I was in love with an executioner, for a time; dark, and sombre, he was, his eyes all gloom and poetry. I’d watch their blackness fold under his long lashes as he smoked a cigarette through tender fingers, wondering if those he felled ever looked back over their shoulders to perceive his melodic gaze.
When we made love I was almost jealous that the very hands that grasped my throat had severed others, the culmination of the ultimate death surpassing the smallness of my own ribbonned climax. His hands were always warm, even through the winter the River Seine had almost stilled in an embrace of ice, warm even as, in leather gloves, they cleaved head from lonely neck, when he was called to do so.
Warm were those hands, and delicate, like painted swans; I could almost imagine how the oils would pattern the grooves on the backs of his knuckles, the fractals of his palms.
When he touched me he drew blood through my body with the suddenness of a throat through the noose, a sheer, suddenness of pleasure that frightened me, and seemed to stir, in him, the solemnity of duty. Fucking, killing: each dance was the same to him, steps that God had cobbled to his heels, lest his mind and hands ever forget. Both acts he could have carried blind, for I had seen his lids fall throughout the motions of slaughter and had perceived, in such unseeing, that he held then an equal skill.
He had not chosen his particular work, but been born to it, an occupation that few desired to take. Made apprentice to his father, my man had inherited this vicious legacy like some sinister jewel, and had guarded it studiously ever since, honing his body to a length of clever muscle in order to perform it to the best of his ability.
Naked, he was all terrible excellence, no spare flesh, no weakness, a mythic perfection. I would often touch him as though he were not real, as though my hand might pass through such dreamlike flesh rather than glide easily upon it. Beside him I either felt madly beautiful for having been chosen by him, or else a mangled beast, my even features wrought to their extremes in comparison to his beauty.
His sublimity was a gift to the condemned, but his face— this, always, they were forbidden. That I saw this thing each night beside me, or else gilded by daylight, quartered by a filigree of shadow, was almost a religious intimacy, like glimpsing the visage of a priest after confession. Such beauty was his that I scarce believed that any mortal man could possess its rarity beyond the murky lands of sleep.
Indeed, I had only ever seen such a countenance before in paintings, and had thought them an elevation of life rather than true replication. But my executioner surpassed even the prettiest boy daubed on the ceiling of some grand room, or pale canvas. His cheeks were like the carved bows of some divine instrument, his nose the fine slope of some sea-worn cliff, the eyes, already spoken of, weaving the thread of individual detail into a harmonious ecstasy.
Most men blessed with such looks are creatures of arrogance, tainting any potential prestige with their uncouth manner. The executioner, however— he carried his beauty like a sin, a burden, for ever he was possessed of a thoughtfulness and quietitude one might rather expect of a philosopher, and not a person whose frugal earnings were made through the manner of killing.
Had he been of noble birth he might have rubbed shoulders with the best of men— but for his work he was maligned, a pariah from the culture he would have reigned over as a lord, a king, an emperor of all.
Such was his life, for those who grant death fill others with the chill ether of their actions. The common thought was thus: how can I share ale with the fellow that might slay my daughter, or I? And so my man was forever in his own company, and learned to be his nearest friend and confidant long before he and I were ever acquainted. I did not share the shallow qualms of my peers, such base cowards who dared not lie with death so easily as I.
Where they feared, I only knew wonderment for a being so ethereal, and yet bound to the vampire of iron that was his sword, itself the puppet of a jury’s will. They could not comprehend that the dog of such bloodthirsty masters did not share in their starvation, for never did my man stand at that block with joy, nor with the satisfaction of justice.
He went there with the neutrality of a God: whether the subject be a pickpocket or a pederast he saw them all the same, the homogeny of life condemned by those who were not always right, and could never know if the punishment of killing was correct under the eye of their Lord.
Such questions shrouded my lover’s conscience with the silver thickness of an impenetrable fog, and from this pale depression I often struggled to lure him back to the now.
“What if this thing I do is evil?” he would ask, standing upon a balcony where Paris spread itself beneath him like the thighs of a cunning whore. “What if, when I pass on, I find myself at the black gates of Hell, and not of Heaven?”
I would say that the king had commanded him, and that the king was chosen by God, and so was righteous. But each time my man would shake his head and say, in an awful, rasping softness, “I have killed dukes, and barons, and marquises; who says I cannot kill a king? And if I may do so, you say that God chooses to end the life of his highest servants with such frivolity? I cannot believe it.”
