Can Nudism Save the World?

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Can nudism save the world …?

Not really. No. Thanks for stopping by.

OK, wait. There’s more! But you probably guessed that, right? Nudism/Naturism won’t save the world, but it can make the world a better place. Now, I am not going to go into the usual spiel about body acceptance and freedom. Too much nudist rhetoric is hyperbole, and its end-goals arbitrary. Like I wrote in my earlier post, Why Nudism is Wrong*, we don’t need to expose our genitals to see that humans come in all shapes and sizes. Rather, I intend to examine the concrete, practical effects of a world without clothing taboos, a world where public nakedness is not only accepted, but the norm, a world where words like ‘naked’ and ‘nudist’ are superfluous. What kind of world would that look like? And what benefits could we derive from such a world?

First and foremost, we should dismiss the idea that rape, or sexual violence, would increase in a naked world. Compare the rights of women in Scandinavia, where body freedom is more commonplace, to those in repressed states like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. We might instead end up with a more sexually liberated community, but this in itself isn’t a bad thing.

In the middle ages, much like today, there was the fear that nakedness could only lead to sex. More specifically, the patriarchal societies at the time feared wanton sexuality in women. As acts of rape were sanctioned by the Church during the Crusades, wives awaiting their husbands to return from war were said to be forced into chastity belts. Myth or no, the chastity belt emphasized the need to curb female sexuality, as an unwanted pregnancy was a great burden, and having a bastard childborn of a cuckoldwas a worser fate.

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But we are living in a post-Pill age. Moving into the future, newer contraceptive technologies are divorcing the age old connection between sex and childbirth. For women, this has had mostly positive effects. Women are no longer required to devote their lives to raising a dozen or so children. Like no other time in history, they are free to choose the life they want to live, whether that means earning a college degree or starting a career. And they can do this without giving up sex. More importantly, birth control leads to less children being born, which is a net benefit for the environment and on humanity as a whole.

Almost every problem we face today can be directly related to population. With more people comes a greater need for land, water and food. A shortage of these resources leads to poverty, starvation and war. An increased human population causes an increase in pollution, resulting in the devastation of our oceans, the razing of our forests, and the mass extinction of animal species. According to Seastewards.org, Americans generate 10.5 million tons of PLASTIC waste a year but recycle only 1 or 2 % of it. An estimated 14 billion pounds of trash–most of it plastic–is dumped in the world’s oceans every year. Christine Dell’Amore, at the National Geographic, reports, extinction data revealed a rate of 100 to 1,000 species lost per million per year, mostly due to human-caused habitat destruction and climate change. […] That analysis revealed that before humans evolved, less than a single species per million went extinct annually. The study authors suspect that the extinction rate will only increase if trends continue—possibly resulting in what scientists call the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. 

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I can foresee a future where children are born outside of the womb, in birthing pods. This would give women even greater freedom, from pain and the health complications associated with delivery. Birth defects could be detected earlier and more easily. DNA editing, enacted outside the body, could affectively eliminate diseases like diabetes and cancer. In this not-so-distant future, sex will exist purely as a social construct, for pleasure and ritual. It will become, for better or worse, what kissing is today. In such a world, fear of nudity leading to sex will not exist, because fear of sex will not exist.

Now, we might look at the above example as putting the cart before the horse. Certainly, we don’t need to be naked to become more sexually liberated, or to curb unwanted pregnancies. We should not confuse correlation with causation. However, there are other major benefits we can directly relate to a global nudist movement.

 

Clothing and Resources

There will never come and time when humans stop wearing clothes altogether, and no nudist or naturist I’ve ever spoken to has entertained the possibility. And yet the myth persists, that nudists want to do away with clothing in the same way textiles (that’s you non-nudists) enforce mandatory dress codes anywhere and everywhere. From a nudist’s perspective, the textile world is utterly obsessive. When you sleep, you wear pajamas, or underwear. When you wake up, you take a shower and immediately put on something casual, like an undershirt and shorts. You leave the house, you change again into a T-shirt and jeans. You visit the beach, the pool, or go camping, you need a bathing suit. It’s just clothes, clothes and more clothes!from the moment you are born to the moment you die. Even when you’re lying dead in your coffin, you’re in a tux. Nudists, on the other hand, dress when appropriate. You won’t find me in zero degree weather without a coat on. That being said, why do I need clothes on a perfect day? Every summer, I find myself sweltering under the Florida sun, my shirt and pants trapping all of the heat trying to escape my body. Why do I suffer? For no other reason but an outdated, cultural taboo.

Now imagine a beautiful spring day. It’s 74 degrees, without a cloud in sight, and there’s just the slightest breeze, and your body is simply begging to experience the sensations around you. In our post-textile world, boys and girls could run freely about the lawn, dashing through sprinklers, jumping in mud, perspiring, drinking Kool-Aid, without any concern for stains. If it rains, take a second to towel off, and you’re dry as a bone. All the while, dad can do yard work, wearing only gloves, without the hems of his clothes turning green. If the temperature pushes past a hundred, there’s no better way to adjust to the heat than allowing the body to regulate itself. Want to jump in the pool? Or into the lake? No need to run home for a bathing suit.

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As the sun melts into the horizon and the mosquitoes start to wake, the family gathers inside. Nobody needs to change. Everyone sits on their bare butts for dinner and, later on, a movie. Mom doesn’t need to do laundry, as she only ever washes for winter and the occasional formal outing. It’s a beautiful, practical world, although a bit 50’s inspired. The future is likely to be far stranger. But in our hypothetical nudist world, we could greatly help the environment by saving on water, and by using our land exclusively for crops. We would also eliminate the pollution that comes from clothing production.

The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world … second only to oil,” Eileen Fisher, industry magnate, told a stunned Manhattan audience earlier this year. Fisher was honored by Riverkeeper for her commitment to environmental causes.

When we think of pollution, we envision coal power plants, strip-mined mountaintops and raw sewage piped into our waterways. We don’t often think of the shirts on our backs. But the overall impact the apparel industry has on our planet is quite grim. Fashion is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production, raw material, textile manufacture, clothing construction, shipping, retail, use and ultimately disposal of the garment.”

While Fisher’s assessment that fashion is the second largest polluter is likely impossible to know, what is certain is that the fashion carbon footprint is tremendous. Determining that footprint is an overwhelming challenge due to the immense variety from one garment to the next. A general assessment must take into account not only obvious pollutants — the pesticides used in cotton farming, the toxic dyes used in manufacturing and the great amount of waste discarded clothing creates — but also the extravagant amount of natural resources used in extraction, farming, harvesting, processing, manufacturing and shipping. While cotton, especially organic cotton, might seem like a smart choice, it can still take more than 5,000 gallons of water to manufacture just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Synthetic, man-made fibers, while not as water-intensive, often have issues with manufacturing pollution and sustainability. And across all textiles, the manufacturing and dyeing of fabrics is chemically intensive. Globalization means that your shirt likely traveled halfway around the world in a container ship fueled by the dirtiest of fossil fuels. A current trend in fashion retail is creating an extreme demand for quick and cheap clothes and it is a huge problem. Your clothes continue to impact the environment after purchase; washing and final disposal when you’re finished with your shirt may cause more harm to the planet than you realize.

As a nudist, it seems utterly absurd to me to waste so much energy and resources, when a lack of energy and resources is fast becoming the greatest challenge to human survival. There are certainly times when clothing is necessary, for comfort and survival, but those times are far and few. Mostly, we dress because society expects us to.

 

Our Warming World

Most of the electricity we use goes to lowering the temperature in our homes. But if cultural norms did not dictate that we remain clothed even indoors, we could greatly diminish our dependence on air conditioning, saving energy, and reducing our carbon footprint. According to the Department of Energy: Three-quarters of all homes in the United States have air conditioners. Air conditioners use about 6% of all the electricity produced in the United States, at an annual cost of about $29 billion to homeowners. As a result, roughly 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are released into the air each year. This is an awful waste, just to maintain a taboo from the middle ages.

The irony here is that, as the carbon in our atmosphere increases, the global temperature continually rises, necessitating a greater need for AC, requiring more and more energy. 2017 was the hottest year on record, followed by 2016, which held the previous record, as did 2015 before that.

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We are seeing a definite, upward trend toward a hotter, muggier world. Clothing was largely developed during the Ice Age, when most of Europe and North America was covered by glaciers. Today, the glaciers are receding, as other icy landmasses, like Antarctica and the Arctic circle, are disappearing. Perhaps, in our inevitable future of hotter temperatures, communal nakedness will become the only practical solution.

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Security and Safety

OK, you may be thinking that the environment isn’t all that important, or that changing the culture to lessen the effects of global warming is a long shot. How can nudism help me today, you may be asking? This is an inherent problem when dealing with global issues. Having lost jobs in coal, many Trump supporters care little for rising sea levels. We haven’t yet evolved to consider the impact of our actions on the people who live furthest from us.

That being said, there are still everyday, practical benefits to a clothes-free world. Imagine a gunman trying to shoot up a school, where the only permitted uniform is bare skin? Forget taking your shoes off at the airport, if everyone were to simply board the plane naked, terrorists would have nowhere to hide their guns, knives or bombs. This may seem ridiculous, at first, until you discover how lax airport security really is. According to Fortune magazine, Just a few days after the busy summer travel season started—a time when inexperienced and nervous air travelers clog the nation’s airports—word leaked that the TSA screeners missed 95 percent of mock explosives and banned weapons smuggled through checkpoints by screeners testing the system. This means that if a terrorist were to try and sneak a weapon onto a plane, airport security would only catch the guy 5% of the time! Now, if we were to ban both carry-on luggage and clothing, that percentage could only go up. Heck, I can’t imagine anything short of 100%. Even if we were to contemplate a man fitting a bomb up into his anus, it’s unlikely anyone of the Islamic faith would attempt it. For one thing, nudity is forbidden in Islam, and secondly, any member of ISIS posing as a nudist could only recoil at the sight of hundreds of naked women. Again, boarding a plane in the buff may seem absurd, until you ask, why do we think so? Many things were considered absurd before becoming commonplace. More importantly, planes will be hijacked, no matter how much money we throw at security. Are the lives of hundreds of people worth maintaining an outdated cultural taboo?

