Tucked deep inside a far away kingdom there was once a hamlet where the villagers gave each other The Gift of Pain.
It was at the time of every dark moon that, young and old, they would flock to the hall behind the chieftain's house of wattle and daub. It is there that they publicly offered each other the pleasures of the flesh. "Blessed I be, O Lord, with the pain of receiving pleasure and the pleasure of giving pain," they would intone.
Whether manacled to cross-shaped beams of solid oak, hanging heavily from chains thrown over the central beam, or with spines stretched over the bulging back of a barrel or bound and bundled into bags and thrown into the shallow end of the marsh, or blindfolded and gagged to heighten the razor-sharp cut of a blade, for each man and woman present every ounce of fear and pain was received as The Gift.
It is in this hamlet that there lived a maiden whose grandmother had given her the name of Ulahngsue. No one knew why the crone had bestowed such a strange name on such a lovely child, but no one had ever risked calling her by any other name.
Besides being blessed with a sunny disposition, young Ulahngsue's eyes, more limpid than the brook that gurgled through burnished fields, peeked mischievously through dark strands of burntwood locks. Her lips were said to have been juicier than wild pears. As she reached puberty, it was said, too, that her laughter had become more heady than the sweetest of ciders. Be that as it may, by the time she was strong enough to scale up the tall aspen trees that circled the fields, the pucele had already scrambled up many a young person's heart.
Then the day came when, crossbow at the hip and a pair of plump hares gripped firmly by the ears, a stranger drifted into the village just as quietly but surely as the mist that rose from the marsh. Clad in a top tunic the color of ripe grapes adorned with tiny quail feathers around the neckline, the newcomer, a young woman, was as welcome as the morning sun. One moment she had yet to be imagined and the next she was in their midst, the constant companion of young Ulahngsue.
Chunsina was her name and though she soon proved to be of unmatched goodness and sweetness of temper, it was on an evil day that St Anthony's fire - the fever that comes from the grain - took hold of her.
In spite of Ulahngsue's casting of circles to call in healing spirits, in spite of her many incantations, and in spite of her herbal concoctions, the sickness did not flee her lover's body. Utterly helpless to find a cure, she called on her grandmother.
Ears closed to the cries of the owl nested on a rafter above their heads, the crone blew cleansing smoke over the crown of Chunsina's head. Then, she blew more cleansing smoke into her nostrils, into the holes of her ears, even between her legs to chase away the evil spirit. Then, ear closed to the dog that howled to the moon, she bathed her in a vat in which various rocks and mysterious leaves had been left to steep.
In spite of all these ministrations, one night after Ulahngsue had washed Chunsina's face that had become blackened by the disease, after she had applied ointment to each of the raw sores and kissed the fever-blistered skin of her feet one more time, Chunsina's soul migrated from earth.
The maiden who had once come as a stranger to the village was buried on the eve of the Cold Moon amid the greatest lamentations of all its inhabitants but not before, escorted by the entire hamlet, her shrouded body had been driven around the marsh in a cart drawn by a team of white oxen.
Time passed with the steady rhythms of its seasons and long after the great grief that had lay so heavily on her had finally relented, Ulahngsue accepted the favors of the chieftain's daughter, charming Deuteria. But no sooner were the handfasting celebrations over and the identical drinking goblets, tokens of their bond, barely dry, than Deuteria began to show the colors of her true self.
Tall and nervy, the woman had the temperament of a cockerel and it was not a rare occasion when Ulahngsue would fall asleep comforted only by the ephemeral ghostly presence of her much loved Chunsina. Even when Deuteria took Ulahngsue's body for her pleasure, it was never soothing. It was always in the ways of the animals rutting in the fields. The woman had the thrust of a billy goat and it was a great consolation to Ulahngsue that the agreement, as with every handfasting bond, was to expire after a year and a day. Her bond to Deuteria would not be renewed.
One day, however, perhaps foolishly, perhaps because by then her body had such a craving for The Gift of Pain such as only her lovely Chunsina could give her, Ulahngsue entrusted Deuteria with a dark secret that had hitherto only been known by herself and her departed lover.
Whereas all the villagers abided by the dogma that warned that The Gift of Pain could only be received from a neighbor and only on the night of the dark moon, Ulahngsue and Chunsina did not. It was said later, much later, that if the mattress of straw on which they caressed each other was their castle, the corner of the house in which they had erected a discreet but sturdy crossbeam was their private dungeon. Secretly, they indulged in The Gift of Pain, in its myriad forms, whenever their lustful, young bodies craved it. Thus fortified and electrified, they would then apply such caresses to each other that brought them to the brink of rare pleasure like no other known to the village women.
