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The Book of Heaven

(The following is an excerpt from Patricia Storace’s novel The Book of Heaven, to be published by Pantheon.)

The world was created with a knife and a prayer. The knife you can see well, especially in the late summer nights. Look up after dark; you will see its green jade hilt, the sickle of brilliants that forms the curve of the scimitar’s blade, and the field of red stars sprayed around it, the drops of blood. It forms the topmost section of the constellation called the Murder, though decrees have been issued, as yet with no success, to change its name by compulsion to the Sacrifice. Nevertheless, the true name of this group of stars is the Murder, and there the knife quivers unmistakably at night, lodged where it was flung back into the heart of heaven. Whatever human beings would suppress or refuse to see, the heavens record their true acts and their true dreams in the ineradicable testament of stars.

The knife was forged as carefully as a sculpture as part of the dowry of a bride on her way to the household of an iconoclast husband she had never met. She was not to bring any images of animal or human creatures, none of the clay birds or babies that had been her girlhood toys, no paintings illustrating the cycles of legends she loved, no image of the house of her childhood, or of any guardian spirit. Souraya was being married into a household intensely concerned with what it was permitted to see. But attention to physical form is a powerful instinct and often becomes a talent, and will turn elsewhere if diverted. And among iconoclasts, the impulse found its satisfaction in the intensely anatomical forms of their domestic goods, saddles, ewers, farm implements, spoons, knives, forks, ladles, and bowls, those grand analogues to the womb.

Above all, iconoclasts were exacting about and seduced by the forms of weapons. Those they commissioned had the kind of extravagant detail and showed the ardent willingness to spend money that iconophiles devoted to images; they specified elaborate metal traceries, intricate gemmed patterns on hilts, and even calligraphy incised on the blades themselves. These ornaments inscribed a web of meaning on the weapons, gave them voices, which are acceptable to iconoclasts as images are not. The ornaments knit hands and weapons together, made them inseparable and, in a sense, helpless in their power, both hand and weapon bound together and absolved by a common pattern. The weapon ornament became a symbol of destiny, as did the self-inflicted wounds of the iconoclasts, tribal markings attributed to the appetite of the Divine for wounds. These weapons, and these wounds, were the jewelry of men.

When the contract for their marriage was negotiated and the final catalog of dowry gifts agreed on, chief among the gifts, more costly even than the plantation of twenty shade trees and twenty fruit trees that Souraya was to bring with her, was the knife. Adon’s emissary arrived with elaborate verbal instructions for its design, since for them to make a sketch of it was forbidden. The emissary, though, spoke in such vivid detail that Souraya’s mother was able to make a discreet sketch of the knife, to assist her husband in realizing the design accurately, from the hilt set with emeralds and diamonds, down to the inscription, “God’s Servant,” to be traced on the blade.

Finally, before accepting their entertainment after his journey, the emissary drew from his luggage a massive clay hand. It was modeled on Adon’s. “Fit the knife to this,” he said. “Then shatter it.” That disembodied right hand, palm ambitiously upward on her father’s worktable, was Souraya’s first glimpse of her husband. It dominated the workshop while it was there; its openness, attached to nothing, made it seem charged with absolute desire. It reached for everything. There was nothing it did not want, as if it, and not her father’s and mother’s modest finite living hands, was the source of all the objects and tools around it; that it was joined to no visible body or face made space itself seem to flow from it.

Late at night, Souraya went noiselessly to the workshop to acquaint herself with her husband. The monumental hand was resting on the worktable, in the shadows, as if it had just created darkness. She went up to it, and reaching her own hand out tentatively, stroked it, her slender fingers touching the monument soothingly, as if to appease and tame it. She picked it up. An even more colossal hand of shadow smoothed the floor, then gripped and grappled with the wall. She strained to lift the hand to her breast, seeing an image of her wedding night, her breast cupped for the first time by a husband’s hand.

The clay hand lay across her flesh like a boulder, with a profound heaviness, a world reposing on her breast. But she was so young that the effect on her of its weight was not exhaustion but a pooling of courage, a concentrated courage. An energy suffused the sure muscles of her legs, traveling through the strong, solid cypresses of her thighs, the unshatterable cup of her abdomen, up through her head, poised on the bones and tendons of her neck. The power and heroism of a young body is as helpless as the invincible frailty of an old one. She felt ready. She was as clean and plumb and deep with life as a well. Let the world be heavy; she would shelter it. Let the world lie on her; she would sustain it. Let the world fill itself with her. This was her body’s prayer.

