"Learner evokes an erotically charged version of the tales of the Brothers Grimm ... These nine wonderfully strange and dark tales maintain a dreamy, fairy-tale feel whether their settings are historical or contemporary."—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
Erotica for the modern woman: nine tales of the dangerous and divine
Prepare to stimulate your senses and explore the deepest longings of the human heart. In Tremble, Tobsha Learner, the author of the international bestseller Quiver, depicts the pleasures of new and rediscovered love, lust, and obsession in a world where passion and magic are interwoven—and where boundaries are pushed beyond expectation.
In a Welsh village, a young woman’s sensuality is awakened by an outrageous inheritance; a drought-stricken Oklahoma town is offered salvation by a travelling rainmaker; a Sydney record producer struggles to satisfy his wife and his mistress—until one of them takes matters into her own hands…
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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Dorothy leaned back against the coarse wicker chair and watched the afternoon sunlight fall across the wall of the cottage. It was the last days of spring and already she could detect the heavier fecundity of August steaming up through the soil.
She stretched out her solid but shapely legs and caught a glimpse of her reflection in a window. The face that stared back at her was pleasantly attractive. Dorothy’s most distinguishing feature was her complexion. She had classically pale Welsh skin with heavy dark eyebrows, and her eyes, ringed with thick black lashes, were somewhere between gray and blue. “The color of threatening weather,” her ex-lover used to call it. Above them, her dark hair stood up like an errant haystack. It was the face of a woman in her midthirties. Dorothy had no illusions, she knew she looked her age.
“I hope you like nettle tea,” Great-Aunt Winifred sang out. A whiff of a dank smell, not unlike horse manure, drifted out from the kitchen.
The old lady placed a steaming cup of tea in front of Dorothy and sat down, her sharp face a road map of wrinkles with two mischievous brown eyes buried below a strong brow.
“Is it medicinal?” Dorothy asked nervously, hoping for a syrupy nectar that would ease the constant heartburn she’d been plagued with ever since she’d given up the London flat, the married lover, and the secure job in the archival department of the British Museum. A job, she’d realized, that had little to offer except a state pension upon retirement.
Winifred Cecily Owen gazed critically at her great-niece. At ninety-nine years of age she found that anyone under the age of seventy irritated her. They seemed to have lost the art of self-reliance and, worse than that, the art of happiness. She was convinced they had replaced it with an insatiable need to be entertained. Winifred’s generation had been far less demanding. They were simply grateful to have the woods and the streams, the local dances at the nearby army barracks, and to repeat the life rhythms of their parents and grandparents. Why did everyone want so much these days?
The Owens had lived for over four hundred years in a tiny hamlet outside the Welsh village of Llansantffraid. The family had an uneasy relationship with the villagers, who, in all truth, had barely tolerated their outlandish behavior over the centuries.
Generations of Owen women had gloried in their spinsterhood. Every decade or so, one chosen woman would run off only to reappear pregnant, as if blessed by an immaculate conception. And generations of local preachers, vicars, and holy men had despaired. They were outraged at the complete lack of guilt the women displayed, as if it were their right to behave in such an ungodly manner, and branded the women witches, spreading the rumor that they were worshippers of Rhiannon, Cerridwen, and Arianrhod—the three great goddesses of Cymru—and that their coven lay hidden in a cave in the foothills of North Wales. But despite the rumor, none of the clan of Gynia Mwyn was ever arrested, imprisoned, or burned at the stake and so the uneasy truce continued through the ages.
In truth it was a symbiotic relationship. The villagers needed the Owens to provide greater drama than their own petty squabbles and intrigues, while the Owens needed the anonymous sperm donations. Even Dorothy herself had never known her father.
Dorothy was the only Owen, ever, to have left the hamlet and been allowed to return. There had been one who had left before her—her mother’s cousin who had emigrated to Australia. The cousin, whose departure was seen as a betrayal, had never been spoken of since. Dorothy herself had barely been forgiven. Her great-aunt blamed the cinema. Edith, Dorothy’s mother, had been a flighty, overimaginative creature who had seen The Wizard of Oz at an impressionable age. Winifred was convinced that if Edith had given her daughter a Welsh name, Dorothy would never have wandered. As it was, Dorothy had fled for London at the age of sixteen and had found herself an apprenticeship at the Imperial War Museum. It had taken her another eighteen years to find her way back to Wales.
