The Anatomy of Desire

by John L’Heureux

Because Hanley’s skin had been stripped off by the enemy, he could find no one who was willing to be with him for long. The nurses were obligated, of course, to see him now and then, and sometimes the, doctor, but certainly not the other patients and certainly not his wife and children. He was raw, he was meat, and he would never be any better. He had a great and natural desire, therefore, to be possessed by someone.

He would walk around on his skinned feet, leaving bloody foot-prints up and down the corridors, looking for someone to love him.

You’re not supposed to be out here, the nurse said. And she added, somehow making it sound kind, You untidy the floor, Hanley.

I want to be loved by someone, he said. I’m human too. I’m like you.

But he knew he was not like her. Everybody called her the saint.

Why couldn’t it be you? he said.

She was swabbing his legs with blood retardant, a new discovery that kept Hanley going. It was one of those miracle medications that just grew out of the war.

I wasn’t chosen, she said. I have my skin.

No, he said. I mean why couldn’t it be you who will love me, possess me? I have desires too, he said.

She considered this as she swabbed his shins and the soles of his feet.

I have no desires, she said. Or only one. It’s the same thing.

He looked at her loving face. It was not a pretty face, but it was saintly.

Then you will? he said.

If I come to know sometime that I must, she said.

The enemy had not chosen Hanley, they had just lucked upon him sleeping in his trench. They were a raid party of four, terrified and obedient, and they had been told to bring back an enemy to serve as an example of what is done to infiltrators.

They dragged Hanley back across the line and ran him, with his hands tied behind his back, the two kilometers to the general’s tent.

The general dismissed the guards because he was very taken with Hanley. He untied the cords that bound his wrists and let his arms hang free. Then slowly, ritually, he tipped Hanley’s face toward the light and examined it carefully. He kissed him on the brow and on the cheek and finally on the mouth. He gazed deep and long into Hanley’s eyes until he saw his own reflection there looking back. He traced the lines of Hanley’s eyebrows, gently, with the tip of his index finger. Such a beautiful face, he said in his own language. He pressed his palms lightly against Hanley’s forehead, against his cheekbones, his jaw. With his little finger he memorized the shape of Hanley’s lips, the laugh lines at his eyes, the chin. The general did Hanley’s face very thoroughly. Afterward he did some things down below, and so just before sunrise when the time came to lead Hanley out to the stripping post, he told the soldiers with the knives: This young man could be my own son, so spare him here and here.

The stripping post stood dead-center in the line of barbed wire only a few meters beyond the range of gunfire. A loudspeaker was set up and began to blare the day’s message. This is what happens to infiltrators. No infiltrators will be spared. And then as troops from both sides watched through binoculars, the enemy cut the skin from Hanley’s body, sparing—as the general had insisted—his face and his genitals. They were skilled men and the skin was stripped off expeditiously and they hung it, headless, on the barbed wire as an example. They lay Hanley himself on the ground where he could die.

He was rescued a little after noon when the enemy, for no good reason, went into sudden retreat.

Hanley was given emergency treatment at the field unit, and when they had done what they could for him, they sent him on to the vets’ hospital. At least there, they told each other, he will be attended by the saint.

It was quite some time before the saint said yes, she would love him.

Not just love me. Possess me.

There are natural reluctancies, she said. There are personal peculiarities, she said. You will have to have patience with me.

You’re supposed to be a saint, he said.

So she lay down with him in his bloody bed and he found great satisfaction in holding this small woman in his arms. He kissed her and caressed her and felt young and whole again. He did not miss his wife and children. He did not miss his skin.

The saint did everything she must. She told him how handsome he was and what pleasure he gave her. She touched him in the way he liked best. She said he was her whole life, her fate. And at night when he woke her to staunch the blood, she whispered how she needed him, how she could not live without him.

This went on for some time.

The war was over and the occupying forces had made the general mayor of the capital city. He was about to run for senator and wanted his past to be beyond the reproach of any investigative committee. He wrote Hanley a letter which he sent through the International Red Cross.

You could have been my own son, he said. What we do in war is what we have to do. We do not choose cruelty or violence. I did only what was my duty.

I am in love and I am loved, Hanley said. Why isn’t this enough?

The saint was swabbing his chest and belly with blood retardant.

Nothing is ever enough, she said.

I love, but I am not possessed by love, he said. I want to be surrounded by you. I want to be enclosed. I want to be enveloped. I don’t have the words for it. But do you understand?

You want to be possessed, she said,

I want to be inside you.

And so they made love, but afterward he said, That was not enough. That is only a metaphor for what I want.

The general was elected senator and was made a trustee of three nuclear-arms conglomerates. But he was not well. And he was not sleeping well.

He wrote to Hanley, I wake in the night and see your face before mine. I feel your forehead pressing against my palms. I taste your breath. I did only what I had to do. You could have been my son.

I know what I want, Hanley said. If I can do it, I will, the saint said. I want your skin.

And so she lay down on the, long white table, shuddering, while Hanley made his first incision. He cut along the shoulders and then down the arms and back up, then down the sides and the legs to the feet. It took him longer than he had expected. The saint shivered at the of the knife and she sobbed once at the sight of the blood, but by the time Hanley lifted the shroud of skin from her crimson body, she was resigned, satisfied even.

Hanley had spared her face and her genitals.

He spread the skin out to dry and, while he waited, he swabbed her raw body with blood retardant. He whispered little words of love and desire for her. A smile played about her lips, but she said nothing.

The general wrote to Hanley one last letter. I can endure no more. I am possessed by you.

Hanley put on the skin of the saint. His genitals fitted nicely through the gap he had left and the skin at his neck matched hers exactly. He walked the corridors and for once left no bloody tracks behind. He stood before mirrors and admired himself. He touched his breasts and his belly and his thighs and there was no blood on his hands.

Thank you, he said to her. It is my heart’s desire fulfilled. I am inside you. I am possessed by you.

And then, in the night, he kissed her on the brow and on the cheek and finally on the mouth. He gazed deep and long into her eyes. He traced the lines of her eyebrows gently, with the tip of his index finger. Such a beautiful face, he said. He pressed his palms lightly against her forehead, her cheek bone, her jaw. With his little finger he memorized the shape of her lips.

And then it was that Hanley, loved, desperate to possess and be possessed, staring deep into the green and loving eyes of the saint, saw that there can be no possession, there is only desire. He plucked at his empty skin, and wept.