Laura Erika Barring has a crush: a crush on her own uncle.
To her fourteen-year-old heart, Uncle Torsten is the most handsome man she has ever seen; handsomer than any film star, and more beautiful than any woman she has seen, either. He is the only grown-up she has been able to talk to on the same level; none of the girls, let alone the boys at school are on her level, either. They struggle with their textbooks, some of them struggling to even read, when all her life, Laura has been devouring books on all kinds of subjects, on all topics under the sun. Her grandfather’s library of books medical, zoological, geographical, historical has taught her more about the human body and of animals, and of man’s animal nature than her school’s textbooks ever could--but when she tries to discuss her findings with grown-ups, they are either baffled or embarrassed.
Only Uncle Torsten listens.
But Uncle Torsten is not here any more. Grandfather had sent him away, that summer she had turned twelve; she had never forgiven him that, forgiven him for taking from her the only person who had ever understood her.
Therefore, now, as she goes over a book of medieval heraldry, she struggles to hold back tears, as she knows no one would care to discuss it with her--except Torsten. It was this book he had read together with her, that fateful summer they had last seen each other, at Grandfather’s cottage; on the big, warm, brown sofa facing the fire, her head in his lap as he had traced the stars on the Barring arms.
“Do you know what these symbols mean, my child?” he had asked.
It had been late and her eyes had barely been open. She had been exhausted from gathering blueberries and from swimming all day; Torsten less so, having silkily excused himself from both on account of what he called his fragile constitution (at which Grandfather had flashed him a certain kind of glare, that kind of glare he only ever gave Torsten, as if he were disapproving of something in his very nature, but what exactly this something was, Laura had never figured out).
Torsten had never seemed fragile to her, never weak, even if his strength had been of the sort a strong woman would have; not the hairy, muscled, cold and hard strength of a man. No, no: Torsten’s strength was that of a deeply sensual warmth, an embracing, receptive softness that took you and held you, the power of an emotional intelligence rather than one of brute force; and in his intelligence there was always a streak of devilish cleverness, wickedness and sharp wit with which he could defend himself. In short, he was exactly what she had read in the old legends of the wiles and skills of Loki in comparison to those of Thor; Torsten was the only man she could believe wanting to spend a few years as a woman, too, just to see what it was like.
Even that night, his body had been most wonderfully firm and gentle around her, she recognising this for a rare opportunity to feel what girls with living parents did when their parents read their daughters bedtime stories.
She had been half asleep, floating in the loveliness of the heat of the fire and the shelter of Torsten’s body; the peach-and-rose colour of his soft, woollen vest--of that kind of expensive wool you could not find any more now that there was a war on--made warmer by Torsten’s body heat. She had been lulled to distant medieval fantasies by the heraldic images, transported there by his fragrance: that wonderful perfume of his, always to her a mixture of white and of blue, of the male and of the female--gardenia and tuberose entwining with musk and bergamot.
She had looked at his hands upon the large book; his long-fingered, brown, elegant hands, as elegant as those of a woman, yet hands so thin you could see each and every major vein and tendon upon them. Now, two of those fingertips, extended in a gesture reminiscent of a saint’s blessing, had rested upon the bottom left corner of the arms, over one of its five-pointed, downwards-pointing silver stars.
“Star argent,” she had said, wanting to prove to him her familiarity with the language of the blazon.
“That’s very good,” he had purred, pleased; when she had turned to look up at him to drink in more from this sweet, intoxicating approval, his eyes had been crinkled with mirth, his gleaming red lips parted a little by a true smile, exposing his crooked teeth. Her schoolmates had thought those teeth disgusting, terrifying when she had shown them a photo of him; she had never shown them photos of him again, wounded to the quick.
They would never understand.
“There was something to those teeth of the beast, you see;” she would later write in her diary; “something of the wolf to the way they gleamed sharp from between lips as red and as wet as if he had just been lapping up warm blood; the child me read in their cruelty something wild and beautiful, but no rational mind could explain why. Now I know that even then, I wanted to be devoured by them, be swallowed by him, be made a beast myself: to be reborn from him a pair of wolves, to hunt together with him, to sing at the moon together with him, to forever run with him, run, run, free, free.”
