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A Body Like a Grave

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Imprison'd for some fault of his
In a body like a grave—
P.B. Shelley

 

What they can do to a human body is wondrous—. That was what Nicky thought as he was beaten until every thought drifted away. The body is wondrous even in its ugliness.

At first glance, the room where they were holding him looked like a rudimentary tool shed, kitted out with carpenters’ worktables, hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, ropes, pipes, a tub of water, jerry cans of petrol, wires, electric extension boards, crowbars, and what seemed to be scaled-down concrete pillars. On a shelf there was a jar of red chili powder. The floor was littered with cigarette butts. Nicky knew that these ordinary things could be put to extraordinary use. He was already well-acquainted with many of them. The tub was for waterboarding, the pliers for extracting fingernails, the wires for applying electric shocks, the chili powder to be mixed with petrol and poured down a prisoner’s throat. There were other uses as well, but Nicky didn’t dwell on them. As long as Joe was safe, he was resilient as an ancient city—throw a siege upon him, and he would withstand it. The concrete pillars were unfamiliar to him, but he soon learned their use when he was tied down and two men rolled the pillars over him, crushing his muscles and precipitating acute renal failure.

They had by this point discovered his unique abilities and upped their ante accordingly.

Wondrous, he thought.

Wondrous.

He spent twenty-four hours in their custody. A badly tied bond gave him all the chance he needed to escape, and he dispatched his captors in an efficient, impersonal bloodbath. He used the water in the tub to splash the viscera from his skin, grateful they had stripped him early in the proceedings, because when he put his clothes on again he found them undamaged and unbloodied.

There was a commotion outside in the corridor. Nicky snatched another gun from one of the bodies. He was breathing fast from exertion, his nerves thrumming with the familiar emotions of battle: the fear and the adrenaline, the awareness and the calculation, and beneath it all, the freeing sense of acceleration, of his body as an instrument of force. His hands were strong, supple, capable of swinging a sword, aiming a rifle, snapping a neck. They were nothing like Joe’s beautiful artist’s hands, gifted with so much more than meting out death and destruction.

Sometimes, Nicky was afraid that he was made for this.

The door burst open: no enemy assailants this time, but Andy and Joe.

“Oh,” Nicky said, lowering his weapons. “Hello.”

When Joe took him in his arms, he wasn’t so much shivering as vibrating, as though there were a motor just underneath his skin. A pulse jumped at the corner of his mouth where Joe kissed him.

Booker was waiting outside with the getaway car, and they scrambled in.  Nicky surprised himself by falling asleep against Joe’s shoulder. He was just so tired, and he didn’t want to talk. Not about what had been done to him or about what he had done. This sort of thing had happened before, to all of them, and it would happen again. All their ordeals seemed to merge into one single ordeal that folded and unfolded across centuries, gathering them into its unhinged embrace. Its cruelties became as natural as the changing seasons, each came with its own range of scent and blossom, its own cycle of loss and renewal.

When they reached the safe house some five hours later, Nicky lingered outside with Booker to smoke a cigarette.

“There’s a new Rolling Stones album,” Booker said.

Nicky hmmed, exhaling a jet of smoke.

“It’s shit. Jagger doing his growly-yowly thing. Sometimes when he sings I imagine it’s your voice instead, and I like it better.”

“You have no taste, Book.” He looked up and saw Joe’s face at the window, forehead creased with worry as he watched them through the glass. Nicky gestured slightly with his cigarette, indicating that he would come inside shortly. Joe nodded, retreated.

“Are you okay,” Booker said at last. Not quite a question.

“Yes,” Nicky replied, not quite an answer. He extinguished his cigarette and declined Booker’s offer of a second.

Inside, he found Andy sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of vodka. “Joe’s in the bedroom,” she told him. 

“Okay.”

“Shower’s all yours. I got the generator running, so there should be hot water. Take as long as you want. Book and I’ll split watch duty tonight.”

“Okay,” Nicky said, “thank you.” Then: “How bad was it?”

“It?”

“Joe. How bad was Joe?”

Andy drank deeply from the bottle. “I thought we might have to knock him out and tie him to a tree, to keep him from doing something stupid. But we managed to trace you pretty quickly, so…”

His heart felt like a grey pebble in a mountain stream—something icy rushed over it.

“It was only twenty-four hours,” he said quietly.