When the knife was ready at last, so was the marriage. Souraya’s dowry gifts and personal belongings were securely packed, her clay birds and clay boys and girls given away to her cousins’ children. She threaded the bridegroom’s gifts of jewelry through her hair and around her neck. A special leather bag was set aside for the remnants of the clay hand; the iconoclasts were strict in demanding proof that the model had been destroyed, as if they were possessed by some fear that they themselves might be destroyed by their own despised images.

They danced all night, the night before she left, cycles of ribald dances, joyous dances, with figures of joined hands pledging that love requites everything, tender dances, openly tragic dances, with their mute declarations that all love is unrequited, the cresting movements of the dancers’ arms like waves beating against cliffs. They sang old songs, drinking wedding wine, and eating indulgently from what seemed a perpetual supply of roast meat and a traditional wedding confection known as “bride’s tears,” made of honey mixed with the resinous tears exuded by local pines, a symbol of the bittersweet nature of marriage.

Everyone, from children to old men, embraced the precious bride, touched her dress, smoothed her hair, clung to her as if she were each one’s ebbing life. Some dandled her four-year-old sister, who was also getting married to a five-year-old cousin. It was a common arrangement. Small sisters would share in the dower of the older bride, and the family would have married all its daughters at the expense of one wedding. The younger girls would return to their playthings and household tasks, and would discover when they had grown up that they had been married all their lives, as if they were assuming a life previously lived but unremembered.

The meat and dancing and singing and wine made a wild joy of loss, reversed the sense of mourning someone who was departing from their circle into a blissful oblivion. The festival of an absence would not be revealed as painful until tomorrow, after she would be gone forever.

Someone fetched the model of Adon’s hand and brought it to the fireside, offering it to Souraya’s father to destroy, as commanded. He shook his head dourly, regretting the end of his workmanship. “Do your husband’s will, Souraya,” he said. Souraya’s lips were stained with red wine, she was just becoming drunk. She picked up a log and with all her strength brought it down onto the center of the palm. The guests cheered as the object shattered, and Souraya smashed the clay fingers, knuckles, and wrist into smaller and smaller fragments knit with splintering embers. She half-remembered the childhood pleasure of building cities in the sand, and joining with all the other children, after fashioning intricate domes, tunnels, and towers, in the ecstatic destruction of their own creations. In their annihilating dances, those children outlived the world.

A man poured her another cup of wine and she lifted it high, in a mocking toast: no one could criticize her tonight. The singing ensured that, in all gatherings, sacred or profane; it gently enforced a consent on the company, so that on those occasions, they would not settle old scores, either by boast or by insult.

Drink to the unseen,” she cried out, laughing recklessly at her own daring, exulting in a moment of freedom in her severely disciplined life. Tomorrow she would have to be impeccable, eyes lowered, wordlessly graceful, inscrutable in the face of sorrow, relief, bewilderment, disgust, or fear. She needed to indulge herself in bravado tonight, for a virgin goes to marriage with an unseen man the way a soldier goes into battle, uncertain of survival, risking death. Who would protect her if she did not please? And she had no more idea than a soldier in first combat does of what she would experience physically. Like a soldier, she had to give herself over to an experience that she had been schooled to defend herself from her entire life. She now unnaturally had to permit a man what she had previously utterly forbidden to the point of death.

She knew she would be wounded, the woman was certainly, and perhaps the man, but with how much pain was the blood on that sheet purchased? Did the man enjoy the pain? Or suffer it? Was it forgotten afterward or always remembered? And in any case she must be the loyal companion, the faithful servant, the clairvoyant fulfillment of the man, whether or not she liked him, even whether or not she loathed him. As a soldier must guard and obey his commander, regardless of their personal feelings toward each other.

Tonight, though, the brides were exempt. Even though she had a long journey to make, she drank more wine, and danced until late, on the carpet that would be the last of the dowry gifts to be packed and the first to be set in place in her new household.

Her exhaustion as they set out the next day was merciful. Souraya slept through most of the day, her slight nausea a useful tranquilizer, like the layer of ash judiciously applied to fire to damp down its flames. Adon’s entourage was waiting to meet them after they crossed over the river nearest his compound. There, after ceremonious addresses and formal greetings, something strange occurred. Instead of proceeding directly through the gates of the compound, to the sounds of drums and harps and songs, the party was halted, barred from advancing further by a line of guards, each with a heavily ornamented knife in his belt. Souraya could see the musicians poised on the walls of the compound, each holding a silent instrument poised for song, as if they were paralyzed by some magic. Then a pair of guards surrounded the mounds of luggage Souraya’s party had brought and began to unpack it.

