There was little, in the way of gossip, that did not make its way around a small community, from one exited tongue to another. There was an intensity with which the young girls now frequented the shop, staring less at the wares, despite their beauty and delicacy, and instead directing their attention towards the beautiful young stranger who had come to work there. No one knew where he had come from, why the young artisan, David, had chosen to take him on as an assistant.
'His name is Julio,' the girls had whispered, once the new year had come in and the shop had re-opened. 'he helps out in the store but he has no skills, he is not an apprentice, but he has been given lodgings – I think he is an orphan, penniless…'
They had been captivated by his smiles, his sweet mouth curving up in the corners pleasantly. He had spoken to them with delight, with interest and enthusiasm and everyone was flattered that he found them worthy of his attention. He could talk pleasantly about the pieces, admire them, but he struggled with the money they handed over, narrowing his eyes at the glitter and taking his time counting out the coins.
' one…two…three…' sometimes there was a pause, a lengthy one, before he scooped up the coins back into his hands and whispered again, with more concentration, 'one…two…'
'I heard he is foreign,' commented one girl, a dark haired beauty who had battered her eyelashes at Julio for a whole afternoon, and believed she had captivated him, 'from Russia. He was aristocracy but has become poor…'
David had watched the girls come and go, watched as they looked upon his latest creation with adoration and delight. It seemed that his masterpiece accorded the greatest measure of appreciation, although no one knew to compliment him, or even to consider him at all when they looked upon Julio.
Julio seemed to enjoy being admired and repeated every word that was spoken to him, mimicking the accents of the girls who monopolized his attention, imitating their flirtations without any understanding of the meanings.
David retreated to his workroom, to the familiar dark surroundings – the smell of paint and wood and the comforting, easy feel of his tools. He worked carefully upon a new swan, out of wood, his favourite material. He shifted a pair of magnifying spectacles over his eyes and scraped upon the dark mahogany with a thin, delicate blade. He heard Julio encroach upon his space, creeping up behind him, but did not acknowledge him.
For a while Julio watched him, silently, in the gloom. The only sound in the workroom was the scraping of steel against the wood, gently transforming a lump of dumb material into a creation of beauty, a startling imitation of life.
'David,' Julio whispered, after the minutes had ticked by, steadily. 'Will you work late tonight?' David pushed his spectacles away from his eyes again, and rubbed at his sockets. He longed to soothe his anxieties by the consuming action of his work.
'No,' he replied, 'no, I'll come up now.'
'You don't need to,' Julio whispered, softly, 'I was thinking of taking a bath…'
'Have you closed up, upstairs?' David asked him, playing with his tools, mechanically.
'Yes,' Julio murmured, 'I've locked up everywhere, and closed up all the shutters…' Julio rose and moved over, closer to his creator, reaching out to touch his shoulder, to curve his fingers close to the flesh of David's neck, close enough to make the young man's hair prickle – without touching the flesh.
'You go up,' David murmured, his mouth dry, 'I'll join you in a moment.' Julio moved his hand away and slowly made his way up the stairs, the old floorboards creaking as he made his progress. David kept a hold on his knife, and turned the half-formed swan about in front of himself but he did not continue with his work. He was too conscious of the young man moving about upstairs, exposing that body that David, himself, had made – with his own two hands.
He had considered, many times, the miracle that had brought a soul into his creation but he knew that he could never have answers from his deliberations, only feel the weight of the situation more keenly.
He rose from his desk, pausing to tidy away everything to its proper place, to its hooks upon the walls, to its box or drawer – David's meticulous nature would not allow for anything else. He was certain in his methods and took pleasure in his own rituals and routines.
When he had made his way upstairs, to the washroom, he found the bathtub full of lukewarm water – but it was empty of a body. He trailed his fingers in the water for a moment, only wetting the tips, and then went over to the bedroom.
Julio was stood, naked, in front of the long, cracked mirror that David's mother had left him. It usually lay, propped up at a slant, in the corner of the bedroom, but Julio had dragged it out and straightened it out so that he could look at himself in his entirety. He was running his fingers over his skin, caressing his torso and his thighs with a glazed look in his eyes – as if hypnotized by his own beauty. When he noticed David's presence in the doorway his expression changed and a flush overcame his features.
'What are you doing?' David asked, gently, aware of the shame and uncertainty that was working its way into Julio's expression.
'Just…looking…' Julio said, quietly, turning himself half towards the other man and pressing his hands, resolutely, to his hips.
'Would you like me to leave?' David suggested, 'it's natural if…you'd like to be alone.'
'No,' Julio protested quickly, his voice mournful and almost desperate, 'please, stay with me David.' Sympathy flooded David and he moved forward to stand close to Julio, behind him, and look over his shoulder at the reflection in the glass. The long ugly crack split Julio's body from his shoulder to his abdomen but it was the only, superimposed, imperfection upon the young man's body. David admired him and adored him, but, as he slid one hand softly to his hip, he was reminded of the fact of this creatures autonomy – of Julio's pertinent right to choice. He was not his possession, particularly not now, when experience was moulding Julio into a fuller, more complete person.
He slowly withdrew his fingers, bringing them up, instead, to rest tentatively upon Julio's shoulder, an imitation of the gesture Julio had displayed towards him.
