Short Stories

November 15, 2009      

The Black Ox by Aletheia Plankiw

Listen to a podcast of Aletheia Plankiw’s “The Black Ox.”

“That doesn’t hurt much.  Not really.”

“I don’t like hurting you.”

“Just do it.  Make me hurt.”

Freyr squeezes the soft bulge of her upper arm, but not hard, not as Elena has wanted. He inflicts pain in small quantities, never wishing actually to hurt. He slides a hand softly up her arm to rub her shoulder.  She winces slightly from this tentative display of affection..

He squeezes once more, hard now until the flesh feels like solidly compressed meat.  She makes a small noise, perhaps a whimper, or else a purr.  With his left hand he pinches the inside of her right thigh.

“Harder.  Do it harder.  Don’t stop.”

Elena is moaning now.  Why?  Why does she want him to do these things?   It makes their last sex together more interesting, even perhaps more memorable, but it is also seriously disturbing.  Flickering scraps of passion have become the technical desire to enhance experience.  Nostalgia reshapes everything.   Freyr watches her scavenging memories, slight moments though also savage.

“I want to remember us.”

When their love began hurtling into dissolution, Elena had metamorphosed into a technician of memory.  She now seeks moments of pain.  With them, she hopes to construct brilliant, sharp images that she will remember always.  Why?  Freyr asks, over and over.  Why?

“I can remember better if you hurt me.”

Freyr’s father had said, Pain marks the Black Ox’s hoofprint, his heavy tread upon us.

Pain may make us inarticulate in the moment, brutish and inexpressive, but later we will remember things clearly.  The past becomes articulate.  Most people flee his tread, a few will seek it out.

One harsh January day when he was sixteen, his father had called Freyr to his study.   He knew that such commands always prefaced a significant moment.  His father laid the book he had been reading on the desk.  He took the heavy death’s-head meerschaum pipe out of his mouth and placed it carefully onto an ashtray.   Nietzsche wrote, he said, looking Freyr fully in his green eyes, that man was the “boldest animal and the one most accustomed to pain.”    Bringing pain, the Black Ox’s hoofprint blocks the mind, but then, in memory, inspires it.  Sten had glanced away, turning  back to his papers stacked neatly to one side of the working typescript of his book on Ernst Cassirer fanned open upon the desk.   Meditatively, he stroked his trimmed red beard.  Sten studied his son’s face thoughtfully.  The angular features, the shaggy red hair, the green eyes, reminded him of himself.  His son’s mother had played her role elsewhere in his make-up.  Her body had granted him soft feelings.

His father had been a dour intellectual, sturdily living up to his Swedish birthright.  In his son’s memory, Sten is unyielding, rock-like, resembling his given name.  Freyr never forgets his unfading red hair, his sharply-trimmed beard, his lancing green eyes, his voice muted into the distant rumble of an avalanche.  Freyr grew up with the thoughts of German philosophers, as bleak and fresh as Baltic winds, heavy as storm clouds.  Years later he thinks, if what Sten said about pain made sense, then it must be that way for Elena too.  How will she remember me?  Freyr will remember how she snakes slightly beneath his body’s pressure, her back arching perceptibly.  He will remember her breasts touching, and yielding to, his body’s weight.  How will she remember me?  Uncaring?  Brutal?  Flexing a torturer’s obsidian fingers?

Freyr’s bike, a 750cc Triumph Bonneville, spun out of control on a slick brick-paved street and hurled him, catapult-like, onto a front yard.  Kirsten, his girlfriend that summer,  somehow remained unhurt, still straddling the long seat, her heels hooked beneath the pegs, clutching the space where Freyr had been.  He had torn the ligaments of his left knee.  When it happened, the pain was intense.  An explosion’s roar, an impact, a slash, all folded into a moment.  It felt as if a searing knife’s-blade had slit through his knee, probing and twisting deep inside.  Afterwards, it hurt like a tooth-ache, inaccessible other than as feeling.  All the usual clichés for describing pain–acute, hot, piercing, raw, searing, sharp–might have fit in that moment, but none would have been fully adequate.  He struggled into consciousness, understanding at once that he had severely injured himself.  Even as he climbed up unsteadily from darkness, his mind fogged and dim, eyes tearing and blurred, a woman, in a miracle of serendipitous presence, emerged from her house to offer him a cup of tea.  The white string from the tea-bag hung over the edge of the cup.   A young man in a military sailor’s uniform tried to give him first-aid.  Freyr had been seventeen.

