mlR pReSS auThoRS Featuring a roll call of some of the best writers of gay erotica and mysteries today! M. Jules Aedin
Victor J. Banis
S.J. Frost Kimberly Gardner Roland Graeme Storm Grant Amber Green LB Gregg
Drewey Wayne Gunn David Juhren Samantha Kane Kiernan Kelly J.L. Langley Josh Lanyon Clare London William Maltese Gary Martine Z.A. Maxfield Patric Michael Jet Mykles Willa Okati L. Picaro Neil Plakcy Jordan Castillo Price Luisa Prieto Rick R. Reed A.M. Riley George Seaton Jardonn Smith Caro Soles JoAnne Soper-Cook Richard Stevenson Clare Thompson Lex Valentine Stevie Woods
Check out titles, both available and forthcoming, at www.mlrpress.com
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Copyright 2010 by Roland Graeme All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Published by MLR Press, LLC 3052 Gaines Waterport Rd. Albion, NY 14411 Visit ManLoveRomance Press, LLC on the Internet: www.mlrpress.com
Editing by Rick R. Reed Cover Art by Deana Jamroz Printed in the United States of America.
ISBN# 978-1-60820-168-6 First Edition 2010
ChapTeR one: danCinG in The RinG of fiRe Conor O’Malley was doing his best to dance his cares away when he stepped off the edge of the dance floor and fell flat on his face. Conor would soon be thirty, an age at which (he kept reminding himself) a man should start acting a little more responsibly. The kind of screw-ups that might, or might not, be excusable in a younger guy would be much less attractive now. At least he still possessed the physical resilience of youth. Conor had a lean, muscular build, blue eyes, and pale, tawnyfreckled skin that flushed rose-gold when he exerted himself. He tended to wear his reddish-blond hair long. Knowing that he had retained a certain boyishness, he had long ago grown a mustache and a goatee, in an attempt to look more mature. Women found him attractive, which was unfortunate, since he was immune to their charms. Gay men found him extremely appealing, and they could generally count on better luck. The accident could not have taken place at a worse time. Conor was drifting, moving from one dead-end part-time job to another. The only reason he hadn’t been reduced to living in his car was because he was lucky enough to have an old fuck buddy, Dave, who let him sleep on his couch. Conor put out in exchange for the couch privileges, of course, but Dave was a light sleeper who preferred not to share his bed with anybody overnight. When he took that false step on the dance floor and twisted his ankle, Conor tried to ignore the pain and swelling. Back at Dave’s apartment a few hours later, he was in agony. “What the hell am I going to do if it’s broken? I don’t have any insurance.” “Go to the emergency room,” Dave suggested.
2 Roland Graeme “They’ll still end up billing me.”
“Let me make a few phone calls.”
As Conor continued to self-medicate with beer, Dave made the calls, and was finally able to obtain, through a local gay and lesbian organization, a list of doctors who did a certain amount of pro bono work. Dave took the half-crocked Conor down to the free clinic, where a Dr. Chandani Mohatra diagnosed the injury as a sprain. “Am I correct in assuming alcohol played a part in this accident?” the doctor asked, as she inspected Conor’s ankle. “He was hammered, Doc!” Dave said, with obvious glee. This was Dave’s idea of trying to be helpful. Conor and the doctor both ignored him. “You might say it was a combination of alcohol, a lack of coordination, and horniness,” Conor admitted. “We were at the tea dance at Club Inferno, you see, and I was on the dance floor. It was kind of dark, because they had those stupid strobe lights going. I—uh—turned my head to check out this good-looking number, and I didn’t realize I was so close to the edge of the platform, and I took a tumble.” Dr. Mohatra smiled. “Did this good-looking gentleman at least come to your assistance, and give you his phone number?” “No. He was too busy making out with some other guy.” “Pity. I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this experience.” “Don’t drink and dance?” Conor guessed. “Not a bad idea, but I was thinking more along the lines of, ‘Keep both feet planted firmly on the ground while cruising.’” Despite his pain, Conor had to laugh. He decided Dr. Mohatra was cool. She gave Conor a small supply of what turned out to be some killer painkillers, warning him not to combine the pills with any more alcohol.
The Temple of Skanda 3 Back at Dave’s place, he took one of the painkillers. The throbbing in his taped-up ankle gradually subsided, replaced by a delightful lightheadedness. He was stoned, all right, good and stoned. Dave sucked him off, and Conor fell asleep on the couch. In due course he went to see Dr. Mohatra again for a followup, as she’d arranged—not at the clinic, but at the doctor’s rather more upscale office downtown. His ankle looked, and felt, almost back to normal. Dr. Mohatra was a middle-aged woman, who, beneath her professional veneer, was the motherly type. Conor assumed she was a lesbian. Or perhaps she did the pro bono work simply because she was gay-friendly. Conor didn’t ask: as a general rule, he didn’t like to be asked too many personal questions himself. Instinctively, he extended the same courtesy to others. At first he had assumed that Dr. Mohatra was a Muslim, but he discovered, in the course of their subsequent conversation, that she was a Hindu. That explained the small bronze statue of a multi-armed god, standing on one foot with the other one raised, which was prominently displayed in her office. “That’s Shiva, isn’t it?” Conor asked. “Yes, it’s what they call a Nataraja Shiva. He’s dancing in a ring of fire, as you see, and he’s holding that little drum in one hand, and flames in the other.” “Why is he stomping on that little dude?” “The dwarf—I suppose it’s politically incorrect to say ‘dwarf,’ nowadays, isn’t it—the little dude, as you put it, symbolizes ignorance and egotism. That’s why Shiva is subduing him.” “Interesting. Well, I don’t think I want to risk doing any more dancing myself, right at the moment. And I’m afraid my sympathies are entirely with the dwarf.” “I do want you to take it a little easy on that ankle, for the next few days. If there’s any problem, call me. Otherwise, you’re a reasonably healthy physical specimen, on the whole. What are you planning to do, now? I mean, about eventually getting some kind
4 Roland Graeme of medical insurance, in case anything like this should happen in the future?” The one thing Conor had been forthcoming about, of course, had been his current financial straits. He shrugged. “I’m in between jobs, at the moment. I need to find a real job, a place to live, and start saving some money.” “What kind of work do you want to do?” “I don’t care. Anything. And I do mean anything. I can’t afford to be particular, just now.” Dr. Mohatra looked thoughtful. She had a soft spot for Conor. He was polite, and he took the trouble to pronounce her surname correctly. That was more than she could say about some of her colleagues in the medical profession. “There’s a possibility I might be able to help you. I know a man named Murray De Souza. He lives in a small town about twenty miles from here. He owns an import business. He deals in things from the Far East—India, mostly, and Thailand, Cambodia, places like that. I bought the statue of Shiva from him, as a matter of fact. That’s what reminded me. He lives in an old farmhouse and he’s renovated the barn so he can use it as a warehouse. What he’s looking for is somebody to work in his shipping department. It involves packing the pieces up and taking them to the shipping depot, in the town. Some of the bigger items have to have shipping crates made especially for them, so the person’s got to be handy with tools. If the person is really handy with tools, then Murray told me he would be willing to throw in free room and board, because there’s always a lot of repair work and maintenance that needs to be done around the house.” “I know my way around a tool shop. And I may not be much of a carpenter, but I’ve worked in construction.” “You wouldn’t be bored, doing that kind of work in a small town?” “I wouldn’t be bored. It’d suit me fine, until something better came along.” He hesitated. “Is this guy gay?” “Would it make a difference?”
The Temple of Skanda 5 “I’d rather not work for a homophobe, that’s all. Let alone maybe be shacked up with one.” The doctor smiled. “Let me just say that my friend Murray is the opposite of a homophobe.” So this prospective employer was some sort of an antique dealer. Conor pictured some fussy queen, who maintained an inventory of overpriced junk. The farmhouse was no doubt filled with ostentatious furniture and works of art. Well, at least Conor would be working with his hands, doing something tangible, from the way it sounded. He’d probably be spending much of his time fending off his employer’s unwelcome advances. The “livein handyman, room and board,” bit sounded like a euphemism for a houseboy. A hired stud. Well, if he didn’t like the guy’s looks or manner, he could back out; and if he did take the job on a trial basis, but found out he couldn’t take it, he could always give his notice, and leave. “There’s one other thing, doctor.” “Yes?” “How do you think this friend of yours would feel about… hiring an ex-con?” She didn’t seem at all surprised—much to Conor’s surprise. “We’ll have to ask him,” she said, simply. So Dr. Mohatra, with predictable efficiency, promised to call Murray De Souza and tell him about Conor; and Conor could expect a call from De Souza in turn. Conor had a long telephone conversation with the man the very next day. De Souza was direct, but had a way of putting Conor at his ease as they talked. He had a nice voice; he certainly didn’t sound effeminate, although of course you could never be sure. Conor found himself answering the man’s questions and even volunteering information about himself, good and bad, with much less self-consciousness than he’d anticipated. They decided that Conor would drive over to see De Souza the following morning; De Souza gave him detailed directions,
6 Roland Graeme which Conor wrote down. He called the doctor to thank her. “Mr. De Souza sounded nice on the phone,” Conor admitted. “He’s not quite what you expected, is he?” “Frankly, no. I only hope I can live up to whatever expectations he has of me.” “Don’t be intimidated by him when you meet him face to face, Conor. If he seems a little remote at first, don’t take it personally. He’s—well, let’s just say he’s been though a lot, lately. Good luck tomorrow.” The following day Conor found himself driving through farm country. He passed through the town, since his destination lay on the far side of it. There wasn’t much out of the ordinary to look at—or to do, he suspected. Well, if he ended up living and working in this backwater and he got bored, he could always make the drive back into the city. On the road leading outside the town, he passed several working farms, until he came to De Souza’s property—which was obviously a non-working, former farm. A small sign identified the business, along with the caveat by appointment only. The farmhouse, a modest two-story clapboard structure with a porch running the length of its front, was set well back from the road at the end of a driveway. A van and two cars were already parked in front. There were a couple of dilapidated storage sheds. The barn, by contrast, was a striking structure: it looked as though it had recently been given new siding and roofing; and large plate-glass windows, which couldn’t have been part of the original structure, pierced the walls. There was a neglected orchard nearby, with symmetrical rows of apple trees. The fields behind the barn, which must once have been planted with various crops, were now broad expanses of tall grass and weeds. On the porch, Conor rang the doorbell. De Souza opened the door almost at once; he must have seen him drive up and park. “Hi! You must be Conor. Did you have any trouble finding the place?”
The Temple of Skanda 7 “Not at all.” “Come right on in.” “Thanks, Mr. De Souza.” “Call me Murray.” Murray’s handshake was firm and masculine, without making an issue of the fact. Conor hadn’t been prepared for—well, for such a butch number, he had to admit. Murray was perhaps in his late thirties, a brown-haired, brown-eyed, olive-complexioned man, who was laid-back, but exuded self-confidence. He had a nice body, Conor couldn’t help noticing, as he glanced at the way it filled out the thoroughly broken-in jeans and frayed sweatshirt Murray was wearing. If Murray wasn’t what Conor had expected, neither was the inside of the house. The living room was spacious, but sparsely furnished, and the sofa and armchairs were worn to the point of shabbiness, and looked as though they’d been chosen for comfort rather than style. There was a large fireplace, which showed every sign of being put to good use during the cold winter months. The flat screen television set was of modest proportions, and so were the audio components on one of the several bookshelves, which were well stocked with books. A staircase led to the upper floor. On the other side of the staircase, through an alcove, was a large home office, which looked as though it had originally been a dining room. There was a littered desk with a laptop computer, a printer, and a fax machine. The one touch of luxury were some oriental rugs, multicolored, with intricate patterns, spread over the hardwood floors. What was unusual, and immediately caught Conor’s eye, were the statues—all of them bronzes, like the Shiva in Dr. Mohatra’s office. One, nearly two feet tall, stood on the coffee table in front of the couch. Two more figures, half as tall, were displayed on the mantelpiece. A third small statue was on the desk, where it had been pressed into service as a paperweight. At least three or four more figurines were interspersed among the books on the
8 Roland Graeme bookshelves. The statues all seemed to be of various Hindu gods and goddesses, none of whom Conor could identify. “These are the sort of things you sell, aren’t they?” he asked. “Yes. I always keep some of them here in the house. I like to rotate the stock, so to speak. Come on, I’ll show you the upstairs.” At the top of the stairs there was a broad landing, with another statue standing guard on top of another bookcase, leading to a long hallway. Murray paused at the first door, which was open. “My bedroom.” Conor glanced in. The room was spacious, untidy. The most remarkable feature was yet another large statue—an eight-armed Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, set on top of a dresser. As though it weren’t enough that the god was holding a different bronze object in each of his bronze hands, he was pulling double duty as a valet. Murray’s neckties and belts were slung around his neck and his arms; a bracelet dangled from the tip of his coiled trunk; two of his arms held, respectively, a neck chain with a pendant, and a wristwatch. Conor was so amused by the Ganesh that at first he didn’t see the large framed color photo on the wall nearby, where it could be seen from the bed. It showed Murray and another man, both casually dressed, smiling at the camera. The other man was remarkably good-looking: male-model, porn-actor handsome. Very interesting, Conor thought. He followed Murray down the hall, with Murray identifying the doors they passed. “My bathroom. Linen closet. These rooms are empty—or rather they’re full of junk. And this would be your room, at the end of the hall,” Murray finally pointed out. “So you’d have some privacy. You’d have your own bathroom.” Murray opened the bathroom’s door, so Conor could see inside. “Here’s the room.” It was, if anything, larger than Murray’s own bedroom, with windows overlooking the orchard. There was a double bed, chests of drawers, a desk with a chair, an armchair, and a closet. Unlike the rest of the house, this room was tidy; in fact, it looked as though it had been recently spruced up. The robin’s egg blue
The Temple of Skanda 9 paint on the walls, for one thing, was new. “This used to be a guest room,” Murray explained. “We used to have overnight guests from out of town all the time.” Conor wondered if the other half of the “we” had been the other man in the photograph, and what had happened to him. Dr. Mohatra had definitely told him that Murray lived alone. “It’s really nice,” he said. “Let’s go back downstairs and talk in the kitchen. I’ve got coffee on.” It was a big farmhouse kitchen. The stove, refrigerator, and other appliances looked up to date and expensive. The coffee maker, for example, was a gleaming Italian machine and would not have looked out of place in a commercial coffee shop. But the kitchen table was an old wooden one, massive, sturdy, and battered. It probably doubled as a second home office; one end of it was littered with papers and pieces of mail. In an adjoining room were a washer and dryer. A door led to a small back porch, with the barn visible across the yard. They sat down and had coffee. “I’ll show you the warehouse in a moment. You’ll meet James.” Murray smiled. “He’s a college kid who comes over for a couple of hours most days during the week and on Saturday mornings, to help me with the orders and the bookkeeping. He’s also one of those computer geniuses who can do anything on a computer. He helps me maintain and update my website. We have photos of every item we have for sale posted on the website—multiple views of each item, so the customers can see them from different angles, and in detail. Most of the purchases are made through the website. Customers can reserve pieces they’re thinking about buying, put them on layaway and pay for them in installments, or just buy them outright.” Murray paused. “I’m doing all the talking. You must have some questions.” “We pretty well covered what I wanted to know when we talked on the phone. What I did want to ask you—” “Yes?”
10 Roland Graeme “This is kind of awkward for me.” “Don’t be embarrassed.” “What I wanted to ask you, I guess, is how you feel about giving me a chance. I told you I did time.” “And I did exactly what you told me I should do. I called your parole officer last night. We had a good long talk. He said you were a model prisoner. No previous run-ins with the law. Well, nothing serious, anyway. Time off for good behavior. You served out your parole, too—no problems whatsoever. Now you’re done, he told me. The system doesn’t have any further interest in you. A clean start.” “I promise, if you hire me, I won’t steal anything from you.” “Conor, I don’t want to deflate your ego, but let’s face it— from what I heard, you were hardly Public Enemy Number One. You’ve seen the house. There isn’t much worth stealing in here. The only money I keep on hand for the business is petty cash. Almost everything is done by electronic transfer of funds. Of course the inventory, in the barn, is worth a lot of money—to me, anyway. But it’s not exactly the kind of thing that could be easily fenced. If I may be immodest for a moment, I’m fairly well known in this business for specializing in certain types of items that are more or less unique. If somebody walked into a pawn shop, or an antique store, with one of my pieces anywhere around these parts, and tried to sell it, the owner would probably say, ‘Hey, that looks like one of Murray De Souza’s pieces!’ And he’d want to see what we call provenance—proof of where it came from. It’s not like you can go up to somebody on the street, open your trench coat, and whisper, ‘Hey, buddy—you wanna buy this bronze statue of Vishnu, cheap?’ Hell, if I thought you could make more sales that way, I’d try it myself.” Conor couldn’t think of anything to say. He realized that at least he wasn’t having any difficulty meeting, and holding, Murray’s gaze. He decided that he liked Murray’s warm dark eyes. “If you’ve finished your coffee, I’ll show you the barn.” They went out the back door of the house. The side of the
The Temple of Skanda 11 barn was equipped with a sliding steel door, large enough to drive a van through. There was another, smaller entrance door, also heavy duty steel. Mounted high up on the wall over both doors was a security camera—a high tech one, from the looks of it. Conor had noticed that the farmhouse had keypads, beside both its front and back doors. Murray may have downplayed the security issue, but he was obviously no fool. The interior of the barn was one vast open space. The windows let in a great deal of light. Conor instinctively glanced up, and noticed more security cameras, mounted high up in the rafters just below the roof, aimed at the doors, the windows, and the floor. He and Murray were standing near a small forklift truck and a low wall formed by wooden crates, stacked two or three high, the smaller ones the size of trunks or filing cabinets, the largest ones big enough to contain a refrigerator. “I have to warn you, if you decide to take this job, this’ll be your first chore. This is my latest shipment from India. I have everything shipped by sea, by freighter, so it can take it a while to get here. The truck delivered all this the day before yesterday, but I haven’t had a chance to do more than check the crates against the cargo invoice, so far. We have to get everything unpacked and checked for damage and inventoried. Then get them photographed and priced and put up on the website. We try to be careful when we open the crates, not just because of what’s inside, but because the crates can usually be recycled. The ones that can’t can always be used for scrap, or for firewood.” They walked around the wall of crates, and Conor saw that most of the warehouse space was taken up by sturdy, freestanding metal shelves, which were loaded with objects—not just more bronze statues, but porcelain and wooden items, in a wide range of sizes. “This looks like a museum!” he exclaimed. Murray laughed. “A museum where everything’s for sale. I have a pretty good turnover rate, but some of these pieces have been gathering dust for years.”
12 Roland Graeme Some of the statues, too large for the shelves, sat on wooden pallets at the ends of the rows of shelves or were lined up against the walls. Conor paused to examine one: a five-foot-tall image of a young male god, elaborately decked out in jewelry, smiling as he held a flute to his lips. “My God. Look at the size of that.” “That’s Krishna. He’s often shown playing the flute.” “It must weigh a ton.” “Not quite. A little under two hundred pounds, I think.” “How do you ship something like that?” “Very, very carefully, as you can imagine. In fact, over here’s
what we rather grandiosely call the shipping department. And here’s James.” Murray introduced Conor to James. The college student looked more like a high schooler. He had his own workstation, an L-shaped desk with a computer, a printer, a telephone with an answering machine, a fax machine, and filing cabinets. Nearby was an area with a long, broad steel table, storage lockers and cabinets, a tool bench—well equipped, Conor was quick to notice—and stacks of flattened shipping cartons in various sizes, with generous supplies of packing materials at hand. There were also some wooden boards, presumably for the construction of the shipping crates. James was short, compactly built, with pale, delicate features. Conor couldn’t help wondering if Murray was fucking the kid. He immediately dismissed the notion. James had “obsessed with pussy” written all over him. James, Conor saw, had personalized his workspace. Among the items was a fire engine red Japanese tin robot, holding a laser gun—and wearing a badge that said Security. “I like your robot,” Conor said. James was eyeing him just a tad warily which, Conor realized, was understandable given the circumstances. “Do you think you’re going to take this job?” the kid
The Temple of Skanda 13 demanded. “Murray and I haven’t decided that yet.” “Well, if you do, there’s only one rule you have to remember: never, ever, touch anything on my desk. Especially my computer. If you can remember that, we’ll get along just fine.” James relaxed a little. “You look big enough to handle the job, at least. I guess you’ll do.” He turned his attention back to his computer screen. Murray smiled. “Now that the real boss has laid down the ground rules and given his approval…let’s walk around some more.” He led Conor down one of the aisles, between the rows of shelves. “Don’t mind James,” he said, when they were out of the boy’s earshot. “He’s not as much of a hard ass as he comes across sometimes. He knows the business inside and out. Practically runs it, even when I’m here and I think I’m the one in charge. You’re the intruder on his turf, that’s all.” “I know.” Conor stopped to admire a bronze on a shelf at eye level. “This looks familiar.” “This is one of my more popular items. It’s a—” “Don’t tell me. It’s a Nataraja Shiva, isn’t it? Dancing in a ring
of fire. And the dwarf symbolizes stupidity.” “I’m impressed.” “Don’t be. I was bluffing. Once you get past Shiva and Buddha, I’ll need a scorecard to tell the players apart. The only reason I know this one is thanks to Dr. Mohatra.” “That’s right. She bought one like this from me. She’s a sweetheart, isn’t she?” Murray picked up another small statue. “This is Tara. She’s a Buddhist deity.” “She’s beautiful.” “The female goddesses are usually depicted with nice big bare breasts. It makes them the perfect décor for some straight guy’s bachelor pad. And this is what they call a Somaskanda Shiva.
14 Roland Graeme It’s got Shiva and his wife Parvati, sitting down, with their son, Kartikeya, standing between them. Or, as I like to call them, Papa Shiva, Mama Shiva, and Baby Shiva. Kartikeya is known by a lot of other names—Kumara, Subramanya, Shanmukha, Murugan, Skanda.” Conor was impressed by how Murray rattled off the names, the way most guys would list their favorite ball players. “Murugan, for example, just means ‘young man.’ Skanda is a little more interesting. It literally means ‘spurt of semen.’ That’s because, in one version of the myth, Skanda was born when Shiva had, uh, what I guess you’d call a spontaneous ejaculation.” Conor laughed. “Well, it’s a good thing that doesn’t happen every time we mere mortals—! There’d be a real population explosion.” Now that their conversation had taken a slightly sexual turn, Conor could feel his gaydar kick in. He was definitely getting a signal from Murray, albeit a subdued one, and he hoped that he was transmitting as well, loud and clear. “You’ll learn your way around them, eventually.” “How’d you get interested in all this stuff in the first place?” “I’ve always been interested in it. Probably because I’m part Indian, myself.” Murray smiled. “Usually, when I tell people that, they ask, ‘What tribe?’ and they expect me to say something like, ‘Cherokee.’ But my grandmother came from Chennai. That’s the big city in the Tamil Nadu region of southeast India. Chennai used to be called Madras, but since Madras is a Portuguese name, they prefer the old, traditional place names now. Just like Bombay is no longer Bombay, it’s Mumbai. Back there—in Chennai, I mean, in Grandma’s day—the family business was steel mills, of all things. Not something I’d particularly be interested in. But maybe it explains why I like the old metal casting techniques. The De Souzas, as I always say, are an old and undistinguished Portuguese family. I suspect my distant ancestors were pirates and slave traders.” “You’re lucky. I don’t know anything about my ancestors. I
The Temple of Skanda 15 was adopted, you see. My birth mother gave me up.” “I was going to say I’m sorry, but ‘sorry’ sounds sort of inadequate. I come from such a large family that I probably have no idea of what that must’ve been like for you.” “That’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. My Mom and Dad—the ones who brought me up—are wonderful. It’s not their fault I fucked up my life.” The two men fell silent for a moment. Then Murray said, “I have a confession to make.” “Yeah?” “Murray is just a family nickname. My legal name is Henry Murugan De Souza. Grandma liked the name Murugan. When the kids at school found out, they started calling me Harry Murgatroyd. I wanted to kill them. I’m serving you notice that if you ever, ever address me as Harry Murgatroyd, even in jest, I’ll fire your ass on the spot.” Conor laughed. “I’ll remember that.” He realized that Murray had deliberately changed the subject, in order to spare him embarrassment. I should’ve kept my mouth shut, he thought. About being adopted. I don’t want him to feel sorry for me, or to think I’m fishing for sympathy. No, he was just being kind. Thoughtful. He’s a nice guy. A nice gay guy. I wonder if there’d ever be any chance—? Oh, who the hell do I think I’m kidding? “I’ve run out of things to say,” Murray admitted. “Do you have any questions?” “Not right now. We’ve pretty well covered it.” “We discussed money over the phone. I know it’s not much. If you’re at all interested in the job—well, it’s yours. Including the room and board option, if you want it. Like I said when we talked before—if you’d rather not move in here, then I’d be willing to pay you the higher amount, since you’d be paying rent somewhere else. You could find a room in town easily enough.”
16 Roland Graeme “I really want this job. And I need a place to stay. I’d rather have the room and board.” “Then we’re agreed.” “Yes.” “When would you like to start?” “I’d like to start right now. Why don’t I start in on those crates?”
Conor sealed the flaps of the corrugated cardboard shipping carton with reinforced mailing tape, then carefully applied the mailing and return address labels. “Hey, O’Malley,” James yelled from across the room. “I’m ordering supplies. Is there anything you need that isn’t already on the list?” “Yeah, number five shipping cartons,” Conor responded. “The stack’s getting low. I don’t want to run out of them; you never know how many of the smaller-sized statues Murray is likely to sell in the next week or two.” Conor and James had been working together long enough, by now, to be comfortable around each other. At first, Conor had been a bit intimidated by the younger guy, who seemed smarter than Conor believed himself to be. Once Conor got settled in, and Murray had instructed him in his basic duties, he got to know James better. They worked closely together, processing orders, and gradually getting the new inventory that Conor extracted from all of those crates photographed, priced, and posted on the website. Once this task was completed, whenever James was on duty in the barn, he rarely pried himself away from the computer. If Conor asked him to help with something, such as moving a heavy statue, James would invariably reply, “That isn’t my job.” But then, good-naturedly enough, he would do it. James was the kind of multitasker who could talk while hammering away at the keyboard, so he and Conor had plenty of chances for conversation. Conor had been on the job three days when James made a casual reference to “you gay guys.” “What makes you so sure I’m gay?”
18 Roland Graeme “Oh, please,” James said. “Look at yourself, man. You ought to be some rich dude’s boy toy, not working up a sweat here. Besides, I’ve caught you checking out Murray’s ass, when you thought neither of us was watching.” “He does have a nice hard butt. Just the kind I like,” Conor admitted. “Spare me. I only hope you’re not looking at mine like that when my back is turned.” “I wouldn’t waste my time fantasizing about your scrawny little behind, pretty boy. I like the kind of man-sized glutes you can get a good grip on, while I ram my rod in and out between them.” “You gay guys are disgusting.” But James had the grace to laugh. “Seriously, though. How do you like working here?” James asked. “It’s been fine, so far.” “And, uh, living in the house with Murray? What about that?” “That seems to be working out okay, also so far.” “Murray is a great guy.” “Yes, he is. I was wondering. I saw this photo of Murray and this other guy, in his bedroom.” “The two of you are already sleeping together? Wow. You work fast.” “Knock it off. We are not doing anything of the kind.” “Anyway, this picture—was it a really good-looking guy, in love with himself ? That would be Derek. Murray’s ex. He moved out a few months ago. Went to live on the West Coast. Murray’s still pretty broken up about it. I think they were together for what, five or six years? Living together here, I mean. I know they dated for a couple of years before that. I wouldn’t mention Derek in front of Murray, if I were you. He hardly ever talks about him.” “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll keep that in mind. I gather
The Temple of Skanda 19 Murray isn’t seeing anybody now?” “I don’t think he’s even getting laid. Not that he discusses his sex life with me. Feel free to make your move on him, man.” “I have no intention of doing any such thing,” Conor protested. “I was just curious.” “Yeah, you’re just curious, like a fox prowling around the chicken coop. Just curious, huh?” The following afternoon, after James had gone home, Murray took the time to show Conor a few things. Using examples, he explained how to tell the difference between a bronze statue made using the lost wax method, and one mass-produced with a reusable mold. He demonstrated how to clean a bronze, should that be necessary. He talked about the different types of woods that the wooden sculptures, from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand, were carved from. The pleasure that Murray took in his business was obvious. Conor liked his animation, and listened carefully to everything his employer said. The next morning, he learned still more—from James. “What happened to the guy who used to do my job?” Conor asked. He was taking a coffee break, standing beside James’s desk, watching him work. James never took his eyes off the screen. “The guy was a woman, named Diane. She left because she got married—to a man. I’m ashamed to admit that I always took it for granted she was a dyke. She was this really physically strong gal, you know? You should’ve seen her loading the boxes into the van. Diane was pretty down to earth. I liked her. She and Murray always got along great. He gave her one of the statues as a wedding present. Of course, Diane and Derek didn’t dance.” “Oh? Tell me some more about Derek. What was he like?” “Maybe I shouldn’t speak ill of the brain dead.” But James was obviously eager to dish. “Oh, Derek couldn’t help himself, I guess. He was a trust fund baby, you see. Never really had to work for a living, so he sort of played around, pretending to do this as a career, and then that as a career, until he’d get bored and try
20 Roland Graeme something else. He was a big city party boy, and Murray, when he isn’t off on one of his trips, is basically a homebody who likes it out here in the country. I don’t know how the two of them got together in the first place, let alone stuck it out together for so long. “I’ve got to say, Derek had good taste,” James went on, still staring at the screen and flailing away on the keyboard. “He bought all this nice furniture and paintings and knickknacks for the house. Of course, when he moved out, he took it all with him. Murray had to take all of his old stuff back out of storage, and hit the second-hand stores. That’s why the house looks kind of bare. “I think Derek and Murray had what you’d call an open relationship. Wide open, as far as Derek was concerned. Every time Murray went on one of his trips, he’d leave Diane and me in charge, and Derek would start whoring around. He’d either go out of town himself, and we wouldn’t see him here for days, or he’d stay here and invite guys he’d picked up on the Internet to come over for sex. Once, he even had a little orgy, right in the middle of the afternoon, while I was here, working. I walked in through the kitchen door, to tell Derek I was leaving for the day, and—there were all these guys running around bare-assed, all over the house. Doing it, right there on the living room floor. One of them even asked me if I wanted to join in! Gross.” “I gather you didn’t join in.” James grimaced. “Don’t be disgusting. I ran the hell out. Not that I’ve got anything against you fucking dumbass queers,” he added, graciously. “You can’t help it if you do all your thinking with your dicks.” “It’s nice of you to be so tolerant toward the intellectually challenged. So…why did Murray and Derek finally break up? “Well, you could tell they were sort of drifting apart, those past few months. But what really tore it was when Murray finally talked Derek into going along with him on one of his buying trips to India. Murray was really looking forward to it. I guess he thought it would bring him and Derek closer together, you
The Temple of Skanda 21 know? Like a second honeymoon? “Instead, the trip turned into just one long bitchfest. First there was the eighteen-hour flight, New York to London, London to Mumbai. Derek started going stir crazy. They had a two-hour layover in Mumbai, so of course they couldn’t go very far from the airport. But apparently Derek’s first look at India was enough. He was ready to jump on the next flight back home. Instead, they had another connecting flight, two hours, Mumbai to Chennai. The hotel in Chennai, the food, the whole place—nothing was up to Derek’s standards. “But it wasn’t until they traveled overland, to the village where they make the statues, that the shit really hit the fan. They don’t even have electricity there, except what they can make with generators. And, speaking of shit—!” James snickered. “Derek found out that he was going to have to take his dumps in an outdoor latrine! He freaked! I have to laugh, every time I think about it. “So, to make a long story short, Derek made Murray’s life a living hell, the whole time they were there. And then, to cap it off, during the flight back, Derek started to feel sick. He’d picked up some kind of a bug—nothing serious, it turned out; but the minute he got back here he crawled into bed, and of course he expected Murray to wait on him, hand and foot. It was the last act of La Traviata, with the dying whore getting religion at the last moment…until one of Derek’s tricks happened to phone. Then he perked up awfully fast.” “Poor Murray.” “You said it. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad, if Derek had had enough sense to finally shut up about it. But he just wouldn’t let it go. He kept going on and on, to anybody who’d listen, about how awful the trip had been and how dirty and ignorant the Indians were. Did Murray ever tell you about his Granny, by the way?” “Yes, he did.” “So you can imagine how well Derek’s snide little racist
22 Roland Graeme remarks went over. It isn’t just that Murray has that Indian blood in him, himself. He thinks those villagers over there are the salt of the earth. He really respects them. I thought he was going to punch Derek out, the first time Derek said something like that. And the first time wasn’t the last. You can probably guess the rest. They started having these knock down, drag out fights. And when Derek met this guy who lives out in California—” James shrugged. “I guess they’re living together there now, spending Derek’s money and having more orgies. Like I said, the other day, Murray doesn’t talk much about it.” Conor needed a moment to absorb all this information. “Maybe if Murray wasn’t such a hermit,” he said, thinking out loud, “he’d meet somebody else.” “I wish he would. If I were gay, I’d go to bed with him.” Conor had to smile. “If you were gay, you’d be attracted to some other computer geek, your own age.” “Bitch. So…why don’t you make a play for Murray, yourself ?” “I don’t think that a straight guy like you should be playing matchmaker for two gay men. Anyway, me and Murray…I wouldn’t know how to begin.” “Oh, that’s easy. The next time you’re working around the house, just lose the shirt. Give Murray a look at those rippling muscles.” Conor laughed. “I definitely don’t think that a supposedly straight guy like you should be talking about another guy’s muscles, or lack of them. Or that he should be pimping for his gay boss, for that matter!” “Oh, I know the score,” James said, smugly. “I know what goes on. I watch a lot of cable TV.” One day when Murray had gone into town, Conor was working—not in the warehouse but outdoors—getting a start on what, he realized, would be an ongoing project to replace rotten wood siding on one of the property’s storage sheds before the structure fell down. Sweaty from his exertions and covered with
The Temple of Skanda 23 sawdust, he took a break and went into the barn to ask James if he wanted something to drink. James, unusually for him, was taking a break, too. He was at his desk, as usual, but he was downloading porn and smoking a joint. The little red robot on his desk, with its Security badge, had its battery compartment open. The compartment contained no batteries; it was obviously where James stashed his rolling papers, and a little plastic bag of weed. “Oh, you are so busted!” Conor laughed. “Security, my ass!” “Jesus fucking Christ. I didn’t hear you coming.” “Another minute, and I’d have probably heard and seen you
coming.” Conor was now close enough to get a good look at the lurid display on the computer screen. An energetic young stud was servicing two big-titted girls at once, licking one’s shaven pussy while the other one clasped and stroked his erection with her equally hairless labia. Either pair of silicone-enhanced breasts would have looked quite at home on a Hindu goddess. “You were about to jerk off, weren’t you?” James actually blushed. “I was not!” “Perv. Lying little perv.” “You aren’t going to tell Murray, are you?” Conor was indignant. “What do I look like—some kind of a dirty jailhouse snitch?” A thought came to him. “Didn’t it ever occur to you that Murray might actually look at one of those security tapes? One of the cameras, up there, is practically aimed at your crotch.” James glanced up at the camera in question, on the rafter. “Why should he? Unless somebody ever broke in here, or something turned up missing. Anyway, every couple of months we erase the old tapes, and reuse them. And who do you think takes care of that?” He was back to his nonchalant self, now that he knew Conor wasn’t going to turn him in. He offered Conor the joint. “No thanks. I’ve been on kind of a health kick, lately.”
24 Roland Graeme “You just gave me an idea, man. Maybe some time you should strip down and whack off in here, in front of the cameras, yourself. Make your own little porno film. We could tell Murray to check out the tape, give the guy a cheap thrill. I bet you’d get a pay raise out of it.” James grinned. “Or an invitation to repeat the performance, inside the house.” Conor shook his head. “Perv,” he repeated. “Nasty college boy perv.” On yet another occasion, Conor felt comfortable enough to answer frankly, when James asked him some questions about himself. He even volunteered the information that he had done time. James was actually interested enough to stop typing, and to take his eyes off the screen long enough to look Conor in the face. “Jesus! Is it like what they always show on TV and in the movies? You know, guys raping each other?” “Yes, sometimes. I got raped. Beaten up and raped.” He’d certainly jolted James out of his usual self-absorption, if only for the moment. “What did it feel like?” James asked, naively. “You know, afterward? How’d you feel about it?” “How do you think I felt?” Conor retorted, but without heat. “I felt raped. Violated. You think about that, the next time you decide to smoke a little pot. Or hack into somebody’s website, which I guess would be more your speed, more your way of getting yourself into some real trouble.” “Sorry, man.” James turned his attention back to the monitor. “Forget it. I didn’t mean to get all self-righteous and big brotherly with you. I’m about the last person who should be giving you any advice.” “Were you—?” James hesitated. “Did you always like guys?” “Yeah, I was already gay before it happened.” It was time to change the subject. Conor looked at the display on James’s screen. “Is that a new order coming in?”
The Temple of Skanda 25 “Yes. I’m just doing the invoice. It’s one of Murray’s regular customers, he’s going to take the statue of Lakshmi he had on reserve—you know, the one where she’s standing up holding a lotus blossom in each hand? You might as well start getting it ready to ship.” Conor, who was a fast learner, had already discovered that Lakshmi was the goddess of prosperity and wealth. Perhaps that was a good omen.
ChapTeR ThRee: CounTRy life It was a novel experience for Conor to share living quarters with a man with whom he had not had sex. He and Murray had quickly and effortlessly established a curious sort of non-intimate intimacy. Each man respected the other’s privacy, and yet they were comfortable with each other, never wary. “Do you have everything you need—in your room, I mean?” Murray asked one evening. “Yes, Murray. It’s very comfortable.” “It’s kind of bare. Feel free to decorate it a little to suit yourself. I know—why don’t you pick out one of the smaller statues from the warehouse to put on your desk or your dresser? If we sell it, then you just pick out another.” “Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll take a Ganesh, like you have in your room.” “Good choice. Ganesh is called ‘The Remover of Obstacles,’ after all. Not that you seem to have any trouble overcoming obstacles, Conor. You’re very handy. You’ve been doing good work.” Conor flushed with pleasure at the compliment. He selected a foot-tall statue of Ganesh. The chubby elephantheaded god was standing upright on his pedestal, holding a water pot in his curled trunk—and brandishing a bewildering variety of objects in his no fewer than sixteen hands. His eight pairs of arms fanned out like wings from a massive pair of shoulders. He showed the bronze to Murray, for his approval. “Oh, that’s what they call a Veera Ganesh,” Murray explained. “‘Veera’ means ‘hero’ or ‘warrior.’ He’s borrowed all of those weapons he’s holding from the other gods, and he’s ready to use them to defend believers against anything that might threaten
28 Roland Graeme them.” “He’s cute.” Conor set the statue on his desk, where he could see it from his bed. He found the sight of the droll-looking god oddly comforting. Conor found himself settling, quite contentedly, into a routine. During the days, when there was nothing that needed his immediate attention in the warehouse, Conor had no difficulty keeping busy with various projects in the house or outside. He made almost daily trips into town, to take the outgoing shipments to the parcel post depot, and occasionally to pick up building and other supplies. In his free time, during the daylight hours, he walked in the woods or went jogging along the peaceful back roads in the vicinity of the farm. Conor had no major expenses, and as a result was starting to save some money. He discovered that the import business wasn’t Murray’s only source of income: he owned real estate, including some storefronts in the town. Murray was apparently well liked by the locals. The townspeople were soon referring to Conor as “that new fellow who works out at the De Souza place.” No one seemed to make an issue of sexual orientation. Murray was perfectly affable, but kept to himself whenever he and Conor were not actually working together or he was giving Conor his instructions. Conor began to understand why Dr. Mohatra had warned him Murray might seem “remote” at first. Murray sometimes avoided talking about himself, preferring neutral topics, and on more than one occasion Conor observed the other man sunk in a brooding introspection. At mealtimes, if Murray was preparing anything out of the ordinary and Conor happened to be hungry, Murray made enough for two; otherwise, Conor was free to make his own meals whenever he chose. In the evenings, he sometimes drove into the town and explored it. The place offered him no surprises or disappointments. It was
The Temple of Skanda 29 a typically sleepy, out-of-the-way community. Conor, increasingly, found himself preferring to stay at home at night. He watched TV or borrowed one of Murray’s books, which his boss encouraged him to do. His employer, he noticed, was abstemious. Murray treated himself to an occasional glass of wine with dinner, or later on at night before he went to bed. The few bottles of hard liquor on the premises, in one of the kitchen cabinets, were unopened and untouched. Conor surmised that they were leftovers from the Derek era. Murray, he further noticed, spent a lot of his free time at his desk near the living room, on the Internet. Some of this was no doubt work related. He corresponded with customers, and also with friends who lived in other parts of the country and abroad. He seemed to have no real social life. No one was invited to the house. Conor couldn’t help speculating about his employer’s sex life. He assumed that Murray confined himself to masturbation. What a waste, Conor thought. He caught himself, on more than one evening, furtively observing Murray as he sat at his computer. In the dim light from the screen, Murray’s pleasant features took on a saturnine cast. His self-absorption enveloped him like a protective cocoon. He’s really handsome, Conor decided. He’s hot. I could go for him. I wonder if I’ll ever have a chance? Any ambitions Conor was entertaining along those lines seemed to be dashed one night. He was lounging in his room, wearing only a pair of cargo shorts, when he thought he heard Murray’s voice. Assuming his employer was calling him, he went down the hall. Murray’s bedroom door was ajar, and Conor was about to knock on it when he realized Murray was talking on his cell phone. “I’m not depressed at all,” Murray was insisting. “I can’t imagine what makes you think I am. I wish you’d stop nagging me about it. You’re my brother, not my husband. You sound just
30 Roland Graeme like Mom. Every time I talk to her on the phone I have to hear this same routine.” Conor had every intention of slipping quietly back to his own room when—after a pause—he heard Murray go on, “His name is Conor, and hiring him was the smartest thing I’ve done in a long while.” Conor knew he ought to be ashamed of himself for standing there eavesdropping, but it would have taken more will power than he possessed to stop listening now. “Oh, I don’t know. He did all sorts of jobs before. He’s just a young kid, after all. He hasn’t had time to rack up all that much work experience.” Conor caught the evasiveness in Murray’s tone of voice. It was very like Murray, he realized with a rush of gratitude, not to divulge the details of his past—even to a family member. Murray was laughing. “He’s gorgeous. He looks like something right out a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Only masculine, not like some silly little pretty boy.” Conor’s spirits soared. “And he’s not just a hard worker with this incredible work ethic—he’s got a really sweet personality, too. He acts tough, but there’s something about him that makes me want to get all paternal and protective toward him. Which doesn’t prevent me from getting a hard-on every time I look at him.” Conor’s spirits, Icarus-like, soared higher. “Don’t make me laugh.” Murray’s voice had suddenly turned shockingly hard and bitter. “I am never going to let myself fall in love again. And certainly not with a hot guy who’s a lot younger than me, and who’s going to meet some guy his own age sooner or later and run off with him. I’m not about to put myself through all that shit again. Not for anybody! I’d rather be alone for the rest of my life than be hurt like that.” Conor’s spirits plummeted back down to earth. He beat a stealthy retreat, praying that his bare feet would not
The Temple of Skanda 31 make audible footsteps on the hardwood floor. I guess that’s that, he told himself, sourly. At least now I know where I stand! Murray encouraged him to take at least one day off each week but Conor, making the most of his flexible schedule, preferred to keep busy, on and off, for at least part of every day—including Sundays. Whenever Murray good-naturedly insisted that he knock off work and “take some time for yourself,” Conor inevitably soon began to feel bored. Inertia, just as inevitably, led to arousal. It was hard to break old bad habits completely. One late afternoon, when Murray had nothing for him to do, Conor drove the twenty miles to the city, where, in one of the less reputable areas downtown, there was a bathhouse. Conor had patronized it occasionally in the past. Now that he was working and saving his money, he splurged, getting a room instead of just a locker. Naked except for a towel wrapped around his waist and his room key dangling from his wrist, he made a preliminary walk around the hallways and the steam room, trolling for likely prospects. In his room, he got comfortable on the narrow single bed, leaving the cubicle’s door open. Let the horny bastards come to him. He gave himself to any man who wanted him. He lost count of how many cocks he sucked, how many eager mouths caressed his own stiff tool, how many men took turns fucking him. He did keep track of how many of the bathhouse’s patrons he fucked: a total of three, none of them to the point of reaching an orgasm himself. There were limits even to Conor’s stamina; by that stage in the marathon, he was beginning to have difficulty maintaining an erection, to say nothing of his enthusiasm. He drove back to the farm, arriving after dark. Murray had already had dinner, but had set something aside that Conor could warm up. Conor thanked his boss, and ate greedily. He wondered why he felt guilty. If Murray chose to be celibate that was no reason why Conor shouldn’t enjoy himself once in a while. It wasn’t as though Conor was married to the guy. Hell, the two of them weren’t even tricking!