Souraya’s father, masking his fear of banditry, perhaps even the possibility that these were not in fact Adon’s men, approached the commander directing the pillage. They were searching the luggage for images, the commander explained to him. It was forbidden for images to be transported into the compound, or across any threshold occupied by a kinsman. Any images that were discovered would be taken back across the river and quarantined there in a guarded post, unless they belonged to the bride. They amassed a small, indiscriminate pile of clay figurines, winged angels, painted medallions, golden eyes, and a pair of earrings in the shape of swimming dolphins. Among Souraya’s dowry gifts, there were cooking pans with handles in the shape of nymphs, which, though they were exquisitely crafted and valuable, were destroyed.

The soldiers turned their attention to her personal belongings. Packed with her perfumes and cosmetics were a group of mirrors in graduated sizes. The guards seized them and began to smash them. Souraya pleaded to keep just one, for the sake of her husband, so she could make herself presentable for him. “These objects collect and contain images,” the soldiers said, unmoved. She looked at her father but he kept his eyes on the ground, not looking at what the soldiers were doing, and for the first time not meeting the mirror of his daughter’s gaze.

Suddenly there was a commotion near the baggage, and a soldier rushed forward, embracing a dress covered in a magnificent, intricate design of sequins, which glittered scarlet in the light of the sunset. It was Souraya’s wedding dress. The commander examined it closely, narrowing his eyes. Then, without hesitation, he ripped it from bodice to hem, and tossed it to the soldiers to finish shredding. “These reflect,” he said to Souraya. “They are image-givers.” The soldiers set on the dress and quickly destroyed the sequin-covered sleeves it had taken months to design and sew. She covered her own eyes then.

The commander made some gesture afterward indicating to the compound that the search was successfully completed. Then a torrent of music opened out over the landscape and the wedding party was swept inside the walls, where hundreds of torches were lit at the same moment and the rhythmic clapping of the families of the community welcomed them. A gaggle of children rushed forward to touch Souraya when, from the whispers and gestures, they realized she was the bride. Souraya didn’t smile at them or respond to them, though as a rule she was lavish with her smiles at children and could, with a still, steady gaze in which a small flame of smile flickered, bring the smiling willingness to be adored out of nearly any child, even one determined to wail. But the violence that had been done to her wedding dress made her feel both hostile and anxious. The fabric had been set to her body as words to music. It was a dress in which she felt as certain as a goddess must, absolutely sure in her movements, perfect in her shape with the ancient perfection of a sheaf of wheat, perfect enough to pass into archetype and become immortal, which was the purpose of all ornament.

It is a strange fact that a dress can safeguard a woman, its elegant design or fine color functioning as a counterweight at the moment she risks stepping off a precipice. It is a strange fact that a few lengths of cloth can bring a woman to life. But water, if it is to be drunk deeply enough to satisfy thirst, needs a cup, as an idea needs a sentence. And the strangest fact of all is that what we ourselves make gives us life. Souraya had a wild thought of running from them, these madmen who would dismember a dress. Her confidence in her new people had been shaken, as had her confidence in herself.

She had not known that ideas could be violent, had never seen anyone destroy something beautiful for an idea. If these people were haters of beauty, then they would surely hate her, too. And she would hate them in return, with her own red terrifying capacity for savagery. But the worst of her fears was beyond impersonal. She had glimpsed an implacable demand that something she thought of as lovely and harmless must be destroyed. What else that was precious to her must not exist? She passed through the crowd toward the nuptial lodging.

Later, she would remember this progress as blind; she could not distinguish a single face in memory until she saw Adon’s, the face that belonged to the right hand she already knew and had held. And looking at the angular planes of that face, set on the colossal height of Adon’s body, she found her balance. Adon’s features were set on the scaffolding of his bones as if riveted there; they expressed a force that seemed almost metallic. When he turned to look at her, his eyes gleamed, not only with obvious pleasure in her beauty, but with a kind of will to friendship, even though his mouth stayed stern. It was like having a shield smile at her. The kindly look relieved her of the burden of violent hatred she had been feeling after the mutilation of her dress. Her flood of relief and gratitude at not hating her husband on sight was so great that her willingness to love felt akin to love itself. It was as if the blood inside her turned to wine.