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Health

So far, we have looked at the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing and the effect a nudist world would have on terrorism, but how well do these arguments hold up to the genital test? I discussed the genital test at length in my other post, Why Nudism is Wrong*, the basic premise being, we don’t have to go Full Monty to attain many of these benefits. Surely, we can trade in our pants and shirts for simple briefs. We can hold on to our modesty, or taboowhichever word you preferwhile greatly diminishing waste. And a terrorist may be just as hard pressed to hide a weapon in his underwear. But there are still other, undisputed benefits to nudism that require we expose our genitals.

Firstly, nudism is more hygienic. Some people consider the opposite to be true. The fear is that fecal matter and urine spread more easily, unconstrained by clothing, onto surfaces that then come into contact with your (in this case) exposed skin. But most infections we suffer from are cultivated by our own bodies. Poop is poop and urine is urine, and whether it’s someone else’s or your own, it’s just as unsanitary. Usually, we are forced into the same undergarments throughout most of the day, without a proper place to change. There is nothing more disgusting than (sorry!) the soiled textiles we keep pressed against our nether regions. This often leads to urinary tract infections, which is caused by bacteria, bacteria that grows in dark, damp places (where the sun don’t shine!). In my nudist world, I would have a shower kiosk (similar to those at the beach) stationed randomly throughout town, where anyone could clean themselves should the need arise. These could be as common as bathroomswould literally be bathrooms. Think about it this way, we wash our hands only so far as our hands are exposed.

Secondly, and far more importantly, nudity offers early warning signs of serious illness. When I last visited my dermatologist, he told me I had a lot of moles. Too many. I’d say I have more moles than there are stars in the universe, but I digress. He recommended he check me over, finding a number on my back that looked questionable. “Six months,” he said. “All it takes is a six months, and if it’s cancerous, you could be the richest man on Earth and it wouldn’t matter. There’s no cure.” But here’s the thing, the doctor checked me everywhere except … you guessed it, my private area. Why? I imagine it had a lot to do with my least favorite taboo. So, even as he’s stressing the dangers of cancerous moles, he’s neglecting a large section of my body because of what some Christian monks impressed upon our culture a thousand years ago. And, as it so turns out, I do have them “down there,” and I did have him check, and more were removed. You could argue that I check myself in the mirror, but how easy is it to see yourself, every part of yourself, even in the best of mirrors? In our naked world, hundreds of eyes would be upon me, everyday, all the more to notice something dangerously wrong.

 

The Future 

Cultural taboos are often difficult, if not impossible, to change. But all that is required is the will to change. Nobody could have imagined, twenty years ago, how embraced the LGBT+ community would become. As I suggested in Nudity is the Future, in forty years time, what we deem indecent will undergo a dramatic shift. Our nation has been leaning left for hundreds of years, our religion is losing its influence, and we are fast becoming a society in which personal identity is paramount. Current and future generations will be raised on PornHub. We simply cannot remain prudes forever. Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus and Orlando Bloom, among others, have already exposed themselves with little to no outrage.

One day soon, nakedness will take the place of bathing suits. Nudity will be a thing for the home, for backyards and public parks, for beaches, pools and camping. Showing up naked at a restaurant, school or office building will not invite shock, or calls to the police, but amusement. Clothing will continue to be worn, of course, but its function will change. It will no longer be associated with status, morality or shame, but be customary, a matter of tradition, of personal expression. Just as no one is judged by their sexuality or sexual orientation, no one will be judged, or condemned, by what they wear or don’t wear. This is the world I dream of. Perhaps by then, our cities will have moved, our religions will have become myths, and a hundred-degree weather will be the norm. But it will be a better, freer, more enlightened world.

My friends voted for Trump

I have a problem, and it’s a problem that I think many Americans share. My friends voted for Trump. The fact that they could do this utterly mystifies me. Since the day we elected this monster, I have been trying to rationalize the choice they made. But as news reports continue to lend credence to the very worst of our fears, any excuse I can imagine falls apart. It might be different if my friends were to show some measure of remorse, if one were to say to me, “Hey, I didn’t realize it would be like this. Sorry, I was duped.” But that hasn’t happened yet, and I do not imagine it will.

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I am truly at a loss for what to do. I don’t want to excommunicate people I have known for decades, who have gone out of their way to help me in times of need. Of my co-workers, friends and family who are Trump supporters, I have only discussed the matter with one. The others, I suspect, are aware of my disappointment. I haven’t hung out with my cycling buddy since the election. It’s not that I hate him, or don’t ever want to see him again. It seems a petty thing to end a friendship over politics. Aside from that, I feel it’s important to keep the channels of communication open between people with dissenting views. To do less would further the harm caused by our echo chamber culture. A divided house cannot stand. We need allies to fight tyranny. But the hurt inside of me is great, and the normalcy of my relationships has been irrevocably disturbed. How can I be expected to go on like nothing unusual has happened? News breaks daily to confirm we are living in a dystopian nightmare.

Trump wants to bring back torture. Trump wants to sell federal parks and landmarks to private business owners. Trump wants to get rid of the Endangered Species act. Trump bans Muslim immigration and denies visas to Muslim countries (except for those countries with whom he has business dealings). Trump makes it so that Christians can enter the country more easily. Trump wants to make a Muslim registry. Trump wants to report on all illegal activities by immigrants, legal or otherwise. Trump wants to build a border wall, a 20 billion dollar project at taxpayer expense, while breaking up Mexican families. Trump wants to take away healthcare. Trump wants to take away tax breaks for new home buyers. Trump removes mention of civil rights and LGBT rights from the White House website. Trump appoints Exxon CEO and climate change denier to head the EPA, and threatens the jobs of any scientist believing in climate change. Trump appoints a Wall Street banker to head the Treasury. Trump calls the news media liars, and limits their access to the White House. Trump appoints a white supremacist to his cabinet, to write his speeches, and in doing so fails to mention Jews in his visit to the Holocaust memorial. 

This is just off the top of my head. Have I left anything out? Any one of these things should disqualify him from the office. And we’re only weeks into his presidency. What is the country going to look like in four years, if he is not impeached? Is there any doubt he is an evil man? A criminal bent on the destruction of every value we hold dear? That all he does is for his own personal gain? Whether you are Muslim or Mexican or white Protestant, how can you watch your rights be eroded day after day, and not begin to fear? How can anyone put their faith in a man so clearly delusional, who argues facts—like the size of the crowd at his inauguration—as if they could be debated? We can see the pictures for ourselves, and yet we are supposed to accept what he is telling us, and ignore reality. We are supposed to shut our ears to the media because, according to him, they are all liars. Trust in him alone. Because his ego matters more than the state of the union. Are these not the words of a tyrant? The actions of a dictator? A Hitler?

So I am forced to ask, are my friends not aware of all this? Do they not watch the news? Are their Facebook feeds really so different from mine? I find it hard to believe, when all anyone can talk about these days is Trump. And if my friends see these things, as I suspect they have, what does that mean?

I tried to illicit some sympathy from my friend, explaining to him that I was scared. For my wife. For my friends. I could lose them, I said. If not from Trump directly, from those he has inspired, from bigoted fanatics, Nazis and KKK members encouraged by the knowledge that the president echoes their sentiments. My friend argued that he was more afraid of Clinton. How? What did Clinton threaten to do to him? To his family? I suspect it may have had something to do with his NRA leanings, but Clinton was never in favor of banning the 2nd Amendment, whereas Trump made his threats clear. To export millions of immigrants —calling them rapists and drug dealers—and to ban those traveling from undesirable countries, many of whom are women and children seeking asylum. Assuming Clinton had run on an anti-gun platform, a gun is a material thing. You cannot equate banning a material thing with banning a human being. You cannot equate a disagreement over the minutia of the 2nd amendment with a show of outright hostility toward religious and racial minorities. My friends’ vote, however insignificant, reflects the values they most care about.

I had a black friend in college named Marcus. We weren’t that close, but I thought he was a cool guy, and a great writer. Now, if I had come to school wearing a shirt that read, “I Hate Niggers,” how could I expect our friendship to remain unaffected? I could argue, “Hey, it’s just a T-shirt.” I could go so far as to say, “Listen, this shirt isn’t really going to cause you any harm,” and it most likely wouldn’t. And yet, wearing the shirt would be indicative of my beliefs about Marcus and those of his race. Now I’ve heard the argument that not every Trump supporter is a racist. A lot of them can honestly claim they voted for Obama, but that this time around, for want of better jobs, better lives, they threw their hats in for the man they thought could best deliver. But still I ask, “How could you?” Does your personal, financial situation matter to such a degree, that you throw out all other values? Do guns matter so much, does abortion matter so much, that you risk destroying the lives of those closest to you? Does your compassion for others—for minorities, religious groups, LGBT people—STOP at the first sign of personal hardship?

Before I was married, I thought I understood racism. I’d seen movies. TV shows. Then, during the Bush years, I came face to face with the ugliness and, more importantly, the fear of bigotry. While waiting for his pizza in my restaurant, an older gentlemen started to rant about a certain group of people. “Even if I saw one dying in the street, I wouldn’t raise a finger to help him.” Hearing him say that got my blood boiling. I wanted to reach across the counter to punch him. I was dizzy with rage. Shoving the pizza in his face, I told him never to come back. I recall another incident where I had to tell my wife and daughter to sneak out the back door. A guy had walked in wearing a trench coat with a huge swastika emblazoned on it. Let me reiterate, if you’ve never had an experience like this, you do not know what racism is, and I still can’t even imagine what it must feel like to be black or Hispanic or Muslim. To be the object of scorn. The object of violence. There is no excuse for a racist president. No excusing your vote for one.