Because it was in Deuteria's meddling nature to hunger for all that regarded Ulahngsue's beautiful dead lady, she pressed her new wyf for more details.
Ulahngsue began, "It would always start in the same manner with me bringing back water from the brook and then my lady would …"
Talking about the past allowed Ulahngsue to revive such moments of pure joy that she closed her eyes to better feel and taste the memories awoken by Deuteria's curiosity. Behind her eyes, Chunsina is still on this earth, as lovely and tender as she had always been.
Their little room is aglow with candlelight. Flickering wicks paint Ulahngsue's naked body in shifting shades of pink. Though the ambient air is bitterly cold, wrists pinned under her and tied with twine, Ulahngsue's body is kept warm by the fire that burns in a corner. Animated shadows cast Chunsina's short tufts of hair as enormous spikes on the pale daub wall. Head bent in concentration, careful to not have the lice disperse prematurely, her strong hands, gentle over her lady's mons, move very slowly. As slowly as marsh reeds sway in the breeze, she guides a narrow-toothed comb steeped in honey through the fine pubic hair. Once satisfied that, for a time at least, most of the nits have been trapped between the honeyed-teeth, Chunsina applies a thick coat of depilatory body sugar to the soft re-growth of pubic hair.
"Sina, give me your tongue. Please …" Ulahngsue murmurs. She cannot see through the cloth that is tied around her head, but she knows she is held and secure in her lady's care. Chunsina brings her lips tantalizingly close to her lover's mouth but does no more than tease the soft down that lines it.
"Sina, your tongue. All of it."
"You be patient, Ullie. You cannot have my tongue for now."
Wax pools around the wick. A clever snap of the wrist makes it pearl inside Chunsina's navel. Breath runs back up Ulahngsue's throat before shaping a sigh. She is well familiar with The Tool that her lover is using for this Gift of Pain, but what she can never anticipate is where on her body the next patch of flesh will be brought to life. Where the next frisson or the next cataclysmic pain will manifest.
Another tear of hot wax slides off the candle held loosely in Chunsina's hand. It shimmers briefly before dulling in the hollow of her lover's throat. Nostrils flaring, Ulahngsue bites her bottom lip to stifle a moan.
Ulahngsue urges. "Sina, your tongue."
Obligingly Chunsina parts her lover's lips with her tongue but only dips between them like a hummingbird penetrates a flower, before returning her attention to the now dry paste that encases her lover's mons. Deftly, she yanks it in the opposite direction of growth.
Ulahngsue gasps and writhes as if the skin itself had been ripped from her flesh. Master huntsman that she is, Chunsina knows that timing is of the essence, whether in matters of pleasure or pain. Quickly she drips careful drops of wax over one pink nipple and again and over the other, and again. Pent up breath explodes from her lover's lungs in truncated bursts.
"Sin – Sina, come to me now."
Chunsina's fingernail lifts the hardened wax smears and she smiles at the site of the red marks they have left on her lover's alabaster skin.
Totally focused on her ministrations, Chunsina dips a hand into a nearby bucket of almost frozen water. A perfectly formed icicle has appeared between her fingers. She slips it directly inside her lover's folds. With another piece of ice slipped inside her own mouth, briefly but lusciously, she lends her lips to her lover's tongue. Again Ulahngsue begs for the weight of Chunsina's body over her own. "Sina. Please, come back to me," she moans.
Her eyes snapped open with a startle. Transfixed, Deuteria is looking at her, her own eyes bright, as if made shiny with fever. At that very moment, the void inside Ulahngsue suddenly became as huge as the land that led to the horizon.
One day, not long after this recount had taken place, Deuteria asked, "How come your dead lady didn't simply use a flogger? What it means is a lot of hard work, the things she did for you."
"Oh, but she did!" Ulahngsue replied too quickly. "Hers, the one she used only in the secret of our nights is a beautiful one -"
Deuteria interrupted. "Is a beautiful one?"
"Well, yes, of course, it still is as beautiful as the last night she Gifted me." And once again, the memory transported Ulahngsue into the past.
Chunsina's glorious nakedness is strikingly enhanced by the wide collar of black doe hide through which glint a dozen razor-sharp slivers of polished bone. Cross-legged on the straw mattress, she has slid her lover's legs over her own thighs so as to bring her mons as close as she could to her own belly.
Erratic in her heartbeat, Ulahngsue is on fire. Nostrils flared for air, she writhes and groans through gritted teeth, and tears of ecstasy flow as prettily as the tears of wax had over the pinkness of her breasts.
