The film is an international production Maya has never heard of, the reels hand-delivered by Mister Blinski that afternoon. Play this starting at exactly 10:27, he’d instructed before going into his office to smoke grass and scheme ways to cook the books. By then, the other pictures have been dusted and reshelved, giving Maya a window to read, but the action of this one keeps drawing her in. Something about a series of deaths in Rome or Milan. A conspiracy to pin them on a mute with scars covering half his face. The son of a diplomat, he’d been a charming bachelor before a car crash that left questions. Had the father’s gambling debts finally caught up to him and this was the mob’s way of sending a message? The twist is the diplomat steered the investigation towards his own son for reasons the editing seems to know won’t hold up to scrutiny. Fine.
The credits roll and she raises the house lights. The audience of a dozen or so, anemic for a marquee, stagger up the stairs to the exits, too dazed to be dissatisfied with the last hour and half of their lives. It had been at once formulaic and outré, shocking and comforting in all the wrong ways. The post-mortem at Kastello would be brief and uncharitable before conversation moves onto the lineup at Locarno this year and then guiltier pleasures. They will have left plenty of rubbish on the floors for Anton, but he is shooting up in the utility closet, leaving Maya to deal with the mess. Just her luck.
There is also a man left behind, Maya discovers after closing up the booth, sitting motionless in his seat. The hair beneath the man’s hat is long and greasy under the house lights, but he sits too straight to be a bum or one of Anton’s scumbag friends. Maybe he’s another pervert getting worked over by Emil. She calls out to him from the doors, hoping he’s simply fallen asleep, but this doesn’t work, forcing her to repeat herself at the top of the stairs, her impatience unable to conceal a growing distress. Still the man doesn’t budge. Out of habit Maya looks over her shoulder before descending the stairs, dustbin in her fist ready as a weapon if need be.
She keeps a wide berth, walking all the way down to the cover of the once orchestra pit before facing what turns out not to be a man, but a puppet, complete with rosy cheeks and googly eyes staring off into space but somehow watching her too. Mister Blinski?, she calls out and the house lights flip off. Very funny, Anton. Seriously, if you think this is going to get you laid, you really are a bastard. Nothing but the wince of cheap wood beneath her shifting feet. Then the projector blinds her, revealing the acne beneath her cracking foundation. Anton, I swear. I’m going to fucking kill you if you don’t cut it out. Still nothing. The reel begins, sending her staggering back to the front row, where she catches her weight on an armrest that invites her into the seat.
The film is a schizophrenic display. Dolls hanging from piano strings. Hands pulping rotten vegetables. Dogs barking at their own reflection. Stop it, she screams, standing again, clawing at the screen. Stop! A bonfire in a basement. A cripple in his braces, laughing at a landscape. A man, his face swallowed in shadow, knuckles gleaming around a knife with a long, slender blade. Stop it, please! I’m begging you. The flash of a face but no features. The man walks towards the camera, slowly but without hesitation. Please, the syllables interrupted by sobs. Please, please. He raises the blade and it winks in the cone of the projector. Her voice is now a whimper broken by jagged inhales. The blade tears the fabric of the screen. The burgundy vest of her uniform. The blouse beneath. Skin.
Maya cries out, spit roping her cheeks and chin. The knife plunges again, this time into her chest, just above the half-moon of her bra. Cherry red wax runs down her belly. Stains the band of her skirt. The knife sinks into her thigh, her neck, searching with frantic purpose. The man above is a flash of leather. A history of humiliation. The promise of release. The puppet watches the girl’s face become a picture, lips parted just so. It knows a girl is a blessing. An offering, false as she may be. A girl is rare china, pushed from the shelf by a bored tabby. She is the bent woman sweeping up the mess, her beauty stolen by time. Only the knife can take it back, back to its silver dream. The knife is a camera, capturing the apple before it can rot. Skin burst, flesh gray and teeming with maggots, the film looping as it always does, though there is no one in the booth. No auteur to blame for this travesty. The puppet is not a puppet but the one pulling the strings. Just as it is not his hand gripping the knife so fiercely. It is the glove that enjoys this terrible responsibility.
The woman waits for Vanessa in the usual position. The room, if it is indeed even a room, is completely dark except for a spotlight on an oval bed, the woman lying on her back, luxuriating in the red silk of the sheets. Eyes almost closed, she runs her fingers through the grooves in the fabric where it has bunched or run, enjoying the glossy sensation of her nailpolish scraping the silk, red on red. She is wearing a celeste blue kimono and nothing else and when she writhes her legs Vanessa catches flashes of hair that draw her nearer and nearer. Vanessa walks between tendrils of incense and parts the netting surrounding the bed. A scorpion crawls from the woman’s navel towards her chest and then down onto the sheets, eliciting a thrilled cackle.