32 Roland Graeme The next time Murray suggested that Conor “knock off early,” Conor felt bold enough to make a suggestion. “Why don’t you and I drive into the city some night, Murray? We could have dinner, see a movie, check out the bars.” Murray seemed genuinely surprised by the idea. “Oh, I don’t go out much any more, Conor,” he said, dismissively. “I’m really past that sort of thing, at my age.” “At your age!” Conor scoffed. “Thanks to a certain blabbermouth named James, I know exactly how old you are, Murray. You’re all of nine years older than me. That doesn’t even qualify you for Hot Daddy status yet.” Murray smiled. “Well, thanks for giving me something to look forward to. But I’ve been away from the bar scene for so long that I can’t see myself getting back into it. Not just now, anyway.” “We don’t have to hit the bars. We could do something else.” Conor almost regretted initiating this line of conversation when he saw the slightly pained look on Murray’s face. “Living here with me must be awfully boring for you, Conor. I’m sorry.” “You don’t have anything to apologize for. I like it here. I’m not bored at all. It’s just that—tell me if I’m stepping out of line by saying this, Murray, but you never seem to let yourself have any fun.” “Maybe I’m not exactly a fun kind of guy.” Murray put his hand on Conor’s shoulder, and gave it something suspiciously close to a caress. “Try to put up with me, Conor,” he said softly. “Give me a little time.” Conor liked the fact that Murray had touched him. He wanted Murray to touch him again. With any other man, Conor would have made the first move— made it blatantly obvious that he was interested and available, thrown himself at the other guy, if that was what it took. But Murray’s curious oscillations between warmth and reticence intimidated him. For the first time in his life, Conor forced
The Temple of Skanda 33 himself to be patient—biding his time, instead of aggressively pursuing a man he liked. He began to think about Murray when he masturbated, alone in his bed late at night before he drifted off to sleep. In these drowsy fantasies, his bedroom door opened and Murray came into the room naked and got into bed with him. Wordlessly, the two of them embraced and kissed, and Conor imagined himself doing with Murray all the things he liked to do with other men. It was absurd to deny themselves like this. More than once, Conor was tempted to get out of bed, go down the hall, and knock on Murray’s door. I’m lonely and I’m horny, Murray, he could hear himself confessing, and I know you are, too. So why don’t we just do it? Why are we kidding ourselves, what are we waiting for? But always, inevitably, his courage failed him. One evening, Murray called him over to the desk and showed him a photo of a man on his PC. The guy was a tanned, outdoorsy type, very handsome in a slightly weathered sort of way, with—in this photo, at least—untidy dark blond hair, a pencil mustache, nice eyes, and a secretive, suggestive smile directed at the camera. “This is Spence. Thomas Spencer, actually, Spence is a nickname. He’s sort of an Internet buddy of mine,” Murray explained. “What do think of him?” Conor’s guard immediately went up when he heard the words Internet buddy. Some instinct warned him this guy could be a threat to him. “He looks kind of hot,” Conor said, a bit grudgingly. “Is he gay?” “Very, if you can believe half of what he tells me. I’ve never met him in person, but he sends me the most outrageous e-mail stories about gay life Down Under, and when he’s traveling. He’s an Australian. Lives in Darwin, on their north coast. Spence’s an anthropologist, specializes in world religions. He’s spent a lot of time in India. Speaks a few of the regional languages fluently. He and I have been talking about hooking up together the next time
34 Roland Graeme I make a buying trip. Spence would like to come along, to the village where the bronze collective’s located. Apparently there’s some sort of an obscure religious ritual that takes place there once a year and we could schedule the visit to coincide with that. Spence thinks my ‘in’ with the locals might be useful—getting them to open up to an outsider about their customs and beliefs, you see.” it.”
“It sounds perfect,” Conor said. “I think you ought to go for
“He’ll probably expect us to fool around a little. On a trip like this, when you’re with somebody, there’s a certain degree of unavoidable intimacy. Sharing sleeping quarters and so forth.” “Murray, you sound like you’re trying to talk yourself into something—or out of it. You like the guy, don’t you? What’s the worst that can happen—you get it on with him, and the two of you fall in love?” Murray laughed. “Me and Spence. Romantically involved. That’s hard to imagine.” He leaned back in his chair. “There’s another reason I brought this up. Do you have a passport?” “Yeah, but I think it’s due to expire soon.” “You should go down to the post office and renew it.” “Why? I mean—I thought a guy like me couldn’t get a passport, or leave the country. An ex-con,” Conor specified, feeling embarrassed. “That’s not true. I’ve already checked into it. It would only be a problem if you were still on probation or parole, or if—for example—you owed child support. I’m assuming you haven’t fathered any children you haven’t told me about.” “Let’s just say that would be highly unlikely. Miraculous, in fact.” Conor was more comfortable now that the conversation had veered back in the direction of homosexual innuendo, if only for a moment. “But why would I need a passport?” “You see, I was thinking…how’d you like to come along with me to India, on my next trip?”
The Temple of Skanda 35 “Are you kidding?” “I’m quite serious.” “I’d love it. How much would something like that cost, though?” “It wouldn’t cost you anything. Except for any little things you might want to buy while we’re there. Souvenirs and stuff. Since you’d officially be my assistant, as far as I’m concerned, I can write it off as a business expense. That’s one of my ulterior motives. There’s another. If I’m finally going to meet Spence and take him along…well, we might as well make a little group out of it. It might be less awkward if a third person was along.” Despite his excitement, Conor could read the subtext in what Murray had just said. “Isn’t what you’re really thinking—?” “Go on.” “—If you and this dude Spence don’t quite hit it off, he might be interested in me, instead?” “Something like that,” Murray admitted. “No offense, but you’re sort of his type.” “Trashy, you mean.” “I didn’t say that. Don’t put words in my mouth. I mean you’re young and good-looking, and unattached. And you’re smart, although for some reason you seem reluctant to let people know you are. Spence is an educated and sophisticated man, even though he tends to come across in his e-mails as a combination of a rugged outdoorsman and your stereotypical big city gay slut. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be interested in you— and I mean as a person, not just as a potential trick. You aren’t going to have many chances to meet men like Spence, living here in this small town. Sometimes I can’t help feeling that I’m holding you back, keeping you from meeting people and having experiences.” “You said unattached, a minute ago. You’re unattached, aren’t you?” “True.”
36 Roland Graeme “So let’s get this straight. If I go along on this trip, and this guy Spence and I end up fucking like minks, you’re not going to have any problem with that?” “None whatsoever. I’d probably encourage it. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a little fun for a change. Even though this is a business trip, I think it would be a good experience for you. India’s an incredible country. And I’d really enjoy having your company. There’s only one other thing I do have to warn you about. The accommodations aren’t going to be luxurious, and neither are the traveling conditions once we get outside the urban areas. You’re going to have to be willing to rough it. I’m used to that sort of thing, and of course Spence has to be, too, in his line of work.” Conor remembered what James had told him about the disastrous trip Murray and Derek had taken together. “You wouldn’t have to worry about me. I wouldn’t let you down.” Conor thought of something. “Who’s going to manage the place, with both of us gone?” “James will do just fine. I always post a note on the website, telling the customers there might be a slight delay in processing any orders. We’ll only be gone for a week to ten days. And it won’t be until November, to coincide with this religious festival. I’ve heard about it from the villagers, but I’ve never been there while it was taking place, so this’ll be a new experience for me, too. That gives us plenty of time to make all of the arrangements. “So it’s settled, then. You go down and get your passport renewal started tomorrow morning. Oh, you need an Indian visa, too, to enter the country, but you get that from one of the Indian consulates here. I can facilitate that. If I may be so immodest as to say so, I do have my connections. I’ll let Spence know the good news. Oh yeah, one other thing.” Murray grinned. “You’ll have to get some shots. Vaccines. Typhoid, and so on.” “Oh, fuck! I hate needles.” “If you’re going to be a world traveler, and rough it, then you’re going to have to suck it up. Maybe you can go back to see Dr. Mohatra for that when the time comes.” Murray paused.
The Temple of Skanda 37 “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t I take some pictures of you to send to Spence? He’s dying to know what you look like, after I’ve told him so much about you.” Conor still felt a lingering resentment toward this Internet buddy of Murray’s, and he couldn’t help wondering exactly what his employer had told this man about him. In the past, he wouldn’t have hesitated to send photos of himself—including nude photos, for that matter!—to some complete stranger he might happen to meet on the Internet, provided he liked the guy and thought something might come of their contact. But somehow this situation was different. Murray, however, seemed unusually animated, and Conor didn’t want to do anything that might change his good mood. “Oh, all right,” he said at last. Murray fetched the digital camera that they used to take photos of the merchandise for the website, and Conor dutifully posed—first standing in front of the fireplace, then sitting on the couch. He was sure his smile looked forced. He suddenly felt daring. “As long as we’re doing this, let’s give this Aussie buddy of yours something to think about.” Conor shed his shirt, then lay back on the couch in an indolent pose with his legs spread and one hand strategically cupped over his crotch. He savored the way Murray was looking at him, and this time, he suspected, his smile was suitably seductive. “Jesus, Conor. You do look kind of hot like that,” Murray admitted, as he took more pictures. “Why, thank you, kind sir.” Further emboldened, he leered at the camera while giving his left nipple a firm pinch with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, massaging his cock through his jeans with the palm of his right hand all the while. “All right,” he laughed, standing up and retrieving his shirt. “That’s all Mr. Spencer gets, for now.” “He’s going to go crazy when he sees these,” Murray predicted.
38 Roland Graeme Oh yeah? Conor wanted to say. And what about you? Just what would it take for me to drive you crazy? He made a mental note to himself to spend more time around the house shirtless. Maybe James had the right idea about how to entice Murray, after all! The preparations for the trip gave Conor something new to occupy his mind. And, inevitably, he and Murray spent a little more time together than usual—firming up their travel plans, and Murray telling Conor stories about his previous experiences in India. Conor phoned Dave to tell him his news. His friend’s reaction wasn’t quite what Conor had anticipated. “Man, I have got to hand it to you,” Dave said with a snicker. “You really know how to play ’em.” “What do you mean?” “This dude’s going to take you along on this trip, even though you haven’t had sex with him yet?” “That’s right.” “What’s wrong with him? Maybe he has erectile dysfunction, like all those guys in the TV commercials.” “Don’t be ridiculous,” Conor scoffed. “Imagine what you could get out of him if you did start putting out.” “We don’t have that kind of a relationship,” Conor protested, more than a little testily. “Oh yeah? He’s your sugar daddy, isn’t he? Your meal ticket?” “Cut it out, Dave. I work for him. I earn my keep.” “You could earn a hell of a lot more than just your keep, if you played your cards right.” It was useless to argue with Dave. Conor ended the conversation shortly thereafter. He felt almost angry after he hung up. He didn’t know why the opinion of a slacker like Dave should bother him, one way or another. But Dave’s glib assumption that
The Temple of Skanda 39 he was some sort of a potential gay gigolo, and that Murray was just another sucker, rankled. He did his best to put the conversation out of his mind, and concentrated on looking forward to the trip. On another warm, pleasant evening, however, when there was truly nothing that needed to be done around the property, Conor decided that he’d had enough of leading the life of a country gentleman. He drove into town, determined to find something to amuse himself, even if it killed him. He went to a movie in the town’s small, old-fashioned, rundown theater. The movie was a typical macho action adventure, banal and predictable. Its main attractions, for Conor, were the leading man’s frequently bared biceps and pecs. Still, Conor couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a movie in a theater, as opposed to on cable TV or via a DVD; the experience— sitting in the dark, eating buttered popcorn, watching the young heterosexual couples scattered about the auditorium making out—was oddly pleasurable. Afterward, he wandered the sidewalks. He went into a small, grungy bar, to check it out. As he drank his beer, Conor was sure he was the only gay man in the bar. Hell, by now, he was willing to bet that he and Murray were the only gay men within a twentymile radius! Bored, he left the bar, walked some more, and then sat down on a bus-stop bench. He enjoyed the cool night air. Nearby, he saw a motel with a garish neon sign. Across the street was a small coffee-and-donut shop. He’d only had one beer, but maybe it would be a good idea, just to be on the safe side, to have a coffee before he walked back to his car and drove home. He didn’t want to be stopped by some overzealous small-town cop looking for drivers under the influence. In the shop, he immediately noticed another customer, seated farther down at the counter, who stood out because he was overdressed for this town in his nicely tailored pinstriped
40 Roland Graeme business suit. The man had loosened his obviously expensive silk tie, though, and was relaxing over his own coffee and pastry. Conor realized, almost with a sense of shock, that the guy was cruising him. In a larger town, Conor would have accepted this as an everyday occurrence, but not here! There was no doubt about it. The dude was maintaining eye contact and had even risked a slight smile. Conor returned it. He’d wanted amusement; now he’d found it. Even if this turned out to be no more than a harmless, fleeting flirtation, it was a break in the routine. His admirer was in his early forties with black hair and blue eyes. He was nicely groomed with a handsome, clean-shaven face. The tailored suit might conceal a certain number of sins, but its wearer appeared to be in good shape. When the man lifted his coffee cup, Conor saw he was wearing a wedding ring. For Conor, the ring was no deterrent—quite the opposite. The married ones, looking for some fast, furtive action, were often among the hotter ones. This guy had a confidence about him that was encouraging. He didn’t look like the type who had to work past inhibitions first, who had to talk himself into going through with what he was contemplating. Instinct told Conor this man was not one of the locals. At last, the man nodded. “Hello.” “Hi.” “Do you live here?” “I do now.” “When I looked out the window a moment ago and saw you
sitting at the bus stop, I thought you might be trying to get out of town. Fast.” Conor laughed. “I’m not that bored. Not yet.” “What is there to do in this town at night?” “Not much. I take it you’re new in town?” “Just passing through. I’m here on business. I’m staying at the
The Temple of Skanda 41 motel across the street. Leaving first thing in the morning.” That was all the additional information Conor really needed to make up his mind. He decided to be the one to make the first physical move: he stood, picked up his coffee cup, and sat down again on the stool next to the other man. “Mind if I join you? I don’t like to shout across the room.” “Please do.” The waitress brought them more coffee. “This is good coffee,” the businessman said. “But I’m trying to decide if I want to go have a real drink before I go to bed. I saw a bar down the street?” “Oh, I just came from there. It was like death warmed over. Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.” The man smiled. “Thanks for the warning. My name’s Mark, by the way.” “I’m Conor.” They shook hands. Mark’s palm, for all his outward appearance of poise, was slightly damp. That, too, was encouraging. “How’d you like to come to my room for a nightcap? I’ve got a bottle of scotch in my suitcase. I always carry it for emergencies.” Conor hesitated—he hadn’t imagined that this would ever turn into that kind of an evening, and he’d lost track of the time. He looked at his wristwatch. “It’s getting kind of late. I really ought to be heading home soon.” “Why? Do you have somebody waiting for you?” “Not waiting for me, exactly. I do have—sort of a roommate,”
Conor half-lied. This was about the time that Murray usually went to bed. Conor had a key and knew the farmhouse’s security system keypad code, of course. Murray wasn’t likely to wait up for him like some anxious parent. “You have time for one drink,” Mark insisted. There was a slight tension in his body and voice. Conor assumed he was worried that Conor might get away.
42 Roland Graeme The waitress was at the far end of the counter talking to a customer. Mark put his hand on Conor’s knee and Conor didn’t pull away; he even returned Mark’s smile. Mark already looked a little more relaxed. Mark squeezed Conor’s thigh and Conor didn’t flinch. Mark leaned closer to whisper, “I’ll give you fifty bucks.” Conor looked down at the brown residue of coffee in his cup, delaying a few seconds to draw out Mark’s suspense and make certain the guy was hooked. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go.” Mark paid Conor’s check and tipped the waitress. They walked across the street. There was no traffic. The town was quiet. I’m going to have sex with a man again, Conor thought excitedly. At last! Jesus, how long has it been, anyway, since I was really in bed with a guy? Those times in the bathhouse really didn’t count. They were too much of a goddamn assembly line. I was just getting my rocks off like an animal. And this dude looks like he has a nice body. I can’t wait to get naked with him and mess around! Once they were inside the drab, anonymously furnished room, Mark took the little plastic bucket, excused himself, and went outside to the motel’s ice machine to get ice. While he was waiting, Conor sat down on the unmade bed. Mark returned and locked the door before producing a bottle of scotch and pouring the drinks into two of the motel’s plastic tumblers. “Just give me a small one,” Conor warned. “I’m not really much of a hard liquor drinker.” He knew, however, that a slug of the whiskey would be all that he needed to finish getting into the mood. The alcohol stung his tongue and warmed his stomach. “Let’s get comfortable,” Mark urged as they drank. He was in a hurry. Good. So was Conor. The two men
stripped. “Light on or off ?” Mark asked. “On.” Naked, Conor lay on his back on the motel’s white sheets.
The Temple of Skanda 43 Also naked, Mark got on top of him and began to kiss him. Conor returned the kiss, letting Mark probe inside his mouth with his tongue. They both tasted of scotch. Mark was really an attractive man, Conor decided, as he explored the man’s hardmuscled, lightly haired buttocks with his hands. “You show me a good time, and there’ll be a little extra in it for you,” Mark whispered into Conor’s ear, before he gave it a swab with his tongue. Conor had almost forgotten that he’d agreed to do this for money. Well, he wasn’t about to disillusion Mark by telling the man that he was perfectly willing to trick with him for free. If Mark was all hot and bothered by the thought that he was getting it on with a hardened pro, so much the better. He showed Mark a real good time. He sucked Mark’s cock, let Mark suck him, and let Mark play with his ass. He tried to hold back a little, to play the part that was expected of him without letting his emotions carry him away. But he could feel his passivity yielding to an increasing excitement. Mark’s finger inserted in his ass and working back and forth inside it, coaxed a moan of unfeigned arousal from his lips. “Yeah, finger me, man,” he invited the other man. “Finger my ass!” “Do you like to take it up the ass?” Mark asked. “A cock, I mean?” “Hell, yes. I take it and I love it. As long as you use a rubber.” “I’ve got a rubber.” Mark disentangled himself from Conor’s sweaty embrace long enough to get off the bed and fetch the condom and lube. He poured some more scotch into his glass and gulped it down. “Give me another one too, will you?” Conor asked. Now that he’d committed himself to an hour of debauchery with a stranger, he might as well go all the way. “Here.” Mark handed Conor his refreshed drink. While Conor sipped it, Mark stood beside the bed, putting on the rubber,
44 Roland Graeme lubricating himself. “Give me some of that lube.” Conor downed the rest of his scotch, then positioned himself on the bed on his hands and knees, pushing his ass back toward Mark. Mark applied more lubricant to his fingertips, then inserted them in Conor’s ass. “Oh, yeah,” Mark whispered. “You’ve got a tight, hot ass there, kid. I’m going to fuck it good and hard.” “Go ahead. Get that thing in me. Ream me out.” Mark knelt on the bed behind Conor and quickly forced his cock up Conor’s ass. “Fuck me, man. Fuck me like a cunt.” Mark was good at it, not rushing too much at first, establishing a steady rhythm of long, hard strokes that gave Conor a great deal of pleasure. Conor grasped his own prick and jerked himself while the man used him. “I want to try another position. Get on your back,” Mark gasped. “Sure.” Conor eased himself off the man’s erection and got into position, raising his legs and draping them over the other guy’s shoulders. In this position, Conor could masturbate more comfortably. Mark re-inserted himself, then grabbed Conor’s ankles and held on to them as he thrust. Mark was less controlled now; seeming too excited to exercise the restraint he’d shown before. “You’re a dirty little whore, aren’t you?” Mark demanded. “You bet I am. I’m a dirty little whore who likes to take cock up his ass. Fuck me. Fuck your dirty little whore!” “I’m going to come, you hot little red-haired bitch. You’re going to make me come!” Mark panted. Conor met the man’s gaze and grinned provocatively at him. “Go ahead!” “I want to do it like the guys do to each other in the porno movies. I want to come on your face.”
The Temple of Skanda 45 “Go ahead.” After all he was this man’s property, rented for the hour. “You don’t mind?” “I love it.” Mark eased himself out of Conor, tore off the condom and
tossed it aside. He jerked himself frantically. “I need more lube.” He applied it and jerked himself ever more savagely. Conor slithered into position, his face at Mark’s groin. “Don’t just shoot on my face. Shoot in my mouth.” He opened his mouth wide and stuck his tongue out. His eyes stared up wantonly at Mark’s, inciting him. He masturbated himself frenziedly, imitating Mark’s own violent self-abuse. His whorish display of willingness pushed Mark over the edge, as he’d intended it to do. Mark shot, spraying his come helplessly onto Conor’s tongue, lips, cheeks, and goatee. “Oh my God,” Mark grunted. “Oh, fuck!” Mark was still trying to catch his breath as Conor swiped a handful of the come from his face and used it as extra lubricant on his own cock. Conor came quickly, wetting the sheet with a puddle of semen. Conor went into the bathroom and avoided his reflection in the brightly lit mirror above the sink as he grabbed a clean washcloth, wet it under the faucet, and quickly cleaned his face, crotch, and butt. The salty flavor of Mark’s semen that lingered on his tongue didn’t bother him, but he rinsed his mouth out anyway. Back in the main room, he got dressed. Mark took his wallet from his suit jacket and handed Conor two twenties and a ten. He pulled out an additional twenty. “Here.” “Thanks.” “I may be coming through this way again, soon. Can I have your phone number?” “Sure.” Conor wrote his cell phone number down for Mark on the top sheet of the motel’s pad of stationery. He doubted
46 Roland Graeme he’d ever see Mark again, but giving the guy his number was a professional courtesy, and helped to get him out of the room without awkward delays. He was surprised when Mark, still naked and dripping jism from the head of his dick, gave him a goodnight hug and kiss on the mouth at the door. Most johns wouldn’t bother to do that as they dismissed a cheap, fifty-dollar hustler whom they’d just fucked up the ass and sprayed on the face. Mark, apparently, was the romantic type. He was probably very considerate toward his wife. Conor walked to his car. He sat in it for a moment before turning on the ignition, taking a quick personal inventory. He felt tired, but the small amount of alcohol he’d consumed didn’t seem to have impaired him. He was okay to drive. He drove back to the farm, trying not to think. The house was dark, except for a light in the living room; Murray had also left the porch light on for him. In the house, Conor turned off the porch light and reset the security system, then slipped off his shoes. He didn’t go upstairs right away. He sat down, and looked around the living room—at the worn furniture, at Murray’s desk, at the statues. Whore! He castigated himself. Dirty, stinking whore! He didn’t know why he was beating up on himself. Mark had been decent. More than decent, actually. He was just another horny married man, cheating on his presumably unsuspecting spouse. Conor was in no position to pass judgment on him. It had been a business transaction, with neither man entering into it with any illusions, or leaving it with any disappointed expectations. The sex, in fact, had been kind of hot. Porno DVD hot, just like Mark had wanted. Conor turned off the living room lamp and padded up the stairs in his stocking feet. One of the steps, he knew, creaked. He avoided it, making a mental note to fix the step the next time he was working around the house. He stole past Murray’s closed bedroom door. In his own
The Temple of Skanda 47 room, he stripped and went to bed. He made sure his alarm was set. Whore, he thought. Murray deserves better. He had stuffed Mark’s money in the pocket of his discarded pants. Conor would spend it as soon as possible on something frivolous—the quickest way to exorcise the demon. In the morning, Murray was already at the kitchen table when Conor came down. The two men exchanged nods and smiles, as Conor started making his own breakfast. Murray had eaten and lingered over his coffee. “I got in a little late last night,” Conor confessed. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.” “No, you didn’t. But now that you mention it—” Murray hesitated. “I’ve been trying to think of a diplomatic way of saying this. Listen, if you ever want to have some company in your room, overnight, well—feel free to do so. This isn’t a monastery. Even though it does seem like it, sometimes, from my point of view!” Conor couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just said, “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” “You can entertain a guest downstairs, too. Within reason. So long as you don’t do anything that’ll bring the cop cars pulling into the driveway.” Murray caught himself. “That was supposed to be a joke,” he added. “I’m sorry. It was a stupid one.” “Don’t be. I know it was a joke.” “The warehouse is off limits to outsiders, of course. That goes without saying. Otherwise—well, we’re pretty informal around here.” “I understand.” “You live here, now. I expect you to have some sort of a
personal life.” Conor returned Murray’s smile. “I’d better get to work.” It was as though talking about sex, however obliquely, made
Murray still more comfortable around Conor.
48 Roland Graeme “Hey, Conor,” he yelled from upstairs, one evening when Conor was sitting in the living room, reading a book about Indian bronze sculptures of the Chola era. “Yeah, what?” “Tell me something. Be honest. Would it bother you if I ran around inside the house like this?” “Like what?” “Like this.” This turned out to be Murray descending the stairs, barefoot and bare-chested, with a skirt wrapped around his waist and tied in a knot at one hip. The cloth was thin cotton, maroon, with a pattern of yellow crosses all over it; the bottom hem fell around Murray’s ankles. “What the hell is that?” “It’s called a lunghee. Men wear them in some parts of India in really hot weather. They’re extremely comfortable; it’s almost like not wearing anything at all. The little yellow things on this one are supposed to be stars, by the way. This particular number was hand-loomed by a tribe in the Orissa region of India, I’ll have you know.” “Very chic. I assume you’re not wearing any underwear under it, are you?” “Nope. I’m going commando.” “Why do you think it would bother me?” “I wouldn’t want you to think I was trying to put the make on you, or something.” “Listen, boss, if you ever decide you want to put the make on me, you won’t have to go to that much trouble. All you have to do is come up to me and say, ‘Hey, are you as horny as I am? Do you want to fuck?’ And I promise you, you’ll get a simple answer, either yes or no.” Probably yes, Conor added, in an unspoken afterthought. “I’ll keep that in mind.” “Oh, and I expect this to be a two-way street, Murray. I assume
The Temple of Skanda 49 you don’t care if I walk around in my boxer shorts?” “Go ahead and wear your boxers. Or less. So we’re agreed, then? As far as the two of us are concerned, inside the house is now a clothing-optional zone?” “Agreed.”
ChapTeR fouR: an anniveRSaRy CelebRaTion Conor began to take advantage of the clothing-optional policy. One afternoon he took a break and went for a jog. Returning lathered with sweat, he entered the house through the back door and headed directly to the laundry room. “I’m back,” he called out, as he kicked off his running shoes, then peeled off his T-shirt and ankle socks, adding them to the pile of dirty laundry next to the washer. “Did you have a good run?” he heard Murray respond from the living room, where he was no doubt seated at his desk. “Yes. I’m going to have some juice. Do you want anything?” “Maybe a coffee.” “With milk?” That was how Murray usually took it. “Yes, please.” In the kitchen, Conor poured out a glass of juice, then sipped
it while he fumbled with the coffee machine. He felt hot and pleasantly fatigued after his run. When the coffee was ready, he had a sudden inspiration. He added his shorts and jockstrap to the pile of laundry; then, carrying his juice in one hand and Murray’s coffee mug in the other, he went into the living room— totally nude. “Hi!” he said brightly. “I’m Conor, and I’ll be your waiter this afternoon. Would you like to hear about our specials?” Murray nearly fell out of his chair. “Remind me to leave you an extra-large tip,” he laughed. “To go with all the other extra-large items that appear to be on the menu.” Conor handed him the mug. “Did you have a chance to look at that lighting fixture catalogue?”
52 Roland Graeme “Yes.” The catalogue was on Murray’s desk. They had discussed the possibility of replacing the old, badly corroded front porch light with something more stylish. “I like this brass one. What do you think?” Conor moved closer to the desk to see which item in the catalogue Murray was looking at. “Yes, I like that one, too.” “I’ll tell James to go ahead and order it.” Murray looked up from the catalogue, and made no effort to disguise the fact that he was now looking at Conor’s naked body. “Damn it. You don’t have any excess body fat at all, do you?” he asked. “Oh, I don’t know. I bet you could find some here and there, if you pinched me.” Conor raised one arm and looked down at his ribcage. “Here, for example,” he suggested, indicating a spot just above his hip. “Go ahead,” he invited. Murray reached out as though mesmerized and pinched him. “I can’t get much of a grip on you,” he reported. “Pinch harder.” It was at that moment, of course, that James, who had come in through the back door without being heard, walked in on them. “Murray, I’ve got this customer online who—oh, Jesus fucking Christ!” James blurted out. He turned to flee. “Oh, don’t go, James.” Murray had a deadpan look on his face that Conor was unable to emulate. “You’re not interrupting anything.” “No,” Conor said airily. “I was just bringing Murray his coffee. Hot and strong—just the way he likes it.” Conor stood there and sipped his juice, as nonchalantly as though he was clothed to the stifling point, while a flustered James discussed business with Murray. Then James retreated the same way he had come—rapidly. They waited until they were sure James was outside, on his way back to the warehouse and out of earshot, before they both whooped with laughter at his expense, like a couple of naughty schoolboys.
The Temple of Skanda 53 “Did you see the look on his face?” Conor asked. “Did you see what he was looking at? He was checking out your dick. I’m afraid we may have a closet case on our hands.” “Oh, not necessarily, Murray. I’m used to having all sorts of guys—including supposedly straight guys—checking out my dick,” Conor boasted. Murray snickered. “Really? You poor thing. Being hung like that must be a real burden for you.” “It all depends on how you take it, boss,” Conor retorted. “Some guys can handle it more easily than others.” Murray groaned. “I’d better go upstairs and take my shower,” Conor said. “And put some clothes on.” “Yes, I think I’ve just had all the excitement I can handle, for one day.” Conor took his sweet time going up the staircase. He didn’t have to glance back over his shoulder to know that Murray was observing his every move, checking out his bare butt. Oh yeah! Conor gloated, as he soaped himself under the hot spray. The boss man liked what he saw, all right! He liked it a lot! A few days later, before Conor had an opportunity to tease him again, Murray announced that he was going out of town on business. He would drive; he planned to leave on Friday morning and would be back sometime on Sunday night—or Monday—at the latest. “James will be here Saturday morning, in case you need anything. Otherwise you’ll be on your own. I’ll make sure I do the grocery shopping before I leave. Then you’ll be all set for the weekend. If you should happen to get a phone call from a customer, I mean if you pick it up before it goes to the answering machine—well, you know how to handle that. And of course I’ll write down where I can be reached.” Murray was so matter of fact about the whole thing that it wasn’t until Friday afternoon that it dawned on Conor that he was alone in the house. Murray had, for all practical purposes, left him in charge. Murray trusted him.
54 Roland Graeme He busied himself with such chores as tidying up the bedrooms and bathrooms. Murray’s bedroom, as usual, was a chaos of unmade bed and clothes strewn about the floor. As Conor gathered them up, he thought about doing a load of laundry, but decided it would make more sense to wait until Murray returned from his trip, when Conor could do Murray’s things along with his own. He caught himself smiling at the accessory-bedecked statue of Ganesh—and frowning at the photo of Murray and Derek. Murray looked so happy in the photo, so carefree. Had Conor ever seen him look quite that relaxed? He found himself getting slightly bored and restless. It was going to be odd, not having Murray there at night. To divert himself, he consulted his list of things to do in preparation for their trip. Renew passport. Check. Apply for visa. Check. Apply for international driver’s permit. Check. Call Dr. Mohatra for appointment. Okay, he’d been putting that off. He did hate getting shots. He still had her business card in his wallet. He used his cell phone. The receptionist put him through right away. “Conor! It’s so good to hear from you. How’s the ankle?” Conor laughed. “I’m jogging on it! Still no dancing, though. Out here in the boondocks, I guess it would have to be square dancing, or country line dancing, anyway.” “I spoke to Murray, what, about a month ago? He told me how well you were doing. How well everything has turned out, as far as he’s concerned.” Murray had never mentioned that. “That’s one reason why I called. I never thanked you for suggesting me to Murray in the first place. I’m really grateful.” “It’s nice of you to say so, but you don’t owe me anything. If it’s worked out for you, it’s because you’ve earned it. You sound happy.” “I am happy. I like it here.”
The Temple of Skanda 55 “I’m so glad.” “I had another reason to call you. I want to make an appointment. I have to get my vaccinations updated. Because—” Conor couldn’t resist drawing out the suspense, for just a moment. “—Murray’s taking me along with him to India, the next time he goes!” The doctor’s excitement matched his own. They talked about the upcoming trip, at length. Finally, not wanting to take up too much of the doctor’s time, Conor made his appointment. “We’ll talk more when I see you,” Dr. Mohatra promised. “I am truly happy for you, Conor. Is Murray there, by the way?” “I forgot to tell you. He went out of town for the weekend. He’ll be back maybe Sunday night, Monday morning for sure.” “I’ll have to call him next week to catch up. In the meantime, give him my love when he gets home.” “I will.” “Tell him I’ve been thinking about him. What a shame there won’t be a party, this year.” Party? What party? Conor was caught off guard; some instinct, and something in the rueful tone of Dr. Mohatra’s voice, kept him from asking the question out loud. “Yes, isn’t it?” he said, automatically. “I’ll see you in two weeks, then. Take care, dear.” After Dr. Mohatra hung up, Conor speculated. Maybe it was a birthday party. He didn’t know when Murray’s birthday was; he’d have to find out. But why wouldn’t Murray be celebrating his own birthday this year? The doctor must have been referring to Derek’s birthday. That made more sense. He had a reliable source of information. The next day, he pumped James, immediately upon the boy’s arrival for his Saturday morning stint. “What’s all this about there being no party this year?”
56 Roland Graeme “Oh, shit. What’s today’s date? That’s right. Next weekend. I forgot all about it. Who told you? Murray?” “No, Dr. Mohatra. The lady who got me the job.” “Oh yeah. I’ve met her. She’s cool.” “Come on, spill.” James sighed. “Murray and Derek used to celebrate the anniversary of the day they met with a big party every year. I thought it was kind of sweet. They didn’t necessarily do it on the actual date; it was usually on the Saturday night closest to the date. This year, the anniversary would be this Friday, coming up, and so the party would’ve been on Saturday. “It was always quite a bash. Derek was good at that sort of thing. He’d have a tent put up outside, have the food catered, the whole nine yards. Their friends would come in from out of town, some of them would stay in motels, others would spend the night in the house. There’d be a dinner party. Diane and I were always invited to that. Murray and Derek would give each other their presents in front of everybody, and kiss, and have a champagne toast, and we’d all applaud. What can I say—they were a gay couple, you know? And then, later, there’d be an open house, with some of the neighbors and people from town invited over just for drinks and dessert. People did look forward to it; it was fun. “I remember Dr. Mohatra was here the last two or three years in a row. You should have seen her last year. She wore this blue silk sari with pictures of, like, gods and goddesses embroidered all over it, and all of that fancy Indian jewelry with real gemstones. She looked like a million bucks.” “I would have liked to have seen that.” “I wouldn’t say anything, O’Malley, to Murray—about the anniversary or the party, I mean. Unless he brings it up, which I doubt he will.” “Maybe by the time next weekend rolls around, the date will have slipped his mind, and he won’t even think about it.” “Yeah, that’s real likely to happen,” James scoffed. “If you
The Temple of Skanda 57 really want Murray to develop amnesia, maybe you should keep running around the house in the nude. That ought to distract him.” “Yeah, it had quite an effect on you, as I recall,” Conor laughed. “Freaking exhibitionist.” After James left, Conor began to feel oddly nervous. The silence in the house and the absence of Murray’s familiar presence were getting to him. He was honest enough with himself to admit that part of the problem was that he was horny. As the afternoon dragged on and merged imperceptibly into evening, Conor thought about simply treating himself to a more prolonged and energetic solo sex session than usual before he went to bed. Instinctively, however, he knew that wasn’t going to quite do it for him. Not tonight, except as a last resort. When he’d told some of his friends who lived in the city that he was moving out here, they’d mentioned a truck stop, about six miles from the town, that was supposedly notorious as a pickup spot. Conor had not yet deigned to check the place out. Tonight, though, he was reckless enough to try anything. He changed clothes, trying to make himself look like the kind of man he hoped to attract: well-worn, tight jeans, torn at the knees; scuffed, dirty work boots; a torso-hugging T-shirt. As a final touch he selected a navy blue bandana from his dresser drawer, folded it carefully, and inserted in his right rear jeans pocket, as a not-so-subtle coded advertisement. According to the traditional gay hanky code, this meant that he liked to get fucked—which Conor hoped would happen before the night was over. He drove to the truck stop. Judging from the amount of activity taking place in the parking lot and around the gas pumps, it seemed to be a popular place. There was a diner, open 24/7, cheap but reasonably clean and maintained. Conor checked out the men’s room first. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, it was in an isolated part of the building. The stalls,
58 Roland Graeme predictably, were adorned with obscene homoerotic graffiti, and the partition between two of them was pierced by a large glory hole. There was a faint smell of urine. Conor couldn’t really imagine having sex in this john; the atmosphere was hardly conducive to the kind of physical intimacy that he craved. It would have to be a quickie at best. He went into the diner. The menu declared that breakfast was served any time, so he ordered coffee, pancakes, and sausage. The majority of the customers at this time of night were men, but none of them were—at least to Conor’s practiced eye—obviously gay. He was beginning to think that he might as well resign himself to going home and pleasuring himself, after all, when a likely prospect came in, sat at the counter near him, and ordered coffee. This guy wasn’t the gay fantasy stereotype of a trucker: thickset, muscle bound, tattooed, exaggeratedly butch. He was short and slightly built. He was dressed not unlike Conor: old, stained jeans, work boots, a T-shirt that had obviously seen much laundering—and, over the T-shirt, a faded checked flannel shirt, unbuttoned completely in the front and not tucked in at the waist, so that it swung freely around the man’s wiry torso and lean hips. The man had a nice face, not conventionally handsome, but with an animation about it that Conor found appealing. He needed a shave, but the dark stubble looked good on him. When he took off his baseball cap and set it down on the counter, he exposed a full head of curly brown hair, overdue for a haircut. Most promising of all, the guy was wearing a bandana in his left back pocket—an orange one, no less, indicating that he was, theoretically, willing to do almost anything. It was the kind of claim that, in Conor’s past experience, often turned out to be false advertising; still, an orange hanky was unusual enough to be highly provocative, especially in the horny, adventurous mood Conor found himself in tonight. As he drank his coffee, the man looked around the diner, saw Conor, noticed Conor’s bandana—and immediately made eye contact. Bingo! Conor thought.
The Temple of Skanda 59 There was no point in being subtle. Conor didn’t want this one to get away. He had finished eating. Instead of reaching for a paper napkin from the nearby dispenser, he pulled his hanky from his pocket, and slowly and deliberately wiped his mouth with it, maintaining eye contact with the other man the entire time. Conor smiled mock-casually, mock-innocently, at the guy as he stuffed the hanky back in his pocket. The man returned his smile. He responded to Conor’s little pantomime with one of his own: he swiveled his stool slightly, giving Conor a better look at his orange hanky—and his ass. Then he jerked his head, ever so slightly, in the direction of the door, with a raised eyebrow and an inquiring look on his face. Conor gave him an almost imperceptible nod. Conor picked up his check, stood up, and went over to pay at the cash register. The other man put down his empty coffee cup, picked up his check and his cap, and moved to stand behind Conor, waiting for his turn to pay. Conor lingered, making a small production out of putting his change in his wallet, and replacing it in his jeans. As a result, the two of them walked out of the diner more or less together; Conor held the door open for the man. Outside, standing on the sidewalk, the man silently offered Conor a pack of cigarettes. “No thanks, I don’t smoke.” The other guy nodded, put a cigarette in his own mouth and
lit it. “I haven’t seen you around here, before,” he finally said. There was the faintest hint of a redneck drawl in his voice. “It’s my first time here.”
“You can usually find some hot action around here, if you
hang around long enough.” “That’s what I heard.” “That hanky of yours—is the color written in stone?” Conor understood what the man meant by the mixed
60 Roland Graeme metaphor. “I guess I’m kind of versatile,” he boasted. “Openminded—you know?” The man nodded, then gestured toward the parking lot. “That’s my rig, over there—the last one on the right.” “It’s a nice one. I like those shiny chrome exhaust stacks, man.” “I’ve been on the road all day. I was just starting to think about finding a motel room for the night. There’s a cheap little motel about eight, ten miles down the road. I’ve stayed there before. It’s a hole, but the rooms have a bed, and a bathroom with a shower. That’s really all you need.” The trucker grinned at Conor. “Well, maybe that’s not all a guy needs, when he’s in the mood for some down and dirty kind of action. How’d you like to follow me there so we can fuck around a little?” “I can do you one better. I live only about six miles from here. You can spend the night at my place if you want. Save yourself the cost of that motel room.” “Is there a safe place I can park my truck?” “Absolutely. A long driveway, off the main road.” The trucker took a final drag on his cigarette and flicked it away. “Where’re you parked? I’ll follow you.” At the farm, the trucker parked his rig behind Conor’s car and Conor led his guest inside. “You want a drink?” “Sure.”
“Let’s go in the kitchen.”
Conor remembered the unopened bottles of hard liquor in
one of the kitchen cabinets. He offered his trick a choice of beer or something stronger, showing him the bottles. “Beer.” The other man sat down at the kitchen table. “But how about a couple of shots of that whiskey first?” “Good idea.” Conor found two shot glasses, opened a bottle of whiskey, and filled them. They downed the shots, then drank their beers straight from
The Temple of Skanda 61 the bottles. “Do you mind if I smoke?” “No, but I’ll have to find you an ashtray.” Conor put a saucer on the table, then took two more beers out of the refrigerator, and refilled the shot glasses. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I never got around to introducing myself. I’m Conor.” “Randolph. No offense, but I don’t like to be called Randy.” “I’ll remember.” Randolph leaned back in his chair, enjoying his cigarette and his beer. “This is a nice place. You own it?” “Yes,” Conor lied, to keep things simple. “You live here alone?” “With my lover.” Another lie, only because it might seem odd to Randolph that anyone had such a large house all to himself. “He’s out of town for the weekend.” A truth, at last. “What’s with the barn? It looks brand new.” “Oh, it’s just been renovated on the outside, that’s all. My boyfriend runs a little antique business out of it. He sells used furniture and junk like that.” A combination of semi-truth and lies. But Conor was getting impatient, and tired of questions and answers. He hadn’t invited this guy here for conversation, after all. “Let’s go upstairs and fuck,” he urged. Randolph grinned at him. “Sounds good to me.” He crushed his cigarette out in the saucer, then picked up the whiskey bottle. “Mind if we take this with us?” “No, go ahead.” Upstairs, in Conor’s bedroom, the two men stripped. Randolph took a swig of whiskey directly from the bottle, then handed the bottle to Conor, who also drank from it. Conor was beginning to get a buzz. “What you want to do?” Randolph asked. “You’re the one with the orange hanky. You tell me.”
62 Roland Graeme “I’d like to get a little crazy.” “Yeah?” “I want to be your sex slave. I want you to top me. Work me over, really good.” “Really?” “Have you ever gotten into that kind of scene with another guy?” “Sure,” Conor admitted. “You’re going to have to suck me a little first, to get me in the mood. Come on, cocksucker. Get down on your knees and get busy, if you want to be a slave so fucking bad.” He stood naked beside his bed, his feet on the smooth wooden floorboards. Randolph, also naked, knelt in front of him, and jerked on his own turgid cock while he eagerly licked and sucked Conor’s. “You’re a dirty, nasty little sex pig, aren’t you?” Conor diagnosed—correctly, judging by Randolph’s eager moan of assent. “Yeah, I’m a pig. I’m the kind of pig a stud like you can do anything he wants to. Give me your big, fat cock!” the trucker begged. “I want to suck it some more!” “You’re going to get it,” Conor promised. “You’re going to get it, not just in your mouth, not just down your throat, but right up your ass. But you’re going to have to earn that. Suck my dick. Get it all in your mouth, you sick motherfucker. Take it all. Choke on it!” He was just drunk enough to have no compunctions about giving Randolph what he wanted. He “forced” the willing Randolph to deep-throat his cock, to lick his balls, to take them inside his mouth and suckle them. After Randolph, gasping for breath, had released his testicles, Conor turned around, bent over the edge of his bed, pressed his hands against the mattress to support himself, and pushed his buttocks back against the other man’s face. “Suck my ass!” he barked.
