For a time we were beguiled with our own mastery;
Hear the end of the matter, what befell us:
We came like water and we went like wind.
—The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam
Gasim did not lie, when I asked him, but only wept as he nodded his admission of guilt. He did not plead for his life, but the pistol, raised up towards him, had a strange effect; though he was tied and ringed round without hope of escape, he flung himself to the side and writhed away from me across the ground, wallowing in the dirt and wailing protests. Rationally considered, he might have died well as easily as not, but the animal knew itself at the point of death, and the animal sought to flee.
I felt this cringing husk a part of me; it filled me with horror, and an energetic disgust: it roused from within the same instinctive cruelty that makes children slight those smaller than themselves, and men despise the weak. I gave myself over to the very barbarity even as I recognized it and named it for what it was: it made my task easier.
He was not a coward; he had willingly come for Akaba and followed us into the Nefud, full of juice and grinning good humor and that posturing, hot-headed courage which was common to the Beduin. I had not liked him; he was loud and obtrusive even among the noisy crowded heaps the Arabs liked to live in, but I had borne him out of the Nefud with his arms wrapped about my belly, like the weight of a child dragging upon a woman; flesh of my flesh.
My first shot took him in the leg; the second I thought killed him; but desperation made me continue firing: there was a mechanical twitching left in his limbs, and I could not bear to begin again, if he should have survived. He seemed very small upon the ground; his headcloth straggled loosely over his mouth, stained where blood had welled up from his lips in the last frenzy. His clothing, darker, better concealed the other marks.
There was a curious sharpness to all my senses, afterwards, the moist evening wind lapping upon my face and finding its way beneath my clothing, unpleasantly chill upon the hurts and the sore places of our long riding. The sounds of our camp were abruptly intolerable to me in their very ordinariness; also the stench of unwashed bodies, camels, smoke; the dust which climbed thick up our legs; the stinging bites of our common vermin; all to which I had by insensible degrees become hardened and inured now assaulted me fresh.
Auda spoke to me, and Ali; I was aware of every word, preternaturally, every note and querying tone in the musical rise and fall of their speech, and yet I comprehended nothing, as if I had lost the capacity not only for Arabic but for all language at once, human intercourse placed entirely beyond my comprehension.
I could see very clearly despite the dark, and indeed for once I did not stumble as I walked over the rough ground. I had no destination except away, a brute animal instinct of flight mastering my limbs while my mind busied with less coarse things, solacing itself in the smell of worm-wood, bitter and clean, and the spare barren walls of the valley, a worn purple like heather against the night.
Ali was following after me, in silence; he did not try and speak to me again. I was grateful. I felt I had exposed myself utterly: too much a savage to sacrifice my ambitions, even at the price of murder, and too civilized to kill cleanly, decently, and let the blood soak away into the sand; I had eaten of the fruit of the tree, I was stained.
Gradually I became aware I was climbing to the narrow outcrop where earlier that night Ali and I had together looked out upon the lights of Akaba in our childish delight, as if we would stretch out our hands over the earth and seize the jewel of it, without sorrow or pain, untroubled by the thought of the havoc we should inflict, full of contempt for death and the soft frailty of flesh, even if it should be our own. I had been using my hands upon the incline, unnecessarily, until my palms were raggedly torn by the loose coarse-grained sand, and I laid them against the cool surface of the rock to ease them, a little.
"Aurens," Ali said, softly, chiding, and took my hands in his to brush away the clinging dirt. He was very beautiful and serious in the moonlight, and I bore his touch, though it was painful; I could not otherwise reassure him. He thought me unhappy at the cruelty of the desert law, or at this evidence of the immutability of fate. He would not understand, if I tried to explain to him, the obscene satisfaction, the trembling which worked upon me; I could only make him uneasy by the attempt, or fill him with a disgust which, if my weakness deserved, I yet dreaded.
He set his hands on my shoulders and looked searchingly into my face, until I thought perhaps he read my shame there. But he only took better hold of me and gently turned me to face the city, glimmering in the distance. "Remember Akaba," he said, soft and persuasive; so closely behind me that we were nearly one joined body, his breath coming into my ear with a delicious shuddering warmth, and his hands kneading gently upon me, as if it were to make me anew, to remould my clay into a fitter shape. I leaned into his touch; I would gladly have allowed it.
He set his lips upon my cheek, cool to my fevered flesh, and upon my wrist, which he lifted to his mouth. There was nothing in it but the loving tenderness of friendship, nothing coarse or vile. I knew myself less pure; the touch quickened me, completing what the brutal exercise of power had begun. Unconsciously my restless torment must have transmitted itself to him; the quality of his hold upon me altered, and he touched my face with the very tips of his fingers, questioning.
My desire was never in question; it warred only with ambition, that colder, more vicious thirst, which whispered that perhaps he would look on me with less respect, after; that I might find him less easy to lead. The battle was soon over, if the armies even took the field; he led me down from the mountain, to his tent, and in the warm dim closeness possessed himself of my body; not roughly, as in some part I desired, but with all his ferocity leashed to my pleasure.
