- Text Size +

I bought him from the cages at Y'yan, as every year I purchased such a
one, to warm my bed while Spring storms whipped the desert sands like
waves and all the caravans made camp to wait them out.

Each year we halted at the wells and traded goods and tales and every
year I bought a slave, a woman or a boy, to join me in my tent and
every year, before I left, I sold them for a little more than I had
paid - I was and am a kindly man and they were treated well.

We heard stories of the strangers while we were still far off and
thought them merely desert tales, swollen in the telling by the sands'
monotony, where every day is like the next and truth is lost in need to
hear the new.

The stories said they came down from the North where no one goes. That
they were small and weak and no man knew their tongue, barbarians from
some mountain tribe, lost in the endless sea of sand. As clanless men,
the first who saw them had a claim and they were seized and, when the
storms had passed, they would be taken to the town and sold to city men
who had a taste for things both strange and new.

This one arrived weeks later, perhaps in search of others of his kind,
and had been taken like the rest. The day after we made our camp, I
visited the cages and there I saw him and desired him.

It was his eyes I noticed first, not just the gem-stone colour but the
anger in them, hot and unconfined. I had not felt it so myself in many
years and envied it and thought, perhaps, to learn it once again with
all the other things that I had lost.

And so I bought him and have found that over many years I paid a heavy
price and that not just in coin.

He was hurt, a wrenching of a foot which cut his price and which I told
myself, suspecting as I did so that I lied, would mean a healthy profit
when I sold. I had him carried to my tent where Temek, who had served
me since my father bought him as a child, bathed him and tended to his
wound.

I thought that I had bought a boy until I saw him naked from his bath,
a grown man's sex mid curls more bronze than gold. I also saw beneath
the dust and rags that he was beautiful. His hair was short, a yellow-
brown that caught the flame of candle and of fire, revealing small and
rounded ears that should have seemed deformed and yet did not. His skin
was darker where the Suns had seen and white where they had not and he
was smooth and almost hairless and unmarked, not as the wretched boys
my cousin La'rak keeps, made smooth by idleness and vice, but hard and
clean and capable of work.

He watched me watching him, saw my desire, my intent and hated me. He
still believed he had the right to choose - as though I had not
purchased all his choices with his flesh. I know he thought of flight
but, when I laid my hand upon his neck, he recognized the grip that
brings paralysis or death and did not start the useless fight he knew
he could not win and so he let me bear him to my bed.

I tried for gentleness, for I am not a man who takes his pleasure in
another's pain, but I had slept long months alone and so, despite my
care, I know that he was hurt. He made no sound and did not flinch but
in the morning I saw blood upon his face, where he had bitten his own
mouth to still his cries.

That night as I lay feigning sleep, I saw him make his painful way to
where the laces held the door secure against the wind. I watched as he
undid the ties and looked out at the driving sand then tied them up
again. This cage might not have bars but still it held as tight. I
thought he would return to where I lay but he did not, choosing to lie
instead upon the floor, wrapped in rugs that must have galled his skin.

Next day the master of my beasts came to my tent to collar him. I
thought to win a smile, for he was fair and such are often vain, and so
I bought a pretty thing, a chain of copper-gilt to shine against his
skin, slender and unbreakable. Despite the gift, the air was thick with
anger as he stood while Mafras worked. His hands were clenched, his
eyes held mine and claimed the right to stand against my will.

Of course, it made no matter for I had ordered the thing done and so it
was.

I thought him wild, as once when as a boy my father took me hunting in
the hills and there we found a band of wretchedness in rags, starved of
food and order to their lives. In half a year, with stern but gentle
hand, we broke them to the yoke of servitude.

Thus I tried with him and thus I failed.

At first it was a game, I looked for the response that I had seen so
many times before - shyness giving way to eagerness to please. It never
came, dumb he lay within my arms, accepting what he could not keep
away. He never offered nor began as others always had. He never gave
what I gave him. He never came to me.

I used to wonder why he did not force my hand and make me use the grip
to send him down to sleep but later saw that he was one who had to
know, to see the truth, despite the cost. A foolish, gallant courage
that only made me value him the more, as men will prize the horse or
hawk that holds itself with pride.