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I am scared and I am angry. And I am forced to wonder, is there a tipping point? A point at which Trump will do something so heinous, that even his most ardent supporters will be forced to open their eyes? When did Hitler’s most vocal advocates realize they’d made a mistake? Was it when the ovens started? When friends and neighbors started losing their lives? And in that point, could any Jew truly call a Nazi his friend?

Guns vs. Nudity: What is Truly Offensive?

Again I feel compelled to alienate potential readers with my stance on gun control. Both my brother and my best friend are card carrying members of the NRA, and yet I feel morally obligated to champion this cause, and the view held by more than half of all Americans. We are morally obligated to make it harder for criminals and terrorists to obtain guns. We are morally obligated to shut down the gun show / online store loophole. And we must ban semi-automatic weapons, and oversized magazine clips which can serve no purpose but for the zombie apocalypse. We should also be encouraging, not prohibiting, organizations like the CDC to do the proper research with regards to gun safety. If the NRA is truly confident in its position, why not allow a third party to prove it?

I happened to be vacationing with my family in Orlando when the terrible shooting that claimed 49 lives took place. Of course, with a wife and two kids, I was nowhere near any gay bars, but it’s frightening just the same, because in the theme park capital of the world, crowds are always plentiful and security is often lax. With millions of impatient visitors eager to jump on the latest rollercoaster, and parks eager to accommodate those visitors, we go through the motions of what can only be described as ‘security theater.’ Someone determined to get beyond the underpaid staff poking around your backpack is going to succeed. Even if security were to be beefed up, there are enough potential victims waiting in line to make the recent shooting seem tame by comparison.

Here’s the sad truth: this is going to happen again. It’s only a matter of time. And when it does, the same rhetoric will get bandied back and forth. What we are not seeing is change, change to help lessen these occurrences, or, when they are likely to happen, change to ensure less people suffer.

Every time a mass shooting takes place, gun advocates refer to their talking points, framing the conversation as to divert from gun legislation. It can’t be the guns. Blame anything and everything but the guns. After Newtown, the NRA insisted mental health was the core issue. If we could rein in every troubled teen, they argued, we could solve the problem of gun violence. This, of course, seems a more reasonable position to a gun lover: legislating people instead of things. But the massacre in Orlando had everything to do with religion and homophobia. Had we listened to the NRA and focused our efforts on the mentally ill, we’d still be mourning the loss of 49 innocent people. Now Donald Trump proposes we lay the blame on Muslims. Again, we are presented with the solution of regulating people rather than things, which is somehow constitutional, whereas gun control remains a violation of civil liberties. So lock up anyone with a history of mental disorder, lock up anyone who is Muslim, and lock up anyone who doesn’t like gays. This might work, until another shooting happens under a different motive. Perhaps a fundamentalist pro-lifer will gun down an abortion clinic. Eventually, we will run out of scape goats, and our capacity to lay blame on people with grievances, because reasons for mass murder might as well be infinite. And when all is said and done, when hundreds, maybe thousands more are killed, we will be left with the problem of guns.

I distinctly recall my first visit to Barnes & Nobles, circa 20 years ago. The magazine section was extensive. Of particular interest to me was N Magazine, which featured naturism, but after two weeks the publication was pulled from the shelves. But what remains to this day are High Times and Guns & Ammo, because apparently, nudity is more offensive than drugs or killing.

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Advocates like to paint the gun debate in terms of freedom vs. tyranny, but this is not the reality. Absolute freedom is an American myth. Historically, what people can and cannot do has always been curtailed by common sense restrictions. You cannot legally drink and drive a car because it’s dangerous. You cannot smoke at a gas station or use your cell phone on an airplane for the same reasons. We all abide by these rules without a qualm, but when it comes to guns, we are beholden to the notion that freedom trumps safety. Why? It boils down to one simple word: MONEY. There is a lot of money to be made in the sale of bullets and pistols and semi-automatic rifles, and this money pays for lobby groups like the NRA, who pay off our politicians. Innocent civilians are dying for profit.

I can think of no other, more personal decision than what I choose to wear, if anything at all. Last time I checked, no one has ever been killed by the sight of a nipple or a penis. And if you really think about it, a penis is a kind of reverse-gun, creating life instead of taking it away, but should I decide to visit even a remote part of the beach in nothing but my skin, I’d get arrested, and possibly be put on the Sex Offender Registry List, to forever be associated with rapists and child molesters. If, on the other hand, I were to show up at a Starbucks armed to the teeth, I’d be heralded, by about half of all Americans, as a patriot. Again this begs the question of why. Why is the sight of the human body, something that has never harmed anyone, deemed illegal and offensive, while owning a device that exists for no other purpose but to kill regarded an inalienable right? I have no doubt aliens would find this dichotomy, between what is “modest” and what constitutes “freedom” utterly absurd, which is perhaps why they have yet to visit us. But again, I have the answer: there is no money to be made in public nudity. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Imagine how much revenue the clothing industry will lose when people realize the uselessness of bathing suits?

Open Carry March on March 12, 2014

This is legal.

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This is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we truly wish to lessen the frequency of mass shootings, not to stop, mind you, but to lessen, we need the political will to pass new safety legislation. The will must come from the people. Celebrities like Seth McFarlane, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert have all come out for sensible legislation. Even Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly admitted “you can’t have a bazooka.” It’s only a matter of time before we’ll look back at this gruesome era of gun violence and wonder how we could have waited so long. How many more needless deaths before common sense prevails?


 

Now before you start sending me your comments, consider that I’ve read all of the arguments, and have fully addressed them here in an earlier post: One Dead Child is One Too Many

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil’s Advocate: Why Nudism is Wrong

After a lifetime of promoting nudism, have I finally thrown in the towel? Or in this case, thrown on the towel? Sorry, textiles, today is not the day. But as a lover of philosophy, I feel it necessary to follow the example of Socrates, and examine what I feel most passionate about in as objective a way as possible. Too often, nudist bloggers will profess their beliefs without fully thinking about them. But for me, critical thinking is crucial, the only way to determine whether the nudist way of life is truly the best way to live. 

My wife is a champion of pragmatism. On more than one occasion, after my droning in defense of some philosophy, she has shot me down with just a few words. She is, in other words, utterly immune to bullshit. In just such a way, my wife has forced me to reevaluate my most cherished notions. As a true pragmatist, she isn’t quite opposed to the idea of nudism, but neither is she enthusiastic about it. But the objection she most often brings up is this: all of the pro-nudist arguments people make, and many I have made myself, can be dismissed by a single fact. 

The genitals do not have to be exposed for that to work.




On Women and Beauty Standards

Felicity Jones, founder of Young Naturists America, bases her free body philosophy on feminist principles. In her view, public nudity helps women feel good about their bodies, by exposing the “flaws” that 99% of “real” women have. Before frequenting nude beaches and resorts, my only exposure to the female body was Playboy, where less than 1% of women are represented, most of whom have had plastic surgery, breast augmentation (paid for by the magazine) or whose photos were airbrushed. After visiting clothing optional resorts, I learned how unnatural the Playboy ideal was, and how much more I appreciated the real thing. No doubt, if more women (and men) were exposed to the nudist perspective, society’s concept of beauty would change. One nudist slogan goes so far as to state, “all bodies are beautiful.” But here we have a problem. Couldn’t the same thing be achieved without exposing the genitals? Most women who hate their bodies focus on their overall weight, and only rarely on the condition of their vaginas. While there is a new trend in plastic surgery that does, in fact, reconstruct the labia and repair the hymen, this is an aberration, and not much of a concern for textiles, who never expose themselves but to their partners. It’s enough for women to simply visit a beach (or any water park) to discover different body types. Perhaps, instead of encouraging women to go naked, we should be encouraging them to hit the beach, and conversely, discourage magazines from altering photos.

Nudism’s feel good philosophy is wishful thinking, as we will never reach a point where all bodies are considered beautiful. To be certain, beauty is a difficult thing to define, and has been debated by philosophers since the Ancient Greeks. And yet, one thing is agreed upon, that by its very definition, beauty is selective. If we are all beautiful, nobody is beautiful. It must exist as an exception, stand out from a crowd, if it is to mean anything. But beauty is also a social construct, something that exists “in the eye of the beholder.” My wife tells me that I only see her as beautiful because I love her, which I admit to being true, in part. In cultures throughout history, what constitutes beauty widely differs. During the Renaissance Age, people preferred women who were, for a lack of a better word, “plus size.” These were known as “Rubenesques.” 

Beauty circa 1600s


In modern times, supermodels starve themselves to achieve the ideal bony physique. Nudists love to point out these changes, to show the transitory and illusory quality of beauty, but they rarely question it further, as to why these changes in perception occur in the first place. From an evolutionary standpoint, beauty is a measure of health, a way for an animal to determine the viability of a mate. Species avoid intercourse with those that are too young or old to produce offspring. For a rhino, a long horn is beautiful, and sexy, as it is a sign of good health and strong chromosomes. Peacocks find colorful plumage beautiful, whereas other bird species find a male’s singing voice arousing. During medieval times, when food was scarce and disease rampant, being too thin was an indication of poor health. Today, with our overabundance of calories, heart disease is the #1 threat to our survival, and so “thin is in.” The media, however, exacerbates this quality to the extreme, and so we have teenage girls also dying from bulimia and anorexia. While nudism helps broaden our perceptions as to what constitutes beauty, it can never be defined in such a way as to divorce it from its evolutionary function, which is why we will never see boys sexually aroused by grandmothers (beyond the occasional fetish). In short, beauty can be measured objectively, not with a tape measure, but within the parameters of health and procreation.  

Nudists also contend that public nudity acts as an equalizing factor, that in sharing our flaws, we somehow cancel them out. But I think the opposite is true. Clearly, a woman with a double mastectomy would prefer, given the choice, to have breasts. I have seen women who have undergone the procedure at nudist resorts, and have always admired their courage, which is its own beauty, I admit. But who could blame a woman for wanting to conceal such a surgery? Clothing may have been invented, in part, to make the body more appealing, by hiding what in that culture was deemed unattractive. While I personally believe we are far more beautiful the way we are born, when we are naked, our differences are more pronounced. A prehistoric person, born into a world without textiles, would not have the option to accentuate their better features, or draw attention away from others.     

