True; her letter sent to my London address had contained a briefly worded warning for sufferers of asthmatic attacks not to visit her chateau. It had hardly caught my eye, then; yet here I was in the ice-house being repeatedly treated with body powder which pro- vided a far from ideal atmosphere, even though I had not been a previous sufferer of such an attack. The powder's effect was quite obvious to see on each occasion when the large wooden door above me at the level of the outside expanse of lawn was abruptly opened delivering a shaft of powder-filled light across my rubber-encased exterior.
My hostess, the chatelaine, in whose grounds I was to have enjoyed a short break from the stresses of city life, was progressing with my enclosure in rubber in such rapid and mechanical fashion that I was doubting her awareness of my continued existence within. The poor light and low temperature would have contributed to her attitude, but I guessed a childhood fascination with the miniature world of insect predator bondage to be a factor too.
Adding further to my apprehension, as if to confirm that this rubberisation of my body was to last more than an afternoon, I was then to be sprayed with a coating of silicone. To ensure the evenness of this coating, my body was being spun round, under her guidance, at the end of a rope that hung down from the overhead rafter. A polishing cloth was now applied vigorously, which induced in me the beginnings of an acceptance of what was being planned for my future. My arms were not separately polished, however, due to their earlier withdrawal and binding behind my back within the rubber casing.
The slowing of my body's rotation, and its regular reversal of direction, permitted my hostess the closest scrutiny of my changed appearance; a process made more thorough by the gradual lowering of my body by the rope into a pit-like depression, which was filled with water and floating pieces of ice. The downward spiralling of my body into this pit made possible my simultaneous observation of the polished black rubber worn by my hostess. Though the rest of me was concealed by rubber, and now by water, my face, still naked, was greeted at the lowest point of my descent by the sight of her high heels, in which she seemed to be ascending in front of me. In response to a final request, as yet unspoken, before my submersion by the downward pressure of her shoe on my head, I was first required to kiss both shoes in turn. It is often the case that pleasure precedes pain.
Outside in the open air above, I had been walking through the garden near the ice-house, and from a distance, though my view was obscured by the scale of topiary formally laid out over the lawn in front of the chateau, I then observed a number of blocks of ice, each appearing to contain some frozen life-form, being sent skidding from the ice-house over the steaming lawn down the slope, slamming up against blocks of equal size already being gathered by the bridge which links the chateau itself with the woodlands beyond the river. As I watched from the edge of the lawn, with the growing concern that I might soon be noticed and identified, even included in this bizarre exercise from which I now recoiled, a number of blocks had collided together with force, breaking open to reveal their human contents. This consequence of the blocks smashing against each other was surely intended by the group of supervising women who were clad also in rubber, more in sympathy, I believed, with these rubberised men, than out of any environmental necessity.
The women took immediate control. Dislodged tubing was quickly reconnected and then checked. Each one of the `crash survivors' was laid out on the grass for a period of revival; no opportunity being given, however, for the renewal of initiative. Besides, it was evident to even the most partial observer of these events that such creatures would not be suited for any return to human habitat.
I understood from their helpless condition that there was a kindness, even a logic, first in their encasement in rubber, then in their secondary protection from sunlight within the blocks of ice, and later, when secured by a length of rope to hooks embedded in the masonry of the bridge, in their release into the river.
The chatelaine was engaged similarly with my preparation, in the near-darkness of the ice-house. In a detached manner, as befit- ted someone who had returned time and time again to some routine task, each time advancing towards its completion, she now covered my face and neck with body powder, this time remaining with me after its application, ready to proceed with the final moulding of my face to the shape of the mask which, being attached to my neck, was floating in front of me. Taking a fist full of my hair in her rubber glove, she slapped my cheeks with the front and back of her free hand until my face was covered with a mixture of powder and tears. On each occasion that she slapped, the fixed position of her fist above my head caused the return of my cheeks into the path of her hand. Only then was she ready to proceed with the stretching of the rubber mask over my face, and its sealing behind my head.With the left and right nasal tubes pressed back inside my skull, and their subsequent, rythmic constriction between her thumb and forefinger, which produced a sudden tensing followed by re- laxation of my body, the involuntary functions of my internal organs were, as this progressed, becoming fully under her control. As if to test the true functioning of the new mask, she unscrewed the disk over my mouth.
`Forgive me, Monsieur.You do understand?'
The disk was re-inserted into the mask. I felt the silicone spray directed at my head, then the final polishing and my body being lowered onto ice. A succession of images flashed across my mind in long sequences, until, with the cooling of my body, they flickered to a standstill, leaving me with that most recent image of Madame, before she had blinded me with her mask. Blackness had gained an uninterrupted hold. Months, perhaps years, elapsed, during which I remained there suspended, body and mind, in the ice-house, be- fore it was my turn to be sawn into a block of ice, and after being attached by a length of rope to a hook, to be introduced into the river beneath the bridge, where I remain.
To describe our existence. For there are many of us here who hang, side by side, in the river's current at the end of our extended ropes that swing together over the water's surface, like the triple rows of a trireme's oars. You are right in supposing that we are denied by our condition the fulfilment of those basic instincts that are so cherished by your kind.We have developed a heightened sen- sitivity to that increase and then decrease of water currents. We feel the changing temperature of running water.
And what of our relationship with Madame? We feel the vibration of her tread upon the bridge above. It preserves the memory of our previous lives. It is her gift to us; our constant reminder, when we respond too much to this new type of existence, of those well-heeled boots in which at first she greeted each one of us, her guests.