who bears a superficial resemblance to me. All of the adolescents have equally hungry eyes pleading to be fed by the wonder of your form. All possess the same smooth, blank skin that begs to be branded. In each case, I suspect, flesh was photographed in the last instant before it received your first sublime, incisive touch.
The revelation holds no significance; it has come too late to count. It doesn’t matter that the unfaded quality of many of the images indicates that they’re of recent date. It’s meaningless that during the long course of your absences you might have blessed several dozen various boys in several dozen various cities with your acute attention. Whether or not those specimens survived their experience with your scalpel can be of no concern to me. If you were obliged, again and again, to dispose of bodies that had wasted your talent and time; if you were repeatedly forced to rid both your skin and your implements of disappointing blood prior to returning to me; if, while sleeping at my side, you mumbled syllables that populated our dark bedroom like the names of a graveyard’s ghosts: none of these possibilities is sufficiently important for me to ponder now. In the end, I have only the power to save a single soul.
Sifting through the snapshots, I fail to find my passport but discover two other items at the bottom of the case instead. I easily recognize one of them as your sharpest scalpel; its blade was always saved for your deepest cuts. The other object is known more profoundly still. Fastening the bracelet around my left wrist, I notice that its bright red and blue haven’t faded. The band encircles veins that pulse the promise I made to Esperanza before her doorway became vacant for good.
Someday I’ll take you away from here.
One day, while her sister was manning the Plaza de la Encarnación stall, Esperanza felt her way down six steps to the dim cellar below her doorway. Perhaps she ran out of a particular color of thread that was needed to realize the beauty of a bracelet; from long experience, her blind fingers could tell red from blue by touch. A man must have followed her inside then left her in the state in which Selena found her upon coming home. Esperanza was unable to say who he might have been. She could no longer speak. That night, before I could say goodbye, she was sent off to an asylum in Malaga. On the corner, housewives whispered that the nuns were forced to tie down Esperanza’s hands to prevent them from weaving sacrilegious symbols out of the air. One day you’ll forget, vowed the Sisters. One day you’ll be saved.
I haven’t forgotten my promise, Esperanza. Watch me keep it now.
The scalpel, whispers the boy inside me. Hurry, he urges.
I pick up the blade and carry it to the bathroom. In bright light, I undress before the full-length mirror. For the first time in ten or fifteen years, I inspect my naked flesh closely and carefully. It resembles the rough hide of some extinct prehistoric reptile. Thick scars have repeatedly formed on top of each other to create rough mountains of tissue. In some places, unhealed wounds leak pus; in others, abscesses ooze. A scent of decay swims like sickening incense through the bathroom. When the air clears, I see that the image before me also contains countless craters where acid has eaten. My genitals appear partly mutilated. Turning around in order to see my back, I’m confronted by the fact that no inch of my body, excepting my face and neck and hands, has been left unmarked. My topography resembles the handiwork of a confused or careless God. Without success, I search for any hint of a pattern; any suggestion of a beautiful design. Why is there no sign of a wing, a sail, a cross?
Over my reflection spreads a graph revealing that an ever-larger gap of time separated each occasion of your kisses. You must have found it increasingly difficult to overcome revulsion for my ruined, rotting flesh. Again and again, you had to battle disgust that only the power of your love could vanquish. The realization moves me deeply; the force of my emotion fades the graph and replaces it with a vision of your sincere grey eyes. Looking into mine, they beg forgiveness, and plead for liberation from love at last.
More than a single known soul longs to be saved tonight; four yearn to be freed forever.
The bedroom, directs the boy trapped beneath my skin. Of course. Your artistry has always been performed on a mattress whose giving surface would tremble with my anticipation for the first cut. The boy murmurs encouragement that Esperanza echoes. Gripping the scalpel with the strength of your hands, I guide it with your same degree of certainty.
Now I understand why you always refused to render me unconscious while working on my skin. You were teaching me the subtleties of your advanced techniques. You were offering me the opportunity to learn under a great master. If your artistry abandoned you eventually, and if you discovered that your material had become ruined by aesthetic errors that even a towering talent can make, my long apprenticeship would allow me to salvage meaning from your effort still.
At my first expert slice, the candle flames that consecrate this chamber waver with wonder. The cathedral bell beyond begins to chime wildly in celebration. The boy’s voice grows louder. Deeper, he urges. Farther, Esperanza insists. We’re almost free, you cry. I join a choir of three as its triumphant psalm crescendos with my final cut. Drops of brilliant color scatter across the darkness pierced by eight ecstatic eyes. We pass through eons of suffering and pain; we rise above light-years of longing. Through a host of blue and scarlet stars, we make our shining ascent.
Patrick Roscoe is a Spain-based author of 8 books of literary fiction (including the novels The Lost Oasis, The Indivisible Heart, and God’s Peculiar Care), which have been variously published in Canada, the US and the UK. In Canada, his short fiction has won 2 CBC Literary Prizes, 2 Western Magazine Awards, a National Magazine Award, and the Canadian Fiction Magazine Annual Contributor’s Prize, among another honors; in the US, he has received the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Award, as well as a pair of Distinguished Story citations from Best American Stories; and in the UK, his fiction has appeared in The London Magazine, and in consecutive editions of Constable’s Winter’s Tales. Patrick is currently at work, without publisher or literary agent backing, on a novel based on “Our Shining Ascent.”