Twiggy started the “super thin” trend.


Nudity and Objectification

Another position embraced by nudists regards equality of the sexes, characterized by the Free the Nipple campaign, which postulates that men and women’s nipples are no different, so that criminalizing one and not the other is tantamount to sexism. Forcing a woman to cover her nipples, however, cannot be compared to paying her less money, or taking away her birth control. The latter speaks of a woman’s value, and deeply entrenched prejudices that view women as worth less than men. The former has everything to do with sexual stimulation. Men’s nipples have never aroused women, which is why they are deemed permissible. Free the Nipple, therefore, has less to do with equality, and more to do with objectification, and sexuality. There is, of course, some overlap, as objectifying women can also be viewed as a form of inequality. But the issue I am making is this: for the vast majority, a man’s nipple differs significantly from a woman’s, if only in perception.

In other cultures, however, the female nipple is a common sight, as it is more associated with feeding infants. In Morocco, for instance, public breast feeding is legal, because the role of mother in Muslim countries is given greater respect. But in Puritan America, the nipple has long been divorced from its biological roots, becoming a commodity, for titillation and male gratification. But if tomorrow, every woman on the street was to go topless, all this would change. So far, I am in agreement with Free the Nipple. But here’s the problem: if Free the Nipple hinges on the fact that the nipple is not inherently (by its nature) sexual, what of the genitals? Are they not, by definition, sex organs? If so, how can nudists make both arguments? Or does Free the Nipple not represent the nudist view? Display of sex organs in public is either acceptable or not acceptable. 

Accepting that the function of the nipple is irrelevant, we must consider how a woman’s body is used to objectify her. Conservatives have long maintained that to remain dignified, women must dress modestly, but nudists see this as damaging, as any single image, taken at an inopportune moment, can be used to ruin someone’s reputation. It also places unfair constraints upon women, to dress the way society dictates, and to be defined by the clothing they wear. Public nudity, nudists argue, frees women from objectification, by eliminating the shame associated with the body, and the sexual implications that go with it. A woman was once thought a “slut” for wearing a mini-skirt or short shorts. In some Muslim countries, women endure the same type of shaming for not covering their faces. But with nudity becoming more commonplace, nudists contend, the body loses its power to arouse, and therefore, its capacity to objectify. While I agree with this, in part, in that women should not be judged for what they wear, I do not accept the notion that arousal is synonymous with objectification. It is in our natures to be sexually stimulated. We could never, in a thousand years, make the female body so common a sight as to eliminate desire altogether. I have been a nudist for most my life, but I would be lying if I were to say that I see no difference between a naked girl and a clothed one. Admittedly, I prefer girls who go au natural, because no outfit can compare in beauty to the naked body, and because it sometimes arouses me, and any heterosexual man with healthy testosterone levels who says otherwise is being disingenuous. But this does not mean that scantily clad women are any less deserving of respect. Only when we regard people as things, and little else, can we claim objectification. This is why I take issue with Cracked.com and Upworthy, and sites that cry sexism whenever a female heroine is depicted in a skimpy outfit. I do not consider a female character, like Thelana (who never wears clothes) to be an affront to women, as long as that character is portrayed with emotion, intelligence, and soul. Sexuality is a big part of who we are, and by reflecting this aspect of ourselves, we add to our humanity, rather than detract from it. Conversely, it is possible to objectify a person in non-sexual ways. Consider the racist caricatures of Germans and Japanese used during World War II. Given no inherent connection between sexuality and objectification, then, the argument that nudism can somehow eliminate this trend is dubious. If every man and woman were to strip down to their bare skin, we would still find ways to objectify our neighbors. The best that nudism can achieve, is to make it so that women are judged by their actions, and not their appearance.



Health and Social Benefits

Other pro-nudist arguments involve the health benefits of sunshine and air to bare skin, which again, fails the genital test. Must we expose our genitals to produce enough Vitamin D? No. Bathing suits allow enough of our skin to breathe. Another argument involves social interaction. In nothing but our bodies, we cannot judge social class, and so the boundaries that separate people dissolve. But again, could this not be achieved by everyone meeting in their underwear? How different is a rich man’s underwear from a poor person’s? Besides, it doesn’t take much to learn whether someone at a resort is a doctor or a lawyer. Nudists will often wear their Rolexes or engagement rings in the pool, or can be seen walking out to their Mercedes’ in the parking lot. Conversely, it’s rare, in this day and age, to determine someone’s social standing simply by looking at them. The wealthy of the world no longer dress like aristocrats. Bill Gates, sitting at a Starbucks, doesn’t come across as a billionaire. Only the people wanting to make their social standing known do so, and that can happen at any venue.



Nudity and Children

Finally, nudists need to address the elephant in the room: children. At one point in time, sodomy and oral sex were illegal (and in some states still are) but the right to privacy made such laws irrelevant. The problem with reversing the naked taboo, both in perception and with regard to the law, is that public nudity is just that, public, and cannot be defended by privacy rights. People morally opposed to nudity would be forced to accept it, and the opposition’s ‘ace in the hole’ has always been, and remains, the protection of children. If the primary function of our genitals is intercourse, detractors argue, exposing genitals to children is one step closer to pedophilia. Of course, a curious thing about our species, that goes largely overlooked, is a quirk in our evolution which gives our genitals multiple purposes, sex being the lesser function. For children, genitals are for waste removal, nothing more. Still, I worry about kids at nudist venues, because resorts are not colonies. Nudism exists as a sub-culture within a much larger culture, one that almost universally equates nudity with sex. While the vast majority of human beings, nudist or textile, would never think to take advantage of a child, we cannot account for everybody; we can never know the reasons a person chooses to be naked around naked children.

Being an author, as opposed to a philosopher, I do not have to commit to the ideas I explore in my work. I cannot say with any certainty that the world would be a better place if we were all to go naked. There exist Amazon tribes that have never seen clothes, who’ve never felt the need to hide any part of themselves, but this is the exception. Other tribes, that have never been influenced by Christianity, or the taboos of western society, have come to the same conclusion, that hiding the penis and vagina is necessary. From China to India to Ancient Greece, public nudity was and remains taboo. Perhaps, it is human instinct to think of sex in sight of genitalia. A society like the Ilmar, who live naked 24/7 without thinking of sex, is a fantasy. The Ilmar are no more realistic, in this regard, than elves or dwarves or any other imaginary race.

Or are they?

Total nudity is rare even in the Amazon

I do not have all the answers, but I feel it is important for nudists, like myself, to examine each of these issues carefully, and address them honestly. First and foremost, we need to admit the reason we choose to be nudists, and it can be summed up in three simple words:

It feels good.  

Being naked feels good, really good. I am naked right now even as I write this. Why not just walk around in my underwear? Why does my penis have to be exposed to the air? Because underwear, for me, is like wearing a wool sweater on a hot summer day, like swimming in jeans, like going to bed in roller skates. If I could live in a world without having to look at another pair of underwear, I’d jump at the chance. Not everyone feels this way, of course. My wife has tried nudism at home and admits to feeling nothing special. But whatever nudists write in defense of nudism is a rationalization for how they feel. This is not, however, to dismiss the benefits of the lifestyle. Women who feel good freeing their private public parts, are also helping to minimize the objectification of their sex, while creating healthier concepts of beauty. Whether this can be better achieved through other means is a moot point. Though we may never divorce nudity from sex, lust in and of itself is not a bad thing. Rather, we should celebrate human sexuality, and regard as taboo only our inability to control our behavior. A man who rapes a drunk girl at a party, or a pedophile who exploits a child, or a drunk guy who kills someone in a bar fight, is driven not by reason, or any sense of rightness, but by their animal urges.

Ultimately, people do not make decisions based on what is rational. If that were so, nobody would ever drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. If news broke out that a ring of pedophiles had been caught at a nudist resort, textiles would blame the lifestyle, but Catholics have yet to abandon the Church even after the many sex scandals involving child molesting clergy. No matter the risks, we are comforted by what is familiar, and so most people are made uncomfortable by nudity not because of its implications, but by its strangeness. But why is nudity strange? If anything, we should be overly familiar, and comfortable, with our bodies.

Looking back through the ages, perhaps it is not that we have been too civilized to accept nudity, but not civilized enough. As a member of the human species, I would like to believe we’re better than that. I would like to believe that someday there will be no nudists, because men and women will realize we don’t need to hide to treat one another with respect and compassion. Perhaps, as in the Garden of Eden, true nakedness is a state of purity we have yet to live up to.

Nakedness: A Human Ideal?

Social change begins with artistic expression. The sexual revolution could not have happened without the music of the 60’s and 70’s, or the writings of Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, who popularized premarital intercourse. The gay rights movement could not have gained traction in the public consciousness without gay film festivals, Ellen, or Brokeback Mountain. The beauty of speculative fiction is that it gives us a glimpse into a world different from our own, one in which the taboos that govern our culture might differ. Through storytelling, we can explore other ways to live without committing to it, whether it is right or morally reprehensible. 

In Ages of Aenya, I envision a people without shame, for whom the nakedness taboo never existed. For the Ilmar, shamelessness is congruent with a natural utopia. The heroes of this society, Xandr and Thelana, hearken to the Classic nudes of antiquity, to Heracles and Perseus and Theseus, and to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan and John Carter. You can learn more about them below:

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Sex, Marriage, and Morality

What is marriage? How has it changed between cultures, time periods and individuals? And what, if anything, does it have to do with love? However we choose to define it, morality is the glue that holds marriage together. 

