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SKIN penelope

Welcome to our second surprise mini issue, Penelope! Always the lover of perverse fiction the idea first approached me when I was browsing through those dirty underground fetish sites I seem to find myself on during quiet, rainy Sunday mornings. The incredibly talented Mikhail Bakhtin dropped me a line and as our conversation turned to SKIN I took note of his literary endeavours. Another of his short stories, The Hanging Club featured in Issue 5 and as I read through the second piece he was to send me, Penelope, I realised that it was too gargantuan in proportions for it to be merely slotted in amongst other articles. It needed to be in its own spotlight and have an issue all to itself. Although seeming like a daunting task it was a pure joy to put together as our design director JG was to provide the tremendous erotic photography to accompany the deviant text.

So here it is! Filthy, provocative, and damn right depraved, Penelope! Carmin Conner Editor in Chief

by Mikhail Bakhtin

The story I am about to tell has haunted me for almost fifty years.

Yesterday was my 84th birthday. I celebrated by going to the corner store and buying a stale $1.49 cake from the surly Indian who makes most of his money selling hairspray to the dregs of human life that wander the streets here. I took my precious cake back to my room, running into Ralph, my next door neighbour, along the way. Ralph is a methhead. He gurgled something like, “Heymann, yagottacake.” I responded politely, “Yes, it’s my birthday,” to which he said something like, “Gimme it youfuckinasshole.” I told him to go fuck himself and he sank down onto the cracked linoleum of the floor and started to cry. I entered my room after that cheerful encounter and, carefully locking my door and resignedly watching the cockroaches scurry out of the way first, I ate my cake while trying not to listen to Ralph moaning semi-coherently in the hallway, “No youfuckyershelf! You fuckershelf!” I took out the bottle of cheap wine I had been hoarding for several weeks and drank it while sitting at my window watching the human flotsam washing up and down the street below. I eventually passed out in my clothes on the bed. When I awoke this morning I sat down to write this. The story I am about to tell has haunted me for almost fifty years but about which, for reasons I will explain, I could tell no one. Until now.

When I was a young man I had quite a glamorous career, working as a kind of free-lance negotiator in high-stakes plays, for which I was paid breathtaking amounts of money. In 1962 I was at my prime. I was cocky and smart, practiced in negotiation and, when necessary, deception. I had money to burn and I was used to falling into bed with beautiful women. That year I was sent to Algiers to carry out an assignment, the exact nature of which is not really relevant to my story and besides which, some secrets can never be revealed. Suffice it to say that I was supposed to make friends, on behalf of my client, with an Arab potentate—Sheik Mohammed Al-Dabt—who could do my client certain important favours. Algeria at that time was a kind of nesting ground for many powerful political forces: seething resentment—soon to boil over into a cruel and bloody war—over Algeria’s French colonial rule that managed to be bumblingly inept and vicious at the same time; nascent Arab nationalism, as explosive a mixture of modern and feudal yearnings then as it is now, the only difference being that then no one outside of the Middle East paid the slightest attention; ancient tribal enmities between Arabs, between Arabs and Jews, between Arabs and Africans, between the wealthy and the poor, everyone against everyone else; and, like a suffocating blanket on top of all the other unrest, the subterranean trench warfare of Cold War politics. As I was to painfully learn, when the stakes are so high, one’s soul becomes a chip thrown with surprising ease into the game; but if that is lost, what is left? With what can lives be rebuilt or hope found? But understanding all that was in the future. At that point I still carried the reckless optimism of youth around me like a carapace. My as-

signment was a job—exciting and messy certainly, dirty probably and perhaps dangerous—but still in the end just a job, and for me even a relatively minor one. Minor but not necessarily simple. In the suppurating environment of colonial Algiers, “making friends,” as I was supposed to do, was not an easy task and I was given a number of enticements to offer: political favours, gun shipments, diamonds, prostitutes—both women and boys— and, the biggest of all, a vastly lucrative oil contract. “Make him feel appreciated but don’t give away the store; leave him hungry for more,” I was told in London before I left. “Be especially prudent with the oil contracts – that’s where the real money is, and that’s what they want more than anything. He has to give us something really worthwhile in return.” Soon after the briefing by my client, I was sitting with my head full of schemes and counterschemes in a café in the airport in Rome, awaiting my flight for Algiers, little knowing how happy this day would turn out to be. Or that it was to be one of the last happy days of my life.

It was in that café that I first saw her. She sat alone at the far end of the bar, well-dressed in a dark tightly-fitted business suit, very tall and slender, with long, black hair cascading down her back. She sipped her coffee with an almost sexual intensity. Even from a distance I could see her chest rising and falling as she stared unseeingly at her cup, which she gripped tightly in both her hands. There was a cloud over her, some ineffable pressure of sadness or regret, I couldn’t tell what exactly. Nevertheless she made an extraordinarily intriguing package, beautiful and mysterious. My flight was leaving soon, so striking up a conversation was

Close up, face to face, her beauty and her charm and her mysterious inner turmoil were an intoxicating mixture.

pointless. With some regret I swallowed the last of my coffee and made my way to the gate. Do you believe in fate? I think if you had asked me then I would have said no. But I was callow enough to believe that if there were no gods it was just somehow in the nature of things that my stories should all have happy endings. Consequently, I thought it only fitting to be pleasantly surprised by the young woman from the café taking the seat next to me on the plane. As the pretty French stewardess brought around drinks we fell into easy conversation, about London and Rome, books we were reading, art shows we had seen recently. Her name was Penelope. Her tanned bronze skin seen close up was luminous, an effect intensified by the deep red lipstick she wore. She had one of those deliciously plummy English accents and she leaned close to me and laughed easily; a girl who was used to flirting and was good at it. But I was thrown off by occasional flashes of the same conflicted intensity I had observed in the cafe in Rome: amidst the easy laughter a sudden almost preternatural sparkle appeared in her eyes mixed with some deep sadness or regret that took her far away, but a moment later she was back, laughing and rubbing her shoulder lightly against mine. Close up, face to face, her beauty and her charm and her mysterious inner turmoil were an intoxicating mixture. I asked her what she was doing when she got to Algiers and she answered demurely that she had no plans until the next day. It was her first time in the Middle East and she didn’t really know her way around at all. I ventured to wonder if she would allow me to accompany her for the afternoon and she flashed her lovely white teeth and said she would be delighted.

We got through customs quickly, borders being considerably more porous in those days, which perhaps nostalgia makes me think were more innocent. We collected my heavy trunk. I was surprised that she had only the small bag she had carried on the plane, capable of holding enough to last a day or two at most I would have thought, but she only mumbled oblique answers to my questions about her plans while she was in Algiers. I didn’t press her; it really was none of my business I thought, very wrongly as it turns out. We

were both struck by the heat when we stepped

outside of the terminal in search of a taxi.