The Temple of Skanda 63 When he had treated himself to enough of the expert rimming—for now—he turned to face Randolph again. “Stay down there on your knees. Don’t touch me,” Conor warned. “Don’t touch me, don’t you dare touch my dick, until I give you permission to do so. I’m going to slap your face with my fucking hard-on. Jerk yourself, you horny bastard. Jerk yourself off. You want to feel this big dick slapping against your face?” “Yes,” Randolph hissed, a rasp of desperation in his voice. “God, yes!” “You’re going to feel it.” Conor closed his eyes. He reached down blindly and rested his left hand on Randolph’s right shoulder, bracing himself. “Don’t touch me,” he repeated. “Don’t you dare disobey me, you lousy little slave—!” He could feel his prick sagging and swaying out in front of him, as it lost some of its stiffness. He concentrated on the growing feeling of fullness in his bladder, a combination of the beer and whiskey he’d drunk, mounting sexual tension, and perverse delight in what the two of them were doing. “Open your mouth,” he panted. He kept his eyes closed; he knew damn well that Randolph had opened his mouth wide in lewd expectation, only inches away from his cock head. Conor began to use his left palm to slap his cock against Randolph’s cheek, letting his meat bounce back after each impact. Randolph let out a muffled, urgent cry of excitement—and gratitude. Conor bitch-slapped the trucker’s face with his prick, hard enough to experience some discomfort, himself. “Thank me for it,” Conor coached. “Thank me for letting you feel my dick on your ugly face, slave!” “Thank you, Sir. Oh, thank you!” “I guess you can suck it now,” Conor deigned to say. Instantaneously, Randolph’s lips closed loosely around the head and the upper shaft of Conor’s semi-flaccid penis, creating just enough of a seal to exert a firm, yet flexible, pressure. Randolph gulped it all down, until Conor’s cock head was lodged in his throat and he gagged noisily on its bulk. Undeterred by the
64 Roland Graeme risk he was running of choking on cock, Randolph compressed his lips more firmly around Conor’s manhood and began to suck him again, quickly coaxing him back to full erection. “That’s a good boy,” Conor moaned. “Oh, that’s a good slave!” Randolph turned out to be even kinkier than Conor had anticipated. When he had had enough of the trucker’s expert cocksucking, at least for the time being, he pulled his throbbing prick out of the other man’s panting, slavering mouth, and asked Randolph what he wanted done to him next. Randolph picked up one of his discarded boots, pulled the bootlace from its eyelets, and invited Conor to use the lace to tie his wrists together behind his back. Once he was restrained, Randolph wanted Conor to slap him around a little, to verbally abuse him, to “force” Randolph to lick his armpits, his asshole, his feet. Finally, when he could no longer contain his excitement, Conor pushed Randolph down on the bed on his belly, put on a condom, slicked it up with a minimal amount of lube—he wanted Randolph to feel some friction—stretched out comfortably on top of his “prisoner,” whose wrists were still tied together at the small of his back, and fucked him, long and hot and hard and unsparingly. Conor, too, “got a little crazy” with his willing trick. Even though, for the duration of their tryst, Conor was the top and Randolph was the bottom, Conor knew exactly how the other man felt. Conor wanted to do to Murray what Randolph was doing to him. I want to be Murray’s sex slave, he thought. I want to be his bitch. I want him to just take me and use me, over and over again, all night long—! Oh, damn, this is so fucking hot! He made Randolph beg for his cock, made him specify how he wanted to be abused. Conor had to admit that the little fucker knew how to take punishment. After they’d both ejaculated, twice, Conor untied Randolph’s wrists. Randolph gave him a tongue bath, and the two men finally settled down on the bed and fell asleep, locked together in a clumsy, sweaty embrace.
The Temple of Skanda 65 In the morning, when they both woke up with piss hards, they played together some more. This time, Conor actually had a chance to suck Randolph’s cock, as they sixty-nined on the rumpled bed. Randolph wanted to be verbally abused and slapped around again; he wanted to be tied up again; he wanted to be fucked. He was insatiable. It was Conor, in fact, who finally called a firm halt, pleading exhaustion. They took turns showering, got dressed, and Conor made them breakfast. They sat in the kitchen and made small talk, as Randolph smoked. They exchanged phone numbers, although Randolph warned Conor that it might be several weeks, or even months, before he would be driving through the area again. Conor, despite his physical fatigue, was rather sorry to see Randolph go. The trucker was a working-class guy, like Conor, who put on no airs and who certainly made no secret of his sexual predilections. There was an unapologetic element in Randolph’s lust that Conor found refreshing. It was the kind of sex that he’d always enjoyed whenever he’d found it while living in the city, and he realized, now, just how much he missed it here in the country. During the afternoon, Conor took a nap to recuperate. When Murray came home, late that Sunday night, Conor couldn’t help himself: he ran out of the house to meet him, ostensibly to offer to carry Murray’s bag inside. “How was your trip?” Conor asked. “Everything went fine. How’d you make out, here?” “Just fine, too. No problems. I missed you,” Conor blurted out. “Did you?” Murray gave him a quick hug. “Well, I’m back… and I’m starving. I’m going to make myself a sandwich before I go to bed.” Conor followed Murray into the kitchen. Murray began to assemble the components of a sandwich on the kitchen countertop. “When did you start smoking, Conor?”
66 Roland Graeme “What? Oh, yeah.” Conor had forgotten about Randolph’s cigarette butts in the saucer; he’d put it on the kitchen countertop by the sink, intending to wash the saucer the next time he did dishes. “That’s not mine. I had somebody here last night.” “Oh? Good for you.” But was there the faintest hint of— what, envy, possibly even jealousy—in Murray’s facial expression? “Was he nice?” “Very.” Conor didn’t volunteer any details. “You did tell me that sort of thing was okay, didn’t you?” “Of course. Do you think you and this guy could get serious?” “Oh, no,” Conor said quickly. “It was just sex. It didn’t mean anything.” Murray looked at him a bit quizzically. “You sound kind of cynical, Conor. Don’t underestimate the value of ‘just sex.’ I’m not sure such a thing even exists. Everything we do—every choice we make—surely means something.” Conor was ready to change the subject. “What about you? Did you meet anybody nice on your trip?” Murray laughed. “It wasn’t that kind of Unfortunately.”
The next workweek passed without incident. Summer had drawn to its close; there was a chill in the air most nights, and once or twice during the daytime. On Friday, though—the date Conor had made a note of, on his mental calendar—Murray did seem distracted. He spent much of his time at his desk in the house, shuffling through papers, setting some of them aside to throw out. When Conor asked him a question, Murray didn’t seem to hear him. Conor repeated the question. Murray responded, but was rather short. Murray immediately apologized. “Don’t pay any attention to me. I have something on my mind, that’s all.” “Sure.” Conor was certain he knew exactly what was on
The Temple of Skanda 67 Murray’s mind. He hesitated. “Uh—can I do anything for you? To help out?” “No, thanks. Come to think of it—why don’t you knock off early, today? You’ve been working really hard lately. Why don’t you go into town and have yourself some fun for a change?” “All right. Why don’t you come with me?” “No, you run along. I want to sort through all this crap on my desk, and in my old files.” Murray, Conor sensed, wanted some time alone. Well, Conor would have to respect that. Give the guy his space. He went into town, but found little to divert himself. He bought some toiletries and other items he needed at a drugstore, and had pasta in a Mom and Pop combination of Italian restaurant and pizza parlor. Nobody seemed to be on the prowl, looking for a male prostitute, or a freebie. No one was wearing an orange hanky. Bored, he returned to the farm. When he walked into the living room he noticed three cardboard cartons filled to overflowing with papers on the floor beside Murray’s desk. Murray was nowhere to be seen, but Conor suddenly heard a series of thumps and thuds, coming from somewhere on the second floor. “Murray—?” Conor called, from the foot of the stairs. “I’m back.” “I’m coming down.” A moment later, Murray appeared on the landing, carrying a large and evidently heavy box. “Can I help you?” Conor asked. “You can put this with those others over there, if you want to. Thanks.” Conor took the box from Murray and deposited it beside the desk. “What are you doing?” “Going through some of the junk packed away in the spare rooms up there, now that I’ve finished doing the same at my desk. It’s incredible, the amount of stuff you can accumulate over the years. It’s funny, but I never bothered to invest in a paper
68 Roland Graeme shredder. I usually burn things like this in the fireplace. But this is quite a lot, and there’ll probably be more tomorrow. Maybe you can haul it all outside and burn it for me then. There’s an old steel drum in one of the sheds that I’ve burned things in before.” “Sure.” “Did you have a good time, in town? I didn’t think you’d be home so early.” “I’d probably have had a better time if I’d stayed here and helped you sort through the junk.” Murray laughed. He seemed in a good mood. “Turn on the TV. There must be something worth watching before we go to bed.” In the morning, Conor was up, had breakfast, and went to the barn before Murray came downstairs. He had almost forgotten about Murray and Derek’s anniversary until James mentioned it. “How’s the boss man doing?” “All right, I guess. He slept in this morning, for a change.” James glanced up from his computer. “You haven’t seen him?” “Not since last night, when we went to bed. Separately, in case you were wondering, smartass. Why?” “You don’t think he tried to off himself, or something?” “Don’t be ridiculous. Over Derek?” “Well, you know how melodramatic you gay guys can be.” Conor thought for a moment, then went to one of the windows and looked out toward the house. “Okay, his bedroom curtains were closed this morning when I left the house. Now they’re open.” “Maybe he wanted to see what he was doing, while he offed himself. He might be doing it right now, even as we speak. You’d better run up there and check on him. I can see you breaking down the bedroom door, taking Murray in your arms, and begging him, ‘Don’t leave me, baby, don’t leave me, you know I love you! If
The Temple of Skanda 69 you die, I want to die, too!’” James broke down into giggles. “You asshole.” Nevertheless, Conor was relieved when, about half an hour later, the phone on James’ desk rang. “It’s Murray,” James reported. He covered the mouthpiece with his palm. “I guess the reports of his suicide were exaggerated.” “Asshole. Keep your voice down.” “He wants to knows if you’re about ready to take a break, and if you’re hungry. He’s making lunch.” “Okay.” “Conor will be delighted to join you,” James said. “Oh, no thanks, Murray, I’m about ready to head out of here.” He hung up. “Murray asked me if I wanted to join you two. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t pass up a free meal, but I figured you and the boss could use some more quality time together. Maybe this’ll be the day romance finally blossoms across the kitchen table.” “Bitch. Are you sure you’re not gay?” James laughed. “I’m out of here. Enjoy your lunch date!” James left, and Conor joined Murray in the kitchen. Murray, Conor noticed, had a growth of dark beard stubble. It wasn’t unusual for him not to shave on a weekend if no potential customers had appointments; but on this occasion he looked particularly unkempt. He had on the kind of clothes he often wore around the house—jeans, sweatshirt, and moccasins without socks; but the shirt and pants were powdered with dust in spots. Lunch was salad and sandwiches, but Murray had gone to considerable effort. The salad was an elaborate Caesar affair, and the sandwiches were smoked turkey and Swiss cheese, with Dijon mustard and sun dried tomatoes, on thick slices of bread. Murray opened a bottle of red wine. That was unusual; Conor couldn’t remember ever having seen his employer drink this early in the day.
70 Roland Graeme “Want some?” Murray asked, indicating the wine. “I have a whole case of this down in the cellar. It’s cheaper to buy it that way.” “No thanks. I want to keep a clear head. I need to finish crating up that big piece, so I can take it into town with the other orders first thing Monday morning.” “You could do that tomorrow,” Murray pointed out. it.”
“True. But it won’t take me long, so I might as well just do
“I do have another chore for you to do, today or tomorrow, if you don’t mind. I brought down a few more boxes of stuff I want to throw out. I put them with the other ones in the living room. You can go ahead and burn it, cardboard boxes and all.” “I’ll do it tonight. The weather forecast said it might rain tomorrow.” “Thanks, Conor.” “Don’t mention it. This sandwich is delicious, by the way.” Murray refilled his wine glass. “The way I’m working you, I’ve got to keep up your strength.” After lunch, Conor got the crated item ready for shipment, and used the forklift to move it near the warehouse door, so he could load it into the van on Monday morning. He put the other completed shipping cartons there, too. Then he put his tools away and tidied up his workspace. These tasks took longer than he had anticipated; it was late afternoon when he left the barn. There was a slight chill in the air. He remembered the disposal job that Murray wanted him to take care of, so he checked out the old metal storage drum in one of the sheds. It was rusty, and scorched and blackened with soot. Conor hauled the drum out into the open, and placed it in an area where the grass was short and sparse. He then hooked up the garden hose. To be on the safe side, he’d wet down the ground around the drum and keep the hose handy during the burning. He might need an accelerant. There was an almost empty can of
The Temple of Skanda 71 turpentine, left over from one of his recent painting jobs; that ought to work. Satisfied by these preparations, he went into the house. There were now no fewer than eight cartons stacked beside Murray’s desk. Murray was seated at the desk, working at his computer. He had his wine glass, half filled, on the desk beside the small statue he used as a paperweight. “If I’m not bothering you, Murray—” “You’re not bothering me at all. I’m just catching up on my e-mails. I’ve heard from Spence, by the way. He’s really looking forward to the trip, and to meeting you.” “I can’t wait to meet him, too. Anyway, I thought I’d start carrying this stuff outside.” “Go ahead, if you want to. I’m afraid I found some more things to throw out. But that’s definitely it for now. I’ll be glad to see all this crap gone.” Conor picked up the top box and began to carry it toward the kitchen and the back door. The box, although bulky, was surprisingly light. He glanced inside the flaps, and saw that it contained more loose papers and envelopes, but also several articles of men’s clothing, not neatly folded, but stuffed loosely into the box. There were polo shirts, a lightweight hand-knitted sweater, a dress shirt, and a pair of slacks. The things looked of good quality and well cared for. “Murray? Are you sure you want to throw these clothes out? They look as though they’re still in pretty good shape.” “What?” Murray sounded preoccupied again. “No, I don’t want them. If you see anything you like that you can wear, take it.” Conor set down the box, took out a polo shirt, and held it up against his chest. “It’s too small for me.” “I imagine it would be. You’re bigger than…oh, just get rid of it, Conor. Tear the clothes up and use them for rags, for all I care. I don’t care what you do with any of this stuff, as long as I never
72 Roland Graeme have to look at it again.” It dawned on Conor, belatedly, whom the clothes must have belonged to. Feeling embarrassed, he made several silent trips back and forth, until all of the boxes were outside, stacked beside the drum. It was beginning to get dark. He’d forgotten he needed matches. In the kitchen, he took a box of matches from the drawer where Murray kept a flashlight and candles in the event of a power outage. He put the box in his pocket. The empty wine bottle was on the kitchen countertop. Murray came into the kitchen, with his empty glass in his hand. He looked a bit the worse for wear. He’d discarded his moccasins and was barefoot. He grinned at Conor. “Hi there, good looking.” “Hello there, yourself.” “I think I’ll open another bottle of that wine. It goes down real easy. Are you sure you don’t want any?” “Maybe with dinner.” Conor wasn’t sure he should encourage Murray to go on drinking so much, so quickly. He supposed his boss had the right to get a little wasted, in his own house, on a Saturday afternoon and evening. “Why don’t I make us dinner, a little early? Something quick.” “I’m not really hungry, Conor. You go ahead.” “I’ll make something that you can warm up later, if you want.” “Okay. Thanks.” Murray opened a second bottle of wine, and took it with him into the living room. Conor’s cooking skills were basic, but he managed to throw together a tuna casserole: a can of tuna, a can of peas, egg noodles, chopped onions, and milk. He put the baking dish in the oven, turned it on, and started a pot of coffee. While the coffee was brewing, he stood there in the kitchen, lost in thought. Murray was obviously depressed, no doubt as a
The Temple of Skanda 73 result of all that anniversary party business. If only Conor could do something to help him get through it. I could just go in there and ask him, flat out, ‘Hey, Murray, is there anything bothering you, anything you want to talk about?’ I could even tell him, ‘I know about you and Derek’s anniversary and what you used to do to celebrate it. Are you okay?’ But his courage failed him. He knew he wouldn’t breathe a word about what was troubling Murray, unless Murray mentioned it first. If they could just get through tonight, in a day or two the whole thing would be behind them. He drank his coffee. He checked on the casserole. It was coming along nicely. He sprinkled some breadcrumbs and grated cheese on top of it, lowered the heat, and let it bake a few minutes longer. He went into the living room. Murray was at his desk again, doing an unconscious imitation of James—staring fixedly at the computer screen and occasionally hitting a key or moving the mouse. He hadn’t turned on any of the lights; Conor switched on a table lamp. “Dinner’s almost ready.” “You go ahead, Conor.” “I made some coffee. Can I bring you some?” “No, I’m fine.” Conor didn’t press the issue. In the gloom of Murray’s
workspace, Conor was unable to gauge the current level of liquid in the bottle. Murray’s speech was ever so slightly slurred. He ate by himself at the kitchen table. For some reason, he was starting to feel a little depressed. Depressed—and nervous. He left the rest of the casserole, covered by a sheet of aluminum foil, on the counter to cool. When he put his hand in his pocket, he touched the box of matches, and remembered the task he’d intended to finish. “Murray? I’m going to go out and start the fire, now.” “All right.”
74 Roland Graeme It was a clear, crisp night. Conor used the hose to soak the grass all around the drum. He then began with the box containing the clothes. He dumped its contents into the drum, poured a small amount of the turpentine on top, lit a crumpled ball of paper with a match, and tossed it in. The fire caught and blazed up quickly, but was safely contained within the drum. He added the empty carton; the cardboard burned just as readily. One by one, Conor emptied the boxes into the drum, taking care not to feed the fire too fast. Inevitably, bits of blackened paper and light ash floated up and escaped over the rim of the drum; he’d been wise to keep the hose handy. He heard the back door bang shut. A moment later, Murray was walking toward him, carrying a full glass of wine. He stood barefoot in the ring of wet grass around the drum, and watched the flames. “How’s it going?” he asked. “I’m almost done.” “I should’ve helped you to carry all this stuff out here. Sorry. I had other things on my mind.” “It’s my job. I’m glad to do it. Aren’t you cold, out here with no shoes on?” “No. I’ve got my antifreeze right here.” Murray raised his glass, then drank from it. “This is very good wine. You really ought to have some.” “Maybe later, when I’m done out here.” Murray looked up at the sky. “You can see Orion.” “Yes, it’s amazing how clearly you can see the stars, out here
in the country. Away from all the city lights.” Murray contemplated the blaze again. “In Varanasi—that’s the city in India, that they used to call Benares—they burn their dead on these big stone steps that lead down to the river, called ghats. Then they dump the ashes into the Ganges. It’s too bad we can’t do something like that with dead relationships. Just set them on fire, dump the ashes, and be reborn.” He sighed. “I’ll see you
The Temple of Skanda 75 back inside.” “I won’t be long.” Left alone, Conor began to empty the contents of the last carton into the drum. There were more loose papers, but there were also bundles of dozens of greeting cards, without envelopes. Interspersed among the predictable holiday and birthday cards were many “no occasion” cards, the kind with photos or reproductions of works of art on the front, but no pre-printed message inside. Whoever had chosen these particular cards had a penchant for black-and-white photos of glowering, buffed-bodied male nudes, and for the French Impressionists: Degas and Gauguin were heavily represented. Conor couldn’t resist. He pulled one of the no-occasion cards out of a bundle and opened it. He held the card close to the fire to make out the words, scrawled in handwriting unfamiliar to him: Three fabulous years together today! You are truly the man of my dreams. Love forever, Derek. Derek. Fucking son of a bitch Derek. Was he everywhere? Was there nothing Conor could do to wipe out his memory? In a cold rage, he dumped the rest of the cards into the flames, then flattened the carton, bent it in half, and fed it to the fire, as well. The fire surged higher with a gratifying intensity, then began to burn down again, devouring the fresh fuel. I’m burning you, Derek, Conor thought. I’m burning you up. When I’m done with you, there won’t be anything left. You had your chance. You had Murray, and then you didn’t want him any more. He’s— Conor was slightly shocked by the intensity of his own feelings. He’s mine, now. You can’t have him, any more. Murray is mine! As the guttering flames crackled, he stared up at the constellation of Orion. What’s wrong with me? I’m a perfectly ordinary, boring person. I try to do my job; I go to bed at night and sleep. I like to get laid now and then, sure, when I meet a nice guy. There’s nothing grand or passionate about me.
76 Roland Graeme I don’t understand where these feelings are coming from all of sudden. But what I do understand is how people can feel things so strongly, sometimes, that they can just go crazy. If Derek were here right now, tonight, I’d kill him. I’d fucking kill him. He waited until he was sure the fire was out, and then went back to the house. Murray sat at the kitchen table, polishing off the casserole, eating it right from the baking dish. “All done?” he asked, his mouth full. “Yes.” “This is good. Do you mind if I finish it?” “No, go right ahead.” Murray was eating—a good sign. Part of the problem was that he’d been putting away that wine all afternoon, on a nearly empty stomach. “I’m going to go take a nice long hot shower. It is getting a little cold out there.” “Come back down when you’re done. Don’t be long.” Don’t be long. What did Murray mean by that? In the shower, Conor noticed that he was developing a semi hard-on. “Down, boy,” he told his penis. He put on clean clothes—thick wool socks, loose comfortable pants with no underwear, and a T-shirt. He joined Murray, now in the living room, relaxing on the couch with the ubiquitous glass of wine. He’d turned on the TV. “Are you sure you don’t want any wine, Conor?” “In a minute.” “What a day. I tried to keep busy.” “Me, too.” Murray was looking at his watch. “What’s the time difference between here and the West Coast?” “Three hours, isn’t it?” Murray consulted his watch again. “I wonder if he’s home.”
The Temple of Skanda 77 Conor didn’t have to ask who “he” was. “Do you think I should call him?” Conor hesitated. He wanted to say, No, fuck him! Fuck him to hell! “Sure. Why don’t you?” Murray took a deep breath. “I’m going to call him.” Conor started to get up. “I’ll let you have some privacy.” “No, Conor, don’t be silly. Change the channel; find something you want to watch. I’ll do it in the kitchen.” Conor turned the TV volume down—ostensibly so that the sound wouldn’t bother Murray while he made his phone call. Conor knew, however, that the TV really couldn’t be heard from the kitchen, not with the door closed. He was half-hoping he might be able to catch some of the conversation, although that was equally unlikely. About ten or fifteen minutes passed. Conor heard a thud in the kitchen, as though somebody had slammed a fist down on the kitchen table. “Son of a bitch!” Murray stormed back into the living room. He looked down at the cell phone in his hand, grimaced as though it were some particularly slimy and loathsome form of insect life, and tossed it onto the nearest chair. “Goddamn son of a bitch!” The phone call must not have gone well. “Him and his fancy boyfriend. Well, they can both kiss my ass; they can both rot in hell!” My sentiments, exactly, Conor wanted to say. Murray seemed unaware of Conor’s presence. Conor was afraid to say anything. He’d never seen Murray behave like this. “Fuck it.” Murray went back into the kitchen, then returned clutching an unopened bottle of wine, a corkscrew, and two glasses—the one he’d been using, which was stained with wine residue, and a clean one. He set it all awkwardly down on the coffee table, and then sat down on the sofa next to Conor. “Have a drink with me, Conor.”
78 Roland Graeme “Uh…okay.” Conor figured that the more wine Murray poured out for him, the less he was likely to swill down himself. Murray struggled with the corkscrew. “Open this for me, will you?” “Sure.” Reluctantly, Conor pulled the cork. Murray filled both glasses. “What’ll we drink to? Oh, I know. Let’s drink to cocksuckers. Here’s to all the cocksuckers we’ve known and loved. Cheers.” They touched glasses and Murray drank from his with greedy recklessness. Conor took a sip of his own wine, then set the glass aside. Murray stared at the TV. “What’s that you’re watching? One of those nature shows? Jesus, I’m getting drunk,” he declared, without waiting for an answer to his question. “I want to get drunk tonight. Good and drunk. I want to celebrate!” He put his hand on Conor’s knee. “Let’s celebrate together, Conor. Let’s have a party, you and me, just the two of us.” “Ah…sure, Murray. Why not?” Conor took another cautious sip of his wine. “Who needs a caterer and a fancy fucking menu? We can have ourselves one hell of a good time, just sitting here getting drunk together.” Murray’s hand was still resting on Conor’s knee. “Well, maybe you don’t want to get too drunk, Murray. Why don’t I go and put some more coffee on?” “I don’t want coffee. I want to party. I want to make love to a beautiful man.” “Who doesn’t?” Conor joked, with a levity he was in fact far from feeling. “This TV show is boring. Let’s watch something else. Put a porno DVD on.” “A porno DVD? I didn’t know you had any.” “You are so damn honest, Conor. It never occurred to you to do a little snooping around the house, when I wasn’t home?”
The Temple of Skanda 79 “It certainly did not!” Conor assured him, with a touch of indignation. “Well, you could’ve helped yourself, any time. Look in the drawer in that table, over there. The one with the statue of Vishnu on it.” Conor went to explore the side table. Inside the drawer was a neat row of DVD cases, arranged so that their spines faced up. Conor was surprised by the range of Murray’s tastes: Latino Gangbang…White Fist, Black Ass…My Double Penetration…Muscle Whores…Naked Belgian Cops. “You have got to be kidding. Naked Belgian Cops?” “Oh, put that one on! Good choice. Spence sent that to me, as a matter of fact. I told you that guy is wild. He said he bought it when he was in Brussels to read a paper at the university there. Can you imagine?” What Conor couldn’t imagine was how a naked Belgian cop differed radically from a naked law enforcement officer of any other nationality, but he was willing to see for himself. The evening was taking a turn that was interesting, to say the least. He inserted the disc into the DVD player, and Murray fumbled with the remote control. “Sit down here, beside me, Conor.” “Ah, no thanks, I’d rather watch from here.” Conor sat down
in a nearby armchair. Drunk or not, Murray seemed to have little difficulty cueing the DVD directly to what was no doubt a favorite scene of his. The TV screen was suddenly filled with images of well-muscled nude men, who had most of their body hair shaven off. There were three of them, one on his back with his legs raised and resting on the shoulders of the man who was fucking him; the third man was sitting on the first man’s face, pinching his nipples while the guy licked his ass. The two actors whose mouths were not otherwise engaged at the moment were looking at each other, nodding to each other, and exchanging staccato grunts in a language that Conor wasn’t
80 Roland Graeme familiar with. “It’s in Flemish!” Murray exclaimed, giggling with glee. “No subtitles. Isn’t it a hoot?” “That’s one word for it.” The close-ups, shot in such sharp, unsparing detail—of a thick condom-sheathed cock penetrating an asshole; of an eager, protruding tongue swabbing out a puckered sphincter ring—were beginning to get Conor hot. The semi hard-on he’d had while showering had not only returned; it was expanding into an uncomfortable full rigidity inside his pants. Murray was staring fixedly at the action on the screen, over the rim of his wine glass. He drank from it, spilling a little of the wine onto his chin and his sweatshirt. “I want to do that to you, Conor. I want to suck your ass.” “Jesus, Murray. Maybe you’d better lay off the wine.” “You think I’m kidding? Come sit on my face. Sit on my face,
and I’ll show you. I’ll rim you, baby, and I’ll rim you good.” “Let’s just watch the movie. I want to see how the plot turns out.” Conor laughed, attempting to defuse the increasing sexual tension. “You’re such a beautiful man, Conor. When we first met, I wasn’t sure I liked your long hair, or the facial hair. But I do. They make you look like some guy in an historical novel. You could be an Elizabethan courtier. Or a Musketeer. A beautiful, gay, sexy Musketeer.” Jesus! Conor had heard his share of come-on lines, but this was a new one. First he was Sir Walter Fucking Raleigh. Next, he was The Queer Musketeer! “Come on over here, Conor. That’s an order.” Conor was wary. “What for?” “I told you. I want to make love to you. I want to suck your
cock. Then I’ll eat your ass.” “That’s the wine talking, boss, not you. I think the bartender’s
The Temple of Skanda 81 going to have to cut you off and call you a cab. Why don’t you make an early night of it, go to bed?” Murray leered at him. “I’ll go to bed if you’ll come upstairs with me.” “Now listen, Murray—” “Take off your clothes. Come on—get naked. I want to get naked.” Murray stood up and, not without some fumbling, shed his sweatshirt and jeans. He sat down again, naked, looked down at himself with a drunkard’s smug satisfaction, and began to stroke himself. The wine had freed him from his inhibitions, but it hadn’t had the common side effect of impairing his erectile function. “Oh, it feels so fucking good to jack off,” Murray grunted. He was now looking at Conor again, his eyes hot with a combination of self-induced pleasure and undisguised pleading. “I bet that big dick of yours would feel even better. In my hand, and in my mouth. Why don’t you come on over here and let me have it?” Conor gaped at the lewd exhibition that his employer was putting on, obviously for his benefit. Conor was excited, and even tempted, but he knew that having sex with Murray while the guy was in this condition could be a big mistake. “You’re drunk, Murray. I really think you ought to go to bed and try to get some sleep.” Murray’s eyes narrowed. He continued to masturbate. “I’m not good enough for you, is that it?” “Murray, please.” “I’m old and ugly. That’s why you don’t want to fuck around with me.” “Knock it off. You are not old and you are not ugly. But you’re sure as hell drunk. I don’t like to have sex with guys who look as though they’re likely to pass out any minute.” “Bitch. You stuck-up little bitch. Dirty little ex-con. I bet you weren’t so choosy, back in the slammer. I bet you had a different cock up your ass every night.”
82 Roland Graeme Conor stood up. “I was wondering how long it would take you to turn mean, once you had all that booze in you. Go ahead and sit there and jerk off, if you want to. I’ll let you have some privacy.” “I guess I can jerk off in my own fucking house, if I want to!” Murray flared. “I guess you can. I can’t argue with that. Good night. If I were the lord and master of the goddamn manor, I don’t think I’d make any more trips down to the wine cellar tonight. But you suit yourself. The dirty little ex-con, the stupid fucking no-good serf, is going to bed.” Conor headed for the stairs. Murray jumped up and followed him. “Don’t go, Conor. I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.” “I’m not mad at you. You don’t know what you’re doing or saying, that’s all. You’ll be all right in the morning. If you lay off that wine.” Conor started up the stairs. Murray, stark naked, tried to follow him, but his bare foot slipped on one of the steps and he grabbed at the railing to keep himself from falling. “Shit! I am so drunk!” He giggled. “So fucking drunk!” He sounded delighted with himself. Conor decided he’d better take advantage of Murray’s sudden change of mood. “Let’s get you to bed.” He put his arm around Murray to steady him, and guided him up the stairs to the landing. “Come on, Conor, give me a kiss.” Murray embraced him, and Conor pushed him away—carefully, urging Murray toward the hallway, because he didn’t want to risk sending Murray tumbling back down the stairs. “You’re going to regret this in the morning, Murray.” “I can’t regret it until I do it. Just one little goodnight kiss.” Conor was torn. Even in his inebriated condition, Murray was
hot. And it was difficult to ignore his physicality, now that he was nude and erect. Old and ugly, hell! The beard stubble looked good
The Temple of Skanda 83 on Murray, lending a hint of a rough edge to his good looks. He could’ve used a shower, but Conor wasn’t fussy about such things. Murray’s slight body odor, a combination of sweat and armpits and crotch, was masculine and natural—and arousing. Fuck it! Conor put his arms around Murray and kissed him on the mouth. He slid his palms down Murray’s bare back and cupped them over the twin mounds of Murray’s firm, butch ass. They were tongue-kissing now, the wine taste strong inside Murray’s mouth; Murray had both hands clasped behind Conor’s neck to steady himself as the two men pressed their bodies together. Murray’s exposed erection rubbed against Conor’s stiffening rod, which was increasingly uncomfortable in his pants. Conor reluctantly broke their kiss. “Okay, that’s enough,” he gasped. “No, it isn’t!” “You said, just one.” Conor stepped backward, trying to ease himself out of Murray’s embrace. He collided with the long, low bookcase set against the wall on the landing; it was waist high, so he found himself with his butt pressed against it, momentarily trapped. Still, he could have freed himself easily enough. He chose not to. He leaned back and put his hands down behind him, resting them on the edge of the bookshelf ’s top. When Murray got down on his knees in front of him and opened the waist button of Conor’s pants and pulled down the zipper with a dexterity that belied his intoxication, Conor let him do it. On his knees on the bare floorboards of the landing, Murray put his left hand around the shaft of Conor’s penis and guided the head inside his mouth. He jerked himself again with his right hand, as, grunting, he sucked Conor’s cock. He was good at it. He was more than just good at it. Conor pushed his hips forward, urging Murray to take more of him between his lips. Conor’s fingers blindly groped for a firmer grip on the edge of the bookshelf as he looked down at what Murray was doing to him, and his breath escaped him in a sudden sharp rasp. If this was how Murray serviced a man orally when he was crocked, Conor could only imagine what he’d be like sober.
84 Roland Graeme it!”
“All right,” Conor gasped. “You want it so fucking bad, take Murray grunted in response.
“You’d better do a good job, cocksucker,” Conor taunted his drunken employer. “You’d better satisfy me.” Not that there seemed to be any immediate danger of dissatisfaction. Conor fucked Murray’s face, but Murray, making choking noises from deep in his throat, held on, apparently exulting in the other man’s increasingly brutal use of him. Conor stopped thinking and allowed his body to take over. The anxiety had been building up in him for a week, ever since he’d found out about the anniversary party tradition. His nervousness, the result of Murray’s strange behavior yesterday and today. Fending off Murray’s advances, then giving in to them. Kissing Murray, for the very first time. Murray’s mouth on his cock. It all seemed to converge in a rush of helpless, purely physical responsiveness. “I’m going to come if you keep that up,” he warned. Murray kept it up. “I’m going to come in your mouth, if you don’t back off.” Murray emitted an urgent, eager grunt from deep in his throat, the inarticulate sound telling Conor more eloquently than any words that Murray wanted nothing more than to receive and swallow his come. “If you aren’t careful, you’re going to get a mouthful.” It was the final warning, and it was ignored. “Oh, fuck!” Conor cried. “Fuck!” He was ejaculating with a violence that swept through his whole body, from head to foot, in spastic shudders. It wasn’t until he had stopped climaxing that Conor looked down and realized that Murray had lost his semen, too, spurting it across the bare wooden floorboards near Conor’s stocking feet. Murray, moaning with drunken delight, continued to nurse Conor’s slowly deflating cock with his lips, licking it clean. Finally, though, he let the limp penis escape from his mouth. Looking
The Temple of Skanda 85 dazed, Murray slumped lower down on his knees. Conor’s pants were still at half-mast. He pulled them part of the way back up, and stumbled down the hall to his own bathroom. He stripped, grabbed a washcloth and a towel, and cleaned his cock off at the sink, then dried it. He was still fighting to get his breath back after coming so hard. Naked, he went back to where Murray was still slumped on his knees. He hadn’t moved. Conor distrusted the unfocused look in Murray’s eyes. “Are you going to puke?” Conor demanded, bluntly. Murray shook his head. “Well, thank God for small mercies. Come on.” He helped Murray to his feet and led him into the nearby bedroom. Without bothering to turn on a light, Conor manhandled Murray onto the bed and pulled the covers up over him. “Go to sleep, Murray. That’s a good boy.” Murray rolled onto his stomach. “Don’t go.” “You’ll be all right.” “Don’t go. Don’t leave me, Derek. Please don’t go.” In the dim light that penetrated the drawn window curtains,
Conor could just make out the photo on the wall opposite the bed. Derek’s image seemed to be smirking at him. “You go to sleep now. I mean it. If I hear you trying to so much as put one foot out of this bed, I’ll come back in here and smack your ass.” Murray, his face buried in the pillow, hugged it and let out a muffled groan. Leaving the door of Murray’s bedroom ajar, Conor went back into the hallway. Derek! He thinks I’m Derek. He probably thought it was that precious son of a bitch Derek he was sucking off the whole time, not me. Oh, that just makes it all perfect! Absolutely fucking perfect! In a seething rage, he stomped back to his bathroom. He grabbed a handful of paper towels, wet them under the faucet,
86 Roland Graeme went back to the landing, got down on his hands and knees, and wiped up the puddles of semen. Cleaning his boss’ come off the floor wasn’t included in his job description, but Conor didn’t mind doing it. It could have been worse. The physical activity calmed him a bit. He began to see a hint of absurdity in the situation. What a way to spend a Saturday night, he thought. He checked on Murray. Fast asleep. Not bothering with clothes, he went downstairs and tidied up, retrieving Murray’s discarded sweatshirt and jeans, draping them over one arm. Naked Belgian Cops had played through to its no doubt sufficiently lurid end with no one to watch it; the DVD’s “menu” was displayed on the TV screen—in Flemish. Conor stared at the TV screen without really seeing it. There was an odd itching, burning sensation in his eyelids. He realized, with a growing sense of horror, that he was fighting back angry tears. Murray had called him a dirty little ex-con. How those four words hurt. How they stung. Oh, sure, Murray had been drunk when he’d said it—stinking, falling down drunk. But what was that saying? In vino veritas? Conor would never forgive Murray for saying that, for thinking it. Never! I’ll pack my stuff, and tomorrow I’ll tell him to take his job and shove it. I’ve got a little money saved, now. I can always move back in with Dave, or find my own place. If I could get this job, I can get another one. Who needs Mr. High and Mighty Henry Murugan de Souza and his lousy statues? I’ll show him. He’ll be sorry. He can come crawling to me on his hands and knees, begging me to forgive him, begging me to stay, and I’ll tell him to go fuck himself! But, even as Conor indulged in this tirade, even as he wiped his eyes and suppressed a little sniffle, he knew it was all just bluster. He wasn’t going anywhere—not if he could help it. He knew he had already forgiven Murray. Because it’s true, he told himself, sullenly. Because I am a dirty little
The Temple of Skanda 87 ex-con. And because…because I love him. I love Murray De Souza. And when you love somebody, you can forgive him almost anything. A new, frightening thought suddenly struck him. He’d mouthed off to Murray, after all, before that drunken blowjob his boss had given him. What if Murray remembered that in the morning, and was angry, and fired him? A moment ago, Conor had been all resentment and defiance. Now he realized in a panic that, if it came to it, he was the one who’d be willing to get down on his hands and knees, begging Murray to let him stay. I’ll apologize, if I have to. I’ll do whatever I have to do! Conor found the remote, thumbed the “power” button, and turned the TV off. He carried the bottle and glasses, along with Murray’s clothes, into the kitchen. There was enough wine left in the bottle to fill a glass. Conor suddenly felt fatigued. One glass wouldn’t hurt him, at this point, and it might help him sleep. He filled the glass he’d drunk from earlier, and, after turning the lights out, took it with him when he went back upstairs. A final check on Murray. Still lying there under the covers belly down, hugging the pillow, he hadn’t stirred. He was snoring lightly. The guy was definitely out for the count. Conor deposited Murray’s clothes on the chair beside the bed, then slipped out of the room and closed the door. In his own room, Conor relaxed on his bed and drank the wine. Tomorrow might be awkward. He revolved, in his mind, various possible stratagems to respond to Murray’s reactions. If Conor was lucky, Murray might be so damn hung over he’d just want to put the whole sordid episode behind him. But what if he felt guilty? Or worse—continued to be all depressed over that bastard, Derek? On the positive side…Murray had the hots for him, all right. There couldn’t be much doubt about that, after what had just happened! That fact helped to restore Conor’s confidence. Murray wasn’t going to fire him. Murray could try to deny it to
88 Roland Graeme himself all he wanted, but he was lusting for Conor. All I have to do is get him drunk again, Conor thought cynically, and I can get some more of that incredible mouth action, any time I want. And then I can talk him into doing more, probably. A lot more—! But he didn’t want Murray to want him only when he was unhappy, vulnerable, and drunk. He wanted Murray to want him, period. The way Conor wanted him. Conor looked at the little statue of the elephant-headed god, who was standing guard so solemnly on the desk, with his assortment of weapons at the ready. “Okay, Ganesh,” he muttered. “Do your thing. Start getting rid of the obstacles!” Pleasantly buzzed by the wine, Conor turned out his bedside lamp, and went to sleep. In the morning, Conor was already seated at the kitchen table, finishing his breakfast, when Murray came down. He wasn’t as hung over as Conor had anticipated. He’d showered and shaved and had even shampooed his hair, which was still wet. “Morning, Murray. Coffee’s ready.” “Thank God.” Murray filled a mug, and drank from it greedily. “What can I make you to eat?” “I can make my own, in a minute.” Characteristically, Murray then got right to the point: “About last night—” “Forget about it. You tied one on. It was no big deal.” “Conor, it is a big deal. What I did…you work for me. That could be considered sexual harassment.” “Oh, for God’s sake, Murray. You can’t harass the willing.” “Please don’t joke about this, Conor. I’m trying to be serious.” “Sorry. Well, in all seriousness, nothing happened last night that wasn’t completely consensual.”
The Temple of Skanda 89 Murray swallowed more of his black coffee. “I’m not sure what did and didn’t happen, as a matter of fact. I have these vague mental images of me pawing you, and you pushing me away. Of me kissing you.” “I didn’t push you away,” Conor interjected quickly. “I kissed you right back. I was just as aggressive as you were. You got me all excited. The only reason I, um, stopped and made you go to bed was because I didn’t want to take advantage of you when you were so drunk.” “At least one of us had some sense. Did I really grope you and suck your dick last night, or did I just dream about that part after I passed out?” If Murray’s memory was foggy, so much the better. Conor decided to further edit the truth. “There was some harmless manto-man groping. We both had our dicks out at the time. That’s all. Like I said, it was no big deal. It was kind of amusing, actually.” Murray groaned. “Amusing! Is that what you call it!” “We’re both grown men, Murray. We’re both gay men. We don’t have to ask for anybody else’s approval, if we want to fool around. I find you very attractive. Listen—if I met a man in a gay bar, a complete stranger, and I liked him, I’d think nothing of kissing him and letting him unzip me and cop a feel, even if we didn’t end up going home together.” “Conor, I hope our relationship…I don’t think of you…what I’m trying to say is, you mean a lot more to me than just some anonymous guy I might come on to and have some fun with in a bar.” Conor could feel his pulse quicken. Yes, he wanted to say. Yes, I am so glad you said that, Murray! I feel the same way about you! He hoped Murray didn’t notice his sudden surge of excitement. He forced himself to think before he spoke, to play it cool. He couldn’t risk frightening Murray off, not now. “It’s sweet of you to say that, Murray. I hope you mean it. All this apologizing about putting the make on me when you were smashed—it isn’t very flattering. You make me feel as though you
90 Roland Graeme had to be drunk to find me attractive.” Murray looked at him—with something encouragingly close to longing. “I’ve always found you attractive.” Conor grinned. “Well, maybe you and I should do something about it—some time when we’re both sober. I know I wouldn’t mind.” He finished his own coffee, relishing the expression on Murray’s face. “I’m going to get to work. I want to rake up all those leaves and use them to start a compost pile.” That gave him something to think about, Conor thought with satisfaction, when he was outdoors, wielding the rake. If I don’t push him too hard, if I don’t scare him off—I bet he’ll come around.
ChapTeR five: The fiRST fiRe of The SeaSon Once a year, Conor discovered, Murray ordered his winter’s supply of firewood from one of the local farmers, who had dense stands of trees on his land. On the Tuesday morning after what Conor had begun to think of, somewhat ruefully, as “the anniversary celebration,” the farmer delivered the wood. He helped Conor to unload it and stack it in one of the storage sheds. After the man drove off, Conor carried an initial supply of the neatly split logs inside the house, and deposited them beside the fireplace in the living room. He was relieved to see that Murray was in a good mood that evening. The weekend, with its emotional ups and downs, seemed safely behind them. Conor was washing the dishes after dinner when he noticed that Murray, who was lingering over his coffee at the kitchen table, was scrutinizing some papers and making notes on them with a pen. “Murray. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” “No. Go ahead.” “Why do you work so hard? I mean, you put an awful lot of time and energy into the business.” “I have to, if I want to make a success out of it.” “But what do you get out of it?” “I’m doing something I enjoy, for one thing. And I’m my own
boss, for another. I know I must come across to you as kind of dull.” “I didn’t say that.” “No, but you’re thinking it. I used to be a little more sociable, I guess. Now—” Murray shrugged. “I do enjoy my trips abroad. Of course they’re business trips, but they’re really vacations, too.