For decades, I have passionately argued that nudism does not = sex, and clubs like AANR (the American Association for Nude Recreation) have supported this philosophy, giving their stamp of approval only to those resorts that cater to a family atmosphere. Unfortunately, the promise of sex is a much better marketing tool, so places I once loved, like Caliente and Paradise Lakes, now openly promote a free sexual lifestyle. Other resorts, like Hedonism in Jamaica, were built specifically with sex in mind. This is a real sign of the times, when sex has become less of a taboo than simple nudity, and groups like AANR, comprising mostly of people with one foot in the grave, remain set in their antiquated anti-sex, pro-nudity ways. But changes in resort policy has had a harmful effect on traditional nudism. Parents with children feel less inclined to vacation at such places. While there may be just as much sex at Disney World, you don’t see Mickey Mouse in skimpy lingerie advertising itself as a retreat for daring couples. But a growing and vocal number of young nudists are embracing the change, believing that part of nudist philosophy is accepting all behavior between consenting adults. My attitude is this: for nudism to remain innocent, something for families and children to enjoy, there can be no stance on sexual mores one way or the other. Surprisingly, nudists come from all walks of life. There are Christian nudists, atheist nudists, and everything in-between. Some resorts feature chapels and Sunday sermons. If we are to remain inclusive, our position on sexual mores needs to be mum. While swingers may feel free to “swing” in the privacy of their hotel rooms, they should feel no greater inclination to do so at a nudist resort. If swingers can be permitted into the movies, they should be permitted into Paradise Lakes. It only becomes a problem when the movie theater starts to advertise pornography and parents go elsewhere to watch Frozen.

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A typical add for Caliente “naturist” destination.

But this begs the question: Why should parents care what goes on at a nudist resort? If the proverbial movie theater is playing Debbie Does Dallas down the hall, why should it matter, if the kids don’t see it? It’s not as if swingers invite the kids into the act. This is where I bring up a controversial, and for some, offensive word: morality. Lately, when people bring up morals, what follows is a litany of hate directed at homosexuals. Historically, people have acted atrociously in the name of morality, castrating and murdering gays and lesbians, and stoning adulterers. But as a concept, morality is not to blame, no more than science can be blamed for killing people with bombs. Some people think that all we need is ethics, which can be argued from an objective position, but whether you grew up in a religious household or not, we all abide by the morals set by our society. Even the most sexually “progressive” person has boundaries. Most swingers do not advocate prostitution, or if they do, draw the line at public orgies, or if they are accepting of that, draw the line at children having sex. Incidentally, there are a number of psychologists who find that children can engage in consensual sexual activity (with each other) without harm. In the dystopian novel A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley predicts a future where sex between children is common. Shocking? Perhaps. Immoral? Maybe. Point is, the way we feel about children and sex is no different than the way people once felt, and still feel, about masturbation and homosexuality.

Is this love?

Now this is not to make a slippery slope argument, but to show that morality is always in flux, as it is determined by outside sources. For instance, the Prophet Mohammed said that it was better for a man to take four wives than for a woman to enter into prostitution (a common practice for unwed women at the time). In small African villages, where males greatly outnumber females, polyandry, or one woman marrying multiple husbands, is the norm. What is interesting about marriage is that, contrary to popular belief, it is the most successful social construct in history. There is no place on Earth where some form of marriage does not exist. While Free Love societies have been tried numerous times, often in the sixties, they never last, because human beings are inherently jealous and territorial. There are always rules as to who gets to fuck whom.

But marriage is not a part of our DNA. There is no commitment gene. In fact, humans are naturally promiscuous. We have evolved to seek multiple partners to better spread our seed, which was beneficial thousands of years ago, when infant mortality was high and the average lifespan hovered around thirty. King Solomon’s thousand wives can be largely attributed to this fact. Like morality, marriage is always being redefined, based on the needs of the society. Most recently, U.S. courts broadened the definition to include interracial couples and same sex couples, because denying rights to people was deemed unethical.

Before continuing, allow me to clarify a few things which has some people confused. I do not intend to equate the word immoral with unethical. While often used synonymously, they can have different meanings. According to Wikipedia:

  • In its descriptive sense, “morality” refers to personal or cultural valuescodes of conduct or social mores. It does not connote objective claims of right or wrong, but only refers to that which is considered right or wrong. Descriptive ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.
  • In its normative sense, “morality” refers to whatever (if anything) is actually right or wrong, which may be independent of the values or mores held by any particular peoples or cultures. Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy which studies morality in this sense.

When I refer to morality in this article, it is not in the latter, objective sense. I do not equate swinging, for instance, with murder or rape. Rather, I am referring to the term in the relative sense, based on the cultural values within a (in this case our) society.

As a social construct, marriage is determined by morality. It includes cherishing, loving, and respecting my partner (this was not always the case, as in ancient times, wives were more property than companions). But for the past century, commitment to a single partner has also been a fundamental part of marriage, and this is what makes modern unions so remarkable. When it comes to human desire, lust is second only to hunger, and people will risk prison time (in cases of rape) and the dissolution of their families (for infidelity) to satisfy it. The fact that our society elected to forgo this most primal instinct, in favor of greater emotional and spiritual aspirations, is a testament to our species. Throughout the ages, chastity was synonymous with being “true” and “virtuous”. While the Ancient Greeks and Romans venerated Aphrodite, goddess of love, whose priestesses engaged in orgies; it was the virgin goddess, Athena, whom the Greeks most revered, and named their capital city after. In Christian times, Athena morphed into the holiest of holy women, the Virgin Mary. During the medieval age, chivalry forbade knights from fornication, which is why Sir Lancelot du Lac, in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, remained undefeated in battle, until having drunken sex in a tavern. He was then defeated by his virgin son, Sir Galahad, who found the Holy Grail and ascended to Heaven.

Personally, I can think of no greater proof of love than to remain committed to the same woman for life. But marriage doesn’t always work out the way it should. Fifty-percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, and the reasons are many, but a lot of it has to do with sex. Swingers argue that resisting our most basic desires is unrealistic and unnatural, even harmful. In my father’s time, it was common for a man to cheat on his spouse, and for the woman to knowingly “look the other way.” But for the wife to do likewise, would be to risk violence, and even death. This is an outdated, sexist system, and I will admit that swinging is preferable to infidelity in that it is, at the very least, honest.

Perhaps someday, society’s mores will shift, and swinging will become the status-quo. But monogamy remains the most successful of social constructs. Ultimately, people will say it is nobody’s business what people do behind closed doors, and I agree. Condemning others is anything but moral. But we should not trade one freedom for another. We must not censure the right to set moral boundaries for ourselves in favor of sexual freedoms for others. My right to define marriage as a moral construct does not infringe upon those who think and act differently. I believe in monogamy, with all its traditional and religious implications—that true love can only exist between two people— and belief makes marriage what it is.

Call of me old fashioned, but love is between TWO.

 