Years later, Freyr remembers distinctly the sailor’s dark blue uniform with white trim and a thin row of campaign ribbons across the left pectoral.  Far away, Kirsten is whimpering in shock.  The woman who brought him tea wore a simple off-white shift with a pink floral pattern.  Under the wide straps, her hunched shoulders were red and freckled.  Her pendulous breasts were large, motherly.  She smiled tentatively, with compassion, with kindness.  He remembers her pink, smooth face, her brown eyes hinting tears, the crinkly web of crowfeet, the single gold cap along her upper jaw.  The lawn is freshly cut and, as he grasps consciousness once more, his nose grows stuffed with the richness of mown grass.   It is late June in Minnesota.  The details of the moment remain coherent even now in the unknowable far-off, as precise as physical calibrations.  They are there still, highlighting his mind, even as he argues with Elena.

“Why pain?  I’ll always be a pain-dealer in your mind.  Someone  nasty.  Brutal.  Just male?”

“I was taught what pain is good for.”

When he got to his feet, his knee feeling weak and floppy, pain gnawing it like fire, he righted his bike and rode away.  Kirsten held him by the waist, complaining that she was now late for lunch, demanding to be taken home.  Each time he used his leg, depressing the brake pedal or steadying the bike at stop lights, an excruciating pain shot upwards from his knee.  Later, slitting his mouth into his thinnest Upsala smile, his father supported him to the Studebaker.  When they walked together into the emergency ward, Freyr holding himself steady upon Sten’s arm, the pain was like hot tongs gripping into the bone.  His father squeezed his shoulder, saying nothing, silent as snowfall, but Freyr understood the clasp’s import:  Be a man.

“My father believed in pain.  He called it the Black Ox.”

“I remember pain better than other things.  My happiest birthday, when I was fifteen, my brother took me and two girlfriends on the ferry across the Plata to Montevideo for a special outing.  I want so much to remember that day, all the more now Eduardo is dead, but I can’t.  The details are all haze.  Pain, I can remember.”

“I don’t seek pain out.  You do.  Why?”

“In Argentina, things happened.  Just imagine they were terrible things.  They taught me pain can be borne.”

“But what does that have to do with us?”

Elena sighs.  Freyr must imagine pain that is cold, measured, like a poem.  Desperation darkens her voice.  Freyr should imagine himself in a dungeon, kept on a short chain, lying in filthy water, rats swimming around.  He could try to keep them off his face by blowing.  Could he imagine?   Could he imagine how helpless he would be? He thought he could.  But what did this have to do with them?  That was the kind of loneliness she had experienced.  Something like it anyway.  He needed to listen.  Guards would take him at random hours to a small room where his interrogators would be waiting.  He should imagine them as the other gender.  His guards would be women.  They might shine a bright light in his eyes.  They would be silent as death.  They would insult him.  Their insults would always be about his sex.  He should imagine that these masked women would periodically withdraw the clamps from his fingers and the electrodes from his penis.  Very slowly, without saying anything except to laugh at him, they would force his head down into a tank of filthy water, greasy with urine and shit.  Could he imagine that?

Suppose he could?  If that was had happened to her, then he was sorry. But what did it mean for them?  Why did she want him to hurt her?  Now, she replied, now he must imagine that he has not the least idea why this is happening to him, not even a fuzzy guess about the crime he has committed.  And this would be the thing, in all his life, that he will remember most clearly.  Not his fifteenth birthday.  Not Montevideo.  Not his brother who died at sea, the person he loved most.  Just the terrible pain.  He still couldn’t see what that had to do with them.  Why did she want him to hurt her?  He must try to see.  Imagine that the guards force his head down in a tank of filthy water.  It was called a pileta, like the baptismal font.  Sometimes in Buenos Aires it was called a submarino.  That was meant to be funny.  Their local joke.

During the time of the junta, her own time, the  generals loved the pileta.  Elena imagines those old men masturbating, images of young women being humiliated with excrement tickling their withered brains.  Maybe they had actually been there, peeking through tiny peepholes, through narrow slits in the wall, or a one-way window.  The pileta had been worse than the beatings, worse than the electric shocks.  It made her feel the fear of drowning, but also the fear of strangling, of feeling her throat close, her lungs clog.  The fear was worse than the pain.  It was a special  high-intensity pain, something all alone, very distinct, but the fear, the anticipation, was worse.

“You want me to live in your memory like a sadistic guard?”

“I want to remember you at least that clearly.  More clearly, if I can.”