“You home for good then?” Winifred ventured, reading a fatalism in the slump of her niece’s shoulders. The girl had a body, the aunt noted, that seemed prematurely resigned to aging.
“For a while. I have an interview at Shrewsbury Castle; they’re looking for a curator for the museum.”
“The castle! That’s a terrible place! I don’t know why you would want to work for the English—a mean treacherous race who slaughtered your ancestors!”
Dorothy restrained herself from pointing out that it was the very same race that kept the village’s souvenir shop and weekend cottages thriving, preventing it from becoming yet another ghost town. Still, it was the local English weekenders with their four-wheel drives who would regularly pull up outside Winifred’s cottage to point out the witch to their restless nose-picking kids. She watched as the nonagenarian poured the tea from a huge silver pot, hands trembling. Winifred’s long paisley dress was more reminiscent of the 1960s than of an ancient sorceress’s gown. It had probably been donated by the local thrift shop; and besides, what witch would get her food delivered by Meals on Wheels? Certainly not one with any dignity, and dignity was what her ancient relative exuded from every cell of her gnarled body. No, what Great-Aunt Winifred was suffering was the persecution every happily single woman suffers: the predictable social condemnation of her independence and childlessness. Dorothy reminded herself of what she’d learned during a university course on feminist history (with a strong Marxist slant): spinsters are a threat to patriarchy. As she grasped the china cup, she contemplated the possibility of elevating her great-aunt to the status of heroine.
“Still single?” Winifred went straight for the jugular.
Dorothy’s noble contemplation plummeted to the ground; her great-aunt had an unerring capacity to sniff out anyone’s Achilles’ heel. The young woman blushed and nodded. Feminism aside, she still found it hard not to feel stigmatized by that word.
“Nothing to be ashamed of; we Owen women have a long history of going it alone. One day I’ll show you how. They don’t call me the Merry Spinster for nothing. Now drink your tea, it’ll make your breasts grow.”
Sipping at the scalding brew, Dorothy put the last comment down to approaching dementia. Great-Aunt Winifred was, after all, ninety-nine. It was then that she noticed the knitting bag at her aunt’s feet. A mangy sack woven from hoary greenish thread, it was almost indiscernible against the moss-covered slate that paved Winifred’s courtyard. Suddenly it jumped, as if something were trapped inside. Dorothy looked again— the fabric definitely seemed to be twitching. Was she hallucinating? Could it be the nettle tea? She glanced back at her aunt, who smiled serenely but not without a certain smug innocence. The bag jumped again, this time unmistakably.
“What’s that?” Dorothy pointed to the bag, ensuring there could be no ambiguity. Great-Aunt Winifred pursed her lips, indicating a grievous invasion of privacy.
“Harold. He’s a family heirloom—you’ll be getting one when I die. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.”
She gazed blankly up toward the sky. Faking senility, Winifred had discovered in recent years, was an extremely useful ploy. Besides, she knew what the girl needed, even if Dorothy herself didn’t.
Meanwhile, Dorothy’s imagination took off, soaring right out of the courtyard and up over the gray slate roofs of the village. Witches have familiars. I’ll probably get to inherit some flea-bitten stray kitten, or worse still a toad, she thought. The bag twitched again.
Dorothy looked away politely, trying to steer her mind away from the guilty observation that she was projecting onto her aunt the stereotype of hag. It was politically incorrect, and she hated being politically incorrect. Peter, her married ex-lover, had often accused her of being too self-conscious, too aware of making the acceptable move.
Ironically, that was how he’d manipulated her into bed in the first place, playing on her initial rejection of him because he was married. Well, that and her astonishment that he found her desirable. Physical attraction was not something Dorothy had ever associated with her unfashionably buxom body. She wore her shape like a crucifix, blind to her own inherent splendor. There was history in her bones and a stoic grace in the sway of her hips that spoke of Boadicea. A very Celtic sort of beauty.
Dorothy settled into her new job within a couple of weeks. Although far humbler than the Imperial War Museum, Shrewsbury Castle had its own stately grace. Situated on a hill overlooking the town of Shrewsbury and the border counties (known as the Marches to the Welsh), the fortress had been built to ward off the fierce Welsh tribes who had ventured into England. Originally medieval, it had been rebuilt in the fourteenth century and fortified again in the seventeenth century, and little now remained of its Norman origins.