With her lady's pink lip pulled taut between her fingers, Chunsina jabs the last of the needle-sharp fossilized fish bones till it peeks through the other side. The talon of the peregrine. Three needle-thin bones pierce the labia majora. Only two needle-thin bones pierce the labia menora.
And at last, Chunsina senses her ready for the flogging, always the last scene of their private ritual. The last one, that is, before they caress each other into a state of absolute hunger akin a feverish delirium.
As soon as Deuteria had grasped the possibilities of what pleasures it might bring her, she begged Ulahngsue to show her The Tool with which her lady had given her so much pleasure, but Ulahngsue refused flatly.
"Please, understand how this matter is too private to share further."
This refusal triggered a fit of uncontrollable rage in Deuteria.
"My wedded wyf. What can ever be too private between a wyf and her wyf!" Deuteria was shouting so much that spittle flew out of the corners of her mouth. "Bring me that flogger from whence that fille de bas has kept it hidden!" She stamped her foot so hard that straw flew from the floor up in the air.
"Wyf … I beg you to understand. It is not any of the fish bones, not even the hot wax that gave me the pleasure I have so foolishly described for you. It is not the flogger, nor any of its many tails. It was … it was-" The longing evoked by the memories awoken was so terrible that Ulahngsue was not able to utter anymore. She did, however, do as she had been bidden and from behind the corner of a rafter, behind the nest of the resident chouette, she made appear Chunsina's flogger.
Not a common flogger, was that one. Chunsina had spent many an hour crafting it to get the balance, length and weight just right for Ulahngsue's Gift. She had made the fringes of heavy cowhide, carefully bevelled to not cut her lover's skin, and the handle, though short, was inlaid with tiny river pebbles.
The heavy but flat slap of its wide tails incandesced Ulahngsue shoulders, but slowly. As slowly as a smoldering fire builds up intensity. The tails would caress the small of her back, and make her spine all atingle yet, like playful pups, they could also nip the peachy cheeks of her buttocks. It was all in the power of Chunsina's loving execution.
Oh how Ulahngsue had revelled in watching, in the bronze mirror strapped to the wall, her wide-shouldered Chunsina at work. Though the reflection was somewhat blurred, Ulahngsue could watch her as she moved to the right of the beam, then back to the left, closer in to press herself against her lady's back and sometimes reach for her wetness, further back to allow the fringes to only flick her with their tails. Oh how agile on the soles of her feet she was, deft with the action of her wrist!
In truth, she was as graceful as a skilled swordsman at practice. Even when not at play, even as she came back from the forest, a young doe hefted across her shoulders, for Ulahngsue, the sight of her lady made her more heady than goblets of the fermented juice of mulberries.
But on that strange evening of tension, as Deuteria locked the heavy shackles around her young wyf's wrists and ankles, the room became oddly quiet. The dog didn't scratch in its corner! The owl didn't shuffle on the beam above. Even the fire kept its crackle quiet. Resigning herself to the moment, Ulahngsue pressed her forehead against the hard beam and leaned into it, bracing herself for the first heavy flat-strapped thud. When it came, it surprised her. The thud that curled from her back over her ribcage, though clumsily executed, was not unpleasant. Neither was the next one, though it was late in coming after the first. The third strike was even longer in coming and when it did, it only glanced her skin, as if it had been unleashed from an awkward position. Any more of these, she began to think, will soon become grossly irritating. And there were more blows: erratic in pressure, unpredictable in aim, inexplicably distant one from the other.
Aware that Deuteria was unable to control either her balance, her wrist or her timing while using Chunsina's Tool, Ulahngsue began hoping that she would soon tire of the game and desist. But that thought had not yet left Ulahngsue's mind when the thudding accelerated and the pounding intensified. Buffeted against the cross beam as if by a violent storm, eyes riveted shut by the assault, she struggled for breath. A thud landed on the region of her lower back and, more powerful than all the previous ones, almost broke her in half.
"Deu – teria! Slow … down."
A blinding white flash of pain ripped through her. And another. Dazed by the searing cuts, she panicked. "Deu - deu – teria! Break … Please!"
What Ulahngsue could not have imagined was that Deuteria had grabbed her own single-strand whip to add lash to straps and she was not about to break. Break! In all her years of receiving The Gift, even from any of the villagers, man or woman, Ulahngsue had never had to use the safety codeword honored by all.
And the mean lash of the whip sliced again into her tender skin. Deuteria stepped closer in to release the thudding power of the flogger. Further back to unleash the ripping tip of the knotted lash. And again. The devil's dance.
