This place is still raw, the channel between my thigh and pussy. Pink, moist, and rickracked by the hairs of a ghost rope. When I touch the tender strip, the skin stings. The pain calls up a vision of a woman spinning naked on a long cord, her legs spread in a ballerina's arc, fingers grasping the highest knots. I can't reconcile that vision with what I've learned about Mary June. I don't imagine her as a suicidal woman, but a sexual one, with a fascination for the promises of rope.
A fascination like mine.
I went to Mary June's house to work through a dry spell in my Master's thesis. I told myself that I needed silence and distance, but what I really wanted was for time to stop. Two years of graduate school had taught me that I knew almost nothing about my thesis topic, the coiled intertwinings of rural American family life. Most of the roots in my own past had been torn, either by spite or circumstance. When I thought about the frayed strings that bound me to other people, I wondered where I had found the nerve to write about strangers' bonds.
I chose a town within driving distance of the university, a town known for its orchards of crooked apple trees. The house sat uneasily at the outskirts of the little community, leaning on its foundations as if it expected to be forced into flight. A long, scrabbly field separated the house and barn from the main road.
As I drove down the rutted path, I could see my landlady standing in the open doorway, her arms crossed over her chest. That stern silhouette sent a current of guilt rushing through me. It was a guilt I couldn't identify, hot and absurd, almost like a backwash of someone else's shame. She frowned at my tank top and shorts as I hauled in the books that would keep me company that summer.
"Didn't expect you to bring a whole library," my landlady said. She lead me through a spartan parlor-I had an impression of yellowed lace and sepia shadows-and down a narrow hallway to the bedroom that would be mine. I set my box of books down on the floor. Dust rose in a soft exhalation, as if I were being welcomed by a restless spirit.
"Maybe I could store some of my books in the barn." She shook her mule-gray head. "The barn is full of rusted machinery. You'd get tetanus just looking at that mess."
But when I glanced out the window, I saw light spearing through the cracks in the barn's wall boards, suggesting that there was open space inside.
"Has this always been a guest room?" I asked. The room's former occupant had left no imprint; all sensual memory had been stripped from the room. The paint on the windowsills had flaked away, and the wallpaper seemed to have been torn off the walls by hand, leaving only a few shreds of yellow fluttering against the plaster.
It's only twenty-five dollars a wee\, I reminded myself. For twenty-five dollars I could tolerate bleak decor.
"My girl used to stay here. My boy stayed in the one opposite." With a jerk of her head the woman indicated the closed door across the hall.
The words "girl" and "boy" threw me. Was my landlady referring to farm help, or to a daughter and son? I tried to imagine her spare, hard body carrying children. I felt like I had some kind of responsibility, as a would-be sociologist, to ask about her life, her family, but her severe words invited no curiosity.
"No visitors after dark," she said. "And no drinking." Then she left me.
I had the dream on the very first night, the one that would wake me almost every night I spent in that house. The dream was always a step ahead of my consciousness, jumping out of my grasp whenever I tried to remember it. But I know it recurred, because I always woke up in the same state: paralyzed, bound. Feeling absolutely alone, yet strangely safe because of my enforced stillness. Once the fog of sleep cleared, I wondered what was holding me here in this room, which offered no sensory comfort, no release from its emptiness. I wondered why I didn't just leave.
On many nights I heard the woman of the house turning fitfully in her own bed, as if she shared my doubts. The floorboards would creak as she padded down the hall to the bathroom, then the heavy porcelain toilet seat would clink as she sat down to relieve herself. I could hear the sounds her body made, hear her sigh, hear her splashing water on her hands. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if I walked out into the hallway to meet her. If I opened my arms to her, would her stony flesh soften against my body?
Days in my room were dim and airless, like abandoned mine shafts. I spent hours watching the stretch of blowzy weeds that lay between my window and the battered, naked barn. The structure was broad and tall, with secretive windows set high on its peeling face. One afternoon, when I was exhausted from not working, I sneaked out to have a look. The landlady watched me from the kitchen window, probably thinking what a nosy fool I was. The gravel bit into my bare knees as I crouched down and peered through a crack in the door of the barn, but when I saw the interior, I forgot that small discomfort. I almost forgot to breathe.