The dry desert wind seemed suffocating. A friend of mine had given me the name and address of a boat rental place and on a whim I suggested we drop our things at the hotel and tour the city’s harbour by water. Penelope looked down, suddenly clearly overtaken by her dark thoughts, whatever they were. Then just as quickly the mood passed. She shook her head briefly and then she said brightly that she would love to go boating. She added, almost mischievously, let’s go straight to the water, let’s not bother with front desks and bellhops and all that. Obviously something unspoken was motivating her, but again I let it go. I directed the driver to the boat rental place and hired him to wait for us with our luggage while we went boating. The boat rental place turned out to be a filthy tiny shack perched precariously on a half-rotted dock next to a looming ramshackle warehouse. An unsmiling Arab in a dirty white undershirt and baggy pants looked at me suspiciously and took my money almost grudgingly. But he led us down the semi-collapsed dock to where a few surprisingly modern and glisteningly sleek motorboats were tied up. For a couple of hundred more dinars I managed to get him to produce a crude map of the harbour. Armed with that map and after I had helped Penelope in her long, tight skirt maneuver awkwardly into the boat, we set off. Penelope seemed to shed her dark cloud entirely once we were on the water. She slipped off >>>

Our lovemaking on that small boat is a memory I have carried in intimate detail with me all these fifty-odd years. her jacket, wrapped a bright scarf around her head and pulled out a pair of dark sunglasses, watching intently and sometimes laughing delightedly as we slowly wended our way around the harbour, plying our way in the oily water between ancient dhows and great hulking freighters. We both looked on in wonder as women dressed in rags washed clothes on a rocky jetty right next to what appeared to be a big brightly glistening refinery or as boy and an old man cast nets while flocks of seagulls wheeled overhead. After about threequarters of an hour of slow puttering the docks started to thin out. I remembered my friend telling me of magnificent beaches to the west of the harbour, so I revved up the boat’s powerful motor to take us outside of the breakwater and soon we found long shimmering bands of sand where the Mediterranean was almost turquoise. We puttered quite close to one particularly picturesque and deserted cove. I stopped the motor and turned to Penelope and said it was too bad we hadn’t brought bathing suits. She laughed in her tinkling kind of way and stood up. She looked at me with her face screwed up in mock severity and said, “Close your eyes.” I could hear her stepping around in the back

of the boat and feel the boat somewhat awkwardly rocking. The next thing I heard was a splash off the side of the boat. I opened my eyes and turned around and saw her clothes neatly folded on top of the back bench of the boat and her head bobbing happily in the sparkling water. “Aren’t you coming in?” she asked with a big smile, and in two minutes I had peeled off my clothes and joined her in nakedly frolicking in the sparkling sea. After a long time splashing and swimming Penelope clambered back up the little ladder into the boat with no pretense of modesty. I was astounded by how easily she carried her nudity, as if being naked in front of a man she had just met was the most normal thing in the world. She shrugged when I regretted having no towels and she draped her sparkling wet and darkly tanned body over one of the bench seats and closed her eyes and unselfconsciously let the sun’s warmth wash over her. There was a built-in box next to where I sat and I lifted the lid, more than anything to give myself an excuse to stop myself from drooling lasciviously over this gorgeous woman who was displaying herself so openly to me. I was delighted to discover that it was a little cooler, and on top of a bed of ice sat a few bottles of beer and a long thin bottle of chardonnay. “Oh beer please,” said Penelope, suddenly looking over my shoulder as obviously delighted with my discovery as I was. One of her hands fell lightly on my thigh as I handed her a bottle and any fears I had of being unduly forward melted in the intense desert sun. Our lovemaking on that small boat is a memory I have carried in intimate detail with me all these fifty-odd years. I can still feel the soft welcome of her breasts under my fingers and her nipples hardening in my mouth. I can remember with perfect clarity the smell of her sun-kissed skin mixed with the salty tang of the Mediterranean and hear her soft moans as my tongue explored her most intimate parts. And I remember lying af-

terwards curled up with her on the soft vinyl bench seat, her fingers running over my face as she whispered my name over and over. We motored back to the harbour as the sun fell into late afternoon. Penelope was curled under my arm as I steered among the apparently unceasing water traffic until we had returned to our grumpily taciturn boat renter. We found our taxi driver noisily asleep in his car and we were soon on the way to my hotel. As I was paying the driver outside the lobby Penelope said, “I don’t want to check in with you,” as if there was no question we were spending the night together. She looked down the street. “I’ll go into that restaurant,” she said pointing, “I’ll come see you when you’re checked in.” As I look back I think that it was some perverse Nietzschean will-not-to-know rather than just being too infused with happiness that made me forbear questioning her, that made me not ask her why she didn’t want to just come straight up with me. In any event, once again I let my uncertainty go. She knocked on my door about half an hour later. We were locked in a passionate embrace almost before the small bag she carried had dropped to the ground. We fell laughing onto the big double bed and soon our two sun-reddened bodies were urgently draped together. As I bragged before, I had many lovers when I was young, but something about Penelope took my breath away. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful or a wonderfully generous lover; she touched me very deeply emotionally in ways I cannot to this day fully explain. I felt like I could submerge myself in her and she could likewise plumb me, like two submarines sinking to previously unexplored physical and emotional depths. Anyway, wrapped in her loving arms, it was well after dark before I suggested we venture out in search of food, neither of us having eaten since we were in Rome many hours earlier. We found a café with tables outside where we occasionally watched the bus-

tling night-time Algerian street with its vast array of characters—scowling French soldiers, stooped old African men, mothers herding broods of filthy, big-eyed children, partying Europeans oblivious to the poverty all around them—but mostly we had eyes only for each other. After we had eaten we intertwined our fingers and stared with a kind of wonder at each other. We strolled arm in arm back to the hotel and Penelope said “God, I have to shower.” I was lying in bed smoking a cigarette when Penelope, her long hair in a wet tangle, came out of the bathroom wearing only a towel. Her face looked tormented. She sat on the edge of the bed and put her face in her hands and started to cry, big wracking >>>

sobs. “Whatever is wrong?” I asked, too stunned to be able to do anything other than put my arm around her. “Nothing, nothing,” she said finally. She took a big breath and lifted her head. “No it’s nothing really.” She stood up and turned to me resolutely, “No, it’s nothing at all.” She went into the bathroom again and when she returned she had made up her face and was brushing out her luxuriant long hair and again looked like the carefree girl I had spent the day and evening with. She picked up one of my cigarettes and lit it and said, “And drinks aren’t ready because…?” I laughed and poured us two long drinks from the bottle of

Laphroaig I had bought ridiculously cheaply in the bar downstairs. Penelope knocked hers back and stood very close in front of me. I reached up and undid her towel and kissed her stomach and slid my hands around to her bum, which to this day causes me heartache when I think of how perfect it was, and soon we were once again rolling happily entwined on the big bed. What makes us weak? What makes us unable to act even though we know we should? I knew—how could I not have?—in my soul that something was terribly wrong for Penelope, something to do with that place, with Algiers, and I

should have grabbed her arm and rushed to the airport and got her safely away. Why didn’t I? Why did I allow her charms to exhaust me until I fell into a deep sleep when I should have been slapping her awake and hurrying her into a taxi? What motive was more powerful than the promise of happiness this extraordinary angel held out to me? I still, after many years of regretful self-examination, can’t answer these questions. She had given me a glimpse of her travails and I ignored those warning sign. And of course as far as betrayals—ultimately self-betrayals—were concerned, worse yet was still to come. Much worse.

When I awoke about seven the next morning, Penelope was gone. There was a small note on the night stand. “My darling Richard,” it began, “Thank you so much for a wonderful time. I really have to go now. Don’t look for me. But know that my heart is with you. Love, Penelope.” I threw on my clothes and ran down to the lobby. No one had seen her leave. I ran onto the street, driven by vain desperation. Only after I had run up and down for half an hour or more, confronted by a noisome river of humanity ceaselessly flowing indifferently past me, did I realize that I had lost her. I went back to my room and, despite the early hour, began to drink. >>>

What makes us weak?

What makes us unable to act even though we know we should?

