"The Prostitute's Escape"
by Jennifer Stevenson
On his first visit, the merchant was a model client. He set a box of precious stones on the prostitute's lap. "The manners of your city, wherever that good place may be, are fair. Or are they your own?" said Monatin. Cash down payment she usually got, coldly offered. "And you don't know yet who you want?" He would want her. No sense handing this over to one of the girls.
Sunlight fell on her through the ceiling lattice, so that her reed-green dress phosphoresced in patches and her hair burned a richer mahogany. Monatin ran her fingers through the gems. "You are generous." She played with a ruby, letting its bloody light spill over her fingertips. "How may I please you?" The ruby ran into her palm like a drop of crimson mercury, quivering, seeking a low place in her flesh. She smiled down at it with lowered lashes.
"I can't resist you in that color. You must always wear green!" he said huskily, drawing her to him.
Her mouth worked over him inch by inch. "For you," she murmured, "I will always wear green."
He stayed a day and a night, as he had paid for.
"Not that dress--the other. The one you wore when we met." He found it not always easy to talk to her. She could hear anything, he felt, and forgive. Some nights, his whole life seemed to stream out of his mouth on stinking air and, where it hung about their bodies, was made sweet. What stuck in his throat was that he had come that first day to buy someone, anyone, and had changed his mind. It made him ashamed. Secret treasure had entered his heart in that most artificial of transactions. He could not afford to lose sight of it. To praise her was to purify that first shameful motive. To pay was the other half of honor, for he was first and last a merchant. Yet paying reminded him of his sin. His heart was renewed every night on a thorn.
Monatin knew all there was to know about love. Since her initiation, men had poured out all the pretty speeches there are. The merchant's was no mystery. She was a mirror to his soul. She showed him what was sacred and beautiful in the world through a veil made of her body. She smiled on him and the sun becurdled his unquiet mind until he basked like a lizard, empty and worshipful, in the place at the center of all things. If he had written her passionate poetry she could not have known more--it took some that way, though not him. Her merchant expressed himself in cash, fine horses and slaves, unset gems, and gifts of an intimate ornamental nature. Monatin found him oddly sweet. His directness touched her where no poem would.
She knew what men wanted most from her, each one with his private hunger, and as a matter of business she gave it.
What he wanted from her was growing inconveniently big. With the gifts now came worship, his imagination making of her personal self both the temple and the goddess.
"I have built something for you," he cried. "You must come, you must see it, and I you, in the most perfect setting for your perfection."
She bit her lip. Leave town? With his command came a bottle of perfume so expensive that the bottle itself would pay her taxes for the year. So she scented herself with the perfume, put on the reed-green dress, and took a chair to his house in the country.
The chair passed under humid cathedral arches festooned with trailing moss, through rings of white villas like wedding cakes for grander and grander weddings. Turbaned men moved their goats from the road to let her pass. Red women, leathered and beaded to the eyebrows, stared her out of countenance. The afternoon rain came down like a kiss on golden fields of enormous aromatic leaves, burnishing the shoulders of her chair-bearers and wetting the hem of the reed-green dress when she leaned out to smell the air.
The merchant met her at a gate of black iron contorted like grapevine. "You are on my property from here on," he said, and she thought she heard him correctly, to her indignation. Though she smiled, her eyes narrowed. "Come, I'll show you!" he cried.
On his property a wood, and in the wood a clearing, and in the clearing a garden, and in the garden a pool of ornamental water, and in the pool a shrine of white marble like a tomb or temple. Together they crossed the tiled causeway into the temple. Sunshine poured out of a lattice in the ceiling upon a chair placed just so.
"You are the sun and moon, Monatin! You give meaning to all of life! I will inebriate myself on your wit, I will prostrate myself in your wisdom! When I die, I will come to inhabit the great house of your soul, room upon room of goodness and mercy, the beginning of truth and the end of justice! I will contemplate you and be purified!"
You will pay through the nose for this, my friend, she thought, how did I let him get me out here in the middle of a holiday weekend? The girls at the putatorium would be raising the devil without her supervision.
Paid he had however so she sat, with the faithfulness of her trade, just as he desired, and let the sun cascade over her red-brown hair and the jewels pour into her lap. She did all his favorite things on the very hard marble couch in the shrine. Afterward, in the pool, he lay his head on her belly and told her all about his sin, and she forgave him with a wry smile he could not see. It was stale news to her that a man might pay happily, or love happily, but never both.
When she got back to the city that night, there was a party smashing furniture in the side parlor, the cook had quit, and a girl huddled in tears on the mezzanine, having accepted offers of marriage from two separate drunken young noblemen who had then refused to pay her until their duel for her hand had been settled.
"This cannot go on," Monatin said.
She was not a stupid woman, nor was this merchant the first troublesome admirer in her career. Over the next months she let him make her further into the woman he loved, and of course also the woman to whom he would give the most--business was business. By this means she contrived her escape. When he covered her with trinkets, she incorporated them into the straps and fringes of her dress. When he put precious combs in her hair, wound priceless silken scarves around her zone and gold chains around her ankles and wrists, she made sure to wear them all, every one, whenever they were together. His cash gifts increased. Monatin measured them carefully against the losses inevitable in the cost of doing business, which she more and more clearly foresaw.
His obsession increased in power. He now knew her for Keeble, for Duve, for Ocean. Every gesture was a divine message to him, so that merely by walking across the room to pour wine for him she tangled him in a welter of sweet inarguable commandments, which he must needs explain to her at length. He bought huge blocks of her time, so that she had to put off several of her regular customers. He was difficult and superior with her political patrons. She had a hovering dread of his confronting the tax collector in her defense.
Still she did her work well. She wore the reed-green dress at all times, scented with his gift of perfume. She was careful always to dress her hair alike to the way she wore it on that first, most wonderful day of his life. She made sure to sing the same songs, perform her professional duties similarly, finally to say only certain words to him, like a priestess handing down a liturgy to her parishioner, faithfully every time they met.
"Never leave me, Monatin! You are my life, you are all that is real!"
One day, a year from the day of their first meeting, he entered her private room to find a strange woman in the bonnet of a servant standing before a screen with folded arms.
"Where is Monatin?" he demanded. "Why is her chair concealed?"
The woman, plain and middle-aged, hoary-headed and thick about the waist in her housekeeping robe, said sternly, "She is gone."
"Gone!" he cried, the long-anticipated grief sinking into his breast like a grateful spear.
"She left this for you, and you alone," said the woman. Setting the screen aside with soft white hands, she left the room.
It was the reed-green dress. It lay over her chair with the sun sparkling on its many trinkets, all known to him, and the costly scarves wound about its zone, smelling of his gift of perfume. The so-familiar anklets and bracelets were there, and most wonderful and terrible of all, the combs he had presented to her, binding a great coiled lock of mahogany-colored hair, still smelling unbearably of her skin, his private doorway to heaven.
The merchant never visited the putatorium again. Possessed by a contented melancholy, he took away the reed-green dress and all its many parts, and put it in its temple on his country estate, draped across the marble chair just so. And when he died perhaps that is indeed the heaven into which he entered.
The prostitute sold the bottle with the remains of the perfume still in it, along with the unset gems, the horses and slaves, and the gold casket he had given her to keep his gifts in. Not counting cash payments that went for overhead, and after taxes, it put his account just over the line into the black. There is such a thing as doing the job far better than the market requires, indeed, too well. Sometimes, however, it is unavoidable.