92 Roland Graeme As I hope you’ll soon find out.” He smiled at Conor. “Now it’s my turn to ask you something.” “Shoot.” “I still worry about you feeling—well, kind of lonely and cut off from other people, living here. How long has it been since the last time anybody showed you any real affection, or made you feel like you were special?” Conor shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s been a while, I guess. People learn to do without that kind of thing.” “I’d hate to think so. ‘Doing without’ feeling loved—or doing without just plain ordinary day-to-day human contact—is something one should never simply accept.” “Why do you ask, Murray?” “Don’t take this the wrong way, Conor, but sometimes I get the impression that you lack confidence in yourself. That you underestimate yourself. Have you ever been in love?” “I thought I was in love, sure, two or three times. It was nice while it lasted.” “Do you like playing the field, or do you ever think you could be happy tied down to one guy?” “I’ll be honest with you. I can’t imagine being with one guy and not still being attracted to other guys. I can’t imagine having sex with only one other man ever again.” “So you’d prefer an open relationship.” “I gather you don’t approve.” “On the contrary, I think it’s the only sensible way for gay men to do it. A lot of guys would disagree. You know about me and Derek, of course.” There. The elephant in the room now had a name. “James has told me a few things.” “Knowing James, I’m sure he’s told you quite a lot. What can I say? It was good while it lasted, as you said a moment ago. And Derek and I had a fairly long run. Just because I was in one
The Temple of Skanda 93 relationship that didn’t last doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on the possibility of ever having another one.” Conor hesitated, then decided to take the risk. “Have you ever thought about the possibility—not necessarily a serious relationship, I’m talking about something a little more casual— the possibility of getting into something with me?” “You’re sweet. I’ve thought about it a lot.” “Me, too. And, Murray—?” “What?” “Well, we sort of do have an advantage, you and I. I’m used to meeting a guy I like and jumping into bed with him right away, and then, after we’ve done it a few times, if we’re still interested in each other, that’s when I start thinking about getting to know him as a person. The two of us—we’ve been living together, for Christ’s sake. Working together. We know each other pretty well by now.” Was there something just a bit provocative in the way Murray was pursing his lips, as he mulled over what Conor had just said? “Yes, we do know each other.” “Maybe not as well as I’d like,” Conor dared to suggest. Murray smiled. “Maybe not. Yet.” When he was done with the dishes, Conor excused himself, went upstairs, and stripped. He was about to climb into his bed, nude, to read, when he thought better of it. There was a slight draft in the air. He pulled on a pair of sweatpants and socks, then did get into bed, where he finished the last pages of one of Murray’s books about India, which he’d been reading in his spare time. With their trip to India coming up soon, Conor was making good use of Murray’s library to educate himself about the country, its people, their customs, and the Hindu religion. He was determined not to behave like some ignorant, arrogant tourist and risk embarrassing Murray. It was raining, he realized as he closed the book—a cold
94 Roland Graeme rain mixed with sleet, which made a rattling impact against the windowpanes. He took the book downstairs. Only one table lamp was lit in the living room, but the fireplace was dancing with flames—for the first time in Conor’s experience—and much of the room was thrown into deep shadows. The bronze statues that were such a conspicuous part of the décor tended to be half-lit, half-obscured, giving them a slightly mysterious, even sinister, appearance. Murray was lying on his back in front of the blazing fireplace, on an old, frayed quilt spread over the floor. He was nude except for one of his lunghees, the maroon one with the yellow stars. He had his eyes closed, his hands cupped behind his head, his bare feet crossed at the ankles. Conor wasn’t sure whether he was asleep or not, until Murray suddenly opened his eyes and smiled up at him. “Hi,” Murray said, drowsily. “I just came down to get a new book to read. What are you doing?” “Absolutely nothing. Just thinking. And not thinking about anything in particular, for that matter.” He stretched lazily, like a cat. “But now that I’ve started thinking about specific things again, I’ve decided that you were right. I do work too damn hard, sometimes. I need to start enjoying life more. I may as well start right now.” “The fire looks nice.” “The first fire of the season. That’s always special. It’s heaven,
on a night like this. Join me. Warm up. Do you want a drink?” “No, thanks. I was thinking—” “What?” “It was kind of lonely, up there in my room. With the rain coming down outside, beating against the windows. I was thinking about how we talked about the possibility of maybe doing a certain thing sometime when we were both sober.” The words came out of Conor in a rush.
The Temple of Skanda 95 Murray smiled. “It’s that kind of a night, isn’t it? Kind of quiet and lazy. Makes you feel horny.” “Yeah.” “Makes me feel like jacking off, usually.” “Makes me feel like doing more than that, Murray.”
“So what, exactly, are you suggesting? That we fool around a
little and get our rocks off, and then, in the morning, we just go about our business as though nothing happened?” “We’d go about our business, sure, but we wouldn’t have to pretend that nothing happened. I’m past that kind of game playing. We’re adults. It wouldn’t be a big deal. I wouldn’t try to take advantage of it, if that’s what you’re worrying about.” “Who said I was worried? I’m just thinking about the possible consequences, that’s all. That’s part of being adults, as you put it—knowing that what you do doesn’t necessarily take place in some kind of a void. It’s not something you can put away in a drawer after you’re done and then open or close it at will.” “I guess you’re right. Of course…maybe you just don’t like me, I mean, in that way.” “Don’t be modest. I like you just fine. That way, and in other ways. Now it’s my turn to be modest. Why do you think you’d like to get it on with me?” “I think we’d both enjoy it. Maybe it’s just something we both need to get out of our systems.” Murray looked thoughtful. “I’ve usually managed to stay pretty close friends with most of the guys I’ve had casual sex with. Maybe there’s something to be said for getting the horn dog part of it over and done with.” “I guess we’re on the same page, then, as far as that goes.” Conor hesitated. “There’s only one problem.” “What’s that?” Conor was reluctant to say anything that might disrupt the mellow mood. “Never mind.”
96 Roland Graeme Murray looked at him. “No, there’s something on your mind, isn’t there? I can tell.” “What happened Saturday night,” Conor blurted out. “When you were drunk.” “Did something happen that I don’t remember? That you haven’t told me about?” “Yes.” Conor sat down on the couch. Murray sat up and waited, expectantly. “So tell me,” Murray pressed, when Conor didn’t say anything. “Get it off your chest.” “When you put the make on me and I told you I didn’t want to have sex with you while you were drunk—“ “Oh, Jesus, Conor! Was I that bad?” “Don’t interrupt me, or I may not have the guts to tell you. You got mad, and you said I was a dirty little ex-con, and that I probably had a different cock up my ass every night when I was in the pen.” The words came out of Conor in a rush. Murray looked stricken. “Conor, I—“ “No, let me finish. And for God’s sake, don’t tell me you’re
sorry you said that. Why should you feel sorry for saying something you were really feeling, deep down? I’ll always be an ex-con, Murray, just like a recovering addict is always going to be an addict for the rest of his life. It’s something I have to live with, and if I’m going to stay here and work for you, then you’re going to have to deal with it, too.” “Conor, I’d never do or say anything to hurt you—not deliberately. Not when I was sober.” “I know you wouldn’t. That’s not the point. The point is, when you were drunk and not censoring yourself, that’s when your real feelings came out. And not just about me. About Derek, too.” Murray’s eyes narrowed. “Let’s leave Derek out of this.” “No, let’s not. Now it’s my turn to say something that’s probably going to piss you off. Here you’ve been, all this time,
The Temple of Skanda 97 still carrying the torch for Derek, acting like he was some kind of a saint and the great love of your life. But on Saturday night, when you tied one on, you finally stopped lying to yourself, didn’t you? You don’t still love Derek. You hate his guts. You’re angry at him for what he did to you. You’re angry at yourself for letting him get away with it for so long. And you took it out on me.” “No offense, Conor, but if I want to be psychoanalyzed, I’ll go to a professional shrink, not to an amateur.” “I knew you’d get mad at me again, but we have to have this out.” Murray took a deep breath. “All right. We’ll have it out. I’m listening.” “Derek is gone. You have to get over him and get on with your life. Otherwise it’ll kill you. The way it almost killed me.” “The way what almost killed you?” “What I went through. The whole prison thing. I want to tell you about it now. They ganged up on me, because I was the pretty little new boy on the cellblock. They took turns, two of them would hold me down with their hands on my throat and on my balls, squeezing me, while a third bastard fucked me up the ass. Then they’d switch. You don’t do much struggling when you’re being choked and at the same time your balls feel like they’re about to be crushed. You just open your mouth and your ass and let the dirty raping bastards shove it in you. I just laid there and let them do it. Guys tell themselves, ‘Oh, I’d rather die than put up with something like that, I’d rather kill myself.’ But you don’t die. You do whatever you have to do to survive. After the first couple of times I got raped like that, I decided that as long as I was going to be the cellblock whore, at least I’d be a smart whore.” Conor paused to catch his breath. Then, not looking at Murray, he continued: “I started to look around for some dude to hook up with, for protection. I didn’t pick any of the other cons. I hooked up with the meanest, toughest guard in the joint. I caught him looking at me, you know, when I was in the shower?
98 Roland Graeme I could tell he was interested, so I let him know I was available. I became his bitch. Any time he wanted a blowjob or a piece of ass, he’d take me to this storage room and we’d strip down and get it on. When word got around that I was his boy, the other cons left me alone, because they were all scared to death of that fucking sadist. “I knew how to play the bastard, to keep him interested. I let him think I really had the hots for him. And maybe, after a while, I did. Playing that kind of game can really mess up your head, until you don’t know what you’re really feeling and what you’re faking. I think that dumb prick actually started to fall in love with me. It got to the point where he started telling me all about how his wife didn’t understand him, not like I did—all that sort of shit.” Conor let out a bitter little laugh. “I made sure I got more out of him than just the protection. He got me assigned to an easy work detail; he’d slip me packs of cigarettes that I could exchange for things I wanted—that sort of thing. It was just like in the movies, Murray. Every damn cliché in the book except for the riot in the mess hall and the prison break. “Anyway, then I got out—early, what with me being such a ‘model prisoner’ and all. That’s a laugh. I was a model whore, was more like it. I guess my big, bad guard boyfriend has had to find himself another punk. I told myself I’d never let myself get into a situation where I could be taken advantage of like that again. I promised myself that from then on I was going to look out for Number One, and to hell with everybody else. Well, I guess it hasn’t quite worked out that way. When I met you, when I started working for you, I asked myself, ‘Okay, what’s in it for me? What can I get out of this De Souza guy? How can I play him, work him to my advantage?’ Only I don’t think I’ve ever played you, not really—have I, Murray?” Conor pleaded. “No, Conor. You’ve never done anything like that. You’ve always been honest with me.” “Well, that’s one thing I can say in my favor. God knows it’s about the only thing. Anyway, now you know the kind of guy
The Temple of Skanda 99 you’re dealing with.” Murray was silent for a moment. “Conor?” he said at last. “What?” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d like to hold you. Just hold you, just touch you. But only if you want me to.” “Go ahead.” Murray got up, joined Conor on the couch, and enveloped him in a hug. Conor let his arms slide around Murray’s bare back. He ran one hand down Murray’s spine and cupped his buttock through the lunghee. He hadn’t realized how fine-textured the cotton fabric was: it covered Murray’s flesh without impeding Conor’s touch, in a way that was almost more erotic than complete nudity would have been. “I’m sorry,” Murray whispered in Conor’s ear. “I’m so sorry I said those hateful things to you. Please, please try to forgive me!” “Forget about it.” “I don’t want to forget about it. I want to try to make it up to you, somehow.” “Well, this is a start,” Conor tried to joke, as he fought back tears. He held Murray in his embrace. He remembered how they’d embraced and kissed on the staircase landing, on Saturday night—and what that physical contact had led to. “You feel good. Nice and warm.” “You feel good, too.” “Murray. I’m starting to feel turned on.” “So am I.” Murray gently disengaged himself from Conor,
and, smiling self-consciously, resumed his seat on the quilt on the floor. “We’d better stop.” “Maybe I don’t want to stop,” Conor declared boldly. “Do you?” “Not really. But I don’t want you to think you have to do anything you don’t really want to do.”
100 Roland Graeme “Maybe I want to do something, Murray. Maybe I’ve wanted to do something for a long time. We’re going to do something now, aren’t we? Finally?” “I guess we are.” “I’m going to get undressed.” Shedding his sweatpants and socks was the work of a moment. Conor sat down naked on the quilt next to Murray. “Jesus, that fire’s hot!” “We could go upstairs, if you want. To my room.” “No, let’s stay down here, for now, anyway. I like it.” “I like the fire, too. It reminds me of India. If you’re lucky enough to be in a building that has air conditioning, there, and then you go outside—the hot dry air hits you just like this. It’s like opening the door of an oven or a blast furnace.” “You have to get naked too. I’m beginning to feel selfconscious.” “Yeah, right, I can see the shyness written all over you,” Murray teased him. “All right—” He sat up, undid the knot at his waist, and pulled the lunghee away from his body. “Satisfied?” “Not yet. Not yet, by a damn sight!” He stretched out on top of Murray and kissed him on the mouth. Their tongues dueled. Murray’s arms closed around Conor’s waist, hugging Conor to him in a tight embrace. They made love. Conor had expected something urgent, even violent, like their Saturday night encounter on the stairway landing. Instead, Murray seemed to want to take his time, to explore Conor’s body and let Conor explore his, to give things a chance to build up gradually. The hot, dry breath of the fire, flowing over both men’s bodies, made them sweat freely. They took turns going down on each other. Conor had to squeeze his eyes closed and clutch at the folds of the quilt they were lying on with both hands, as Murray once again lavished all of his oral skill upon him. Conor didn’t want to come too soon. He pushed Murray’s head away from his groin, then eagerly twisted himself around and devoured
The Temple of Skanda 101 Murray’s prick. He tongued Murray’s balls. The salty, sweaty taste of Murray’s skin intoxicated him. He yanked Murray’s ass cheeks apart with his hands and buried his face between them. “Oh, Jesus, Conor! I wanted to do that to you!” Too late, fucker! Conor thought. Too late! Me first! His tongue scoured Murray’s wildly flexing sphincter muscle, then stiffened and dipped inside. He licked Murray’s ass, his mustache and goatee tickling Murray. He observed—with savage satisfaction—that he was driving Murray wild. “I’m going to come if you don’t ease up on that a bit,” Murray warned. Conor broke his oral contact with Murray’s anus long enough to pant out, “Go ahead and come.” “Not yet. That tongue of yours is setting my asshole on fire. You’re going to have to fuck me.” “I’ll fuck you, Murray. Or you can fuck me. I’m so damn turned on; I don’t care what we do. I’ll do anything you want.” Murray jumped up. “Don’t move. Do not fucking move. I’ll be right back.” He dashed upstairs, naked. As hotly aroused as he was, Conor noticed with satisfaction that the step he’d recently repaired no longer creaked. He was a good handyman, he did good work—and he was going to do a good job on Murray, he swore to himself. Murray came down the stairs again, carrying a towel, a tube of lubricant, and a strip of no fewer than six condoms. “Six!” Conor laughed, as he took the rubbers from Murray. “What do you think I am, some kind of a sex machine?” “I was in too much a hurry to count, I just grabbed them out of the box. And a sex machine is exactly what I think you are, baby. Now shut up and fuck!” They were both past the point of taking things slow and easy, now. Conor’s erection felt almost painful as he unrolled a condom over it, and he suspected, from the looks of it, that Murray’s cock was just as acutely swollen. They got the preliminaries of
102 Roland Graeme smearing lubricant over cock and asshole out of the way very quickly. Then Murray pushed Conor down on the quilt, flat on his back, squatted over him, and sat on Conor’s cock. Both men let out hoarse cries of pleasure as their bodies were locked together. “Fuck me, Conor! Don’t hold back. I like it rough.” “Your ass is so tight and hot.” “I’ve wanted this ever since that first day you came here and
rang the doorbell. Oh my God, I’m not going to be able to hold it back. I’m going to come any minute now. Don’t stop, don’t stop, even if I do shoot. Just keep humping me like this for as long as you want.” Murray hadn’t exaggerated how close he was. He suddenly showered Conor’s sweaty, red-flushed chest with thick white drops of fluid. Coming, however, only seemed to send Murray’s ass into overdrive; he squirmed around Conor’s impaling tool, bounced up and down on it, rode it hard. Conor struggled manfully to keep plowing Murray in the way the man obviously wanted. But it wasn’t long before Conor, too, knew that he had passed the point of no return. He felt his cock spasm, repeatedly, as it filled the reservoir tip of the condom with his own hot jism. Conor lay there, breathless, with Murray on top of him. He could feel Murray’s heart pounding against his own, could feel Murray’s hot wet sweat dripping down onto him, mingling with Conor’s own sweat. The fire crackled and sent sparks flying up toward the chimney. They kissed. Several minutes passed before either man cared to break the spell with words. “‘Thank you’ seems kind of inadequate, but…thank you, Conor. Thank you so much.” “You’re quite welcome. I believe the standard cliché goes something like, ‘the pleasure was all mine’?” Murray laughed. “Oh no, it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.” He sat up and pushed his perspiration-dampened hair back from his
The Temple of Skanda 103 forehead. “All right, now that we’ve proven we don’t need to be drunk to get it on with each other—how about that drink?” “I’d kill for a cold beer right now.” “I’ll get ’em. You throw another piece of wood on the fire.” Conor discreetly got rid of the used condom, temporarily, by tossing it behind the stack of logs beside the hearth. He renewed the fire. Murray came back from the kitchen with the two beers. He sat down on the quilt beside Conor again and kissed him as he handed him one of the bottles. “Jesus, you make me horny,” Murray admitted, after he had reluctantly broken the kiss. “I almost feel like I could go again. How about you?” “Oh, I know I can go again. Think you can keep up with me?” “Don’t brag, sonny. I’m not that much older than you, remember? And there’s no bottle of little blue pills in my medicine cabinet. Not yet.” “I’ll be your little blue pill, baby,” Conor promised. “I’ll help you spring such a boner, they’ll be writing about you in the medical journals.” He took a swig of beer and went down on Murray’s cock. The experiment was an instant success: Murray’s shaft swelled inside his mouth, forcing Conor’s lips into a taut oval around its unyielding bulk. “Wait—!” Murray gasped. Conor eased his mouth off the other man’s cock. “Too much for you, huh?” he demanded, smugly. He took another swig of beer. They toyed with each other, drinking, playing with each other’s cocks, kissing. Murray deposited his empty beer bottle on the hearth. “I’m in the mood to get a little kinky, tonight. Do you like sex toys?” “I love ’em,” Conor answered automatically. Anything that Murray wanted them to do was fine with him. Still, he was surprised to discover that the other man was—well, apparently a
104 Roland Graeme lot less sexually conservative than he had assumed. “What have you got?” “I’ll show you. You go get us a couple more beers. I’ll be right back.” Murray dashed upstairs again, while Conor went into the kitchen and raided the refrigerator. Murray rejoined him in front of the fire. He had brought downstairs a small zippered black leather gym bag. “That’s discreet,” Conor commented. “What have you got in there?” “These, to begin with.” Murray produced a pair of alligatorstyle nipple clips, linked by a short length of chain. “Put them on me.” He sucked in his breath sharply, when Conor did so. “Yeah, that always turns me on. Now sit on my face.” Once they were in position, Conor reached down and tugged on the chain, pulling Murray’s nipples away from his pecs, while Murray feverishly licked his ass. “That’s right, baby. Lick my ass for me. Lick my ass. Get that tongue up in there deep. Clean me out. Oh, yeah, man! Don’t forget my balls. Rub ’em with your tongue.” As he licked Conor’s balls, Murray reached out blindly with one arm, found the gym bag, groped about inside it, and pulled out a black rubber dildo—a big one. “Oh, you want that in you, huh?” Conor guessed. Murray grunted. “I’m usually the one who gets fucked. I’m a little out of practice, the other way around.” “You did okay, a minute ago,” Murray teased him, after he’d finally relinquished Conor’s balls. He got onto his hands and knees on the quilt. Conor lubricated the dildo, and began to ease it inside Murray’s butt. “Oh, that feels so good. Put it all the way inside me, and fuck me with it, Conor. I used to sit on that thing and jerk off, thinking about you, in my bedroom at night. It feels so good, but it’s not you. I want you in there again.”
The Temple of Skanda 105 Conor was, somewhat to his surprise, really enjoying himself. Penetrating Murray with the artificial cock, pushing it in and out of him, gauging Murray’s response and modifying his thrusts accordingly, was quite arousing. “Oh, Conor, fuck me, fuck me with that big hard thing. Pound that dildo in and out of my ass. You don’t know how bad…you don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve had a man…I need to get fucked so bad. I’m so tired of jerking off alone in my bed at night. If only you knew how many times I’ve wanted to come down the hall and crawl into bed with you and beg you to make love to me—!” “I’d have done it, you dumb bastard. Any time. All you had to do was open my goddamn bedroom door. You wouldn’t even have had to knock. I’d have let you right in—into my room, into my bed. Into my mouth, into my ass.” “Let’s make up for all that lost time, right now.” “You’re going to pay for being such a prick teaser, for frustrating me for so long. I’m going to fuck you, all right, just like this,” Conor threatened, as he manipulated the rubber erection in and out of Murray’s rectum. “God, I am so hard. I’m so hard my cock hurts. I’ve got to take you; I’ve got to have your ass.” “Do it!”
Conor eased the dildo out of Murray and set it aside. “Get on
your belly. I’m going to fuck you jailhouse style!” He tore open a fresh condom packet, put the rubber on his dick, pushed Murray down flat on his stomach on the quilt, and stretched out on top of him. “Spread your legs,” Conor commanded. “And your butt cheeks!” He entered Murray in a single hard thrust, making the other man gasp and writhe beneath him. He slid his forearm around Murray’s neck and pulled Murray’s head up a little, pressing it against his own. “So you like it rough, huh?” Conor bit Murray’s earlobe.
106 Roland Graeme “I like it rough, from you!” “Well, that’s how you’re going to get it.” After their coupling had resulted in another explosive ejaculation for each of them, they relaxed on the quilt, basking in the heat from the fire, cooling their throats with more beer. “Are we getting drunk?” Murray asked. “I don’t think so. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m sweating this beer out of my system as fast as I can drink it.” Conor gave Murray’s bare back a languid caress. “Murray?” he asked. “Um?” “Remember how you asked me how long it’s been since anybody showed me any affection or made me feel special?” “Yes.” “It was about ten seconds ago. And I’m getting that same feeling again, right now.” “You’re sweet.” “And you’re hot. It sounds like a good combination. But before we get too carried away—there’s a lot you still don’t know about me, Murray.” “Really. I can’t imagine what.” “Well, for starters…okay, the last time I was tested, I was negative. But I’ve whored around a few times since then. Always with a rubber, I’m not stupid. But I guess you can never be sure.” “I’m negative, too. As far as I know. If I wasn’t, I would’ve told you—before we started in on all this tonight, you know.” “I probably ought to get tested again.” “Not a bad idea. Me, too. I’ll call my doctor, here in town, and set up an appointment. We can go in together. Unless you’d be more comfortable seeing Chandani—Dr. Mohatra, I mean— again, for something like this.”
The Temple of Skanda 107 “Wait. You want the two of us to walk into your doctor’s office together, to get tested—? Isn’t everybody going to think—?” “Think what? That the two of us are having sex with each other? It happens to be true. Finally! And even in a small town, there is such a thing as medical confidentiality. I would’ve thought that you and I were past the point of sweating the small stuff.” Murray laughed. “Anyway, I’m afraid your reputation was probably shot the minute you started working for me. Everybody here probably takes it for granted that you’re my houseboy slash hired stud, whom I imported from the city for the express purpose of gratifying my lust.” “And that you’re my employer slash sugar daddy, whom I ‘work for’ in more ways than one?” “Exactly. I rather enjoy being the object of a minor smalltown scandal.” “You joke about it, Murray, but…the other thing I wanted to tell you. I haven’t been just a thief. I’ve hustled, and not just on the inside. I’ve sucked men’s dicks and let them fuck me up the ass for money sometimes.” “I guess this is the part where I say, ‘I don’t care what you did before you met me, I don’t care about the past.’ Well I do care, a little. Sure, I wish you were some dumb little virgin, fresh off the farm, and that I was the first man you ever felt gay toward. And I wish I didn’t have all the baggage I’m bringing along to—to us. But it’s not like that. We are who we are. If you were different—well, then you wouldn’t be you. You wouldn’t be so— complicated. Complicated is good. I don’t need everything to be simple and easy and predictable any more, not at this point in my life. Before you came, I could feel myself getting boring and complacent. Shutting myself off, unwilling to take risks. Now—” He paused. “Say something, for Christ’s sake. Don’t let me just ramble on like a pompous ass.” “I like it when you talk like that. I wish I was better at putting what I feel into words. Kiss me.” They kissed. Murray smiled at Conor. “We don’t need words.
108 Roland Graeme Not as long as you keep doing this to me! Look at how hard my cock is again. The handyman slash houseboy had better get back to work!”
ChapTeR Six: aGni and muRuGan Murray sold two of the smaller bronzes, which he happened to have on display in the living room of the farmhouse at the time. He replaced them with two statues from the stock in the warehouse. Appropriately enough, the two bronzes he chose represented Indra, the ancient divinity from whom India took its name, and Agni, the personification of fire. He placed Agni on the mantelpiece, where the god of fire would surely feel most at home. Now that the colder weather had arrived, Murray and Conor used the fireplace every evening, and sometimes during the afternoons as well. Murray hoped that Indra and Agni weren’t shocked by what they witnessed going on in the living room. As though determined to make up for lost time, Murray and Conor made love every night—usually downstairs in front of the fire. “Getting out the quilt,” which they kept folded up nearby, became their private euphemism for “let’s have sex.” They now kept a supply of condoms and lube, along with an assortment of favorite sex toys and a clean towel, in the gym bag, discreetly tucked away on one of the living room’s bookshelves. Inevitably, too, they began sleeping together in Murray’s bed. Murray, Conor discovered, was an imaginative and inventive lover, who seemed to have few inhibitions. The two of them did, on occasion, indulge in what Conor had previously thought of— rather dismissively—as “vanilla sex.” But under Murray’s tutelage he was learning that vanilla could be an intense flavor in its own right, and highly satisfying to the palate. He enjoyed just kissing and cuddling with Murray, or indeed simply lying next to him in a close embrace, before and after their lovemaking. And when Murray did spice up their sex with a little kink, things heated up dramatically. Murray was willing to suggest and to try just about anything—at times, it seemed, for the sheer hell
110 Roland Graeme of it, in a reckless spirit of true sexual exploration. One night he lay belly down on his bed, spread his arms and legs wide, and invited Conor to bind his wrists and ankles to the bedposts with the silk ties draped on the statue of Ganesh, ties that Murray rarely had any occasion to wear. “Tighter,” Murray moaned, as he tested the knots. “Make ’em really tight!” With Murray helpless to defend his anus, Conor teased him, violating the puckered aperture first with his fingers, then with his tongue. He was putting on a rubber when Murray, straining against his tight bonds, made a further suggestion: “Don’t fuck me yet. Go get a piece of your dirty laundry, first!” Conor knew Murray well enough by now to comply without hesitation or question. He went to his own room and selected the jockstrap he’d worn the last time he’d gone jogging, and the pair of white cotton socks he’d worn under his work boots all day in the warehouse. Back in Murray’s bedroom, he unceremoniously shoved the sweat-dampened elastic pouch of the athletic supporter against Murray’s face. “Is this what you had in mind?” he demanded. Murray groaned with delight as he inhaled, sharply and repeatedly. The crotch odor lingering on the jockstrap intoxicated him. “Yeah, sniff that funky jock!” Conor commanded. He rubbed the jockstrap roughly against Murray’s mouth and nose, then tossed it aside and “forced” his prisoner to sniff the dirty socks. Murray’s hands balled into fists and his toes curled as he strained against his wrist and ankle bonds in what he knew was a futile effort to free himself. “You nasty fuck. You like that, don’t you?” Conor taunted. “You got no secrets from me, boy. I can see right inside your head. You come across like some kind of a goddamn gentleman,
The Temple of Skanda 111 but deep down inside you’re nothing but a dirty little sex pig. You’re no better than me. You’re just like me. Sniff it!” Murray sniffed in a kind of frenzy, as though Conor’s taunts, added to the bondage and the aroma, were so many whiplashes heightening his lust. Conor had an inspiration: he folded one of the socks and stuffed it into Murray’s mouth, then stretched the other sock around his head and tied it in back, to secure the gag. Murray grunted wildly in what both men knew was mock protest. Conor stretched out comfortably on top of Murray’s prone, bound body and shoved his cock up his ass. He fucked Murray long and hard, using him exactly as he wanted to, while Murray chewed on the sock in his mouth and Conor once again offered him the jockstrap to sniff. Their orgasms that night were unusually fierce. Kinkiness, however, could be a two-way street: Murray had enjoyed the bondage so much that, the very next night, Conor suggested they repeat the performance, but with Conor tied down this time. Murray topped him, adding the further refinements of a cock and ball harness, and the pair of nipple clamps joined by a chain. When Conor, spread-eagled on the bed face-down and bound to the bedposts, began to sweat and whimper in discomfort from the way the genital restraint stretched his ball sac and the alligator clips bit into his nipples, Murray pushed a rubber ball gag into his mouth and secured its straps around his head. Conor sank the edges of his teeth into the ball while Murray gave him a pair of pungent jockey shorts to sniff—and demonstrated that Murray was quite capable of delivering a good, hard, prolonged rough fucking, himself. Afterward, when he’d freed Conor, Murray soothed his chafed and swollen nipples with his tongue, as Conor relaxed in his embrace. “You’re a sick man, Mr. De Souza,” Conor complained, happily. “It’s your fault,” Murray laughed. “You bring out the worst in me. My goal now is to put some of that good old-fashioned
112 Roland Graeme dirtiness and nastiness and guilt back into gay sex. All these wholesome, well-scrubbed young numbers, pairing off with each other and adopting two-point-five children and a puppy, and moving into a house with a white picket fence in the suburbs—it gives me the creeps. Thanks to you, my pride in being a filthy sex pig has been restored.” “I’m always glad to be of service, boss.” But in fact they were already settling down into their own form of comfortable domesticity. Their sex play became just another part of the rhythm of their daily lives: a rhythm of work, meals, household chores, sex, sleep—and companionship. Conor was now making so little use of his own bed down the hall that he needed to change the sheets on it only once before their departure for India. He rarely had to bother to set his alarm clock since he got up when Murray did. On one such morning, Murray got out of bed and, standing there naked and yawning, picked up his wristwatch from where it was slung around one of Ganesh’s wrists and put it on. He looked up and frowned at the photo of him and Derek on the wall. “Maybe I should take that picture down.” Conor sat up in the warm bed, delaying the moment when he would have to haul his own butt out. “Why? It’s a nice photo— of you.” He no longer felt threatened by Derek—or so he told himself. Murray turned and smiled at him, still a bit sleepily. “Remind me to have a decent photo taken of you—on our trip or when we get back. Then I’ll put you up there on the wall instead so you can admire yourself.” Conor threw aside the covers, exposing himself. “Do you want a decent picture of me or would you rather have one of me like this?” “Get your ass out of bed and let’s go make breakfast, before you start something we don’t have time to finish.” Conor sighed. “It’s times like this when I remember you telling me how the De Souzas used to be slave traders.”
The Temple of Skanda 113 But, the joking aside, the one thing Conor was determined to do was to go on with his work, both in the warehouse and around the rest of the property, as though he and Murray were still no more than employee and employer. Conor wanted to avoid any suggestion that being Murray’s lover gave him any excuse to slack off. Although they hadn’t discussed the issue openly, Conor sensed that Murray understood where Conor was coming from, and respected him for it. Not that Murray was averse, now, to letting pleasure interrupt business, within reason. On one memorable occasion, Conor and James were working in the warehouse, when Murray joined them. “I need you to help me with something in the house, Conor.” “Sure.” Once they were inside the house, Murray led Conor through the kitchen, and into the living room. “What did you need help with, Murray?” “This.” Murray unzipped his pants. He had already “gotten the quilt out” and spread it in front of the fireplace, which was ablaze. The bag of sexual accessories was on the floor nearby. “I’ve got one fuck of a hard-on.” “Murray, it’s ten o’clock in the morning. I’ve got work to do.” “Your union has just renegotiated your contract. You’re now entitled to take a sex break, any time your boss tells you to.” “At least let me go lock the back door.” “Why?” Murray was already naked—and, Conor saw, very, very erect. “What if James were to walk in?” “Highly unlikely. Especially after that time he found you standing over there buck naked. If he wanted either of us, he’d just pick up the phone. And so what if he did come in and caught us fucking? I’d love to see the look on his face.”
114 Roland Graeme The little bronze statue of Agni got quite an eyeful that morning. Murray didn’t even have the decency to draw the living room curtains; he and Conor made love on the quilt with bright daylight flooding in through the windows. Once they were naked together on the quilt, some preliminary deep kissing quickly led to the two men taking turns going down on each other; then, as their mutual excitement steadily mounted, they slid their bodies into a sixty-nine. As they sucked, Conor began to explore between Murray’s buttocks with a fingertip. He knew how much his lover enjoyed being penetrated, and it wasn’t long before he replaced his fingertip with his tongue. He licked and teased Murray’s asshole, making the olive-skinned man thrash about as his mouth continued to feed upon Conor’s thick cock. When he’d first come out, years ago, Conor had still been inhibited about cocksucking. Now he was good at it. Very good at it. And he lavished all of his skill and enthusiasm upon his partner. When he sensed that Murray was ready, Conor broke away from him long enough to reach for the condoms and lube they now always kept beside the hearth. He stretched out on the quilt on his back with his legs spread and his hands cupped behind his head, his erection a perpendicular invitation. “Sit on my cock,” he urged. Not that Murray needed to be asked. He was already busying himself with a condom and the lube, applying both to Conor’s tool. Then he squatted on his heels over Conor’s groin and impaled himself on the latex-sheathed, slippery prick, pushing himself down around its bulk with a recklessness born of raw erotic need. “Ride it,” Conor gasped, as Murray, already masturbating himself, bounced up and down, forcing Conor in and out of his butt. “Oh, yeah, baby, keep riding that fucking cock! Get that motherfucker deep in your ass!” “Fuck me!” Murray pleaded. “Fuck me hard!” Their bodies were shiny with sweat long before they both
The Temple of Skanda 115 exploded, one after the other, Conor filling the tip of the condom far up inside Murray’s ass, Murray’s helplessly expelled semen blazing its wet trail across Conor’s stomach and chest. Murray slumped on top of Conor’s torso and treated himself to some further breathless kissing. James didn’t walk in on them, but the very next morning he interrupted his computer work to look up quizzically at Conor. “I thought so,” James said. “You thought what?” “You and Murray are finally doing it, aren’t you? Like jackrabbits, I bet.” Conor smiled sweetly at James. “Is it that obvious?” “Not on you, you slut. You always walk around here looking like you’ve just been laid, or are about to be. It’s Murray. He keeps going around with this big goofy grin smeared all over his face. And every time he looks at you—Jesus, it’s like the nonsexual scenes in some gay porno movie, you know, the ones that set up the premise for the action.” “Oh, so you’ve actually seen some gay porno films, have you? That’s interesting. Did you get bored downloading all that hetero porn on company time?” “Don’t change the subject, O’Malley. It’s not that I mind Murray being in such a good mood lately. It’s great, as a matter of fact. But I have to warn you—if you two start kissing and groping each other and making out in front of me, I may barf.” “I’ll keep that in mind, and I’ll remind Murray that you’re a young man with delicate sensibilities who’s very easily upset.” Conor paused. “Aren’t you going to ask me?” “Ask you what?” “What Murray and I do together and how good is he?” James grimaced. “I have no interest whatsoever in the subject.” “Liar. I can tell you’re dying to know. So I’ll tell you anyway.
116 Roland Graeme Murray is hot as hell in the sack, once I get him going he can’t get enough, and we do everything with and to each other that two dirty, nasty, filthy sex pigs can think of. And we love it. Oink, oink.” Snorting with laughter at his coworker’s expense, Conor went back to his work. James shook his head. “Disgusting,” he muttered, as he turned his attention back to his computer screen. “Absolutely disgusting!” Despite the bravado he displayed for James’ benefit, Conor still had his moments of insecurity. He was sitting on the couch one evening, watching TV with the sound turned down so as not to disturb Murray, who was engrossed at his computer. Finally, Murray ended his lengthy session, turned the computer off and joined Conor on the couch. He rested his hand on the back of Conor’s neck and stroked his hair. “Spence told me to say hello to you. He’s really looking forward to meeting you.” “You and he seem to have an awful lot to talk about.” “Well, of course we’re making plans for the trip, and so forth. And Spence is really the only guy I can talk to about you—about how hot you are, and how great it is to have you around, and how I’m afraid sometimes of losing—” Murray broke off, and looked at Conor, quizzically. “Why, Conor,” he said with a smile. “You’re jealous!” “I am not!” But as suddenly as Conor’s temper flared up, it cooled down again. “All right—so maybe I am, a little.” “I can’t imagine why.” “Can’t you? Here’s this hotshot college professor, who knows all about the things you’re interested in. And on top of it, he has to look like a damn porn star. How can I compete with a guy like that?” “What makes you think you have to compete with anybody?”
The Temple of Skanda 117 “I don’t know. I wish I was smarter, for one thing. I’m afraid you’ll get tired of me.” Murray’s hand moved down to Conor’s shoulder, and he pulled Conor against him in a hug. “Not very likely. And I wish you’d stop putting yourself down. Now listen. I’m not the complete innocent you seem to think I am, Conor. Just because I went through a long dry spell during which I had a monogamous relationship with my own right hand—that doesn’t mean I didn’t have alternatives, had I chosen to take advantage of them. I still remember how to cruise for sex partners on the Internet. And, for that matter, I still have my address book, full of the names and phone numbers and e-mail addresses of my old friends and fuck buddies. If I ever wanted to, I could always get in touch with one of them and invite him to come down here for a weekend, or I could suggest going to visit him myself. But I don’t want anything like that. I want to be with you. But that doesn’t mean the two of us should isolate ourselves completely from other people, does it?” “No.” Conor hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt. Murray kissed him. “Tomorrow, we’ll both knock off work early, okay? And then we’ll do something together in the afternoon and evening. Just the two of us. Whatever you like. You decide.” Conor decided he didn’t care what he and Murray did, as long as they did it together. They ended up driving to a shopping mall to buy some things they needed for the trip, including supplies of sunscreen and insect repellant. Then they drove out into the country and stopped at a roadside inn for lunch. On impulse, they also pulled into a plant nursery, where bulbs for fall planting were in stock, and bought tulips and daffodils. Back home, they planted the bulbs in front of the house, then took a walk through the woods. The ground was carpeted with fallen leaves. In the evening, they made dinner—and then, of course, they made love on the quilt in front of a blazing fire. As far as Conor was concerned, it was a perfect day.
118 Roland Graeme One morning in the following week, Conor drove to the city to keep his appointment with Dr. Mohatra. Wincing, he submitted to inoculation. Afterward, he and the doctor went to lunch together. They talked about Murray, and Conor’s job, about India and the upcoming trip. Dr. Mohatra insisted that Conor start calling her Chandani. “That’s a pretty name.” “My parents thought so. It means ‘moonlight,’ you see.” “It suits you.” “Stop flirting with me, young man.” Conor smiled, but then became serious. “I need your advice on something.” “Of course.” “Murray and I just started sleeping together.” “Oh, thank God. That’s exactly what he needs right now.” Conor gave her a censored account of how Murray had gotten drunk that night, and what had happened subsequently. “I don’t see the problem,” Chandani said. “I can’t help thinking about Derek, even though I tell myself that he’s all over and done with. Wondering how I measure up against him.” “So that’s it. Well, Derek could be charming. But I have to admit I never cared much for him. He was the kind of man who takes everything for granted. You know, the type who has a certain sense of entitlement, and expects other people to like him and defer to him, no matter what. I will say two good things about him: he was sociable, and he helped to bring Murray out, in every sense of the word. Murray is a bit of an introvert, and it wasn’t easy for him to tell his family he was gay, although they accepted it more readily than he’d anticipated. If there was one thing Derek believed in, it was guilt-free sex. After he and Murray broke up, I really began to get worried about Murray, living all
The Temple of Skanda 119 by himself in that house and refusing to see most of their old friends. That’s why I was so glad when you came along and took the job. You’re probably the best thing that could have happened to Murray, even though you’re not at all like Derek. Except in one way, maybe. I imagine you’re very good in bed—” “Chandani!” “What, I’m not allowed to talk about such things? I’m sure you’re a wonderful lover. If you’ll forgive me for saying something that might seem rather sexist, you are what they used to call a man’s man. I’m afraid I’m old-fashioned enough, probably because of my upbringing, to think that if two men are going to have sex with each other, they might as well both be masculine. That way, they can get the most out of it. You don’t need to be charming, Conor—not in that superficial way Derek was so good at. You’re too grounded in reality for that. You’re direct and honest and generous. I don’t think you give your friendship easily. That’s what Murray needs, first and foremost—a friend. Be his friend, but be his lover, too. Above all, just be yourself. Stop comparing yourself to Derek.” “I guess that’s good advice.” “Of course it is. I am a professional, after all! And besides, I’m a woman. Giving advice is in our genes, especially when it involves matters of love and sex.” Chandani wanted to pay for their lunch, but Conor wanted to treat her. They compromised, splitting the check and the tip right down the middle. As his and Murray’s departure date neared, Conor’s anticipation mounted. He continued to work his way through the books about India in Murray’s library, including a couple of dog-eared paperback travel guides. These, however, were a less useful source of information than Murray himself. He advised Conor on what clothes and other items to pack, and how to pack them—as efficiently as possible, since they’d be traveling light. “You want cottons and synthetics that breathe,” Murray warned. “We might not be able to do any real laundry the whole
120 Roland Graeme time we’re there. What you need are things you can wash out by hand and hang up to dry overnight. And believe me, in that heat, they will dry.” Murray packed the lunghees that he wore around the house. He opened a drawer in his bedroom and pulled out a stack of new ones, still crisply folded inside plastic wrappers. “I always stock up on these when I go on these trips,” Murray laughed, “and then, once I’m home, I end up wearing the same old ones all the time. Here, you can have a couple. They’re extremely practical. All the men in the village wear ’em, so you might as well go native while we’re there. Let’s see…bright green with flowers; and hot pink with cobalt blue stripes. Very masculine. You ought to look very butch in them. Take this checked one too; it’s a little less dressy!” “Murray, you can be a real bitch.” “Wait until I get you away from here, and have you all to myself. Then I’ll show you no mercy.” Murray was smiling, but gradually the smile faded, and an oddly wistful expression replaced it, as though Murray’s thoughts were suddenly far away. But he reached out, put his hand on Conor’s cheek and gave his face a lingering open-palmed caress. When he spoke, his voice was serious: “I can’t wait to show you India, Conor. If you only give it half a chance—I promise you, this trip could change your life.” Conor raised his own hand, closed his fingers around Murray’s wrist, and turned his face so that his lips slid across Murray’s palm. He kissed it, then tickled it with the tip of his tongue. Murray let out a little purr of pleasure and he smiled again when their eyes met. “Why don’t I go downstairs,” Conor suggested in a whisper, “and get out the quilt?”