Penelope seemed like a distant dream— wonderful perhaps, but almost a chimera I was awoken at dawn the next day by a loud knockI struggled to open it through the gloom and past the one empty bottle of scotch Penelope and I had started to drink and another I didn’t remember buying on the floor. It was my American contact, wondering where the hell I was. We had been supposed to meet yesterday. I mumbled my apologies while the American, a morbidly obese southerner— “Jessop MacWilliam Winchester III at your service, suh. Mah friends call me Jessie”—appraised me with eyes glistening from out of his in his bulbous face like search lights emitting from a fleshy bunker not so much with disapproval as with a kind of cool calculation, as if he was filing away my dishevelment and alcohol-stinking breath for future use. After I had quickly showered and shaved, Jessie bundled me into his big black Studebaker and whisked me from place to place—military installations, oil refineries, mosques, small unmarked cafes in the Casbah—roaring down freeways deserted except for the odd military vehicle, painfully jostling along pitted tracks through fields, down wide boulevards in lush suburbs and crawling down winding narrow streets crowded with people in the old city, all accompanied by Jessie’s drawling but expletive-laden and often racist descriptions of who was important in these places and why. Periodically Jessie, with great effort and exposing the sweat-stained underarms of his blue shirt he wore under his increasingly soggy white seersucker suit, would reach around in to the back seat of the car to the leather satchel he had back there and pull out a photograph, sometimes crisp official portraits and other times grainy surveillance-type shots, to illuminate his reports. This was usually followed by Jessie exaggeratedly wiping down his forehead with a handkerchief and ing at my hotel room door.

whistling, “Jeez it’s hot,” as if this was the first time he had noticed. But I could only think of one thing: Penelope; the smell of her skin, her sexy flirtatious laugh, the curve of her breasts and her thighs. Everywhere we went that long, frantic day, whatever racist nonsense or shocking state secret Jessie was expounding in my ear, my mind was on her and my eyes restlessly scanned the city, hoping she might appear. Late that night, my head spinning with the disjointed images Jessie had painted for me of a seething Algiers where nothing was as it appeared mixed with unrelentingly desperate thoughts of Penelope, I collapsed on my bed, too tired even to take off my clothes and fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke early the next morning. Jessie and I had arranged to meet for breakfast at nine, so I had some time. After I had showered and shaved I wandered over to the market a few blocks from my hotel, feeling as if the cloud over me had somewhat lifted. Penelope seemed like a distant dream—wonderful perhaps, but almost a chimera—and I was idly tasting some figs in a stall as a nervous Arab gesticulated at me, pointing to a hand-lettered sign with the price when something made me look up across the market plaza and I saw her. Penelope. She wore a long gauzy and expensively embroidered white dress, what I would later learn Arabs call a throbe, with a soft cotton scarf around her neck. She had on dark sunglasses and a straw fedora, but her long dark hair tumbling down her back, her sensuous red lips pursed somberly but still beautiful and her striking height—she towered over most of the small group of Arab men accompanying her—were unmistakable. “Penelope!” I cried, throwing the half-eaten fig on the ground

and starting to run. It was a surreal sensation, like in a dream or a nightmare; my voice seemed incapable of carrying across the hawking cries of the many vendors in the market and the murmuring crowds and Penelope glided along quickly and oblivious to me with her small retinue of Arab men in bright white dishdashahs and gutrah scarves and dark sunglasses. I pushed through the crowd calling out her name, leaping almost hysterically around vendors crying out the prices of their wares and mule-pulled carts creaking slowly across the plaza. Penelope and one of the men around her—the only one as tall as Penelope, with sharply cut cheekbones and black aviator glasses—started to get into one of two parked Mecedes Benz saloons. I called out in one last desperate attempt and Penelope hesitated just before pulling the door closed as if perhaps she had heard something. I was about to scream her name out again when suddenly a hulking French gendarme with a carbine in one hand grabbed my arm and whirled me around. “Qu’est-ce tu veut?” he asked scowlingly. “Ne rien,” I replied exasperated, already turning away from this annoyingly officious cop, when he pulled me around again, very hard this time. I stared at him momentarily taken aback by this encounter. While I hesitated, he took his carbine in both arms and smashed it savagely into my chest, sending me reeling to the ground. “Va ch’toi!” he snarled at me as I lay stunned. I was just about to leap back up in frenzied counter-attack when the surprisingly swift bulk of Jessie glided up to the policeman and in de sotto voce said something in French. The policeman stood frozen with his eyes locked on me, his carbine half-raised to get ready to shoot me. A small crowd had gathered in seconds, mostly Arab youths hoping for bloodshed. Jessie turned to me

and leaned over and said quickly in my ear, “If you don’t leave right now you are dead.” He reached for my arm and roughly pulled me upright and hustled me backward through the jeering throngs of boys and impassive but flinty-eyed women. My eyes were still locked murderously on the gendarme, whom I saw was staring just as angrily back but after seeing me whisked away by Jessie he was regretfully lowering his rifle. I suddenly remembered Penelope and turned my head toward where she had been getting into the black car just in time to see it speeding away. Jessie, still gripping me tightly, relentlessly yanked me away back toward my hotel and the sea of people closed back in, washing Penelope away. “Sheik Mohammed Al-Dabt,”






ing a photo from his satchel as we sat drinking






I glanced perfunctorily at the picture of a brooding man with sharply cut cheekbones. I was sitting sullenly with my hands gripping the arms of my chair as pain radiated from my badly bruised chest. “That’s who was getting in that car you were chasing. One of the richest men in Algiers,” Jessie continued placidly, wiping the sweat off his fleshy forehead. His eyes had that same coolly appraising look as when he had stood in my hotel room doorway the morning before appraising my drunken dishevelment. “I was saving his introduction for the right time, but you … ah … jumped the gun we might say.” Jessie leaned very close to me. “Listen carefully my young and foolish friend. He is our principle target. If he will go along with your client’s position then we will have accomplished what we need to. But he is as merciless as he is powerful. You were very lucky that gendarme held >>>

you back. Al-Dabt or his henchmen would have killed you without batting an eyelash if you had gotten close. Do you understand?” He sat back in his chair. “Well?” he insisted. “All fucking right,” I said, looking up at him challengingly. Jessie smiled and leaned forward again. “So my frien’, who was the girl?” I looked down at my feet and shook my head. “Just someone I met.” “Well, listen here,” said Jessie, his tone still jovial, “Forget her. You hear me? She is involved with Al-Dabt. He is as renowned for how jealously he guards his women as for what he is reputed to do with them.” I looked up at him sharply. “What do you mean, what he does with them?” “Never mind that,” Jessie said, his voice suddenly and surprisingly threatening. “However she got involved, she will not escape him. If you try to pursue her not only will you, if you are very lucky, end up dead, you will screw this mission up very badly, causing some real harm to some very innocent people.” He leaned back and his face closed up, like he was drawing a curtain back across the momentary glimpse he had provided of an utterly unexpected idealistic, compassionate side. He sipped his coffee pensively. “If, on the other hand,” he continued equably, “you persist and you are not lucky, you will experience torture that beggars the imagination. Believe me, I have seen the results and they are not pretty my young frien’, not pretty at all.” He rose from the table. “Coming?” he asked. I took a deep breath and stood up. “OK,” I said.