“It was a long twenty-four hours.” Andy capped the bottle. “Nicky—”

“I miscalculated, boss,” he said ruefully. “I was trying to find out what happened to those university students who disappeared last week, I asked too many questions, and I must have attracted the wrong sort of—”

“Jesus Christ, Nicky.” Andy slammed her fist against the table, making the bottle jump; Nicky did not flinch. “I wasn’t going to tell you off. I was going to ask if you were all right, even though we both know that’s a stupid, meaningless question after what you’ve just been through.”

“I’m all right.”

“Yeah, sure you are.”  

“I’m sorry that I worried you—”

“Two tears in a bucket,” she snapped. “Vodka?”

“Thank you, but I’m—”

“You’re all right. So you’ve said.” She finally raised her eyes to his, and Nicky knew what the dreadful look on her face was made of, it was made out of love.

He turned to go.

Andy called after him: “Did you find out what happened to them? To the students?”

A wave of exhaustion swept through him. It was not a physical fatigue this time but a draining lassitude that numbed the margins of his mind.

“They received the same hospitality that I did,” he said. “They’re dead.”

Joe sat on the closed lid of the toilet while Nicky took his shower. He didn’t want Joe in there with him, not while he scrubbed away evidence of tortures that Joe never needed to ascertain the extent of. It would only upset him. Nicky let the water drown out the gentle cadences of Joe’s voice as he recited something that might have been Osip Mandelstam. Misfortune saltier, and the earth more truthful…

Joe had always believed that poetry could cure, or at least go a long way towards curing, almost every ailment. He prescribed poems to Nicky and Andy and Booker the way that a doctor prescribed medicine. He could produce a couplet from his formidable repertoire that was eerily apt for every occasion, every mood, every alteration in the political climate. This habit of his made the world around him seem more profound, and Nicky usually appreciated his ability to find pattern and meaning everywhere.

But right now he couldn’t fucking bear it. The words grated. Joe’s endless quotations infused everything with a subtle sense of stagnancy. A sense that everything had happened before. That it had already been written, sung, commented upon, and entered into history’s inventory. That nothing new was possible.

When Nicky came out of the shower, Joe bundled him into a towel and brought him to the bedroom. He sat on the bed while Nicky put on fresh clothes. His eyes were red-rimmed, swollen from lack of sleep, but they still held an unmistakable fierceness tempered by deep sorrow.

“Nicky—”

“I wish you wouldn’t take it so personally, when things happen to me,” Nicky said sharply.

Joe’s eyebrows curved up like a pair of scimitars. “I can’t not take it personally,” he said, reasonably. “Not when you’re the other half of me. The first moment that I saw you, Nicolò, a piece of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around you. And there it still remains.”

Nicky could hardly disagree; it was the same for him. After that initial glimpse of Yusuf outside the gates of Jerusalem—flinging himself toward the enemy, graceful and effortless, feet like wings, long curls whipping in the wind, a dark and murderous crown—he had ceased to belong to himself. Still he argued, “But that is my only consolation when it’s happening to me—that it isn’t happening to you. And we both know that I am better equipped to manage these things.”

“Why, because you were trained in martyrdom?” Joe sounded angry now.

“Because I handle pain more sensibly than you do. I am—how do they say in English?—unfuckable.” He couldn’t tell whether his flippancy marked the onset of an unsoundness of mind or an acute, perilous kind of sanity.

“But Nico, my love, you’re not,” Joe said, with such tenderness that Nicky had to turn away and distract himself with turning down the bedclothes and tucking a handgun under his pillow.

“Something to aspire to, then. Pity is the hardest thing to fight, Yusuf. It’s so easy to pity ourselves, and self-pity is so… debilitating. So humiliating.” He dragged a hand through his damp hair. “It’s always a fight for dignity after one of these experiences. Can you reach me my toothbrush, please?”

Joe exhaled. “Allahuma alhemna assabr.”

“God grant you patience for what?” Nicky asked, frowning.

You, Nicolò.”

Me?”

“Yes, you,” Joe snapped, rummaging through their toiletries bag. “You’re really trying my patience right now, my heart.”

Nicky raised his eyebrows, genuinely baffled.

“Dignity! Who gives a motherfuck about dignity?” Joe flung Nicky’s toothbrush at him; it bounced off his chest and he caught it before it could hit the floor. “I don’t want you to be dignified about any of this! Because you’re not unfuckable, none of us are, and it was pure fucking sadism what they did to you. I saw the things in that room, the electric rods, the chili powder—”

“Well,” Nicky said soberly, “I don’t think I will be able to enjoy spicy foods for quite a while.”