They embrace, putting off the kiss as long as possible. Fingers graze, peach skin stands on end, and then the fingers are wet, moving between mouths. They shape words lost to the drone of the music. It’s a raga or a maqam, the guitar wailing forbidden intervals. Finally they kiss and the bongos speed up, the bassline rumbling behind. Belly to belly, they roll and Vanessa is beneath the woman then back on top, pinning her to the silk. Metal blooms in her mouth. The woman smiles, her tongue flitting behind her teeth, and then she opens her eyes for the first time. They are ink black, pure. Not even the white gleam of a reflection. The woman whispers a word that Vanessa doesn’t recall until the next day when she’s deciding between chèvre at the grocery. The realization is so crystal clear, the next thing she knows, the monger is shaking her by the shoulder calling signora, signora, signora…
What could that possibly mean?, Vanessa asks, knowing exactly what Dr. Franz will say. What do you think it means? This is their fourth session, and so far he’s not much better than Vander at the same milestone, and that man turned out to be a nightmare. Franz lowers his pince-nez and consults his notepad. He’d been scribbling sporadically throughout and seems to disagree with his initial assessments, shaking his head and putting the notepad away. It’s quite elementary, actually. Vanessa’s lesbian impulses are not sexual in nature but symbolic, a lurid rejection of her husband’s pious attitude towards his work. The broken thermometer represents her desire to control his attention, even if she hurts him in the process. The droplets are not red but quicksilver because of her husband’s precarious position at Argentex. The Oriental imagery is curious, but likely tied to risky shipping investments he made the prior fall. If he isn’t mistaken, Franz recalls the company having offices in Rangoon. He can’t explain the scorpion. That is for her and her alone. She rises from the leather chaise, thanking him profusely for his insights, and takes out her checkbook. He waves her off, saying his secretary bills through the mail, writes a fresh scrip, this time upping the dose to 600mg, and sends her on her way.
The world outside is sharp as a new television. Trees have leaves. Leaves have veins. Veins contain fluid and both are made of cells. But by the time she is back at her building, looking for her keys in her bag, the clarity has faded, replaced by deep ennui. If Arnaud isn’t polishing off a bottle of brandy in his den, he’ll be at the office, elbow deep in paperwork, still on edge but putting that to good use. She calls his name from the coat stand and though he doesn’t respond she can hear him pacing upstairs. It’s not just that the mines have been stripped, it’s that everyone else in his department has been transferred to Bologna, meaning his days are numbered. Their marriage will follow shortly thereafter.
She finishes the pâté from bridge with the Montevaldos and distracts herself with the new Mercuri novel but keeps coming back to the woman with the black eyes. She didn’t tell Franz the woman lives in her building. Floor 7. Her name is Nadine and they became friends when flowers intended for Nadine were delivered to Vanessa’s apartment. It wasn’t any trouble to run them up the stairs and soon they were talking about orchids, fathers, brands of gin, which weeklies were the right kind of tacky. Whenever they make love, Vanessa stabs her just beneath her ribs with a fruit knife. In her other dreams, Vanessa is someone else entirely. A schoolgirl lost in a haunted carnival. An Amazon warrior with a flat, waxy scar where her right breast once was. A vampire bride, train of her dress trailing down a spiral staircase. But that’s all they are, dreams. Vanessa doesn’t trust his efficiency, Franz. To him, every patient is a puzzle, scattered but solvable. On her best days she is abstract art. Her worst, a car crash. Why did she marry so quickly, so young? What explanation could there be for this gray film over her world? Why did her mind never cease its useless chattering?
The answer sits on the marble top of the kitchen counter. An insect. A scorpion. The scorpion. It should shake her world in some way, at least slap her across the face, but she feels nothing beyond an academic curiosity she thought was lost. The creature has a reddish tint and would molt soon, the last before its shell fully hardens. Not a shell but a carapace, if she remembers her entomology tutorials with de Volf before he was poached to work at a research institute in the Grisons. It seems to have no desire to flee, but she traps it in a glass and transfers it to the terrarium on the balcony. When Arnaud leaves for the office, she will invite Nadine down for tea and see if she says anything about Vanessa’s new friend.
She is more perceptive than anyone Vanessa has ever met, Nadine is, though she never looks at anything directly. She picks up little details out of the side of her eye or simply by intuition, and her comments are just as oblique. Yesterday, she complimented Vanessa’s scarf in a way that suggested she knew about the bruises beneath. She wears blue jeans, speaks openly about communism, and has been invited to orgies up at the villas. She doesn’t want or need a man in her life, but has plenty. They leave their cigarette smells in her sofa and send her elaborate bouquets that go straight to the trash bin. Franz would say Vanessa fears Nadine’s freedom as much as she envies it, hence the persistent visions of killing this liberated woman, but what if it is simpler than that? What if our dreams are nothing more than thunderstorms passing through our minds? A forking tree of bright light there for a moment and gone the next. The sound comes well after the flash. There is nothing to fear.
