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The Siren

Tiffany Reisz

Page 16

  Author: Tiffany Reisz

  “I’m fine. But last night I kept waking up every hour and going in to check on Wes. You know, I got an IUD so I would never have to do the ‘is junior still breathing?’ thing. This is very unfair. ”

  “IUD—you are a bad Catholic, aren’t you?”

  “The birth control is the least of my worries if I ever have to answer to the pope,” she said, taking a step back. “I do as Martin Luther instructed—I sin boldly. ”

  He followed her down the steps and along the rows of pews to a side entrance he hadn’t seen when he came in. Inside the door was a foyer where Nora had left her coat.

  “Do they make the sinners use the side door?” he asked.

  “We’d all have to use the side door then. ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. ’ Romans 3:23. ”

  “A Bible-quoting erotica writer—you are quite the oxymoron,” Zach said.

  “And a Moxie Whore-On sometimes. ” Nora winked at him. “If it helps, Søren used to say Catholicism was the perfect faith for someone into S&M. ”


  Nora opened her mouth and closed it again as if she started to say something and then thought better of it.

  “Show, don’t tell,” she said, taking his arm.

  Together they walked back into the sanctuary taking another doorway on the opposite side that opened up to a long corridor. The walls of the corridor were adorned with framed prints of biblical scenes. Scenes from the Hebrew Bible were on his right—images that he remembered from his childhood in Hebrew school; he recognized Ruth and Naomi, Jacob’s Ladder, the Crossing of the Red Sea, among others. On his left were scenes from the New Testament—images far less familiar to him. Nora brought him to the end of the hall and stopped in front of the third print from the end.

  “This one’s my favorite,” she said, still holding his arm. “Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce Homo. That’s ‘Behold the Man’ if you aren’t up on your Latin. ”

  “A tad rusty. Is this from the Crucifixion?”

  “From the Passion. This is when Christ is being presented to the angry mob. ”

  “Ah, yes. When we bloodthirsty Jews killed Jesus, right?”

  Nora smiled and shook her head. “You kidding? Jesus died for the sins of the world. Everyone who ever lived killed Jesus. ” She paused and smiled sadly. “I killed Him. ”

  Zach said nothing as he studied the painting, struck by the artist’s choice of bright colors to paint such a dark scene.

  “Søren has this impressively twisted theology of the Trinity, you know. God the Father inflicted the suffering and humiliation, God the Son submitted to it willingly and God the Holy Spirit gave Christ the grace to endure it. ”

  “Your Søren sounds…interesting,” Zach said, attempting to be diplomatic.

  “He was never my Søren. That’s the one thing about being a collared submissive. I was his. He never was mine. But yes, he is interesting. The most caring sadist you could ever hope to meet. ”

  “But you loved him?”

  “And I loved him,” she corrected. “Søren said Jesus was the only man who ever made him feel humble. He makes me feel humble, too. ”

  “Søren or Jesus?”

  But Nora didn’t answer. Instead, she released Zach’s arm and stepped toward the print.

  “Just look at it. Look at Him. Isn’t He the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, Zach?” She’d said his name but from the ethereal tone of her voice, it seemed as if she were talking to herself instead. “It’s the Praetorium. Pilate was a kind of Roman overseer of Jerusalem. He was trying to keep a very fragile peace so instead of immediately sentencing Christ to die, he orders Him to be scourged. Scourging meant a near fatal beating with a whip that had glass and bone and rocks embedded in the lashes. It was a serious punishment. He hoped that would satisfy the mob’s bloodlust. But look at the painting—no wounds. The skin of his back looks perfect. But supposedly He’s just been brutally, viciously whipped. Ciseri is emphasizing Christ’s beauty, not His beating. He’s showing Christ’s feminine side. Admittedly it’s very inaccurate, I know. Almost all depictions of the crucifixion are inaccurate. That little loincloth they always show Jesus wearing? Didn’t exist. Victims of crucifixion were stripped completely naked to add to their shame and humiliation. Artists can’t bring themselves to show just how fully human Jesus was. ”

  Zach said nothing, strangely spellbound by Nora’s words.

  “Just imagine what this was like for Him, Zach. ” Nora shook her head as if she couldn’t imagine it herself. “We talk about the Virgin Mary, but Jesus never married. He was a virgin, too. And there He was completely naked on display for the whole world to see, and right in front of Him is Mary Magdalene, who was his best friend, and His poor mother. His mother, Zach. He must have been so embarrassed, so humiliated. See these two women here. They get it. ”

  Zach glanced at the painting and then at Nora.

  “Look how Ciseri painted Jesus. See the curve of His back and shoulders. It is a classic feminine posture. His hands are tied behind His back and His robe is falling over His hips. And all the men are just pointing and staring and gawking. But the women—see them?—they can’t bear it. One’s looking down and she—” Nora pointed at a female figure who was turned completely away from the horrible scene unfolding behind her “—she can’t even look. She has to hold on to the other woman just to keep from collapsing. And of all of them, she’s the only one whose whole face we can see. ”

  Nora fell into silent contemplation again and Zach watched her eyes. They were fixed on the two women in the foreground, huddled together in palpable distress. “They know what He’s feeling. The women always know. They know it isn’t just a beating or a murder they’re being forced to witness. It wasn’t even just a crucifixion. It was a sexual assault, Zach. It was a rape. ”

  Nora took a deep breath and Zach felt his own breath catch in his chest. He wanted to say something but didn’t trust himself to speak yet.

