La Traviata and consequences: A game of suspense, or something more?

A story by the late Dr. H. G. Wenig, translated into English by Rudi B.,

and elaborated by Caroline Ashbee

Eduard was not, in general, an enthusiastic fan of opera, but he was aware that the artificial and pathetic conventions of grand opera were exactly congruent with those of The system, which for initiates was as constrained, yet as full of emotion and suspense; and he was full of hope it would function as it was designed to do that evening.

Early in the afternoon he had arrived in Hamburg, had gone to the hotel by taxi and explored his room. Without any sign of emotion the receptionist handed over the envelope to him, and inside he found a ticket for the opera house. La Traviata was on the programme; but that was of no particular consequence.

When he had unpacked his bag he took a shower and went to the restaurant for an early supper.

He had nothing else planned for the evening and as he could find nothing else to divert him he found himself at the opera-house rather early, more than half an hour before the beginning of the performance. He strolled around the house, examining the audience aware of the scent of moth-balls from the men's evening clothes and analysing the different perfumes worn by the women. There was only a minority of younger people until a gaggle of schoolgirls hurried in impetuously and milled about choosing seats and changing them until at last best friend was sitting by best friend, and they settled like birds on a telephone wire. The subject of the opera hardly seemed appropriate for schoolgirls, he thought, imagining the teachers organising the visit, justifying it on educational and cultural grounds: it was an opera, it was by Verdi, the orchestra and soloists were of international stature . . . strange that nobody thought about the plot . . .

He went to his seat full of hope, but the seat beside his was empty. So he went back to the foyer to smoke another cigarette.

He had the second seat in his row, in the stalls, on the left of the central aisle and somebody would come and sit beside him in the first seat---that was the rule of the game. He was almost sure that the seat would not remain empty---it had never happened before! But tonight he was full of doubts: He waited until the third and final ringing of the bell calling the audience to their seats for the start of the performance, then, reluctantly he took his seat. Seat one was still empty! 'Is she going to let me down tonight?' he thought, becoming anxious and angry. The house lights dimmed and spotlights illuminated the curtain. The conductor appeared and made his way through the orchestra accompanied by the applause of the audience---and in the same moment she stumbled to her place and sat down beside him. He breathed a sigh of relief: of course her intention had been to increase the suspense, and the rule demanded that at first you were allowed to see your potential partner for the evening only as a shadow in the darkness.

As she hurried, out of breath, and stumbling slightly, to her place Sonja was wondering 'Why have I always got to be late for everything? Why can't I remember how embarrassing it is?' but she never did. The house lights were already dimmed and the overture had begun. As she had specified, the system had provided her with a seat adjacent to the central aisle, on the left. The fluster had taken her mind off her fears for a moment or two, but they came clustering back as she sat down and looked sidelong at the man sitting next to her. He looked quite reasonable really, youngish, with the kind of fine blond hair that seems to wear away to leave a bald patch at 25, and hardly any hair at all at 35, but the longterm was not important: what mattered was here and now. His face was round, emphasised by the circular lenses of the gold-rimmed glasses he was wearing. His dinner jacket seemed new enough to be his own, and he was obviously rather tall, and rather plump. 'Yes,' she said, to herself, decisively, 'If he asks the question I'll say "Yes" ', but the decision had its own air of sadness because she knew that it was going to be another of those nights. Sonja knew that she didn't quite fit the specification. The men she had met through the system were different from each other, but almost all of them required only one particular physical attribute of their partner for the evening and that was a single above knee amputation: and Sonja was not an AK amputee. When her partner found out, that was usually the end of all prospects of pleasure or even friendship. He wouldn't say the magic words and if he didn't she wouldn't either. It was fortunate therefore that the evening's entertainment was a performance of La Traviata, an opera she liked anyway, and if nothing else happened, at least she would have enjoyed the opera.