Beads of blood pearled as skin peeled off, but never for long, as the straps of the flogger smeared them flat and spread the pain deeper and deeper until Ulahngsue, like a withered leek, drooped on her cross, unconscious.
It is then that, inexplicably, the whip fell out of Deuteria's closed fist. Inexplicably, too, the flogger was wrenched away from the other fist. Before she could even blink, its flat straps had turned against her and had her by the throat. Like so many writhing and vengeful snakes, they wrapped around her neck, darted into her eyes and slithered inside her ear holes, hooking her tongue as she opened her mouth to scream. With fingers curled taut as talons, she tried to prise them loose. She clawed and she scratched. Her eyes bulged from her head and, by the time she collapsed on the loose straw matting, her face was already the colour of rotting beetroot.
It was the old crone who happened to be returning from the forest with a fresh harvest of herbs who found them. One, dangling from the shackles nailed high on the crossbeams. The other, rocking herself and muttering unintelligently, as if possessed by an ungodly fever.
The old crone was as familiar with The Gift of Pain ritual as any of the villagers and, though she recognized at a glance the essence of what had passed, she was appalled by open tracks that criss-crossed Ulahngsue's bleeding back.
Now, it needs to be understood that the dogma, as it was written in the chieftain's Great Book, spelt out very clearly that not one of the villagers was to engage in The Gift of Pain outside the monthly public ritual, and never if not under the auspicious dark moon. Everyone in the hamlet, even the threshold- children, fresh from their initiation into the world of their parents' knew about The Gift and the dogma that kept it a safe and sacred practice. The penalty, she knew just as clearly as Ulahngsue and Deuteria and everyone in the hamlet, was permanent banishment to a hut deep inside the forest. To a hut well away from the hamlet's boundaries. Well away from any trail travelled in the course of the villagers' daily business.
And as the crone listened to her granddaughter's account of the assault, she became more than appalled, she became horrified. Not just once. Not twice. But thrice. Firstly, because of the garish marks on Ulahngsue's back and buttocks, even on her neck. Then, she was horrified by the reality that the lasses had indulged in taboo behavior and what it foreshadowed. And since Ulahngsue could no more lie to her grandmother than lie by omission, she offered the complete story of her indulging in the prohibited deeds with Chunsina. And this horrified the crone a third time.
"Child, how could you!" she cried, hands reaching high above her head for a solace that even the heavens could not give her.
Ulahngsue was needed alongside the other women to do her share of the village chores. Her wounds could not be entirely concealed. The crone had no other recourse but to go to the hamlet's elderly Chieftain, who, remember, happened to be Deuteria's father. He asked for his daughter and Ulahngsue to be fetched at once.
"Remove those shirts so I can see," he ordered the girls.
He gasped at the sight of Ulahngsue's back, more striated with oozing welts than he had veins on the back of his hands.
"And on you? Not a scratch?" he queried his daughter.
"My neck!" she cried. "My eyes! My ears. My tongue!"
"Do not mock me, child. Besides the gnawing of lice, and the bruise of the plough, there is not a mark on your skin."
"She broke the vow made to The Gift! Father!" Deuteria pointed a shaky finger at Ulahngsue. "She indulged in The Gift with her dead Chunsina!"
"Child!" roared the crone as she rose an angry staff above her head. "Do not dare speak the name of the Dead!" She struck the staff hard into the ground.
And Deuteria was banished way beyond the edge of the village for she had just broken the second and only other taboo written in the Great Book. No one will dare speak the name of the dead and remain!
As for Ulahngsue, though she healed well, thanks to the anise paste applied daily by her grandmother, she never, ever again, indulged in The Gift of Pain, not even in the manner stipulated in the Great Book. She did not need to. Behind her eyes, on any night she chose, all she had to say was, "Sin – Sina, come to me now."
Born of French parents in Casablanca, C.C. Saint-Clair is a native French speaker, although she completed her formal education in the United States at The University of Texas [Austin], majoring in English Literature. She currently resides in Brisbane where, by day, she teaches senior English and, by night, she is a writer of lesbian romance with a definite penchant for social realism.
Though the sensuality of her writing appeals beyond label boundaries, Saint-Clair shrugs amiably at the tag that has cast her as a romance writer for the 'thinking woman'. She does, however, prefer the body of her work to be described as urban realism embedded in [lesbian] romance.
Saint-Clair is as passionate about the sensuality of her writing as she is about exposing the readers of her brand of romance to the emotionally harsh landscape that she believes is the real life backdrop against which many women have to struggle, before they come into their own.