The barn was as empty and as numb with light as a church without pews, except for a woman who hung, naked, from a rope on the ceiling. She drifted like a trapeze artist, her thighs curved around the shaft of the rope, her head thrown back. Her vulva was opened coarsely by the rope's weave, her damp lips sucking the thick strand. With one graceful surge she lifted her body, cunt clinging as she rose, and whirled slowly in the pillar of a sunbeam. The tips of her long, barley-blond hair tickled the cleft of her buttocks, and my own skin tingled in sympathy. As I watched, she played games with the rope, made love to it, licking and caressing the cords. Embracing a knot at the base of the rope with the soles of her nude feet, she bent and straightened her knees in a sensual plie.
The sight of that slow-motion, self-loving dance was agonizing. I wanted to feel that rough, prolonged friction, too, all along the velvet canal that started between my breasts and ended between my ankles. I wanted to arch backward like her, arms fully extended to hold my weight, head flung back, eyelids flickering under the dust that trickled down from the eaves.
Who was the woman? On my few trips into town, I had never seen her. Even if I had, she might have been disguised as a shy country wife, or an overpainted cocktail waitress. I watched her face flush, her muscles tighten. As she reached the orgasm she thought was private, her body quivered all along its length like a bow after the arrow leaves. Ashamed as I was for watching, I could hardly stand the excitement of it. I wanted rope between my thighs-anything between my thighs but my own fingers, which were no substitute for the shock of strange contact. I closed my eyes, wondering if the rope dancer were a sign of pure craziness, but the vision was still as tangible as my own flesh when I looked again.
The woman's shoulders sank, her entire body trembling from her come. My trance ended. I scrambled to my feet and raced back to the house. In the kitchen I collided with my landlady, who had been lingering over a sink full of dishes while I watched the spectacle.
"There's someone outside," I panted. "Someone in the barn." My face went hot, as if I'd participated in that intimate dance.
The landlady stared. In her eyes I saw myself being measured.
"No one has been in that barn for nine years."
"But I saw a woman. A woman about my age, with long blond hair. She was hanging on a rope-"
The landlady's face crumpled. A moan leaked from her mouth. The glass mixing bowl she had been drying fell to the floor, bounced once, and cracked.
"Leave my house," she hissed.
Mumbling apologies, I fled.
Still flushed from the erotic dance I'd seen, I was too full of heat and longing to realize how deeply I had shocked the woman. I didn't know what to do with my desire. I wanted to find someone to pound it out of me, a crazy man, to fuck me till my pulse finally slowed. I had come to that house, to that slumbering town, to finish something that I had to do in order to become someone better. In four weeks I had written almost nothing. I'd given up ambition as easily as a healthy habit.
I wandered up and down the town's main drag all afternoon, stopping at a pool hall near dusk. There was only one other female in the bar, a mountainous woman whose bosom spilled across the table where she sat. A shot glass rested, thimblelike, between her breasts. A lean man, maybe thirty-five, sat beside her. His face was unexceptional until he smiled at me. I saw in his eyes the light I was looking for, a glint of dementia, the shimmer of stopped time. I imagined that face rising up from between my spread thighs, saw that mouth devouring me like a jackal. He beckoned to me, and I sank into a seat at their table.
"You from around here?" The man leaned closer as he spoke. His skin smelled of wind-dried sweat. His eyes were as pale as new nickels against his brown skin.
"I'm just here for the summer. I'm renting a room at the farmhouse on Mullen Road."
"That was Mary June's place," the woman said. "Did you hear that, John?"
Instead of responding, the man got up and went to the bar. He returned with a glass of amber elixir, which he offered to me.
"Who is Mary June?" I sipped the whiskey. Heavy and smooth, it plunged straight through me, making my cunt tingle from the inside. The man called John had long sun-gashes down his tanned cheeks; I wanted to trace those salty grooves with my tongue. His lean hands caressed his beer bottle as if they were entertaining ideas of their own.
"Who is Mary June?" I repeated. My voice came thick and slow.
"That's the wrong question, honey," said the woman. "The question should be, who was Mary June."
"And what's the answer?"
"A pretty girl who died of shame."
"Women don't die of shame. That's crazy."
"It sure is," John agreed. "It's crazy and wrong. Mary June never felt a moment of shame in her life."