“God has killed many,” I would reply, coyly aware that I touched the vertices of blaspheme. “If he should take a ruler, who are we to question his design?”
Always, then, my man would roll, to me, the black diamonds of his eyes and shudder in a mode of desperation.
“But, my love, it is not God that determines who should die, and who should not: it is men, a hoard of them, chosen by other men to pass judgement on those beneath. I am their blade. It may as well be the work of Satan, or worse, the folly of the Lord’s children who, through independent will, know no better. It is my work, but there is no pride in it.”
Had I known that he would later end his life over the matter of these ruminations I would have made a greater effort to still their perilous motion, but then I’d thought him only some gorgeous, foolish animal, apt to startling reflections, and nothing more.
Had I known then, what would I have done? Nothing I ever said had touched the fathomless well of his intellect, nor altered the pervasive fear that he was about Satan’s business, although, if this were so, then he enacted it with a grace and gentleness one would not readily ascribe to evil.
If he had only seen himself through my eyes— there was no fault his beauty could not diminish, and though he returned to my bed often with the scent of blood upon my clothes that, too, was made pleasant through association. Had he loved himself with my ardour he might never have passed the bitter liquor of almonds across his lips, condemning his soul to the planes he had delivered others in their countless number.
As it was, our time was short, a mere sixth months when my heart starved for a century, the impossibility of romantic yearning. I coveted him with the harsh envy of a dragoness, longing to dissect every thread of his person to weave him closer to my soul. Each of his executions I attended with the zeal of a repentant Catholic, watching with immovable concentration as other ladies shielded their eyes, or else fainted from the russet horror of his killing.
So often did I see my lover’s sword clip skull from neck that the iron reek of the action came to arouse me, for I could only think that it was this same arm that had held me close under a perspiring knot of skin and sheets. Though morbid my predilection, it did not occur to me to be ashamed of it, for to be so would be to taint the image of my lover, and this I could never do. Even the limp sacks of corpses hauled up from his block, dripping with ichor and ammonia, were, to my comprehension, beheaded angels, heralding the presence of my sweetheart.
My eyes saw as the great painters of our time observe even the most dismal scene, filtering the macabre so that all that I perceived from amidst the baying crowds was my man’s beloved presence. Often I envisaged myself kneeling in the place of his unhappy victims, contemplating the warmth of his being at my back, the weight of his fell stare, even the tread of his thick boots upon the scaffold as he prepared to make his strike.
I did not want to die, of course; my death would be to leave him, and that could never be. It was only that each moment his attention was not upon me was as sore as some grievous wound, and I would have done all to be the focus of the spectators’ stares, should they have known that I was his.
There was one execution that I recall with luminous clarity, the sentencing of a woman said to be a witch and an adulteress, crimson of hair and as pale as a marsh fog beneath the October sun, the very image of that thing she was accused of. Those of us gathered before the block were silent as she spoke her final words, vowing her innocence, calling on God as though, in some trumpeting miracle, He would reach down to pluck her from that stage and free her of this destiny.
My lover rose behind her like an omen, his silhouette engraved upon the sky. Even hooded his allure was evident, and it stunned me that no other there appeared to see it. They were deprived, bereft through their unknowing blindness. Only I witnessed the man in his distinction, the sculpted arms, the oiled motion of an automaton that gripped him as he took up his position.
The doomed woman looked back at him, her dim eyes base with dread. Could she not sense the attending seraphim, the burning hand of God that was to hold her through the last of her filthy life? I know from the bland fixture of terror about her person that she did not. She only saw a black swordsman, grim, and silent, and unpleasant as a raven picking at the carrion that she would soon become.
She could not read his eyes, which, to me that knew him, were bleak with sorrow and disquiet. This only strengthened his perfection, my dark Gabriel with his unwanted duty.
He stepped up behind the woman and swept his sword in a singing arc. My heart leapt in answer to that gesture, and I recall that I moved forward, to the stage, my hands outstretched towards him, yearning, dearly, for his touch, even if it be the agony of the killing blow.
It was as the sword came down upon the witch’s neck that my lover’s gaze met mine, recognising, suddenly, my face beneath my shawl, rosy with the passions of love and lust unbound. I witnessed, then, for some foul moment, the descent of rank disgust about his pupils, like storm clouds eclipsing the moon.
Yet surely I imagined it, for when the woman was dead, and my man had set about wiping the gleaming scarlet of her blood from his sword, there was nothing in his eyes save for the focus of his duty. And, after that, there was less still, the absence of anything but colour.