The Gorgon’s Lover

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Let me tell you how I killed her—how I killed the only woman I ever loved. I am a wretched thing, truly, and have little else to offer but this story. Hear me out, if you are wanting for a tragedy, but I give you fair warning: this is no tale for children or the weak of heart, but a thing to curdle the blood, to raise the small hairs of the body.
To know my story, you must know of how I came to Aea. You have heard tales, no doubt, of that fabled isle where no one knows hunger, where the women are as beautiful and as willing as the nymphs. Aea does not appear on any map, and no two sailors will agree on where to find it, but it is no myth.
In the dawn of manhood I found myself a recluse, wandering between the lands. Having never known family or a home, the world was joyless and bitter, and I unprepared for it, for the way men battled starvation. The gods are angry, people say, so these are dark times. And so life for me was a waiting for death.
War gave me hope for better days. Nibia marshaled its forces against the Dark Hemisphere. There was hope of crushing the bogrens so that men might venture forth without fear to farm what had been despoiled. Bold men and women came from throughout all Ænya, vagabonds such as I, lending their swords to the cause. In this I found purpose, and was determined to it, to win the war alone if need be.
We paraded through the streets, reveling before the first blow was struck. Fate smiled on me, or so I thought, and a new age of prosperity seemed within reach.
We pushed onto that shore of eternal twilight, fighting along the border. The first cycles were promising, merciless. We trampled over bodies, the dead stretching to the horizon, and many of the lost lands were reclaimed. The Nibian commander, his heart bolstered by victory, longed to push deeper into that sunless land, to make it so that no bogren could challenge mankind again. But soldiers who had not blinked before uncounted hordes fled upon crossing into that accursed wasteland. Our commander was accused of hubris; they said such vanity was an affront to the gods. Fearing mutiny, we were led back to the western hemisphere. Everyone was in good spirits but I, who longed to spill more of the blood of those mongrels.
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After two cycles marching across cold dead rock, the sun began to show on our faces. We boarded a ship, which seemed safest passage to Nibia as bogrens have deathly fear of water, but our eyes never met that familiar shore. The fleet met with a storm, churning, black, unholy as Hades. Debris ripped the hull to pieces and all but two joined Sargonus, God of the Sea, in the depths. I was the one. The other was a soldier and a friend of mine. His name was Valis.
We clutched at the splintered hull until our fingertips were raw and swollen, our throats parched, our shoulders simmering under the intense gaze of the sun. Adrift in misery, we longed to have died honorably on the battlefield. But we shuddered at the thought of our bodies being desecrated, used by bogrens in some perverse, ungodly ritual.
Sargonus took pity on us, or so I believed. I woke with a hard stretch of earth beneath my cheek, and in the bright blaze of morning the sand was radiant and golden and blessedly coarse against my fingertips. Within a few paces, Valis stood shakily, and I was overjoyed to see him. For a brief moment, I hoped we’d died on a good day and journeyed to Alashiya. But as strength returned to my limbs, I realized that I was not gone to the Taker, but trapped in the same emaciated body. With great effort, I pushed myself from the tide coursing through the fringes of my beard, my body heavy as if bound in bronze. Wasted with hunger, my ribs could easily be counted beneath the skin. I squinted through salt lined eyelids toward brilliant clover-green hills, to icy peaks touching the sky. Was I in paradise? Ages adrift in briny waters, any land would have been.
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That night, we camped on the beach, resting against a reef which cut against the tide like the keel of a ship. When the light of morning pried open our eyes, we foraged for clams and seaweed, and after regaining some strength, I studied the zigzag rim of mountains to determine what kingdom we’d been tossed upon.
We set out for civilization on the second day, falling speechless before the unfolding coastline. The cliffs lifted from the Sea like wild, white brush strokes, and the Sea was tranquil as a pond. We could not tell where waves met sky, but for a silver, translucent disc—the moon—mirrored in the ripples of the waters.
We continued along the beach, seeking a path through the rocks, till coming upon sections of colonnades jutting from the rock as if long ago abandoned. Lying across the water, a hundred paces from shore, was a half-submerged statue—a robed woman—whose glaring eye could have eclipsed the sails of our ship. It was there we first glimpsed signs of life, clinging to the mountainside and all about the arms of a harbor, atop islets rising in loops from the waves: houses, gleaming whitely in the sun, with domes and doors and shutters awash in blue.
A half day trek through dense foliage and we came to a clearing of huts made of mud and straw. The islanders went about without clothing of any kind, oblivious to shame or modesty. They were adorned only in trinkets of bone, lapis lazuli or gold, and with patterns of tattooing or branding. With our clothing in tatters, we’d feared the natives might take us for vagabonds, but seeing how it did not matter, we discarded what shreds still clung to our bodies and went about as the natives.
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Like no other people I’d known, the islanders devoted themselves to leisure, to singing and dancing and to spinning pottery into every shape of the imagination. They moved with such gaiety, you might think their feet never touched the earth. At last I had found . . . a radiant people. For them, there was no age of darkness. Here was no hint of misery. In that moment I began to feel, in that most simple state of being, the weight of existence lift from my shoulders.
Though we could not imagine such people harming us, we were too accustomed to suspicion to walk out into the open. And though practicing their custom of nakedness, we resembled outcasts in that we were in need of grooming.
On the third day, Valis stole a knife of volcanic glass from a hunter, resisting the urge to cut more than a morsel from the spit where a boar had been roasting. I gazed longingly at my friend as he ate, fearing how closely I must resemble him. The greasy sliver of meat fell with a thump into my stomach and the succeeding sensation of hollowness only increased my hunger. At last we resolved to cut our beards, and when we sufficiently resembled the islanders, set out for the blue and white domiciles.
The islanders strolled past us, our emergence met with indifference, for we were no more haggard than the fisherman with his carts of tangled netting. The youth and the poor went about as freely as the primitives in the woods, but the highborn women of childbearing age went to market in pleated robes, as the men labored in kilts and sandals. Despite the urge to learn more about this strange land, we held our tongues.
With the memory of boar still on our palettes, hunger continued to gnaw at us, but Valis and I were without anything to barter. We could not hope even to kill for food, as our weapons were lost to the depths.
Coming upon the city center, we were taken aback by what such a simple people had made. Save for Hedonia with its towering domes and pediments, we’d never witnessed such architecture. Three temples stood, mirroring one another, forming a square. Joy and wonderment and hope mixed in our throats, believing that, as in our own places of worship, the temples must serve as houses of charity.
We made our way to the east temple, eager to hide from the sun amid long columns of shadow. Strange gods of stone frolicked along the pediment, but we did not hesitate to pass under the threshold where the air was cool and crisp.
What came to greet us loosed our hearts like racing horses. The clerics of the temple were women, beautiful beyond measure, formed from the stuff of men’s fantasies. They were in states of undress, in hanging silk and peels of gold, in peacock feathers worn in ways that excited our curiosity. Their beauty overcame even the bray of my stomach, reminding me of another, long forgotten hunger. Valis and I were welcomed with butterfly eyelashes, with gestures of hand and hip. What the priestesses discovered must have been pleasing to them and I suppose that even in our haggard state Valis and I were handsome, for one of the older women spoke and we were led into a cavernous space.
We lifted sun beaten eyes to the welcoming lips of a nude goddess. Between her ankles, in a mosaic of splendorous hues, was a clear pool. Without a word, they proceeded to strip off their loose garments, stealing imagination from my mind, and like children we were led to bathe. Fingers soft and white as pearl brushed against me. Hands from many bodies probed my war ravaged frame like serpents seeking to feed. With every caress—a hard day’s marching, a night shivering in hunger, a friend wailing in blood—one by one the memories left me like dead leaves in the gale.
We learned that this was the Temple of Irene, Goddess of Love and Peace. Of the other two goddesses we did not bother ask. We were mesmerized by beauty. And my friend and I were given everything a man might crave, food and clothing, and a warm body to spill our seed.
The nightly orgies became all, and our hearts were enslaved. The women explored each perverse action with abandon, indulgences of which I am too shamed to describe. How many succumbed to me, or I, rather, to their lustful appetites, I dare not count. Every eye and lip, bosom and hip and buttocks, became indistinct in the sweat, in the revelry—their names unspoken, unremembered.
This was my poison, as deadly as any bogren’s dagger. The moons came and went and came again, and I no longer waited for night with zeal but dreariness. As for my companion, he never tired of his new existence, continuing into each night as if his lust could only grow out of depravity.
Though my body was restored, a great gaping emptiness was left in me, as if I’d been torn open by a mortar. Despising the wretch I had become, I longed to hold a sword again, to hear the dying of my enemy. Driven mad by the sensation, I abandoned my sanctuary to explore the others, wondering if they, too, functioned as consecrated whorehouses. The central temple was the most grand, a shrine to Zoë, goddess of Life, Wisdom and Balance. Only women served the goddess, their beauty paling before what I had known, but unlike those whores who knew to satisfy only the flesh, the servants of Zoë were wise in philosophy and astronomy. By then, I could understand a little of the Aean language, and with the aid of a Zoë priestess, I learned to speak fluently.
The third temple honored Maki, of War and Virtue. This is where I found my true self . . . and my greatest cause for grief.
***
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Her name was Midiana. Hers is the face burned under my eyes, the image that shines alone in the darkness.
The goddess in her battle helmet, with her sword and shield of serpents, possessed a hard, somber beauty that made me feel intimidated. At Maki’s heel, a priestess was kneeling with bird seed as snow-white peacocks, camouflaged against the stone, nipped at her palms. She was half in silhouette, the shadows playing across the nape of her neck where the torchlight touched her. Her hair was black as pitch against the gleaming white of her chiton, every strand threaded into braids as thick as ropes. When she noticed me, it was like looking into the sun—there was such beauty to be found in those ample lips and dark amber eyes—so much like a bird’s eyes—I feared to go blind dare I stare too long.
The priestess was in shock, scattering seed everywhere as the great white birds scampered after it. To my inquiries, she responded with measured and quavering lips, as her forearm hid the sight of me. I’d feared such a reaction cycles ago, upon first engaging the islanders, but was unprepared for it now that I had come to know, in more ways than one, the locals of Aea. She was quick to make it known that nakedness was forbidden in the temple, and I felt suddenly ashamed, for I’d grown accustomed to not wearing clothes. She went on to tell me that no male was to step foot over the goddess’ threshold, that even the white birds sacred to Maki were female. Confounded by the extreme difference of customs, I could do nothing but apologize and take my leave.