The next two weeks continued the frenzied pace Jessie had set the day before. We met countless people ranging from smug, portly generals feathering their nests to nervous hoodlums with ricocheting eyes looking for a quick fix. And all the byzantine bargaining was designed to meet one overarching purpose: to get close to Al-Dabt. At the back of my mind I still thought that if somehow we could reach Al-Dabt then perhaps the opportunity would arise for me to cut a side deal for Penelope. Little did I know I was going to make a deal all right, but it was going to be—if you’ll pardon the cliché—with the devil.

“We’re going to see what happens to women who are, uh, friends of the sheik.” Our business dealings went well. Jessie proved to be a formidable negotiator; savvy, fluent in Arabic and French, cool under pressure. I learned to ignore his constant racist asides—his retrograde beliefs more common among whites than they are now, or at least than they are admitted to now—and watched him alternately browbeat, cajole, wheedle and occasionally threaten until he got what he wanted. I felt completely jejeune beside him, a mere chequebook, as Jessie would rifle through the list of enticements my client had provided me and break off some little piece I hadn’t noticed and parlay it into considerable advantage for ourselves. Jessie borrowed all the paperwork on the oil lease overnight at one point. When he threw the folder on my bed the next morning he said, “I don’t think even your bosses understand what that is worth. Let’s save that for something really big. Son, we ain’t gonna give that away to some fucking Ay-rab to wipe his ass with.” He winked at me. “I can think of some good old boys who could do us way more good in return for that contract than any of these camel-buggerin’ Bedouin boneheads.”

And so the round robin of negotiations continued. Despite Jessie’s equanimity, sometimes things seemed utterly desperate to me, like the night a bullet went through the window of my hotel room. But Jessie just sat back unperturbedly in a chair in my room surveying the broken glass after I had called him panic-stricken and said, “My man, if they were serious you would be dead now, so just relax.” And sure enough we found ourselves at the end of two weeks huddled for hours in the expansive living room of Sheik Al-Dabt’s suburban mansion, with very smart men who spoke English with various accents and wore the finest Italian suits. We took it as a good sign when two beautiful prostitutes knocked on my door after the final day of bartering while Jessie and I were having a celebratory drink, and the next day the sheik himself made a brief appearance to shake our hands and sign the necessary papers. His angular face and wolf-like movements instantly brought back memories of my last sighting of Penelope in the market, but Jessie, seeing me tense up sidled up to me and, to get me to lighten up, whispered, “Just who the fuck does this towel head think he is?” as he smiled wetly and bowed slightly to the Sheik’s surly retinue. That night we celebrated in a quiet western-style bar near the harbour run by a Scot expat. It had the best line-up of single malt scotches I have ever seen in one place and Jessie and I were steadily working our way through each of them with the expert guidance of the owner when an Arab man sidled up to our table. He mumbled in Arabic to Jessie while his eyes scanned the bar suspiciously, then slid away. Jessie sat silently staring hollowly at his glass. “What was that about?” I asked. “We have been invited to a little show being put on by Al-Dabt tomorrow morning,” he answered, still looking at his glass. He then turned to me and locked his eyes on mine. “We’re going to see what happens to women who are, uh, friends of the sheik.” Dear reader, we are now getting close to the core of what I want to tell you. To write about that day—so seared into my memory that I am blinded

daily by recollections of it—is a painful process. My hand is shaking as I write this and I am on the verge of tears. But as you will soon see I am completely undeserving of sympathy or even mercy. The Arab messenger who had found us at the bar had instructed us to be ready at our hotel by 4 am, so we dutifully sat in the lobby after only a couple of hours sleep, drinking strong black coffee and fighting to keep our eyes open. The messenger glided in and waved at us impatiently to follow him. He had the seemingly standard black Mercedes limousine waiting and he held the door open for us while he gestured for us to get in quickly. The car sped through the pre-dawn blackness, taking us to the Casbah. Here our driver was forced to slow down by the crowds already filling the narrow streets and he kept swearing in Arabic while he honked the horn and banged the steering wheel in frustration. Finally he stopped at a small wooden gate in a whitewashed stone wall. He jumped out of the car and held the gate open. “Go in, go in,” he said in thickly accented English. Jessie and I somewhat dubiously stepped through the gate. The car lurched away in a squeal of tires. We could barely see where we were; the first rays of morning light were just starting to penetrate the old city. No breath of air moved. A man wearing army fatigues and a big pistol holster at his waist came up to us. “Good morning,” he said in a flat, almost unaccented English. “Follow me.” He proceeded to march quickly down a long passageway and then darted into a doorway. We rushed to follow him, Jessie audibly wheezing from the pace. We were now inside a very old stone building, where our guide’s boots echoed loudly as he strode down another high-ceilinged corridor with arches opening onto what seemed to a garden on one side and a series of heavy wooden doors on the other. Near the end of the corridor another man in uniform stood with an Uzi machine gun casually slung over his shoulder. Our guide muttered a few words and this guard opened the door for us. We were now in what seemed to be a large ante-chamber where several men with various types of weapons were milling around smoking cigarettes and watching us with narrow eyes. At >>>

“See gulls hang”

one end of this chamber was a set of double doors to which our guide led us. “Sit anywhere you like,” he said gesturing through the door he held open for us. We entered a cavernous stone room, somewhat dimly lit by lights high up in the ceiling above us. A clerestory running near the top of one wall showed the slowly strengthening light of dawn. The floor of the room seemed dirty and little rocks crunched under our feet as we stepped hesitantly forward. Dirty plastic tables and chairs had been set up and most of the seats were taken by men and a very few women of many nationalities, all seemingly talking loudly to create an echoey din. The room was humid, almost dank, smelling of stone and mould and of the bodies of all these men gathered expectantly in it, like an army camp before a battle. But the most striking aspect of the room, which both Jessie and I fixed on with shock as soon as we entered the room, was an enormous gallows looming over a long wooden platform. The gallows was made from massive beams of roughly hewn dark wood into which had been sunk numerous large hooks. About a dozen nooses, fashioned from thick bright white rope, hung ominously from these hooks. I just wrote that the gallows was striking. That is an understatement. To enter a chamber where it seemed possible some people were to be hanged or had been hanged excited in me deep feelings of repugnance and horror to be sure, but it was also, I must admit, deeply thrilling, a reaction which took me by complete surprise. An intense but not totally unpleasant sensation ran up my spine and made my scalp tingle. I stood paralyzed by this unexpected and complicated wave of pleasure and disgust. Jessie, misinterpreting my look for simple shock, leaned close to me and said, “We can’t back out of this now. Let’s sit down.” He nodded his head toward men with guns over their shoulders who were casually strolling along the sides of the

room and raised his eyebrows. We made our way somewhat stumblingly to a table where an Arab and a Chinese man were already seated and they smiled at us in friendly way when we asked if the seats were free and they gestured for us to sit. A boy ran up to us and offered tea, which we gratefully sipped as we looked wide-eyed around the noisy room. “See gulls hang,” said our Chinese table mate encouragingly, happily nodding as if to emphasize how delightfully fun this promised to be. “Who is going to hang?” asked Jessie, almost shouting above the noise of the room. “Al-Dabt gulls,” smiled the man. My heart was pounding so hard I could barely breathe. “And… and… where do these girls come?” asked Jessie, obviously not quite certain where to begin with the many questions we both had. “Everywhere!” exclaimed the man happily, still nodding like a jack-in-the-box and smiling. “E-rope, Asia, Arabia. Everywhere!” “And how does Al-Dabt get these girls?” I asked, trying hard to resist jumping up and strangling our interlocutor for his beaming happiness over something that sounded like it could be very, very disturbing. “Oh,” the man smiled, “he go to, um, clobs where gulls get tied up, wheeped, um, faddish clobs you say in English? (“Fetish clubs,” Jessie replied evenly), yes, yes places like dat, and he ask gulls in the clobs if they want to hang if he give them or families or charity very very much money, and most say no no of course not, but a few dey say yes. Dey wunt to hang. So tiday we see dose gulls hang.” He arched his eyebrows excitedly, like a kid given the keys to the candy shop. Jessie and I exchanged a long look just as the noise suddenly dropped dramatically. It was Al-Dabt and his usual retinue making their way to a conspicuously empty table near the front of the room. Al-Dabt stopped to shake hands with some of the people he passed, sometimes lingering for few words before pressing on toward their reserved table. After he and his companions had >>>

