His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.
I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before… When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, in glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror… I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.
He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke… And when nothing but my scarlet, palpitating core remained, I saw, in the mirror, the living image of an etching by Rops… He in his London tailoring; she, bare as a lamb chop. Most pornographic of all confrontations. And so my purchaser unwrapped his bargain. And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring.
I stammered foolishly: We’ve not taken luncheon yet; and, besides, it is broad daylight…
All the better to see you.
He made me put on my choker, the family heirloom of one woman who had escaped the blade… Rapt, he intoned: “Of her apparel she retains/Only her sonorous jewellery.”
A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside.
No. I was not afraid of him; but of myself. I seemed reborn in his unreflective eyes, reborn in unfamiliar shapes. I hardly recognized myself from his descriptions of me and yet, and yet – might there not be a grain of beastly truth in them? And, in the red firelight, I blushed again, unnoticed, to think he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption.
“There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer,” opined my husband’s favourite poet; I had learned something of the nature of that similarity on my marriage bed. And now my taper showed me the outlines of a rack. There was also a great wheel… And – just one glimpse of it before my little flame caved in and I was left in absolute darkness – a metal figure, hinged at the side, which I knew to be spiked on the inside and to have the name: the Iron Maiden.
On her eighteenth birthday, my mother had disposed of a man-eating tiger that ravaged the villages in the hills north of Hanoi. Now, without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.
How strange he was. She found his bewildering difference from herself almost intolerable; its presence choked her. There seemed a heavy, soundless pressure upon her in his house, as if it lay under water, and when she saw the great paws lying on the arm of his chair, she thought: they are the death of any tender herbivore. And such a one she felt herself to be, Miss Lamb, spotless, sacrificial.
The Beast sunk his great head on to his paws. You will come back to me? It will be lonely here, without you.
She was moved almost to tears that he should care for her so. It was in her heart to drop a kiss upon his shaggy mane but, though she stretched out her hand towards him, she could not bring herself to touch him of her own free will, he was so different from herself. But, yes, she said; I will come back. Soon, before the winter is over.
She flung herself upon him, so that the iron bedstead groaned, and covered his poor paws with her kisses.
“Don’t die, Beast! If you’ll have me, I’ll never leave you.” When her lips touched the meat-hook claws, they drew back into their pads and she saw how he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers. Her tears fell on his face like snow and, under their soft transformation, the bones showed through the pelt, the flesh through the wide, tawny brow. And then it was no longer a lion in her arms but a man…
And The Beast gave me the rose from his own impeccable if outmoded buttonhole when he arrived, the valet brushing the snow off his black cloak. This white rose, unnatural, out of season, that now my nervous fingers ripped, petal by petal, apart as my father magnificently concluded the career he had made of catastrophe.
The valet held out his master’s cloak to screen him from me as he removed the mask. The horses stirred.
The tiger will never lie down with the lamb; he acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal. The lamb must learn to run with the tigers.
A great, feline, tawny shape whose pelt was barred with a savage geometry of bars the colour of burned wood. His domed, heavy head, so terrible he must hide… I felt my breast ripped apart as if I suffered a marvelous wound.
He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. “He will lick the skin off me!”
And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.
“Let’s get him to a softer bed,” says Master.
He ups the corpse, carries it aloft to the room we know full well, bumps Pantaloon down, twitches an eyelid, taps a kneecap, feels a pulse.
“Dead as a doornail,” he pronounces. “It’s not a doctor you want, it’s an undertaker.”
Missus has a handkerchief very dutifully and correctly to her eyes.
“You just run along and get one,” she says to hag. “And then I’ll read the will. Because don’t think he’s forgotten you…”
So off goes hag; you never saw a woman of her accumulated Christmases sprint so fast. As soon as they are left alone, no trifling, this time; they’re at it, hammer and tongs, down on the carpet since the bed is occupé.
In the evenings when the cold darkness settles down, I always go to the Erl-King and he lays me down on his bed of rustling straw where I lie at the mercy of his huge hands.
He is the tender butcher who showed me how the price of flesh is love; skin the rabbit, he says! Off come all my clothes.
When I realized what the Erl-King meant to do to me, I was shaken with a terrible fear and did not know what to do for I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages… His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven. But in his innocence he never knew he might be the death of me, although I knew from the first moment I saw him how Erl-King would do me grievous harm.
I shall take two huge handfuls of his rustling hair as he lies half dreaming, half waking, and wind them into ropes, very softly, so he will not wake up, and, softly, with hands as gentle as rain, I shall strangle him with them.
Then she will open all the cages and let the birds free; they will change back into young girls, every one, each with the crimson imprint of his love-bite on their throats.
He has the special quality of virginity, most and least ambiguous of states: ignorance, yet at the same time, power in potentia, and, furthermore, unknowingness, which is not the same as ignorance. He is more than he knows – and has about him, besides, the special glamour of that generation for whom history has already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France. This being, rooted in change and time, is about to collide with the timeless Gothic eternity of the vampires, for whom all is as it has always been and will be, whose cards always fall in the same pattern.
Owls shriek; the impedimenta of her condition squeak and gibber all around us. Now you are at the place of annihilation, now you are at the place of annihilation. She turns her head away from the blue beams of his eyes; she knows no other consummation than the only one she can offer him. She has not eaten for three days. It is dinner-time. It is bedtime.
She is not sleeping.
In death, she looked far older, less beautiful and so, for the first time, fully human.
I will vanish in the morning light; I was only an invention of darkness. And I leave you as a souvenir the dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave. On a grave.
She stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she has inside her a magic space the entrance to which is shut tight with a plug of membrane; she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.
Every wolf in the world now howled a prothalamion outside the window as she freely gave the kiss she owed him.
What big teeth you have!…
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing…
Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.
It is Christmas Day, the werewolves’ birthday, the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all sink through.
See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.
The wolves had tended her because they knew she was an imperfect wolf; we secluded her in animal privacy out of fear of her imperfection because it showed us what we might have been, and so time passed, although she scarcely knew it. Then she began to bleed.
Poor, wounded thing… locked half and half between such strange states, an aborted transformation, an incomplete mystery, now he lies writhing on his black bed like a Mycenaean tomb, howls like a wolf with his foot in a trap or a woman in labour, and bleeds.