As morning crept under my eyes, I realized sleep had not taken me the whole of the night. And I knew, like the bee born knowing of the flower, the hollowness I’d long suffered was for her—that nothing could fill the gaping in me but her presense.
Mystified, I returned to the east temple, to find comfort in the company of my old companion. But by that time, he was no more the proud warrior who’d slaughtered bogrens by my side. He had grown, in fact, quite pale, and his belly sagged about the waist, and like a fattened hog he lolled about in nothing but a crown of laurel leaves. I found him on the steps, like a king retired from conquest, laughing like a fool at some base amusement. I pitied what he’d become, but had not the strength to tell him. Upon seeing me, his face brightened, and I told him of the beautiful priestess girl and my pining for her. As a remedy, he invited me to a frolic with the devotees of Irene. My heart did not rise to the idea, but I agreed to join him.
The air was heavy and wet with jasmine and rosewater, and the music of the lyre echoed from the chambers of the sacred pools where stone gods gazed with coy smiles and mock shame. The women in the dim firelight were young and shapely and eager to please, but to the abasement of my pride, I was powerless to engage in the act. I had cycles in which to spill my seed, but again I felt, more than ever, that sense of repulsion.
I abandoned the temple, restless and alone beneath the great moon. The bright turquoise disc seen by kingdoms near and far reminded me of my wandering days, and the vast spread of constellations looked distantly on me in my isolation.
Dressed in a borrowed chiton, I found her in an orchard behind the Temple of Maki, with a rake of sorts, beating olives into a basket. But she did not know me. Was I forgotten so quickly? How awful that seemed when I’d studied her every line for hours, grating thin my brain with the thought of her!
With greatest care to not mangle her language, I offered her my name. It sounded oddly from her lips, my name echoing in her exotic, dulcet inflection like a butterfly painted in vibrant colors I’d never before seen. As politeness was custom, she introduced herself also; ­Midiana, she told me she was called, but it was more than a name to me; it was a magic word, a secret spell of power. Tradition forbade her from speaking further, she explained, but after decades of peace and prosperity the law had become lax. Nevertheless, she made it known that I was never to touch her—that to graze a single of her hairs was sacrilege. Foolhardy as a man is in his youth, I did not heed the little wisdom that was in me, but persisted.
Worlds divided us . . . I was like a bird who loves a fish, and the sense of awkwardness was like a fist in my gut. Did she look away from me with disgust for my sex, or fear for her god? Were her words, tipped with ice, out of indifference, or something more sinister?
Keeping at arm’s length, I raised an empty basket and a rake. We worked alongside one another in silence but for the subtle swish and thump of dropping olives. My forearms became sore and my brow sweaty as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter and higher. She, all the while, moved lightly as a moth, her bare feet turning in a kind of dance to each tree.
With five bushels full and only the bright green of unripe fruit left on the branches, I chanced to ask of the island and of her religion, and of things already known to me so that I might listen to the song of her voice. Like a cleric eager to convert one to their faith, her tongue came unknotted, and she began to explain many things.
Maki delivers punishment to those who blaspheme her or her sisters, Zoë and Irene. The goddess also protects the island from foreigners. Ships wandering close to Aea are split apart by storms. I am ashamed to admit that, even as she told me this, it did not occur to me to think upon my own lost crew. Love for my fellow comrades paled to nothing before her beauty. Both sexes worship idols of Maki, but only a woman can be called to divine the will of the gods. As in every aspect of Aean culture, the female is dominant. Even in war, women go into battle. A female follower of Maki knows a man only in marriage, but a priestess can never be touched by the male sex.
After a little while—or was it many hours?—no more questions could bridge the distance between us; and her eyes—in which I’d found sanctuary from the cold hard surfaces of existence—drifted away from me. I became an apparition beside her, of no more consequence than the moonlight in her hair. Her indifference, and my powerlessness, gnawed at my innards until I could suffer it no longer, and with little ceremony I crept off into the night.
For some days I continued to lend her my hands. When cloistered in the temple, I awaited her from afar. Once, she shooed me away, so that other priestesses not discover me. At any moment she could have had me banished, and it gave me hope when she did not.
With the cycle of the moons, I learned the pattern of her outings, for the temple priestesses, even those of Irene, functioned in an orderly manner. When Midiana remained indoors to pray, I found comfort in solitude, in roaming the hills and the dry brush wilderness about the outskirts of the city.
One day she was in the courtyard with a sword. Her movements were graceful, hypnotic, but of little use in battle. I knew the priestesses of Maki were warriors, but peace had dulled their skills. Their training was now ritual, more art than war. She took great care presenting the sword to me, and I resisted the urge to brush a fingertip against her. The hilt was exceedingly ornate, looping patterns etched in gold and jade, like the bands about her forearms. Her face watched me from the mirror surface of the blade. I showed her how to use it, how to kill with it, swinging the weapon with such force that I feared to snap it in twain. Each thrust was to a vital part of the body: the underbelly, the knees, the part of the neck that separates the head . . .
Midiana was fascinated, and it was not long before the thread of her questions turned to me and my origins. She confessed in never knowing battle, and when I related tales of the Nibian War, she quivered with horror, finding the whole bloody ordeal too awful to listen to. At birth, a priestess is chosen to be raised in one of the three temples, but Midiana was not, nor could ever be, a warrior.
We practiced swordplay until our shadows stretched across the courtyard, and I dared to ask if it was not sacrilege to change her fate, to perhaps become a priestess of Zoë, but she withdrew from me like a frightened hare. I did not see her after that for two days, and cursed my tongue for separating me from my love.
When my eyes touched sight of her again, she drifted through the temple’s colonnades burdened and insignificant between the massive stone columns weighing upon her. And then she chanced to lift her gaze to see me and was weightless again. Love radiated as the sun upon the world, and as her eyes lingered on mine, more was spoken between us than any words can convey. We were separated by ten paces, mouthing words of affection, and then she was called away.
When the sun was deep in the moon and all were in dreams, we carried on in hushed, frightful voices. She was more beautiful than any goddess could ever be, with hair a deep violet in the moonlight, crowned by the pinks and violets of the bougainvillea climbing the pillars of the gazebo where we sat. With tears that glistened like diamonds, she lamented her fate—how she could not abandon the priesthood to become my wife. I was taken aback to hear it, having doubted the depth of her love for me. At once, I grieved for us, and confessed all that was in me, and in hearing it she showed no apprehension, but soaked up my words as if she could not survive otherwise. I vowed to return and to sit by her, till my limbs no longer carry me, if only to adore her with eyes and ears. With that, she tore at her robes as if burning in them, letting the once noble cloth in tatters, and embraced me. I did what was in my nature, touching wherever her fingers led me, and no part of her remained sacred.
We found warmth in the cool twilight air. With the sun behind Infinity, we were as united silhouettes, but we dared not be discovered and hid like shamefaced children in a copse of basil. That was time enough for me to regain my reasoning, and like removing an arrow from my side, I suggested we abstain from doing what we had been about to, my fear for her great. At this she flew into a rage, pulling at her braids, clawing at her skin, and I was astounded to hear her cursing Maki with the foulest of obscenities, vowing to offer up her maidenhood should it mean her death. I shuddered at the oath, but she persisted, and whatever power I had to resist her wasted away, and hand-in-hand we ventured into the temple, our hearts thrumming in our chests. “It’s the only place,” she murmured, “where we will not be seen.” I asked about the other priestesses, but she assured me that they were deep in the slumber of undiluted wine and could not be awakened. “No one will know,” she added, and I nodded, captivated by her will, tailing her into the Shrine of Maki.
Across a floor of semiprecious stones, before the eyes of that wrathful goddess, in that sacred chamber where no male was to set foot, I seized her body and she mine. Nude and entwined, we gave shape to our love, and worshipped each other in words and actions. And though the walls echoed with her elation, we continued untamed, freely exploring every facet that made us man or woman, relishing in our bonded flesh all the more in that we defiled the sanctity of the temple.
What possessed us so? What devils of lust turned us to madness? Was it mere love? I cannot say. When the deed was done, we lay wet and breathy in each other’s arms. I felt the victor of a great battle, of a great war, but the moment of ecstasy, of bliss, was fleeting. Spread and broken and overflowing white with seed, Midiana turned to me and whispered, with such shuddering fear I cannot ever hope to forget,
“. . . What have we done . . .?”
Wisdom erupted from my brain into my consciousness, but it was for naught, for what I witnessed then was a terror beyond comprehension. Sensing some motion in the corners of my eye, my head froze upon the ceiling, fixed upon the scowling face of a living, breathing idol.
“MIDIANA,” the goddess bellowed, and my love shot upward, shaking gruesomely with terror, desperately clutching the remains of her robe to hide her nakedness. Oh, how she turned pale, and fell on her face in penitence! Alas, how she wept for mercy before that somber, pitiless visage. I could hear her murmuring, like a small child, “Forgive . . . forgive . . .” But the idol did not care to listen, delivering justice with its massive, pointing finger. Midiana jolted, like a fish on an invisible hook, and her chiton dropped weakly from her fist. With panic and rage, I demanded to know what was happening to my beloved. But already I could see it. Midiana’s figure convulsed like a marionette on the strings of a drunken puppeteer. Her fair flesh was turning hard and pressing up through the skin: scales. As I stood, powerless and desperate, the goddess’ words hammered in my ears: “FOR SUCH SACRILAGE, THERE SHALL BE NO DELIVERANCE FROM ME, AS YOU HAVE SWORN—BUT LIFE IMMORTAL! AS GREAT THE GIFT OF BEAUTY THAT YOU HAVE KNOWN, SO SHALL YOU KNOW, FOR AS LONG AS THE STARS BURN: UGLINESS. AND ALL WHO SEE YOU WILL SHUDDER AND BECOME UNMOVING, AND BECOME LIKE STONE.”
I reached out, to snatch her from that judgment, my eyes following her transformation as if to steal her beauty in memory. But she stumbled away, hiding her face with a claw that once had been a hand. “Titian!” she wailed, in a voice I accepted, with great reluctance and despair, to be hers. She begged me not look, and in that there was no other way to ease her suffering, I did as she asked and turned away. With what little sanity endured in her, she pleaded that I flee. Despite her new form, my love endured, but I knew that whatever stood before my clenched eyelids was far from human, far from my Midiana . . . so I abandoned her, looking back once to see a shadow across the breast of a lifeless statue, and oh how that writhing shadow made me shiver and look once more away.