As if they were being charged up by the waves of male arousal

been given tea by boys jogging up with trays, the overhead lights dimmed and spotlights that we hadn’t noticed before welled up to brightly light the gallows. I had a lump in my throat that made it painful to swallow and I was sitting on the edge of my plastic chair. Jessie kept nervously wiping his brow and looking around. The room by now had fallen very quiet, interrupted only by few nervous coughs. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears when a small wooden door off the side of the gallows opened with a loud creak and a man entered. He was wearing only loose pants and sandals and carried a large sledge hammer. He was remarkably fit and in the silence we could clearly hear his sandals scuffing the floor as he strode purposefully to the centre of the gallows almost directly opposite Al-Dabt, to whom he turned and gave a small bow then continued walking to the far end of the gallows. He stood there facing the crowd and holding his hammer resting on the ground when a line of women, each accompanied by a uniformed man, entered through the same side door and proceeded up a little series of steps onto the wooden platform under the gallows. My heart started to race even faster when I saw that about three-quarters of the way down this line of women was Penelope. All the women and the men who I assumed were

their guards marched silently and somberly up the stairs and along the platform until each woman stood beside a dangling noose. Seeing the women next to the nooses ignited some every very deep and dark atavistic impulses in me; images from old westerns where men were hanged from horses or prints from pre-modern Europe where hangings were a form of mass entertainment—images that I had never before realized had excited me—loomed up unbidden in my brain. I felt a novel throbbing sensation, making me almost breathless, very deep in the pit of my stomach. And I wasn’t the only one; that whole room seemed to pulse instinctively with anticipation, as if on some cellular level every man in the room was being pulled toward the women now standing on the platform, like the seas are pulled by the moon. And the women, brightly illuminated by the spotlights, were somehow inflated in response, as if they were being charged up by the waves of male arousal washing toward them and that would soon in fact submerge them. I don’t think it was only the supercharged environment though that made the women all appear extraordinarily beautiful; they were all young, none older than thirty, slender, of different nationalities, just as our table mate had suggested— Arab, European, African, Asian—their variously black and brown and blonde hair glistening in the lights. They all wore long translucent loose robes wrapped around them, underneath which they wore nothing. Of course my eyes were glued on Penelope. Her dark hair was braided down her back, foregrounding her lovely long neck. She stood, calmly regal, on the platform staring fixedly at some spot over the heads of the watching crowd. Only the ceaselessly fidgeting fingers of her hands, which she held at her sides like a soldier at attention, betrayed her nervousness. The men accompanying the women on the gallows all stood just behind their charges, watching Al-Dabt’s table. When he gave a small wave the men stepped forward and slipped the nooses over the women’s heads and tightened them around their necks, eliciting an almost col-

lective sigh from the room. Most of the women closed their eyes as this was done, some of them visibly trembling. But Penelope continued to stare into space, as if she had not noticed the deadly rope being placed snugly around her throat. The men reached behind the women and undid their robes, sliding them down the women’s naked bodies and tossing them to the back of the platform. The room bubbled with amazed chatter, as if we were witnesses to some kind of natural wonder, like icebergs emerging from the night at sea or a panoply of full moons emerging from the clouds, sparkling, full of wonder. We could see a slight shimmer of perspiration on the women’s bodies as they reacted to the warm humid room and our stares. But the excited bubbling soon died down. I remember reading somewhere of experi-

ments done during which men were deprived of all senses except smell and apparently most of the men could unerringly tell when a woman entered the room. Here too we all registered the women not just with our eyes but with our nostrils, an animal smell they were giving off of arousal and fear, But it was more than even that, it was as if the naked women noosed and displayed on that platform caused some cellular shift in we who watched them being prepared to be killed. The room fell into a deep somber quiet. When the men were finished undressing the women they reached into the pockets of their khaki pants and pulled out short lengths of thin rope, which they used to bind the hands of the women behind them, the women wincing slightly as the ropes were pulled very tightly, one of >>>

them giving a plaintive little cry that rang clearly through the hushed hall. The women’s chests all heaved up and down as they panted with emotion. Once all the women’s hands were tied, the men pulled out other pieces of rope and knelt down to tie their ankles together. The men straightened up and went to where the nooses were tied off to rings set into the stone wall behind the platform. They untied the ropes and then slowly pulled on them until the nooses were tight, almost but not quite pulling the women onto their toes. Then the men retied the ropes. The men did a final check of the women they had bound and noosed, some adjusting the nooses so they pulled behind an ear or retied their hands more tightly, and filed off the platform and took up positions along the stone wall by the door through which they had entered. The room was absolutely silent by now, everyone overwhelmed, as were Jessie and I, by the sight of these dozen beautiful women so vulnerably on display for us. Some of the women shook so hard it made the wooden platform beneath their feet noisily rock. One woman started to sob quietly. And of course I was most overwhelmed by Penelope, whose long lean body, hard dark nipples, bright red lips and most of all regal hauteur were brilliantly accentuated by the rope around her neck. She didn’t look human; the noose somehow rendered her divine, like a Greek goddess. Forgive me a comment you will soon recognize as self-serving, but she looked like she belonged in that noose, like it was her destiny. I hadn’t really believed our table mate when he had said these girls had wanted to hang, but looking at Penelope up there, obviously afraid but also kind of glowing, her chest heaving, I began to think perhaps he had been right. As the minutes ticked on, small murmurings rose from the crowd. Penelope started to look slowly around the room, registering it seemed for the first time the audience admiring her and the other women. She slowly scanned the faces turned toward her that the dawn light now starting to

stream in from the windows overhead made barely visible, working from one end of the room to the other. And then she saw me. Her eyes widened and her face changed from impassive to, what? surprised? dismayed? Those reactions perhaps, and also too a glimmer of satisfaction? That she wanted me, a recent lover, to watch her die? I’ll never know. In any event, after a few moments of our eyes locked together she tore her gaze away again with determination and resumed staring into some imaginary space over our heads. By now the occasional sound from the crowd of onlookers had become more frequent and then the sound began seemingly spontaneously to take on the form of a chant, a kind of repetitive, increasingly loud rhythm of consonants with an emphasis on the first, uttered with a typically choked Arabic inflection. It was a weirdly frightening and compelling sound, almost like a pack of animals sonorously encircling the women who were their helpless sexual prey, a soundscape of pure hunting testosterone. It clearly had an impact on the women noosed in front of us. They visibly stiffened in response, as if these steadily loudening chanting voices were intruders physically caressing them with a touch that was strangely hostile and intimate and appealing all at once. Even the woman who had been sobbing steadily stopped and looked out with a kind of wonder, goosebumps running up her body. The bare-chested man with the hammer now stepped forward as the chanting reached a kind of crescendo, his eyes carefully watching AlDabt. Al-Dabt waved his hand over his head and with one fluid motion the man turned toward the gallows and swung. We hadn’t noticed before, but under the platforms where each of the women stood were wooden columns. The hammer struck at the column under the first woman and knocked it away, causing the section of the platform under her to drop with a resounding whack. The room fell instantly silent as the platform fell away and the woman was suddenly hanging by her neck freely