"Did she have long hair? Blond?"
"Blond and shiny, like grain piled up in the sun. All the way down to her waist. Sounds like you've seen her."
"I couldn't have seen her if she's dead."
"Why not?" John shrugged, as if the dead had as much right to make themselves seen as anyone else.
"I don't believe in ghosts."
"I didn't say you saw a ghost. Maybe Mary June just left a piece of herself for someone to find."
I made a scoffing noise, a snort that made me sound bolder than I felt. A cold awareness was spreading across my skin. My body knew Mary June's story before I had even heard it. My body had experienced her climax on the rope in the barn. My body did not care if the girl who did that rope dance was a flesh-and-blood mortal, a hallucination, or a phantom.
As I was absorbing what John had said, one of his hard hands came to rest on my thigh. His fingers slipped under the fuzzy hem of my cutoffs and tugged at the edge of my panties, which were still sticky from the memories of that bewildering vision in the barn…
"Come for a ride with me, and I'll tell you who Mary June was." John stood up, his hand gliding along my leg. Mesmerized, I stood up, too.
The woman swayed in drunken clairvoyance. "Careful, honey," she cooed. "You don't even know who he is."
"Who are you?" I asked, my caution blurred by desire.
John grabbed my waist with both hands and pressed the length of his body against mine. The interweaving of his muscles reminded me of the strands of a leather whip. He bent his head to whisper in my ear, and his smooth lips grazed the lobe.
"I'm the local expert on Mary June," he said, with a softness I found both startling and sweet. "You might even say I was her brother."
Mary June used to sneak out of her bedroom while her mother was watching Johnny Carson and take long rides in men's cars through night country, headlights off. Mary June wore short chiffon skirts that flew up around her waist in the spring and stuck to her thighs in the summer. Her panties she either left in her laundry basket back home, or balled up under the seats of her lovers' cars. Cars were her favorite place to fuck, her legs spread in a reckless V while her lover bucked inside her.
She always laughed while she was making love, even when she was coming, as if she were trying to make up for the silence she kept inside her mother's house. Eventually that laughter drove the men away, and her lovers spread the rumor that Mary June screwed like a mad hyena bitch. Only her brother knew how to make the laughter stop.
Mary and John arrived at the farm on Mullen Road on a summer day, just before harvest time. Two weeds plucked from a foster home, the girl and boy held hands as they confronted the woman who would be their guardian. Though they were not related by blood, the children were joined by a rope of coincidence and desperation. The girl was named Mary, the boy John. Both had been assigned the surname of Smith. To escape the anonymity of their names, they had added their birth months and became Mary June and John March.
When the children weren't working on the farm, they invented games that involved one kind of prison or another. Mary June loved these games. Something about the farm made her want to play that way, seeking places in the woods where she could act out her dreams of being bound in coils of rope. She became a prisoner of the Martians, of evil cowboys, or-her most cherished fantasy-of a corrupt county sheriff. The threat of law pleased her, gave her a sense of ritual and weight.
As she and John grew older, familiar games turned strange, and the rope took on a life of its own. John learned how to make Mary June moan, even cry when the pain was especially sweet. But pain became a weak substitute for the contact that Mary June really craved. None of the horny boys in their muscle cars could do for her what John March could do-if only he would let himself enter her. The rope was the only thing that kept her from forcing her foster brother to do what she wanted.
Even though he refused to touch Mary June's berry-ripe nipples, her swollen pussy, John was the only one who could make her cunt dissolve in a shuddering meltdown. All he had to do was watch her peel her flimsy dress off, then wrap her nude body in intricate knots. Tighter, tighter he pulled the rope, until her tender flesh burned. When she lay on her back in the deep woods, her wrists and ankles bound, Mary June never laughed. She was paralyzed by an arousal edged with fear-fear of wild animals, of other men, of the possibility that John might leave her there with her fear and desire and no place to put them.
"There's no blood between us," she pleaded. "We're only brother and sister by accident. Why can't you just get inside me?"
"It's an accident that the whole town believes in," John March said. "If you want me to make love to you, you'll have to leave with me."
But Mary June would not leave the farmhouse. Although Mary June had never called her foster mother "Mama," a bond had grown between the two women that John March would never understand.
