by Sylvia Otmarsh
The Prefect’s Concubine was the most beautiful woman in the province. Everyone knew that.
The Concubine was also a nudist. Everyone and his uncle knew that. Few, however, cared about the reason: that her birth tribe believed nakedness was the only way to experience one’s own wholeness.
The Prefect had two and exactly two classifiable emotions: doting fondness for the Concubine and avid jealousy against the rest of the world. So, he let her walk nude in the palace gardens, which extended into the public park, but promised 90 lashes and expulsion for anyone who so much as glimpsed her. Remember, this was near the very edge of civilization, so expulsion was quite serious and often fatal.
During one of the Prefect’s routine eye exams, something strange was found. Further investigation uncovered that the concubine left an impression on the retina as deep as the one she left on the soul. A trained ophthalmologist with the right equipment could find her mark there for 7 to 10 days after a sighting. The Prefect ordered that every man in the province’s capital be checked by a licensed ophthalmologist once a week and carry an ophthalmic passport with stamps verifying he was up to date. It was a good time to be in the ophthalmology business; however, treatment of serious eye conditions was often delayed.
So the Prefect and his Concubine became a part of every man’s life. One day, Jerald was in the park with a few friends. It was the one place they knew where flowers grew, low purple skipping stones scattered amid the grass. Jason had just said that only a man like the Prefect could keep a woman as beautiful as the Concubine in such a remote outpost. Javs and Jerald had chuckled. Jim gazed up at the writhing clouds in wistful and pained longing.
Javs, who was brutish, saw the Prefect as a perfect brute with fists like barrels. Devilish Jason imagined a Machiavelli weaving schemes with adamantine thread. Jim longed for sensuous ease and saw the Prefect draped on a padded throne, Concubine’s head on his knee.
Jerald imagined the Prefect a man of deep suffering, but one who was able to act against that suffering with strength and summon from the fount of the universe that perfect balm, the Concubine.
Thought of the Concubine acted in all of them. It was the claws digging in their bellies. It was the catapult sending a rock of loneliness up into the clouds.
“She is like a plucked guitar string that plays the note your soul needs,” said Jason.
“She is the curve that fits perfectly in your hand.” Jim held up a cupped palm.
“She is the light from the sky; you will never hold it, and yet you need it to live,” said Jerald.
Javs nodded, but his throat choked closed when he thought of the Concubine.
The men walked toward a canal with a narrow bridge over it, the lush garden of the Prefect’s palace within sight.
Then they heard the whistle of the Prefect’s Guard behind them and the stamp of boots on the pavement, and they scuttled into the weeds and held their gazes low enough to consort with beetles and worms. The steps came near, the many feet falling in time as if they were one greater foot. Jerald heard the animal breathing of the guards as they neared. He could smell the steel and grease of their weapons. He could imagine them in an advancing square, all backs turned toward the Concubine in their midst, she, naked of course, as pale as the moon amid dark clouds.
He knew this was the moment that unmade men, but he’d never faced the temptation to see before. He could go on looking at the grass and the dirt and the arched root of a tree, which his own fingers wrapped over. Or, passing so close that the ground bounded and his clothes were made to quiver, was the dream in flesh.
He was being tested, he knew full well. But was the premise of the test the necessity of obedience in such a harsh life? Or was the point that there is a beauty that sails above the waves and to see it is to be lifted up? He was already in a penitent crouch. He wanted to believe. He wanted to believe that the Concubine was that good.
Jerald lifted his head to see. The guards were past him. They walked in a flying wedge, it turned out, wearing black helmets with flange-like blinders, and the Concubine was behind the last of them. From behind he saw her backside, which was not like any other body but a pure swiveling curve of moon color. He could only gasp. Her hair, her arm, each perfect and terrifying. Then she disappeared past the horizon of a hill.
Jerald looked around himself and saw Javs, Jason, and Jim looking around with antic eyes. They were as terrified as he was.
After the sighting, Jerald had something like a curved filament in his eye. It was a slit of brightness that couldn’t be identified or located but certainly evoked the sway this way and sway back that way of the Concubine’s waist and hips. He liked the slinky halo glow. It reminded him of what he’d seen, which as he thought about it became the best thing to happen to him in this province. He also knew he had little time left to enjoy it, since his next ophthalmologist appointment was the same afternoon. He fully expected to end that night in a dungeon.
“Hi, Tom,” Jerald said after signing in at the ophthalmologist’s. He must have been the last appointment of the day, because no one else was waiting and Tom was going through papers.
Tom and Jerald happened to be neighbors.
“Did you see they’re trying to get a tree to grow on the block?” Tom asked.
Jerald sat in the chair and Tom slid close on his stool, then pushed the examination machine over Jerald’s eyes. They’d done this 100 times. But now Jerald’s heart beat as if he were facing an executioner’s needle.
“You can see the dead stumps from the last seven.”
“They never listen to me, but I say the truth is plain to—Oh dear.”
Tom peeked around the machine to see Jerald’s burning face, then looked through the examiner again.
Jerald waited in growing but knowing tension while a diaphragm inside the examiner constricted and dials turned and something popped.
“You’ve been in the park, Jerald,” said Tom. “You’ve seen…”
“I can’t explain it,” said Jerald. He wanted to tell Tom everything—what it meant to see something close enough to divinity to countermand all the suffering in this place, and then what it meant to know he would suffer for it. But the emotion was too great and too pressing to be controlled and formulated into words.
Tom shook his head. “All this expulsion and the lashes. Men suffer for what they cannot know. It’s terrible. Oh dear. Oh dear.” Tom slid on his stool to the far end of the room, where he tapped at a keyboard. Then he slid near again, growing larger without seeming to move. He leaned in close, his breath striking Jerald’s lips.
“The eye is meant to help us know the world that is really there, not the hydra fantasies we all live in most of the time. It is a portal out, not in. That’ s why we have sight, to know even once in our lives what’s real. And any right consideration of morality must begin with knowing and choosing knowingly. Anything else is a form of terror.
“Who would order eyes not to see? It’s madness.
“Men cast out into the deathlands. Have you seen the lashings? And the way they all twist like their backs want to break but can’t, and the screams? I’ve seen. I’ve seen the Prefect watching this spectacle. Say what you will, he has honor in his madness. He watches every sentence.
“But I can offer you something that I think you will take as good news, Jerald. I take duplicate images of the retina at each exam. I can register one from two months ago, before you did this thing. The Prefect won’t learn of this.
“But now that you’ve seen, you choose knowingly. You can’t have absolution twice. Not from me.”
Tom moved the examiner away from Jerald’s face. Jerald thought of the Concubine walking in the park somewhere, or sitting at the Prefect’s arm, or bathing in the palace fount. Everything beyond her was the black void, as if the universe only came into being with her touch. He lived in that void now and knew it. He wondered if it would be better to die for knowing her.
He put his ophthalmic passport on the tray beside his chair and Tom stamped the proper square for this week.