ChapTeR Seven: a niGhT in Chennai The first thing Conor noticed was the heat in the air, a heat that was not only palpable, but visible: it made the air just above the surface of the tarmac waver and ripple, as though one’s vision had suddenly blurred. They’d landed at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, outside of Mumbai. The terminal they found themselves in was a vast, chaotic space—and it was, Murray explained, only one of the four separate terminals on the site. Conor was grateful to be with an experienced traveler like Murray; without him, he would have felt lost. “You grab a seat over there and watch our bags,” Murray suggested, after they’d made their way through customs. “I’ll go check on our connecting flight, and then call Spence at the hotel in Chennai and let him know when he can expect us.” Conor sat down and people-watched. The long flight from New York to Mumbai, with a brief stopover at London’s airport, had been almost enjoyable, once he’d gotten past a slight sense of claustrophobia at the prospect of being confined inside the fuselage of a plane for so long. He and Murray had slept for some of the time, in their adjoining seats; the rest of the time, they’d watched a dull movie, read, listened to music via headphones, and—removing the headphones—they’d talked. Conor had been stowing his book in his carry-on bag when he saw inside it a square white envelope he didn’t remember packing. He pulled it out. Hey, O’Malley, you asshole! was scrawled on it in James’ unmistakable handwriting. “Now I know why James insisted on carrying my bag out to the car,” Conor said. “I should’ve known he was up to something.” “Open it,” Murray urged. Inside was a greeting card, which James had obviously made
122 Roland Graeme himself by downloading a photo from the Internet and printing it onto blank card stock. The picture was a remarkably lurid image of a guy in a sling, nude except for boots, a leather torso harness, and a dog collar buckled tightly around his neck. He was sucking a muscular leatherman’s cock, which protruded through the open crotch of the man’s leather chaps. James had doctored the photo by digitally cutting and pasting an image of a bronze statue of Shiva onto it. One of Shiva’s four arms was apparently inserted up to the elbow in the cocksucker’s ass. Murray nearly choked with laughter when he saw it. “Good Lord. Maybe we ought to start putting pictures like that up on the website. It might bring in a whole new clientele.” Conor opened the card. The message was succinct: ENJOY YOUR HONEYMOON! James had signed his name in an exuberant scribble. “Remind me as soon as we get home to take that little bastard over my knee and give him a good spanking,” Conor said. “He might enjoy it. I know I would. Will you give me a good spanking sometime, Conor?” “Sure, boss. All you have to do is piss me off enough. I know what I should do. Send him a postcard saying we really did get married, and we aren’t coming back for a month or two. That’ll fix him.” Murray laughed. “I wish we could stay that long. But seriously, Conor—tell me what you think about this whole gay marriage thing.” “Well, of course I believe in equal rights and all that, but I’m not so sure I want to settle for just imitating the way straight people live. I’m not sure the typical straight marriage is all that worthy of emulation.” “That’s interesting.” “I think we’re gay for a reason, and that we do think differently from straight people about certain things. I think we can be close to other men—and I don’t mean just sexually, although of course that can enter into it—without expecting every single one of
The Temple of Skanda 123 them to develop into a long-term relationship. It’s like you said once—I’m kind of astonished when I see these young gay guys in their early twenties rushing to pair up and get married. I wonder if they’ve really been around enough to know what they want out of a relationship. Personally, I wouldn’t want to make that kind of a commitment to another man unless I was absolutely certain I could live up to what I was promising.” Conor paused, and caught the pensive look on Murray’s face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean that I don’t care about you. You know I do. But—” “No, I understand.” Murray put his hand on top of Conor’s, which was resting on the seat between them and gave it a little squeeze. “I thought we’d agreed that we wouldn’t apologize to each other over every little thing we say, and that we’d be honest with each other, and not censor ourselves before we spoke.” “Yes, but I don’t ever want to say anything to you that might hurt your feelings.” “I appreciate that, Conor, but I’d rather have you say it and give me a chance to react to it, than keep it bottled up.” Conor hesitated. “Then can I ask you a very personal question?” “I think you’re entitled.” “Looking back—in retrospect, from where you are now—if you had it to do over again, would you rather have been with Derek all those years and still broken up with him, or do you think you’d be better off now if you’d never gotten seriously involved with him?” “I don’t know. No. I do know. I can’t regret having been in love with Derek. I wouldn’t be the person I am now, if I’d never known him. And even breaking up with him—there’s a reason for that cliché about ‘whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’ It happens to be true. I don’t think we can truly appreciate the good things in life, as opposed to just taking them for granted, unless we’ve experienced the bad things as well.” Murray smiled, and gave Conor’s hand another squeeze. “My, we’re getting very
124 Roland Graeme serious, aren’t we?” They had also talked about lighter things, including their schedule once they arrived in India. At one point Murray had consulted his watch. “It’s odd to think that Spence is on a plane too, at this very minute,” he remarked. “He ought to be landing in Chennai right about now, if he’s on schedule.” They had arranged that Spence would hire a car in Chennai and pick them up at the airport there, if at all possible. Otherwise, the three men would meet at what Murray warned Conor was a strictly utilitarian, business-class hotel where he had booked two rooms—one for them, the other for Spence. Murray rejoined him, looking pleased. “I can’t believe it. For the second time in a row, that connecting flight is actually supposed to take off on time. Bringing you along must have brought me luck. And I got hold of Spence. He got in okay. He’ll be able to meet us.” Murray smiled at him. “How are you holding up? Are you tired?” “A little. I do feel awfully grungy; I can’t wait to change these clothes. But I’m starting to get my second wind.” “We only have about an hour and a half to wait. It’s too bad that’s not enough time to go take a real look at Mumbai. There are some typical airport shops, here in the terminal. We can walk around, take a look in them, and then sit down and have a drink— in one of the equally typical airport places where passengers can sit down and do that.” Conor laughed. “Let’s do that. I want the complete experience.” “This isn’t the real India. You’ll get your first look at that, though, soon enough.” The two-hour flight from the west coast to the southeast coast seemed short by comparison to what they’d just endured. Once again, Murray interrupted their conversation to check his watch. “We’re more than halfway there.”
The Temple of Skanda 125 Conor, who had the window seat, checked out the view but there wasn’t anything to see except clouds. “I bet we’re flying over the Taj Mahal right now,” he said, excitedly. Murray smiled. “I’m afraid you’d lose that bet. The Taj Mahal is in Agra, quite a distance north of here.” “Have you been there?” “I’m embarrassed to say that, in all the visits I’ve made to India, I have never been to Agra, or seen the Taj Mahal. People back home are usually horrified when I admit that. On the other hand, a lot of people have been to India and seen nothing except the Taj Mahal—and the inside of airports, of course. I’ve still managed to see some interesting things.” Murray put his hand on top of Conor’s, which was resting on the seat cushion between them. “And I want to show them all to you, and see new ones with you.” The Aringar Anna International Airport was in fact located in a place called Tirusalam, about four and a half miles south of Chennai itself. This airport was Mumbai’s all over again, although it had a mere three terminals. “Lads!” a voice bellowed from across the terminal. It was Spence, nattily attired in khaki shorts, hiking boots, a bright yellow T-shirt, and a very Australian-looking sort of outdoorsman’s hat, tan canvas with a snap brim. He whipped the hat off his head and waved it about exuberantly. “Here I am, lads!” First Murray, then Conor, found himself crushed in Spence’s strong-armed embrace. The photos of Spence that Conor had seen via the Internet had concentrated on his face: Conor wasn’t prepared for his massive shoulders, pecs, and biceps, or for the sturdy, chiseled thighs revealed by those khaki shorts. “I don’t think men are supposed to kiss each other in public, here in India,” Spence said, breathlessly. “Unless they’re relatives, maybe. Oh, fuck, you can be my distant cousins.” He limited the kissing, for the time being, to a quick peck on each man’s cheek. “I’m so glad to meet you both in person, at last! You’re both much more handsome than your photos. Isn’t Conor a beauty? I
126 Roland Graeme want to take him back to Darwin with me.” Spence had less of a stereotypical Australian accent than Conor had anticipated, no doubt as a result of all the time he’d spent in other countries. He chattered nonstop as he led Conor and Murray to the parking lot. “We’re going to ride in this?” Conor finally managed to interject, when he caught sight of the open-bodied Jeep Spence took them to. “Sure. I leased it from the place in Chennai that you recommended, Murray,” Spence protested. “It looks like it’s left over from World War II.” The Jeep, admittedly, had new tires, with deep treads; but its body—which had, at some point in the past, been painted a particularly unlikely shade of pale lime green—was in decidedly rough condition. Protruding from its rear, mounted behind the spare tire, was an extra storage compartment, bolted and welded together from steel plates and pipes. “It probably is,” Spence admitted, “but I took a good look under the bonnet. The motor’s been refurbished, and everything else that’s crucial seems to be in good shape. It’ll get us to where we want to go, and back. Trust me, I’ve driven on the back roads here in India in much worse.” Murray, too, was eyeing the vehicle just a bit skeptically. “I’ll take your word for it, Spence. But is that a bullet hole there?” “Don’t be melodramatic. I think it’s just a rust spot that’s eaten its way all the way through.” During the brief drive from Tirusalam to Chennai, Conor, who sat beside Spence in the front passenger seat, had his first experience with Indian traffic. It was terrifying. Drivers passed other vehicles either on the left or the right, seemingly at random, and Conor expected, at any moment, to be given a personal and fatal demonstration of the law of physics that forbade two objects from occupying the same space simultaneously. “Oh, my God,” he choked, after one particularly hair-raising close call with another vehicle. “I can’t believe I flew all the way
The Temple of Skanda 127 to India, just to meet a horrible death in a car crash!” “Relax,” Murray told him, from where was lounging, quite at ease, in the back of the Jeep next to their bags. “I can see that Spence has done a lot of driving here. He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll get us there in one piece.” “I swear to God, if we get to Chennai alive, I’ll never suck a cock again.” “Don’t make any rash promises, lad,” Spence guffawed. “You may live to regret it! After all, you haven’t seen my cock, yet. It could make a priest forget his vows. Come to think of it, it has, on more than one occasion.” “All right. I swear to God, if we get to Chennai alive, I’ll never have sex with a woman again.” “That’s more like it. How many women have you had sex with?” Spence wanted to know. “Two. It didn’t do much for me. Or for them, either, to be honest. So I won’t really be giving up anything.” Spence took one hand off the steering wheel so that he could shake his fist at one persistent truck driver who kept trying to cut them off. “You stay the bleeding hell behind me, you stupid bugger!” Spence roared at the man, who seemed unperturbed. “Why don’t you blow the horn at him?” Conor asked. “You don’t use the horn, here, to warn other drivers away or let them know they’re idiots,” Spence explained. “You sound it to show that you’re in a good mood, or if you see something you like. Then you give it two sharp toots, like this.” As they passed a young man on a motorcycle, Spence tapped the horn twice in rapid succession. “Hey there, pretty boy—do you like to fuck?” The youngster was too startled to respond, either verbally or with a gesture, before the Jeep sped past him. “Really, Spence!” Conor protested. “I’m just trying to make us new friends,” the Australian claimed. “I’d rather not spend my first day here in a police station,
128 Roland Graeme Spence, trying to explain why I’m traveling with a certified sex fiend,” Murray said. But, Conor could tell, Murray’s whole attitude toward Spence was that of an indulgent older brother who knew it would be a waste of time and effort to try to constrain his delinquent sibling. The streets in downtown Chennai seemed almost as chaotic as the highway, but, half-convinced that they might now reach their destination alive, Conor was able to relax a little and observe the activity all around them. He was startled by his first look at an urban Indian transport system: the bus drivers often took off from the curb before all of their passengers had actually boarded, and people seemed to think nothing of jumping onto the outsides of the buses and clinging precariously to them as they rolled along. It wasn’t long, either, before Conor saw his first city cow, strolling casually alongside the traffic. “We really are in India!” he exclaimed. “Is this what you expected?” Murray asked. “Yes and no. Sure, it looks like the photos you see in books and magazines, and like the travel programs on TV…but it’s so much more, I don’t know, intense? The heat, the colors, the sounds—!” “The smells,” Spence joked. “Don’t forget the smells.” “They’re not so bad, so far.” “You keep up that positive attitude, mate.” Their hotel, on a side street, looked neglected on the outside, badly overdue for a new coat of paint, and the interior proved to be a match. This hotel didn’t have central air conditioning; the rooms were equipped with individual units, large and antique looking, but efficient enough, in the sense that they didn’t exactly chill the air, but lowered its temperature to a level of mere warmth. Their rooms were on an upper floor, which meant a slow climb in an antiquated elevator; Spence’s room was across the hall from the one Murray and Conor would share. Spence excused himself and went into his room, giving them a chance to get settled and freshened up. Their room was small, but adequately furnished,
The Temple of Skanda 129 with a double bed, a TV, and an attached bathroom with a bathtub. A showerhead, mounted on a contraption of pipes that looked like the work of an amateur plumber, was aimed optimistically at the tub. “The cold water faucet is likely to be lukewarm at best,” Murray warned Conor, as they freshened up. “And the hot faucet probably will feel exactly the same, right now. There’s only hot water here in this hotel between six and ten a.m., and again between six and ten p.m., so we missed the morning window of opportunity.” “No problem, Murray. I can’t imagine wanting hot water, or anything hot, in this heat.” “Are you sure this hotel is all right? I mean, we could theoretically find a vacancy in something a little more upscale, even now.” Conor caught an undertone of anxiety in Murray’s voice. “This is fine. After all, about all we’re going to do in here is sleep, aren’t we? I’d like to get out and see the city.” “You see, the money we save here, we can spend on other things.” Conor noted that Murray, tactfully, said “we,” not “I,” even though he was paying for virtually all of Conor’s expenses on the trip. “I stayed here with Derek,” Murray went on. “He didn’t like this place much—to put it mildly. He wanted us to check into one of the luxury hotels, and was willing to pay for it himself, but of course we couldn’t get in at such short notice.” Conor couldn’t help being aware that Murray, who previously had scarcely so much as mentioned Derek’s name to him, now talked about him quite matter-of-factly. That was an encouraging sign, he thought. “Well, I’m not Derek. This place suits me perfectly.” Murray seemed relieved. “No, you’re not like Derek at all. You are so very different from him. I wish—” He broke off,
130 Roland Graeme stepped closer to Conor, and smiled at him as he lifted one hand to brush Conor’s hair back from his forehead. “What do you wish, Murray?” “That we could have met years ago.” They were about to kiss, when Spence banged on their door. “Are you two decent in there?” “No, but come in anyway,” Murray told him. “Oh, fuck. You are dressed. Both of you.” During their conversation, Conor and Murray had finished changing clothes. “I was hoping for a good look at one pair of nice firm American buns at the very least.” “I’ll arrange a private showing, later,” Conor retorted, meeting the Australian on his own verbal ground. “Murray will, too, if you’re nice to us.” “Speak for yourself, you little exhibitionist,” Murray protested. But Conor could tell that he was enjoying the banter. “I’m famished,” Spence announced. “Let’s grab some lunch. My treat.” That sounded fine to both Murray and Conor. “Where shall we go?” “Should we look for a place that has Western dishes, or are you guys ready to sample the local fare?” Murray asked. “Let Conor decide. It’s his first time in India, after all.” “Oh, I want to try the local food,” Conor said. “All those people coming and going on the sidewalks must eat somewhere. I’d like to try the kind of stuff that ordinary working-class people eat here.” “That won’t be hard to find,” Murray promised. Nor was it. Within fifteen minutes, they were seated in a busy, unpretentious restaurant; they were the only non-Indians there. Conor scrutinized the menu, which was printed in both English and Tamil. “What the heck are ‘Indian Made Foreign Liquors’? I mean, isn’t that kind of a contradiction in terms?” “Oh, those are whiskeys, rums, and brandies made here, as
The Temple of Skanda 131 opposed to the expensive imports,” Murray explained. “They could be anything from very good to awful. I’d recommend one of the local beers, instead.” “Why don’t you just order for me, Murray? I’m ready to try just about anything.” “Brave lad,” Spence joked. Murray, to Conor’s surprise, ordered in only slightly halting Tamil, supplemented by pointing to various items on the menu. Spence fired off his own order, much more fluently. “I didn’t know you spoke the local language, Murray.” “I don’t. Well, I can bluff my way through it—certainly order a meal, ask for directions, that sort of thing. And count money, when it’s a question of business negotiations. I’m not the kind of linguist that Spence is. On my first trip here, I had to hire a guide who could translate.” “Most of the people here in the cities speak at least some English,” Spence pointed out. “Or this pidgin mixture that they sometimes call Tanglesh. It’s not until you get out into the remote rural areas, like where we’re going, that you find people who speak only Tamil.” “Yes, but luckily the workers in my village have had a little more contact with the outside world than some do, so most of them are bilingual,” Murray said. Their cold bottled beers arrived, followed quickly by plates of food. “All right, what are we eating?” Conor asked. “It all looks good, I must admit.” “Until you’ve had a chance to get acclimated, I’ve steered clear of the really spicy hot stuff,” Murray assured him. “These are pancakes stuffed with potato and onion. These are lentil doughnuts. The condiment is coconut chutney. All standard fare. This is murgh massallam, chicken marinated in yogurt, spices, and herbs, with nuts. And what’s that you ordered, Spence?” “It’s called rogan josh—chunks of beef in red sauce. And they
132 Roland Graeme call this kind of bread, in the big triangle shape, naan; it’s fresh baked and stuffed with almonds and dried fruit. Try some of both of them, Conor.” Everything was good. Spence ate like a horse, and encouraged his companions to do the same. Between mouthfuls, he gleefully reported that, even though he had arrived in Chennai less than twenty-four hours previously, he had already “gotten to know one of the local boys,” as he put it. “I was taking a stroll yesterday evening, not far from here in George Town, which is what they call the main downtown business district here, Conor, and I was minding my own business—why are you looking at me like that, Murray? What, don’t you believe me? I was minding my own business, I swear, when this perfectly charming young man came up to me and offered me his services as a guide. I could tell right away he was a pro, so I told him I didn’t need a guide, but I might be interested in some of the other services he might be willing to provide. One thing led to another and we quickly negotiated the price, and I took him back to the hotel with me. Like a lot of workers in the sex industry, he wouldn’t let me kiss him, but he was willing and I dare say eager to do just about anything else. He gave me a good hard fucking. I must say that it never seems to fail, no matter what part of the world you’re in—the gay men may suck cock better, but the straight and bisexual men know how to fuck better. Maybe it’s because women are less easily satisfied than we gay blokes tend to be.” “Uh…how’d you know this guy was straight, or bisexual?” Conor asked. “Oh, he’s married. With four children. He showed me their pictures, in his wallet, afterward, when I was paying him. Charming family, from the looks of them. I imagine that hustling isn’t just a way of supplementing his income. I forget what he said he does for a living, I mean during the daytime; some sort of an office clerk, I think. The prostitution is probably also a form of birth control. You know, give the wife a break from her conjugal obligations, most nights. I have his phone number, by
The Temple of Skanda 133 the way, if either of you is interested.” Murray laughed. “No, thanks. I’m quite happy with the guy I came to the dance with.” He smiled at Conor. “You two are so cute. That reminds me. I mean, getting reamed out like that, last night, is what reminds me. Which of you two is the top, and which is the bottom?” “We both like it both ways,” Murray admitted. “How delightful for you.” “It has been, so far.” “I’m envious.” “And I’m still hungry,” Murray laughed. “As long as you’re so free with your money, and lunch is on you, I’m going to order dessert.” They all had desserts: rice pudding, made with milk and thickened to a creamy consistency; spirals of fried batter soaked in syrup; and little diamond-shaped pieces of a fudge-like cake. They all sampled each other’s choices. “I think I’m going to like eating here,” Conor said. “That was good.” Spence paid the bill. “What’s on the schedule for the rest of the afternoon?” “I have to do my shopping,” Murray said. “You guys can tag along, if you feel up to it. It won’t take long.” Conor was surprised. “I thought we had everything we need for the trip tomorrow.” “I always stock up on gifts for my friends in the village. The men are easy to shop for. Cigarettes for the ones who smoke. A couple of cases of liquor. Boxes of condoms. A fresh supply of lunghees.” Spence laughed. “It sounds like everything you’d need for a party. Lose the lunghees, in fact, and it sounds exactly like my kind of a party.” “The women require a little more time and effort. I usually get them saris, at a nice shop near here. Of course, you can’t just
134 Roland Graeme give a woman a gift here directly. You give the saris to the guys, and they give them to their wives and to their female relatives. So since the women are always thrilled to have something new to wear, you’re doing the men a big favor, too. They’re always grateful. “It’s got to be the right kind of sari, too. These village women prefer the local product—the basic cotton sari meant for everyday wear. They don’t like the ones made from synthetic fabrics, and the fancy silk and brocade ones, meant for special occasions, would be wasted on them. They’d be thrilled to own one, as a status symbol, but they might not ever actually wear it. I made that mistake on my first trip.” “Well, after that meal, I’m definitely up for some shopping,” Conor declared. “Me, too,” Spence agreed. “Good.” Murray grinned. “Frankly, I’m probably going to need a couple of strong backs, and extra hands, to help me carry everything.” Murray got behind the wheel of the Jeep, and, negotiating the city traffic with nonchalance, soon pulled up and parked near the sari shop. It turned out to be a large space, cooled by ceiling fans, with long counters for the customers to stand or sit at. Quite a few of these customers, Conor noticed, were men, shopping alone or in pairs. The female customers seemed to be accompanied by their husbands, or were in little groups. The sales clerks were all men. They were kept busy taking neatly folded saris from where they were stacked high on shelves behind the counters, and showing them to the customers, invariably by unfolding the saris and spreading them out over the countertops. “They know me here, so we won’t have to waste much time haggling,” Murray promised. One of the clerks recognized Murray and invited them all to sit down and offered them tea. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have some women working here, selling women’s clothes?” Conor asked Spence in an
The Temple of Skanda 135 undertone, after taking a first cautious sip of the hot tea. “Welcome to India,” Spence replied. He also took care to keep his voice down. “But, seriously, this society isn’t really any more sexist than most of the West still is. It’s just sexist in different ways, and more overtly. This is obviously an upscale sort of establishment, and, as such, it’s taken for granted that the sales clerks are men. The guys who are here without their wives are buying saris for them, or for their female relatives, and they’ve brought their buddies along to provide moral support, and help them choose. It’s common, here, to give your housekeeper, or your maid or your cleaning lady, a new sari as a gift, every now and then. And when there’s a wedding, the groom’s family is expected to hand out new saris to every lady in the wedding party.” “Just look at all the different colors,” Conor commented, as he observed the clerks at work, interacting with their customers. “It’s amazing.” He noticed, too, that it seemed to be standard procedure for a clerk, carrying a sari or two in his arms, to escort a customer out onto the sidewalk outside the shop, so that the customer could see what the fabric looked like in the glaring sunlight, as opposed to the artificial light inside the shop. The protocol also seemed to require a certain amount of small talk between customer and clerk, before they actually got down to business. Murray was conversing amiably with the clerk, who spoke excellent English. Once these pleasantries were out of the way, however, Murray knew exactly what he wanted: “I’d like to see some Madurai and Kanchipuram saris, the nice lightweight ones. Some Chanderi weaves, too. And Coimbatores. All in pastel shades. Nothing with really fancy borders or embroidery, and nothing with a big pattern on it.” “I’m not sure I’m comfortable traveling with a man who takes such an interest in shopping for women’s clothes,” Spence whispered to Conor. The clerk, however, seemed delighted to be dealing with so decisive a customer. He began to take some of the compactly folded saris down from the shelves and, deftly unfurling them, sent waves of fabric rippling across the countertop for Murray
136 Roland Graeme to inspect. Even though he avoided the deep hues, the range of the more delicate tints was astounding: light coral, sandy beigebrown, mauve, lavender, peach, and maroon. Conor could see that most of the saris were not monochromatic, as they had seemed to be at first glance, but had subtler contrasting borders, and were shot through with threads of complimentary colors, or were composed of small overall checks or stripes. With so many beautiful colors to choose from, it seemed to Conor that it would be impossible to go wrong. Murray quickly made his choices, and added a few saris in pale violets and blues to the pile of those he wanted. “I need some blouse pieces, too,” he told the clerk. “Blouse pieces? What are those?” Conor asked Spence. “Smaller pieces of cloth, that the women use to cut and
sew to make the bodice that they wear under the sari,” Spence explained. “Sometimes they’re the same color as the sari, or even the same fabric; usually they’re not, so that it makes a contrasting effect. The sari, of course, is just a long rectangular piece of cloth—so one size fits all. The bodice, on the other hand, has to be tailored to fit. As a matter of fact, the women in a rural village, like the one Murray’s going to take us to, may not always wear the bodices. They probably drape their saris in one or more of the traditional ways, that keeps both breasts covered, even with nothing underneath. That’s a lot more comfortable in really hot weather. It’s nice of Murray to give them a choice. ” “I thought Murray was the one with the suspicious interest in women’s clothes. You seem very well informed on the subject, Spence.” “Well, I am an anthropologist, after all. It’s my job to know about such things. And, I used to date a drag queen in Kolkata, once,” Spence said, airily. “To preserve the illusion, he didn’t like to get completely undressed when we did it. You’d think it would be awkward to have sex with a man who was wearing a sari, physically awkward, I mean, with all that fabric draped around him in those elaborate folds and pleats. But no…he’d just hike the skirt part up around his waist, into this big bunch of cloth,
The Temple of Skanda 137 and—” “What are you two whispering about?” Murray wanted to know. Conor suppressed a giggle. “The saris, that’s all. They’re really beautiful.” “Well, I’m done. I’ve bought enough to ensure us a permanent welcome in the village, at least as far as the ladies are concerned. Each of us is going to have a couple of heavy shopping bags to carry.” “Here I thought you were interested in me for my intellect,” Spence protested, “when all you wanted was a pack horse.” “You’re a very smart and good-looking pack horse,” Murray said, soothingly. “The shop I like to go to for men’s clothes is right down the street, so we can walk there.” This establishment was a smaller version of the sari shop: shelves, counters, and an all-male staff. Conor admired cotton and silk examples of the dhoti (the wraparound garment that was more voluminous and formal than the lunghee), vests that resembled sleeveless jackets (and were indeed meant to be worn without a jacket over them), and the tunic tops and pajama-like bottoms called kurtas and churidars, respectively. This shop also sold Western-style suits—described, on a sign on the wall, as Suits Highly Gratifying to the Male Ego. “What are all these long scarves?” he asked Spence. “They’re called dupattas. Both men and women wear them, usually draped around the neck with the ends allowed to hang down loose.” Some of the dupattas were long and narrow, but others seemed unusually wide for neckwear—more like shawls, or even small, lightweight blankets. The range of colors and patterns was extraordinary. “The ones in the coarse cotton fabrics are really very practical,” Spence pointed out. “If the weather turns cool or wet—and it can get cold here at night, believe it or not—or the wind starts
138 Roland Graeme kicking up a lot of dust, you can wrap the dupatta right around your head and shoulders, really bundle yourself up.” “Maybe I’ll buy one. It might come in handy on the trip south. And I can wear it back home, too.” Conor examined some of the price tags, mentally converting rupees into dollars. “And they’re not expensive at all, most of them.” “You don’t pay that price,” Spence cautioned him. “In fact, you don’t look at the price tags. You say, ‘Ithan vilai enna?’ which means ‘How much?’ And then, when they tell you, you look amused and say, ‘Thayavu seithu konjam kuraikavuam’—loosely translated, ‘You’re going to have to let me have it a lot cheaper than that.’” “Easy for you to say.” “Let me do the talking.” Murray was being shown a selection of lunghees by an efficient-looking clerk, in a repeat of what had taken place in the sari shop. Conor noticed that the lunghees Murray liked tended to be more intensely colored and boldly patterned than the saris he had chosen; evidently, in the typical rural Tamil village, the men were the peacocks, their plumage more brilliantly colored than that of their females. Spence, when another clerk approached him and Conor, engaged the man in a discussion in rapid-fire volleys, with the occasional English word or phrase thrown in. “What are you two up to?” Murray asked. “Buying dupattas,” Conor boasted. “To wear on the trip
tomorrow. And haggling.” “Oh, dupattas, a good idea. Pick out a couple for me, will you? It’s always good to have a spare on hand when you’re traveling, in case you want to wash one out and let it air dry.” “What colors do you like, Murray?” “Oh, you choose, Conor. Something suitably masculine, of course.” Conor picked out two scarves for himself, one beige-brown,
The Temple of Skanda 139 the other a deep rust red, both with simple geometric designs embroidered on them in contrasting black thread. Spence went first for a loose, asymmetrical design of stylized birds and trees against a cream background; and, as a second, backup dupatta, a repeated pattern of rows of equally stylized deer, in pale lavender on a deep indigo blue background. “Dude,” Conor couldn’t help teasing him, “only a man who is extremely sure of his masculinity would dare to wear something like either one of those!” “They’re pretty. And I like animals. And, if you have any doubts about my masculinity, my lad, I’ll be glad to give you a demonstration, when we get back to the hotel.” The “suitably masculine” designs that Conor selected for Murray were stripes in mustard yellow and pale green; and, taking a leaf from Spence’s fashion book, a repeated pattern of white squares, each with a black dot in its center, against a soft purple background that shimmered in the light, with rows of small, stylized black and white horses trotting along the edges. Spence negotiated a price for all six dupattas that struck Conor as remarkably low; Conor insisted on paying for them himself. “My gift to you, Spence. After all, you bought us lunch.” “Nandri! That’s how they say ‘Thank you’ here.”
The other clerk was carefully slipping Murray’s stack of
lunghees into a shopping bag. “All done,” Murray said. “We might as well face it,” Spence sighed, when they were walking down the sidewalk again. “We gay men all have the shopping gene hard wired deep inside us.” On the way back to where they’d parked the jeep, they amused themselves by window-shopping, and occasionally going inside a store to check it out. One shop had a vending machine near its entrance, with small plastic packets containing some sort of liquid. The front of each packet had a logo and a design with a waterfall. “What’s this?” Conor asked. “Some sort of a soft drink?”
140 Roland Graeme “Oh, you see that all over India, now,” Murray explained. “It’s water from the source of the Ganges, up in the foothills of the Himalayas. Hindus often keep a little container filled with water from the Ganges in their homes, for their household shrine. It’s for good luck, but they also use the water in puja ceremonies, to ritually bathe the images of the gods, and so forth.” “They drink it, too,” Spence volunteered. Conor grimaced. “You’ve got to be kidding.” “Not at all. It’s supposed to have medicinal properties. Selling it like this, prepackaged I mean, is still a bit controversial. Some devout Hindus believe it’s wrong to sell the water for profit, and that doing so negates its properties. The bloke who came up with the idea of packaging and selling it like this is making a mint, of course.” Spence put two coins in the vending machine’s slot and retrieved a packet. “See what it says on the back—according to the blurb, this water, in addition to being good for the digestion, ‘has the spiritual healing power to dispel all diseases, cleanse you from sin, and to achieve your salvation.’ That’s quite a bargain for the price. Of course, in my case, if this stuff can really cleanse you of your sins, they’d have to start selling it in hundred-gallon drums.” Conor laughed. “You’re not really going to drink it, are you?” “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve always wondered what it tastes like. It’s not from the part of the Ganges where they dump all the sewage and the dead bodies in. I imagine it’d be reasonably safe, although I might hedge my bets by adding a little alcohol to the mix.” Spence grinned at Conor, his eyes dancing. “Do you dare me to?” “Spence, I only met you a couple of hours ago, but I wouldn’t dare you to do anything. If somebody dared you to run out into the street and throw yourself in front of one of those buses, you’d probably do it—and the scary thing is, you’d do it even though you’re stone cold sober.” “Well, I didn’t really intend to drink it. I’m sure the Hindu gods won’t be offended if I just use it to freshen up a little. Here,
The Temple of Skanda 141 I’ll show you a trick, and start breaking in the dupattas.” Spence took one of his new cotton scarves, the one with the bird-andtree motif, out of the shopping bag and unfurled it. He tore open the perforated top edge of the plastic packet of water, and poured some of the water onto the center of the dupatta, soaking it. Then he wound the voluminous length of cotton loosely around his neck and shoulders. “Oh, that’s heaven,” he reported after a few moments. “I can already feel the water evaporating and cooling my head.” Murray and Conor wanted to try it, too, and soon The Dupatta Trio, as Murray dubbed them, were strolling down the street, all sporting scarves wetted with the sacred water from the river. They piled into the Jeep. The next stop was a small, nondescript warehouse on a side street. “You guys can wait here,” Murray said, as he got out of the Jeep. “This’ll only take a minute. I placed the order and paid for it ahead of time, and they e-mailed me the confirmation, so all I have to do is sign for it. ” Sure enough, he returned promptly, carrying two sealed cardboard shipping cartons, each the size and shape of a large suitcase, and a smaller square carton. “What the heck is in here?” Conor asked, as he helped Murray stow the boxes in the Jeep. “One box is the cigarettes and the other one is the rubbers. I ordered an assortment of them—ribbed, unribbed, reservoir tip, pre-lubed, unlubed, and so forth. And the smaller box is big tubes and cans of assorted latex-compatible lubes.” Spence—unusually for him, Conor suspected—was momentarily taken aback. “Jesus, Murray—what’re you planning on doing, love gloving an entire army?” Murray laughed. “In all seriousness…I do try to do my little bit to encourage the villagers to practice birth control, if they choose to, and certainly to practice safe sex, if—well, let’s just say, if they choose not to limit themselves to monogamous relationships.”
142 Roland Graeme “When we get to this village,” Spence wanted to know, “are these villagers going to revere you as some sort of a god? I mean, if a good-looking bloke like you showed up on my doorstep back home in Darwin, bearing all these gifts, I’d sure as hell fall down and worship him. On my knees, with my mouth open.” “My friends in the village aren’t as unsophisticated as you might think.” “I’m beginning to think they aren’t unsophisticated at all. The nightlife there is starting to sound rather intriguing. I can’t wait to experience it.” “The place where I buy my booze is near here,” Murray said. “It’ll be the same deal, they’ll have it waiting for me. I got one of those permits that cuts through the usual red tape when a foreigner wants to buy more than a couple of bottles of liquor at a time.” “My God, Murray, you think of everything,” Spence exclaimed. “I’m sorry, Conor, but that decides it. I want to marry Murray and bear his children.” “You can’t have him. I saw him first.” “Anyway, I’m holding out for a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony,” Murray joked. “I want to walk around the sacred fire seven times, the whole bit.” They were soon adding two wooden crates of liquor bottles to the Jeep’s load. “That’s all I need,” Murray reported. “What do you guys want to do now?” “I’ve got an idea,” Spence said. “Why don’t I take all this stuff back to the hotel? I’ve already tipped the concierge and gotten him on my side; he’ll help me haul everything up to my room, where I can stow it, for safekeeping. While I’m doing that, you can take Conor for a ride in one of those motor rickshaws, over there. That’s a good way to see some of the city.” “That sounds like fun.” The rickshaws, Conor saw, were lined up at the equivalent of a taxi stand; they seated two passengers.
The Temple of Skanda 143 “Are you sure you don’t mind, Spence?” Murray asked. “Not at all. I usually take a quick nap at this time of the day,
actually.” “We’ll see you back at the hotel, then,” Murray said. “Take your time. See some of the sights.” They got into one of the rickshaws, and Murray gave the driver instructions. “I thought we might as well spend an hour or two somewhere that’s air conditioned,” Murray explained, “so I told him to take us to one of the museums that has a big collection of old bronzes; the kind that the pieces I buy are often modeled on. I thought you might enjoy that, since you did so much reading about them back home.” “That sounds really interesting.” The mercifully cool, quiet interior of the museum was indeed remarkable for its displays of bronzes, most of them hundreds of years old. Murray, who had seen the collection before, was an ideal guide, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about everything they saw, and eager to share his insights with Conor. Outside the museum, they had no difficulty finding another motor rickshaw stand. “This really is a great way to see the city,” Conor said, as they got under way. “Isn’t that a mosque over there, with the crescent on top?” “Yes, there are Muslims here, although they’re a minority.” “Everything here is so interesting. I’m so glad you brought me along.” “I’m glad I did, too. Like I told you once, I think, you may see men holding hands in public here. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything—anything sexual, anyway. But public displays of affection beyond that—whether hetero or homo—are frowned upon and might offend the locals. Especially if it’s a couple of foreigners doing it. Otherwise I’d kiss you right now. So consider yourself kissed.”
144 Roland Graeme “And you—consider yourself more than kissed.” “Than reminds me, I wonder if Spence is really taking a nap,
or if he wanted to get rid of us so he could give his married male prostitute a call.” “That occurred to me, too,” Conor admitted. “I wouldn’t put it past him.” “I like Spence, though. He’s exactly what I expected him to be—only more so.” “I like him, too.” “We have another hour or so to kill. Would you like to see one of the temples?” “Sure.” “I know one near here that has a platform with a good view of the ocean. Of course, you have to climb a long flight of hot stone steps to get there—barefoot, since you have to check your shoes at the entrance. Are you up to that?” “Murray, I’m up to anything. Lead on.” Murray gave the driver directions. There was no mistaking the temple as they neared it: it was a towering mass of masonry, tier upon tier piled high like the layers of a wedding cake, with—it seemed—every available square foot of external space elaborately carved and decorated. “Non-Hindus aren’t allowed into the actual sanctuary,” Murray explained, as they shed and checked their shoes, and stuffed their socks into their pockets. “But we can see everything else. If any excessively friendly guys come up to us offering to show us around, for a fee of course, ignore them, it’s a scam. I usually pretend I’ve suddenly gone deaf and dumb, or that I don’t speak English, Tamil, or any other recognizable language. It’s considered polite to make at least a token donation to the priests, for the temple upkeep and so forth; that I have no problem with.” They examined colossal carvings on the walls depicting the ten avatars of Vishnu. The Hindu religion, apparently, didn’t
The Temple of Skanda 145 have any problem with having money changers present in the temple, so to speak: there were stalls selling various items, notably flowers, and what Murray explained were called puja thalis—little prepackaged cellophane-wrapped plates filled with colorfullooking offerings of grains, dried fruits, and candies. Murray purchased one. “As long as we’re here, we might as well go all the way. I’ll hand this to one of the priests, and slip him a few rupees. Even though we can’t go inside the sanctuary, he’ll take it in there and perform a puja, offering it to the god on our behalf. That ought to score us a point or two with the local divinities.” They began to mount the flights of worn, sun-baked steps, which were every bit as hot as Murray had predicted. “Oh my God. We couldn’t have come here on a cloudy day, could we?” Conor joked, as the stones seemed to sear the soles of his feet. “At this rate, I’m going to have to start doing a dance. Hopping up and down like Shiva in his ring of fire.” “You’ll get used to it. There may be a bit of a breeze once we reach the top.” Halfway up, there was another open courtyard, with more sculptures. Murray handed the puja thalis and the money over to a priest, and exchanged a few words with him in Tamil—which seemed to earn them a hint of respect not extended to some of the other obvious tourists who were milling about. The priest bowed, with his hands held in front of him and his fingertips touching together so that his hands formed a pointed arch; Murray and Conor returned the bow and the gesture, and the priest vanished into the dark interior of the temple. Murray and Conor made the final climb to the broad viewing platform. On one side, the upper stories of the temple rose like a manmade mountain, with the stone images of the deities clinging to its sides in seeming defiance of gravity, like so many gargoyles. Murray and Conor walked around the platform and took in the various views before turning their attention to the east. In the distance, beyond a crowded harbor, was a vast expanse
146 Roland Graeme of bluish-green water extending out to the horizon. The sea and the sky seemed fused into one great bowl of incandescent blue. The late afternoon sunlight was a deep golden copper hue. “There,” Murray said. “You can see the Indian Ocean. The Bay of Bengal, to be specific.” “God, how beautiful. Look at the big tankers, way out there. And all the little sailboats with their white sails.” “Those are probably fishermen.” They were facing east; Conor noticed that the sun, behind them, was making their shadows exceptionally long and narrow. “The sun’s starting to go down already. I can’t believe the day’s gone by so fast. My first day in India.” “Do you really like it here? Are you still glad you came along on this trip?” “Murray, this is wonderful. I’m so glad you brought me along. Words fail me; I can’t tell you how happy I am at this moment. I don’t even mind the heat any more.” Murray put an arm around him. “Nobody’s looking. You’re going to get that kiss, after all.” He did, however, confine himself to a quick peck on Conor’s cheek. “Let’s head back to the hotel and see what that scamp Spence is up to.” Spence, who insisted that he had in fact done nothing more exciting than take a shower and a nap, was ready to eat again. Murray knew a good restaurant within walking distance. Spence urged Conor to try palm wine with the meal. “It’ll make a man out of you, mate. But it’s very intoxicating,” Spence warned, “so go easy on it. I suppose you want to make an early night of it, Murray, so we can get a good early start in the morning?” “That would be best.” “At least we won’t be traveling by train.” “I know what you mean, Spence, but not all of the trains in India are crowded and dirty.”
The Temple of Skanda 147 “All the ones I’ve ever been on were. And once, in Kerala, I was on a train at night when a woman actually went into labor and had her baby, right there in the car, with a couple of the other women passengers jumping in as midwives. Speaking of saris, I remember they used their pallus, you know, the end of the sari that’s draped over the shoulder and the back, as screens, to give the poor woman some privacy. Very ingenious. When I suggested to the ticket taker that he might want to have the train stopped, he looked at me as though I was crazy. I was surprised the bastard didn’t make her pay for an extra ticket for the child. I must say that the lady took it all very well. Her husband, on the other hand, was literally hysterical. Some of the other men and I had to take him to the far end of the car and sit him down and keep him distracted during the whole ordeal.” They had kulfi, a coarse-textured ice cream shaped into cones and flavored with pistachios, for dessert. Murray suggested that they take a brief stroll around the vicinity of the hotel, before retiring for the night. “It’s a nice night,” Conor observed. “Still hot, though.” “I had the TV in my room on this morning, and I caught the weather forecast,” Spence said. “I’m surprised there doesn’t seem to be any major rain in the offing. This is the tail end of what they call ‘the retreating monsoon,’ when you still see an occasional downpour. We may luck out on our trip.” “Oh, I don’t mind getting a little wet,” Conor said. Murray laughed. “Spoken like a man who’s never been caught in a real monsoon. Essentially, you resign yourself to staying soaked.” “That’s why Murray told me to hire an open car,” Spence pointed out. “It’s a tradeoff. Putting up with the dust, and maybe some rain—as opposed to broiling all day under a metal roof.” “Well, I think I can take anything India can throw at me,” Conor boasted. Now it was Spence’s turn to laugh. “Famous last words!”
148 Roland Graeme They decided to check out a small café, which, they noted for future reference, was open twenty-four hours. They all had coffee to counteract the effects of the palm wine. “I doubt if any of us will have any trouble going to sleep tonight,” Spence commented. “Even with a little caffeine in our systems.” He taught Conor how to say “no sugar”—“chini nahin”—and “no milk”—“dudh nahin”. The coffee, freshly ground and filtered in front of their eyes, was mixed with hot milk and sugar, if one chose, and served frothed up in stainless steel tumblers. It was incredibly good. “This is probably an Arabica variety grown right here in the area,” Murray guessed. Back at the hotel, they parted company for the night in the hallway, in front of Murray and Conor’s room. Spence gave them each a goodnight kiss, decidedly not platonic, and full on the lips. “If either or both of you lads feels in the mood for some company during the night, all you have to do is knock on my door.” “Spence, you are absolutely shameless,” Murray said. “And the worst part is, you’re damn proud of it, too. Good night.” In their room, Murray and Conor quickly stripped. They were still in time for a hot shower, before the ten p.m. hot water cutoff. They took turns in the shower stall. Conor was surprised that lathering up under the hot spray felt so good, even though he continued to perspire after he’d toweled himself off. They got ready for bed. Conor had a confession to make. “I never imagined I’d hear myself saying this, but…Murray, even after drinking that strong coffee, I am so sleepy I don’t think I can make love to you tonight. I couldn’t get it up right now on a bet.” “I’m tired, too. But in a good way, not worn out tired. I feel nice and relaxed after that shower. Let’s just cuddle.”
The Temple of Skanda 149 They turned out the lights and gratefully slipped into the bed together, drawing the sheet up as far as their waists. Conor turned onto his side, and Murray nestled close against him, spoonfashion, his chest pressed to Conor’s back, his crotch pressed to Conor’s butt. Murray draped his arm across Conor’s torso. “Push that hot little ass of yours right against my cock,” he urged. Conor complied. “Don’t start something neither of us can finish, as you always say.” “I just want you to get comfortable.” Faint traffic noises from the street below penetrated the windows, competing with the hum of the air conditioner. The city, like cities everywhere, was still awake, still active—indifferent to the two Americans’ exhaustion. Conor almost preferred the sounds to silence. He knew he wasn’t going to have any trouble falling asleep. Not with Murray’s warm naked body next to his and Murray’s arm embracing him so protectively. “I do like Spence, don’t you?” Murray asked. “He seems like a nice guy. He’s certainly a lot of fun. I wonder how much of all those outrageous stories he tells is true, how much is exaggerated, and how much he just makes up on the spot, to get a rise out of us.” “I don’t think it matters. He’s definitely an entertaining traveling companion.” Murray hesitated. “Conor—?” “Um?” “Are you attracted to him? Sexually, I mean?” “Honestly?” “Of course I want you to be honest with me.” “Yes. If I wasn’t with you, I’d go to bed with him. Assuming he’d be interested in me that way, of course.” “Oh, he’s definitely interested in you, that way. I can tell.” “He likes you, too, Murray. Not just as a friend. I mean, he respects you for your intelligence and everything, but he’s got the
150 Roland Graeme hots for you, too.” Now it was Conor’s turn to hesitate. “Would you like to have sex with him?” “Honestly? Yes. What gay man in his right mind wouldn’t want to have sex with Spence? I mean, just look at him.” “Why are we having this discussion, Murray?” “I think it’s important that we talk about these things, keep them out in the open. Not hide anything from each other.” “I agree.” “Remember how jealous you were, back home, when I was spending all that time with Spence on the Internet?” “You would have to remind me of that. I’d almost forgotten about it.” “You don’t feel threatened by Spence anymore, do you?” “I’d describe Spence as a lot of things, but he’s not exactly threatening.” “Except to the extent that he might come between us,” Murray said. “But he’s not your rival. He’s our friend. Even so— if I played around a little with Spence, would you be jealous?” “Only if you liked it so much you decided to run off to Australia with him,” Conor teased. “I would never do that, and if I did, I’d have to take you along with me. I wouldn’t be able to function without my shipping clerk slash handyman.” Murray kissed Conor’s shoulder. “My being attracted to Spence doesn’t change how I feel about you.” “And you know how I feel about you, Murray. If we’re going to be honest with each other…if I had sex with Spence, sure, I’d probably enjoy it. A lot. But only if I knew that it couldn’t change…well, us.” “You are so sweet. You are so beautiful. It would be selfish of me to keep you all to myself and never be willing to share you with anybody else.” “Murray, I feel the same way about you. I want you to be able to have a life outside of me, if you know what I mean. I want you
The Temple of Skanda 151 to have friends. Even friends with benefits, as they say.” “Let’s make a pact. If either or both of us ends up getting it on with Spence, before this trip is over…we’ll enjoy it for what it is, and it won’t change what we have together back home.” “Agreed.” “You already sound half asleep. I’m keeping you awake. Good night, Conor.” “Good night, Murray.” They slept together, deeply and calmly. Outside, the traffic noises continued in the hot Indian night.