Eduard tried to concentrate on listening to the overture, but with sidelong glances he tried to make out some details about his neighbour. She seemed to have a pretty face, and must have been about 30 years old. She had brown hair put up in complicated knot on top of her head. Great earrings dangled from her earlobes and they smiled at each other to cope with their nervousness. During the first arias he continued his inspection: He didn't like her slacks because there is something inappropriate about slacks at the opera.

He turned his head to her and smiled, and passed her his programme. She nearly dropped it, catching it, as it slipped, between the back of her left hand and the palm of her right. He watched. She opened the programme with difficulty and held it one-handed, awkwardly in her right hand. He was an observant one. 'Why do I do this?' she asked herself, but she always came up with the same reply,'Because one day, un di felice eterea, I might find someone who will give me pleasure and allow me to be happy with myself.' She looked at the man again, feeling his eyes snap away from her body to the stage as she turned her head towards him. 'So he's noticed my hands.' she thought. 'I suppose he must. Why do I bother to try and hide them? Why do I pretend to myself that they aren't that noticeable?'

For a while she was swept away in Violetta's party and the Brindisi at the start of the first act, and her mind turned to the Paris of the 1850s, courtesans, and their clients, drinking and dancing and careless in a world where beauty was for sale to those rich enough to buy it. By chance the film Camille had been shown again quite recently on the television, one Saturday afternoon, and she had sat and wept for Garbo and Robert Taylor as the inevitable tragedy unfolded itself. In her revery she forgot herself, the man sitting beside her, everything except the performance, and the echoes resounding in her mind of Dumas père et fils, Cukor's Hollywood Paris, and the limpid, heart-rending innocence and courage of Garbo's Camille.

Eduard noticed that she had not taken off her black leather gloves. Her right hand held the program moving it slightly, unconsciously, in time with the music whereas her left hand lay quite still, motionless, on her lap: the hand had a fixed, unnatural appearance, the fingers appeared relaxed but they were slightly curved, rather than bent at the joints.

Of course if she had taken off her right glove but not her left it would have made her artificial hand more obvious, but perhaps her left glove was also covering . . . what? The tension was increasing in parallel with the ardours of the opera as the soloists sang impassioned arias to one another. Then she dropped her program. Perhaps she did it deliberately. He bent forward, caught it, and as he passed it back to her, as if by chance, he touched her cold and rigid hand, confirming his conjecture that it was artificial. And in the same moment he could see her face when she smiled at him saying: 'Thank you!'.

All too soon the first act was coming to the climax, the scena where Violetta is about to yield to her feelings of love for Alfredo, but resists and bursts into the aria, Sempre libera, Always free, free to enjoy pleasure. Sonja was aware of the irony of her own circumstances, where neither option seemed available to her. As the aria was ending, she faced the decision she knew that she had been postponing. She shifted her left hand in her lap, feeling its weight hanging rigid and heavy from her arm. From the corner of her eyes, she saw the man's head turn and felt eyes, snap towards it, and away, guiltily. Then propping the programme against it, with her right hand, she turned a page making it obvious that the middle, ring, and little fingers of her right hand were quite stiff and useless. 'Sempre libera,' she thought sadly 'Frei aber einsam is more like it'. The aria came to an end, ending the act, and the applause erupted, but of course she didn't clap, how could she?

By this time Eduard was really impatient to see her when the lights were up during the interval. Meanwhile he had come to suspect that she must be a real beauty. Somehow he didn't seem to notice that she couldn't applaud.

The house lights came up as the interval began. Sonja stood up. 'I'm quite thirsty.' she said, getting up, and moving into the gangway, trying not to limp too obviously, After a few paces she stopped and looked back to see if Eduard was following. As he followed her he saw immediately that she limped quite heavily with her left leg. As he caught up with her he said

'Come with me.'

She nodded and they resumed their walk to the bar together. Lagging a little behind her allowed Eduard to look at her legs and feet without attracting her attention. She was wearing unfashionable low-heeled black boots, one of which was stiff, uncreased, indicating that the foot inside was almost certainly artificial.