Vanessa scoops the scorpion in her bare hand and holds it up to the magnifying glass on the desk in the salon. The creature is too young to break her skin, much less make her sick, but the sting gives her a jolt and she drops it on the carpet. Then there is another jolt, this time accompanied by a white searing in her side that drops her to the carpet. She crawls desperately for the phone on the end table, managing to pull it down to the floor by its cord, but the knife enters again and the phone is miles away, the room growing dark. There is only the spotlight on the scorpion, crawling onto the gloved hand. It is only a nymph, but it knows how to do its dance. Back and forth, its stinger curling like a fiddlehead, announcing it is ready. The hand closes around the scorpion and when it opens again there is no splatter or slick or other mess. The scorpion is gone and so is she.
At the north end of the valley is a resort tucked into the mountains and built around a hot springs said to be good for dreams. The staff wears matching white tunics, their jobs indicated by the color of flower embroidered on the breast pocket. Sabine always found it creepy, their permanent smiles, but the minerals do wonders for her skin. Her last visit she had a rub with a masseuse, a blonde boy with a boxy head that worked avidly between her legs but never made her come so why not finish another way? While he was in the bathroom, working to get hard against the dumbbell of the coke she’d lined up for them, she tucked her necklace into the back pocket of his bellbottoms, and the next morning reported it missing to the maître d’ and voilà, the boy disappeared.
This trip the staff is on edge. Proof, perhaps, that she’d earned a reputation, though it could just be financial troubles. The concierge is an obsequious man, his hair a helmet with all that pomade. He goes out of his way to recommend the most expensive treatments. Will he be booking for the Signor as well? Thankfully, her bellboy is stoned and leads her to the Cascata Suite without so much as a word. He doesn’t linger for a tip either, so she calls him back with a low whistle. He is a simple boy, unsure whether he is in trouble or about to be praised. Neither, Sabine states. It is always neither. You are a beautiful, stupid boy. I bet your cock is never dry. That’s right, pull it out, or are you some kind of fag? This really gets him going and he surprises with his grip, a genuine anger in it. When she’s done with him, she sends him to fetch her a fruit platter and that day’s Corriere, but he never returns. Perhaps he was smarter than he looked.
Next is the manager, Roberto, an old friend by this point. He visits her table on the veranda to make sure everything is to her liking, she’s barely touched her duck. She smiles and admits travel does funny things to her appetite. Knowing her, she’ll be calling for room service at midnight, and Roberto nods and assures her she can expect speedy service whenever she calls. Not too speedy, she hopes, and for the briefest moment, Roberto’s earnest facade slips into a devilish smile. He couldn’t help himself, he confesses after finishing against her stomach. This is what gets her off later, when Roberto is washing up. With him there is no round two, so she has to take matters into her own hands.
When both of them are done, she ribs him for going groovy. The robes, the salutations—it’s absurd. Is it to compete with that contortionist they hired at Aquavit? At this, Roberto breaks down, babbling about how difficult it is to stay out of the red and his personal accounts are down to pennies. His way of confessing he’s been spending time at the tracks or the upstairs of Tejbeit or both. He owes money to the wrong people. The kind who don’t give second chances, not even to a pitiful worm like him. Like this crybaby act could really pull Sabine’s strings. Their relationship is purely physical and his whimpering spoils what had already been a brief and superficial thrill. He lingers one more song before realizing he is only making things worse, leaving her to leaf through the Rotosei and Le Ore she’d brought to smoothe her wrinkles.
The next morning she takes her coffee in the solarium and heads to the promontory for meditation. The instructor is a terrona pretending to be from the East and the divorcées are lapping it up. They swarm him after the cool-down, so Sabine decides to try her luck in the hammam. The towelboys are more than game, soaking her up as she struts by in her suit, but she wants her next to be actual clientele. Other than that she isn’t going to be too picky. The Iberian type with the paunch toweling off. Maybe the newlyweds who consider themselves modern. One or both, she doesn’t care, but the more than merrier. She would settle for another puppy or an old dog if she has to, but she has her eye on an industrialist of some sort, gray beginning to fleck his sandy waves.
She swears she knows him from somewhere, maybe at one of the gatherings Viv hosts at her dead father’s villa. People liked to say she fucked her father. Sabine heard it often enough, she had a line for it—and that’d be the only interesting thing about her. Eventually the rumor got twisted and the newcomers would claim she’d embalmed his cock to use as a toy when everyone knows that’s Rasputin. This guy was one of them. The kind that spend no more than a long weekend at a villa and suddenly think they’re sex gurus because they smoked hash and took a finger in the ass. Alright, let’s see what the lama has to teach.