Dorothy’s office was an octagonal room at the back of the ticket booth. Most of her fellow workers were volunteers; she was one of only two paid staff. Part of her job was to classify the immense collection of historical objects donated to the museum, which ranged from medals to souvenirs picked up on the battlefield. The classification process gave her the illusion of control. It felt therapeutic to sort through the vast pile of medals, each one a minutia of history, as if giving meaning to her own personal chaos.
In the village Dorothy noticed that the name Owen seemed to evoke both dread and a slight hint of envy, especially from the long-suffering wives. As soon as it was known that she was Winifred’s kin, people began to shun her. One woman in the supermarket openly referred to her great-aunt as that “crazy old lesbian.” She even mentioned a live-in girlfriend during the war, but when Dorothy confronted her the housewife became suddenly vague. “You don’t look like an Owen,” she muttered, turning to the frozen peas.
Dorothy found she didn’t mind the isolation; there was a certain solace in her exile. It appealed to the martyr in her and somehow legitimized the indulgence of her grief over the loss of her lover. She took to conjuring up less attractive memories during solitary walks through the nearby mountains and woods, as a means of finally exorcising him: the large white hairy belly that flopped over his trousers; his arrogance; the way he constantly criticized her and then expected her to counsel him about his marital problems. She also began to rely more and more on her great-aunt.
Winifred had insisted on setting Dorothy up in the little house adjacent to her cottage, furnishing it with the meager pieces Edith had left after her death. Winifred cherished having a relative to confide in again, and many a night Dorothy found herself trapped in front of her great-aunt’s gas fire, listening to yet another tale of the Gynia Mwyn and their extraordinary female lineage.
The ancient spinster was busy herself. She had decided to dedicate the next few months to putting her affairs in order, as she was convinced that she would die at the end of summer. As befitted a woman who loathed the English, Winifred was a staunch antiroyalist and was determined, to the point of death, not to be a recipient of the queen’s obligatory telegram on her hundredth birthday.
At six o’clock on a cold wet late-summer’s morning, Dorothy was woken by a loud banging on the front door and the news she had been dreading.
The church organist stood there, clutching the morning papers over his head.
“Get decent, girl, your great-aunt’s decided to die.”
Dorothy pulled her raincoat over her flannel nightdress and rushed through the heavy drizzle to Winifred’s cottage.
Winifred lay in the nineteenth-century brass bed, her skin pulled taut and transparent across her bones. She was arguing with the local priest. “No, Keelan, I will not make my last confession. I’ve got nothing to atone for and the Lord himself can testify to that.” Her head fell back against the pillows, the effort of speech exhausting her.
“You’ve not made an appearance in church for over twenty years.” The priest, a large florid-faced man with a well-known drinking problem, was insistent.
“I beg to differ,” Winifred snapped back. “I have never stepped into that heathen place of superstition!”
The priest barely controlled his temper. “There you go, blaspheming on your deathbed! That’s enough to send you to the wrong place right there, if you get my meaning.” He leaned back, quaking with anger. He was determined to be the first to convert an Owen, even if it killed her in the process.
Dorothy sat quietly at her great-aunt’s head. She noticed that Winifred was clutching her knitting bag against the yellowed lace bed coverlet.
“Pagan I am, pagan I die. It’s what you’ve all been accusing me of for decades anyway. Oh, the hypocrisy! It’s enough to hasten my end, and I’m not due to die until four o’clock.”
She turned her face blindly toward her great-niece. “Dorothy, is that you?”
“It is.” Dorothy tentatively reached across and took Winifred’s hand into her own. The flesh was so withered it felt like the claw of death itself.
“Tell this self-appointed social worker to piss off so I can get on with the delicate act of passing over,” the old woman hissed.
Dorothy ushered the priest into the hallway. “Father, it might be better ... ”
“I should have known she’d react that way. They’re a stubborn bunch of heathens, the Owens. I’ll be praying you don’t go the same way.”
Propelled by a rush of familial loyalty, Dorothy pushed the tenacious cleric out into the rain.
Back in the bedroom her great-aunt was humming the “Internationale” under her breath. For a moment Dorothy thought she might have fallen into total dementia. But then Winifred’s eyes fluttered open.
“Come here, child, it’s almost time. The goddess will come for me on the hour.” She clutched at Dorothy’s skirt.
“Auntie, don’t say that.”