in the air. Although the noose had been tied quite tightly she still fell a few inches before the rope yanked her to a stop and she audibly grunted in pain as the noose harshly jerked her head back and to the side. She hung very still for a few moments and then her body started to fight desperately for her life. Her feet and hands tightly tied, her whole body bucked against the rope strangling her, her arms pulling up and down behind her, her large breasts bobbing wildly, and she twisted violently around. Her face turned bright red, contorted by pain, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. A harshly terrible cry came from deep inside her. She bucked several more times but already she was weakening. She had twisted so her back was to us and we could see her fingers twisting uselessly, frantically trying to free themselves. But as her face turned back into view her expression had changed. It had become almost beatifically calm, although her head was now almost purple in colour. Her body quivered a little and then became very still. She rotated slowly in a kind of deathly aftershock. “Jaysus!” whispered Jessie. We had both been utterly transfixed by the woman’s death, as was everyone there. By the end I and several other men were halfway out of our chairs, literally pulled up by the drama we had just witnessed. We remained frozen in half crouches as the poor girl’s body very slowly rotated at the end of the rope, her feet pointed down toward the cold stone floor. I realized suddenly, looking down in horror and amazement, that I had a very visible erection and I slid back embarrassedly into my seat. My astonished gaze was pulled over to Penelope. Her eyes were again locked on me. Her face was stricken. It’s hard to describe the emotions swirling through me. I wanted to run up onto the platform and cut her free and have sex with her right there and I wanted with all my soul to see her stretched out by the noose, kicking and fighting like the girl who had just died and now hung limply before us. I was all at once frightened, aroused, sickened, guilty and supercharged, more excited than I had ever been in my life.

I felt more than heard the chanting start again, while Penelope’s and my eyes remained locked in a visual embrace. The second girl on the gallows suddenly cried out, a curiously wild sound of arousal and terror, as the chanting again built up and both Penelope and I couldn’t help shifting our eyes to her. The woman’s eyes were ricocheting furiously around the room and she wiggled nervously. The man with the hammer stood relaxed with one hand on the top of his hammer, again watching Al-Dabt. The sheik nonchalantly waved and the hangman picked up his hammer and without hesitation knocked away the support under the girl who was struggling desperately to escape her bonds. Again the hatch loudly slammed and the room fell silent as she travelled her final few inches before the rope yanked her to a stop. She seemed to strangle very quickly. She gave a couple of kicks and then she too was slowly rotating alongside the first dead girl. I looked back at Penelope but she remained transfixed by the dangling corpses a few feet from where she stood, portends of her own quickly impending fate. The chanting resumed more quickly this time, as if the crowd was disappointed that the second girl had slipped into death so easily and quickly. The third girl, the one who earlier had been sobbing, had her eyes shut and her face in a tight grimace as she awaited the rope’s fatal bite. This time however there was a flurry of activity in one corner of the room. A man in a bright white dishdashah ran over to Al-Dabt’s table where he kneeled down as if huddling with the sheik and his men. Loud cries of “Laa!” rang out. “No!” Jessie and I looked at our tablemates quizzically. “Gulls can be bought!” said the voluble Chinese man happily. Jessie and I exchanged glances. “Really?” we both said. “Oh yes,” said our table mate with his usual bumpkinish smile. The Arab man at our table, who hadn’t spoken before, shook his head and said something to the Chinese man in Arabic. The Chinese man nodded vigorously. “But,” he translated for my benefit, his eyebrows furrowed in a pantomime of regret, “very

expensuff.” As if to confirm this explanation AlDabt stood up and gestured to the soldiers who stood along the wall and, accompanied by loud “laas,” one of them ran onto the platform and up to the third girl who watched with enormous eyes as he loosened her noose and untied her feet and pushed her back against the wall, where she stood, her hands still tied behind her, with her mouth open, stunned by this last-minute reprieve. But soon the chanting sound started again. The hangman with the hammer shifted closer to the next woman in line, who like all the others had turned as best they could in their nooses to stare at the woman who had just been saved. The fourth woman suddenly realized the growing chanting was for her, that soon she would be dangling in agony. But again there was a flurry of activity in another part of the room and to even louder boos and cries of “laa!” a man in casual western dress ran over to Al-Dabt’s table and huddled in conference. After a couple of minutes this time Al-Dabt suddenly shook his head and as the western man was obviously pleading Al-Dabt stood up and impatiently waved at the bare-chested man. Loud cheers rang out as the hangman quickly swung around. The girl, who had for a brief moment thought she was going to be spared whirled her face horror-stricken toward the man with the hammer and had just started to scream “No!” when the platform dropped away, cutting off her cry, and she was kicking wildly at the end of her rope. She fought for a long time, perhaps in a cruel irony strengthened by that momentary sliver of hope that she had been offered. In any case, her prolonged desperate struggles silenced the room and we could hear her grunting as she fought for her life, and even as she lay quite still she managed to make long choked moans until she was the third corpse stretched out for us in a wonderfully erotic—a little tent in my pants again rose from my crotch—death. The fourth and fifth women, one Chinese and the other African, were hanged next. The Chinese girl also fought hard while the African—

She fought for a long time, perhaps in a cruel irony strengthened by that momentary sliver of hope that she had been offered. whose black skin wonderfully offset the white rope around her neck—seemed to let her life slip away quickly, as easily as a sigh. Jessie leaned over to me as the black girl relaxed into her death and whispered, “We can save your girl you know.” The chanting for the next girl, the one before Penelope, had already begun. I looked at Jessie. “We can offer the oil contract,” he said, his eyes boring into mine. I looked at him, stunned. The oil contract? The one that he had insisted was worth so much? I looked around the room and then up at the gallows. Penelope was watching the girl next to her awaiting her fall with undisguised horror. Obviously the steady march of executions toward her was not making waiting easier. I looked back at Jessie blankly, my emo>>>

Her eyes still clenched shut, suddenly registered that the chanting chorus had been interrupted. tions and thoughts in turmoil. It was hard not to be swept along by the testosterone-laden sea of sound rising up and sweeping each girl to her death. And it was incredibly arousing to see these naked women being hanged, an erotic taste that I didn’t even know I had but which now that I had been exposed to it seemed to resonate somewhere deeply in my brain stem. And Penelope was the most stunning beauty of them all, rendered sublime by the rope around her neck. I still couldn’t decide if the stillclose memories of her skin and her laughter and her smells were pulling me toward wanting to save her or toward seeing her hang in a kind of ultimate sexual gesture And then to think about offering the oil contract! It would mean the end of my career, and as Jessie had lectured me what seemed like a lifetime ago, there would be some very bad consequences for total innocents if I were to do that. Jessie whispered “Jaysus!” again as the woman next to Penelope dropped and choked to death. Repetition didn’t seem to lessen the charge of watching these women hang. In fact for me it was the opposite; each one seemed more grotesquely exquisite than the one before, her suffering more awful and poignant and appealing. And, I have to