Joe stared at him; his mouth moved wordlessly.

Then they both howled with laughter.    

They stumbled into each other’s arms—choking and wheezing, the odd high-pitched giggle—until their ribs ached and they gasped for breath. Joe’s eyes were leaking with more than just mirth, and Nicky’s weren’t dry, either, but as they clung together and rocked back and forth, the tension slipped out of the room like an unwanted stranger.

When their laughter finally subsided, Joe guided him to sit on the bed. He drew tiny circles across the back of Nicky’s head with the tip of a finger and moved down to his neck and slid his hand up to massage the tender place at the base of his skull. The sensation was immediate and the release visceral: Nicky felt tension rolling off of him, spiraling out of his head, drawing out every thought except of the man beside him.

Boneless and liquid, he lay back, plucking at Joe’s sleeve. Joe followed cautiously, leaving a small space between them. But Nicky simply reached back and pulled Joe’s arm around himself. He often lived strangely in the country of his own skin after an ordeal like the one he’d just undergone. Sometimes he turned inward and sealed his borders, became a country that issued no visas and seemed to have no consulates. Tonight he resisted those austerity measures. He was lulled by Joe’s warmth at his back, willing to leave a single checkpoint open for the other half of his soul.

He dreamed, of course he did. His dreams carried him straight back to that ghastly toolshed. The searing heat of a cigarette burn, the dull thud of metal on flesh, and the smell of dread, souring the air—

When Nicky thrashed himself awake, gulping desperate lungfuls of air, Joe was already sitting up. Nightmares were promiscuous between the two of them; they cartwheeled wantonly into each other’s minds. There was no fence or fortification that could keep Nicky’s bad dreams from Joe, or Joe’s from Nicky. They had learned, the two of them, that the only thing to do with nightmares was to embrace them like old friends and manage them like old enemies.

Joe left the room for a few minutes and returned with a plate of food. Nicky looked at the bread and cheese and swallowed down the bile rising in his throat.

“Not hungry,” he managed, reaching for his canteen instead. The water tasted metallic, or maybe it was his own mouth, the tackiness of blood as he bit the inside of his cheek. Through a gap in the curtains, he could see the morning fog creeping in low across the horizon. A cool band of wind slipped through the open window, drying the sweat on his brow.

Joe set the plate between them on the bed, his eyes full of concern. “For me, Nico? You have to eat something.”

He hesitated.

“I assure you it’s quite flavorless. No spice.”

That startled a laugh out of him. “Oh, very well then.”

“I thought we might do this Ethiopian style,” Joe explained, tearing off a small piece of bread and using his knife to carve a sliver of cheese. “Remember that time in Addis, forty, fifty years ago? Pretend this shitty supermarket bread is injera, and I will perform gursha for you. All you have to do is eat.”

And so Joe fed him with his own hand, one carefully prepared bite at a time, as though he were giving Nicky gursha, as if this were a festive meal and his assistance were an act of celebration. Nicky ate the mouthfuls of food instinctively, guided by Joe’s instructions to chew it all, don’t even think about it. “One more bite,” Joe coaxed, again and again, “just this last one, and then we’re done.”

“Liar,” Nicky said thickly, forcing down another mouthful.

“Yeah, well.” Joe gazed into his eyes without embarrassment or judgment. “Be brave, sweetheart, and it’ll be over soon.” He continued to feed Nicky until all the food was gone, behaving for all the world like a host insisting that his guest take one more bite because Nicky’s presence at his table was a great honor.

Nicky caught Joe’s hand and held it to his mouth, pressing a kiss to his palm and then to each of his fingertips in turn. “Love of my life,” he said simply. Then he pulled his shirt over his head.

“Nico.” Joe inhaled sharply. “Are you…”

“Am I sure? Yes.” Nicky reached for the hem of Joe’s shirt; obediently, Joe raised his arms and let him tug it off. “I want you to put me back inside of myself, Yusuf, the way that only you can.” He struggled with Joe’s belt; it was new, the leather stiff and unyielding against his fingers. “Oh for heaven’s sake, take it off yourself,” he exclaimed, turning instead to his own clothes, and Joe’s answering chuckle rumbled deep in his chest.

