The Binding takes place tomorrow at the Sisters of Solace Hospital outside Charlottesville, Virginia. From my bed, I can just see the peaks of the October hills, dappled maroon and scarlet.
If I could lift my head, I’d be able to glimpse the wing of what was once a dormitory at the University of Virginia and now serves as a Confinement Center for the most violent prisoners/inmates, but gel compression restraints, deemed more humane by hospital staff than electro-loops, ensnare my wrists and ankles. Even if I braved the pain and wriggled free, shimmering vertical bands across the windows expose the presence of high voltage grids.
Today is Mother’s last chance to see me before I am Bound to my brother.
My last hope for deliverance.
Acid rises in my throat at the bitter irony of hoping for rescue from Mother, since O’Dell and I have long suspected it was she who, in a fit of pique or spite, reported us for what the law calls fourth degree sexual deviancy. Especially galling if we’re right, since we both shared unsanctioned intimacies with Mother for years before we explored activities, deviant or otherwise, with each other.
At the hearing, a venerable psychiatrist argued I was addicted to my sibling as surely as the psychonauts and ket-freaks in the floating colonies off the coast are in thrall to the black gusts of brain-burn, that having been kept homebound by Mother, I was both naive and eminently corruptible, a victim of my wicked brother’s perverse desires.
“Enticed into his depravity,” hissed the gerbil-faced little defense attorney while I sat meekly, head bowed, trying to convey with every breath my profound and scalding shame.
The performance failed; my carefully pantomimed remorse was judged a poor facsimile of penitence. I was the cunning, lustful one, the judge declared. My pretty brother, though condemned to the same fate as I, was merely susceptible and stupid.
Our sentence, to be Bound for life, is the penalty reserved for society’s worst: murderers, traitors to the State, and second through fourth degree sex criminals.
Unlike O’Dell, who remains willfully ignorant of the details of Binding and still claims to fully expect a last minute reprieve, I’ve researched the procedure compulsively, read biographies and watched biopics of the Bound, conversed with holographic surgeons, and, prior to my conviction, toured the Museum of the Bound on the Plaza in Washington D.C., where visitors must sign a waver holding the Museum blameless if they pass out, throw up, or suffer permanent trauma from viewing the exhibits.
The reality of it still stalls my mind: two bodies of the same or opposite sex, snipped and sliced and stitched together in a gruesome flesh-garment of jigsawed limbs, split bones, and sutured skin, afflicted with the vacant gaze and shuffling, stumbling gait peculiar to their maimed condition. Worst of all, the monstrous final hours of the partner who outlasts its mate, since Binding is forever, even when the so-called “living” one is fused to a decaying, putrid corpse.
Although the physical abominations leave me reeling, still more soul-shattering is the utter forfeiture of privacy and solitude, an especially bitter hell for one whose preferred companionship has always been her own.
I reflect that the one thing not forfeited is the very act that led to this catastrophe in the first place. A jocular therapist even winkingly assured me that, since I am limber and O’Dell well-made, we will eventually learn to mate, or may even — unimaginably — decide to procreate. Nothing, after all, is forbidden to the Bound. They have paid for their crimes and are at liberty to indulge whatever indecencies or degradations they’re disposed to. In more backward parts of the world, I’m told, people pay small fortunes to watch Bound couples making love. Or vaster sums to join them.
I can’t imagine why anyone would wish either form of entertainment.
I remember, as a child of ten, going up the steps to the Abbey of the Stoning with Mother and O’Dell, who was then nine. A Bound couple, one of the first to survive longer than a few weeks, was on display. Above the creature’s heads, a gold plaque provided details of their crime, but I was too stunned to read anything beyond their name, which I still recall was Marcus-Angelina.
Incapable of standing, the poor off-kilter beast crouched on a specially constructed seat before the altar. From beneath its purple robes protruded two thick legs, hirsute and muscular, while the female’s one remaining leg, tube-thin and flaccid, dangled at the side, an abutment of lab-grown flesh conjoining her legless hip to the male’s intact one. Their three mismatched arms, two belonging to the female, one to the male, fidgeted and twitched in ceaseless, spastic agitation. Their cloudy and dilated eyes were white and empty as eggs. I know now that the ministers had drugged it, but at the time I thought the enraptured gaze was the result of its unholy union, a kind of ghastly erotic trance.
I know better now. Poor maimed creature that it was, a waxy tear slid down the female’s bloodless cheek.
“Touch it. Touch it for luck,” urged Mother.
The thought of contact with that mutilated flesh revolted and appalled me, in part due to the fact that I knew those three legs extended upward to two groins, two sets of genitals, but unlike O’Dell, who looked like he might faint, I was also fascinated.
I pressed a single finger to the female’s spongey thigh and watched, repulsed, as tremors rippled knee to ankle and a rash of gooseflesh spread across the skin like faded Braille upon an ashen parchment.
“The Lord has purified them,” intoned Mother. She bowed, dragging O’Dell and me with her, and kissed the creature’s three bare feet as was the custom among the more ostentatiously devout.
• • • •
The door revolves and a fax-bot with a smile like a surgical scar coos in a ludicrously come-hither voice, “Mama is here, Eugenia.” She pronounces “Mama” with a British accent, a ridiculous affectation that can only mean she is an elder-bot, programmed in the U.K. prior to the Euro-Sino conflict.
