An extract from my long unpublished novel, The Body and the Baptist. Here to fill a gap between reviews to maintain regular posting, emphasising my stale creativity, heralding my decline, evidencing my fall:
Herod lies on his back on a cool marble slab. The big piece of stone stands at waist height, on top of six thick, fluted, columns. He holds most of his robes bunched up in his right hand and the lower part of his body is exposed and covered in shit.
His legs are hairless, shaved after losing a drunken bet with a Roman the night before. Previously, Herod’s response to a man of lesser rank forcing a forfeit upon him would have been a refusal formed of rage, violence and the forfeit itself being carried out on the man in question. But not any more.
Because, now, the Romans are here – not in this room, not in the baths – but there is an ever-increasing amount of them in the fortress. They discovered the army amassing nearby and swiftly forced strength into Herod’s once-private corner of their empire.
I can handle them, Herod said to a legate about a week ago. Knowing the ambassador’s visit was coming and not wanting to look like he lacked the ability to intimidate a foreign horde, Herod hung thick sheets over the windows of every building elevated enough to offer a view of the plain. The legate, after pinning Herod in a wrestle, took his willowy Latinate hand and brushed a sheet aside. He was shocked and scared upon seeing the Arabian army and immediately prepared to depart. Herod’s pose of relaxation (They’ve been there ten days and haven’t attacked yet, maybe they never will?) and his deliberate subterfuge did nothing to allay the Roman’s fears, so he disappeared towards Judea shouting We will strengthen your puny forces with our own. Herod rolled over on his cushion and fell asleep.
But today he is awake and exhausted. The Romans have kept him up later and later as more arrive. There is a feeling of festival now, even though nothing has been sacrificed save the masculinity of an aging tetrarch. Last night Herod and a few Romans drank neat wine from the heart of the Empire and challenged each other to feats of strength. Herod failed to lift a rock higher than a spotty general and the forfeit was the shaving of his legs. The Romans guffawed and laughed as Herod was lathered up and a hammam attendant removed the hairs with a sharpened blade.
At the time, it wasn’t an unpleasant sensation, but the coolness he felt in the night was. Up here, a hilltop on the edge of the desert, nights are cold. He’d never really understood the function of body hair until all of a sudden he didn’t have any.
So, tired, cold and hungover, he decided to give himself a luxurious treat he doesn’t allow himself often.
He lies with his legs raised, smiling guiltily. Even Herod finds there to be something untoward in how much he enjoys shitting himself and then being washed clean by strange male hands.
Moments ago, Herod lay on his back, pulled some of his robes into his right hand, called in his attendants and pushed out chunks of faeces over the marble, his legs and the clothing beneath his buttocks. The smell wafted up to his nostrils and he smiled at his own olfactory potency. He pushed and strained and forced out gas and several less solid splatters. He also pissed a bit, his penis flapping and spraying like a faulty fountain he saw in Damascus a few years ago. The bathing attendants are firm, strong, men, as they always are when he does this.
This isn’t sexual, Herod says to the men he invites into the baths. It is an innocent and a childlike pleasure, having a firm hand clean the shit from your arse.
Herod likes to pretend this treat has a secondary use in being able to put in line young men from his ranks who don’t quite respect him. When they wipe his arse, he makes sure to move and wiggle (and sometimes pretend to cry and giggle) so that they get shit on their hands and their arms and their robes. And also they have to see his cock, which he considers particularly impressive, even in this scenario.
The way he believes other men look at his cock is way he knows they look at Salome. The lowest free man appraises Salome’s body in a way he would never dare look at a woman he could actually have. Tamar, for example, intimidates them with her open and takeable fuckality. Salome they see as a doll. She, as Herod’s step-daughter, is so far out of reach for the porksword of the peasants that they feel comfortable staring. Her hair is long and thick and brown and melts into the hand like a waterfall when you put your fist into it, twist it around and pull it back so you can lick the front of her neck.
They watch her in her robes not knowing that underneath is a divine body at the sweetest moment of young adulthood. Not a virgin, Herod has made certain of that, but one still possessing a virgin’s desire.
She doesn’t want him. And he likes being wanted. That’s why he fucks Tamar daily. When he summons her to his quarters he can tell she fucking-
Right now he’s preparing for the joy of being washed. He takes great pleasure in making himself filthy so he can enjoy cleanliness with fuller contrast.
Clean me! Herod cries. The two men step nearer and he sees the younger one (bigger arms, less scars) hide a sneer of disgust. The other, one of the gaolers and therefore used to the stench of the Baptist, shows neither horror nor pleasure. There is something desensitised about him. Herod fears he is starting to think. Maybe the preacher, who was known for his honeyed words, still has the power to corrupt and talks to him in the night. Maybe Herod will have the gaoler watched.