ChapTeR eiGhT: a Snake in The bed In the morning, the Dupatta Trio had breakfast at the café and bought a supply of food items there that could be wrapped up and taken along on the trip for lunch. Then they settled their bill at the hotel and, after securing everything carefully in the Jeep—making good use of its jerrybuilt rear storage bin—they set off, with Murray behind the wheel this time, because he knew the route well. “We’ll avoid the main highways once we get out of the city,” he explained, “and take some of the secondary roads. It’ll be a bit longer, in terms of the actual mileage, but on the other hand there’s likely to be a lot less traffic, so we should in fact make better time.” “You’re the boss,” Spence told him. Conor, like Spence, sat back and enjoyed the ride. There seemed to be no consistency to the landscape; it changed continually. The road transected flatlands one moment, and ran between rolling hills the next. Fertile farmland alternated with desolate, parchedlooking acreages and wetlands. The one thing that was consistent was the dust: the Jeep’s tires churned up steady clouds of it, even at comparatively low speeds. When the traffic thinned out and Murray drove fast, they were assaulted by miniature sandstorms. “Where is everybody?” Conor remarked after the first few hours. “I mean, it’s been a while since we’ve seen any other people except in other cars and trucks.” “I know what you mean,” Murray replied. “I noticed that, too, the first time I came here. You think of India as this incredibly densely crowded country, and it is, of course, in the urban areas. But once you get out of the cities and into the countryside, it can be just like this, for long stretches. But don’t worry, we’ll be passing through some small towns and villages soon enough.
154 Roland Graeme Then we’ll look for a tea shop, the kind of place that caters to travelers, where we can get some tea and eat our lunch.” The tea shop they chose was modest, basically a roadside stall with a ramshackle sit-down eating area attached; it was obviously patronized by commercial truck drivers—a good indication of an eatery’s quality in India as well as back home in the States. They sat down, not inside, but on the grass in the shade under a nearby palm tree; they drank their tea, had a picnic with the food they’d bought in Chennai, and then returned the cups to the shop. Conor noticed that the truckers seemed to travel in pairs, invariably a mature man and his noticeably younger backup. “There’s a sort of apprenticeship system,” Spence explained. “The younger guy is along to do the shit work, while he’s learning the ropes. And it’s not uncommon for him to be expected to service the older driver sexually, as well, on a long trip. You almost look shocked, Conor. I’m surprised.” “It seems a bit exploitative, that’s all.” Conor had his own reasons for not liking the whole idea of one man sexually exploiting another. “Welcome to India, mate. The old caste system is technically illegal here, now, but it’s still very much in effect in people’s minds. There’s a pecking order to everything. A person is defined by where he stands in that hierarchy.” In the afternoon, Spence and Murray took turns driving. “When do I get my turn behind the wheel?” Conor asked, after Murray took over from Spence again. “Tomorrow, when we’ll be on some really rural roads, with even less traffic than now, and you won’t have to worry too much about running into anything unexpectedly,” Murray promised. As though to underline his words, he suddenly had to swerve to avoid a low pile of rocks in the middle of the road. “Christ!” Conor exclaimed. “It almost looked as though those rocks were put there deliberately, the way they were stacked on top of each other.”
The Temple of Skanda 155 “I’m sure they were,” Spence laughed. “Somebody probably had a flat tire, but no jack, so they used the stones they found on the side of the road to lift up the car so they could change the tire. That’s quite common here.” “Okay…I have to ask the obvious question: why didn’t they put the stones back on the side of the road when they were done, instead of leaving them right out there in the middle like that?” Spence laughed. “You’re still thinking like a non-Indian, lad. Don’t worry, it’ll start to wear off, once you’ve had a chance to fully immerse yourself in the local culture.” “I warned you we’d be roughing it,” Murray reminded Conor. “Especially from now on. We’re getting into the real Tamil territory.” The afternoon passed quickly. The landscape was beautiful, and if they had harbored any doubts up to now, there was now no question they were in the tropics. They passed lush green fields planted with rice, separated by coconut groves and mangrove thickets. Between the two of them, Spence and Murray were able to identify, for Conor’s benefit, most of the trees and large plants they saw: jacarandas, tamarinds, silk cotton trees, mangos, jackfruits, bananas, papayas. The list seemed endless. “You can really eat off the land, here,” Murray commented. “And that’s exactly what a lot of these people do. There are commercial crops, too, of course—tea, coffee, sugar cane, pineapples. And all the spices, like vanilla, pepper, turmeric, coriander, and cardamom.” “Stop it,” Spence protested. “I’m starting to get hungry, again, just listening to you.” “Oh, look! There are monkeys in all of those trees!” Conor cried, excitedly. “Filthy buggers,” Spence said, dismissively. “I think they’re cute.” “You wouldn’t think they were so cute if one of them came up to you, attacked you, and scratched or bit you,” Spence said.
156 Roland Graeme “Which has happened to me, on more than one occasion.” “They probably attacked you in self-defense,” Conor retorted. “You were probably trying to fuck them, you horny bastard.” Spence had the good grace to laugh. “Okay, guys,” Murray said, after another hour or so. “Even though I know the sun is just starting to dip down toward the horizon, it’s time to start thinking about finding a place to spend the night. Nobody who isn’t feeling suicidal would drive on these roads after dark. If we make it an early night and get up at the crack of dawn, we should be in the village around noon tomorrow.” “You’re the boss. I assume we don’t have reservations anywhere?” Spence asked. “They’re not needed along this stretch. There are a couple of so-called motels coming up soon. They’re, shall we say, unpretentious at best. The kind of places that Bette Davis described so eloquently in Beyond the Forest as ‘What a dump!’ Do you want to take a chance and try one of the ones I haven’t stayed at, so far?” “Sure,” Conor said. They eventually decided to “take a chance” on the Imperial Palace Motor Hotel, a ramshackle one-story structure set back from the road, which was neither imperial nor a palace; its main attraction was the fact that it had a restaurant. A sign proclaimed that this motel was The Favorite of the Gracious People. “That’s us, for sure,” Spence declared. In the tiny office, a small brass statue of Ganesh sat on a shelf,
festooned with a string of blinking blue Christmas lights. On the wall above Ganesh was a calendar with a photo of snow-covered mountains, and a poster with a smiling girl in a sari, advertising cigarettes. There was no sign of a desk clerk; Murray rang a bell on the counter—repeatedly. “The Christmas lights add a real touch of class,” Spence commented.
The Temple of Skanda 157 “Yes, I should do something like that with the Ganesh I have in my bedroom back home,” Murray laughed. “But here in India, they don’t called them ‘Christmas’ lights. They paste a label over the word ‘Christmas’ on the box and call them ‘altar’ lights.” Conor examined the wall calendar more closely, including the photo’s caption. “Why does this calendar have a picture of the Swiss Alps, instead of the Himalayas?” “Obviously another indication that we have stumbled onto a truly first-class establishment,” Spence suggested, facetiously. The bored-looking desk clerk finally wandered in. The motel, it turned out, had only single occupancy rooms, dirt cheap. After they had booked themselves into what were grandly described as Imperial Suite One, Imperial Suite Two and Imperial Suite Three, the travelers discovered the reason for both the single occupancy and the low cost: each room was barely larger than a walk-in closet and the bathroom was a communal facility far down the hall. Spence inspected each of the three “suites” in turn, then went to harangue the desk clerk. After a brief delay, a young boy appeared and replaced the ragged, dirty sheets and pillowcases in the rooms with linens that were equally ragged, but had the appearance of recent laundering. “Oh well, it’s a roof over our heads for the night,” Spence said. “I’ve been in much worse, believe me.” They hauled their gear, including the gifts for the villagers, out of the Jeep, dividing the gifts among the three rooms for safekeeping. “I can’t see any point in dressing for dinner,” Murray quipped, as they stood at the end of the hallway, taking turns in the bathroom relieving themselves and scrubbing some of the dust of the road from their faces and hands. “I can’t wait to check out the restaurant.” Their timing, at least, had been on the mark; the sun was setting as they seated themselves at one of the two tables in the small, grimy dining area. A back door, propped open, looked out
158 Roland Graeme onto a yard with chicken coops. Not all of the chickens were cooped up; several roamed freely about the yard, pecking at the dirt in pursuit of insects, and one plump fowl was casually strutting back and forth inside the restaurant. It ignored the three travelers. The desk clerk, looking a tad surly after his encounter with Spence, apparently doubled as maître d’hôtel and waiter. “You want to eat?” he asked, sounding incredulous. “Yes, please,” Conor said politely. “Can we see a menu?” “No menu. You want chicken?” “Ah…sure. Spence, Murray, what do you think?” “Chicken sounds good. Make it chicken all around, for three,” Spence declared. The desk clerk disappeared back through the doorway. They heard him yelling at somebody. The boy who had changed the sheets appeared, grinning, brandishing a small, rusty-edged machete. He picked up the chicken from the floor, carried it and the machete outside, and a moment later there was the distinct thunk sound of an unceremonious decapitation. “Oh my God,” Conor gasped. “At least we know the chicken’s going to be fresh,” the unflappable Spence teased him. “We’re lucky it’s not road kill.” The desk clerk reappeared. “Chicken will take short time to prepare. What would the gentlemen like to drink?” Bottled beer was available, so they played it safe by ordering that. They discovered that they could have their choice of side dishes: pakora, vegetable fritters deep-fried in batter; dal makhani, lentils cooked with butter; and kachori, fried pastry rounds stuffed with a lentil, peas, and potato filling. They ordered three of everything. The desk clerk, in a better mood now that he realized he was dealing with a trio of big spenders, busied himself in the kitchen—apparently he was also the cook, and the boy was his sous-chef as well as the butcher. “I wonder if we’re the only people staying here, tonight?”
The Temple of Skanda 159 Conor speculated. “I wonder why it’s not called the Imperial Palace Bates Motor Hotel,” Spence quipped. “We could all meet the same fate as that chicken before the night’s over.” The side dishes were served first, one at a time. Evidently, it did take time to pluck and clean, let alone cook, a chicken that had been wandering around the dining room only a quarter of an hour ago. The food—to Conor’s surprise—was excellent. “I imagine a lot of truck drivers stop here during the day, and get something to go,” Murray said. Spence, as usual, was making short work of his food. “We need more beer.” The chicken was served masala style, marinated in spices, and was fairly hot as a result. Conor forgot any qualms he may have briefly entertained about animal rights, and dug in with gusto. For dessert, there was the ubiquitous rice pudding. They lingered over a third round of beers, then paid for the meal and went to bed. Conor discovered that the mosquito netting draped over his narrow mattress had been sprayed with some sort of strong, unpleasant-smelling insecticide. The door’s lock was the very basic kind that could be secured from the inside by pushing a button on the knob. The door key was threaded through a loop of elastic; Conor put it around his wrist so that, if he got up in the middle of the night to make a trip to the bathroom, he wouldn’t accidentally lock himself out of his room. Pleasantly tired and well fed though he was, he had some trouble falling asleep in the hot, decidedly claustrophobic cubicle. The tiny window was high up on one wall near the ceiling. He eventually drifted off. When he woke up, his naked body was damp with sweat. He’d kicked the sheet down toward the foot of the bed. His wristwatch told him it was just past two a.m. The Imperial Palace Motor Hotel, whatever its shortcomings, was at least dead quiet at this time of night: all Conor heard were the usual insect noises, from outside the building, and then, very
160 Roland Graeme faintly, the sound of some vehicle’s engine as it passed on the road. Then he heard an odd rustling sound, coming from where his duffel bag and the shopping bags containing the saris were stacked on top of one of the liquor crates against the wall. Conor sat up and listened. The rustling was repeated; something was moving over the shopping bags. He reached for the little travel flashlight he’d unpacked and placed beside the bed, switched it on, and aimed it in the direction of the noise. The flashlight’s beam caught the gleaming eyes of a snake, its pupils narrow slits, staring at him. It was slithering sluggishly over the heap of shopping bags less than two feet away from him. Conor dropped the flashlight, jumped out of bed, beating the malodorous mosquito netting aside with his hands, and ran into the hallway. Even in his panic, he remembered that he had his door key dangling from his wrist. He kicked the door shut. Then, standing there completely nude in the hallway, he rapped sharply on the door of suite three. “Spence, wake the fuck up!” “Who the—? Unless you’re a hot little Hindu boy with a big dick, get lost.” “Spence, it’s me. Open up.” A groggy-looking Spence cracked open the door. He too was nude, flushed and sweaty. His eyes widened at the sight of Conor’s nakedness, dimly yet adequately exposed by the hallway’s ceiling light. “I take it this is a social call?” the Australian drawled. “There’s a snake in my room!” “Nonsense. You were probably dreaming.” “I saw it!”
“Keep your voice down. You’ll wake up Murray. What did it look like?” “I didn’t wait around to take a good look at it.”
The Temple of Skanda 161 “It’s probably not poisonous.” “I don’t care if it’s fucking toothless, get it the hell out of there! Kill it or something.” “Oh, for God’s sake,” Spence grumbled. “What am I—the Great White Hunter?” He went back into his room, and pulled the pillowcase off his pillow. “Maybe it’s a Spectacled Cobra, or a Russell’s Viper,” he said, sounding hopeful, as he came back to the doorway, the pillowcase dangling from his hand. “I’d love to see one of them up close.” “Are they venomous?” Spence grinned at him. “Very.” “Don’t joke about such things.” “I’m not. Of course, it could be a Saw-Scaled Viper. They’re not as dangerous, at least the ones in this part of Tamil Nadu aren’t, because they tend to be smaller than the ones you see farther north.” “I don’t need a freaking lecture on snakes, Spence. I need you to get rid of it.” “Relax. God, you Americans are such pussies.” Conor stood back out of the way, as Spence opened the door of his room—Conor hadn’t locked it, after all, as it turned out— and snapped on the overhead light. “I guess you weren’t dreaming, after all,” Spence said. He went into suite two and emerged with the snake trapped inside the pillowcase. Spence gripped it through the fabric with both hands, one just below its head, the other holding its body lower down. The snake’s tail, dangling free out of the open end of the pillowcase, whipped about in restless coils. Its scales were a dull, yellowish brown. “Isn’t he a beauty,” Spence exclaimed. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it’s just a rat snake. They’re as common in India as dirt. It’s perfectly harmless. Well, maybe not perfectly. If it bit you, it’d be painful. But it’s not toxic.” “Kill it. Bash its head against the wall or something.”
162 Roland Graeme “Bloodthirsty little bastard, aren’t you? First that poor chicken, and now this. What’s it done to you? It’s probably more afraid of you than you are of it.” “Just get rid of it.” “Go hold open that emergency exit door at the end of the hall for me, and I’ll chuck him out.” “We’re both balls naked, Spence,” Conor pointed out. “Maybe we’d better put some pants on, first.” “Why? I don’t think anybody in this dump is likely to be bothered by the sight of two men with their dicks hanging out at this time of night. Come on.” At the end of the hall, Conor pushed open the door and held it with one arm, pressing back against the wall as Spence stepped past him. “What are you going to do with it?” Conor demanded. “Toss it into those bushes over there.” “You’re going to have to get it farther away from here than that.” “Don’t be a total wuss, Conor. I’m not about to go on a nocturnal hike in the nude.” Spence strode over and emptied the pillowcase in the bushes. He grinned at Conor when he rejoined him. “You silly twit.” “I am not going back in that room tonight. What if there’s another one in there?” “Highly unlikely.” “Switch rooms with me.” “Don’t be silly. I was just managing to make myself semicomfortable in that hole of mine when you woke me up. You can come in and bunk with me if you want to. Make sure your door’s locked.” In Spence’s room, Spence stuffed the pillow back into its case and got into bed, pressing his husky body against the wall to make room for Conor. Spence’s mosquito netting had been
The Temple of Skanda 163 treated with the insecticide, too, Conor noticed, as he got onto the mattress beside Spence and rearranged the netting around them. “I’m sorry I woke you up, Spence.” “Nonsense. A little nighttime snake hunt just sets the seal on this whole Imperial Palace experience. I didn’t know the management was going to throw in a floor show. Anyway, we’ll be getting up and going in just a couple of hours, so try to get some sleep.” They were lying on the narrow bed face to face; the limited space that was available had already led to a considerable degree of physical intimacy. Spence put his arm around Conor and pulled him close against his hairy chest. “Comfy?” “Yes.” Conor snuggled up to Spence, quite unselfconsciously, as though the two of them were old friends, old fuck buddies, who had often shared a bed. “You’ve got a really nice body,” he whispered. “So have you.” Spence was caressing him lightly, on his back, on his hip, fingertips straying over the curve of Conor’s buttock. “I think I’m still too nervous to go back to sleep right away.” “Maybe an orgasm would calm you down,” Spence suggested, bluntly. “I’m sure it would.” Conor let Spence kiss him. “Is Murray okay with this?” “Sure. We discussed it, in fact. As a…you know, as a possibility.
You being attracted to me, or attracted to Murray, or even all three of us getting into some sort of threesome, before this trip’s over.” “Sensible lads.” They explored one another’s bodies indiscriminately with their mouths and hands—the narrowness of the mattress, the darkness, and the heat all conspiring to create a sense of instant physical familiarity. Conor sucked one of Spence’s nipples inside his mouth and bit down on it none too gently while he tugged on
164 Roland Graeme a handful of the hair that coated Spence’s other pec. Suppressing a yelp, Spence retaliated by pinching his tormentor’s ass. They were both sporting hefty, responsive erections. Suddenly Spence stiffened, gripping Conor more tightly with both hands. “Conor. Did you hear that?” he whispered, urgently. “What?” “I thought…I could’ve sworn I heard a hiss. I think there’s another snake. In the bed with us, this time!” Conor let out a stifled yelp and tried to leap out of the bed, but Spence held him down. “Don’t make any sudden moves, or it might strike,” Spence warned. “Oh my God, Spence, my God—!” Conor clung to Spence, trembling. “Don’t worry, even if it does bite you, I’ve got a first aid kit in my bag. I’ll cut the bite marks open with a razor blade and suck the venom out of the wound and spit it out. I’d do that for you, baby, so don’t worry.” “Oh, Jesus, Spence—!” Conor was terrified. And then, incredibly, Spence started giggling. “Yeah, right… suck the venom out and spit it out, just like they do in all those movies,” he guffawed. “That’ll be the day! Maybe if you get bit on the head of your dick!” “You son of a bitch!” “I couldn’t help teasing you. I know I shouldn’t joke about something as serious as snakebites are, especially here in India, but damn! You are so cute when you’re scared. So sexy. Admit it, you’re kind of turned on, now that you just had another good scare, aren’t you?” “You stupid, big-dicked, Aussie bastard.” But Conor, despite his display of indignation, had begun to relax in the other man’s arms again, and he couldn’t deny that he liked the feeling of being pressed against Spence in a snug embrace.
The Temple of Skanda 165 “Nice of you to have noticed my dick. Feel here.” Spence grabbed Conor’s hand and guided it to his groin. Conor’s fingers instinctively reached out, in the darkness of the cubicle, to grasp and measure and stroke the Australian’s penis, which was indeed long and thick—and, despite the interruption in their sex play, was still very erect. A vein running along the shaft pulsed strongly against Conor’s exploring fingertips. “See? Turns out there is a snake in the bed, after all. Only this one won’t hurt you, I promise. This one is nice and tame, and it just loves to come out and play with pretty little red-haired Irish-American boys.” “Spence, Goddamn you, after that snake stunt…you’re going to have to at least give me a hand job, too.” Spence was already obliging. “I’ll give you a lot more than that.” “You’d better. You can kiss me some more, for starters.” Spence, Conor had already discovered, was a great kisser. His lovemaking turned out to be surprisingly tender: Spence was so masculine, and so openly, unashamedly sexual in his attitudes and his speech, that Conor had expected sex with the Australian to be on the aggressive, goal-oriented side. Instead, Spence was cuddly and romantic, kissing Conor all over his body, caressing him with his hands, not in any great hurry to concentrate their attention on their genitals. When they finally did slide into a sixty-nine position underneath the pungent mosquito netting, Spence proved to be no slouch when it came to oral sex. He sucked Conor expertly, and fingered his ass while he did so, until Conor—despite the pleasure he was deriving from having Spence’s cock in his own mouth—was so excited that he broke off the fellatio, and begged his bedmate to fuck him. Spence, naturally, was traveling with an ample supply of condoms and lubricant, and he soon had Conor’s legs wrapped around his waist, while he gave Conor what he wanted. “You’ve got a sweet ass, lad,” Spence whispered. “That Murray is one lucky man!” “Oh, your cock really is thick,” Conor gasped. “It’s stretching
166 Roland Graeme me wide open.” “Am I hurting you? I can put some more lube on.” “No, I like the friction, man…it’s making my asshole feel all hot and burning. It’s making me so horny. Fuck me harder, Spence. Fuck me harder!” Spence obliged. Conor was masturbating himself steadily toward what he knew was going to be a good, strong orgasm; but Spence took over the job, brushing Conor’s fingers aside and gripping Conor’s prick in his own strong right hand. “Let me take care of that for you, lad.” The muscles in Spence’s right arm pulsed as he jerked Conor off. Conor, who now had both of his hands free, used them to pinch his own nipples, which were stiffened into hot, hard cones. Spence grabbed Conor’s right ankle in his left hand and raised Conor’s foot to his lips. He licked the sole of Conor’s bare foot, then ran his tongue in and out of the gaps between Conor’s toes. Finally, Spence closed his lips around Conor’s big toe, and began to suck on it, as avidly as he had sucked on Conor’s cock. Spence’s own cock continued to pound back and forth inside Conor’s ass. Conor shuddered. He was going to come very quickly as a result of what the big blond Australian stud was doing to him. He closed his eyes and let the heat and sweat and ecstasy of orgasm wash over him.
ChapTeR nine: men of bRonze The dawn was a faint glow on the horizon when the three travelers got up. There was already a truck parked in front of the hotel; its driver and his assistant occupied one of the two tables in the dining room, having breakfast. The desk clerk and the young boy, whom Conor assumed was his son, were up and about too, but this time the cooking was done by a woman in a simple pale pink sari, much like the ones Murray had purchased in Chennai, worn in a traditional drape without a bodice. Breakfast was stuffed pancakes and iddli—steamed, fermented rice cakes— with bananas and oranges served on the side. Spence was inside settling the bill, and Conor was helping Murray secure their gear and cargo in the back of the Jeep, when Conor—somewhat belatedly—“got religion,” so to speak. “Murray…I have a confession to make.” “About you and Spence?” “You heard us?” Murray grinned. “Baby, the walls in this place are so thin, I didn’t just hear you—I could feel the vibrations while he was fucking you. When I first woke up, I thought it was an earthquake for a moment.” “I’m sorry—about waking you up, I mean.” “Forget it. I just rolled over and went back to sleep. I take it you’re not sorry about what you and Spence did?” “I thought we’d agreed, back in the hotel in Chennai—” “We did agree. I’m just teasing you. What I do want to know is, on a scale of one to ten, how does our Aussie friend stack up in the sack?” “You’re the only man who’s a ten in my life right now,” Conor insisted. Now that he knew, for certain, that Murray wasn’t
168 Roland Graeme jealous, he could afford to joke: “If Spence were to work on his technique a little, he might be a respectable eight-point-five some day.” Murray guffawed, and, just then, Spence emerged from the motel’s office. “What are you two laughing about?” he asked. “The snake in my room last night,” Conor lied. “I bet he didn’t tell you the whole story, Murray.” “Oh, he told me enough. This is a fairly straightforward stretch of road, coming up, Conor. Do you want to drive?” “Sure.” As Conor drove, with Murray beside him as navigator and Spence in the back seat, Spence regaled Murray—repeatedly— with the story of the rat snake in Conor‘s room. Each time Spence told the tale, Conor’s initial hysteria became more exaggerated, as did his description to Spence of the serpent’s alleged size and ferocity. Conversely, each time Spence described how he captured the snake, it shrank, until it was eventually reduced to earthworm proportions. “You are such a fucking liar, Spence,” Conor fumed, although he had trouble really working up much anger toward the garrulous Australian. “And you are such a little wuss. If you’d been wearing any knickers last night, you’d have pissed them, you were so scared.” “So…you finally got a chance to see Conor naked, did you, Spence?” Murray purred, playing dumb. That shut Spence up—for a moment. “Ah…yes, as a matter of fact. He ran out of his room so fast, he was balls naked.” “Did you like what you saw?” “He’s got a very nice body.” “Why, thank you, Spence,” Conor said, adopting Murray’s breezy tone. “By the way, Murray, Spence was sleeping in the nude, too, when I woke him up.”
The Temple of Skanda 169 “It sounds as though the two of you had an interesting night. I’m a bit envious…oh, look over there, guys!” Murray said, interrupting himself. “That’s very typical of what you’re going to see from now on.” They were passing a village set back from the main road across rice fields. A dirt track led from the main road to the village and the start of the track was flanked on either side by a group of large, rather grotesque statues, made of terracotta or cement, and painted in garish colors. “What are those?” Conor asked. “Guardian deities, standing watch over the entrance to the village and protecting it from harm,” Murray explained. “That’s Ayyanar, for example, with the horse whip in his hand; and Madurai Veeran, with the mustache and the sword. You’ll see images like that in almost every village in this area. “There’s another village,” Murray pointed out. “They’ve got horses.” This was a considerable understatement: this particular village’s display was a pair of massive stylized horses, like oversized children’s toys, with saddles and bridles. “The villagers believe that the guardian deities get on the horses and ride them around the outskirts of the village at night,” Murray said. “Driving the evil spirits away, and so forth.” They saw the horses, or the statues, or both, near every village they passed. “I don’t see any signposts with the names of these towns on them,” Spence said. “How will we know when we get to where we’re going? I mean, how would we know if you hadn’t been here before?” “That’s one of the reasons I needed to bring along a guide my first time here,” Murray laughed. “And even then, we got lost! But in fact we’ll know when we get to our village because their images are bronze statues, as you might expect. Sort of an advertisement, letting everybody know that bronze workers live and work there.”
170 Roland Graeme “Tell us about the village, Murray,” Spence urged. “It’s small, of course. Everybody is related to everybody else,
to some degree or other. Virtually all of the men are involved in the bronze casting or other metal working activities. “You’ll meet Daman, who runs the bronze foundry, his wife, Mahevari, their two daughters, Vaishnavi and Chamunda, and their sons, Kumara, Velayudan, and Karthika. And their son-inlaw, Jaishankar, who’s married to Vaishnavi. Among the other workers, the most experienced and skilled artists are Balbir and Chidambar. Don’t worry about the names; they won’t be offended if you mispronounce them the first few times. The business has been doing so well lately that they’ve hired a couple of new workers as apprentices. “The people in these Tamil villages tend not to make much of a distinction between their living quarters and their workplace. The unmarried men who work at the foundry live in a sort of dormitory on the second floor of the building above one of the workshops. That’s where we’ll bunk while we’re there. It’s quite pleasant; the windows catch some breezes at night. Expect Mahevari to take charge of us, and mother you. Daman may be the boss, but his wife’s the power behind the throne, so to speak. She bosses all the men around as a matter of course. And wait’ll you taste her cooking. She’s the kind of woman who can take whatever ingredients happen to be available and whip up dishes that would be the envy of any professional chef in Madurai or Chennai. “These people have an incredible work ethic. A typical workday in the foundry is something like nine and a half hours, with an hour for lunch. A lot of the workers will then put in a couple of additional hours of overtime. In the evenings and on their days off they’re allowed to use the facilities to make their own sculptures, which they can sell for extra income. In addition to their salary, they get their room and board, if they don’t have their own home, so this is considered a plum job around here. Of course, it’s hard work, very labor intensive. And heating molten metal in a crucible and pouring it into a mold, in this climate, is
The Temple of Skanda 171 no picnic. “The weather has a direct influence on the casting process. If it’s too wet, for example, it takes longer, and is much more difficult to first air dry and then fire the molds. Even if the conditions are ideal, it can take almost a week to create a smaller statue, say in the twelve- to fifteen-inch tall range, from start to finish. It takes twice or three times as long for the larger pieces. One nice thing is that there are always pieces being worked on in all the various stages, so you can walk through the foundry and see the whole process taking place. “The guys who do the wax modeling and put the finishing touches on the cast pieces, which calls for a lot of hand tooling— Chidambar, in particular—are simply amazing. They can take a photo of an antique bronze that’s in a museum or a private collection, and either reproduce it almost exactly or put their own original spin on the basic design. That’s why a lot of my customers decide to commission pieces; these guys can give them whatever they want.” Spence spoke up from the back seat: “I don’t want to interrupt you, Murray, but that wind’s starting to kick up. I’m getting dust all over me. Time to break out the dupattas, men.” “Yes, and I don’t like the looks of those dark clouds, over there. We may be rained on before we get to the village,” Murray warned. He took the dupatta that Spence handed him, and wound it loosely around his neck and the lower part of his face to reduce the chance of inhaling too much dust. “Oh, we’re men,” Conor said. “If the guys in the village can slave over a hot crucible all day, I think we can put up with getting a little wet.” “Are you getting tired of driving, Conor?” Spence asked. “Want me to take over for a while?” “No, I’m fine, Spence. I’m enjoying it, in fact. I want to keep both hands on the wheel, though, what with all these damn bumps we keep going over. Do me a favor and wrap my dupatta around me. Thanks, man.”
172 Roland Graeme “Tell us some more, Murray, about what we’re going to see,” Spence urged. “Well, you’ll see the bronze casting yourselves, soon enough. I know what you’re interested in, Spence, is all this mysterious Skanda worship business. Unlike the bronzes, it’s not exactly my area of expertise. But of course I do know a little about these people’s beliefs. “The old temple dedicated to Skanda is in the forest not far from the village. The villagers actually worship at little outdoor shrines in the village and in their homes. They don’t use the temple, except once a year when this top-secret Skanda worship ritual takes place.” “That’s tomorrow night, isn’t it?” Spence asked. “Yes. I’ll be curious to see exactly what goes on. As you know, Spence, this is the first time I’ve come here when the festival takes place. On my previous visits, I’ve heard the villagers talk about it—joke about it, in fact, teasing each other in this strange sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink way. It’s as though everybody knows what takes place, but it’s understood that you don’t talk about it openly. That’s why, as an anthropologist, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.” “Do you think they’ll let me witness the ritual?” “Daman seemed quite receptive to the idea, when we discussed it in our letters, setting up this trip. Of course, this particular festival is an all-male affair. The women aren’t allowed to participate at all. If you were a woman, Spence, you’d be out of luck, no matter what your credentials were.” “Now for the million dollar question,” Spence said. “Is it really a homoerotic ritual?” “I honestly don’t know. All I know is what the men have told me. They certainly have implied that some sort of homosexual activity takes place, but, for all I know, they’re just pulling my leg because they know I’m gay.” “Wait a minute,” Conor interjected. “These people know you’re gay?”
The Temple of Skanda 173 “Of course.” “You never mentioned that to me, before.” “Well, if I didn’t, it wasn’t because I had any intention of keeping you in the dark, Conor. I don’t just do business with these people. They’re my friends. I don’t keep anything from them.” “I understand that, Murray. I’m just surprised that you sound so casual about it. I thought India was still such a conservative, homophobic society on the whole, from the way you talked when we were back home planning this trip.” “Yes, in a way it’s ironic that people in these isolated villages can be a lot more tolerant than your average urban dweller.” “I’ve encountered rural populations here where samesex relationships are an integral part of the culture,” Spence remarked. “Was this before or after you ‘encountered’ them?” Conor teased him. “Or should I say, converted them?” “Bitch. But, seriously. There’s a small tribe up in the Orissa region, where the men can’t get married—to the women, I mean— until they undergo a form of trial marriage with a younger man first. The older guy sets up housekeeping with the younger one, and the kid does all of the cooking and cleaning and so forth for him, and of course they sleep together and the ‘husband’ fucks him up the ass every night. Then when the former ‘boy wife’ is a little older and he’s ready to get married, in his turn, he finds a younger guy to play house with himself.” “It sounds very sensible,” Murray said. “Too bad I didn’t know about that when I first hired Conor. Our relationship, as employer and employee, could have started off on an entirely different basis.” Conor laughed. “Do these Orissa guys pay palimony after they split up?” “No.” “Too bad. But go on, Spence. Tell us more.”
174 Roland Graeme “Well, the closest thing I know to what might go on here, is a ritual in western Kerala, not all that far from here, as a matter of fact. It’s an isolated village where only the men are allowed to worship a certain shiva linga that’s kept inside a temple. The villagers believe that this shiva linga fell from heaven centuries ago. I’m no geologist, but when I examined it, I could see it’s not a meteorite; it’s some kind of granite, dark gray, almost black, with lighter colored veins and shiny bits running through it—and it shows every sign of having been shaped, originally, with hand tools. It is quite old and well worn, from the looks of it. It’s about the size of a rugby ball. “Anyway, the thing is set up on an altar in the temple’s inner sanctuary, so it’s at about waist level. The men ‘worship’ it by—well, they strip off and take turns standing in front of it, masturbating. Three or four of them at a time, gathered around the altar. When they come, they catch their semen in their free hand, and smear it over the shiva linga—quite reverently, by the way. At the end of one of these sessions, the stone is pretty thoroughly stained, as you can imagine. Luckily, it’s washed with water every morning, so the previous day’s residue is rinsed away.” Conor was dubious. “Are you making this up, Spence?” “Not at all.” “I suppose you’ve actually seen one of these j/o sessions?” “I’ve not only observed them—more than once—I participated,” Spence boasted. “I like to be, if you’ll pardon the expression, a hands-on kind of observer.” Conor and Murray both emitted groans. “I thought you’d like that one,” the irrepressible Spence quipped. “Anyway…standing there watching all those naked men beating off was such a turn-on that I not only joined the queue, I usually went back in line for seconds. If I may be so immodest, the locals were rather impressed, that an outsider could demonstrate such devotion to the god.” “But there was no actual, ah, sexual interaction among these men?” Murray asked. “No. Everybody kept his hands strictly to himself. There was
The Temple of Skanda 175 quite a lot of intense looking, though. Comparing dicks, admiring other men’s techniques. Competing, too, to see who could ejaculate the most intensely and the most copiously. That’s what I found so interesting—it was a sexually charged atmosphere, absolutely uninhibited and unembarrassed, as far as it went, but with strict limits that everybody involved seemed instinctively to understand. I’m anticipating—call it my working hypothesis, if you will—that I might find something similar taking place here, during this Skanda celebration. Similar boundaries and constraints, I mean.” “I wouldn’t be so sure,” Murray commented. “Some of the guys here, especially the unmarried ones, are surprisingly openminded about what I’d call recreational sex. If they’re that casual about just plain fooling around to get their rocks off, I can’t help wondering what they might be like if they were doing something actually sanctioned by their religious beliefs.” Conor needed a moment to mull over the possible implications of what he’d just heard. “Wait a minute. Are you saying you’ve actually tricked with some of the guys in this village on your previous visits?” he demanded. Murray just grinned at him. “It sounds as though I’m not the only anthropologist in our little group,” Spence said. “Or the only one who believes in conducting hands-on field studies!” “You kind of neglected to mention this, Murray, in all the conversations we’ve had about your experiences here in India,” Conor said. “Let’s just say that while Derek and I were still together, he wasn’t the only one who had his little secrets.” Conor was delighted to hear that Murray was able to joke about his ex. Something had definitely happened to Murray ever since they’d arrived in India; and the change in him was more pronounced now that they were traveling in this rural place. He had loosened up and seemed completely at ease, not only with himself, but also with his companions and their surroundings.
176 Roland Graeme At the same time, paradoxically, there was a new eager edge to all of Murray’s responses, as though he were open to any and all possibilities. At the moment, he was exhibiting a sort of gleeful horniness, every bit a match for Spence’s shamelessness. There was a sudden, loud crack of thunder. While they’d been talking, the sky had become increasingly crowded with dark, fastmoving clouds, and the wind was stirring up even more dust than before. “I’m afraid we’re in for it, lads,” Spence warned. “Luckily, we’re almost there. Only another mile or so to go,”
Murray replied. They’d gone no more than half a mile before the rain descended, in sheets. Instantly, instead of being powdered with dust, they found themselves being splattered by wind-driven mud. “Crap!” Conor exclaimed, as he squinted, trying to make out the road ahead through the downpour. “Is there any chance of us getting stuck in this mess?” “Stay in the center of the road,” Spence advised, recklessly, “and we ought to be all right.” “I can see the turn-off up ahead,” Murray said. “We’ll make it. Get ready to hang a right, Conor. See the dirt track between those statues?” “I see the statues. I guess if I steer between them, we’ll be on the track. Wow! Look at those!” Conor exclaimed when the Jeep was closer to the objects. Spence, too, was impressed. “Since we’re already soaking wet, slow down so we can take a good look at them.” “Ayyanar, again,” Murray pointed out. “Madurai Veeran. And that one’s Subramanya, which is yet another name for our old friend Skanda or Murugan, with his two wives, Valli and Devasena.” “Look at the size of these ones,” Conor said, as they passed between two massive stone pillars, one on either side of the road,
The Temple of Skanda 177 each of which was crowned by a statue of a man riding a horse. The horses reared up sharply on their hind legs, forelegs frozen in mid-air. “They’re also guardians of the entrance to the village. The term for the riders is vir, which means ‘champion.’” “I can’t believe all these are just sitting out here in the open,” Conor said. “Aren’t they afraid somebody might steal them?” “No one would dare. They’d be afraid of divine retribution. It would just be an unforgivable offense. And, as for outsiders, who might not have such scruples—you two are probably the first non-Tamils to come here since my last visit.” The rain had begun to slack off. They were already in what was apparently the main square of the village, an open space surrounded by mismatched buildings, most of them one-story, a few with upper levels, many with thatched roofs—all of them strewn about, with nothing that could be called a street plan. Murray directed Conor to pull in underneath a sort of portico attached to the outer wall of one two-story building; the portico’s corrugated iron roof, supported by poles, rang from the impact of the raindrops upon it. Their arrival was clearly an event: they heard shouts of “Murugan, Murugan!” and were soon surrounded by a crowd of men and children. Some of the men, Conor noted, were dressed in lightweight shirts and slacks, or shorts; but most wore the colorful lunghees he was now so familiar with. Many of the men wore them alone, or paired them with a T-shirt or tank top. All the men adorned themselves with jewelry: earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and armbands. The women and young girls who had been attracted by the commotion tended to hang back at the rear of the crowd, many of them drawing their pallus across the lower part of their faces in an instinctive gesture of modesty. Their saris, though obviously everyday wear, seemed to span an entire rainbow of delicate colors. Murray was greeted as though he were a college student who
178 Roland Graeme had come home for the holidays. Introductions were being made and Conor desperately tried to concentrate on getting the names right and matching them with all of the smiling faces. He and Spence shook hands with Daman, a handsome man in his late forties or early fifties, his three sons, who might be in their early twenties and who were younger versions of their father, and their brother-in-law, Jaishankar. Daman’s wife, Mahevari, and their two daughters, Vaishnavi and Chamunda, were the only women who approached the group at first. Mahevari was a still beautiful, imperious woman. Vaishnavi was visibly pregnant. Her sister, another beauty, didn’t bother to drape the upper part of her sari over her face as she gave both Spence and Conor a thorough once-over. Mahevari embraced Murray, which, Conor suspected, was rather unusual behavior for a Tamil woman—even a mature, married woman—to indulge in with a man who was not related to her. “My hands are all covered with flour,” she said, “but it doesn’t matter, since you are already so dusty and muddy. Take them upstairs,” she commanded her sons, “and get them cleaned up. Then we will have lunch.” With an almost militaristic efficiency, the younger men not only hustled Murray, Conor, and Spence inside and upstairs, but also hauled everything in the Jeep upstairs after them. The visitors found themselves and their belongings deposited in a large, airy room with tables and chairs, shelves, trunks, storage lockers, and mattresses—the latter rolled up and pushed out of the way. Karthika, the youngest of the three sons, came bounding up the stairs carrying two of the visitors’ duffle bags. “Mother wants you to give me your clothes,” he announced. “All of them, everything you’re wearing. And anything you have packed away that needs laundering, too.” Murray laughed. “I warned you guys. When Mahevari issues an order, you jump. If she tells you to strip, you don’t ask questions, you just strip.” Within a few seconds, he was nude, and his fellow travelers followed his example.
The Temple of Skanda 179 “We are dirty,” Spence admitted, when he saw the contrast between their faces and arms, and the rest of their bodies that had been covered up by their clothes. “And sweaty, I’m afraid.” “Luckily the clean-up crew seems to have arrived,” Murray said. More men were coming upstairs and filing into the room, carrying bowls of water, cloths, and towels. Jaishankar made some further introductions: “This is Madhur, our new apprentice.” Madhur was an extraordinarily good-looking boy, perhaps still under twenty. “Balbir—” a genial-looking man in his thirties, who had smudges of dirt and soot on his face and bare torso, and whose lunghee was draped limply, its folds weighed down by absorbed perspiration—“and Chidambar.” Chidambar, who was so dark-skinned he was almost blue-black, was another male beauty, lean and compactly built but muscular, with smoldering bedroom eyes. He, too, must have been interrupted in his work, since his hands and forearms, like Balbir’s, showed signs of having been recently scrubbed clean. “Chidambar is one of the few guys who works in the foundry who doesn’t trust his English enough to get into detailed conversations,” Murray explained. “He’ll understand you well enough if you keep it simple. Luckily, we have Spence to translate.” Conor was taken aback when Jaishankar—a married man, he remembered—dipped a cloth in one of the bowls, then began to rub it all over Conor’s naked body, as nonchalantly as though he was grooming a horse in its stall. The water was warm and felt good, and it felt even better when Jaishankar began to work up a lather from a bar of soap; but Conor, although he desperately tried to keep his mind off sex, found himself developing the telltale beginnings of an erection. “I can wash myself, you know,” he protested. “Let him do it,” Murray advised. “It’s their traditional way of welcoming visitors.” Balbir and Velayudan were already working on Murray as a team, lathering him up from head to foot, then wetting their cloths in fresh water to rinse him off; Madhur stood ready, holding towels.