In front Sonja stepped carefully, trying her best not to limp, remembering the hours at the parallel bars after her final operation, remembering the physiotherapist saying 'You walk really well' knowing that what she actually meant was 'You walk really well for somebody in your physical condition'.

The bar was crowded by the time they arrived, but the man had ordered and paid for the drinks in advance, half a bottle of champagne in a little ice-bucket which he was able to collect almost immediately, so quickly, indeed that they found two empty chairs beside a table, already occupied by two couples, but with just enough room to put down the drinks.

'I think it's time we introduced ourselves.' he said, 'My name is Eduard.'
'I am called Sonja.'

He poured out a glass of wine and passed it to her. She took it carefully, holding the stem between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand, and steadying the bowl with the side of her left. He poured a glass for himself and smiled. She watched him carefully, relieved that he seemed interested rather than repelled by the unusual way she had to hold her glass. She wondered what to do next, tell him, or show him. He seemed uncertain himself. They sipped their wine quickly and he poured out the residue from the bottle. They didn't speak.

The bell recalling the audience to the performance rang and people began to hurry to their places.

'There's no need to hurry.' she said, 'in fact it's a good idea to take our time, then people won't have clamber over us to get to their seats.'

Sonja watched Eduard's adam's-apple bob up and down in his throat as he swallowed, and said,

'I know it's the wrong time to say it . . .' and then he said the magic words, prescribed by the system 'Would you like to drink a glass of wine with me?' Which meant 'Let's see how far we want to go together.'

Sonja was not sure that he really understood about her hands, and she really wanted to see the opera, so she smiled and said,

'Afterwards, perhaps' and led the way back to their places, wondering all the time, 'Tell or show?' Before they reached their seats she decided, 'Show; but how?'

Eduard went reluctantly with Sonja back to their seats.

While she was walking she remembered the long gauze scarf she had been wearing. It was folded up, in her jacket pocket. She took it out. 'He'll be on the right side of me if we exchange seats.' she thought as she sat down in his. He said nothing but sat down in hers. Then she spread the scarf across her lap so that it covered her hands.

The house lights went down, the curtain opened, and for a while she was transported back to Paris and the love story of Violetta and Alfredo. Then during one of the more secco of the recitatives she glanced into Eduard's face, caught his eye, and dropped her gaze to the scarf in her lap. At first he didn't seem to understand, though it seemed obvious enough to Sonja, but then he did, and slipped his left hand under the scarf and reached across, first to her left hand. She could feel him trying, unsuccessfully, to take off the glove which was, in fact, an integral part of her artificial hand. Then he transferred his attention ot her right. She was tense by now, unable to concentrate on the opera. It was like an examination. She glanced at his face which though turned towards the stage, had a fixed, intent expression, and felt his fingers on the back of her hand.

It wasn't easy for him using just his left hand to pull off the glove, but he did it, and as the glove was slipping off, Sonja felt the same kind of excitement and anticipation she felt when her degree results were posted. She remembered watching the sacrist coming out of the University Office holding the sheets of results. She thought that she had passed her examinations but she didn't know how well she had done. Slowly, so slowly, he took out the massive keyring and sorted out the key that unlocked the glass-fronted notice board, and methodically, ignoring the cluster of impatient students gathered round the board like wasps at a jam-pot, craning their necks to see the notices, he posted the sheets one by one. The suspense was almost unbearable, and then she saw her own name---the glove slipped off, Eduard looked puzzled for a moment, tracing the outline of her hand with his fingers, understood: thumb and forefinger amputated at the first joint, the other fingers completely missing; and he smiled---pass, second class honours, and the relief was almost orgasmic: just for once it might be going to be all right. In a way, it felt to Sonja like a strange kind of competition. The visit to the bar had been the first heat and she had qualified. The revelation of her hands had been the second, and she was relieved that she had qualified a second time, but rejection, should it follow now, would be much worse than if there had been no acceptance in the first place.