“Enough with the bullshit.” With a supreme effort Winifred held up her knitting bag. It jiggled slightly in the candlelight.
“This is what I’ll be leaving you.”
Dorothy’s eyes widened with apprehension as she braced herself for a hedgehog or, worse still, some endangered rodent, like a pygmy shrew, when Winifred reached dramatically into the bag and pulled out a withered root. Dorothy tried hard to conceal her bewilderment.
“It’s lovely,” she muttered in an unconvincing manner.
Ignoring her niece’s lack of enthusiasm, the old woman dangled the vegetation proudly. It hung like a limp turnip. Dorothy peered closer. It looked like a large twisted stem of ginger and was covered in strange reddish hairlike roots.
Winifred pressed it into Dorothy’s hand. “Never betray the mandrake,” she gasped. Then, as the grandfather clock chimed four, she died, her bony hand still fastened around her niece’s wrist.
They buried Winifred’s ashes at her favorite spot on the riverbank, according to the complicated instructions she had left in her will.
“Unconsecrated land,” the mourners whispered knowingly to each other as Dorothy got down on her hands and knees to place the strange pewter casket into the damp black earth.
The local men’s choir broke into a Welsh folk song—Winifred had specified no religious music—the tenor voices swelling and floating up with the evening mist. Above the funeral proceedings hovered a single black raven. Dorothy looked up at the bird, then down at the rushing water. A wave of loneliness swept over her. Now she was the only one left, the last of the clan.
A middle-aged woman dressed flamboyantly in a long silk dress approached her. A ravaged face that must once have boasted a handsome beauty peered out from under an enormous hat. She took Dorothy’s hand and drew it toward her bosom.
“I knew your great-aunt. She was one of the circle. One of the ancient ones. She’s up there now,” she whispered dramatically, pointing to the contoured disk of the rising moon already visible in the steely sky. “Up there, riding with Arianrhod on a great white mare toward Caer Arianrhod to join her sisters. One day you too shall inherit the mantle.”
The woman released Dorothy’s hand and, with a studied swish of her skirts, turned and walked across the muddy embankment toward a waiting BMW. Dorothy noticed several of the parishioners crossing themselves as the stranger cut across their path.
Later that night Dorothy sat on her narrow single bed and watched the shadows cast by the fire dancing across the wooden roof beams. The silence was profound. She reached across and picked up the mandrake root from the cherrywood table beside the bed. She slowly turned it in her hands. What does one do with a mandrake root? Cook it? Eat it? Plant it?
She held it up to her face. A strong musk radiated from it, strangely animal, even familiar. She tried to think where she knew the scent from, but the memory kept escaping her. She turned it upside down. The root had feathery offshoots that looked as if they belonged in soil.
She went downstairs and searched around for a flower pot and some potting mix, then planted the root carefully, treating it like a bulb, making sure that the tip showed just above the soil. She left the pot on the kitchen table, went back upstairs, and fell asleep after listening to a debate on the radio on the pros and cons of fox hunting. She dreamed of nothing.
The next morning she was woken by a tickling under her nose. She sneezed and opened her eyes. An invisible hair kept stroking her cheek. She sat up, glanced at the pillow, and screamed out loud.
Curled up comfortably in a little indentation in the pillow lay a penis—in repose, one might say. Dorothy was transfixed. Her brain whirled madly, trying to absorb the illogical and surreal sight of an unattached male organ asleep.
She took a few deep breaths, trying to regain control, and looked away, but her eyes inevitably crept back to the sight. The penis still lay there, curled with an air of conceit. In fact it seemed to be waking up; disbelievingly, Dorothy watched it grow tumescent before her very eyes.
It was about six and a half inches long, uncircumcised, with long black pubic hair. With a shudder it flipped itself onto its shiny heavy testicles and waddled toward her, now unmistakably erect. Dorothy shrieked, leaped out of bed, and onto a chair. The penis—moving like something between a rabbit and a small dog—also leaped off the bed and onto the carpet where it waited hopefully at the foot of the chair. They had reached an impasse: Dorothy, too terrified to move, and the penis, standing pert before her, a little too eager to please. They stayed like that for a good ten minutes. Until the phone rang.
“Don’t you dare move!” Dorothy yelled. With a timid shudder the organ waddled a few inches back on its balls. She tentatively climbed off the chair then bolted down the narrow wooden stairs and grabbed the phone. It was her employer, Mr. Carrington, concerned that she hadn’t arrived at work yet.
