Married life always brings surprises. Wilhelm's mother told him that. She couldn't have known the half of it. He's been taken away, to this strange man's house. Locked up like a little bird. He only has one song to sing, of course. He couldn't bear to sing it, even if he could remember the words. He hears his man humming it sometimes, and the tune unspools inside of Wilhelm. He almost remembers the words, but it's as though a great hand catches them up, and scatters them to the winds. There was a light in the forest, and a face among the trees. This must have been a dream he had.
“Life is but a dream,” his man says easily, with that smile like a crescent moon; the unimaginable white of his teeth against the night sky of his lips.
They're like the hours of the day. Pegleg goes from house to house, from spouse to spouse. The little houses are even arranged in a circle. He seems to spend longer with Wilhelm, though.
“Is it because you like me, or because you hate me?” Wilhelm often asks. Each time, he's shocked that he's said the words aloud.
“It's because I love you,” Pegleg says, looking perfectly pleased to answer the question yet again, to have a reason to say it. Maybe that's why the words come out of Wilhelm. All things in this place belong to Pegleg. Wilhelm just lives there.
But that's not entirely true. Wilhelm's not a doll. He's made of flesh and blood. He can feel. The things he feels. Why does he feel this way? How can he feel this way?
“That's marriage. Don't you know the line about her desire being for her husband?”
“But I'm not a woman,” Wilhelm says weakly.
Pegleg shrugs. “Nobody's perfect.” He says it as he says all things, as though delivering lines in a play. Perhaps this has all already been written. Perhaps they're just puppets, after all, acting out a piece of theater for a divine audience.
“Or maybe,” Pegleg says, “the show ended a long time ago, and everybody's gone home. Only, they forgot to put up the houselights, so we can't see that the theatre is empty.”
Somehow, that makes it worse.
“Imagine if it were true,” Pegleg says, moving so that he's behind Wilhelm, and can whisper the words directly into his ear. “Imagine the freedom. If the director's gone, and the audience is gone, and we've run out of lines to say, couldn't we just,” he moves to Wilhelm's other side, “do what we wanted?”
“Then I could leave this place,” he murmurs.
“Yes, certainly. You're free to go. There's the door.”
Wilhelm looks. The door is open.
Pegleg moves aside, goes to a chair at the table and leans against it. “So, where will you go?”
“I don't know,” Wilhelm says, looking into the distance as though he expects it to open up for him. Space seems infinite, but all he sees is the hearth, the rug before the hearth, the chairs and couches and tables set further back. He looks to his left, and sees the stair, the kitchen, beyond. To his right is the big window, framed by bookcases, containing his books. Behind him is the door.
“Why don't I help you pack, then?”
“That's very kind of you,” Wilhelm says. One must never forget one's manners. “You really needn't bother, though.”
“It's not a bother to help someone you love.”
Unbidden, a blush comes to Wilhelm's face. “But you don't. You can't.”
“Maybe I can't do it well,” Pegleg says, taking a few steps toward Wilhelm, “but that doesn't mean I'm unable.”
“Let me help you up the stairs, then.”
“Such a gentleman,” Pegleg says, taking Wilhelm's arm, looking up at him sweetly. He's done this a thousand times, but Pegleg always acts as though it's the first, and that Wilhelm's paid him a splendid compliment.
The staircase is narrow, so they have to walk quite close to each other. By the time they get to the top, Wilhelm finds that he's breathing heavily, flushed, almost shaking. It must be from the effort. Pegleg is small, but heavier than he looks.
“Do you think you'll go someplace hot or cold?” Pegleg asks, opening the wardrobe doors.
“I've only ever been to cold places. I only have clothes for cold places.”
“Then, you'd better stick with what you know. You don't have the humor for someplace hot.”
“Humors?” Wilhelm laughs, “Who talks about humors anymore?”
“It's a sound concept,” Pegleg says, “even if the way it's applied is outmoded.”
“All right,” Wilhelm says indulgently, “You're right, though. It's better to stay with the things that are familiar to me.”
Just then, a draught catches him, and he shivers.
“Perhaps you'd better put this on now,” Pegleg holds forth a jacket, “or you might get a chill before you've even made it out the door.”
“The door,” Wilhelm says, like one in a dream, “The door is still open.”
“I'll go and close it.”
“No,” Wilhelm holds out his hand, “Rest here. I'll do it.”
At the bottom of the stairs, he looks through the door, at the world beyond. It seems faded, like an illustration in an old storybook. He looks at the hearth, with its blood red brick, and its dove gray ashes. He looks at the kitchen stove, as black and glossy as the shoulder of a great draft horse. He looks at the planks of fine oak beneath his feet. He walks to the door. The sky above is threatening, masses of clouds furling and roiling. No wonder he felt a draught. It may snow. He closes the door. He locks it. He sets his back against it, and rests there for a moment.
“It looks as though it may snow,” he says to Pegleg.
“You'd better pack lots of warm things, then.”
“I suppose so.” He yawns. Why is he so tired? It's only midday.