But he doesn’t need orders to ensure Salome’s supervision. She’s so charming and youthful and gorgeous that she’s constantly followed by female servants hoping to catch a shred of her beauty or by men of the court daydreaming that she’ll turn and demand to be taken with as much energy as they can muster. That’s why Herod follows her. (He does try to be giving when he forces himself on her. Maybe cock’s an acquired taste, he said, once, as he thrusted into her, But don’t worry, because I’m going to feed it to you until you’re hungry.)
He sees her youthful body and knows it’s better to touch and better to hold and better to smell than Tamar’s. But Tamar makes him come so incredibly fucking hard. With Salome, stopping her from scratching and slapping and kicking and biting and screaming often makes him too exhausted to do anything more than ooze seed and collapse. Inside Tamar he EXPLODES lust, he feels his cock expand her insides and feels her delicious cunt take him in with joy and glee and knows it exists only for the satisfaction of his solid desire.
Salome, Herod said to his niece, I have had you every night since you came here and I will have you every night until you leave. If you accept this and learn to enjoy me, it will be a pleasure for us both.
The gaoler and the soldier (one of his who’s been looking with visible envy at the leather and iron of the Imperial uniforms) step close, one on either side. Herod grins. They have a sponge and warm water.
Err… We need to get him out of the… We have to take your robe off, your grace, says the gaoler.
I made a mess and no know what to do, says Herod.
The gaoler starts to unwrap the tetrarch’s robe, but the younger man does nothing, stands static and attempts to feign respect.
Right, Jabal, I want you to lift his feet and I’ll pull this robe and slide it underneath. Jabal! Come on.
The young man moves closer, staring at the lumps of shit on the veined, white rock. Herod’s hammam was a gift from a foreign ruler who enjoyed himself immensely with the women of the harem, but felt the Machaerus cleaning facilities to be below Roman standard.
Herod’s robes, too, are of a fine imperial style. The material, when it is grubby with sweat, shit, urea, semen and (a little too often) other people’s blood, is re-stained, stretched and washed by servants he has never met and never will. Unless one happens to be a nubile woman pointed out by a senior adviser or a bawdy guard. Knowing any man wants a woman is enough to make him need to have her.
And now every man stares at Salome, even those he knows fail to perform when gifted time with courtesans, instead crying about fidelity to their wives. The man who guards Tamar at night (one of his attendants today) is one of those – barely a man, Herod thinks, for what is a man if he isn’t an object led by the beautiful flesh between his legs?
Herod LOVES having a cock. He loves aiming when he pisses and he loves fucking things. He loves the expression on a woman’s face when you slide inside her, and how different every cunt, every arse and every mouth feels on your cock.
Yet now, he’s enjoying a different kind of pleasure. He is atop a beautiful stone defiled with his excrement. And that is what the soldier’s thinking, he can tell. He looks up with a smile saying in thousands of soundless words: I am rich, you are poor. I have lovely things and I can shit on them without regret. I can shit on you and you cannot stop me.
The soldier stands at the base of the slab and gently places a hand on each of Herod’s fat ankles. He slowly pushes these towards the bulk of the body, but though the tetrarch doesn’t slide away, nor does he rise. The gaoler stands with the unwrapped material in his hands, waiting to pull it from under the body.
You’ve got to lift him, Jabal. Hold his thighs.
The young soldier forgets himself for a second and says, But there’s shi- before shuddering.
The king likes being manhandled, moved around. He likes the false feeling of lost control. He likes it when Tamar is on top and gets herself off on his mighty prick while he pretends to sleep. He likes ordering people to pretend they’re in charge. Like here. Like this. The soldier reaches a hand down to the back of his thigh and his finger crushes a lump of shit into the skin. He pulls up and Herod feels his body lift and a second hand slide under the buttock and into the squashed mess beneath the tetrarch’s bulk.
An exclamation of horror appears and fades from the youth’s face. The gaoler pulls on the untied robe and feels a snag as Herod’s fist clamps shut on the bundle in his right hand.
Jabal, hold him up. If you could let go of the robe, please, your grace, we can proceed with the-
But Herod shakes his wide-smiling head and yanks the robe, now a sheet, away from his body. The gaoler falls forward but manages to catch himself before his head hits the tetrarch’s stomach – Hold him, Jabal. He takes the bundle and sweeps it over the marble beneath the raised body. He pushes the shit-covered fabric onto the floor. Herod opens his fist.
As the soiled and unravelled robe crumples, the soldier lowers the arse and thighs and knees. Rather than sweeping the mess away, the gaoler’s wiping has coated the slab’s surface in a thin layer of shit. Herod’s legs wriggle, he grinds into the slab and a splash of piss drips from his cock.
Herod is thinking about Salome, about what he could say to convince her of bodily pleasure. Can’t you tell how much I’m enjoying myself? he asked as he held her jaw closed with two hands and pulled her up and down from his lap, Can’t you tell that if you relax you could be getting as much from this as I am?
He told her she was welcome to watch him with another woman – a courtesan, a slave, anyone except her mother.