  “That’s why I believe, Zach,” Nora continued. “Because of all gods, Jesus alone understands. He understands the purpose of pain and shame and humiliation. ”

  “What is the purpose?” Zach asked, truly wanting to know.

  Nora’s eyes returned to the two women in the foreground clinging to each other in sympathy and horror.

  “For salvation, of course. For love. ”


  “You think I’m so damn obedient,” Caroline said as she pulled away from William. She stood at the window looking out on their backyard where just yesterday they had sat and talked until dusk. If only there were more yesterdays instead of so many todays.

  “You’ve never given me cause for complaint. ” She heard the confusion in his voice.

  “It’s always ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ and ‘as you wish, sir. ’ But it’s not out of obedience. ”

  “Then what is it, Caroline?”

  She didn’t want to answer. But she knew she couldn’t keep lying to him with her every breath.

  “Fear. ”

  “Of what?”

  “Of this…game you make us play. It isn’t a game to you, though, is it?”

  He came to stand behind her. She braced herself but he didn’t touch her.

  “No, it isn’t. For me this is very real. ”

  “I want it to be a game…so much,” Caroline admitted. “Games can be won. You win the game and the game’s over. And I want it to end. ”

  “It can end,” William said, his voice soft with sadness. “If you stop playing. ”

  “But I can’t. If I quit playing…” She didn’t finish the sentence, couldn’t bring herself to finish it.

  “Then neither of us will ever win. ” William said what she’d been afraid to say.

  “So what’s the consolation prize?” she asked, trying and failing to find a smile for him.

  William bent and
rested his chin on the top of her head. He wrapped his arms around her and she sank into him and closed her eyes. This game had an hourglass for a timer and she saw the sand running out.

  “I don’t think there is one. ”

  * * *

  God, it was wrenching. Zach minimized the document and pushed back from his computer. He stood and walked around his office. Stopping at the window, he stared out at the city and the sky. Today was a gray day, cold and windy. It had been windy the day he’d left England: a sea wind, warm and fierce, and Zach recalled waiting at the airport almost hoping his flight would be canceled or even just delayed long enough for Grace to realize he really was going. But the wind had failed him that day. It had carried him aloft instead of forcing him aground. Sailors’ wives once had little balconies on their roofs. What were they called? Widow’s walks. That was it. Yes, the widow’s walk, the place where they could go alone and stare out to sea and watch and wait. He envied them their macabre station. At least they could see the ship coming in. At least they had a place to hide their grief every day it didn’t.

  Zach stared at the sky and wished he could see all the way across the gray ocean. Gray was Grace’s favorite color. She joked it was “like silver only sadder,” and he’d tease her about all the gray sweaters in her closet, the dozens of gray woolen socks. Grace would have loved a morning like this. She would have opened the curtains, opened the blinds and dragged him back to bed with her to make hasty love before the sun intruded and changed the color of the day.

  Tearing his eyes from the sky, he looked down at the gray streets below. Supposedly from this height everyone was supposed to look like ants. But they didn’t look like ants to him at all. They still looked like people. He leaned his head against the glass and watched their progress. He was afraid for them and didn’t know why.

  Nora…was she why? When he’d made her cut the more graphic scenes of sexual violence from her book she’d replaced them with emotional violence. Now everywhere he looked he saw people as fragile as paper.

  Nora’s book had impressed him more than he wanted to admit. Most impressively she had turned the romance novel formula on its head. One of the cardinal rules of classic romance was that at no point, no matter how infuriating the heroine was and no matter how much the hero wanted to throttle her, he could never, would never raise his hand to her. But William was a sadist and used pain to prove his love. And where the romance novel began with the two characters trying to come together against forces both internal and external, Nora’s novel began with them together and then let the forces slowly, torturously tear them apart. She was writing the antiromance novel.

  Zach let his eyes focus on one of the small figures below him on the street. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. He or she bustled across the street in a great hurry. He wondered if this was why Nora was drawn to religion despite herself. The Pagan gods sat on high and played with their subjects like pieces on a chessboard. Nora’s god turned Himself into a pawn and let Himself be captured. He could see the attraction. Zach wanted to run down to the street below and follow whoever it was until he was certain he or she made it on time. He wanted to know everything turned out fine for at least one person in the gray city today.

  Zach pulled away from the window and faced his desk again. As he returned to his computer he remembered Nora’s original first line from the first draft of her novel—“I don’t want to write this story any more than you want to read it. ” He realized it wasn’t just William speaking to Caroline. It was Nora talking to him.

  He sat down and opened Nora’s revisions again. He made himself keep reading. As much as it hurt, he had to know what happened next.