With the help of two kinswomen, she chose a costume to be married in. They helped her dress, and after the priest had joined the couple’s hands and given them wine to drink together, the women helped her again, to undress. One of them gave her a small hand-mirror that she had smuggled past the soldiers, and then they left her to wait for her husband. She could hear drumbeats beginning outside, establishing a steady regular rhythm, even as they built in intensity.

She knew what they were for. If there was pleasure, it would remain inaudible; if there was pain, that too would remain inaudible. The percussion also served to muffle the footsteps of her husband. She did not hear him as she fretfully changed the position of the small mirror, trying to catch a whole glimpse of herself in its turning orbit. But the light in the room altered and she realized that Adon stood behind her. It was as if her body held a reunion with its wandering shadow, a shadow that was now the stronger of the two. Her husband reached for the mirror, not unkindly, but authoritatively.

I beg your pardon,” she said. “I am anxious for you to be pleased with my appearance, and I do not know how to appraise myself without a mirror.” Adon raised his arm and shattered the mirror on the threshold. “Images are forbidden to us,” he explained patiently. “We are forbidden to gaze anywhere but at God. You will never see your face again.”

It was at that moment that Souraya understood the depth of his power over her. She understood through the easy, despotic violence of his gesture, the self-multiplication of his “we,” the perfect repose of his tone. He was not simply explaining unfamiliar customs to her, he was telling her the life she would live, feelings he expected her to have, her future, as if he were a seer with the power to make his prophecies come true. In the moment when he deprived her of her mirror, she saw clearly. If she were to have any power over herself again, it would only be through exaggerated, even competitive obedience to the laws of her husband’s God. Her only power would be in her embrace. She must embrace him—and his God—to survive. It was at that moment that she truly lost her virginity, when she understood, as a girl does not, that the marriage was a matter of life or death. And that God would be in her bed.

Are you going to blind me?” she asked, with the kind of frankness that absolute fear produces.

I am going to transform you,” he answered. “Here is how you will see yourself from now on.” He smiled radiantly, and touched with his index and third finger the dark pouches under his own eyes. “If you are beautiful in my eyes, you are beautiful. Look here.” He gestured again toward his face and frowned with disgust. “And if I look like this, this is how you will see yourself. But I feel sure,” he said, “that I will more often look at you with the delight I do now.” He held out his right hand, the living model of the clay one, and caressed her hair with an almost priestly gesture of benediction. “I chose you and I believe I have chosen well. I am going to make a nation inside your body. I am going to make a world out of you.”

She never forgot, although it did not spoil her pleasure in lovemaking later, the intense pain of her wedding night, when she was ripped apart like her own dress. And afterward, shocked and wounded as she was, enduring the violation of displaying the sheet, the public evidence of their intimacy, with the imprints of their bodies apparent on the cloth, the whole community crying out its triumph in its collective possession of her. The brief but unforgettable intensity of the pain, the particular sense of agonizing vulnerability it gave her, the sensation of being stabbed or raped, even though she had not been, even though Adon had treated her carefully, was frightening. It gave her a doubt about the nature of the world that it was so ordered that the initiation into lovemaking for her sex began with an inevitable cruelty. But the shrilling and shouts of the crowd when they saw the sheet stained with her blood aroused in her a disgust she had to conceal for years, especially when she was a guest at other wedding feasts. They had massed outside waiting, and ululated at the sight of her wedding blood as if it were the trophy of an enemy brought down.

It was a mystery to her later that although she would come to know years of confident pleasure in her marriage bed, she never remembered her first night without shuddering, that she could recall specific details of her physical agony and the gross exhibition of both her virginity and her husband’s capacity.

In the morning, when they brought a basin of water for her to wash in, she saw that its interior was lined with black stone, so she could not see her face reflected in the water. Its surface was covered with exquisite incised calligraphy. This was true of their plates, trays, ewers, and cups. She could never catch a glimpse of herself even when she prepared food for fifty in a vast metal cauldron. She saw occasionally a fragment of her lip, or a triangle of her eye, but never her whole face, fissured as it was in a shining web of prayers.

She missed herself sharply that first morning—if she could have seen her face, she would at least have had the comfort of seeing someone she knew. But as she began receiving the wedding visits, and assuming the domestic command of her household, she felt the contrast between herself and the men and women around her, many of whom had never even caught a glimpse of themselves or seen any kind of representation of the world outside them. To themselves, they were the seers, never the visible.

