by Amar Benchikha
I am sixteen, Leonora seventeen, both of us unmarried. And because we live with our respective families, we meet regularly in an abandoned little shack to share intimate moments. Neither one of us has any real interest in boys, and by that first look we exchanged at the market nine months prior, we understood we sought the same thing. But the edicts in the Republic of Venice are clear: copulation between women is forbidden. And though our town of Camposampiero is far enough from Venice proper that it sometimes neglects to observe obscure or unpopular edicts — is a town small enough that it is deemed inconsequential when compared to the likes of Vicenza, Padua and Verona — ours, I understand, is a secret none can come to know.
Our romance was purely physical at first, each of us discovering the other in tentative, lustful strokes aimed, we hoped, at pleasure. Those moments couldn’t prepare me for the fulfilment I was yet to experience. In a period of time so short it surprised us both, we fell in love. I with Leonora’s bold and passionate energy, and Leonora with what she calls my “deeply empathetic nature.” Now, when we hold each other after making love, we often stare into one another’s eyes with fondness and endless wonder at the joy we feel. When the parish priest speaks of heaven it is, to me, a place that remains irritatingly abstract. But having experienced intense love and pleasure for the first time, I begin to understand what paradise might be like and wish to stay in this cradle of bliss forever no matter the cost.
Maybe it is my young age, or maybe it is the natural inclination of one so hopelessly enamored to believe in love’s permanence, but I cannot conceive that an end to this happiness could ever occur. It is too visceral, too potent, too encompassing. And if Leonora has morbid thoughts about our love, she doesn’t tell me. So when the parish priest storms into the shack, guards in tow while we lie on the straw kissing and half-naked, the fragility of what we possess is made instantly clear. And as the guards drag us out of the old abode, Leonora screaming and struggling to get free, I am too dumbstruck by the discovery of the transitory nature of happiness to put up any kind of fight. Instead, I walk as if in a dream, allowing myself be led down street after street until I enter a cell I will eventually learn to call mine.
At first, the days pass with no event of consequence. I pace the cell or sleep, at times whispering to other cells in the hope of contacting Leonora. No one has told me how long I will be imprisoned, so I wonder about my punishment, about how long it will last, or if more will come. Then, one day, the guard I know only as Luca, walks in.
“I’ve been chosen,” he says, “to cure you from your affliction.”
I don’t understand right away what affliction he means, until he asks me to disrobe. I draw strength from knowing that wherever she is Leonora is fighting too. I refuse the guard, tell him I would never sleep with him, that my heart lies with Leonora.
I see gentleness in his eyes, sense goodness and an inner turmoil as he weighs the risk of punishment from the authorities if they discover he hasn’t followed their orders or perhaps simply morality against his duty. Finally, he says that he will report that he carried out his assignment, then turns and leaves me trembling all over from fear at what could have happened and exhilaration at having stood up to the authorities and, indirectly, the parish priest himself.
Time passes slowly during the day, and my thoughts turn to the flame in my heart. I don’t know where Leonora is being kept and hope that her guard is as understanding as mine. I don’t dare think of what could happen to her. I don’t know if He will listen, but I pray to God, beseech Him to watch over her, to protect her. It may strike one as strange that I would turn to God when it is He who put me in here. For the edict is clear. The Bible is clear.
A union can only be between a man and a woman. Yet I turn to Him, wish Him to be merciful, for my sake and Leonora’s and, if I must choose, for Leonora’s sake only.
The next day, the guard, Luca, enters my cell and he is limping and has bruises on his face. I can only assume that they extracted the truth out of him and punished him for his insubordination. I know that my refusal today would hurt him, and I realize they might also take it out on Leonora. So when he asks me again to disrobe, this time I comply. As I remove my clothing, he removes his. Then he comes to me, and I forget what I saw in his eyes, the goodness there, and feel afraid that he will be violent, aggressive. But his touch is as gentle as the look in his eyes, and if it weren’t for the fact that we are making love in a prison cell, that I have been wrenched from the one I love, that I am having sex against my will, the moment would be almost pleasurable. When we are done, he kisses me softly on the shoulder, then he stands his bruised body up and limps over to his clothes. I won’t hear him again until evening when he brings my food and, through the door, calls me by name for the first time: “Maria,” he says. And that is all he says. Maria.
The next day, when he comes into my cell, he doesn’t have to say anything. I simply undress. I tell myself that I am doing this for Leonora, and to protect myself from the possibility of a guard that wouldn’t be as considerate as this one. Lastly, I do it because Luca doesn’t have a choice and his life depends on it.
Every day, he enters my cell and we lie together. Sometimes I long for the touch of Leonora, for the way she caressed my neck; for her kiss. I long for her touch but I’d be wrong to say that I don’t derive pleasure from Luca’s visits. Though gentle as he is, Luca and I do not kiss. I wonder if this is his way of apologizing.
Today Luca’s countenance is somber. Though we seldom speak, this time I ask him what’s wrong. He tells me that Leonora is dead but not how it happened. I don’t react, don’t ask for details, almost don’t believe him. After we lie together I gather up the courage and ask. But he doesn’t answer. I wonder aloud if, spirited as she was, she became combative and her rapist, the man responsible for curing her of her condition, in turn became fed up by her stubborn resistance and beat her to death. Luca won’t say, but his eyes hold the pain of the truth.
It isn’t long after this that I am released. One might say I am cured, for I will never again initiate any romantic relationship with a woman. I marry Giuseppe. And one might say that I am happy, though while in his arms sometimes I still think of Leonora, so perhaps I am not cured after all. Especially since, when walking hand in hand with Giuseppe, I often find myself gazing at the soft curve of another woman’s breasts, or at the sway of her hips as she walks past, my neck craning for me to see more. Sometimes I think Giuseppe knows, but he doesn’t say anything. Perhaps he never will. But I hold him tight. He is my husband.
Amar Benchikha is an American writer born and raised in western Europe whose short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The MacGuffin, New Plains Review and in genre journals Nightscript and Vasterien. He currently lives in northern Italy and can be found at www.amarbenchikha.com.