'You know…' he said, very quietly, licking his lips as he considered the suggestion, 'you can always…touch yourself if you want…'
'Of course I can,' Julio responded, with a touch of incredulity, he wrapped his arms about his chest, embracing himself in a casual gesture.
'I meant…' David said, softly, tracing the boundaries of the taboo, 'if you wanted to…play with yourself…if you felt…tense…' he struggled with this subject. He felt an intense shame speaking about this, remembering those few nights when he had, himself experimented, in the dark wildness of his unknown longing.
'Sometimes,' he whispered, very delicately, 'you might get…a sense of need…and you'll want to touch…down there…' He slipped his fingers down to Julio's thighs, not to touch at the skin, but to indicate the general area. Julio's heavy lashed eyes flickered downwards at himself and then back up again.
'Where I've gotten wet…' Julio whispered, curiously.
'Yes,' David told him, 'that's…that's the nature of it…' Julio closed his eyes for a moment and then, suddenly, turned about to face David, his face strangely tortured.
'Why don't you touch me David?' he asked, 'why don't you kiss me?' His voice cracked a little, accusatory in tone, and desperately needy.
'I do,' David protested, shocked, 'I do touch you – I do kiss you- '
'Sometimes…' Julio admitted, reaching up to touch David at his throat, clinging to him, 'but not much…' He looked up into David eyes with his bright, blue, irises, glossed by a thin veil of tears.
'When you were making me, sculpting me, you held me close and whispered – I remember – you promised that you would love me that you would – make love to me.' A heady flush had spread across Julio's face and he was trembling now, his tears falling over and trickling down his cheeks, miserably.
'I know what that means,' he told him, pressing his hands to himself, to his chest, 'I know it deep inside – I know what it means to make love.' He gave a little gasp, sucking in his breath. 'I'm a part of you – I was born from your longing! It is woven deep into my core, don't you understand? I need to be with you!'
He leant close into David, pressing his body close to him, so that David could feel his heartbeat and his shuddering. It was a few moments before David realized that he was shuddering too – the rhythm of his own flesh perfectly in sync with that of his creation. He closed his eyes, feeling his own hot tears forming.
'Julio,' he whispered, 'please, it's not so simple…let's just talk about it…' He stepped away from the other man, from his naked flesh, still damp from the bath. He moved over to the dresser and pulled out a crisp, fresh nightshirt. Julio stood still, rubbing his eyes, while David dressed him, like the doll he once was. He raised his arms, slowly, when required, to slip them up through the sleeves.
'I don't understand…' Julio whispered, his eyes shimmering, 'I love you so much, David.'
'I love you too,' David said, quickly, leaning close to press his forehead to Julio's, 'I love you…' He was frightened by the look in the other man's eyes though his tears flowed somewhat less fiercely and he seemed calmer.
He led Julio to the bed, and drew him down, underneath the cover, wrapping the sheets about him tenderly as one might with a child, and then stroked his cheek reassuringly.
'I'll just be a moment,' he told him, 'and then we'll talk.' He went to the bathroom and let the water drain away. It gurgled at the drain and David watched it as it disappeared, feeling a similar sensation in the pit of his stomach.
When he returned to the bedroom he found that his creation had already put out the lights and the room was pitch black. He paused to listen, making sure that Julio was breathing, gently under the covers, then began to undress clumsily.
Naked, he reached softly over the bed, trying to determine where Julio lay and stroke the skin of his shoulder, or perhaps his cheek, to comfort him and show affection. It took him a few moments though before he felt the other man's breath upon his fingertips and then the coiling of a fist about his wrist.
'Julio-' David hissed, softly, as he felt his creation pulling him, quite forcefully down upon him, forcing David to climb under the sheets hastily and sprawl against his companion. He felt Julio's heart beating through the thin sheets of cotton and his hands moving to clasp at David's shoulders, kneading the soft flesh.
'David,' Julio whispered, and his voice was hot and languid, indeterminable as a flame, 'don't abandon me. You have a debt to me, a debt to love me – as you promised you would…' The boy's breath stuttered a little and David thought he discerned the hushed sound of a sob in the back of his throat, an infantile, desperate little sound. He heard him swallow and when he spoke again his tone was anguished, impassioned but also carrying a strain of demand that was fresh and alarming.
'Make me yours,' he commanded, digging his fingernails into David's back, the smooth round curves pinching indelicately, 'make me yours – or I'll die…' David heard the breath rattle in Julio's throat as he made this pronouncement.
'You won't die,' David whispered, 'don't say that Julio, please – don't say that ever. I will love you, my beloved, my creation for as long as you desire me – but don't say that you'll die…' He felt soft lips touch his, moist with feeling.
'Forgive me,' he whispered, kissing David again and again, hungrily.
'I forgive you,' David replied hoarsely, leaning down over his creation and splaying his fingers across Julio's soft, bare skin. 'I love you Julio.'
'I love you David,' the young man replied, digging his own nails into Julio's back, 'truly. I love you forever…' Words became superfluous as they kissed one another and curled up close beneath the sheets, a tangle of passion and affection.
The sound of Julio's heartbeat thudded in time with David's, a perfect match in rhythm and tempo and in time their shallow breathing seemed to become irreversibly entwined. The sounds of sighs and kisses were all that filled the small room, apart from the soft patter of snow upon the windowpane.