180 Roland Graeme “Oh, this is wonderful!” Spence, predictably, had no inhibitions about submitting to the ablutions—performed, in his case, by Kumara and Karthika. “It makes me want to run outside and wallow in the mud, like a hog, so I can get dirty all over again!” Murray laughed. “I hate to disappoint you, Spence, but they only do this when the guests first arrive. From now on, we’re on our own, when it comes to maintaining our personal hygiene.” When Jaishankar had finished washing Conor, the smiling Chidambar took over, energetically toweling Conor dry from head to foot. Conor couldn’t help himself: his erection became all too obvious. His tumescence generated some merriment among the Tamil men, who saw no reason to pretend they hadn’t noticed it. Conor heard a good deal of whispering and giggling, coming mostly from the two youngest men, Karthika and Madhur; he caught the exclamation “Agni!” repeated several times, as they pointed to him. “What’s all this Agni business?” Murray explained, “Agni’s the ancient Hindu fire god. Remember the new statue on the mantelpiece back home? That’s Agni. He’s usually depicted in art as a man with red hair and a red beard—a pointed beard, like a garden gnome’s. I guess your mustache and goatee are close enough.” Spence questioned the two young Tamil men in their own language, and translated Madhur’s answer: “They’re intrigued by the fact that all three of us are circumcised, for one thing—these guys, like most of the men in India, aren’t. And they’ve never seen a man with skin quite as pale as yours, Conor, or with all those golden freckles.” “Well, remind me to keep slathering on the sunscreen or they’ll soon be seeing a guy who’s bright red all over.” Chidambar was standing next to Conor at the moment, having just finished toweling him dry. Conor smiled at him. Chidambar smiled back. The man radiated a relaxed sensuality that Conor found extremely intriguing. Encouraged by Conor’s
The Temple of Skanda 181 mute response, Chidambar reached out and ran one fingertip, with the lightest of pressure, down Conor’s bare shoulder and upper arm. He said something in Tamil. Spence again translated, “He said, ‘Your bodily effulgence is as though you have swallowed the newly risen sun.’ That’s a compliment, in case you’re wondering.” “Tell him I think he’s an extremely handsome man, himself.” The remark was duly transmitted, and Chidambar said something in response. “He says he apologizes because he’s so very black. I think there are some self-esteem issues, here,” Spence added, in an undertone, so only Conor could hear. “For no reason that I can see—obviously.” “Tell him that’s what’s so beautiful about him. I like his dark skin. He’s like the most peaceful hour of the dead of night.” Spence laughed. “Listen to you. You’re going to make out just fine here, I think.” He translated Conor’s compliment, and Chidambar positively glowed. “Well, as pleasant as it is to be standing around here in the nude,” Murray said, “I suppose we’d better put at least some token clothes on. Now that the rain’s stopped and the sun’s coming out again, it’s going to stay hot. I’m going to go native and just put on one of my lunghees.” “Me too,” Spence said. “Me three,” Conor agreed. They began to rummage in their
bags. Conor retrieved the pink-and-blue striped lunghee that Murray had given him back home. “But I want somebody to show me how you tie these things up, the way some of the guys have, so that it looks almost like a pair of bike shorts.” Conor gestured toward Velayudan, who was sporting a good example of the style in question. Chidambar, apparently, understood that much English. He took the lunghee from Conor’s hands and gestured for Conor to raise his arms away from his sides. Chidambar deftly wrapped the rectangle of thin cotton cloth around Conor’s waist, secured
182 Roland Graeme it with a knot at the waist in the front, then folded the dangling excess length of fabric into a series of tight pleats. He got down on his knees, like a tailor who scorned the use of needle and thread, and passed the pleats between Conor’s legs from front to back. He matter-of-factly tucked the end into the waistband, at the base of Conor’s spine, then made a few adjustments by tugging at the lunghee here and there with his fingers. When he rose to his feet again, Conor was as neatly packaged as Velayudan. “It’s amazing,” Conor said, looking down at himself. “It’s like origami!” “I smell food,” Murray said. “Let’s go downstairs.” Lunch was a boisterous affair; everyone sat around one big table, and Daman and Murray led the conversation, catching up with each other. The villagers, Conor noticed, invariably addressed Murray, and referred to him, as “Murugan,” which was his actual middle name. And which, Conor remembered, was one of the many alternative names of Kartikeya or Skanda, the son of Shiva. Mahevari and Spence bonded immediately: once he had tested the waters and determined that their hostess was amenable to some mutual banter, Spence joked and flirted with her shamelessly, in two languages. Some of his jokes, apparently too earthy to be delivered in English in mixed company, sent her into gales of laughter. After lunch, the men went back to work, and Daman, with obvious pride, gave the three visitors a tour of the foundry. The work was done both in and out of doors, often with no clear boundary between the two. First, Daman showed them the storage area where recently completed bronze statues were kept. There was an impressive selection, ranging from pieces small enough to be picked up and held easily in one hand, to several massive, nearly life-sized behemoths. Murray was like a small boy turned loose in a toy store on Christmas Eve with his parents’ credit card in his hand; he darted from one piece to another, examining and touching them.
The Temple of Skanda 183 “Oh, crap, I want all of them,” he admitted. “I always do! But I can sleep on it, and decide which ones I absolutely have to have, tomorrow.” “They are beautiful,” Conor agreed. “Every one of them.” Having seen the finished products, they backtracked, and watched various stages in the modeling, mold-making, and casting processes. The wax models for the statues, when they were not actually being worked on, were kept in buckets and tubs filled with water so the heat would not soften the wax. They observed Karthika and Madhur, each armed with a hammer and chisel, carefully freeing two bronze statues from their scorched earthen molds. Murray explained that the molten metal had probably been poured into these molds at least twenty-four hours previously; it took the bronze that long to harden and cool. Nearby, Balbir was using a long iron pole with a ladle attached to its end to stir the liquid metal in a large crucible. With infinite patience, he watched for bits of dirt and debris to bubble to the surface, scooped them up in the ladle, and deposited them in a small iron bowl set on the ground nearby. The heat emanating from the crucible was tremendous, a wall of searing air that seemed to singe Conor, even though he was watching from a considerable distance. Balbir, his nearly nude body wet with sweat, seemed oblivious to the heat. Daman consulted with some of the other workmen. They decided that, now that the rain had stopped and the air was dry, it would be safe to cast a small piece as a demonstration. The mold, roughly pear-shaped, was one of several almost buried in the ground; the narrow end of it, which was exposed above the dirt, was pierced with two holes facing upward. These were the spouts to receive the molten metal. Jaishankar and two of the workmen formed a sort of bucket brigade: each man was armed with a long pair of heavy iron tongs, which they used to pick up a much smaller crucible about the size of a coffee mug. Murray, to Conor’s surprise, was invited to join the queue: he hitched up his lunghee, tucking its excess drapery
184 Roland Graeme in at his waist until, like the other pourers, he was wearing no more than a loincloth. Barefoot and bare-chested, he waited his turn to dip his crucible into the one that Balbir was stirring, then carry the cupful of molten bronze over to the half-buried mold and empty it—with infinite caution—into one of the spouts. “That looks incredibly dangerous,” Spence commented. “Oh, my God,” Conor gasped. “What if he spills it and gets burned? Who knows how far away the nearest hospital is.” “Relax, mate.” Spence, who was standing beside Conor, put a reassuring hand on Conor’s bare shoulder. “Murray seems to know what he’s doing. Looks like an old hand at it, as a matter of fact. And don’t forget, these guys do this, take the same risks, every day.” “I can’t believe it. He’s getting back in the line to make another trip.” “They can’t stop pouring now until they’ve filled the mold,” Spence pointed out. “And don’t you see that this is one of Murray’s ways of bonding with these men? He’s showing them, quite subtly, that even though he’s the man with the money, who comes here and buys the things they make, he doesn’t think he’s any better than them.” “I have my own way of bonding with the guys I meet,” Conor boasted. “I call it bending over or getting down on my knees. It may not be subtle, but it gets the point across.” Spence laughed. “Anyway I’m still glad it’s over.” The team had successfully completed the pouring—a slight overflow from both spouts confirmed that the mold was filled to its brim. The men were congratulating Murray, slapping him familiarly on his bare back. Murray was as soaked in his own sweat as Balbir and the other pourers were, and his skin was flushed a painful-looking red. Gasping for breath, he grinned at Conor and Spence, and gave them a thumbs-up. Spence leaned closer to Conor and whispered knowingly in his ear: “You really do love Murray, don’t you?” “Of course I do. What’s not to love?”
The Temple of Skanda 185 “No, I mean you don’t just love him, the way a bloke loves a mate; you really do love him love him. Know what I mean?” “I guess I do know what you mean. Is it that obvious?” “Conor, it’s blatant. But it’s sweet. I’m envious.” Their little group moved back inside the building. They observed Chidambar, who was hard at work with a few simple hand tools, mostly small chisels, carving the details of the facial features on a statue of Garuda—who had the body of a muscular man, but with wings on his back, and an eagle’s beak instead of a nose on his otherwise human-looking face. “So they don’t sculpt all these fine details into the original wax model?” Spence asked. “No, a lot of it is added just this way, to the cast piece,” Murray explained. “It’s a very labor-intensive process, as you see. Chidambar is doing the face last, because he and the other artists believe that it’s not until the face is completed that the piece comes to life, so to speak, and the bronze becomes a true representation of the god.” After a few minutes, Murray excused himself so that he and Daman could discuss business in the relative privacy of an adjacent room. Spence wandered around the workroom, observing the men at work. After a few minutes, Murray asked Spence and Chidambar to join him and Daman. The four men got into a prolonged, animated, but apparently amiable discussion. Kumara and Velayudan were having a whispered discussion themselves, as they worked side by side, each brother filing away on a recently cast piece. Conor joined them, curious to get a closer look at what they were doing. “Tell us, Mister O’Malley—” Kumara began. “Please call me Conor.” “Conor, yes. Tell us—do you like to do the same things that Murugan likes to do, at night?” “Ah—what things might that be?” “In bed,” Velayudan specified.
186 Roland Graeme “Murray—I mean, Murugan—and I have pretty much the same tastes,” Conor admitted. “I’ve been to Madurai, and even to Thiruvananthapuram, you see,” Velayudan boasted. “I know what the men in big cities like to do.” “You don’t know anything,” his brother scoffed. “I’ve been to Chennai. Jaishankar took me along with him the last time he drove the truck there to take the statues to be shipped overseas. Chennai is a real city.” “I certainly liked it there,” Conor said, diplomatically refusing to take one side or the other in the debate. “Of course, I was only there one day and overnight. And I’ve never been to Madurai. I’m sure it’s very pleasant, too.” There was another whispered fraternal consultation. Then: “What about your friend, Mister Spencer?” “Spence? Well, he’s Australian, you know. They’re rather strange people,” Conor said, a tad maliciously. “You know, repressed? Spence is kind of shy. He’d probably have to be persuaded to actually do anything. I suppose the right man—a persistent one—might be able to get a rise out of him.” More whispering. Then: “Fine. You will see. I will arrange everything,” Kumara promised serenely. Arrange what? Conor wanted to ask; but before he could articulate the question, Daman, Murray, Spence, and Chidambar came back. “We have been talking about—tomorrow night,” Daman said. “Perhaps you would like to see the old temple?” “Yes, I would,” Conor said. “Murugan has seen it before, of course,” Daman said. “But he has never seen the image of the veiled god.” “No, the subject never really came up the other times I was here,” Murray admitted. “They keep it shut up, except for the one night each year. Spence is eager to see it, of course, and so am I, now.”
The Temple of Skanda 187 Daman handed Chidambar a key. “Chidambar can stop work early, today. He will show you, and explain anything you would like to know. And then he can take you to the temple.” Conor nodded by way of goodbye to Kumara and Velayudan, who were smiling at him in a decidedly conspiratorial manner; and then he, Murray, and Spence followed Chidambar out of the foundry and across the village square. They walked down a narrow alleyway between buildings, passing some simple shrines, set against the walls and bedecked with floral offerings and little decorations cut out of sheets of tin. The bronze statues displayed in these shrines were all quite small, none taller than ten or twelve inches. Conor recognized Varaha, the boar-headed avatar of Vishnu, seated on a dais with Vishnu’s consort, the goddess Lakshmi, perched on his knee. Among the other deities was a nude Shiva-as-beggar, accompanied by a droll-looking, inquisitive dog, and Durga, brandishing a formidable assortment of borrowed weapons in her multiple arms. An animal also accompanied the goddess, in her case a grinning lion. It turned out to be a blind alley: at the end was a shed, made out of corrugated iron. The door was padlocked; Chidambar unlocked and opened it. He politely gestured for the other three men to precede him. There was nothing in the gloomy interior except in the center, where there stood a tall, narrow, empty wooden crate, about the size and shape of a four-drawer filing cabinet, with a beautifully worked hand-loomed cloth draped over its top and down part of its sides. Set on top of the cloth was some sort of a bronze statue, approximately two feet tall, its head, torso, and upraised arms barely discernable through a large square piece of lightweight flame-red silk fabric that shrouded the entire statue and fell down around its base in loose folds. On the dirt floor of the shed, at the base of the crate, was a litter of flowers, some fresh, others withered, along with candles set in empty glass jars or food tins. The air inside the shed reeked of incense, although none was being burned at the moment; Conor saw a few cardboard boxes of incense sticks and books
188 Roland Graeme of matches lying among the floral offerings on the floor. Chidambar followed them inside the shed, and carefully closed the door behind him. He picked up one of the glass jars and lit the candle inside it. He gave the jar to Spence and lit a stick of incense. He spoke to Spence in an undertone. “He says no woman is allowed to see this statue without its veil,” Spence explained. “And only the men are allowed to actually come in here and make prayers and offerings to it. That’s why they keep the door locked, to be on the safe side.” He asked Chidambar a question and received a lengthy reply. “If a woman were to see the uncovered statue, even unintentionally, they believe it would bring bad luck to the whole village. The woman would have to undergo a ritual purification to atone. Some of the more superstitious villagers believe she would become sterile; or, if she were an older woman who already has children, that her children would get sick and possibly even die. That would be Skanda’s way of taking his revenge.” “That’s interesting, Spence, because I always thought Skanda was a god whom these rural people turn to for protection,” Murray said. “This punitive side of him is new to me.” Chidambar was slowly moving the incense stick in his hand back and forth, as the pungent smoke from its glowing tip wafted through the air. “That smoke smells like pine,” Conor commented. “Yes, it’s loban, I think, a kind of pine resin,” Murray told him. “It’s often burned here in temples or in household shrines, to sanctify the air.” Spence was once again questioning Chidambar. “That’s intriguing,” Spence said, after their exchange. “Chidambar says that the secret rites of Skanda are a reaffirmation of male power—I think he means male sexual power, from the way he put it—and that they have to be protected from the curiosity of the uninitiated. Otherwise, the god will withhold his protection. Again, the more superstitious old-timers in the village claim that if this ever happens, it could result in an outbreak
The Temple of Skanda 189 of male impotence—which will last until the god is appeased by special prayers and sacrifices.” Chidambar gestured toward Murray, and said something. “He wants you to do the honors, Murray, and unveil the god, so we can see him, he can see us, and we can pay him our respects.” “I just pull this scarf thing off ?” Murray asked. Spence consulted Chidambar, who nodded. “Yes, go ahead.” Murray stepped forward and carefully lifted the silk from the statue. The bronze was beautiful, its surface having acquired a rich greenish-blue patina, darkening to brown and black in places. Skanda stood on a tall narrow pedestal, leaning on a spear which he was grasping in one hand, with a peacock at his feet and his free hand outstretched in what Conor knew, from his extensive reading in Murray’s library back home, was the “offering protection” gesture. The god’s lithe body was naked except for a short dhoti, wrapped around his hips in elaborate pleated folds, but he was adorned with elaborate jewelry: anklets, bracelets, a collar, earrings, even rings on his bronze fingers. His face was a young man’s, the lips set in an enigmatic smile. “It’s extraordinary,” Murray declared. “I wonder how old it is.” He trusted his Tamil enough to ask Chidambar this question himself. Spence translated the reply: “Chidambar says no one knows for sure. The local tradition is that it was cast by the very first metal workers who came here and founded the village centuries ago.” Murray was examining the statue more closely. “It’s got the two little posts, sticking up on either side of the pedestal, that a lot of the statues have—so it can be tied to a platform with ropes and carried in a procession.” Spence questioned Chidambar. “Yes, Chidambar says that they tie the statue to a small wooden platform mounted on two poles, and four men carry it, two on either side. They carry it from here to the temple and back.” With obvious reluctance, Murray replaced the statue’s cover.
190 Roland Graeme Chidambar followed them out of the shed and secured the padlock. “We go to temple now?” Chidambar asked, in English. Spence, Conor noticed for the first time, had a little batteryoperated tape recorder in his hand; it was so small he could easily conceal it in his palm. Spence exchanged a few words with Chidambar, then addressed Conor and Murray: “I’d like to borrow Chidambar for a few minutes, first, if I may.” Murray grinned. “I imagine you would.” “Shame on you. My intentions are purely scholarly. He seems to be very knowledgeable about this whole veiled Skanda business. I’d like to pump him for information, if I can persuade him to open up to me,” Spence said, with—presumably—unconscious innuendo. “Maybe you can try your ‘Is that a snake I heard hissing?’ routine on him,” Conor suggested. “I was thinking more along the lines of getting a couple of drinks into him, first. That usually does the trick.” They strolled back to the foundry, where Spence did indeed draw Chidambar aside, and sat down with him in the shade for a tête-à-tête, over beers. The bottles were kept reasonably cool by being immersed in more water-filled buckets; there was apparently an honor system: you paid by leaving coins in a dish set on the ground nearby. Chidambar, Conor noticed, had no qualms about talking into the tape recorder. Murray and Conor talked further with the men as they worked. Spence finally called them over. “Chidambar’s going to take us to the temple now, so we can take a good look at it in the daylight.” “Sure. I’ve seen it, of course,” Murray said, “but you’ll enjoy it, Conor. Come on, it’s not far.” Chidambar and Spence led the way, still talking together in low voices, with Spence holding up the tape recorder between them. Conor and Murray followed a few steps behind. Once they
The Temple of Skanda 191 were outside the village, they took a path between rice fields. Soon, however, the path narrowed, and began to show signs of infrequent use. Eventually, they were threading their way through dense groves of trees and thickets of bushes. The temple stood in a small, grassy clearing, and was a modest one-story structure showing signs of considerable age. Only a few worn stone steps led up to its entrance portico. The roof of the temple may, at one time, have been taller, but much of it seemed to have either fallen down, or been deliberately dismantled, or both, at some point: several blocks of masonry, large and small, were strewn randomly about the clearing and overgrown with grass. A brown monitor lizard sat on one of these stones, blinking as it basked in the sun. Around the exterior walls of the temple, at just above eye level, was a modest frieze of sculptured reliefs, their contours softened and blurred by long exposure to the elements. Conor was surprised to see two women sweeping the steps free of debris and gathering up loose twigs and leaves from the grass nearby. “What are the ladies doing here? I thought this Skanda worship was an all-male affair?” Chidambar greeted the women, and he and Spence engaged them in conversation. “The temple is only off limits to women once a year on the actual night of the ritual,” Spence reported. “And even then, it isn’t really taboo until the image of the god is carried here in the procession and placed inside. Once the ceremony is over and the statue is returned to the village, everything returns to normal and this is just another place, if admittedly a sacred one. These women are part of the cleanup crew, getting things ready for tomorrow night.” Chidambar led them up the steps and through the doorway. The stone lintel was just high enough for Spence, the tallest member of their group, to clear it without stooping. There was a small antechamber, completely bare. Through another low doorway, one entered the sanctuary, a rectangular room which, Conor estimated, was no more than ten feet wide by twenty feet long—not much larger than his bedroom in the farmhouse
192 Roland Graeme back home, he thought. By raising his hand high above his head, he could not quite touch the ceiling, which looked as though it was made of stone slabs, blackened by soot. Light penetrated the interior not only from the entrance, but down through some regularly placed chinks in the stone slabs; Conor speculated that these were crude chimneys, allowing the smoke from the lamps or candles that had produced all that soot to escape up and through the roof. Presumably, rain could penetrate through these apertures from above; the paved floor had a distinct slope to it, and there were gutter-like depressions running along the bases of the walls, with more chinks at intervals, probably to carry the water away. His theory was confirmed almost at once. Two more women were at work inside the sanctuary; chatting volubly as, armed with buckets of water and brushes, they scrubbed the floor. The excess water, Conor saw, flowed toward the nearest wall, entered the “gutter” there, and gradually disappeared. As Chidambar greeted these ladies, who didn’t interrupt their cleaning, the three foreigners looked around them. These walls, too, were unadorned, although one of them had a shallow niche that must once have held an image. A few steps in front of the niche, blocks of well-worn stone piled on the floor formed a small pedestal, its bare flat top about chest high. “That’s where they set the image,” Murray explained. “On this altar.” The only other objects of interest in the interior were some sturdy scaffold-like constructions of iron pipes screwed together, one standing at either end of the room, fitted tightly between the floor and the ceiling. A spider, vibrant peacock green, had appropriated the top of one of these pipes as a mooring for its web. “These are new, since the last time I was here,” Murray said. “What are they for?” Spence relayed the question to Chidambar, and translated the answer: “They’re to keep the roof from falling in and crushing us. That’s a cheery thought. The men do repairs and upkeep here
The Temple of Skanda 193 in their spare time. They plan to make some major repairs on the roof during the next year, so the temple will be as good as new in time for the next festival.” One of the women was now scrubbing the stones that made up the altar. There was a noticeable lack of ventilation inside the temple; Conor could feel himself beginning to sweat. “It’s hot in here, isn’t it? Let’s go back outside,” he suggested. Outside, Spence and Chidambar sat down on one of the loose stone blocks, and continued their conversation. Murray and Conor walked around the temple’s outer circumference, examining the worn-down reliefs on the wall frieze. “I wonder how old this temple is?” Conor asked. “I remember the villagers telling me it’s been here for at least two or three hundred years. And it was built to replace a smaller structure. Most of the original stones from that building were reused in this one.” Murray pointed to one of the reliefs. “I believe that’s Skanda himself, standing beside his daddy, Shiva. And over there—that looks like some sort of a battle scene against demons, with Skanda victorious, of course.” The forest all around them was alive with buzzing and humming insect sounds. And with animals: Conor caught sight of more monkeys, high up in the trees, and at least one squirrel, which darted quickly across the clearing near where they stood. “What kind of birds are those?” Conor asked, pointing. “Some sort of doves, or pigeons. I’m afraid I’m no wildlife expert, but I do know that India has several kinds of both.” “It’s beautiful here, Murray. Now I know why you look forward to these trips so much.” Spence and Chidambar were still deep in their conversation. “Knowing Spence, he’ll bend Chidambar’s ear for an hour,” Murray said. “Come on, let’s go for a little walk. There’s a bit of a view over in that direction.” He led Conor through the thick undergrowth. The ground
194 Roland Graeme rose. Wild orange trees grew in profusion all around them: their branches sagged under the weight of the golden fruit, and as the two men penetrated the grove, ripe oranges broke from some of the overburdened twigs, fell to the earth, and rolled about their feet. “Are they edible?” Conor asked, as he picked up a specimen. “Of course.” Conor broke the skin of the orange open with his thumbs, peeled it back, and extracted the fruit, which he shared with Murray. The tart juice dribbled down their chins. They suddenly came to a place where the ground fell away sharply. Down below, in a wide valley, the broad leaves of thousands of banana trees fluttered in the wind. In the distance, tendrils of smoke rose from the cooking fires of another village. The “bit of a view” was spectacular, and to enjoy it Conor leaned back against the trunk of a gnarled fig tree, the lowest branches of which almost swept the ground. Murray joined him. He looked not at the view across the valley, but at Conor. “God, you’re beautiful,” he said. “You look as though you belong here, in the forest. You look like a faun.” Conor smiled. “Does Hindu mythology have fauns?” “If it doesn’t, it ought to. It doesn’t really matter. Let’s make up our own mythology.” He kissed Conor. Their orange-flavored mouths remained locked together until both men began to run out of breath. As his panting lips moved to Conor’s cheek, Murray buried his fingers in Conor’s long strands of reddish-gold hair and twisted them. More kisses, increasingly frantic, followed, until Murray suddenly dipped his head to lap at Conor’s stiffly conical nipples and lick up the trickle of hot sweat that ran down from his armpit. Conor shivered with pleasure as his lover swabbed his torso with his tongue. “I want to make love to you,” Murray whispered. “Right here,
The Temple of Skanda 195 right now. Don’t worry—nobody’s likely to come along and see us. Not that I care if they do. Let ’em look!” “We don’t have any condoms,” Conor pointed out. “You don’t want to risk barebacking, do you?” “No. But we don’t have to fuck. We don’t even have to suck. I’m so hot for you right now that all I want to do is touch you. It’s not going to take me very long at all to come.” “Me, either.” Conor undid the knot at the waist of his lunghee. The garment fell away from his hips and fluttered to the ground. His cock sprang free. “Oh, God, I’m so hard!” Murray yanked open and discarded his own lunghee. “Me, too!” They used their right hands to grasp and stroke each other’s erections, their left hands to caress every other part of each other’s bodies that they could reach. Kissing breathlessly again, they leaned against the trunk of the tree. Their fists pumped furiously on their cocks, each man seemingly determined to be the first to wrench an orgasm from the other. Jerking each other off, Conor thought. Kid stuff! Just kid stuff! Not even real sex, if you ask me. But, oh my God, does it ever feel good! Standing here bare-assed naked together in the open air—hot sun beating down on my skin—Murray’s hand on my dick, beating me off—his big fat cock pounding away inside my fist, about to burst—hot come ready to shoot out! “Fuck!” Conor heard himself gasping, as he squeezed his eyes tightly shut to block out the fierce glare of the sunlight and so that he could concentrate on the answering heat deep in his loins. “I’m going to come, Murray! I’m going to come!” “That’s right, baby,” Murray urged him. “You first! All you! Don’t worry about me!” Murray twisted away from Conor for a moment, freeing his cock from Conor’s grip, then quickly leaned against the tree again and pulled Conor to him again, embracing him from behind. Murray’s right hand worked on Conor’s cock again while he used his left hand to stroke and pinch his nipples. The extra stimulation was all that was needed to push Conor over the edge:
196 Roland Graeme he opened his eyes and looked out over the valley as his hips thrashed back and forth, pressing his buttocks back against the rigidity of Murray’s erection and fucking Murray’s fist. He threw his head back on Murray’s shoulder and yelled as his semen shot from the tip of his overexcited prick and streaked through the air in a white arc. “Yeah!” Murray gloated, following the progress of the glistening drops with his gaze as they rained down upon the grass. “Lose it, baby! Lose it all!” Coming soothed the agonizing tension that had built up in Conor’s groin, but it did nothing to cool his lust. If anything, he was hotter than before, and he immediately redirected his focus upon Murray. Conor was still panting for breath, and the last sluggish droplet of his jism was still oozing out of his pouting piss slit, when he forced Murray to change places with him. “Now you,” Conor demanded. “Now you’ve got to come, too!” “I’m already there,” Murray warned. He wasn’t exaggerating: his shaft was already slippery when Conor’s eager fingers closed around it again and began to stroke. Murray’s balls were drawn up tightly within their sac against the base of his cock; Conor seized the ball sac in his left hand, his fingers kneading and tickling it. Now it was Murray’s turn to thrash and shout his way through an unusually violent ejaculation. His cries of passion were echoed by raucous squawks from parrots, perched high up in the trees. The two men slumped against the tree and kissed again, while they waited for their heartbeats to return to normal and their cocks to relax back into flaccid repose. “That was fantastic,” Murray declared. “Kid stuff,” Conor said, dismissively, but with a laugh. “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.” “Oh, I think it’s going to take a lot more than that, to make either of us feel ashamed. I’ll let you know when the shame starts
The Temple of Skanda 197 to kick in.” They used handfuls of leaves to wipe the semen from their hands and their cocks, then wrapped their lunghees around themselves again. They retraced their steps back to the temple. Spence and Chidambar were ready to head back to the village. Spence seemed excited. As the four men walked through the groves, Chidambar fell into step beside Conor, and took him by the hand. Conor looked at Chidambar, who smiled sweetly at him. “Uh oh,” Murray said. “I see I’ve got competition.” “Oh, Chidambar asked me about you, Conor, and I told him
all about your sexual prowess and how accommodating you are in the sack,” Spence said, breezily. “Gee, thanks.” But Conor rather enjoyed holding hands with Chidambar as they walked. “Anyway, that’s nothing. The important thing, guys,” Spence went on, “is that I found out all about the secret Skanda ritual. It’s even more interesting than I’d hoped it might be. I’ve never encountered anything quite like it, anywhere in India, so the next step will be to find out whether this is an isolated tradition, unique to this area, or whether it has counterparts elsewhere.” “Skip the lecture, professor,” Conor laughed, “and get on to the good part. So is it really a homosexual orgy or isn’t it?” “Let’s just say I could be persuaded to convert. Except that, of course, this is a once-a-year event, and that’s an awfully long time to wait between gangbangs, as far as I’m concerned. “Not all of the men in the village are involved. You have to be considered old enough, mature enough, to be sexually active, for one thing. There’s no upper age limit, though; if you’re up to the trek from the village to the temple and back, you’re welcome to participate, even if all you can do, or want to do, is watch. Some of the men are quite happily and exclusively heterosexual, after all, and they stay home. “The men who are going to participate in the ritual have a
198 Roland Graeme supposedly secret mark put on them, with ash. I say ‘supposedly,’ because in fact it’s perfectly visible. They make sure they each have some money, to offer at the temple, even if it’s only one coin. They also need to bring along a handful of some kind of little, inedible berries that grow on bushes here, tied up in a little scrap of cloth to form a bag. And you have to have one of these strange little dolls or effigies, that Chidambar said he’d show me when we get back to the village. The men make them ahead of time, out of odds and ends—twigs, straw, scraps of cloth, leftover bits of wire and thread. “They’re our stand-ins, as a matter of fact. What happens is—the whole village shuts down early tomorrow night. There’s a sort of curfew imposed. The men who are going to worship in the temple go to bed and pretend to go to sleep. Then they get up and put the effigies in their beds. That’s supposed to fool anybody who does a bed check. “We all sneak out and meet just outside the village. At the start of this path. We take the image of the god out of the shrine and carry it, without its veil, in a procession to the temple. Here’s the neat part. One of the younger men has already been chosen to be a mock sacrificial victim. He’s dressed up as a woman, by some of the real women. So, in a sense, the village women are complicit in the whole thing. This year it’s going to be Madhur. He, or rather she, follows the procession and spies on the men. Just before we reach the temple, we catch her spying on us and we chase her to the river. The god punishes her for committing sacrilege by making the river rise in a flood. She ‘drowns’ with a little help from us. We ‘stone’ her with the berries we have in our bags.” “That’s kind of creepy,” Conor protested. “Chidambar insists that, centuries ago, a woman really was caught spying, and was killed. That’s how that part of the ritual got started. Except for the substitution of a drag queen for a real woman, and berries, for the stones. “Anyway, after this big, dramatic interruption, the procession regroups and makes its way to the temple. There’s some sort
The Temple of Skanda 199 of ritual bathing and anointing outside. The image of the god is placed inside the temple on the altar for the duration of the ceremony. Then three of the men are chosen by lot to be Skanda’s cult prostitutes for the night.” “To be his what?” Conor asked. “Cult prostitutes. Man whores, in plain English. Each of them is given a little bronze bowl—and, inside the temple, in front of the altar and the image, anybody who wants to get laid just tosses a coin into the prostitute’s bowl. They get it on. This is the only part of the ceremony that’s been updated, so to speak. A few years ago, somebody introduced an innovation. Namely, rubbers. I find that fascinating, that they’ve been able to incorporate safesex awareness into such an ancient, arcane rite. I volunteered my services, of course, but apparently the cult prostitutes have to be chosen by lot—or rather, by Skanda himself, as the men believe.” “Okay, I have to ask, Spence. What do they do with the money?” “It’s put into this emergency fund that the village maintains. You know, in case somebody gets sick and can’t work, or a house burns down—that sort of thing.” “So what you’re saying is, this isn’t just an excuse for an orgy. It’s really a civic duty.” “Exactly. Although it still is an orgy. I gather that, on a good night, once all the money has changed hands, the whole thing degenerates into a free-for-all. Not unlike some evenings I’ve spent back home in Darwin, and elsewhere. Anyway, we carry the image back to the village, sneak back inside, and this time we really do go to bed. Only first, all of the effigies are thrown into a bonfire and burned.” Conor shook his head. “It sounds like a lot of trouble to go to, just to get your rocks off behind your wife’s back.” “This may be basically Boys’ Night Out, and a chance to blow off some steam, but these people take the religious aspect of it dead seriously. If we’re going to participate, we’re going to
200 Roland Graeme have to play along, and not do anything that could possibly give offense.” “I noticed you kept saying ‘we’ when you were telling us all this,” Murray interjected. “Are you saying we’re going to participate?” “Chidambar says we’re welcome to. In fact, I get the distinct impression that most of the men in the village would be bitterly disappointed if we chose to stay home in bed tomorrow night. As far as these people are concerned, Murray, you’re one of them—an honorary citizen. If they had a key to the village, they’d present it to you. And, if I may be immodest, in the brief time Conor and I have been here, we’ve managed to make quite an impression. It’s like any time a new bloke walks into a gay pub for the first time. All the regulars want to be the first to take him home and fuck him.” Murray laughed. “Very eloquently put.” A thought had occurred to Conor: “But, as far as this religious stuff goes, we’re not just outsiders, here—we’re not even Hindus.” “That doesn’t matter, according to Chidambar. The only requirement, if you want to worship the veiled Skanda, is that you have to be male. You have to have a penis—preferably a functioning one. That’s all the god cares about.” Murray laughed. “So…how about it, Conor? I don’t have to ask Spence if he’s going to join in tomorrow night. I can tell he’s practically bursting at the seams, he’s so eager. Should the two of us become Skanda worshippers, for a night?” Conor and Chidambar were still holding hands as they walked. Conor smiled at Chidambar, who returned his smile. “Hell, Murray, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To immerse ourselves in the local culture?” “Besides, I need you two lads to back me up,” Spence insisted. “I did have to promise Chidambar that I wouldn’t photograph or videotape any part of the ceremony—not even the procession. I can’t even bring this tape recorder along. That’s a shame, but
The Temple of Skanda 201 I have to respect their wishes. So you guys are going to have to pay close attention, not only to everything you do tomorrow night, but also to what everybody else is doing. That way, we can compare notes afterward, so I can write it all down.” Spence relayed to Chidambar the information that he, Murray, and Conor would all be delighted to join in the worship of Skanda the following night. Beaming, Chidambar raised Conor’s hand to his lips, and half-kissed, half-licked it, his dark eyes boring into Conor’s with a smoldering intensity like coals. “You will see,” Chidambar told Conor, in his halting, heavily accented English. “Tomorrow night, much cock suck, much butt fuck. Very good man sex. You sleep in same bed with me tonight, yes?” “Goddamn,” Spence exclaimed. “I think our mate Chidambar has been holding out on us! That’s all the English he’d need, to make his way from one end of Australia to the other. And through all of bloody New Zealand, as well!” “Yes,” Conor replied to Chidambar’s question. “I sleep in same bed with you tonight, very much yes. But only if Murugan approves.” “I approve,” Murray assured him. “This I why I brought you to India, remember? So you could have all sorts of new experiences.”
ChapTeR Ten: The veiled God Dinner that evening was a modest party for the guests’ benefit. In addition to Daman’s family and employees, and the latter’s wives, many of the other villagers showed up. Murray had found time to present his gifts to Daman, who had already begun to distribute them among the men. The women, having got wind of the fact that new saris and blouse pieces were on the way, were curious to see the men who had brought them. Daman and his sons, in their capacity as the hosts, passed jugs of homemade palm wine around the table, and insisted that the three guests of honor repeatedly imbibe. They drank the wine in the traditional way: not from cups or glasses, but funneled directly into the drinker’s open mouth, through a rolled-up palm leaf. “Oh, my God,” Spence warned, after he’d submitted to this ritual, with an aplomb that earned him applause and cheers from the locals. “This stuff is even more potent than what we drank in Chennai!” Mahevari’s cooking lived up to its reputation. At one point Conor excused himself from the table and went in search of his hostess to thank her for her hospitality and to praise her culinary skills. He found her in the kitchen, surrounded by other women, all of them chattering as they worked. All of them, that is, except Mahevari, who was taking a well-earned break with her feet up. Somewhat to Conor’s surprise, she had a cigarette in one hand, and a glass of whiskey—apparently being drunk straight—in the other. “Ah, you caught me,” she said, laughing. “As you can see, I’m making good use of Murugan’s gifts. He is such a generous man. I know I shouldn’t smoke so much,” she sighed, waving the cigarette in her hand. “But if you had five grown children, four of them still unmarried; and all of those workers, who behave
204 Roland Graeme as badly as small children most of the time; well, you’d be a little stressed out too, at times. Sit down and have a drink with me. Tell me about life in the United States. Is it true that American women my age prefer boys your age as their lovers?” After dinner, there was conversation, and then—apparently in Murray’s honor—an impromptu entertainment of singing. Conor listened, entranced, as the women and the men alternated singing the various stanzas of a song. Spence caught the performance on his tape recorder and scribbled in his notebook. It was not until the next morning that he had a chance to show Conor his rough translations of parts of the song: The women sang: Bracelets glitter on our arms Earrings shimmer in our ears Bees seek the honey of our lips But our beauty pales beside the splendor of Murugan. The men replied: Swords flash in our hands Shields gleam on our arms Our enemies flee before us But our valor pales beside the splendor of Murugan. The women sang: The king’s son sought my love The great warrior offered me marriage The beautiful youth called me ‘goddess’ But I languish for the love of Murugan. The men replied:
The Temple of Skanda 205 My bride is as beautiful as Lakshmi Her black eyes smolder like coals My desire burns like the noonday sun But I long to be the companion of Murugan. “That last bit is interesting, you see, because it’s got just a hint of a homoerotic element,” Spence commented. “The guy would rather hang around with Murugan, or Skanda, than stay at home and screw his gorgeous wife.” The men and women chanted another song in unison, and accompanied the music with dance: Come, Murugan with the sharp spear, Come, beautiful husband of Valli! Who has not seen the beauty of Your golden crown, like the sun Your earring studs Your dangling earrings Your noble face, radiant in unchanging kingly splendor Your collar and pectoral ornament Your strong arms, heavy with bracelets Your golden waist chain Your jeweled girdle, flashing like lightning Your ankle bells and other jewels? The three guests of honor were expected to join in. Spence, predictably, had no inhibitions, especially after having consumed considerable quantities of the palm wine, and he quickly worked up a sweat executing what looked like a cross between a Maori war dance and an exterminator trying to wipe out the inhabitants of an ant hill by stomping them underfoot. Conor,
206 Roland Graeme also slightly drunk and terrified by the possibility of losing his lunghee, kept one hand pressed against the knot securing the garment at his waist. He still managed to gyrate with a reasonably athletic abandon, waving his free arm in the air. Murray, the most graceful member of their trio—probably because he was also still the most sober—quite passably imitated the movements and gestures of the other dancing men. The evening ended in general hilarity, as the party reluctantly broke up; tomorrow, after all, was another working day—until nightfall, at least, when the men would celebrate the festival of Skanda. As he joined the single file of men climbing the narrow staircase that led to the bachelors’ dormitory, Conor realized that all of them, including him, were intoxicated—some more than others. A single oil lamp lit the large room. Kumara and Velayudan supervised the sleeping arrangements, unrolling the mattresses and placing them on the floor in various configurations. “Murugan, you must sleep here, between the two of us,” Velayudan decreed. “Conor and Chidambar—next to each other, over there.” Conor wondered how the two older brothers knew that he and Chidambar wanted to sleep together. Had Chidambar said something to them? Or had he and Conor simply been obvious in their behavior toward each other? “Mister Spence, you can sleep over there by that window, where it is cool. With Madhur.” “I’m sure Madhur is a delightful sleeping companion,” Spence said. “But have you consulted him on the subject?” “Of course,” Velayudan said. “You need not worry. Madhur knows how to please a man. I taught him myself.” “You taught him nothing. Everything useful about man sex he learned from me,” Kumara retorted. A heated fraternal discussion ensued in Tamil. Murray interrupted: “What about Balbir? He seems rather left out.”