“I’m having some difficulty with a small animal ...a rodent—no, not a rat exactly.... I’ll be in late.”
Dorothy put the phone down, her heart still thumping in her throat. Behind her she heard a gentle thudding. She swung around; the penis was hopping down the stairs toward her. There was something pathetically vulnerable about the way it launched itself blindly off the last step, flying through the air to land with a painful bounce on the Persian rug she’d inherited from her aunt. Her aunt! So this was what had been twitching in the knitting bag. Now she understood why Winifred was known as the Merry Spinster.
The penis inched forward and rubbed itself against Dorothy’s bare foot. She pulled back immediately, but then a perverse curiosity made her stretch her foot back toward the expectant organ again. It felt silky, the touch of that velvet skin deliciously familiar. She was reminded of those stolen afternoons, lying back in the motel bed, stroking her lover into submission. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to be caressed.
It was not an entirely unpleasant sensation. The penis rubbed itself backward and forward like a cat; Dorothy could practically hear it purring. The clock in the hallway chimed ten. She’d promised to be at work in half an hour. The organ flopped itself seductively over her foot and appeared to look up at her. What was she going to do? She couldn’t leave it alone in the house.
She reached down but the penis slipped out of her hand and darted behind the sofa. Dorothy spent a good fifteen minutes catching it. She wrapped the wriggling member up in a sock and hid it in her underwear drawer. As she drove off she prayed that it wouldn’t leap out and give the cleaner a heart attack.
Walking along the High Street, Dorothy got wolf-whistled at fourteen times. Astonished, she gazed at herself in the reflection of a shop window. She was wearing jeans and a threadbare sweater with holes in it. She looked like she always did; what had changed that was causing this sudden male attention?
Even her boss, Mr. Carrington, who must have been at least seventy-five, commented on how good she was looking. Another colleague dropped two Georgian swords onto his toes when Dorothy bent down to do up her shoelaces. At lunchtime, when she walked into the bank, every male set of eyes swung around and stared.
Dorothy was bewildered. For a woman who was used to being invisible to the male sex, it was incredibly disorienting to be suddenly not just visible but apparently extremely desirable. Then a frightening thought occurred to her. Maybe, in some perverse way, this male attention was connected to the penis. As if its manifestation had suddenly imbued her with a powerful pheromone.
That afternoon, convinced she was being betrayed by some terrible scent, Dorothy spent forty minutes scrubbing her armpits in the women’s toilets. When she finally emerged, flushed and stinking of tar soap, water still staining her armpits, Mr. Carrington, worried about her mental state, sent her home early.
On the way back she was followed by a police car. The inanely grinning policeman pulled up beside her and complimented her on the originality of her car. Dorothy gazed at him in disbelief; she drove a blue Honda sedan. A moment later a cyclist fell off his bike because he was staring so hard at her. Then, at the petrol station, the attendant lost concentration and dribbled petrol all down the side of his trousers.
For the first time in her life Dorothy began to consider the advantages of being plain. Relieved to reach the sanctuary of the cottage, where a solitary cow grazed in the field next door, she checked the horizon for any visible male, then bolted to the front door. Inside, she exhaled. At last she was alone—well, almost.
The only way Dorothy could describe how she lived with the penis for the next couple of weeks was . . . well, like dog and mistress. It followed her everywhere like a love-struck puppy, hopping up beside her on the couch to watch television, getting tangled in the wool when she was knitting, perched precariously on the soap dish while she bathed.
At first Dorothy barely tolerated the intrusion, then, slowly, she started to appreciate its steady vigil. She even found herself listening out for the pitter-patter of those heavy balls thudding gently on the carpet.
“You’ve always wanted a pet,” she said to herself, in a futile attempt to banish the thought of any possible sexual exploitation on her behalf. Not to mention the idea of her aunt ever having used the poor creature in that manner.
Poor creature? She peered across the room. The penis was lying on its side in front of the fire, trying to look as innocent as a sex organ could. What kind of sorcery had conjured such an organism? Dorothy was fairly well read on such matters: investigating myth and legend had been part of her training as a historian. She knew of the Golem of Prague, but never had she come across anything like this. For one hideous moment she entertained the thought that perhaps it had been cut off a dead man. She kneeled on the carpet and took a good long look. The penis didn’t display any scars. She sat back in relief. She dreaded to think what other skeletons lay in her great-aunt’s cupboard.
