Sunday, August 19, 2012

There Is A Bitten Thing.
Do Not Put The Finger.

Sheila requests a minute outside the blindfold.

Sheila requests a minute, but Sylvia tells her no, tells her to return to a kneeling position, reminds her that this is the arrangement they agreed upon and this is the arrangement that will remain until the time ~ almost two more hours, according to the big digital clock on the warehouse's north wall, the glowing numbers shifting in relentless, calibrated procession, searing crimson against their rectangle of electric black ~ until the time they agreed upon for the arrangement to end.

Picture blindfolded Sheila: Kneeling, naked; a long narrow scar on her left shin from a childhood fall from that year's Christmas bicycle; not overly fond of cauliflower as a rule but glad to indulge if it's part of a diverse stir fry that also includes a bit of shredded ginger; most relaxed when it's just her and her old cat on the balcony of her third-floor condo at twilight in the cooler part of the summer and the entire discography of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France on shuffle on her iPod; ignorant of all but the first two chapters of Ingeborg de Gruyter's erotico-scientific handbook Cleavage to Beaver.

(Sylvia, though, has read that handbook so many times, cover to cover, that she's almost got it memorized.)

"Bend forward a little more," says Sylvia.

Sheila does as she's told, her back curving, her abdominal muscles tightening. She places her hands on her knees to add support.

"That's good," says Sylvia. "That's perfect." She scoots forward in the wheeled office chair, rolls farther across the concrete floor until she's directly behind Sheila, the front of the chair's upholstered seat almost touching the small of Sheila's back.

"Okay," says Sylvia. "This has been in the refrigerator ~ it might be a little cold." She dips a long thin paintbrush into the ceramic bowl in her lap, gathers a bit of natural henna paste onto the brush's bristles.

Sheila shivers as the brush touches her skin for the first time, but remains silent as Sylvia inscribes words upon her back. Sylvia paints the words in elegant cursive, working henna into the pale skin, painting from left to right between Sheila's slight shoulders, one sentence all the way across, and then ~ after a pause in which Sylvia runs the fingers of her left hand down the side of Sheila's neck, shifting the long dark tangles of hair that hang there, giving the henna time to fully bind to Sheila's epidermal proteins ~ another sentence below.

You might have driven past this warehouse one day. It's there on the Eastside of Austin, not too far from where Industry Screenprinting used to be, close to the metalworks collective where Sixth Street ends, a few minutes' walk from the Salvadoran delicacies of El Azunzal, over where the letters of the familiar grocery store might better stand for Hispanic Enormous Bodega.

Sylvia and Sheila are borrowing the warehouse for this day only, for this purpose specifically, and it isn't costing them a thing. Sylvia has many friends, connections, a strong line of credit in the local favor bank. Sylvia is, if anything, resourceful.

"Now lean back a little," says Sylvia. "That's it, straighten your body. That's good. Hands at your sides."

Sheila obeys, kneeling there atop a black silk cushion on the warehouse floor.

Sylvia kneels in front of Sheila, facing her. Sylvia is also on a cushion, but she's fully clothed: Loose white T-shirt; the powder-blue of old Levis more tightly fitted around her hips and ass and legs, almost snug in the crotch; a pair of black Converse that her last girlfriend bought for her in Houston five years ago. She's got a small wooden tray next to her, filled with papers, the papers weighed down by something long and thin that projects several inches beyond the tray's short walls and is wrapped in a swath of the same black silk that Sylvia used to make the cushions upon which she and Sheila kneel. She digs into the right front pocket of her jeans, pulls out a clear vial filled with viscous liquid.

"Okay," says Sylvia. "This hasn't been in the refrigerator."

A smile flickers across Sheila's lips. "Is this ..."

"The clove oil," says Sylvia, unscrewing the vial's cap and trapping it easily in the curl of her little finger. She pours the oil into the palm of her left hand, forming a little pool of it there. She sets the emptied vial on the floor, screws the cap back on, returns the vial to her pocket, all the while making sure that her left hand remains level, that the oil doesn't spill out.

Sylvia puts her right hand over the liquid-filled left and rubs them together until both palms are slick, are almost dripping with the pungent oil of cloves.

"It smells like a dentist's office," says Sheila.

"Shhhhhh," says Sylvia. She leans forward and kisses Sheila on the lips, as if to seal them from further speech, then reaches out and places her right palm between Sheila's small breasts. "This might get kind of warm," she says.

Sylvia moves both her hands against Sheila's chest, spreading the oil across skin, over areolae and nipples.

Sheila's jaw clenches.

"Is it burning you, love?" asks Sylvia.

"Not really burning," says Sheila tightly. "It's just ~ yeah, it's getting pretty hot. Especially on my nipples."