Aroused and excited by his discovery Eduard caressed what remained of her hand beneath the scarf. With a deep breath he looked at her. She was leaning back in her seat, her eyes were closed, and she was smiling. And he was almost sure it was not only pleasure in the music. He sat thinking about her limp, and her boots, wondering what might be hidden by her slacks. Sonja felt her heart pounding and suddenly the opera seemed shallow and unrealistic beside the real emotions that life had evoked for her, and she changed her mind about staying. After a while she whispered to Eduard:

'Would you like to leave now?' he nodded, easing the glove carefully on to her hand, feeling the built-in fingers as he did so, and receiving a bright smile for his considerateness, then they stood up quietly and crept out of the auditorium. Back in the foyer he said:

'You wanted to listen to the finale of the opera, didn't you?'
'Not really,' she laughed, 'I know it by heart! It started to seem rather shallow, and anyway what I really wanted to do was to find out something about you.'
'And did you? Are you satisfied?'
'Yes, indeed' she laughed again.
'Where shall we drink our glass of wine? I don't know this part of Hamburg very well, do you? '
'There's a really good Weinstube, nearby it will only take us five minutes to get there!'
'No problems with walking there?' he asked.
'I can manage: it's not far . . .Or . . .I don't know . . .we could . . .but I would prefer to go there . . .first.'

He laughed and replied:
'That's OK. It's just that the tension is rather high already, but . . .'
'But we aren't animals.'
'But we are really,' Sonja said, seeming to be quite serious. 'I'm a biologist so I know.' she said smiling wickedly.

While walking Eduard told Sonja about his job and watched her limp, becoming almost sure her left leg was a BK prosthesis.

'Of course,' thought Sonja, as they walked, aware that Eduard was walking slowly, out of consideration for her, while was she walking as fast she could to minimise her disability, 'he would be an accountant.'
'But what do you do in your free time?' she asked.
'Not very much. I write a little, enjoy films, go to concerts occasionally, read a lot, play the system from time to time.'
'What sort things do you write?'
'Stories, romances I suppose you would call them. Short stories . . .'
'What do you do, send them to magazines?'
'No. They are not for publication. They're . . .too personal.'
'Would you let me read them? I'd like to.'
'That depends . . .'

The Weinstube was rather grand and exclusive, and they enjoyed the quietness and the atmosphere, and as it was rather warm there Sonja took off her jacket. She was wearing a white blouse that fitted her body so closely that Eduard could just make out the outlines of her bra, and revealing that her breasts were large and comely, but her sleeves were wide and pleated so that he could not make out the outlines of her left arm-prosthesis. He wondered if it was only her left hand that was missing, replaced with the artificial one attached to stump of her wrist. Sonja watched the way his eyes flickered over her hands and arms, darting away, as she glanced into his face. She decided that it was a waste of time to pretend and smiled at him. If he liked it, she would play along. She leant towards him letting her artificial hand fall against his. 'What next?' she thought, and smoothed her hair with it, then she lowered and made a quite unnecessary adjustment to her other sleeve by moving it forwards and backwards across her right arm. It was amusing to watch the play of emotions on Eduard's face. 'Now is the time to speak.' she thought.

'You're fascinated aren't you.' and reached out to hold his hand with her finger and thumb.'

As if turned on by a switch, guilt appeared immediately in his face. 'Surely', she thought 'he didn't imagine that I hadn't noticed.
'It's all right. I don't mind. It's quite nice, really, this way. Don't you agree?' she smiled.

He nodded and shrugged his shoulders. Sonja wondered what to do next. She wasn't sure that she really wanted to invite him back: he was rather dull, and an accountant, for heaven's sake, and he wasn't very attractive physically; but he did seem fascinated, as fascinated as anybody she could remember, fascinated enough to be undeterred by the other revelations that might follow . . .

'Let's go.' she said.

Eduard paid the bill and ordered a cab. Fifteen minutes later the taxi stopped in front of Sonja's house and they got out.