While he talked, John March drove me through the humid night. His hand found my thigh again, dipped down to the silky hot-patch, and rested there, cool and hard. We rode past the orderly shadows of the orchards, past the farms that lay beyond them, to the place where the woods began. He stopped where the road stopped and helped me out of the car. My knees were wobbly, my shorts slippery from the pleasure his voice had been giving me. The darkness swelled with an outcry of frogs, the occasional warning of an owl. John led me through the trees. I couldn't see anything but the white curve of my outstretched arm, but he somehow recognized a trail and knew where it ended. "Strip," he said hoarsely. "Strip like Mary June did." I stumbled out of my shorts and giggled as my arms tangled in my T-shirt. John stood behind me, watching me twist out of my panties. I held my hands together behind my back so he could tie the rope around my wrists. He pushed me to my knees and tied my ankles, too, with the rope running upward to encircle my neck. A mosquito landed on my breast and pierced the wrinkly skin of my nipple. I flinched. The rope responded instantly by squeezing my throat.
"Hold still, prisoner," John whispered. His chapped palms cupped my breasts, gently squeezed. I moaned, but I was afraid. If I moved, the rope would strangle me. I thought I could hear Mary June's ghost-breath in the darkness, and I understood why she hadn't laughed. The hands massaging my breasts grew rough. I whimpered. The rope was already chafing my wrists. I wasn't aroused anymore, only frightened. When I heard John unzipping his jeans, I panicked; my body jerked, and the rope tightened around my throat. For a moment my breath left me. When it came back, I screamed.
John knelt beside me, gripping me by the shoulders. "Shush, shush," he murmured into my hair. When my muscles were soft again, he untied me, but the sensation of the rope never left my skin.
"How did Mary June die?" I asked.
But John wouldn't tell me. Instead he described the time Mary June revealed that she had learned how to do something extraordinary, something she'd seen herself doing in a dream. John told me how Mary June's body looked, slim and golden, when she performed what she called her "circus act" for him in the barn. He watched her, his cock leaping inside his jeans while she twisted on the rope in a spectacle of aerial freedom, bellowing like Tarzan one minute, soaring like a Balanchine dancer the next. When she came down, they tumbled into a hot rut, all haste and gratitude. After they had dozed awhile in the August light, he turned her over on her back. If he could make her come over and over again, he thought, until she couldn't speak enough to protest, he could carry her off the farm. But just when he had teased her with his tongue until she was as weak as a new lamb, so limp that he could have lifted her with one hand, their foster mother found them.
John March was driven out of the house. Mary June was allowed to stay, but she was no longer free in any sense. She hid in her room, door locked, while her mother called her vile names through the keyhole. The foster mother knelt down the way Mary June used to when she was sucking a lover's cock, but instead of hot love coming through her lips, there came icy words, words that froze her daughter's blood. Without blood, there was no desire. Without the rope, there was no freedom.
"I'm not going back to that woman's house," I said.
"You don't have to go back," said John. "One thing Mary June never learned was not to stay where she wasn't wanted. She could have left with me. But she wouldn't leave that woman."
"What finally happened?"
John was silent for a moment. "Mary June hanged herself. Our foster mother found her out in the barn."
"Hanged herself," I repeated softly. Now I understood why I had shocked my landlady so deeply. I had seen an enchanted creature dancing on a rope, but my landlady had remembered a suicide. "Was it really because of shame?"
"There's no way Mary June was ashamed. She was proud of the way she was. Proud of her pretty titties, her sweet-tasting pussy. She didn't care what people said."
"Why did she do it, then?"
"How can anyone know? No one knows but Mary June. All I've got to go on is a theory."
"Mary June hanged herself because she was somehow tied to that old bitch-more tightly than she was ever tied to me."
John's voice trembled. He caught himself before it broke.
This time John tied me differently. The rope snaked around my wrists, knees, and thighs, but left my vulva exposed, its lips spread like split fruit. I shivered as a night breeze sucked at my inner flesh. John's tongue was hot when it dove into the cleft. I don't know this mouth, I thought, but it didn't matter because Mary June had known it. His tongue searched the whorls of my cunt, hunting my clit, and his fingers gripped my thighs until I felt bruises blossoming. As I squirmed, the rope burned my skin. John slid upward. His face gleamed over mine, predatory. I felt his cock drumming against my belly, but when he slid into me, I wasn't ready for its girth. I screamed again-not with fear this time. My instinct was to clutch his back with my arms and legs, but they were bound. I was nothing but open mouth and open cunt, taking the beating of his chest against mine.