"It'll pass," Sylvia assures her. "Just give it a minute, it'll fade."

Sheila breathes deeply to calm herself, her mouth partly open, her glistening chest expanding and contracting as she kneels, naked and blindfolded in front of Sylvia, upon a small silk cushion near the center of a refurbished warehouse on the Eastside of Austin, Texas.

Numbers shift, marking time's advance on the big digital clock. There's a stuttered rumbling of some large truck passing by outside.

"Ah," says Sheila, finally relaxing. "That's better."

"Good," says Sylvia, wiping her hands on the bottoms of her jeans' legs. She pulls the wooden tray closer, takes the silk-wrapped object from atop the papers and sets it to one side. "Okay," she says. "These are the pictures I told you about. I'm going to transfer the images to your chest, one at a time, and I won't stop until they're all done. You … you just stay quiet, understand?"

"Yes, my love," says Sheila.

Sylvia picks up the first picture. It's the photo-reproduction of a face, screenprinted in jellied blackberry juice onto a sheet of onionskin paper. (The other sheets, also onionskin, are printed with other faces ~ originally from paintings or photographs ~ in the same manner. There are, including the one Sylvia's holding, thirteen such sheets.) Sylvia places the sheet of printed onionskin against Sheila's chest. She smooths the delicate paper with the palms of her hands, flattening Sheila's breasts, working the blackberry image into the clove oil, onto skin.

"Sappho," says Sylvia, naming the image upon Sheila's chest. She peels away the sheet and sets it behind her. The paper is translucent with clove oil; the image remains, faintly, on both onionskin and Sheilaskin.

Sylvia picks up the next sheet and repeats the process; then again, then again, twelve more times in all, speaking each image's name as Sheila's chest becomes a palimpsest of indecipherable violet lines and shapes, as the sheets of saturated onionskin pile up behind her.

"Geoffrey Chaucer," says Sylvia. "Aleister Crowley. Ada Lovelace. Shirley Jackson. Richard Feynman. David Lynch. Joss Whedon. Hedy Lamarr. Pamela Zoline. Aimee Weber. Tony Millionaire. Kathy Acker."

You might have one of those small wooden trays of your own. Their proper name, according to the Container Store's extensive catalog, is: Modular Bamboo Drawer Organizer. The Modular Bamboo Drawer Organizer next to Sylvia's right knee is the 6" by 6" model ~ $6.99, crafted from solid bamboo, with "a warm, natural finish that looks great inside a drawer or on top of a counter, shelf, bureau, or desk" ~ that she bought from the store on Research Boulevard, where, coincidentally, Sheila had worked as an assistant manager until a year before Sylvia moved to Austin.

The process is complete.

Sheila breathes, a complexly marked bellows.

Sylvia picks up the thin, silk-wrapped object.

She uncovers it.

It could be the end of an ancient spear, something from the Stone Age, its point blunted by much use and centuries of weathering. There are thirteen inches of it, nearly as pale as Sheila's skin and polished to a dull shine, its smoothness textured by helical striations.

Sylvia places its cool length against the inside of Sheila's left thigh.

"Oh my god," says Sheila. "Is that really ... ?"

"Yes," says Sylvia.  "It really is."

"Oh my god," says Sheila again, hands gripping her hips in excitement.

"The most conspicuous characteristic of the male narwhal," Wikipedia reports, "is its single 7-10 feet long tusk. It is an incisor tooth that projects from the left side of the upper jaw ans forms a left-handed helix. The tusk can be up to 9.8 feet long (compared with a body length of 13-16 feet) and weigh up to 22 pounds."

Of course, narwhal tusks ~ even the broken-off tip of one, like what's being held against Sheila's thigh ~ aren't easy to acquire. But Sheila knows Scott Webel of Austin's Museum of Natural and Artificial Ephemerata, and Webel has a friend who has a friend who works at the Boston Marine Society, the "oldest association of sea captains in the world;" and Webel's friend's friend has long wanted to spend a weekend exploring Fredericksburg, just an hour outside of Austin and where that friend's forebears had first immigrated to; and Sylvia, due to an article she wrote for Travel magazine years ago, has long had an open invitation to spend a few days at one of Fredericksburg's better bed & breakfast establishments. And Sylvia is, if anything, resourceful.

"I hold in my hand the tusk of a narwhal," says Sylvia, her voice almost singsong, as if chanting to invoke some eldritch power. "The foremost part of the legendary narwhal's tusk is what I hold, my text-ridden, image-stained love." She slides the polished rod farther, until its smooth blunt tip is tickling Sheila's pubic curls. "And what," says Sylvia, "do you think I'm going to do with it?"

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