It was half past ten by the time they arrived. Eduard watched Sonja solve the problem of taking out her key and opening the door. Then inside, holding the fingers with her teeth she pulled the glove off her right hand. He helped her off with her jacket and after taking his off as well, he followed her into a large living-room. She pointed at a couch, but he stopped, embraced her and kissed her. She seemed surprised, but only a few moments later his kiss was echoed passionately. They loosened their embrace, smiled and gradually his tension subsided into tenderness.

'Perhaps it's going to work, after all.' she thought.

'Would you like something to drink?' she asked

'I'd like a cup of coffee. Can I help you to get it?' he asked, hesitantly.

They went into the kitchen. Under Eduard's avid scrutiny Sonja felt rather self-conscious about her lack of dexterity even though with long practice she had become quite skilful at manipulating things, sometimes even using her artificial hand as well to move things on the table, but the whole performance was a little awkward. She lingered over the coffee-making because she could not decide whether or not she wanted to go further. There was always the risk, but he was so intent that she decided to take the next step.

'Will you take that to the living room?' she asked, pointing at the tray with the coffee things 'and I'll change my dress for something more comfortable.'

'Of course'

Alone in her bedroom, she took off her slacks, her boots, put on slippers like bootees. Slowly, using the button-hook she undid the buttons on her blouse and only a few minutes later she returned wearing a dressing-gown in oriental colour and design. She sat down beside Eduard, placing her prosthesis in her lap, and he watched her stirring the sugar in her coffee holding the spoon with her thumb and forefinger stumps. After a few seconds of silence. but not an embarrassing silence, more one of mutually acceptance, he embraced Sonja again. Her right arm hugged him pressing her bosom against his chest. They kissed continuously and with loving tenderness.

'It's going to be all right.' she thought.

When he touched her left hand she asked softly:

'Should I take it off?'
'Please do,' he whispered into her ear, 'I just didn't want to rush things by asking you to.'

'It always has to come.' she thought sadly. 'He will be shocked and disgusted.'

She lifted her wide left sleeve, fumbled a little with her right hand---and caught him with the big surprise: he had expected a more or less long BE-stump, but it was quite different. What remained of her radius and ulna had been separated surgically, dividing the stump of her forearm into two parts that could be used together rather like a pair of tweezers. Of course there was a lot of scars, but the stump seemed to be quite functional.

Sonja thought again about the operation. The surgeon had explained what he intended to do. He advised her very strongly to accept his proposal.

'But what will it look like?'
'Don't worry about that. It will look fine. Some scarring is inevitable, but you will be able to pick things up and hold them.'
'Are you sure it's the best thing?'
'Trust me. You won't need a prosthesis.'

She had trusted him until the bandages were taken off for the first time. She was disgusted. The separated stumps were bruised and swollen: she had expected that, but they were stitched together in a patchwork of tucks and folds, a surrealistic nightmare that made her think of Goya and Bacon. She had turned her face away. She knew that she would never, never, allow this monstrosity to be seen in public.

The bubble of horror burst into weeping and she turned her head into her pillow. In the following weeks she refused to learn how to use the stump, and wore long sleeved shirts and dresses, with the open sleeve pinned up to her forearm so as to keep the tip of her stump hidden. The surgeon and the physiotherapist and the nurses all tried to reason with her, but her mind was made up. She was not going to expose her mutilated arm. In the end, the surgeon, taking pity on her distress, suggested that she might like to use a cosmetic prosthesis, that at least mimicked the appearance of the hand she had lost. After strenuous persuasion she agreed to be fitted with a cosmetic hand and wrist.

The hand was extremely artificial looking, bright, shiny, pink plastic, rather like the hand on a shop-window dummy, and no disguise at all to anybody with normal vision. The compromise she chose was a cosmetic hand wearing a glove. Even this looked artificial, but at least it did not look hard and glossy and shiny. She had a number of hands with gloves of different colours.

Eduard stared. 'I have read about this,' he said, 'but I have never seen the result before.'

To Sonja's amazement he bent over to touch and caress her stumps with his lips. Then he kissed her mouth and placed two fingers between the ends of her stumps.