In later days I know I gave him pleasure, for the body does not lie and
I was skilled and wished to make amends, but all the pleasure that I
had in him I took. Sometimes I could delight the flesh, the thing of
pulse and blood which takes its pleasure blind. The subtler arts he
could and did disdain, using his mind to kill his swift response. He
was a man for whom the senses sang but all I ever drew from him was in
the dark unreason of response that cares not where the pleasure has its
source. The bitter truth was plain, that any hand might earn as much
and few men's hands would earn them less.

That which could be taken thus I took and nothing more.

Soon it was no game, I set myself to win passion for passion, and then
love for love. I never did. All my gifts of gentleness and all the arts
of love that I had learned while visiting the houses of the town and
poured on him as they had poured on me, he held as less than nought and
every night I saw him standing at the entrance to my tent, looking at
the sand and poised for flight and I made plans to shackle him as soon
as storm winds failed.

Why did I persevere?

I cannot explain a madman to the sane. How every day the need to have
him grew, not just the body (cool and sweet and male) but more, the
self-possessed and untouched core of him that saw and knew and hated
what it saw. There are no words for such a thing, it can be understood
only by those in whom such madness lives (or lived and died) and so I
write in metaphors and tropes which hold but part of all I felt and
knew.

As thus.

At journey's end I always went to bathe, seeking the pool beneath my
father's house, still and cold and green, and, casting off my desert
robes, would walk into the water, feeling it rise and take me in and
close above my head, quenching my thirst through every open pore. And
so it was with him, his body a delight to every sense I had, to every
inch of skin.

I loved to lie upon his back and feel the lift and sway of breath, the
bless-ed wetness of his skin, the pulse-rich place which held me deep
within and if I closed my eyes and mind I could pretend that we lay
there as lovers, holding and held in joy. And if I kept them closed I
did not see his face, neither the pain nor careful lack of life, the
blank and undressed wall he made me see.

Once as I lay on my back, shattered and spent, my heart a mad thing in
my side, I saw the shuttered mask that he still wore and fury rose and
in my rage I swore an oath that, come the dawn, I'd offer him for sale
to all and any.

He looked at me then threw the rugs aside and climbed out of the bed
and shivered as the cold air struck his skin. Then, standing in the
brazier's light, his arms out-stretched, he turned and showed himself,
demanding that I see that he knew well why I would never sell.

I tried to stay away, for I knew well that men would say, "See how the
half-breed is besotted with the thing that he has bought," and the old
tale would run behind my back, for none would dare to say it to my
face, that I was born, not of my father's wife, but of a slave that he
had taken in the wars.

Though none would say it to my face, someone had not failed to tell she
who should have been my wife. So she had challenged and I had fought
her champion and killed and taken what was mine, which then I cast
aside for any who would stoop to pick it up.

And though I was the wronged in this, it seemed that those who called
me friend and even kin all fell away, as who should say, "Long have we
waited for this stain of tainted blood to show." At first I tried to
win back their regard but soon I saw that nothing that I did would be
enough and anger lived and anger died and I went on alone.

So in the camp, unwilling to shame my father's name, I went about the
trading and the feasts and played my part and every night I found
myself striding to my tent in haste, returning to the salt that caused
the thirst his sweetly cool, unwilling flesh would never let me quench.

While thus I led with half a mind the daily round of bargain and of
rule, he talked with Temek in the tent, learning to speak our tongue,
beginning with drawings made upon the sand, then soon enough with
simple words. Temek he liked and liked to help him work and in return
let Temek tend his foot.

It maddened me to see them deal so well, becoming friends where he and
I were nothing more or less than prisoner and guard. And was this love
or avarice or both? I cannot tell. I only know I wanted what he was;
the way his body curved; the gentle arc where shoulder met the arm; the
way the brazier warmed the colour of his skin; the way he held his head
erect, alert; the way he never seemed to look yet saw.

I longed to pour myself inside his skin and wear him wrapped around me
like a robe, invading all he was to make of him a conquered land - *my*
land, *my* place, *my* own.