Herod hates Herodias. He has lain with his wife only a handful of times. Maybe she has lovers amongst the men of the fortress, Herod neither knows nor cares. He allows men to fuck the other women he owns, why would her cunt’s lack of exclusivity bother him more than the rest? Though this might be different if he didn’t presume her too old to get pregnant.
Herod knows no one else is having Salome because he knows he’s an excellent lover (having deflowered the majority of women in his fortress), and if she were interested in pleasure she would be taking it from him with open arms. She had an intact hymen when he first had her. Just like Tamar, and most of the women he owns.
The gaoler pushes a sponge into a bucket of warm water and squeezes. It goes into the liquid a stone, but as the water flows it becomes other: moist and soft. The gaoler pulls it out and instructs the soldier to lift Herod’s legs. Even the man who spends the most time by the Baptist’s cell gags as he looks into the gaping, shit-surrounded arsehole of the tetrarch.
The man places the wet sponge against Herod’s perineum and wipes downward, across the anus. Herod giggles and shudders. There is a twitch in his penis but, despite this, the king does not doubt his own insistence on this procedure’s sexlessness.
Because Herod likes it. He likes listening to the young man rinse out the sponge in a bucket, wet it with fresh water in another, bring it to his most intimate parts and wipe and clean. He feels his crack dampen, as if with sweat during a hard fuck or on a hot day. He feels his penis jump about, but doesn’t believe the involuntary beginning of an erection (which is all it is) is in any way improper or diminishing of the event. He looks into the eyes of the young soldier who grips his raised legs and smiles, nods at his cock. I’m a bigger man than you, aren’t I? Herod considers asking. He doesn’t, though, because it doesn’t need to be said. (Obviously he’s a bigger man than any runty little Perean youth. Even barely half-engorged, which is all that he is.)
His thighs are scrubbed and he is rolled onto his side. The squashed mass is swept out with a hand, not a sponge or a rag. The gaoler has accepted the king’s shit under his fingernails and the soldier watches with shock as he grabs excrement with his bare hands. Herod doesn’t like this, and behind his smile he seethes. One of the points of this, he thinks (as the painful pleasure of a rough sponge against his shaved legs makes him shudder), is to disgust his inferiors with a display of his willingness to be debased.
Because this is debasing. This is debased. No one else in his position (he’s a fucking king) would do this.
No one else in his position would shit over his clothes and make men peel them off and scrub him down as a personal treat just because he’s feeling the after-effects of drinking. Herod is alone amongst the rulers of men in his willingness to explore pleasure. He is open to sensation, he wants to say, he is able to do whatever he wants, even if what he wants is to put himself in a position where young men are deeply scrubbing his inner thighs.
It’s pleasant. It’s pleasant to have the blood flow from your legs down to your torso and into your head. It’s pleasant to have strong arms hold you aloft and the men you have protecting your possessions with force touching your body with tenderness. Because they do, they’re soft and gentle and wash with care. The men and the women that usually work in the baths have a force and a power to them, a gift afforded by their profession – the touches and the washes and the pressures of ancient manoeuvres from far away. But when Herod brings in non-professionals for this occasional treat, they touch his body like it’s newborn. Scared to hurt or damage it, scared to do anything that might put them out of favour.
Herod’s reputation of vitriolic and personalised violence extends so far that he can be seen like this, LIKE THIS, and still be feared. So, maybe, this is the point of the exercise. The Romans may unman him, they may tease him and encourage him to drink his wine without water and take more than he can handle, but his own men, the men whose territory he rules with righteously entitled might, will continue to defer fear to him far beyond the point of normalised expectations of respect.
Herod grins as the gaoler drops his sponge in the shit-soaked water for the last time and brings over a towel. Herod’s penis bounces as his thighs are patted dry and it rears up slightly, but never so much that he feels any shame, any sense that he prefers the touch of these men to the touch of the women upstairs. It’s about power, this, he assures himself, not sex.
Yes, he thinks (despite the swell of his penis), this is pure, though physical, and incredibly fucking nice.
Your grace, says the gaoler as Herod’s legs are lowered, If you’d like to stand up, I have a fresh robe for you.
Herod sighs, the pleasure over. Yeah. Great. He swings his legs off the side and feels crisp, clean cloth draped over his shoulders. An arm passes his face to tuck something in and he instinctively leaps away. I can dress myself, he says.
Of course, your grace, says the gaoler, no fear in his eyes and no disgust in his voice. That has to be fixed. Is there more you need or may I return to-
You depart, peasant, when I tell you to. Herod tightens his robe and stares at the floor for a moment. I’ll tell you what I want you to do when I’m ready for you to do it. So the men say nothing, they stand in static silence and the gaoler recites ten anxious prayers in his head.
Right, Herod says, smiling again, Now you can fuck off.
The men go, wordless.
Purged of his waste, the tetrarch will call in the professionals and have the rest of his body made resplendent. But before that he’ll have Tamar come in and unburden him of that other, sweeter to give, bodily juice.
He walks towards the door and his right heel squashes something soft and sticky on the floor. He doesn’t think about what it is.