'Can you really grasp with them?' he asked softly.

She nodded, and he could feel the light pressure with his fingers. he looked at her with appreciation, and with some irony he continued: 'Wow! I can think of something else you can pinch with that. Can you? Oh, pardon me!' But Sonja smiled, and put her head on his shoulder: 'Surely you can do that!'

Then he took her stump with his hand, held it up to his face, and asked her to caress him with it. Looking away she let him lift it to his face. And by that he had an incredible and unexpected feeling of pleasure.

'I wonder if Dr Krukenberg ever imagined it would be used for this? he said, smiling.

Sonja was smiling doubtfully and shrugged her shoulders: 'You are finding out exactly what it . . .what I can do.'

They embraced again, Sonja felt his hand caressing her breasts, slipping inside her dressing-gown, touching her bra, the division between her breasts, and slipped down the gown from her left shoulder. She did not try to escape, but held him tightly with her arms.

She waited patiently as he fumbled her bra undone, and then kissed her breasts. She lay back feeling his lips first enclose a nipple, and then his tongue brushing it as he sucked gently. She shook, feeling the sympathetic echo from her cunt. After a while he sucked the other nipple, feeling it stiffen between his lips. Then Sonja was aware of the contrast: one nipple, cooling slackening, the other hot and tense between his lips. Some time later she tried to open his fly. It was difficult for her to undo the buttons with just the stumps of her thumb and forefinger and the button-hook was in the bedroom, and so he helped her with it and with his shirt.

'But I promise to leave you to do it for yourself next time when our desire might not be quite so urgent.' he said.

'Next time,' she thought. 'Not much left of the examination now. We'll have to wait until afterwards of course . . .' She thought of what usually happened: More or less acceptance until sex and afterwards indifference at best, hostility at worst. She was more hopeful than usual: he hadn't turned his eyes away from her monstrous stump.

'Perhaps . . .' she thought and reached for his cock with it, pinching it gently until he almost passed out in delight. But Sonja's lower half still was covered by her dressing-gown. And nearly lying upon him she whispered: 'Undress me!'
'and see the rest.' she added to herself.

He took off her slipper and then he undid the suspenders of her right stocking and rolled it down to her foot---to be surprised again: her foot did not end with toes---there was nothing: most of the foot was missing. There was only a clumsy stump-like remnant similar to a second heel in front of her lower leg.

Then he fumbled round her knee on the left side whilst continuously kissing her: he couldn't work out how to release her prosthesis. She had to help him, and with a few well practised movements of her right hand she loosened and slipped it off. It was a below-knee prosthesis; her left leg ended 10 cm below the knee.

Even as she thought 'Now he has seen everything' he began to kiss her passionately. 'All that remains is to go to the bedroom.'

'A beauty,' he thought, 'maimed in every limb, who came to the opera-house alone, independent and unassisted, and not conspicuous in any way. Self-possessed, playing with me, leaving me to guess her secrets, and such secrets.'

The system required secrets, but these were riches far beyond the demands of the system, secrets that left her two finger joints away from helplessness, and the Krukenberg-stump on the left side, hidden and useful for one single task: to handle a man's cock!'

He knelt down and kissed her foot and the tip of her stump.

'Please don't reject me now.' she thought as she lowered herself down from the couch to rest on her knees, the dressing gown, spread like a train behind her. She shuffled on her knees to the bedroom. To her surprise he shuffled on his beside her.

'Nobody ever did that before.' she said, but she was pleased that he thought of it.

When they were beside her bed he stood up to help her on to the bed, but she smiled gently and said. 'Thank you Eduard. It's very kind, but I have had a lot of practise.' and pulled herself up, using her elbows. 'It's not very dignified,' she said 'but it works.'

Then they made love.

Some time later, Eduard fell happily asleep with Sonja still enfolded in his arms. She lay awake, wondering, and wondering 'What will he feel when he wakes up?'

Copyright (c) Rudi B. 1996

Wednesday 14th August 1996