Once I tried to take his mind, for those who sold him said their minds
were weak. They lied. His mind with raw untutored force held on to mine
and would not let me go and I was strangled in his grip. He would have
taken both of us and forced us down as drowning men will drown their
rescuers. It took the utmost limit of my strength to wrest myself away
and after that I left his mind alone, knowing that anything I took like
that would leave me with an empty husk, a shadow of the thing which I
desired.

I let him move about the camp, the storms still blew and he could not
escape. I know that many times he visited the cages where the others
were still held. Once someone overheard their talk and told me as he
came towards them one cried out, "Komandr!" but when I called him so,
he laughed. The sound was bitter in my ears and spoke of secret things
he knew and would not share.

He never smiled for me but only for the children of the place, the
offspring of the Keeper of the Wells. He met them in the tents that
housed the beasts and gave them sugared things he took from me and,
when he had the words, he told them halting tales of ships that sailed
the stars, of rocks that moved and clouds that lived on love. Once I
saw them play a game, a thing of string and fingers, and the child with
whom he played, accomplishing some little feat, smiled up at him and
he smiled back. A smile at which a man might warm himself and light the
long, dark evenings in his tent.

The children shared their little books with him, brightly-coloured,
simple tales I saw him sit and try to read. Once I caught him with a
children's tale and one of my books open on his knees and smiled as I
had smiled to see my sister's child, sitting in her father's chair,
aping an adult art whose outward form she saw but to whose substance
she could not aspire. And though the picture that he made reminded me
of childhood things, beneath my laughter lay desire as it lay beneath
my every waking thought.

I write "desire" and yet the word is but a shadow of the driving need
which gripped my mind and flesh and would not let me go. I thirsted for
him as I have seen men thirst for water in the desert or for shade in
noon day heat, I craved him as men crave for drugs or wine and, like
such thirsts, it grew and fed upon the little that I had of him, that
little creating of itself a desperate, abject need to have him, all of
him, all mine.

And still he would not love me! I would have given anything for that.
For gratitude. For willing, wanting flesh. For welcome and desire
returned. He could have lived as high and sweet as any favourite ever
has but nothing that I did could wear him down to my desire. I owned
*him* yet I was powerless before my need to have what *he* withheld. So
who was master here and who was man?

I could not make him see that he was favoured far above the ranks of
those I owned. He could expect a life of ease, no labour in the fields
for him, but peace and plenty all his life until the day he died. No
need to fret or think or strive, I would take care of everything and it
would be my duty and my pride.

One night as we lay in my bed (I eager, wanting, he aloof and still) I
tried once more to make this plain and failed and in my anger and my
weariness I asked, "What wouldst *thou* do with such a one, who offers
neither gratitude nor love for favours given with an open hand?"

He turned and I could see him struggle with our tongue to say his
thoughts until he said, "I never want to own another's life. In my
place none is master, none is slave and each man takes his life in his
own hands, and some men lead and others walk behind but always by their
choice."

I laughed and then I laughed again to see the anger in his face. "A
foolish thought, for always there are simple folk who need a master's
care, a master's hand upon the reins before they overset their lives
and run astray. We are as fathers to them and we give a father's care,
protecting them from wars and other shocks, taking their labour as our
recompense."

"And did a father's care take Temek's wife and sell her and their child
that was not born?"

"Temek was never married to the girl, he had no leave from me to take a
wife." His steady gaze met mine, he did not speak and suddenly my words
seemed strangely hollow and so I said, "Thou needst not be concerned,
their memories are short - their passions thin." Meaning to show that,
what amongst my own would be a bitter blow, would be to them a
momentary grief, forgotten quickly in the daily round.

But he replied, "How do you know? And even if you asked them, who would
tell?"

And all at once I saw that he would never be content to live the life
that I intended for him. He saw himself as free and always would,
forever longing to return to that forever lost estate and there I saw a
chance to wrest from him what he would never willingly concede.


