The door opens, and it’s no surprise to Marino that the man who appears is wearing nothing but a pair of briefs. That was the agreement. More surprising is the expression on the man’s face. The heavy eyelids betray a doped-up condition. His gait is just a bit unsteady. But the clenched jaw muscles attest to intense determination. The chin is slightly raised, the lips pout defiantly. He looks like a cross between a zombie and a martyr, or a sleepwalker quivering with belligerence. It’s probably the effect of the drugs he’s taken.
The living room curtains have been carefully drawn. There’s not even a glimpse of outside any more. In a corner of the room a floor lamp’s faded coarse green shade gives a dim light. You could almost call it cozy in here, if the space weren’t almost completely empty except for a dining table and two chairs, plus a sofa.
Marino sits down on one of the chairs. The thing that’s been worrying him suddenly strikes him as a certainty: this isn’t the right time. Not because it’s too early, not because it’s already too late, not because any other time would have been preferable for this, but just because it’s wrong to have chosen a specific time for it
Well, he can’t get out of it now. He gets up and follows the man, who has silently taken up position with his back against a wall. To the right and left of him, at arm’s length, hang two metal rings that were installed a few days ago. Marino picks up the two lengths of rope on the table and ties the man’s wrists to the rings.
The rest of what he has to do was also agreed on beforehand.
The man’s face wears a dreamy expression, there’s even a trace of mockery around his lips, as if he finds Marino’s discomfiture amusing. Marino takes a length of fabric he’s cut from an old dress out of his pant pocket and blindfolds the man, who submits without resisting.
Marino runs a hand down the man’s chest. The other hand brushes the thighs and genitals. He knows this body. He has touched it before. That time they had sex. This time they’ll take it a step further than just sex.
Marino isn’t supposed to behave as a lover, but as an executioner. Or rather as something even less human, even more impersonal: a fatal disease, a purely physical accident. But how plausible is it, really, for a fatal disease to strike by prearrangement?
Marino tugs down the briefs and lets them fall to the man’s ankles. He takes a few steps back and then the unexpected happens: even more than the outstretched arms or the tied wrists, it’s the underpants around the ankles that strike him as the very emblem of total submission.
The man’s mouth still wears the vague, mysterious smile. Maybe it’s because he’s stoned. Who knows, maybe it’s partly fear as well. But it isn’t Marino’s job to figure out what the man is thinking. He has to concentrate, first of all, on the role he himself is supposed to play.
He steps forward again. The man’s forty-two-year-old body is in excellent shape. If Marino weren’t here right now, it might have taken years and years for death to come for him. Only the pounding inside the chest is more rapid and furious than normal. It’s making Marino’s own heart race as well.
“So, is that all?” he suddenly hears, spoken in an astoundingly lucid tone, which Marino would never have expected to come out of this sleepwalker’s mouth.
“Come on, Marino. Do something,” says the man. It looks as if he’s about to start laughing. His provocative words echo through the near-empty space, violating the arrangement completely. The agreement was that during the performance of the deed, the man and Marino had to forget each other’s names, or at least not say them out loud. The spirit of anonymity, even if artificial, was seen as being absolutely critical to the success of the production.
Now the man has even started to snicker, as if he can see the flush on Marino’s brow right through the blindfold, the bewildered and indignant expression on his face.
“Who’re you talking to?” Marino snarls at him, upon which the man’s grin fades. But there’s still a vague curl on the lips.
Without another word Marino turns his back on the man, walks into the kitchen, and pulls a knife from the rack. The straight edge of the triangular blade is about twenty centimeters long by five at the base. He has never handled it before, as far as he can remember. He opens a drawer, takes out a roll of duct tape, and cuts off a piece. Now that the terms have been violated, he is suddenly determined to follow them to the letter.
He returns to the room, places the knife on the table, and walks up to the man. Who seems to be sunk in a dazed reverie.
“No names, understand?” Marino whispers in his ear, and he presses the piece of tape firmly over the mouth. The man looks surprised, but makes no sound that can be taken as protest.
Marino picks up the knife. It’s as if the luster and smoothness of the metal in his hand has transferred itself to him. Now he is just as anonymous as this knife. Suddenly even the staged character of the proceedings no longer matters. The knife is sufficient all by itself. It feels more real than he expected.
He presses the cold steel blade against the man’s stomach. In a reflex the man pulls in his stomach, then relaxes it again. But he doesn’t really seem very relaxed. Now that both the eyes and mouth are covered, it’s even harder to tell what is really going on with him.
The room is deafeningly quiet. The blood hisses in Marino’s ears. He asks himself if it wouldn’t have been better if there’d been a little music playing in the background. While he’s still musing that neither the man nor he are particularly fond of music and therefore weren’t able to decide what sort of music to put on, his hands have already done the work. The knife was heavy and sharp, the flesh was weak, it was easy. He barely had to glance down at his hands as they did their business; hands that are now getting drenched in warm, sticky blood.
Later this deed will be explained by Marino and others as an act of extreme self-mutilation, except carried out by another’s hands. But right now it’s something else. This is how the man wants to end his own life: as an emasculated creature. It’s a gesture of pride and utter contempt for the world that nobody will ever be able to match.
Marino takes a few steps back and stares at the spurting stump, the bespattered floor, the dribbles running down the man’s thighs in furrows, the underpants around the ankles that are already soaked through. A peculiar cloying smell is starting to fill the room. That’s another unpleasant surprise.