And it was cruelty that had flashed in his eyes, then, but not a cruelty towards Laura herself; this, she had known. His eyes had turned inwards and he had sighed, his long, coal-black eyelashes sharp as needles upon his cheeks. “These are the arms I was meant to bear, the day I became head of the Barring clan, you see,” he had said, then collected himself, his voice becoming more matter-of-fact. “Your grandfather wanted us to redesign the whole thing,” he had said; “you know the terrible mess atop the front door?”
“Yes.” The old arms above the Barring manor door had indeed been an ugly, hideous mess, and other children had remarked upon this, too–”If you are supposed to be a noblewoman, Laura,” the boys had jeered, “why does your coat of arms look that ugly?” And another one had laughed: “Bet she painted them there herself--with fingerpaints!”
“Well,” Torsten had said and caressed the star, fondly. “It’s only that I designed these myself. The morning star. Do you know what that means?”
“Lucifer!” she had piped up immediately, again proud of her knowledge, even though she had never made the connection with the figure of Satan and the stars on the arms herself. The thrill that had surged through her in that moment–she had never known its like, this heat that had now curled inside of her chest and her hips, both bright and dark and tingling and heavy at the same time. Oh, but this kind of thing--of inserting something this deliciously wicked into something official and important--was typical of Torsten, him always cracking mischievous, even Satanic jokes at Grandfather and old women to terrify them. Torsten the Devil with his peaked hairline and his demon’s eyes, playing people’s nerves like fiddles; but that he would’ve had the audacity to insert such a reference even into the family arms! “What did Grandfather say?”
“I didn’t tell him,” he had grinned at her, conspiratorially. “You’re the first person to have got it, Laura,” he had said and ruffled her hair. “It’ll be our secret,” he had murmured and kissed her forehead.
That kiss had lasted longer than it should have, and she could feel his tongue; as if he were tasting the lake-water and the forest and the woodsmoke upon her. When he’d withdrawn, his pupils had been wide, his nostrils flared, the fire dancing in his eyes like so many flames of Hell.
“I think I will keep the stars,” she had said, grinning at him when he’d put down the book, she squirming in his lap a little, meeting his audacity with hers: she remembers adoring the mock-shock in his eyes, he never even having thought of the possibility that little Laura might redesign the arms herself the moment she inherited the Barring fortune.
“You had better!” he had cried and smacked her on the buttocks, sending her squealing; he had delivered her another smack, a third, and when they had both been breathless from her squirming, he still did not remove his hand. “My Lilith,” he had sighed, and oh, the way his smile had widened even further as she had returned it, signalling she knew who Lilith was, too. “But promise me something, Laura.”
“Anything,” she had said, curling up in his arms once more.
“You have not heard my request yet.”
She had shaken her head. “I would do anything for you,” she had said quietly and studied his eyes, thought of how beautiful he looked there in the firelight, with stubble darkening his cheeks, the shadows around his eyes always making them look as if they were kohled, the firelight flickering upon his high cheekbones. And in that moment, she had known her feeling for the truth, not a joke: this was the man she would go to the ends of the world for, just as he would go to the ends of the world for her; the wings of Fate had, then, beat about her head, whispering to them both in the rustling of the flames.
“Only promise to me, my child…” he had said, his voice melancholy, wavering; “that once you reign underneath the morning star,” and he had picked up her chin with his hand, his voice now a soft meaow choked with tears; “that you will save some of the starlight for your old uncle.”
“Torsten--” she had been shocked as he had been wiping his eyes with the back of his arm, his shirtsleeve.
“Promise me that you will not forget me,” he had said, swallowing tears, seemingly ashamed of his selfish, childish words even as he said them, but this had only made Laura’s heart break for him.
“Oh,” she had moaned and clung to his vest, hugging him tight; “but Uncle Torsten!” she had cried. “I will never forget you, never, ever. I’ll have you here every day. I promise. We’ll rule together, you and I,” she had said, fighting tears herself; “It’ll be just you and I. I promise, I promise, I promise.”
“My Laura,” he had sighed and embraced her, held her so tight he had hurt her, so tight she could not breathe; “my sweet Laura, my sweet Laura.”
“Besides, you’re mine,” she had mumbled into his chest. “Just let them try and take you from me.”
He had thrown back his head and laughed, a high, womanish laugh; the laughter that always earned him one of Grandfather’s glares. “I’ll hold you to that,” he had said and rocked her in his arms; “I’ll hold you to that,” he had said, “my sweetheart, my sweetheart.”
“Forever,” she had said with the full conviction only a twelve-year old can have; “Only you and I until the end of the world, Uncle Torsten; only you and I.”