The next day at work she consulted an archaic dictionary of definitions entitled, Esau’s Book of Devilry, Everything the Mere Mortal Should Know About Magick. She looked up mandrake root.
The mandrake root is a curious plant that is found growing at the foot of the gallows. It is said to spring from the seed of the ejaculation of the condemned man at the moment of death. It hath been harvested bounteously by both witches and sorcerers in their spells....
The alchemist Esau went on to describe the bulbous and forked appearance of the mandrake and to summarize the inherent evil the root personified. There was even an illustration beside the floral calligraphy: it showed a curious twisted bulb that resembled a crucified figure.
“Not a bit like my mandrake root,” Dorothy concluded. “I mean, how can a thing imbued with that kind of self-parody be evil?” She closed the book angrily. “Witches be damned.”
Perhaps Great-Aunt Winifred the sorceress had got it wrong. Maybe Dorothy’s penis hadn’t sprung from a mandrake root at all, but was a twisted manifestation of her own sexual frustration. Or even an extreme form of penis envy. Dorothy sank into a deep reverie, depressed by the possibility of looming psychosis.
Dorothy found herself gazing into the remarkably handsome face of a tall blond man. His eyes were green and blue, seeming to change with the light like those of a knowing cat. He had strong eyebrows and straw-colored hair that framed a long face cut diagonally by curiously strong cheekbones, as if an exotic gene had found its way into what was otherwise a classically Anglo-Saxon countenance. The nose was diminutive and neat, almost feminine, while the mouth spoke of obstinacy (a thin upper lip) offset by the sensuality of a ridiculously full lower lip.
Each stared at the other for an interminable time, both sensing a kindred attraction.
“I ...I...er hope I’m not disturbing you,” he finally stammered, awestruck by the sexual luminosity that surrounded this rather plain woman.
“No, not at all. I was just researching a family heirloom.” Before Dorothy had a chance to cover the book he glanced down. “Damned strange heirloom,” he said, reading the title upside down.
She pulled the book away from him and drew herself up to her full height. “You are?” she asked formally.
He extended a deliciously delicate hand; both smooth and strong and promising in its size. “Stanley Huntington. I’m here to research my ancestor Lord Cedric Huntington.” Stanley, allowing his fingers to linger a little longer than was necessary, was pleasantly surprised by the ripple of electricity that ran between them.
Stanley Huntington had come down from London to begin research on a book he’d been promising to write for years. An intense man of thirty-nine, Stanley had the air of the perpetual student; nevertheless he was ambitious. Now that he had finally finished his doctorate, an utterly useless thesis on the methods of medieval roof-thatching, Stanley had decided to pursue his great passion: to write the definitive biography of his famous ancestor.
Lord Cedric Huntington was sent by the king to destroy the notorious Welsh lord Llewelyn the Fierce. Llewelyn, from all accounts, was four foot eleven and ferocious, with a great mane of black hair. Determined to win Shropshire from the English, he was hated and feared by the local nobility and had already enjoyed several victories by the time Lord Huntington was commissioned to despatch him.
His aristocratic ancestor was, as Stanley described to Dorothy, a modern thinker trapped by the historical restraints of his time. A less generous description might have involved the word fascist. Whatever the true nature of Lord Cedric Huntington, Stanley was a man in need of a hero and a hero he had found.
Dorothy spent the rest of the afternoon helping Stanley go through tomes of medieval battle accounts. The two of them worked together in the office where the archives were stored. It was hard not to bump into each other in that confined space, and again Stanley found himself strangely drawn to this dumpy awkward woman who kept apologizing for the dusty chaos. She wasn’t his usual type at all.
Whatever his failings as an academic, Stanley had never had a problem attracting women. His good looks and faint air of helplessness endeared him immediately to the opposite sex. Promiscuous in a dispassionate way, he preferred to conduct three or four liaisons at once. His air of innocence was a powerful alibi and the women never guessed his duplicity, happy to believe him when he used his scholastic studies as an excuse for his absence. Consequently, his affairs had as much emotional impact on Stanley as the weather. But then Stanley had never been in love.
He cast a furtive look at Dorothy, who was bending over a yellowed map of the castle. Aesthetics were important to him and the librarian was anything but beautiful. Nevertheless, there was something extraordinarily compelling about her. Something he couldn’t apply logic to, but it had been affecting his groin all afternoon.