When they have sex for the last time, and they both know this is so, Freyr grasps Elena’s shoulders from behind, gently with both hands, and pulls her beneath him.  He wants to remember pleasure, as if she were merely a vivid one-night stand, even if it will all dwindle into a pleasant dream.  He will know how to fantasize the memory.  Elena is more deliberate, more painstaking, in the dissolution of their relationship.  She knows what she wants to remember.  In her harsh Buenos Aires classroom, she learned to understand Nietzsche’s lesson that pain sharpens memory.  Even if she tells the story only to herself, pain will enrich her heartsickness.

From the first moment Freyr had seen her, he had wanted to cradle Elena’s oval Italianate head in his hands and nuzzle into her black hair’s long tangle.  He imagined her as a sexual partner in that first instant, his red hair mingled into, interlaced with, her black.  Mysteriously, she made him reticent.  Though he wanted to know, he asked her very little about her Argentinian life.  One of her brothers had been among the 368 seamen killed when an English submarine sank the Argentinian cruiser  General Belgrano, and shadows of that pain often ghosted her eyes.  He  knew that she had gone to university in Buenos Aires, but he didn’t know her plans.   What kind of career did she have in mind?  What had Elena wanted?  What did she want?

Imagine, Sten had commanded Freyr, imagine pain.  Do not fear it.  Above his son’s head, Sten would see the Black Ox poised, its hooves fretful.  He took pleasure in Freyr’ escape from greater hurt when he had been catapulted from his motorcycle.  Yet within his wintry imagination, he had also inquired whether his son had not deserved more punishment.  Pain, he would say, ennobles the soul, a mark of courage to bear it.  Did Elena desire simply to know how much pain she could endure?  How many different kinds?

Over time, the relationship between Elena and Freyr began to splinter apart.  They would tear each other apart in different arguments, including a bitter one about oral sex.  Elena permitted, with sour forbearance, what she could not give.  Something, some experience (he thought), stood in her way.  She drew an ungiving line against his pleasure.  She wouldn’t explain her antipathy, averting her eyes, turning coldly mum, close-lipped and withdrawing.  To Freyr, it seemed likely that, with no explanation, her reticence would destroy their relationship.  Elena would twist her head away, her vision fixed upon some inner scene.  Then, bending to his importunities, she told him.  She told him much more than Freyr wished to hear.

In 1979, a recent graduate in languages, Elena had been working for an import-export business.  Walking home to her family’s apartment one evening, she was blocked by two men who threw a rough-woven burlap sack over her head, dragged her into a car.  She was taken to a place with a number of small cells somewhere in the city and kept blindfolded.  Sobs and muffled weeping murmured up and down the corridor.  At the time, not understanding what had taken place, she thought that she was being held in a major prison on the outskirts of the city.  Later she learned that this must have been one of many small places scattered throughout Buenos Aires where the military junta detained “terrorists” for interrogation.  She expected to be raped, but she wasn’t.   Instead, always blindfolded, she was questioned about her “Jewish acquaintances” and her knowledge of communists and other left-wing radicals.  Keeping silent, she was determined never to reveal anyone’s name, however trivial or self-evidently innocent.  She was beaten over and over.  Twice she was given electrical shocks until her mouth frothed.  Then one night she was taken from her cell and brought to a room farther away than the other rooms.  It had a green and yellow tile floor in a zig-zag pattern which she could glimpse beneath the edge of her blindfold.  The green tiles were the color of bile; the yellow, scabs.  The place might have been a lavatory once or perhaps a laundry.  The tiles’ starkness and the naked lights gave her a glimpse of hell:  sterile, ugly,  heartless.  She was kept blindfolded and then, for the first time, forced to undress.  The guards groped her breasts and growled searing, gynophobic insults that afterwards, like angry wasps, swirled through her mind.  She would never forget them.

Made to kneel at the edge of a tank of water, she heard the interrogator ask the familiar questions over and over.  Then she felt herself lifted up, her head forced under the water.   The stench alone told her that this was the pileta.  However long she held her breath, she would eventually have to open her mouth.  When that happened, bits of shit would enter her and choke her throat.  Only when she was on the edge of death, convinced she was drowning, was she allowed to breathe. The guards would jerk her head out of the tank and let her revive.  Sometimes she would have to go through the experience a second time, but usually she was dragged dripping and stinking back to her cell where, curled on the concrete floor, she would be left to cough and shiver.  This happened seventeen times during the ten months she was disappeared.  Each time it came as a surprise, but one which she had anticipated with horror.  Each time it was as sexually insulting as the interrogator and guards could make it.  Each time she would be filled with terror and anguish.  Each time as she knelt, the guards would roughly pinch her breasts.  Each time she would be pulled from the pileta, and allowed to hack up the shit so that she could breathe again.  Each time the interrogator asked the same questions that he had asked so often before.