***

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Waves crashed against the reef, collapsing over my waist in a cold frothy mist. I’d often visit that rock to listen to the waters and remember my life before Aea. The shore was at thirty paces, and I could still see the depression of our camp in the sand. More than ever, I longed for peace in my soul, for the freedom from worry granted in death. If only I were as fortunate as my Nibian crewmen to never again know the burden of living!
Without her, I was an empty shell, without will, without a soul. But guilt was my tormentor, for I was to blame for Midiana’s affliction, I who envied the loveliest ilm in the garden, having ripped her from the roots so her loveliness decay. Maki, that cruelest of gods, found fault in the innocent. I deserved to be cursed . . . I who had wallowed in that cesspool of flesh, in that den of whores . . . what had Midiana known of such debauchery?
Alas, there was no sacrifice to make to undo this evil. I cried until my throat gave out, so that my own gods might hear, yet they were deaf to me. As the echo of my anguish carried out to Sea, something glittered in my sight. Embedded in a reef, beaded in the salty spray, was a familiar length of silver. Had the gods taken pity on me after all? Seeing my old sword again conjured bitter joys of bloodshed. Torn between those twin tidal forces of existence, between thoughts of love and thoughts of death, the dreadful solution became clear. Remembering the oath she had made, I vowed by my sword she’d not live a monster.
I walked straightway from the beach, and in that it was midday, the sun beat down on me and I succumbed to delirium. The sword burdened my shoulder with more weight than ever on the battlefield. Had I grown weak since coming to the island? Or was it the heaviness of the deed that pulled on me? Never had I lifted my sword with the intent to murder; how could I turn it against one I adored? But was any part of her still my Midiana? Would she recognize me, or was her mind transformed as well? The more I thought on these things, the more uneasy I became, and nearing the city as I had a hundred times before, I fancied it all a dream. After all, who could have believed it?
Clouds rolled over the city, like those which had brought ruin to the Nibian vessel, casting a gloom over the rooftops and gardens and fountains, the deepest part of the storm looming above the square with its three temples. I had never seen a sunless day on Aea. It was now evident, to all the islanders, that some curse had befallen them.
Above the Temple of Maki, the storm churned angrily like some living thing, like a black whirlpool in the sky. Thousands were gathering there, and the shadows were thick as pitch, revealing each face in sharp relief. To my utter amazement, vines had grown overnight, wrapping every pillar in thorns, weaving across the steps and down from the pediment. Not a gossiping murmur came from the islanders, not a fearful gasp. It was as if they were holding a silent vigil for a procession of the dead. Only their shuffling feet broke over the rumble of the sky, as the people were drawn, trancelike, to the befouled temple. But the islanders kept at a distance as if what had infected the walls might also infect them. My heart throbbed with guilt to see it, a people of such free spirit, of such playfulness and innocence, now muted and pitiable like the condemned marching to execution. I wanted to surrender myself to them. I hungered for their scorn, their jeers, but such emotion was beyond their capacity.
They parted to let me through like docile sheep. Deep into the crowd, I came upon a chain of priestesses, linked wrist-to-wrist before the temple. I recognized their faces and was ashamed, remembering what they had done to me, and I to them. Zoë’s acolytes were there also, as were the women from the befouled temple, yet all stood united in the same pure white garment with gold lace about their ankles and hair. Love and Wisdom and Virtue stood together, penitent before the angered god. Beneath that great churning cloud, every face was statuesque, every chin high and proud, no woman less than another. The Priestesses of Aea were joined in a ring like rigid columns beneath an invisible circular temple, their chanting a low murmur of contrition.
Others looked on with reverence, their eyes glazed with zealotry, but I was far from owing respect to that god of cruelty. I pulled a young girl out of her ritual, demanding to know what was happening. “Maki is angry,” she told me, and a follower of Zoë added, “The balance has been broken.” She looked as frightened and helpless as the rest. I asked if anyone had gone in. “Only one,” a voice replied. It was a woman who had known Valis and me intimately. Her face was solemn and world weary, as a mother with aged children, the perverse rituals I’d known of her seeming unthinkable. “Your friend, Valis . . .” she murmured. “We tried, but nothing could dissuade him. He was adamant to find you.”
“Let me go,” I cried, but they would not let me through the ring, and many more turned to me, saying it was forbidden. Hearing the word forbidden loosed something dark within me, and I fell into frenzy, pulling apart their joined hands.
I cut through the web of thorns and crossed into that vast, cold lair. With my sword tight against me, I moved inward, the mosaics on the walls turning monstrous in the flickering light. Rows of fluted marble flanked my sides. Barrel arches beckoned to infinity, like when a mirror reflects upon another. Like a prowling thief I searched the temple, hiding from pillar to pillar. My friend I could not hear, nor Midiana; and I dared not call out for fear of what might answer. In the deadening silence, my breathing was like a windstorm, the crackling and popping of unseen torches like thunder.
The memory of Midiana’s beauty contested with my dreadful imagination, and I recognized the morbid curiosity in me, to look wide eyed upon what she had become. But the deeper I probed in the gloom of the temple, the more the thought terrified me. How grotesque can a living thing be? Would Maki’s words ring true? Would my mental faculties withhold? I was more frightened than in the heart of the Dark Hemisphere, for death is a trifling thing, a peaceful repose, but to lose one’s sanity is to live a nightmare from which there is no waking.
Answering my thoughts, I crossed upon a long shadow and the silhouette of a man. I knew it to be Valis, but what I discovered struck me with both awe and despair. Valis stood, ashen as the marble at his feet, his every follicle a thorn. Did the shadows deceive me? No. I looked into his face, into pupils like inkblots fixed in the chalk white orbs of his eyes. Whether living or dead, I could not say, for there was no trace of life within him but that he remained standing. I went to rouse him only to snap my hand away, for what I had touched was nothing like flesh. All the warmth in that virile body had gone. Like weathered flagstone, I expected his arm to break off should I touch it again. And then the inkblots moved, and I leapt, catching a scream in my throat.
My love for him bolstered my courage, and placing my ear to his marble cold lips, I bid he speak to me.
“I came to look for you.” It was so subtle a sound that I doubted it, whether coming from him or my own skull. But then he was pleading, begging, as if he knew I would not obey. “Don’t look at her, Titian! Don’t look at her! Turn back!”
His final breath escaped with those words, and I grieved for my friend, for his senseless death on my behalf. There was no denying that he was victim to Maki’s curse, that upon seeing my priestess, Valis was changed into something less like flesh and more like stone. Stricken by his fate, my heart gave way to such terror, I feared the blood might burst out of me completely. One thought kept me from breaking my vow and fleeing, and I spoke it aloud, so the walls echo with her name. Love remained, greater than any fear.
Turning in search of her, something crept beneath my feet with such a noise that the hairs on my neck pricked in warning, and then a human shape, familiar yet strange, silhouetted the light from the adjoining hall. My sweat turned to ice and my spine became limp as straw. I could do nothing but run, gripped by such dread I worked my feet awkwardly across the floor like a crippled soldier.
Where was I headed? Back to the comfort of daylight? But already that voice, that horrid voice was calling me. I prayed for deafness, imagining what such a creature might be to make that sound, and I accepted Valis’ wisdom, never turning to face what chased me.
The temple became a maze of shadows and flames and fluted colonnades. Gasping at air like a dying fish, I found shelter by the one torch still burning, before that scowling idol of Maki. At my feet, a splendor of multicolored stones fanned out, and in my mind’s eye our naked and entwined bodies groped like ghosts across the mosaic.
I had hoped the monster to avoid the light, to hide its ugliness in darkness, but her shape was already forming about my eyes, and I was amazed by its size, for surely it stood above me! And that awful voice came again, and I could no longer deny it . . . the sounds it had been making—over and over amidst those tortured syllables—was my name.
“Do you not still love me, Titian? Why do you flee from me?”
“Midiana!” I cried weakly, ashamed that I could not bear to lift my eyes, my sword slipping from my numb and quaking fingers.
Her answer was acid in my ears, “I am no longer she, but the guardian of the Shrine of Maki.”
Redemption was beyond me, yet I fell to my knees, my hands as blindfolds, begging that she show some sign of her former self, some understanding of me and my remorse.
“Look at me!” she wailed, her shadow suggesting a darting, slithering motion, “See what you’ve made me!”
Embattled by love and pity and shame and remorse, I wept. I wept and like a madman beat at my naked breast.
It—or she—moved within my circle of light. I could sense her presense, creeping like maggots, her tortured voice riddling me with gooseflesh, “Titian! Oh, Titian . . .! Truly, you must love me, for even as I am, you return to me. Now we shall be together forever.”
Only then did I come to understand, with a sickness growing in my heart, the full extent of Maki’s curse—for our love had not been abolished, but perverted, twisted into a thing unrecognizable and repulsive. Cast into madness, I screamed, throwing down the torch stand. But the fire still flickered from the mosaic, and by chance she hooked my eye, and I saw where the light crept over the rough surface of a reptilian thing with cream-colored fish eyes in what vaguely suggested a woman’s—Midiana’s—face. I turned as if blinded by a wasp’s stinger, but I could still feel her caress drawing lines of blood across my shoulders. If not for the sword at my ankle reminding me of my vow, I might have stood there forever, blinded and quivering in her embrace.
To be done mercifully, I knew, was to be done quickly, but even then, even then, I loved her. And in that moment’s pity, something writhed about the edges of my sword, a tangle of braided serpents, their fangs pressing like needles into my lips, nose, working their way through my clenched eyelids. Her claws were at my throat now and the wiry serpents continued to nip and draw blood. I was paralyzed, the sword unwieldy in her embrace. But then I remembered the torch stand, and righting it with my heel, the monster recognized its hideousness upon the surface of my steel and recoiled. I struck at her. The blade lodged into hard flesh and cold blood oozed against my bosom. Her anguished screams would have torn the sanity from any man, yet I blotted all but my aim, and realizing I had yet to cut through bone, struck again and freed my love.
As the monster fell away, something rolled over my feet, and I dared to look, seeing braids where there had been serpents. With Midiana’s head removed, the goddess’ curse was lifted. She looked peaceful, asleep in death. I cradled her head, washing her brow in tears, and with every kiss upon those rose red lips, my heart throbbed as if to burst.
Too brief a time was given me. Her face was turning pale and cold, her beauty restored only to wilt. Like a knife in the sternum, I realized what I had paid for my obsession. Of this life which I so detested, I loved but two things, Valis and Midiana . . .
The world was now empty and I wished for nothing but to bring my sword to my throat, to join my friend and my lover. But I had more evil to do. Lifting my sword from the multicolored tile, I made for that scowling idol. Sparks rained down from the goddess’ marble heel as I attacked it, over and over, as though the tower of stone could die.
My hatred was spent upon Maki until my arms gave out, but it was their woeful gasps that made me surrender.
“Enough!”
The High Priestess of Zoë, my tutor of the Aean language, was watching me. Every priestess, from every temple, was with her. “You have done enough harm,” she said. “Leave now. Men are forbidden here.”
Something monstrous stirred in me, at the reverence for that evil deity, at the lack of bereavement for their fallen sister. And then many things happened at once. I turned to the idol and they moved against me. When the blood cooled and I came again to my senses, three women lay at my feet, a crimson color spreading across their pure white garments. One of them had been my lover in the Temple of Irene.
At the sight of the massacre, I awaited their rage, their hatred. I wanted nothing more than to die at their hands. But they did not move against me. Their eyes were full of fear and pity and sorrow, but rage and hatred was not known to them.
“You disrespect this holy place,” the High Priestess said, “you do not accept the Tenets of Maki; and yet, did you not partake in the ceremonies of the flesh?”
I was dumbfounded by the question, and ashamed, and my sword grew heavy at my fingertips.
“You cannot revere one god and blaspheme another. There must be balance between them. In your lands, there is only war and desolation. You came here, envying our prosperity, yet you cannot accept the balance which grants us peace.
“Leave this island now. Leave never to return, never to speak of it to outsiders, for your kind is unworthy of paradise.”
That night, I claimed the bodies of Valis and Midiana, letting their ashes rise to the gods from the pyre I set upon the beach. When dawn broke upon my restless eyes, I commissioned a boat for my departure, and the gods favored me with a strong wind in my sails.
***
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