It had a strange effect on them physically, and even verbally. They somehow lacked the self-consciousness of those who had seen themselves. In ordinary conversation, with both strangers and family, they narrated their digestive, sexual, and health preoccupations with acute and intimate detail, as if all were members of one vast body, all flesh held in common. Without hesitation, they took one inside the theater of their intestines, or seated one inside their chests to listen to the thunderous ovations of their heartbeats. On their visits, they sprawled, unaware of how much space they occupied, forgetful that they shared it, unable to sense boundaries. Or they sat blindly slack-jawed or gesturing strangely while conversations flowed around them, taking their features and movements as absolutely as they would a dawn or nightfall.

Often when Souraya walked in narrow passages or alleys, she found herself having to leap out of the way of someone who, although he saw her, continued to possess the path obliviously, unable to gauge the distance between his body and her own. They had a tendency, too, to stand only inches from whomever they were talking to, never dropping their eyes, but gazing intently and deeply into the other’s eyes, as if they were seeking out their reflections there. A casual acquaintance would reach over and absently finger Souraya’s jewelry or cheek during an encounter, in the way someone would forgetfully touch his own face or hair, rub his own chin.

It was strange, the severe restrictions they imposed on themselves seemed to have an opposite effect; deeply enclosed as they were in their customs and beliefs, they seemed to feel they knew the world absolutely with a knowledge that could not be challenged. Somehow, this prohibition against seeing themselves seemed the twin of an intense desire not to see other people, to be free of their existence except as ghostly presences. Even more, the refusal to look out at the world overlay a never-acknowledged ambition to determine and control what was there, to tell the whole world its story, rather than to hear it tell its own.

She would come to experience this in her daily life, most intimately with Adon; it took a strange authoritative form socially, a prescriptive insistence, as if he really wanted not only to be married to her but to have created her. He was ardent and affectionate with her, but also impatient, severe, strangely melancholy. He made her memorize prayers to accompany each quotidian action, bread-making, planting, washing her hair, before and after lovemaking. He wanted to rededicate her every moment, to cast her hours in the crucible of God’s will. He would gaze on her for hours by firelight but insist that she not speak, as if he both adored and regretted her existence. It was as if he had been given a gift he thought magnificent but in some way hated, because it had come from outside him and was therefore corrupt.

She came to find herself, among his people, in a world where her accounts of her own experience were constantly corrected, even by people who had never ventured outside their own walls. During the storytelling and song-making that was the chief form of entertainment, she found herself constantly interrupted by the community. Confined elderly people as well as young children would object to her descriptions, or the events of her story, even when it was something she could swear on oath to having seen. “That didn’t happen,” they would say dogmatically, “that could never happen.” They would overwhelm the progress of the story with noise. Once when she was telling a childhood tale of a boat that traveled under the sea, they stopped the story with the rhythmic chant, “You can’t say that, you can’t say that, there was no sea, there was no sea.”

This was different from anything she knew of the art of story or epic poetry of her own people—here the art of storytelling was a battering collective struggle, where elements were rejected or insisted on until a final version prevailed, which it became taboo to alter. A story was judged acceptable when the priests, the Guardians of the Story, called for the great tribal parchment. A red silk cylinder covered with a calligraphy of sacred words wrought in silver wire was brought to them. The Guardians unfurled from it a thick roll of flayed-looking skin and hovered over it, deliberating. They chanted it aloud, alternating the recitation. If words or sentences were unacceptable, they plucked the metallic script from the scroll, held it up, and crushed it in their fists. These words were never again to be uttered. When the redaction was complete, one of them stepped forward, and with a great slab of porous stone, grated what looked like an uncut gem but was actually a block of solid perfume onto the flames. Thick clouds of incense in a garden of colors flamed upward and diffused through the gathering. Then the Guardian called out the title chosen for the tale, under which it became part of the record, and the audience acclaimed it with shouts of “God permits! God permits!”

In this way they created a world suspended from the meshes of their stories. They named themselves after the characters in the stories they accepted; new lives seemed to be retellings of old stories, proof that the world repeated itself; so it was as they said it was. So they conceived destinies, and were surprised that they came to pass, as a clandestine couple is stunned on the day they realize the woman has fallen pregnant. The elderly were strange automata of prescriptions and adages, as if they had been replaced by their own fictions. Even the youngest were shaped here by the tensions over what they were compelled and forbidden to believe. Souraya, in the way of people who kept their own counsel, was told secrets. Eventually, she could have become a living library of discredited tales, prohibited variants, and inadmissible family histories.