Could Freyr understand what they did?  Transfixed by her horror and shame, his long hair damp with vicarious stress, he struggled to answer.  He did. Yes.  They would strip her, making her kneel. Then they would hurt her breasts until she would cry.  What they did was sexual, but it hadn’t been meant to be arousing.  Just humiliating.  All the time, they would insult her.  Then the interrogator would place his left hand on the back of her head and push.  With his right hand, he would reach between her legs, squeeze as tightly as he could, while, making her pubic bone his fulcrum, pushing her body upwards.  Even when she peed in fear, he would keep up the pressure.  Two guards held her feet so she couldn’t kick.  Did he understand what it had to do with them?   She  would hold her breath until forced to swallow the piss and shit.  She would come back to consciousness hacking and spitting while the guards laughed.  After ten  months, they let her go just as easily as they had picked her up.

Elena knew that she was extremely lucky to be alive when so many young people had been killed, strangled, shot or pushed, their bellies slit open to forestall floating, from airplanes over the South Atlantic.  She never knew why she had been kidnapped, nor why she had been let go.  Her memories of interrogation were strong enough to remind her that it had happened.  Most of all, she remembered her seventeen journeys to the pilata.  Did Freyr see how they sexualized her torture?  He saw. She had  felt terror waiting.  When she smelled the disgusting stench coming from the tank, she felt horror.  Even though he wore gloves, she could feel the interrogator’s hand.  When she believed that she was dying, she would  feel a different terror.  When she spat someone’s shit from her mouth, Elena had experienced raw loathing, fear and humiliation. Even more strongly she had felt shame and pollution.  Did he understand why she could never do what he wanted her to do?  What it would remind her of? Freyr watched the dread of further pollution cloud her consciousness.  Cadaverous and pale, shame skulked behind her eyes.

“It isn’t a matter of taste, or even texture. It’s just that feeling it in my mouth would  evoke memories.  I was polluted.  Maybe I still am.  But I don’t want to feel even more pollution swilling over my body.  What does it have to do with us?  Your father’s Black Ox trampled me”

Freyr nearly imagines the revulsion she would have to feel.  He sees a great deal, though now he wishes he had not asked.  Elena is a woman dominated by memory.  Not the endless cycling of small memories that, cluttering like trash, distract the mind, but the intellectual work of recollection itself.   Memory is her life’s constant preoccupation.  When he pinches her arm, she imagines the future when she will twist back into her past, dreaming his touch.

Elena’s story gathers about him with surrogate intensity.  His eyes well and glisten: her story, now his own as well.   His mouth crunched into his meager smile, Sten had said, The Black Ox, whose hooves stamp both pain and the fear of pain, bears falsehood in every step.

Years later, he hates the deposed generals in Argentina.  When he reads that they are on trial or that they have been granted amnesty, or that again they are on trial, his feelings flow and knot.  Without much wanting to, Freyr has stowed, ready for instant unpacking, his father’s lessons.  Stripped of their Lutheran vertebrae, those lessons have evolved into sentiments for dealing with the world.  On his motorcycles, he learned a further lesson that his father had not known.  Not only did the Black Ox shuffle his hooves above human existence, at once flattening and enhancing experience, but even the threat of those hooves could burn details into memory, corrosive as acid.  The Black Ox was both himself and his shadow-self.   Freyr knows that even the memory of his imagination’s anticipation of intense pain can instantly evoke another world, richly sheathed.

Sten had said: Pain obscures the moment; in memory, it underscores and heightens.  It never leaves, Freyr thinks, never vanishes, but hangs on, in your imagination, in your eyes, in the shapes your mouth makes, in the stories you tell.  Elena had escaped the Junta’s drooling monsters, but she bore the Black Ox’s shadow, like lash-welts, across her shoulders.  The tortured remain tortured still, whatever is said, whatever is done.   Elena’s whole being, her smiles, her glances, all her responses, had been rebuilt upon pain’s wiry scaffold.  Somewhere now, Elena remembers her seventeen trips to the pileta with burning lucidity.  Elena embraces a lover, stroking his desire into actuality, remembering her torture, the pileta‘s stench, more clearly than she can remember Freyr, Montevideo, or even Eduardo.  Somewhere now.  Yet somewhere she may also remember Freyr, even if in torn fragments:  the fire of his hair, the brooding desire, the sidelong ambivalence.  Somewhere else, Freyr kindles his lesson into flame: he touches softly, asks and listens, and knows how to shuffle back.

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