He began with kisses, very light, with closed lips, as if he meant by slow stages to persuade me of the course to which I had already wholeheartedly committed myself. Yet by some contrary impulse, or as if his tentativeness conjured the very doubts he sought to allay, I grew uneasy. I began to struggle against his weight, but only feebly, moving my limbs with restless feverish jerks rather than in a conscious attempt to escape, my efforts absorbed by the heavy weight of carpets upon which we lay and the deadening sand beneath.
He smoothed his hands over my body, gentling me even as he drew away my garments; the clothed parts of my body were very white under his brown hands, which were strong and wonderfully shaped; his own skin where concealed from the sun was a beautiful fine colour like milky coffee under his soft black hair. He touched me, finally, upon my bare hip, and I surged up quivering to be gone in a sudden blind panic; but he pressed me back down and laid his full length upon me with confidence, sure of his own mastery.
I was crushed against the soft wool, nearly smothered, and perhaps the limiting of my breath, the narrowing of consciousness, forced the fright out of me; all in a rush the fear and terror poured away like water, and a strange level calmness descended. I kissed him back when next he sought my mouth, opening to the first inquiries of his tongue, and spread my legs to let him bear down upon me. I liked the heavy weight of him against the flesh of my inner thighs, bruised and mortified by much riding, made delicate, and the almost painful compression of my sexual organs beneath him.
He kept his weight upon me and kissed me again, more demanding now, thrusting his tongue more deeply into my mouth in the wet caresses I had always found somehow distasteful but to which I now yielded greedily while he fondled me with rough, easy urgency. Perhaps to an Arab, hardened by years of riding, the level of sensation would have been easily bearable; to me it was suffering as much as pleasure, and I felt a sense of relief so strong I might almost have wept when at last I crested and spilled over into his hand.
I was glad to have my own release done with, and to feel the dreamy lassitude washing over all my muscles, loosening the strings of my frame. When he lifted himself I turned over without any more sense of shame or guilt, myself reduced also to the animal, and helped him to arrange my newly pliant body over the saddle-couch, so he might use me as he liked.
He worked into me steadily, with the strength of his whole body, back and forth in that same tom-tom-tom rhythm of the camels striding during the day, tormenting me with each stroke. I had some vague, unformed notion that he might, only given time, inscribe that music, the natural beat of the desert, into my body; that if I could bear it long enough I could slough off the white, pale, creeping shell of myself like dead skin and be truly one with him. I wanted to be; I wanted nothing more of myself, and I struggled to prolong my own conquest not out of real reluctance but that I might be the more thoroughly broken-down.
Outside I heard the groan of a camel and near-by some laughing exchange, and I knew my own small cries, though muffled in the thick rugs, must be heard. In my strange mood I was well-pleased with the thought, and made little effort to stifle myself as I was breached to the hilt: his penetrating thrusts were vigorous, short, impatient, and gave me a little pain, for excuse.
Seated now in me, Ali paused and sighed, very little and quietly, some essential tension of his own body easing with the work of the thing accomplished and my little coy resistance battered down. He was well-made in this as in all his parts, and I was stretched to accommodate him. My own spent flesh lay curled softly against my thigh, nestling in the wool, not revived; what pleasure I felt was of the feminine kind. My legs were spread broadly, and he knelt between them, pressed to me so that I felt the coarse hair and the heat of his belly against my tender parts, very much like, I supposed, a woman might experience possession.
I would have been glad of a little time to grow accustomed, but he was after a moment not content to be still. He took hold of my thighs with his strong hands and pushed them further apart, so that I was widened a little more, and he began to move upon me again; slowly at first, until my body acknowledged him and ceased to be offended at his demands. Then he moved more quickly, soft grunts escaping him as he took his pleasure, my own louder cries and low whimpers encouraging, until at last he gripped my hips tightly and spent within me.
He laid me down very tenderly afterwards, and brought me water with his own hands to drink; though I was nearly insensible, the fresh cool taste of it upon my lips roused me, and I was suddenly awake, thirsty and ravenously hungry. He called a servant to bring me food, though I lay naked beneath covers in his tent, and the musk of our coupling was thick still in the air. He came under the blankets with me when the man had gone again, and we ate from each other's fingers and spoke of the morning and of the plan of attack, very normally, as if our thighs were not sweatily entwined, and my face still imprinted with the marks of the carpet on which I had lain while he used me.
I felt a curious pride in having borne it, and eased in my spirit; by some transmission of his native virtue, I first entertained myself by imagining, wistfully; but more likely by fatigue or perhaps only for having fallen all the more completely, a few stains mattering less among the general soil. Gasim was in the dirt, but I was yet alive, and in that mean difference I now rejoiced, rather than writhed; I kissed Ali's mouth, wet still and shining with the water we drank.