“I’ve found it!”
Her voice jolted him back. He’d been deep in thought, wondering what she’d look like naked and spread-eagled across the small library steps folded away in the corner.
“The record! Here!” She slipped on her thick National Health glasses and read aloud.
“The hanging of the traitor Llewelyn the Fierce was conducted by Lord Cedric Huntington, who took particular pleasure in prolonging the execution by partially reviving the Welshman before hanging him again. When the news of Llewelyn’s final demise spread there was great mourning all over Wales.”
Dorothy, suddenly aware of ancient enmity between their two races, frowned. “Lord Huntington sounds like a real sadist,” she volunteered.
Stanley edged a little closer then thrust a hand into his trouser pocket; the way she had lisped over the word sadist had given him an instant erection. “Sadism does not exclude greatness,” he announced grandly, the perfume of her hair driving him crazy. He tilted his face forward at an angle he knew was flattering. “Say, what are you doing later?”
They went for scones at Dorothy’s favorite tearoom. The seventeen-year-old waitress with orange dreadlocks and a nose ring, who normally made a point of ignoring Dorothy, was at the table in a flash. She simpered all over Stanley but Dorothy noted that he had eyes only for her. His attention was immensely flattering but she couldn’t help feeling slightly guilty. She actually toyed with the idea of warning him that he might be attracted to her under a false premise. But as he leaned toward her, a blond lock of hair falling over those heavy-lashed eyes, she realized that she was far too fascinated to disillusion him, even when he embarked on an extraordinarily detailed and boring thirty-minute soliloquy about the beauties of medieval roof-thatching. In short, Dorothy was hooked.
Afterward Stanley wanted her to take him back to her village, to sample “the border culture” as he put it. Dorothy hesitated, which only encouraged Stanley further, his wide eyes wandering across her bosom as if he were caressing her already. Dorothy had been celibate for months and she was finding the way his fingers made love to the sugar container more than a little distracting. Prudence won in the end. She promised to meet him for lunch the next day.
Stanley walked her to her car. There was a slight sullenness in his step. He wasn’t used to not getting his way immediately and he couldn’t remember a time when a woman had interested him so profoundly. Perhaps it was her very ordinariness that attracted him. He pondered over the absurdities of lust—desire certainly fell where it wanted, yet, try as he might, he could not banish the vision of her lying naked beneath him, preferably still wearing those rather old-fashioned glasses. That fantasy was enough to bring him to orgasm later that afternoon and keep him going most of the night.
Dorothy returned home in a state of considerable excitement. Was this love? Her racing heart, the dryness of her throat, and the way she kept glancing at herself in the mirror, as if searching there for the mystery that he so obviously perceived in her, indicated the prerequisite emotional turmoil. Even the penis, trailing her around forlornly, seemed to sense a transformation it didn’t particularly care for, as if somehow it realized in its blunt primordial head that perhaps it was no longer the center of her attention.
Before going to bed, Dorothy sat at the walnut dresser she’d inherited from her mother and examined her reflection. She loosed her thick black hair and leaned forward to study her blue eyes and high forehead. She did possess a certain charm, but considered herself a little overweight. Pulling back the skin of her face, she noted with harsh objectivity the sagging of her cheeks and the thin wrinkle that ran down between her eyebrows. She reached for a tube of makeup.
The penis, perched between a black-and-white photo of Dorothy’s mother in her Girl Scout uniform and a miniature plastic statue of the Virgin Mary, watched her with a slightly critical droop. She ignored it and smeared the pale liquid over her cheeks, then peered tentatively into the mirror. She looked like an amateur Noh actor. Was there any hope for a woman incompetent in the arts of feminine beauty, clumsy in her movements, with a second-rate degree in military history? There had to be something she could improve on.
Her eyes wandered back to the penis. It had inched its way across the dresser and was busy dipping itself into a pot of lip gloss. It toppled forward and got stuck, its tip in the pot while its balls dangled uselessly in midair. Dorothy laughed out loud. It resembled a bizarre Japanese erotic print she remembered seeing. Just then the obvious occurred to her: perhaps she could become a wonderful lover. She had something to practice with, even if it lacked the dimensions of a full-size man.
The penis fell over with a crash. It waddled blindly toward her, now wearing the lip-gloss pot like a ridiculous helmet. Dorothy’s mind was made up.