Swiveling toward the bed, she commands, “Deactivate restraints.”
After a moment the gel clamps ungrip, allowing me to sit up and finally, unsteadily, to stand. The fax-bot, evidently programmed to feign consideration, diplomatically withdraws.
Mother minces gingerly into the room, stiff-legged as a deflowered child. Except for plumped lips dyed permanently scarlet, her face is leached of color, her eyes kohl hollows scooped above the jutting cliffs of her implanted cheekbones.
Around the ivory column of her neck gleams a sunstone cross that glimmers softly as though lit from within; from her ears dangle pendulous pearls. Her numerous tattoos are raised and garishly colored, according to the fashion.
At the sight of her, adrenalin claws through my bloodstream and, astonishingly, tears of relief sprout copiously.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t come.” The admission shocks me; I hadn’t understood the depth of my terror that, in my time of greatest need, I’d be abandoned by her.
But then, before I can ask for what she’s brought me, she whispers gravely, “Terrible news. O’Dell bit his wrists open last night and almost bled to death. The sensors activated a warning just in time. When I saw him, he was hysterical, screaming that the Binding can’t really be happening, that he can’t go through with it.”
“I’m glad he lived,” I say in my best hypocrite’s simper. “If O’Dell had died, I’d just be Bound to another criminal.” Of course, once I’m dead, that’s exactly what will happen to O’Dell, but I can’t worry about that. Was he thinking about me with his face pressed to his own gore? Did it bother him, knowing that I’d be Bound to a stranger?
Mother’s gaze darts about the room like a bottled fly. Her talon-sharp nails clamp onto my arm. For the first time in years, I tolerate her touch without recoiling.
“What we talked about, Eugenia . . . what you asked me to do . . .”
“Yes, yes, I’m ready. It’s time.”
She fingers the sunstone, which yields up rays of delicate, refracted light. “Sometimes people do terrible things, my darling. Sometimes love expresses itself in desperate ways.”
Is this her way of saying O’Dell and I are forgiven? Or is she finally confessing that she betrayed us to the authorities?
She starts to tremble uncontrollably, a tic plucking so violently at her mouth that it drags her face askew. I guess that even she, though a vocal supporter of the idea of Binding, quails before the truth of it.
“I loved O’Dell,” she says defiantly, as though someone has suggested otherwise, “but a daughter is different. A son goes out into the world and takes a bridemother. A first-born daughter, if she’s virtuous, remains at home. A mother’s love for her daughter — that’s the unbreakable bond.”
She slides her hand seductively along my forearm, gently and sensuously, as though her palm is a small boat gliding silently up a river of milky skin. “Your arms are so soft and shapely. I wonder which one they’ll remove.”
That breaks the spell. I seize her wrist and twist it until she cringes and cries out.
“Stop it! Give me what you brought!”
Her fingers stroke the sunstone again and I think: There! It’s hidden there! until she says, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I can’t kill you. The toxin I smuggled in for you, I gave it to O’Dell.” Her voice soars recklessly and she directs her words toward the voice monitors disguised as air filter units in the wall. “He was so grateful when I put the poison on his tongue. His face was rapturous. He died thanking me.”
The screams I’ve swallowed all my life tear past my teeth, an anguished howl that brings the fax-bot accelerating into the room so fast she bangs into the wall. A red oblivion-dot gleams wetly on her finger.
“Too noisy you,” she chides, though not unkindly, and taps the dot with its cornucopia of hallucinogens directly in the center of my forehead. I have time only to gasp, “My brother — she murdered him”, before the world incinerates, the drugs blitzing through synapses, resurrecting extinct galaxies and annihilating new ones inside my neocortex.
The fax-bot’s face looms wide and globulous, an enormous amoeboid blob undulating in and out of my telescoping vision. Moles as big as barnacles, conceived for verisimilitude by some bot-designer comic, festoon her ill-made chin.
“We know she killed O’Dell,” she says.
And that is all that matters.
• • • •
When I wake up, I am riddled with razors, my bones a bed of nails, my lungs full of mucus and mud. At my slightest movement, unseen incisions rip and leak.
An avuncular and dour face hovers above me. I recognize the doctor, Montague Tritt, assigned to counsel O’Dell and me post-Binding.
But O’Dell is dead.
Tritt frowns and steeples his fingers, his whiskery mouth forming a mackerel-ish “o.” “Dear me,” he says.
Beside me, something thrashes feebly. It whimpers tremulously as it forms words. I must say “it,” for I can’t attribute to it any sex, any individuality, any name, but I can tell the stump of its left leg is Bound to my right hip and the stump of my right arm is fused to its left shoulder, each wound affixed by a few centimeters of artfully applied prosthetic meat.
“Eugenia,” exults the thing that speaks like Mother, “we’ve been forgiven for our crimes.”
With my remaining arm, I tear at the graft on our mutual shoulder and hear my scream and hers scrape the upper ends of agony. Tritt thumbs an oblivion-dot against my temple. My skull brims with hissing lava that quickly cools to a gentle snowdrift of ash as I sink into the center of the dead volcano that is my core.
I pray that I can hide in here forever.
“Blessed,” someone murmurs, “be the Bound.”