All the while Renata spoke, she continued with the elaborate preparations, readying Antonie for a shave he needed, specifically, from her.
“Wash me,” Antonie whispered, his eyes closed. Renata proceeded to lay a large towel on his chest. She tucked it gingerly around his neck, and dipped a smaller hand towel into the bowl of warm water. Wringing the towel dry, she laid it on his face and ran her hands lightly through his hair, gently lifting back into place a strand or two that had come loose from the leather tie at the nape of his neck.
Her fingers continued deftly across his forehead and temples and neck, left to right, her fingers fluttering like the legs of one of the colorful birds that Antonie kept in a large cage swinging from the center beam in the dining room.
“Close your eyes,” she whispered, and at that command, Antonie slumped slightly in the large chair, leaned his head back and inhaled her. She applied the lathered soap to his chin, dipping the brush repeatedly into the bowl. Soon the foam covered all but his upper lip, masking cheekbones and jaw, grazing his earlobes and the Adam’s apple protruding sharply from the front of his throat.
She set the bowl down, and laid in the brush, and with one of her little fingers, she caught a long curl of hair at his temple and laid it behind his ear. In that moment, he reached out, caught her free hand, and kissed it, coating it with shaving soap. Swiftly she pulled back her hand.
“And how many times have I scolded you before, and how many times, my dear cousin, must I scold you again? You must never distract a hand that holds a blade.” She whispered thus into his ear, and the sound of the words, and her warm breath sent chills through the center of his back.
When he opened his eyes, she had taken up the razor, and her eyes had the slightly dazed look they always got. That was the first signal, the clue that Antonie knew so well. He knew it wouldn’t be long now, that she was beginning to undergo the metamorphosis inevitably imposed by the task.
So he relaxed, and let her drag the blade
slowly and purposely across the front of his chin, and into his dimple that lay there, and onto his cheeks and the sharply curved edges of his jaw. And all the while she saw the Adam's apple at the center of his throat.
The skin of his face tingled in the razor’s wake, and he kept his eyes closed, imagining how her face looked above his, serious at her work, her dark eyebrows poised in a slightly knit brow. He imagined too the swift movement her hand would make as she snapped the excess soap from the blade into the ceramic bowl.
At one time, he had believed that magic lay in the way she moved the razor, the way she swept it over the contour of his face. But gradually he knew the magic was simply in the way she focused her concentration on a completely unessential task. Yes, the magic lay in the fact that she was caring so intently for him, for his face, erasing a mustache he barely showed, a practically non-existent beard.
By then she had finished skimming off the soap, and now she had indeed been transformed by her work. Moving silently, Renata unwrapped the towel from Antonie’s neck, and loosened his collar, pulling the two sides of it apart so that a triangular area of his hairless chest was exposed, down to the center of his breastbone.
A small circular depression, the size of a gold coin, lay at the center of his chest. Around that point his rib cage swelled, filled with air, fell, swelled again, over and over, with the regular insistence of an ocean wave, or the boat rocking on that wave.
Renata leaned across his heaving chest and reached for an ornate crystal bottle from the dressing table. She shook a liquid balm, sweet with the fragrance of jasmine, into one cupped palm, and slowly she applied the tingling liquid against his face and neck, refreshing his heated body with her two open hands. The liquid evaporated as soon as it touched his skin. She moved progressively lower and lower, going in circles. Finally, she unbuttoned his shirt completely and pulled it apart, so that his shoulders lay exposed, and his head hung back, his eyes closed and his mouth limp and slightly open.
A third person watching in the mirror would see Renata’s hands fluttering across Antonie’s slightly protruding breasts, his hardened nipples, while Antonie’s own hands were lifeless, his arms draped across the elaborately carved wooden arms of the chair. The third person might decide then to look away, or say a prayer, particularly if that person were a God-fearing Christian, because Renata at that point lifted Antonie’s limp hand close to her lips, and folding his hand into a fist, she laid the fist to her mouth and kissed it, and then she unfolded the fist and kissed each finger in turn along its length, leaving no skin untouched.
By the time she finished with the hand, Antonie looked to be barely breathing. Moving swiftly, Renata tore the gold cuff links from Antonie’s sleeves, and threw them aside. Pushing one shirt sleeve off his arm, she kneeled on the floor, as if she too were going to pray. But instead, she set her delicate lips, and the tip of her tongue, gently, gently, gently, to the soft white skin that lay along the inside of his wrist.