I whispered, "Treat me well and I may set you free." It was a lie and
now I know he knew as much, but then I thought that I had found a key
that would unlock the door to his response for suddenly it seemed to my
poor madly-beating heart that his so-longed-for body came alive.
He took me in his arms and forced the kiss. And ah his mouth was sweet
as honeyed fruit and he was wet and I was dry as Summer winds on
Vulcan's Forge and so I drank him in; as once when I was young I caught
a fever from the marsh and those who tended to me wrapped my burning
flesh in bonds of wetted silk, blissful and imprisoning.

I had thought him virgin-shy but I was wrong for I or someone else had
taught him well and I was potters' clay between his hands, his cool,
insistent, knowing hands that stripped me of my will and moulded me
into a man I did not recognize. My skin was flame beneath his touch, my
breath a burning wind, his mouth a brand of ice that scored my flesh
with wounds invisible but deep.

Cruelly gentle, gently cruel, he took me in his mouth and gave me what
I craved and had done since the day when first we met but that soft,
subtle touching was as a torment to me and after a timeless time I
heard my own voice beg for more and could not help myself. He was not
kind but his unkindness brought a pleasure I had never known. Impaled
upon his hand and swallowed deep, I writhed and came and came and came
and still he was not done.

He rolled me on my belly and he drove himself inside me - dry - and
pleasure was a whetted knife that flayed me to the bone and left me
shaking in the darkness, fearing what I wanted, wanting what I feared
and it was terrible and glorious and my so-vaunted greater strength all
slipped away, like sand through open fingers, unnoticed and unmourned
until, exhausted by ecstatic pleasure-pain, I fought with sleep and
lost.

And in the night the storm winds died and in the morning he was gone
with all the others of his kind and Temek with him.

Men set out to follow and recapture but I did not. I knew, and never
knew the reason why I knew, that they would not be found and they were
not. It was not anger that I felt, or even pain, rather I saw that this
or death was all that there could ever be for us. He would go or he
would die, for nothing else would fit the man he was.

At first I tried to tell myself that night had been a gift, a lover's
last farewell but in my heart I knew it was a blow that told me, "This
is what we could have been - had you been other than you are."

I did not need the words but in a book, inside the cover, there they
were. "My freedom is not yours to give as it was never yours to take."
And underneath. "Remember that I gave you neither love nor gratitude
nor absolution nor my name."

These were not the words of some poor savage man, scrawling unlettered
insults on the wall. This was in my own familiar hand, for he had seen
no other, acquired in this little span of days by him, a man of
subtlety and learning, a traveller and scholar. A man who knew me well
enough to know his words would and chose them all with care.

And I had called him thus and thus and thus and every thing I called
him had been wrong. I who was neither fool nor blind, had only seen the
slave and not the man. I had known his body but had never seen his
mind.

How often had I made the same mistake with those whom I still claimed
to own? Beneath the stranger's words was written thus, "I called you
Little Father but I lied." And next to that was written Temek's name. I
had not even known that he could write.

For many years I thought my shame came thus, from knowing that the man
that I had forced into my bed was such a man as I. I told myself he was
not born a slave, he was a freeman and as such no proof of anything, no
proof that those I owned were such as he.

But on a whim I sought and purchased Temek's child, an infant girl with
Temek's nose and brow. Her mother being dead, I set her free and gave
her to a family where the wife was skilled with roots and herbs and had
no child to teach that female art. I think that she was happy.

I tried to live as I had lived before but the seed of thought once
planted is a hardy thing and over many years I could not help but see
the things that I had seen before but never understood. The effort that
obedience sometimes took, the hatred in the downcast eyes, the pain of
separation and of love where any day a sale might break a home.

I am an old man now and my children's children lead the caravans,
stopping as once I stopped beside the wells. They do not trade in flesh
and those who work for me and mine do so now for wages or for land. In
younger days I hardly thought of him, but now I find I sit before the
fire and things that happened long ago are clearer in my mind than
yesterday.

For many years I wondered if he ever thought of me and hoped he would
remember.

But I am older now and wiser far and pray he never did



THE END


PS. There is another version of this story on my website that you may like to check out.
http://jess.inengland.googlepages.com/besidethewells-version2

You must login (register) to review.