admit, the ever-growing line of dead women, each dangling limply at the end of the rope that had killed her, was wildly arousing; their feet all pointed downward in useless supplication with toes like little pleas to the distant unlistening floor. When the last woman to be hanged lay still, Penelope closed her eyes and appeared to be concentrating very hard. I could see she was calming herself, preparing to die. God, she was lovely: noble, brave, beautiful, from her delightfully sculpted face to her pert breasts and her long athletic legs to her strong feet. But the chanting had begun. It was time for Penelope to be hanged. Her chest rose and fell even more quickly than it had earlier, like a dog’s after a hard run. Her body shimmered with sweat, making her sparkle as if she had been oiled. Jessie suddenly jumped up and with his unexpected speed seemed almost instantly at AlDabt’s table. They huddled for a few moments, then everyone at the table turned to me. Clearly Jessie had offered the oil contract and they were now seeking confirmation from me. A little nod from me and Penelope would be freed. Time seemed to stop and I could hear nothing except my own scared breathing. The loud boos and “laas!” seemed to come from far away, as did the crescendo of chanting, which had reached a level surpassing all the previous ones. Obviously everyone was eager to see Penelope hang. I turned to the platform. Penelope, her eyes still clenched shut, suddenly registered that the chanting chorus had been interrupted. She popped open her eyes and looked around wildly. She saw the huddle at AlDabt’s table. She shifted her wide eyes to me and for the third and last time that morning our eyes locked. I again half rose from my seat, feeling both propelled and completely paralyzed by indecision as the whole room seemed to turn toward me for an answer. Memories of Penelope on the boat or in my bed flashed before me but at the same time I wanted to see her hang so badly I thought my chest was going to explode. Her eyes burned

into me as she realized what was happening, and I think—I emphasize I think, because I can no longer be sure that I didn’t in the fifty million times I have subsequently replayed that moment in my mind that I didn’t create the memory out of selfjustification—I think that she slightly shook her head as if to say, let me die. I slowly turned my head to Al-Dabt’s table. He was looking frustrated. Silence was the same as no. He looked at me for a long moment and then raised his hand and gave the signal. My eyes flashed to Penelope. Again I can’t be sure if my brain is playing tricks, but I think she gave me the faintest of smiles and then the hangman struck and Penelope fell until the noose jerked her to a stop. Dear god, dear god, I can never be forgiven for this, but it was a supreme pleasure to watch her die. She hanged superbly. Every aspect of her that I had been smitten by, her lush lips, her long legs, her creamy breasts, seemed magnified magnificently by her final fight against the harsh choking rope. She made a deep gurgling sound as she spun around and around. She was like a thoroughbred but one bred to die, her struggling muscles and ribs and hips and shoulder blades outlined in stark relief by the spotlights, her face locked in a fierce concentration until her eyes bugged out as her strangulation inexorably continued. She fought for a long, long time. But finally she tired and her body’s wild bucking slowed and eventually stopped. Her face seemed to relax. Her mouth drooped open and her eyes slowly closed. She continued for a little while to rotate quite quickly, powered by the force of her struggles, but that too slowed and soon she was just one more limp dead body in a row with the other corpses in almost stately silence, her graceful long neck pulled back and to the side, her tied hands now forever useless. I continued to stare at her, only slowly dropping back into my chair from my frozen halfstand as the last women were executed one by one. None of the women on the platform was saved in the end, except the girl who was released early on.

She was so overcome by the suffering of the long line of women that she had dropped sobbing to her knees and as the last woman was hanged she collapsed completely onto the platform, crying loudly, though whether out of relief or disappointment I’ll never know.

Jessie had slowly come back to our table as the last women were hanged. He sat for a long time ignoring the women dying in their nooses and studied me with that same appraising look he had given me a couple of times earlier, except before there had been an indulgent edge to his evaluation whereas now it held a trace of coldness, a steely kind of disappointment that I had acted so ignobly, as in his view I obviously had: either I was too chickenshit to take the risk of giving away the oil contract or I was more interested in indulging a sick pleasure than saving someone I cared about. Saying that she wanted to be there at the end of that noose seemed like a pretty wan excuse after we had watched her fight for her life in terror and excruciating pain, ogled the whole time by the crowd of men for whom Penelope had exposed every intimate fold of skin, every spot of her beautiful young body as she strangled slowly to death. After the last woman had been hanged the room fell silent. No one moved or spoke. I ignored Jessie’s accusatory eyes and like everyone else I was captivated by the long line of dead women arrayed before us, almost stunned by the purity of their sacrifice, their gift of all of themselves, their bodies, their very lives, for our pleasure and nothing else. The way each girl hung limply still carried the stamp of their personality, whether they had fought death or acquiesced quickly to it. At the same time, as they dangled before us they were like so many strung up carcasses, mere slabs of meat. There was a jarring bustle of activity at the door by which the women had entered what seemed like hours earlier. Two men in uniform dragged in a third man who looked like he had been badly tortured. His clothes were ripped, his >>>

face was bruised and bleeding with black circles under his unfocused eyes, one of his arms hung at an unnatural angle from his body like it had been broken and he could barely walk. They dragged this man, his feet scraping the floor, in front of us. The room fell into a stunned and scared scared silence. Two of the men at Al-Dabt’s table stood up and faced us. One started calling out loudly in Arabic and the other translated into English. “Gentlemen,” they began. “As you know, the proceedings today must remain secret, for obvious reasons. If any of you,” and here there was a dramatic pause as they both looked around the room meaningfully, “if any of you, betray us as this man here has done, we will track you down and you and your families will meet the same fate as this piece of shit and his family—his thirteen-year-old daughter, his nine-year-old son, his grandmother, his wife—the same fate as all of them. We demonstrate now the outcome of any betrayal.” One of the two speakers nodded to the two men guarding the wretched prisoner. The guards reached down and tied the man’s hands together and pulled them over his head, which since his arm was broken must have been excruciating but the man was so weak he could only utter a low moan. The guards then dragged the man over to the nearest wall and lifted him up and hooked his wrists high over his head onto a black spike sticking out from the stone, suspending him an inch or two off the floor. One of the guards reached to his waist and pulled out a long hunting knife with a vicious-looking serrated edge. He then reached over casually and slowly but unhesitatingly pushed the knife into the man’s lower belly. The man lifted his head and issued a heart-rending scream as the guard slowly rotated the knife. The victim’s head lolled drunkenly around, until blood started to dribble from his mouth and the man could only gurgle. The soldier let go of the knife, leaving it sticking out of the man’s belly as blood poured from the massive wound and pooled at his feet. Finally the man’s head dropped limply. The two

guards moved to either side of him with their arms crossed, looking defiantly out at us. Again Jessie whispered, “Jaysus H. Chrast!” to no one in particular, I apparently being no longer worthy of his utterances. There was a long period of silence, then slowly one by one men in the crowd got up and, the fate of the man slowly and painfully bleeding to death apparently having been duly noted but very soon collectively shrugged off, went up to inspect the dead women still hanging limply in their nooses. Men started to discuss how each woman had died, pointing to a ravaged neck or to wrists bruised by the tight ropes binding them. Some of the men started to go back and forth between the gallows and Al-Dabt’s table. There was much of what seemed like loud arguing in Arabic and Al-Dabt kept shaking his head. Men started to make the dead bodies spin around as they inspected them, then went back to Al-Dabt’s table and continued to badger him. One or two received nods finally, and looked very happy, one of the men clapping his hands with glee. The Chinese man who sat at our table started to get up to go toward the gallows and I asked him what was happening. “Buy gull,” he answered with is usual monochromatic smile. “Use for pleasure,” he concluded then marched off toward the women. Oh god. I looked up and saw a portly and oily Arab spinning Penelope’s body around. He reached up and put his fingers into Penelope’s sex then pulled his fingers out and put them to his nose. He wrinkled his face up and giggled, then put his finger under the nose of a companion and giggled again. He started waddling over to Al-Dabt’s table. I quickly ran over to Al-Dabt before the Arab could get there. Al-Dabt supposedly spoke no English, but I kept looking at him as I asked, “What happens to the girls after they are bought?” One of the surly retinue answered in a lightly-accented English, “Those who buy them get one hour alone with them. After, we take the bodies and tie a heavy stone to them and throw them in the sea.” Al-Dabt, staring right back

