There stands a man to whom I cannot but pay full attention. He has been watching me some time with the same watery dark eyes my wife gazed upon me moments before she mercifully leapt from the bridge, new and unnamed babe at her teat. Her suicide had come much too late, for the twins Agatha and Owain were already five years alive. For freedom’s sake, I was forced to unburden myself of those two. A night in the snow was enough to keep their childish bawling quiet. I buried them behind the kennels. For the first time since I was wed I felt free and now they’re dead I am haunted no longer.
I am reminded of this as I sit outside of one of my favourite bordellos, savouring the chill air of dusk. Inside, I hear the clamour of men, raucous music and the breathless squealing of women in terror and mock-delight. There are smells; musk, powdered perfumes and the filth of waifs. Perching outside, the dust of the street dries my skin where my excitement has caused me to sweat.
The man smiles. It is charming and wicked at once and somehow I cannot turn away. He's a fellow gentleman. Dressed in a tailored suit the colour of dead ashes, fitted with a waistcoat in which his thumbs are hooked, he is an image of self-assurance. White hair tumbles thickly atop his head, his brows arched and his beard cloven at his chin. I feel toward him some bond.
“Brother,” says he, “I've a proposal for you.”
And so I listen.
“I've been barred entry into this bordello,” he confides, “for upsetting patrons and ladies alike. Thievery, they say, though I've only bought the heart of a single woman and paid in full with my own. No doubt she is awaiting my attendance tonight while pleasing a customer. I’ve power and influence. Bring me out my love, and I'll grant a favour of your choosing.”
I show myself considering, but I know his power and influence won’t grant me my want. He is pleased when I accept, and describes the girl to me. But though he is curious when I refuse to name my price until I bring him his prize, he accepts my terms.
Inside, the familiar bordello sets my blood to hum. It is dark, but I am led by the sounds and smells. The air – thick and temperate – arouses me back to sweating. It is the cloying scent of the most bestial unions of man and woman shred of all pretence. Their shared ecstasy is sensuous. I taste it, I smell it. I hear their screams and groans. I can almost feel their clammy skin. It fills me.
I find the girl and know my price. She is covered in filth, unwashed and made up, but her flesh glows with vitality, pink with exertion and smelling of men. She follows willingly and on seeing her love the two embrace. I am forgotten for a moment.
“Name your price,” says the stranger at last.
My conditions are simple: “I would have your love as a whore for one last night. I shall pay.” A delightful, intoxicating chance to be her last as a whore and to soil her love.
I expect rage from him. From her, professional submission. Yet he smiles and his eyes shine with that same wetness of my wife, of thawing snow on a child’s skin. A coldness, not a rage.
The two acquiesce. For this, I don't need the bordello but for the practical purpose of a bed.
When I awake, the woman beside me lays still. My hand explores the familiar contours of her flank but her skin has lost its vitality. Last night in darkness she had shown a fevered passion. This morning she is cold.
I turn her over, wanting to revive in her a final pleasure. In light I see her face, to which the night before I had paid no heed. She is made-up as a doll. As a corpse laid out. My wife had no funeral, yet there beside me she lies as I had last saw her.
In horror, I leap from the bed. It is impossible, some fever dream the whore has induced. Some trickery, some nightmare. The unseeing eyes look at me, blue lips twitching a smile.
There is a knock at the door. It is two young children, white as snow, who enter. “Papa. We've come for you.” I can make no words.
Behind them, in the darkness of the bordello a flash of a smile, a figure of dead ash.
Story originally published in Phantasmagoria Magazine's 2nd Edition. Image by Eugene Atget.