Nicky left his clothes in a neat pile on the nightstand, within easy reach, and sat cross-legged to watch Joe wrestle with the new belt, the new jeans, the finely crafted pieces that made him so difficult to undress these days. Joe cursed under his breath, swiveling his hips as he worked the tight denim down his legs. Nicky admired the flex of Joe’s abdominals and felt his cock begin to harden. For all that he’d been the one to initiate this, there had been something restrained, distantly observed about his intentions, until Joe’s skin started revealing itself piece by piece in the soft predawn light filtering through the curtains.

With the last of his clothes kicked aside, Joe sat opposite him on the mattress, mirroring his posture. They stared at each other. Joe’s dark, expressive eyes seemed lit from within. Gentle half-moons gathered under them, nothing like the permanent smudges beneath Nicky’s. His hair was shorn close to his skull, his beard clipped short; Nicky missed the buoyant curls and the fuller beard, but there was something achingly beautiful and vulnerable about Yusuf’s face exposed this way. He reached out to touch, but the sight of his own callused hand hovering in midair arrested him, just as it had back at the toolshed after he’d killed his captors.

He wasn’t sure, sometimes, what his hands had been made for.

Joe’s fingers encircled his wrist and carefully lowered his hand back to his lap. “Maybe you could let me touch you first?”

Nicky nodded. Between the two of them, he thought, they had a virtual forest of safety nets.

“Please,” he said.

Joe reached out, tucked a few strands of hair behind his ear. His fingertips slid along one cheekbone, touched the edge of his mouth. Nicky shivered. With contemplative languor, Joe caressed his temple, pressing his thumb against it as though leaving a print in clay. Nicky tilted his chin up. Joe trailed his fingertips down the column of his throat, a meandering pathway like a stray water droplet’s. Nicky’s breath turned harsh and shallow. Desire seemed to sidle up alongside him, melting into his bones, to demand things of him that he was suddenly eager, so eager, to provide.

Joe leaned in. Slowly, wonderfully, he licked the whorl of his ear. Then he dragged his nails along the length of his spine, and Nicky’s back arched almost painfully in response. Joe’s mouth found his nipple, and his teeth closed, not quite biting.

“More,” Nicky ordered.  

Joe’s teeth came down more firmly, biting and sucking at one nipple as his fingers groped for the other and pinched it in a careful but unyielding hold. Long, shuddering contractions gripped the muscles of Nicky’s thighs, buttocks, shoulders, arms. Then Joe’s hand curled around his cock; a fingertip stroked him between cock and balls, at the exact right spot, and he clenched his jaw to stifle a groan.

“I want to touch you,” he whispered.

“Not quite yet.” Joe tipped his face up and kissed him instead.  

It occurred to Nicky that this was the first time they had kissed since the frenetic embraces exchanged right after his deliverance, and he felt feverish in his desperation to make up for that. Their mouths met again and again. Every kiss demanded a kiss back, so Nicky kissed back, or Joe did, and something coiled deep inside Nicky stretched out, unfurled, and luxuriated in its newfound space and light.

“Lie back,” Joe said, his voice a low, congested murmur.

“Can I…?”

Yes, Nico, please.

His fingers sprang immediately into Joe’s short hair, tugging Joe with him as he went. And then he was lying back, legs draped over Joe’s shoulders, heels rubbing against his flanks, and humming a soft, wordless murmur of contentment as Joe ate him out. Joe’s tongue moved against him, licking and lapping and tracing, then pushed inside, fucking in and out in a rhythm like a giant pulse.

“Oh Joe—Yusuf…”

Joe groaned in response, sending a wave of vibrations through his body. Nicky bit his lip bloody; his fingers scrabbled over Joe’s scalp, the hair too short for him to clutch onto. “You will grow your hair out,” he rasped, “and you will get up here and fuck me.”

“In that order?” Joe surfaced from between his legs, grinning wickedly. “Because it could be a long time, my heart, if you really mean to wait for—”

Nicky leveled him with a flat stare.

“I’ll grow it back,” Joe promised hastily, leaning over the side of the bed to dig through their carryall. “And I can keep growing it, if you want, till it’s as long as it was when we met…”

“That won’t be necessary,” Nicky said, though the image sent a possessive flare of heat through his chest, a sense memory of windswept curls grazing his skin the first time they kissed. “I’m only asking for something to put my hands in, the rest is up to you—Joe, the lube is in the center pocket with the spare rotary bolt for my Remington.”

“Odd fucking place to keep it,” Joe muttered, as he fumbled with the zipper.

“You’re welcome to pack the bag next time.”