The arts in which they truly excelled were those that concerned themselves with the invisible, or at least the abstract. They were fine scribes, with a keen appreciation of the abstract patterns of script. They were skilled in medicine, in comprehending the invisible workings of the body. For that reason they were also excellent navigators, at home in an element whose territory was nearly entirely concealed from them. In war, they were experts in espionage, so skilled that opposing tribes competed to make mercenaries of them. They understood how to shape tales subtly and aggressively to their own ends. They understood how not to be seen. They were marvelous hunters, and they were the originators of the use of camouflage in military operations. And they made magnificent jewelry whose forms were based not on flowers or fruits or mythological figures, but on light itself. They took bleak dead stones and revealed the light and brilliant colors inside them. These were remarkable; it was as if they had gone into catacombs and brought back life out of inertia and death. The women, the children, and the men themselves all wore these splendid ornaments, and they were a steady source of trade for the community.

Souraya knew of other communities where both the men and women wore garments that concealed their bodies, but here it seemed that the air itself veiled the people. She would go daily to examine the state of the gardens, paradises, as they were known, that Adon owned, which were now her work to oversee. This gave her the right to be called a human being, literally, because those who worked with the soil were called that, human beings, children of the earth. And the gardens were considered the realm of women because they produced food, but also perhaps because no one experiences sheer misfortune more intimately than gardeners, farmers, and women. All they planted was subject to caprice—hailstorms, freezes, drought, disease—while women give birth to dead infants and girls. Even overabundance could be dangerous, its own kind of emergency, which required the mother to deprive her too numerous children, or the gardener to recquisition many hands to harvest and preserve a surprise of success. Hence a foolish local legend about a woman who destroyed the world through harvesting a dangerous fruit in search of some esoteric knowledge, a legend that became the underpinning for cruel superstitions about women, and later a body of opportunistic laws which deprived them of letters, and of civil and property rights.

As she approached the gate that led into the property, she saw a small child being soundly punished for making a drawing with a stick in the ground. Souraya stopped and came closer, hoping to plead for some leniency for the little girl.

She looked down at what the child had drawn. It was a sketch of Souraya herself; the child had caught the almond shape of her eyes, and had marked out curves with a playful exuberance that were the wave on wave of her hair. She looked with a pang at her face; it seemed as far away now as a boat receding into the distance before vanishing around a river bend.

It was with a concealed sense of relief and pleasure that Souraya received the news from Adon that she was to prepare to leave with him on a trading journey of indefinite duration. If she were a wife of longer standing, he might well have set off without her. She thanked God she was a new bride.

Although she had adapted to her new life with tact, if not with ease, she had a keen, if untried, appetite for travel, as she had even in her girlhood. She was young and wanted to see cities and settlements she had heard about in traveler’s tales, cities ascending to heaven on stone, concealed in cliffs and caves, or settlements in marshes, where you leaned out of your floating house to catch a fish for breakfast. If she had submitted her own face to eradication, she could at least look at the faces of others. She wanted to see a world that insisted on itself. She wanted to be in motion in this world where she had not found a home.

And she wanted to give an illusion of holiday to the work of her marriage. It was her work to create an environment of efficiency, productivity, prosperity, and enjoyment for a perfect stranger, to anticipate and provide him with everything he wanted, even if what he wanted was an illusion, even when he did not know what he wanted. It was a strange paradox of marriage that it required her to outwit her husband. It was critical that she know him better than he knew himself.

She woke up charged with energy, each day a day of danger to be outwitted, each day a test for her; her sense of herself was urgent, a runner straining to outpace a capture. She worked to enlace him in a web of services, obligations, delights, to construct a power of life and death over him that would balance the power he was born with over her. She knew her fate depended on not disappointing, at least until she could provide the dynasty that was the obsession of this aging, childless man.

At home, she was owned, a locked house which her husband entered or left at will, a garden whose fruit her husband fed from according to his appetite. She offered herself with ruthless practicality and an increasingly successful forecast of his moods.

The deprivation of images she lived with seemed to have enhanced an intuitive capacity of hers to nearly supernatural levels—she had developed an almost infallible gift for predicting action and analyzing character through observing other people physically. Their bodies told her stories, warned her, confirmed rumors. A tension in the neck, a slight compression of the lips, the way arms were crossed, had shown her details of business dealings in a way that even impressed her husband. The anticipated journey would give her more scope to demonstrate these skills and so secure her husband’s favor.

At least as travelers she and her husband would be almost equals, equally subject to the unknown, equally engaged in acts of discovery. They would wake up both unsure of what each day would bring, embarked on a common journey at last.

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