She isn’t entirely disappointed. He works with the expedience of a businessman, but has a few tricks up his sleeve. The shibari is a nice touch, though Sabine is more into latex, confinement, the whole deal. Her last trip she’d scratched that itch after stumbling upon a married couple in the grotto who were looking for a ménage. This time the only person there is a woman, her look as severe as her hair, which she must dye to get it that black. An encouraging sign, usually, but the woman exudes preoccupation that turns to embarrassed fright when she registers the splash of Sabine’s entry.
Fine, Sabine resigns herself. Another afternoon solo. She seeks out a smooth surface among the rocks jutting from the walls and when she’s satisfied with her choice, she sits, closes her eyes, and begins to run through scenarios. A girl from the academy in need of an education. A foreign investor here to check in on his asset and getting more than he bargained for. There are dozens of characters in this roulette, but none can satisfy the jaded, insatiable divorcée, so she takes matters into her own hands. Not the first to touch her, but the ones that know her best.
Just as they begin to go to work, someone else enters the grotto, now impenetrable with steam. It’s a man, Sabine thinks, if only by how much of his chest is above the waterline. He stops before she can make out anything else and, recognizing the situation, nods to follow him somewhere a little more secluded. Normally she’d love the danger of the open, but she likes the idea of following this silhouette deeper into the murk. Their faces and names would remain a mystery, replaced by a different kind of knowing, one of touch. It’s an erotic notion, maybe even romantic, but Sabine is done with romance. She wants to be filled until she is empty.
She uses her hand to trace the wall of the grotto, her palm scraping over crags of wet mica and smooth bulges she never learned to identify, so much for her tutorials with Malmo. Maybe it’s the schoolgirl scenario that is doing this now, bringing her back to her blazer and plaids. Studying igneous formations with a loupe when she just wants to know about the jewels she will one day inherit. She’d fucked him too, Malmo, or had it been the other way around? They were going to run away to the Eptaneso. Either way, the academy’s Madame at the time had arranged for Sabine to study classics with Anschlauss, as if this would stop Sabine from getting what she wanted. What she didn’t want was the child, so she booked a weekend at Gruccia’s clinic and when she returned to Matafío, Malmo had been dismissed.
But that was decades ago, back in the first cavern, back in society, or their provincial excuse for it. For now, there is only the question of the steam, the silhouette of her mystery man. She squints to make him out, but he is always deeper until she arrives at a cleavage in the limestone and feels a body at her back. An arm around her neck. Nothing below but their skin and the water. He is already hard, his fingers hooking her cheek. He is fast and powerful, but holding himself back. He wants her to come until she can’t stand on her own. It’s a juvenile line, but he’s doing his best to back it up. He doesn’t care if she’s wet or not. He works his cock inside her, using his thumb like a shoehorn. His weight keeps her pinned against the cave wall, a cool contrast to the heavy heat. The pressure is explicit now, his forearm against her jaw, pinning her against the wall, making her taste its minerals and hers, blending more with every ignorant thrust. This is exactly what she needs. No questions, no requests, no hesitation. Pleasures taken, not telegraphed.
As promised, she comes, the first time in years. And again, before she can regain her senses. Her foot slips against the smooth rocks of the grotto floor, but the man has her weight now. Another orgasm, not an echo of the last, but building on it, the pleasure rising to something so bright it might be dangerous. Another one and it’s like the first she’s ever had, the only one, but then there’s another. This feeling, it’s more than a shock, the totality of the sensation. Another, and her face wrenches in agony. This is what she wants, isn’t it? To be destroyed, decimated. She can feel her body shedding its elements into the bath. Soon she will sublimate into the steam, but not yet. The man takes a fist of hair and snaps her head back, his cock not a cock but something harder, sharper. It enters again and again, showing her corners she didn’t know she had, making new ones. Hollows that split to fissures that widen into wounds. The pain only adds to the ecstasy, which has gone far past climax, though this is just a word and what she feels exceeds. It overwhelms the frame, this irradiated white, blistering at edges. Peel it back and you will see it contains all color, all experience. They could be yours, but therein lies the dilemma, the knot of want. There is no way to undo it. There is only the blade.
— Nick Greer is a writer from Berkeley. He is the publisher of Goodnight, Sweet Prince, an online zine about side characters in movies and other media. He is currently working on a novel, Post Larva / House of the Painted Wolf, inspired by giallo and other genre cinema of the 70s. “THREE OFFERINGS FOR A DYING SUN” excerpts this project. For more, see nick-greer.com.
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