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Devoir

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"Thou shalt bind his bright eyes though he wrestle,
Thou shalt chain his light limbs though he strive;
In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle,
In his hands all thy cruelties thrive.
In the daytime thy voice shall go through him,
In his dreams he shall feel thee and ache;
Thou shalt kindle by night and subdue him
Asleep and awake."
—Algernon Charles Swinburne, from Dolores.

          The chill drains from your body into the heat of the bath; you laze as your limbs loosen the stiffness of winter. You drowse, heavy-lidded, and you do not see him enter; you hear and feel him approach as the water ripples around you.

          A soothing gush of warmth drenches your hair as he dips the cup and pours it over you. It is gentle, a blessing, a baptism. The cascade streams down your face, a sudden rain.

          Then you look down and see the shock of arms awash in scarlet rivulets, a viscous, vicious crimson spreading through the pool. You turn sharply to him.

          He hangs over the wooden vessel's wall, pale and silent; he does not answer your cry.

          The steaming ablution becomes a heavy languor grasping your breast; you gasp for air through the strangling heat, and the pool grows thick and frantic and churns around you while you strain to move. Seeping hands reach up and seize you, naked and helpless, and the more fiercely you writhe, the harder they pull you down—

          —you wake in a burst of heat and sound, your shriek madness to your own ears, your flesh wrung of sweat and blistering hot. Dazed and breathless, you lie, gulping freezing air as it penetrates the cocoon you've twisted about you; then you quiver, wet and weary in the bone-cold dark, as you think about the body lying limp beyond your reach. You almost see the blood again as you lift your hands to moonlight; it flowed too near, surrounding you, a dire omen. The grim image of his death grips you in this dead-silent hour (where does he lie now?)—

          It matters nothing, this fantasy of the mind; it is nothing real, you reason; it is nothing, though your heart races (and where is he, God! where is he?). But the tremor and terror of the vision still threaten, pressing close; if not overpowered they will devour you. You repeat your resolves to yourself, the endless reams of promises. You fight, and you fear (feel) yourself defeated already, and only when your need (at last) conquers your will do you dare to rise. From your tangled bed you are driven, and through the empty halls you move, towards the door you know will not be locked. And then you push away that which divides you, and you stand before him, filling your insatiate gaze with his shape: your starving-sickness, your salvation.

          The glow of your lamp awakens him. He blinks away sleep, and asks no questions when he recognises you. He simply moves aside to make a place for you, and to keep distinct the venial and mortal, you lie beside him and not with him. His eyes also hunger; you watch him watch you, and as the light flickers low, you open your mouth to his and breathe his breath. He quickens you until his mere embraces become unbearable, and then he possesses you with furious ardour, inflicts upon you such exquisite, excruciating ecstasies that you know no grace save his arms. And you thank God for your ruin as you cry out his name, again and again: your degradation, your deepest devotion.

          You do not lie together; it is not lying. But your fragile truth cannot bear the scrutiny of day. You depart before dawn. And when the sun rises, you wake again alone, shadowed by the shame of your inevitable, inexhaustible sin.

          A man does not speak of his mortal terrors, nor of somnambulations and desperate excesses, and surely not of the defiling moments when his strength shatters, when he delights in his own downfall. So you ask nothing of him, say nothing in return, only suffer without words while the ghost of his touch torments you, forces you to the answering wickedness of your own hand. And even when your body shudders with deliverance, your deepest thoughts still scream for him.

          How you loathe the aloof nobleman, so cruelly discreet by day. (How you live for the wanton lover unveiled in the evening light!) You despise him. (You adore him.) You desire him, as you long to abhor him. You seethe at him in silent glares and ravish him in secret reveries and endure the virtue of your sanctimonious solitude—

          —until at last you entwine like serpents in the blissful Hell of each other, driven again to damnation in the pitiless splendour of night.