Mary turned the radio off as she left the highway and turned onto a country boulevard lined with maple trees. She rolled down the window and switched off the air conditioning. The scents of apple blossoms and wild flowers hung in the warm summer air. She slowed the car around a small bend, which gave way to a wide field of green dotted lazily with dandelions. The car stopped, seemingly of its own desire.
“I must get out of the city more often,” she said, stretching her limbs with pleasure. She smiled with satisfaction as she surveyed the field.
She heard a voice, which seemed to come out of the very air. She spun and gasped at the appearance of a man tied to a tree, wearing nothing save a loin cloth.
“Please help me.” The voice asked, this time clearly coming from the man tied to the tree.
She took a first tentative step, a second, putting one high heeled clad foot ahead of the other, the going made more difficult as the pointed heels sunk into the soft grass.
“I should have worn sandals,” she said. With each step his features became clearer, revealing shoulder length brown hair. She saw signs of violent struggle or torture; deep red scratches upon his face, deep bruises on his chest and arms. Stopping a few feet away out of arm’s reach she saw the man was bound to the tree with thick ropes around the arms, torso, and around his feet.
“How did you come to be tied to a tree?” She asked.
“Come closer,” he said.
She moved forward, within a foot, seeing his wounds with more detail. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.
“Your smell pleases me,” he said and attempted to smile, but the effort hurt him visible, pain flashing over his face.
“Who did this to you?”
He attempted to shift his position, but the restraints prevented any movement and again, a looked of pain swept across his features.
“I don’t know how to answer. I have been tied to this tree all of my life.”
“You don’t understand me. Why are you tied to this tree?”
“I assure you I understand your meaning. I repeat, I have always been tied to this tree. It is necessary and natural.” His voice was deep and pleasant to her ears, containing little hint of the pain his wounds were causing him.
“Natural?” She asked, more confused. “A man tied to a tree is not the natural state of being for a human. You were born free, not shackled.”
She examined the thick red welts around his wrists, skin grown raw from contact with the ropes. Glancing down at his loin cloth, which not being tied tightly or of much substance, covered almost nothing. She blushed and averted her eyes.
“Your modesty pleases me,” he said. The voice sounded as if it belonged to someone she had known all of her life.
“Do you wish for me to free you?”
He let out a low laugh. “You have a strange notion of things.”
“How do you mean?”
“It is not possible for one responsible for my entrapment to free me.”
“Listen, I didn’t tie you to this tree,” she said, feeling anger at his constant absurdity.
“That is true, but maybe it is for your benefit that I am tied.”
“How difficult it is to understand you!” She said, feeling a trickle of sweat on her forehead. “Listen to reason. I didn’t not tie or wish you to be tied to this tree.”
“Reason? It is precisely since the age of reason that I have been tied to this tree.”
She growled in frustration, balling her hands into fists.
“Do you wish to be free?”
“The question you pose is seen from the wrong side of logical thinking. Do you wish me to be free?”
She stamped her foot and again shook blond curls in exasperation. She turned and started towards the car, half expecting him to call out to her. He remained silent for the time it took to walk to her car, retrieve a pocket knife from the glove box and to return to him.
“I see you made a decision.”
She nodded and moved to his side so as to reach his restraints. As she placed the knife against the rope, he spoke.
“Take heed when changing the nature of things.”
“More cryptic utterances.”
She worked slowly, taking care not to cut his skin. Soon the ropes began to fall away, first from his hands, then his torso, and finally, his feet. He tried to stand, but he stumbled and fell into her, unable to manage on his own.
Once again he inhaled deeply, slowly, which brought a dreamy smile to his face.
“You are quite attractive.”
He gripped her forearm, which caused her to cry out in pain. She attempted to pull away, but his strength surprised her. Her footing gave way as he pushed her, causing an explosion of pain as her head smacked on the ground. She heard, rather than felt, her skirt being ripped from her legs as the smooth skin of his palms parted her thighs.
“Be still,” he said. She knew no more.
She woke some time later, in the dark, but could not see him. Sensing movement to her left, she turned to see him standing over her, a thick branch in his hands.
“I gave you freedom and pleasure,” she cried.
He smiled and lifted the branch high over his head.
“Who are you?” She asked.
Instead of receiving an answer, the branch crashed into the side of her head, killing her in an instant.
“Call me James.”
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CLOUDY DAYS, STILL NIGHTS
LOVE AND QUARTERS