at me, said something in Arabic. “Whom do you wish to purchase?” asked the man who had spoken earlier. I indicated Penelope. Al-Dabt spoke again, still looking at me. “Not for sale,” came the translation. I sighed and took a deep breath. The portly Arabic man started jabbering in Arabic and Al-Dabt turned to him smilingly and said a few words and the portly Arab started to beam like he couldn’t believe his luck. I knew what was happening. The motherfucker was selling Penelope’s body to this fat asshole unless I came up with something really good. I took a deep breath. Everything was taking on an air of inevitability, like a morality play, the script for which I was not allowed to see but for which the endings had been long ago determined. “Everything is for sale,” I said, still staring at Al-Dabt. He turned slowly from the portly Arab toward me and smiled mirthlessly and held out his hand. “Give me the oil contract,” he said in a thickly-accented English. Something made me turn and look behind me and I saw Jessie standing there, staring at me with a mixture of pity and contempt. He whirled around and walked away. I reached into my bag for the contract.

A few minutes later I had been escorted to a small cell down a corridor from the execution hall. The cell was barely furnished. It had a simple steel cot with a lumpy mattress covered in fresh cotton sheets and a wooden chair. I sat on the chair and waited. I will always remember that room, its crude stone walls and flagstone floor with little pools of crumbled rocks piled in the corners. It was, and remains for me, the last circle in hell. Two men, part of the military escort for the women who had been hanged I guessed, pulled in Penelope, whose hands were still tied behind her back. They threw her limp body face down on the cot and strode out, one of them only half-turning to me as he said, “One hour.” I stood for a long time paralyzed by Penel-

But more than anything I was aroused. ope’s unmoving body with one long leg drooping on the floor and the other askew. I wish I could say that’s all I did. I wish I could say I stood there and mourned this beautiful young woman whom I had allowed to die a painful death. But I didn’t. I was in some kind of weird dream state. I couldn’t quite comprehend the enormity of my crime in letting her die, although I certainly remember feeling some guilt, and Jessie’s contemptfilled face kept floating into my mind. But more than anything I was aroused. Seeing all those beautiful women hanged, one by one, watching their slow, sublime death agonies was like being held deeply submerged in a pool of sexual stimulation. And of course for me Penelope’s death had been the most erotic of all; my erection while she hanged had been throbbing so hard it hurt. And now here was her body laid out for me, remote in death, yes, but also completely open to me in a way that was not possible when she was alive. At first I had touched her tentatively, feeling her cooling skin with a kind of morbidly-driven curiosity. But soon I was overtaken by a deep sexual hunger blindly seeking release after a morning of being called up in the most violent way possible. I am describing you understand, not justifying, when I say this hunger took over me. The pleasures I took from her insensate body during that hour have tormented me for almost every second of the last fifty years. But pleasure I took, turning her body over and exploring every inch of her with my fingers and my tongue and eventually my cock. Only after I came, pushed as far as I could go into >>>

her cold soft mouth, with an orgasm that ripped itself from my soul, did I start to comprehend what I had done, and my life of torture had begun. They came and dragged her body, already starting to stiffen, away while I sat on the floor with my head in my hands. I was escorted somewhat roughly to the gate we had first entered hours earlier that morning. It was now almost mid-day and I blinked uncomprehendingly in the bright sun. I began to plod through the sweltering heat out of the old city back toward downtown and my hotel, too stunned even to seek a taxi. I never saw Jessie again. I checked out of my hotel and went to the airport and caught the next flight home. My client was of course furious with me, word having reached him of the squandered oil contract. He fired me and my career was over. I sought solace in every kind of drug possible. I drifted from job to job, doing each one worse than the one before. Eventually, after a stint at a corner store chain where I prompted numerous complaints, I became pretty much unemployable. I sometimes thought that the whole thing had been an elaborate set-up, that Al-Dabt had used Penelope as bait, had sent her to hook up with me and create opportunities to wheedle the oil contract out of me. That Al-Dabt knew Jessie was too wily a negotiator to give up the oil contract, but if he could get to me then ‌ I spent years angry with Penelope, thinking in some kind of perverse self-righteousness than she had known all along that I was being set up, that perhaps she had fallen for Al-Dabt’s lucrative offer and she had harboured some desire to be hanged but once she had arrived she was first sent on this special mission targeting me. That would explain why an English newcomer to the Middle East was so deeply tanned. Why she only carried a small bag. And of course the dark moods that overtook her. Had she been upset because of what was to come, >>>

I had only images of her death—still, after everything, an arousing memory for me—and, no longer exciting at all but sick. or because she had been sent out to lure me with her sexual favours and she was experiencing repugnance over prostituting herself? But eventually I saw through my own selfexculpatory ploy. So what? I realized. So what if she had been part of a plot? We had connected in an unmistakably deep way and I could have saved her, perhaps losing my career and everything else as I had in the end anyway, and perhaps not being able to have her in the end—who knew how she really felt about me?—but I would have known that she was alive. Instead I had only images of her death—still, after everything, an arousing memory for me—and, no longer exciting at all but sick, my final defilement of her sweet body. I told no one about what had happened. I had no doubt Al-Dabt would have hunted me down if I had and while any painful death he might have inflicted on me would have been a welcome release, I had a daughter with a woman I had been seeing a couple of years prior to my trip to Algiers and I wanted to save her from a savage death she had done nothing to deserve except—this one mighty exception—to have had me as her father. Any doubts about Al-Dabt’s ability to follow through on his threats dissolved when one day, years after I had fled Algiers, a hand-addressed envelope came for me to the decrepit hotel where I was hidden like a wounded animal. The envelope contained a clipping about a terrible fire in an isolated country house started by a mysterious explo-

sion in which a family had died, one of the young children having fled afire and died an agonizing death before firefighters had arrived. The article showed a smiling picture from earlier, happier days of the father, who had been found dead with his body smoldering a few feet from his daughter, probably desperately trying to reach her. It was Jessie. Al-Dabt had doubtlessly maneuvered himself to great profit in Middle Eastern politics, motored by his enormous fortune, a significant part of which I had provided him. He was younger than me and hence quite conceivably still alive. And obviously, as the clipping and the fact that they had tracked me down so compellingly demonstrated, he or perhaps powerful allies or clients were prepared to go to great lengths to ensure that no one who should not have knew anything about his darker predilections. But my daughter died in a car accident a few months ago. Her mother passed away from cancer a couple of years earlier, and neither of us had any other family. Now Al-Dabt or his partners or heirs can only torture me. And I am ready for whatever he has in store for me. I will contact alJazeera and The New York Times. I will publish this story as widely as I can on the Internet. I may still have some very old connections from my younger days who might help me spread what I have written here, about what happened all those years ago.

And after I have done everything I can, then I will sit in the dark and await my fate.