The man still hasn’t made a sound. It’s as if he actually doesn’t feel any pain. His penis, he claimed, was the last carnal link still connecting him to the world. It was up to Marino to sever that link. At this point the man is no longer alive, but he isn’t dead yet, either. He seems to be completely immured inside himself. Perhaps his lifeline is in the process of spooling into a coil, into a fantastic split-second snapshot of all the moments of his life. Or—who knows what other visions are giving him the strength to ignore the pain. The man stands there so stock-still that Marino is starting to feel a bit irrelevant. It occurs to him that he’d like to hurt the man even more.
But then the man’s face begins to convulse, and he tugs at the rings he’s shackled to. His knees buckle under him and the muscles of his blood-smeared thighs tense like those of a weightlifter in action. All of a sudden he seems barely capable of keeping himself upright.
Marino drops both the knife and the penis on the table. What’s he supposed to do now? The man’s squirming is making him nervous. When he starts snorting furiously and, groaning, tries blowing the tape off his mouth, Marino is thrown into a mild state of panic.
Maybe the man is trying to tell him something. Although Marino is curious to know what that might be, he’s worried he’ll only start screaming bloody murder.
“If it hurts, we’ll stop,” he says loudly, articulating emphatically, but his voice is shaking. He rips off the piece of duct tape. The man is panting heavily. His face is now flushed and bathed in sweat. A fork of veins Marino has never seen before snakes across his forehead. He’s giving off a wild and sour smell.
“Untie me . . . Marino . . . untie me,” he mumbles. Marino is on the point of slapping the tape back on, but then decides to do what the man is asking him to do. Who knows, maybe the whole thing is about to end, much sooner than they anticipated.
He unties the wrists.
“A chair . . . bring me a chair . . . ” the man whispers, leaning against the wall. A large puddle has already gathered at his feet.
It was your idea, Marino thinks to himself as he goes to fetch the chair. His hands are shaking. Just as he’s about to turn around with the chair, he hears a crash—the man has keeled over sideways. The blindfold has slipped down around his neck. The eyes are squeezed shut. With his pants still down around his ankles, he’s started to wriggle and squirm in his own blood. He’s moaning and sobbing. He’s got his hands crossed over his crotch. There’s no doubt about it: all that’s left now, is pain. Whatever mental fortitude the man once had, and whatever extra grit he’d hoped the drugs would bring him, this body is no longer capable of expressing anything but the overwhelming dominance of the pain, the inescapable grip of its blistering fetters.
Marino puts the chair down. He walks back to the table and picks up the knife. Then he kneels beside the man and, struggling with revulsion and shock, tries to think how to do this. He wasn’t prepared for this much convulsive agony. He’d thought that the man’s death throes would be a bit more dignified.
Then he stops dithering, and, taking advantage of a fortuitous spasm to pull the man’s head back, slits his throat in one clean stroke. The knife is sharp, the flesh is weak. The power of Marino’s thrust is promptly answered by the force of the blood spurting from the artery. The man has already stopped moving. A wave of blood washes across the living room floor.
Hours later, Marino still sits slumped on the chair he’d fetched for the man. A wake for the dead. The one thing he will never forget, is how he just couldn’t get over how great an impact the blood made on him. A similar amount of water wouldn’t have made anything like as catastrophic an impression. It is the man’s ultimate self-portrait: he both painted and endured his own irrevocable demise in every possible shade of red and brown. Compared to that, how insignificant is the scrap of penis on the table. The trail of blood trickling out of it appears, in Marino’s dream state, to be sneaking off under its own steam in order to escape the chaos it has unleashed.
The crazy rumor that Marino cooked the penis and ate it must here be emphatically denied. Whatever sick brain may have come up with such a fib, it certainly wasn’t Marino’s. He just tossed the appendage into the grave, next to the rest of the body, a fact that was confirmed by the forensic experts by the way.
A few days earlier, Marino and the man had dug a narrow shallow trench in Marino’s yard. Marino recalls that the man, although trying hard to be cheerful, had suddenly broken down—certainly not just on account of the wiry jumble of roots making the digging so difficult. He wound up having to let Marino finish up. The sight of his own grave had given him a sickening feeling of panic that was only allayed by a lengthy shower, lots of self-pampering and a hydro massage.
So Marino knows what he’s supposed to do with the body, anyway. Besides, it’s high time to get going, if he’s to erase all evidence by morning.
As per the arrangement, one last thing needs to be done before he can bury the corpse. It had originally been Marino’s idea, but now that he is about to plunge the knife into the corpse’s backside, he doesn’t see why it was necessary. Alas, this isn’t the time—it’s just what they’d decided should be done. Maybe he’ll be able to remember why he felt the need to do this later. Fortunately it’s not too hard to accomplish. He’s become quite accustomed by now to the knife’s heft and sharpness, and to the weak, yielding texture of the flesh. He doesn’t have to give it much thought. The operation rouses no particular aversion.
There! It’s a good thing Marino has finally been able to put it all down on paper. It wasn’t a picnic, of course. A little detail here or there, too revolting to put into words, may have been omitted. It was necessary to keep a certain distance, after all. But even with the inevitable need for some abstraction and sanitization, this is still the most accurate account of what happened that night. It does of course differ somewhat from the version concocted for Marino’s trial. But no one knows that, except Marino and me.
From De maagd Marino, published 2010 by De Bezige Bij. © 2010 by Yves Petry. Translation © Hester Velmans and the Flemish Literature Fund. All rights reserved.