"Just lie there," he muttered through clenched teeth. "Nothing else you can do."
Nothing else. Was that what Mary June thought, the last time she felt a rope against her skin? I could see her with that rope, alone in the barn, the weight of the body minimal compared to that of her sadness.
I wasn't anything like Mary June. When I came with that crazy man, I forgot what I was like at all, but there was no sadness in me. Only burning pleasure under fiery skin, and the thunder of all my captive pulse points. The more I struggled to fulfill my come, the longer it was delayed, until the climax turned into a slow, swollen river. My lover bit my nipple, forcing me to peak. I screamed for the third time as his cock hit my core. I couldn't clutch his back, couldn't raise my head to bite his neck-I went crazy that night from not being able to seize him the way he seized me when his body turned iron in one heartbeat, and his shout silenced all the wild things in the forest.
When you're tied like that, your will is taken away, and your accountability. You're roped to your desire. You can't turn away from it any longer. There's nothing else to turn to.
In the morning I returned to Mary June's house. I didn't have a choice. My books were there, and my notes-all the small things that made up my life. When I saw the house from a distance, standing at the end of a sere stretch of brown land, I thought its frame was leaning even more dramatically. The structure wasn't preparing to flee, as I had first thought: it was ready to collapse. For the first time I noticed all the remnants of farm life that surrounded it: the empty barn, the ramshackle livestock pen, the unidentifiable skeletons of broken tools.
I tried to imagine how two orphaned children would have seen the place when they first arrived. An abundance of space and life, a host of animals to care for, and at the center of all that, a woman who might be won over if the boy and girl could figure out how to open that padlocked heart. I could see how the farm might have thrived for a while. With the children's help, the livestock would have grown fat, the small crop of grain would have flourished. But when Mary June left, taking her heathen sensuality away from the earth, the land hardened itself against the old woman in the house. The livestock sickened. Wherever life had proliferated, it withered.
My books, papers, and clothes lay heaped in open boxes in front of the farmhouse. One of my lacy bras lay on the gravel, embedded in the rocks as if someone had ground it down with a sharp heel. My books had been thrown into the boxes face-down, splayed open so that their spines had cracked. I know the woman in the house was watching as I unpacked my things, brushed away the grit, and repacked them. I saw the flicker of her hand pushing back the curtain in the parlor. I took my time getting my books stacked just right, my clothes neatly folded. I picked up my bra and blew the dust out of the lace eyelets with careful puffs of breath. I hoped she would think of Mary June as she watched me. When I was done, I stood up straight and stared at the parlor window until her shadow finally backed away.
I'm in the car now, driving back to campus, to my old life at the university. I have all four windows rolled down, my thighs spread so that the breeze blows down the hem of my short cutoffs, licking the secret raw space. In the seat next to me lies the rope John March gave me. It's coiled like a Celtic symbol, its ends disappearing in the endless loop. The patterns of its strands are etched on my skin, as meaningful in their random crosshatching as the intersection of lovers, mothers, siblings.
This is my Mary June rope. I imagine it's the same rope she used for her slow, spinning dance in the barn. Who's to say it's not? The strands keep their dusty secrets wrapped up tight, but I learned some of those secrets from Mary June. How desire can hold its opposite; how captivity can bring you more freedom than you thought was possible.
The sun's angle shifts. The frayed rope turns golden.
Anne Tourney's erotic fiction has appeared in various publications, including The Best American Erotica and Best Women's Erotica series,
the anthologies Zaftig: Well-Rounded Erotica and The Unmade Bed, and the online magazines Scarlet Letters and Clean Sheets. Her darker fiction has appeared in Embraces: Dark, Erotica and Dark, Regions.
"Ropeburn," by Anne Tourney, © 2000 by Anne Tourney, first appeared in Clean Sheets (Clean Sheets, 2000);
www.cleansheets.com. Reprinted by permission of the author.