“Shall I make you a cup of tea, to revive you before your journey? Some brandy, maybe?”
“It's kind of you to offer, but I don't think it's necessary.” He sits down on the edge of the bed. “I could just sleep a little bit.”
“I'll leave you alone.” Pegleg stands.
“No,” yawning, Wilhelm puts up his hand, “You can stay. You're very quiet.”
Pegleg smiles. “You won't even know I'm here.”
“But I'd notice if you were gone.” He yawns again, to make it seem like the fancy of a tired man.
“Who do you think you'll meet out there, after you've left me?”
“I don't know. I know so little about the world.”
“Do you think you'll meet anyone else like me?”
“Oh, there's only one of you.” He lies back. After a moment, Pegleg lies down next to him. That's good.
“Shall I kiss you to sleep?”
“If you would.”
His lips are always soft, and always taste faintly of ashes. It's not surprising. One kiss is impossible. Two is only just this side of impossible. Three is so very difficult. Even four is a Herculean labor. After that, Wilhelm stops counting, stops struggling, and it becomes one long kiss. It could be a hundred or a thousand, but since it never seems to end, he'll just call it one. So, five kisses. Five kisses is just the right number.
It's not right to ask Pegleg to put weight on his bad knee, but he can lie on his back and bear Wilhelm's just fine. He's small, but he's stronger than he looks. He smells like burnt things, as well, mainly gun powder. This, too, is unsurprising.
Once Wilhelm's gone this far, it's pointless to try to stop. What for? To be wracked by strange aches, for hours, possibly for the rest of the day, until he sleeps? If he sleeps. What does he get for that, but the dubious pleasure of knowing that he's won the day? There's always a next day. There's always a day in which he won't be so strong. It's better to just be weak, and get it over with.
With that decided, he feels much better. The room is warmer, now, so it feels good to take off his clothes, to feel Pegleg without his clothes on, to throw the sheets over them. Wilhelm came to the marriage bed with no knowledge of its mysteries. Even now, he's not sure that he understands most of what happens. It's not like poetry, at all. For no one would write poems about how it feels to have another person's nails in your back, and their teeth in your shoulder. You couldn't talk about these things, even if you could find words for them. How much joy it gives you to kiss your man on his ruined knee. To kiss him everywhere. All of the strange, rose red and lily white places on his body that you want to kiss. It's difficult to make it lovely, as poetry should be. All of the harsh sounds, and the wet things you touch, and the taste of something as bitter as the sea. And your own need, as harsh and as wet and as bitter as anything of his. It's supposed to be a humiliation beyond words, doing these things with a man, but the real humiliation is in how much you want it. Greater still, is that in what he does to you.
His hands are as delicate as a girl's. You told him this, once. You think you may have meant it as an insult. He smiled and said that it was because he was a girl. Girls don't know how to touch men like this, though. It's not something you'd ever guess at unless you knew how it felt. Wilhelm always thinks he's safe, by taking care of Pegleg first, but he always forgets. Pegleg always wants more. The horror, of course, is in Wilhelm's wanting it, too. The horror, the horror.
The mercy is that it doesn't take very long. Wilhelm's nerves are gone. He no longer knows how to feel anything beyond this. It only hurts for a second, pain like salt in a wound. He's used to it, but cries out, anyway, in order to be soothed.
“Just a little prick,” Pegleg says, his mouth against Wilhelm's ear, “You can take it.” Then, his delicate little hand is on Wilhelm, holding him steady as he enters him completely. There's no poetry in this. It's mechanical. It's scientific. It must be, for these things are free of finer feeling, and Wilhelm doesn't- he can't-
Love, the poets will tell us, is divine. It drops from the heavens, like God's own mercy. Yet, nothing from heaven ever dropped down into this place.
Well, just one little thing.
Wilhelm's nerves are gone. They're frayed. They're burnt. He's nothing, now, but flesh and bone and humor. If that, even. He's babbling. He has no brain. He has no tongue. He has no lungs, and there's no air in them. He's not saying what he's saying.
“You don't have to beg. Doing something nice for someone you love is its own reward.”
“I love you.”
“I know you do.”
It's as though he must confess before the torture's ended. He's some poor little saint in a cell. Though, of course, the saints never confessed. Their mortal bodies were destroyed to glorify their immortal souls. Wilhelm has no soul. He's just a body. Down here, they're all just bodies.
Wet, and trembling, and naked. Foul and polluted. Sweet, and delicate, and soft. Still scented with that morning's toilet water, mixed with the odd honeyed smell of old sweat. Pegleg, of course, always smells of combustion. Wilhelm thinks of a rose, a gift from a suitor, that his sister once spitefully burned, holding it by its long stem until it became too hot. The scent that had filled the room is the scent that rises from Pegleg's skin.
It's morning before Wilhelm awakens.
Pegleg's already gone. He has other houses to visit. Wilhelm feels himself pout. It's all right. It'll be all right. This is nothing. This is just a sign of bodily weakness, no different from having to piss. He doesn't need Pegleg, not for anything. Wilhelm's just fine without him.
But when will he return?