“I can’t, you’re too particular about your rifles…”

Their bickering lived in an easy, familiar cadence, even as they arranged themselves on musty, unfamiliar sheets with a gun underneath the pillow. Nicky folded his legs against his chest and held himself open. His body had welcomed the hot wet press of Joe’s tongue; now it welcomed his fingers, and finally his cock. They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved puzzle—the twilight of Nicolò into the daybreak of Yusuf, the restraint of Nicky into the exuberance of Joe, the hurt of one into the sorrow of the other. There were no parts of them that didn’t fit.

Joe began to move.

And then he began to sob.

“Yusuf,” Nicky said in consternation, bringing up his hands to cradle his beloved’s face. “Yusuf, my darling, my love, it’s all right, please don’t cry…”

Joe’s tears rained down on his face; his whole frame shook. Nicky wrapped him in his arms and legs, he whispered nonsense. He rocked him to and fro. The motion pushed Joe’s cock deeper inside him and increased the friction against his own where it rubbed against the hard board of Joe’s belly. A strange symbiotic continuum of weeping and fucking. It could have felt wrong, but it didn’t. It wasn’t. It had happened like this many times before. After they had done awful things and had awful things done to them. As much lament as lovemaking, old and new wounds open between them, too ragged to be healed in a single embrace. But when they fitted themselves together, they were able to pool their hurts like accumulated gambling debts and share the pain equally, without naming the injuries or asking which was whose.

Wondrous, Nicky thought.

Wondrous.

“I love you,” Joe choked out, his face contorted with ecstasy and grief.

Nicky leaned up to kiss him, tasting salt. The words that spilled from his mouth were not in any of their usual languages, but in Farsi, quoting back to Joe verses Yusuf himself had composed in the fourteenth century when he squared off against Hafez in the court of Abu Ishaq. “Ashk az cheshmam bordi / Yadet shod roya…” he crooned, punctuating the words with kisses.

You took away my tears / Now your memories become a dream…

 “I didn’t think you wanted poetry,” Joe gasped. He was thrusting into him harder now, faster; the tears had stopped flowing. “Before, when you wouldn’t let me into the shower with you—”

“I didn’t want someone else’s poetry.” Nicky circled his hips, meeting him thrust for thrust. “No one else’s words, Yusuf—only yours—I want to live inside—”

He wanted to live inside the world conjured forth by Joe’s words, but his own failed him the moment Joe reached between them and wrapped a hand around his cock. I love you was the best he could manage as he came, and Joe wasn’t much more eloquent.  

When they had cleaned themselves up, after all the calluses on Nicky’s hands had been counted and kissed, he lay stretched out on top of Joe, as though Joe were a mattress, his chin resting on his intertwined fingers, his bottom vulnerable to the early morning breeze. Joe’s palms curled protectively over the swell of his buttocks. Then he ran his fingers up the ridges of muscle on either side of Nicky’s spine. What began as a caress turned into a physical examination: he checked out Nicky’s broad shoulders, his lean muscled arms.

“Nicolò,” he sighed. “My beautiful Nicolò. Infinity within and infinity without.” 

Fortified by love, sated by lovemaking, Nicky tried once more for the words that had eluded him earlier. “I feel… trapped by my body sometimes,” he admitted. He stroked the silky thatch of hair on Joe’s chest, mussing it with his fingers. “The way that it looks, how it seems to withstand the burden of memory, because it’s always being remade.”

He hesitated; Joe urged him to continue with a gentle squeeze to his hip. 

“When really—our bodies are these living archives of… obscenity, are they not? Witness to all that breaks skin and punctures resolve and leaves ordinary human beings dead. But not us.”  

“Not us,” Joe agreed softly. “But time has its own way of carving across our bodies.”

And that was the truth that Nicky wished he could forget: that what was forged into memory tucked itself into muscle and bone. It would always be there and it would follow them to the grave.

But enough, he thought. Enough.

“Booker informs me there’s a new Rolling Stones album and it’s shit,” he mumbled, burying his face in Joe’s neck.

“Really? Shame. I liked the last one.”

“So did I.”

“Well, I’ll buy it for you in the next city,” Joe promised, “and you can decide for yourself. Then we’ll go out for a nice meal. Ethiopian, if we can find it.”

“Ethiopian?”

“I talked myself into a craving.”

“You’ve always been very susceptible to your own powers of persuasion.”

“And now I can’t stop thinking about the real thing, fresh injera… What’s the name of that place we like, that restaurant in, oh, what was it—…”

When Andy came in to get them later, she found them with their arms wrapped around each other, making plans as if they had only just met.