The Temple of Skanda 207 “Oh, Balbir will sleep over there, against that wall. He wants to marry Chamunda, you see. He likes to sleep alone so he can dream about her,” Kumara explained. “I’m not sure Chamunda would make a good wife. She’s too bold. She was looking at Mister Spence tonight, undressing him with her eyes. I think she would rather have him for a husband.” “Not bloody likely!” Spence exclaimed. “She’s all yours, Balbir, my man. I wouldn’t think of poaching on your territory.” Balbir, not at all offended by the turn the conversation had taken, simply grinned as he carried his own mattress to the far end of the room. “Does this romance between Balbir and Chamunda mean that Balbir won’t be, ah, worshipping Skanda with the rest of us, in the temple tomorrow night?” Spence asked. “Of course he will be there. One thing has nothing to do with the other,” Kumara replied. “After all, Jaishankar is married to our other sister, and he will be there to honor Skanda, too.” A very sleepy-looking Karthika was clutching his own mattress to his chest, letting it drag across the floor. “I want to sleep with Murugan, too,” he declared. Velayudan scoffed at his kid brother. “Take your bed back to your usual place, over there, and go to sleep. You’re too young and stupid to do anything with another grown man, yet.” “I am not!” Karthika, apparently, was every bit as argumentative by nature as his two older siblings. “This will be Karthika’s first time at the festival,” Velayudan explained. “Father thinks he is old enough. I’m not so sure.” “I’ll show you,” Karthika insisted. Velayudan didn’t let up. “You’ll probably come running home to Mother, crying. Complaining about how the men tried to do things to you. You baby!” “I’m not a baby. I’m a man. You think I don’t know anything about it, but I know everything!” “If you know so much, go and help Madhur entertain Mister
208 Roland Graeme Spence.” “Not that my mate Madhur, here, seems to need any help,” Spence gasped. “But come on, Karthika, my lad. Have your way with me, as well.” Conor had been so entertained by the brothers’ argument that he hadn’t noticed that, in the deep shadows cast by the oil lamp, Spence was already lying on his back on two of the pushedtogether mattresses. He and Madhur had shed their lunghees, and Madhur was kneeling between Spence’s brawny thighs, sucking his cock. Karthika didn’t have to be invited twice. He dragged his mattress toward Spence and Madhur. The other men were unknotting their lunghees, dropping them negligently on the floor. Kumara, who seemed to be in charge of this impromptu little orgy-in-progress, produced a large box of condoms and an equally oversized tube of lubricant. He set both items on the floor. “Thank you for these, Murugan,” Kumara said politely. “It is most generous.” “You’re welcome. My pleasure,” Murray replied, with barely veiled irony. Velayudan blew out the lamp. It was very dark in the room; there was no moon that night. Conor’s eyes had not yet quite adjusted to the sudden darkness as, nude, he groped his way toward the two mattresses assigned to Chidambar and himself. He felt Chidambar’s hand on his shoulder, steadying him, gently urging him down. Conor stretched out on the soft portable bedding, and Chidambar lay beside him. They began to explore each other’s bodies with their hands; Chidambar’s, Conor noticed, were heavily calloused, the result of hard work. “Oh, Christ’s bleeding balls!” Spence suddenly blasphemed. “What’s the matter, Spence?” Murray asked. “Nothing’s the matter. It’s just that I can’t believe what this
The Temple of Skanda 209 boy’s mouth is doing to me. It’s incredible. He’s—! Oh yes, Madhur, you sweet lad, you. Keep sucking me like that. Suck me until I come in your mouth, then I’ll suck yours.” “Mine, too!” Karthika’s voice demanded. Murray couldn’t help laughing. “If you insist,” Spence rasped, his voice hoarsened by lust. “Why don’t you straddle my chest and fuck my face?” Conor was soon too preoccupied by what he and Chidambar were doing to pay much attention to the other activities in the room. “We make love now, yes?” Chidambar whispered in his ear. “Yes.” “You will see. Very good man sex. I show you.” “Yes, Chidambar. Yes, you beautiful man. Show me. Show me now.” In the warm, enveloping darkness, the cultural and linguistic differences between the two men were erased. They didn’t need words. Conor was no longer American and Chidambar was no longer Indian. Conor was not white nor was Chidambar black; skin mattered only because it was so delightful to touch. Chidambar had very little body hair, which made it especially pleasurable to kiss and lick his armpits, his groin, the cleft between his buttocks. Everything that Conor did to him, he did to Conor in return. Chidambar only faltered when Conor used his goatee as a brush on the shaft of Chidambar’s erect penis, rubbing it with his chin. Chidambar did his best to duplicate the trick, but, since he was clean-shaven, his light, soft beard stubble couldn’t quite recreate the effect, although the sensation was erotic enough in its own right. After they had been sixty-nining for some time, Chidambar pulled away from Conor and got up. He padded over to where the trio of Kumara, Murray, and Velayudan was lying; Conor sat up and peered in that direction. His eyes had now adjusted to the dim light, and he saw that Murray was sandwiched between the two brothers. All three men lay on their sides. One of the
210 Roland Graeme brothers—Conor couldn’t make out which—was fucking Murray, while Murray fucked the other one. All three men moaned softly as their bodies moved together, as one, in energetic rhythms. Chidambar returned with a strip of condoms and the tube of lube. “We butt fuck now, yes?” “Hell, yes. Very much yes.” “You in me, or me in you?” “You in me, Chidambar. You in me.” Chidambar chose a rather unusual position. He knelt, but leaned backwards, and sat back with his buttocks pressed firmly against his heels. He silently urged Conor to lie down in front of him, supporting his upper body on his shoulders and elbows, and, with Conor’s feet flat on the floor on either side of Chidambar, the young Tamil lifted Conor’s buttocks in his hands. Conor found himself in a sort of arched yoga position, his pelvis raised high in the air—until Chidambar gently eased it downward, so that Conor’s sphincter muscle met the head of Chidambar’s cock. The slippery, latex-sheathed cock penetrated Conor’s ass, quickly and fully. Chidambar maintained his grip on Conor’s spread buttocks, stabbing upward from his own groin to fuck Conor, in a slow, teasing succession of deep thrusts and partial withdrawals that soon drove Conor wild. “Oh, Christ, lads!” Conor heard Spence groan. “Conor, Murray! He’s fucking me! He’s fucking me, like one of your beautiful bronze gods come to life, Murray!” There was no way Conor could tell which boy was doing the fucking, Karthika or Madhur. It didn’t seem to matter. Spence sounded ecstatic. “I’m being fucked by a god!” he cried. “Me, too, Spence,” Conor told his friend. “Me, too!” Murray didn’t say anything. The slurping and suctioning noises, coming from the middle of the room, suggested that, at the moment, his mouth was otherwise engaged in its own eager pursuit of pleasures that approached the divine. Conor was astonished to see, the next morning, that none
The Temple of Skanda 211 of the men seemed to be hung over—which was more than he could say for himself. They got up, had breakfast, and went to work as usual. Mahevari served Conor some strong black coffee with his breakfast. “You silly men,” she said, shaking her head. “At least there won’t be any drinking tonight.” “What do you mean?” Conor asked. “It’s not allowed during the festival of Skanda.” Spence, who seemed none the worse for wear as he wolfed down his own breakfast, was intrigued. “Really? No alcohol? Then I’m glad I filled my tank last night.” He hesitated. “Tell me, Mahevari—how do you feel about this whole ritual that the men perform, but the women aren’t allowed to have anything to do with?” Mahevari shrugged. “I’ll be glad when it’s over and done with for another year. The festival of Skanda! Once a year, men who are usually sensible start behaving like nasty little boys. That’s all it means to me.” She leaned close to Spence. “I’ll tell you a secret. Every year, as soon as the men leave to go to the temple, some of the women come to my house. We have a little party, tea and cakes. We play cards and talk. I make sure they all go back home, before the procession comes back.” Spence laughed. “Your secret is safe with me. And with Conor, too.” Murray wasn’t there to hear this discussion. Showing no aftereffects of the previous night’s debauchery, he had gotten up early, and was busy making his final choices of which statues he wanted, paying for them—in cash—and arranging for them to be crated up and taken to Chennai, where they would be shipped by freighter to the United States. Conor and Spence strolled about the village and observed the day-to-day goings on: cooking, laundry, gardening. They happened to be walking past the entrance to the blind alley when Conor drew Spence’s attention to a group of children, who were playing a game at the shed at the far end of the alley, where the
212 Roland Graeme statue of Skanda was kept under lock and key. One of the kids— it didn’t seem to matter whether it was a boy or a girl—would take a large rag and go behind the shed. The other children would form a group and pretend to sneak up to the shed, reaching up and noisily rattling the padlock on the door. At this signal, the child behind the shed would suddenly run around to its front with the rag draped over his or her head, concealing the face. The other kids scattered in mock terror, shrieking “Skanda, Skanda!” as the veiled child pursued them with threatening grunts and gestures. If “Skanda” caught up with one of the other children, he or she would scoop up a handful of dirt and fling it at the unlucky victim. The children kept repeating this game, taking turns playing the role of Skanda, and never seemed to tire of it; the adults in the vicinity looked on, amused and tolerant. “Isn’t that fascinating?” Spence exclaimed as he scribbled in his notebook. “The kids have grasped the essence of the ritual and the myth—that if you try to sneak a peek at the veiled god, you’ll be punished. They’ve picked this up from overhearing their parents talk, in all probability.” In the late afternoon, they noticed that Daman told the workers to knock off early. “We have to get to bed early tonight—and sleep.” This was evidently a standard euphemism for: “We have to get ready for the celebration.” They overheard more than one worker solemnly declare to his coworkers that he was tired and was looking forward to getting a good long night’s rest. Spence discovered that some of the men, including Jaishankar and Balbir, were going to the temple to make the final preparations for the ceremony; he volunteered to help. “I should be able to get more information about the ritual from them,” Spence told Murray and Conor. Spence and the other men were gone for a little over an hour. Apparently, these last-minute preparations were not complicated ones. As dusk neared, the mood in the village was an odd mixture of anticipation and secrecy. Murray, Spence, and Conor had dinner with Daman’s family and the usual group of the workmen. After
The Temple of Skanda 213 dinner, the women and children throughout the village gradually vanished, secluding themselves behind closed doors. As night fell, the village seemed unusually quiet. The unspoken, unofficial “curfew” was suddenly in effect. Conor took advantage of the abrupt cessation of the usual evening activities to draw Murray aside. “Murray. Are you sure you want us to go through with this?” Murray gave him a reassuring smile and hug. “I’m sure. Are you having second thoughts?” “Not about getting into a group sex scene. Been there, done that, as they say. I know it’s a little late for us to back out now, but I guess we could always go along and just watch. Knowing Spence, he’ll probably pick up the slack and do enough whoring around for all three of us.” “We both had fun last night, didn’t we?” “I’ll say,” Conor had to admit. “So why should tonight be any different?” “I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t make any sense, but somehow I’m afraid that if you see me really cutting loose in an orgy with a lot of different men—well, you might think less of me.” “That works both ways, doesn’t it?” “I guess so. I want you to have a good time.” “And I want us to do whatever the other men do tonight,
Conor. I can’t really explain why, but somehow it’s important to me that we join in—that we don’t hold back. I don’t want us to be spectators. I want us to be participants. These men have accepted us. For this one night, I don’t want there to be any distinction whatsoever between them and us. It’s not just about the sex. I wish I could put it into words better, so I could help you to understand.” “I think I do understand, in a way.” “Somehow I knew you would. I was counting on it, as a
214 Roland Graeme matter of fact.” Murray suddenly relaxed, and laughed. “There I go, getting all solemn again. You’re going to have to start slapping me out of it, every time I get like that. Now listen. You just remember which guy is taking you to this dance. He’s the one who’ll be taking you home, afterward, which is what matters. You keep that in mind, and we’ll be all right. Now give me a kiss, and let’s go see what the others are up to.” In the dormitory, the men washed up and changed into clean lunghees. From hiding places—mostly the metal cabinets and trunks in which they kept their clothes and other personal belongings—the men pulled out their little bags of berries and the handmade effigies which they’d prepared well ahead of time. Chidambar had prepared bags of berries and effigies for Murray, Conor, and Spence, who were also washing and changing. Spence untied the bit of string that kept his bag closed, extracted a berry, sniffed it, and crushed it between his thumb and forefinger. “It’s red,” he reported, looking at the little stain of juice on his fingertips. “Purplish red, like blood. I wonder if that’s why they use this particular berry—to symbolize the blood shed by the sacrificial victim?” Conor was more intrigued by the doll-like effigies. “If this is supposed to be me, I may have to sue for slander.” The effigies were each different, reflecting the individual men’s personalities. Their bodies tended to be old, greasy rags, crudely stitched together and stuffed with straw, grass, or other soft material; their “arms” and “legs,” usually twigs or sticks, protruded at awkward angles. The one thing they all had in common was an erect penis—represented by a stubby piece of wood, a screw, a nail, and, in one case, a used-up tube of lipstick, no doubt retrieved after it had been discarded by one of the women. Conor’s effigy, amusingly, had pale reddish thorns inserted into the top of its head and its “chin,” to represent his reddishblond hair, mustache, and goatee. Spence’s surrogate had a map of Australia, cut out of some old magazine, glued onto its chest. Murray’s alter ego was slightly larger and more elaborate than his
The Temple of Skanda 215 friends. It had a scrap of checked cloth tied around it to represent a lunghee, but carefully arranged so as to expose its wooden dowel penis, and a recycled cardboard price tag with scrawled letters identifying it as “Murugan” tied around its neck. Chidambar’s own effigy, Conor noticed, was made from dark brown cloth; it sported a lunghee, and was wielding a hammer and a chisel, made from bits of scrap metal, tied to the wrists of its straw “hands” with pieces of wire. Its penis was an exceptionally large steel bolt. “Show off,” Conor muttered.
Some of the men were at the windows, looking out, and
talking among themselves in excited whispers. The Westerners looked out, too. One of the village men, naked except for a spotless white cotton lunghee, was coming out of the house next door. He was holding a large earthenware pot in his hands and he was the only sign of life outside. “He’s making the rounds with the ashes,” Spence explained. “To make the ‘secret’ mark. When he comes in and offers it to you, don’t say anything. Just step forward and nod.” The man in white entered the room. Each of them, in turn, had the mark drawn on his forehead, by a fingertip dipped into the ash; the mark was three short, parallel horizontal lines. “It’s amazing,” Spence said, after the man had left to continue his rounds, examining the marks on his companions’ foreheads, and, in a mirror, his own. “It’s like a variant of the mark of Shiva, which his priests put on their foreheads—only that’s three vertical lines, representing Shiva’s trident.” Chidambar turned out the lights in the room. “We go to bed, now,” he told Conor. “I wish,” Conor retorted. But he went along with the farce of pretending to lie down in the dark. After a few moments, they all got up again, but did not turn on any lights. They deposited the effigies on the beds and drew up the sheets to cover them. “Don’t forget your money. Tie it up in a corner of your lunghee,” Spence whispered to Murray and Conor. “And your
216 Roland Graeme berry bags.” They all crept downstairs, barefoot, then walked quickly and silently through the village toward the path on its outskirts. Other men emerged from the houses they passed, joining the group. They waited in silence. Conor did a quick head count. There were twenty-eight of them. Many of the men were carrying bunches of flowers. He heard a sound in the distance, like a door with rusty hinges being closed. A few moments later, six more men in lunghees appeared, walking slowly from the village. The first was Daman, who was carrying a blazing oil lamp in his hand. He was followed by four men bearing poles on their shoulders. The statue of Skanda was lashed with ropes, which had been wound around the prongs in its base, to a small wooden platform, which in turn was securely attached to the poles. The flame-colored silk veil, draped over the statue, fluttered in the warm night breeze. The sixth man, also carrying a lit lamp, brought up the rear. No one spoke. Daman paused, looked at each of the gathered men in turn, and nodded. He turned around, facing the statue, and gently pulled the veil from it. The image of Skanda almost seemed to look down approvingly at the men who had gathered to honor him and who now stepped forward to place their flowers on the platform at his feet. The procession began to make its way along the path through the rice fields. Daman and the statue bearers led the way, the man with the other lamp behind them, and all of the other men filing in at the rear. Conor, walking between Murray and Spence, couldn’t help but be impressed by the solemnity of the procession. It was rather eerie to be walking barefoot on the dirt path, with only the two flames from the lamps up ahead to guide them, in a silence broken only by the insect and bird noises of the southern Indian night. They were in the groves when they heard a rustling in the bushes behind them. No one seemed to pay any attention at first. The rustling was repeated, more loudly. “Madhur,” Spence whispered to Conor and Murray. Daman suddenly raised his hand and shouted a command,
The Temple of Skanda 217 halting the procession. He and the other lamp bearer broke ranks, striding toward the bushes, which rustled for a third time. The two men held up their lamps—and there, peering from behind a clump of bushes, was Madhur. He made a very convincing woman. His smooth, beardless face was made up with lip rouge, mascara, and heavy eye makeup. He was draped in a bright yellow sari that gleamed like gold in the light thrown by the oil lamps. The pallu of the sari was drawn demurely over his head, and he wore a woman’s necklace, earrings, and bracelets. Everybody froze for a seemingly interminable moment. Then Daman pointed at Madhur and bellowed something at the top of his voice. Madhur let out a not quite convincing feminine highpitched shriek, turned, and fled. Shouting, all the men, except the ones carrying the statue on its poles, pursued him. “Daman said, ‘A woman has seen the unveiled image of the god! She must die!’ Now all the others are cursing her, and telling Skanda to smite her. It’s all very Old Testament-ish, actually. Come on, let’s catch up,” Spence urged his friends. “I can’t run in this damn skirt,” Conor complained. “Pull it up to your knees. Or take it off altogether. Running around bare-assed naked tonight would probably be quite appropriate.” “It’s so damn dark, Madhur might just get away,” Murray said. “No, he won’t. He’s headed for a pre-determined spot, a shallow part of the river where it’ll be safe to take a nocturnal dip. The men told me they actually rehearsed this bit a couple of days ago, so Madhur would know exactly how to play his part. That’s how seriously they take all this.” They followed the others through the trees. There were angry shouts of “Skanda, Skanda!” as the men called upon the god to punish the intruder. The river wasn’t far away. It was more like a broad creek at this point, with a stretch of sandy beach on either bank. Spence, Murray, and Conor arrived in time to see Madhur,
218 Roland Graeme who was still emitting quasi-feminine squeals of mock terror, wade into the water until he was standing waist-deep. As the men lined up on the bank, raising their arms and shaking their fists at him, he rather gracefully lifted his own arms toward them in a mute appeal for mercy. “What a little ham,” Murray whispered in Conor’s ear. “Next stop, Bollywood!” The men were pulling their little cloth bags out of the waistbands of their lunghees, tearing them open, and spilling the berries into their palms. They began to pelt Madhur with the berries, shouting raucously all the while. Conor, Murray, and Spence got into the spirit of the occasion, flinging their own berries. Madhur pretended to shield his face from the onslaught with his hands, as he feigned wincing in pain. Then, pulling the pallu of his sari over his face, he slowly sank down in the water until he was completely submerged. The men stopped yelling. There was an awesome moment of silence. Berries floated about on the surface of the water. Conor couldn’t help wondering whether some poor woman, centuries ago, really had been driven by an angry mob of men, perhaps to this very spot, and brutally put to death. Then Madhur’s wet head and shoulders emerged from the water as he stood up again. The men on the bank cheered, clapping their hands. Several of them waded into the river to help Madhur out. On the beach, the men all gathered around to congratulate the sacrificial victim. They freed Madhur from the sodden weight of the sari, collected the jewelry from him, slapped him on the back, tousled his wet hair, wiped the makeup from his face, and, finally, one man handed him a dry lunghee. Transformed back into a young, virile man, he was now part of the group. Laughing and talking together, the men hurried back to where they’d left the four statue bearers. Apparently, the ban on talking was lifted. The procession quickly got going again and arrived at the clearing. Some of the village men, Conor saw, had not participated in
The Temple of Skanda 219 the procession and the mock stoning, but had come directly to the temple, to prepare it to receive the others. In front of the temple, a big cauldron filled with water was set over a glowing charcoal fire. One man, tending the fire, offered clean cloths to the celebrants; these were dipped into the hot water, then used to wipe the men’s faces, chests, arms, and—as they unselfconsciously discarded their lunghees and stood there naked—their crotches and genitalia and behinds. Two other men stood guard at the temple steps, one on either side, holding short-bladed, stubby, but obviously sharp-edged swords. There was a good deal of laughter and joking. The four bearers carefully set the statue down on one of the stone blocks, and submitted to the washing themselves. The earthenware pot of ashes was passed around, and the marks on the men’s foreheads were refreshed. When everyone had finished his ablutions, Daman stepped forward and clapped his hands together. The naked men fell silent. Daman raised his hands in a sweeping gesture, and said a few words in a quiet voice that nevertheless seemed to ring through the hush of the clearing. “He said, ‘Skanda will choose his three representatives on earth for the duration of this night. Their mortal bodies will receive the god,’” Spence whispered into Conor’s ear. No one else spoke. One of the men held the three bronze bowls, stacked on top of each other. Another held out an unadorned bronze vase, offering it to each of the other men in turn. Everyone, including the fire tender and the two guards, drew a lot from the urn. The lots were little black beads, the kind that the women of the village might string together to make jewelry for themselves. Three of the beads were white: Chidambar, Jaishankar, and Conor drew these. The lots were replaced in the vase. Daman approached Jaishankar, who pressed his palms together and bowed to his father-in-law. Daman had a small pot
220 Roland Graeme in his hand; he dipped his fingertip into it, and drew a design on Jaishankar’s bare chest over his heart. The mark, made with some sort of dark red, greasy substance, was diamond-shaped with a dot in its center. Spence, unable to contain his curiosity, stepped forward to get a closer look as Daman repeated the process with Chidambar. Then Conor, too, imitated the hand gesture and bowed, before Daman traced the design on his chest. Daman bowed to each of the three chosen men in turn, whispering something to Jaishankar and Chidambar. For Conor’s benefit, he repeated himself in English: “May your manhood be as strong as the spear of Murugan.” Daman then stood aside. The man holding the bowls handed one to Jaishankar. Chidambar, without hesitating, reached out and took the second one. The man offered the third bowl to Conor, who instinctively took it from his hand. Conor looked a bit apprehensively at Murray. Murray nodded reassuringly. Spence, suppressing a broad grin, also nodded to Conor, and with a slight gesture of his hand, urged him to climb the steps. Conor and the other two men who had been selected by lot entered the temple first, followed by the four bearers who once again raised the bronze image of the god to their shoulders. All of the other men, except the fire tender and the two guards, filed into the temple behind it. The interior was barely large enough to hold so many; the naked men hugged the walls, leaving a space clear in front of the altar. There was now a hand-knotted rug, elaborately patterned, spread over this part of the floor. The statue was lifted up, then set down on the altar; the poles with their platform were propped against a wall, out of the way. A row of candles, set in the empty glass jars that seemed to be standard equipment in the village, burned in the wall niche. Several men stepped forward and heaped more flowers around the base of the bronze image of the god. Oil lamps and sticks of incense were set on the altar and lit. The incense was once again loban, with its pungent, penetrating pine resin odor. Camphor was also burned, in more bronze bowls like the one Conor was holding, the bright flames illuminating
The Temple of Skanda 221 the area around the altar although the rest of the space remained in shadow. The chanting of prayers began. Chidambar knelt, naked, on the rug, setting his bowl down on it. Conor and Jaishankar followed his example. The chanting continued for several minutes. One of the men had a hand bell, which he rang at regular intervals. Conor noticed, again, how hot and airless it was inside the temple. His naked body was already wet with sweat. He waited, aware of a growing tension in the room and within his own body. The close air within the sanctuary seemed thick with expectation. Balbir stepped forward from the dense cluster of men. He bowed to the altar and the statue of Skanda. He began to dance, circling the altar with slow, deliberate steps. He was nude except for his jewelry—earlobe plugs, intricately engraved armbands, a bracelet—but he held a pair of little brass finger cymbals in each of his hands. When he struck the cymbals together their delicate chiming merged with the drone of the men’s chanting and the repeated clang of the hand bell. Conor watched Balbir’s dance, fascinated. His movements were graceful, but they had an athletic, purely masculine quality as well. They incorporated repeated jerks of the hips, in blatant imitation of coital thrusts. After circling the altar several times, Balbir turned his attention to the three kneeling cult prostitutes— dancing around them as well, swaying his torso over them, waving his arms above their heads while beating the finger cymbals together, as though to bless them. He bowed before the image of Skanda again, then melted back into the crowd of spectators. The conclusion of his dance seemed to be some sort of signal. The chanting and the bell tolling suddenly stopped, and a man stepped forward and dropped a coin into Jaishankar’s bowl, making a ringing noise. The man stood in front of Jaishankar, who leaned forward and began to suck his cock. Another coin fell into Chidambar’s bowl, and then he, too, was sucking a cock.
222 Roland Graeme Daman put his hand on Conor’s shoulder, silently urging him to stand up; facing Conor, he kissed him—gently and paternally, rather than with lust. There was a chime as Daman dropped a coin into Conor’s bowl. Daman reached between their bodies and began to stroke Conor’s dick. No one, at first, seemed to be in a hurry; there was a deliberate rhythm to the sex play. Conor kissed Daman on the mouth, taking Daman’s cock in his hand as Daman continued to masturbate him. He could hear the slurping sounds of fellatio next to him. More coins landed in the three bowls. Chidambar had a second man standing over him; still on his knees, Chidambar was eagerly going down on both men in turn, alternating between them. A third man was stretched out on his back on the floor, pushing his head between Chidambar’s legs, licking his balls. Jaishankar had more than one admirer, too. He was on his hands and knees on the rug, sucking one man’s cock while another one, tearing open a foil condom packet with his teeth, prepared to fuck him. The boxes of condoms were set on the floor nearby. Someone was passing the fucker a container of lubricant. The gifts that Murray had brought from Chennai were going to be put to good use. Before long, Conor had so many men clustered around him that he had difficulty seeing whatever might be going on elsewhere in the dark, crowded space. The men seemed eager for contact with his pale, freckled skin, his tousled reddish-blond hair, and the novelty of his pink cock. Some of the men were masturbating, either themselves or each other, as they stood shoulder to shoulder, with their free arms around each other in casual embraces, looking down at the action taking place on the rug. Conor was in his element: this was not so different from the orgy room in a typical bathhouse back home. He accepted every penis that was offered him, either with his hands or his mouth, or both. A succession of men scrambled about on the floor, on their hands and knees, or lying on their backs, taking turns sucking Conor’s cock and licking his ass. One of the men, helpfully, set a box of condoms and a tube of lubricant down on the rug. Conor
The Temple of Skanda 223 got ready to be gang-fucked. He was soon having sex, in one way or another, with both Kumara and Velayudan, who tag-teamed him. The brothers took turns going down on him, and then took turns fucking him, with the odd man out making good use of Conor’s mouth. Conor was being anally penetrated for the fourth time in rapid succession when he realized that the hard-core sexual activity was no longer being concentrated on the three cult prostitutes. Conor, Chidambar, and Jaishankar were all still surrounded by eager, aroused men. But a lustful abandon, like a fever, had spread to every square inch of the room. “Fuck me!” Conor heard Spence moaning, in English and in his unmistakable Australian accent. “Fuck me hard!” No one shushed him; it was apparently no longer necessary to maintain a religious silence. “Oh, mate, fuck me—hurt me—with that big cock!” Many of the other men began uttering a breathless cacophony of cries in Tamil; Conor assumed that they were obscenities, invitations, encouragements, and expressions of lust. Conor couldn’t see or hear Murray, who must have been somewhere in the crush of naked, sweating, squirming bodies. Conor was, at the moment, squatting over a man who lay prostrate on the floor, riding the man’s cock. Balbir, smiling, suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and offered Conor his thick, stubby cock to suck. Conor leaned forward and took it deep inside his mouth. The claustrophobic chamber was already filled with the mingled smell of smoke, incense, and camphor—and with the stench of men’s sweating bodies. There was now another distinct odor: semen. Balbir, shuddering, came in Conor’s mouth. The Tamil men seemed determined to demonstrate their devotion to Skanda by having some form of physical contact with each of the three cult prostitutes who were the embodiments of the god on earth—even if the contact was no more than a kiss,
224 Roland Graeme a caress, or a grope. Most of the men, of course, went much further than that. Conor was astonished to realize that some of the men, while waiting their turns to have actual sex with them, were quite literally worshipping him, Chidambar, and Jaishankar. Men bowed to them as they would before the images of the gods, knelt beside them murmuring prayers in Tamil, and kissed their hands. Conor was flat on his back on the rug with his legs raised and draped over the broad shoulders of one of the foundry workers, who was fucking him, when another man knelt beside him, took Conor’s hand in his, kissed it—and then reverently bowed his head and pressed Conor’s sweaty palm against his own perspiring forehead. “Bless me, O you, the chosen one of Skanda,” the man whispered, in lightly accented English. “Bless me, O you, the living image of Agni, the Fiery One. Bless me, O you, the manifestation of the divine desire!” Something more than passive acquiescence seemed to be called for. “I bless you in the gods’ names,” Conor said, as he caressed the man’s head with his hand. Eyes closed, the man shivered as though in ecstasy. Gently, Conor drew the man down on top of him and kissed him on the mouth. The other man, the one who was fucking him, continued to hold Conor’s ankles high and drive his cock in and out of his ass. Later, during a momentary lull in the activity in his immediate vicinity, Conor disentangled himself from the other men’s bodies and, taking care not to knock over his bowl of money with his bare foot, stumbled across the room. He collided with Spence who locked him a sweaty embrace, then kissed him. “Is the cult prostitute allowed to take a break?” Conor panted. “If not, I’m afraid I’m going to pass out.” “I think a break is in the union contract,” Spence whispered. “You do seem to be earning those coins. I heard some of the men talking; they think it’s especially auspicious to fuck a guy
The Temple of Skanda 225 who looks like Agni. I’m not surprised that these men who earn their living by working with molten bronze every day would take a special interest in the god of fire.” “I don’t know if I look like the god of fire, but I sure as hell feel like I’m on fire. It’s so hot in here. Like a steam bath.” Conor glanced down at his chest. He was sweating so profusely, and had already had so many other naked bodies rubbed against his own, that only a faint residue of the red mark Daman had drawn on his chest remained. “Here.” Spence handed Conor a small plastic bottle of water. “I came prepared. When I helped the men set up earlier today, I stashed a six-pack of these in the corner.” “Oh, thank God.” Conor drank the water gratefully. “Where’s Murray?” “Over there.” Conor looked in the direction Spence had indicated. Murray’s back was turned to them; he was fucking Madhur, who was bent over in front of Murray, moaning with pleasure as Murray’s hands held his hips and Murray’s manhood plowed his small, boyish butt. “Jealous?” Spence teased. “Don’t be silly.” Aroused was more like it. A moment ago, Conor had felt exhausted, as though he’d be unable to have sex again for a week; now, watching Murray take the lithe-bodied youth, he could feel himself getting excited all over again. He noticed three men talking together in low voices, then moving toward the threshold. “What’s going on over there? Are they leaving?” “I think it’s the changing of the guard. They’ve already shot their wads. So now they’re going to let their buddies outside have a chance.” Sure enough, the fire tender and the two guards entered the temple—and quickly found partners. One of the guards immediately spotted Conor and headed toward him. He was a tall, strapping man, one of the foundry laborers, and Conor returned his smile. He handed the bottle back to Spence. “Break time’s over. Time to get back to work.”
226 Roland Graeme “You sanctimonious little whore!” “It’s a tough job, but I guess Skanda knew I was up to it.” “I’m beginning to think that lot drawing was rigged.” “Better luck next time, Spence.” Conor and the guard maneuvered for space to stand in the press of naked bodies. They ended up at the side of the altar. Conor grabbed a condom from one of the boxes on the floor, tore it open, put it on the man’s thick brown cock. He spun around, faced the flower-decked altar, leaned over it, and steadied himself on its edge with both hands. He pushed his ass back in brazen, silent invitation. The tall man penetrated him. Conor gasped, then grabbed the base of the statue of Skanda by its two vertical posts and held onto them. Under other circumstances, this might be considered mildly sacrilegious; but Conor presumed that the god wouldn’t mind. The representative of the god on earth surely had some privileges. As soon as the tall guard was done with Conor, another, younger man tore open a condom packet and took his place. It was a moment before Conor realized that the man was Karthika. The youth seemed determined to prove to his brothers and all the other men that he wasn’t about to go running home to his mother. He fucked Conor from behind, with an athletic energy and stamina that made up for any lack of finesse in his technique. “Agni!” Karthika gasped as, holding tightly onto Conor’s hips, he came in Conor’s ass, filling the condom with his sperm. “Bless me, Agni!” “Yes, bless them, Agni!” Daman shouted. “Fill them with your divine fire!” Then, rather more prosaically, Daman urged Karthika, “Fuck him, my son. Let him make a man of you!” Conor lost track of time. He’d already ejaculated once; but, as far as he was concerned, this wasn’t necessarily about coming. Getting there was indeed more than half of the fun.
The Temple of Skanda 227 He found himself lying on the rug again. Chidambar, beautiful, dusky-skinned Chidambar, was kneeling beside him, smiling, his face dripping wet with sweat. Conor reached up, pulled Chidambar down on top of him and kissed him. Then, with silent gestures, he encouraged Chidambar to sit on his face. Another coin hit the bowl, which was filling up. Another hard, hot cock, sheathed in latex and slick with lube, was forced up Conor’s ass. Strong hands, the fingers calloused by work, gripped his ankles and held them high. Someone seized his left wrist, guided his hand to a cock; Conor began to pump his fist up and down on the erection. A moment later, his right hand was similarly engaged. His tongue stabbed upward blindly, eagerly working its way deeper into Chidambar’s ass. A fourth man managed to fit his upper torso on top of Conor’s body, capturing Conor’s penis in his mouth. Chidambar eased himself away from Conor’s mouth, readjusted himself, and pressed the head of his prick downward, offering it to Conor’s lips. As he nursed the phallus, Conor saw, out of the corner of his eye, a hand approach to stroke his sweaty forehead and cheek. Even in this uncertain light, Conor could tell that the flesh was too pale to belong to Chidambar or to most of the other Tamil men. “I love you, Conor,” Murray whispered, as he caressed Conor’s face. “I love you, man. You are so fucking beautiful…so fucking hot. Tonight you’re a god, a god of sex. They all want to worship you. Go ahead, give them what they want. You’re too beautiful for me to keep all to myself. Only—save some of that for me. I’m next.” Conor heard a tinkle of coins in his bowl. “I’m next!” While Murray and Conor were making love on the floor near the altar, the orgy around them gradually began to slow to a halt. The men were spent. The floor of the sanctuary was littered with used condoms and empty condom wrappers. The candles guttered in the glass jars; the incense smoldered and burnt out, emitting its final threads of smoke. Conor lay on the rug, Murray slumped half on top of him, with Jaishankar and Chidambar lying on either side of them.
228 Roland Graeme Conor reached out both of his arms and grasped Jaishankar’s and Chidambar’s hands. He squeezed them, and they returned the pressure, in a mute gesture of companionship, solidarity—and gratitude, at having survived the ordeal together. Daman stood over them, smiling. “I release you from your obligation,” he told Conor. “You have served the god well. From this night on, you are one of us. You are a Tamil. You are my son, and my children are your brothers and sisters.” Murray slowly rose and helped Conor to his feet. Chidambar helped Jaishankar to get up. Daman led the three exhausted cult prostitutes to the altar. Jaishankar and Chidambar bowed low before the statue of Skanda, and Conor followed their example. Outside, in the refreshingly cool night air, the men took turns washing themselves with the warm water again, then pulled on their lunghees. As the statue was brought out of the temple and the procession back to the village began, Conor noticed that a few of the men stayed behind. “They’re the clean-up crew,” Spence explained. “Tomorrow, nobody’ll be able to tell that anything happened here.” Murray fell in step beside Conor and draped his arm around Conor’s bare shoulders. “Tired?” “I’m asleep on my feet.” “You can barely stand up. Lean on me. I am so proud of you. No Tamil could have served the god better.” “I gave it my best shot. I didn’t want to let you down. By the way, Murray—” Conor said drowsily. “I love you, too.” Some of the men laughed and sang during the hike. They seemed, instinctively, to choose the song Conor had heard before, the one in praise of Murugan’s masculine beauty: Who has not seen the beauty of Your golden crown, like the sun Your earring studs
The Temple of Skanda 229 Your dangling earrings Your noble face, radiant in unchanging kingly splendor Your collar and pectoral ornament Your strong arms, heavy with bracelets Your golden waist chain Your jeweled girdle, flashing like lightning Your ankle bells and other jewels? The mood was relaxed, light-hearted. As they neared the village, however, the singing tapered away and a conspiratorial silence once more descended. Just before they reached the village, Daman wrapped the statue in its silk shroud again. They carried the statue to the shed and locked it away. Men slipped into the houses and emerged again carrying the odd little effigies. The straw and twig and cloth bundles were stacked in a heap on top of a loose pile of straw, then set ablaze. Conor noticed, amused, that Madhur’s wet sari was stretched over an improvised rack of fence poles nearby to dry. He wondered what the woman who had lent the garment would think, had she been able to witness the part it had played in the night’s mysteries. Spence came out of the dormitory, with his, Murray’s, and Conor’s effigies in his arms. He added the figures to the inferno, tossing them in one by one. “What an incredible night,” he sighed. “I don’t want it to end—but I’m beat. Completely fucked out. Good night, lads.” He went back inside. The men were drifting off to their homes and their beds. The only sound was the snap and crackle of the fire. Two or three of the men lingered to watch the fire, poking at it with sticks as the piled-up effigies disintegrated into ash. “Let’s go to bed,” Murray whispered. Upstairs, Chidambar smiled and there was a pleasurable
230 Roland Graeme fatigue in his dark eyes, as he stepped aside in the doorway, silently inviting Murray and Conor to enter first. Spence, lying naked on a mattress, was already fast asleep, with Balbir snuggled next to him, one arm around the Australian in a casual embrace. The three brothers, Kumara, Velayudan, and Karthika, were for once, not quarreling, but were sleeping soundly together in a tangle of torsos and limbs, like three oversized puppies. With his foot, Chidambar pushed two of the other beds together. Conor lay down and slept with Murray and Chidambar on either side of him, the two weary men’s arms around him.
ChapTeR eleven: SaCRed and pRofane Murray, Conor, and Spence decided to spend an additional day and night in the village. Murray and Daman had a few loose ends to tie up, and Spence wanted to conduct some further interviews with the villagers. Conor, left to his own devices for a few hours during the afternoon, earned his keep by volunteering to help tidy up the foundry. He enjoyed working alongside the men and talking and joking with them. In the evening they gorged themselves on another of Mahevari’s superb meals. There was a mango-flavored pudding for dessert. Murray and Conor strolled through the village in the warm, humid night. A full moon, veiled by a milky scrim of clouds, rose above the horizon. “What do you want to do before we go to bed?” Murray asked. “It’s our last night here,” Conor realized. “I wish we didn’t have to leave. I love it here. I know. Can we go to the temple? I’d like to see it again before we leave—and I imagine it must look beautiful in the moonlight.” “Yes, let’s. But let me get something from the dormitory first.” Murray dashed upstairs, and returned quickly with a small bag slung over his shoulder. “What have you got in there?” Conor asked. “You’ll see.” They took the path to the clearing. The night was alive with insect noises and birdcalls. Conor was impressed by the job the clean-up crew had done: the temple and its grounds looked as though no one had set
232 Roland Graeme foot on them in months. Only a slight residue of burnt charcoal and ashes, partially covered by freshly turned soil, marked the spot where the fire had burned under the cauldron. The hazy moonlight cast a pale glow upon the temple’s weathered stones. They went inside and looked at the floor, the niche, and the altar—all bare now, with no evidence of the frenzied activities that had taken place there less than twenty-four hours previously. Murray led Conor outside and around the side of the temple, to one of the large, flat stones half sunk into the ground. He unzipped his bag, pulled out a cotton bedspread with a geometric pattern block-printed all over it, and spread it over the stone. “I want to make love to you, Conor, right here in the open,” he said. “Right here in the moonlight.” Conor now saw that the bag also contained condoms, lube, and a towel. “Oh yeah! Let’s do it!” he agreed. “What a great idea!” They discarded their lunghees and lay down together. As they kissed, Murray grasped Conor’s rapidly hardening penis and gave him a slow, firm hand job until the organ stood up against Conor’s belly. Murray put two fingers on the turgid cockhead and pressed down. He released it, watching it slap back against the glistening reddish-blond hair of Conor’s pubic bush. Satisfied that his lover had reached full erection, Murray lowered his head, opened his lips and pulled the entire length of Conor’s manhood into his mouth. He didn’t actually suck it at first: he merely allowed the interior of his mouth to wet the head and the shaft, so that when he moved his head back and relinquished the cock, it gleamed with his saliva. Murray looked up and grinned, holding Conor’s throbbing member with caressing fingertips and then lowering his face again to nibble on the sensitive underside. With his lips carefully covering his teeth, Murray began to swallow Conor’s hardness, giving the other man the sensation that he was entering a smooth, tight ass. Slowly, deliberately, Murray took him into the back of his throat and allowed the head of the tense penis to linger there while he made gulping motions which brought
The Temple of Skanda 233 Conor’s bunched-up ball sac close underneath his chin. Then, just as slowly, Murray let the penis emerge until only the head remained compressed between his lips. He repeated this delightful torture until Conor’s whole body shuddered with the pleasure of being sucked so expertly, and Conor knew he was on the verge of coming. He began to move his hips in short, upward thrusts, making love to Murray’s mouth and silently warning him about just how close he was. Far from backing off, Murray only sucked more passionately. Conor took Murray’s head in both hands and pulled it against his groin. He made quick, jerking motions as he came, splashing his hot semen into Murray’s waiting throat while Murray stretched his mouth in a wide yawn to receive the flow. Murray sucked him dry, licking his cockhead clean until he was sure no more semen would ooze out. Then he kissed Conor’s cock and pressed it against his hot, flushed cheek. Conor stared up at the moon as his hands stroked Murray’s hair. “I didn’t think anything could top last night,” he said, when he had recovered his breath, “but that just did.” Still cupping Murray’s head in his hands, he slid down so he could kiss him on the mouth. “You didn’t come yet, did you?” “No. I was having too good a time concentrating on sucking you off to even think about coming.” “Good. I’m glad you saved it for me. Give it to me now.” Conor was already reaching for a rubber. “Fuck me, Murray. Fuck me as hard as you can. I’m yours. I want you in me.” Murray answered him with a grunt as he took the condom from him, tore it open, and rolled it down over his rigid prick. While he applied some lube to himself, Conor got onto his hands and knees on the bedspread. He remained immobile and forced his sphincter to relax as Murray knelt behind him, cradled his hard length in one hand, and guided it into the cleft between Conor’s buttocks. Encountering no resistance, Murray took Conor by the hips with both hands and eased his cock into him,
234 Roland Graeme stopping only when every stiff inch of it was inside. When he hit home, he humped hard, and this extra bit of penetration excited Conor so much that he let out a yelp of lust and pushed his ass back into his lover’s groin. “Fuck me, Murray!” Conor gasped. “You know how much I like it! You know how much I want it! Give it to me! Oh, baby, give me that cock!” Murray took his time, exulting in the way Conor’s anus twitched and constricted around his thickness. He worked his dick in and out, pulling back until only its tip stretched open the aperture and then pausing to tease his partner before he plunged back in all the way. But Conor’s ass was too hot, too responsive, to allow him to keep up this teasing for long. Murray was soon so turned on that he lost himself in the fuck, changing his long controlled thrusts to short quick jabs that made both men moan with delight. He could feel Conor’s hard-muscled body tensing, eagerly accepting the onslaught of his prick, ready to receive the hot spurts of his semen. Murray shortened his strokes still more, until he was pistoning barely more than an inch of his cockshaft back and forth within the encircling ring of Conor’s clenched sphincter muscle. He leaned forward over Conor’s sweat-slick back, took his hands away from his hips, and reached down blindly until he found Conor’s nipples. He milked the swollen, burning cones mercilessly with his thumbs and forefingers, and Conor’s ass contracted even more possessively around his embedded prick. “Fuck me, fuck me,” Conor chanted breathlessly. “Oh, Murray, lover—come in my ass!” “Take it, I’m coming!” Murray panted. They came together, Conor ejaculating, helplessly, for a second time when he felt Murray unloading into the reservoir tip of the condom deep inside him. The moonlight washed over their naked bodies as they lay together, holding each other tightly. “Murray—?” Conor finally whispered.
The Temple of Skanda 235 “What?” “Remember what I said to you on the plane—on our way here?” “We talked about a lot a things.” “I told you I wouldn’t want to make a commitment to another man unless I was sure I could live up to it.” “Oh, yes. I remember.” “Murray. I don’t know about you. But I’m sure now. I’m so very sure. I’ve never been so certain about anything in my life. I love you and I want to be with you. I want us to be everything that two men can be to each other.” “That’s what I want, too, Conor. Only I’ve known it for a long time.” They kissed deeply. Murray sat up and looked at the friezes carved on the temple wall. He reached out and grasped Conor’s hand. “I believe Skanda has answered my prayers,” he said—only half jokingly. Conor smiled, and squeezed Murray’s hand. “You’d better pray to Skanda to give you strength. You’re going to need it.” “Oh? Why?” “Because you’re going to have to make love to me again. Right now.” Skanda did not fail to come to the assistance of his devotees. It was well after midnight and the moon was high in the sky when Conor and Murray walked back to the village, hand in hand, slipped into the dormitory, and joined the other men in sleep. Late the following morning, after a hearty breakfast, Spence, Murray, and Conor were stowing their belongings in the Jeep, getting ready—reluctantly—to leave when Chidambar drew Conor aside. He took Conor inside the foundry, and, after making sure that no one could see them, gave Conor an impassioned goodbye embrace and kiss.
236 Roland Graeme “Beautiful man, like Agni,” Chidambar said, sighing. “You will come back with Murugan, next time he comes?” “Yes, God willing. Or rather, all the gods—yours and mine— willing. Yes, I’ll come back. You and I must have very good man sex again.” “I will pray to image of Skanda,” Chidambar promised. “He will protect you, you will see.” They rejoined the others, who had gathered around the Jeep. Many of the women, including Mahevari, were wearing their new saris, showing them off. The timing of the visit had been perfect: any possible lingering resentment on the women’s part, because their men had indulged in their annual Boys’ Night Out, was forgotten, replaced by the obvious pleasure the women took in their new finery. Mahevari, who did not seem to be the sentimental type, wiped tears from her eyes as she bade Murray a motherly farewell. She hugged Conor and Spence too, and kissed them on their cheeks. Conor got behind the wheel. The villagers followed them as far as the bronze horses, shouting and waving their goodbyes, as the three men waved back. They heard “Vanakkam,” the word for goodbye, repeated over and over. Then they were on the road. “What wonderful people,” Spence said. “Yes, I hated to leave,” Conor admitted. “You hated to leave your special admirer, Chidambar,” Spence teased him. “He’s a sweetheart,” Conor said, refusing to rise to Spence’s bait. “But then, they all are, in one way or another. And Chidambar was one of the few guys who didn’t seem to be pretending the morning after the festival, that nothing out of the ordinary happened that night.” “That’s an astute observation on your part, Conor.” Spence had slipped into anthropologist mode again. “I think that, as far as many of the men are concerned, nothing did happen.
The Temple of Skanda 237 Remember all those little effigies? They aren’t really intended to fool the women. The effigies are for the men’s sake, in a sense. The guys can tell themselves, in some part of their subconscious minds, that they didn’t really go to the temple and indulge in a wild homosexual orgy. They were at home in their beds, fast asleep, the whole time.” Conor laughed. “Well, I had one hell of a good time, and I’m not ashamed to admit it—while my effigy was keeping my bed warm for me. And last night, at the temple—well, let’s just say that little private celebration, in honor of Skanda, was even better.” He turned and smiled at Murray, who was seated beside him and who returned his smile. “You look pleased. Would you say this has been a successful trip for you, Murray?” “Definitely. I can’t wait to have that new batch of statues in the warehouse, back home. By the way, Daman told me that it was a very profitable night, as far as the village’s emergency fund is concerned. Besides all the coins, they found paper money in all three of the bowls. Not just rupees, but some Australian dollars. Daman wanted to return those to me, but I told him I was sure they hadn’t been put there by accident.” “Just my small way of showing my gratitude for the locals’ hospitality,” Spence said. “It was a nice gesture, Spence. And now I’ve got something I want to discuss with you two. This trip hasn’t cost me nearly as much as I’d anticipated. Let’s face it, Conor, you’re an awfully cheap date,” Murray joked. “Just pour some palm wine into you, or throw a coin in your bowl, and you’re happy.” “I’ll thank you to show me the proper respect,” Conor protested. “That’s ‘Mr. Manifestation of the Divine Desire’ to you, buster.” “I’ll keep that in mind, Your Horniness.” “Conor’s going to be impossible to live with from now on,” Spence warned. “Once a bloke has been worshipped as a god, he’s likely to become pretty high maintenance. He’s going to start expecting breakfast in bed every morning—that sort of thing.”
238 Roland Graeme “He’s going to be disappointed,” Murray laughed. “Damn!” Conor exclaimed. “Anyway, here’s what I’d suggest,” Murray said. “Instead of driving all the way back to Chennai, we can all go to Madurai and spend the day and night there. Then, if you’d like to experience the Indian railway system firsthand, Conor, you and I can take the train to Tiruchirappalli, get off and see the sights there, then do the same at Pondicherry, which is on the coast south of Chennai. And then on to Chennai, and home.” “And what will I be doing, while you two lovebirds are doing all this sight-seeing?” Spence asked. “I remember you said you wanted to spent some time in Kerala, before you headed back to Darwin,” Murray reminded him. “You can hang on to the Jeep, if you like, renew the lease on it. And start out from Madurai, after Conor and I catch the train.” “That would work out fine for me. I only wish you two lads could come along with me. You’d make excellent research assistants.” “We’d like to, but I’ve got a business to run. As it is, I’ll have to send James a telegram, warning him we’ll be back a couple of days later than I’d originally scheduled. That’ll give him something to complain about. The next time we plan a trip, we’ll have to allow ourselves a little more time here. Then I’ll really be able to show Conor around.” Conor noticed, with pleasure, how casually Murray said “we,” taking it for granted that the two of them would be returning to India together, in a few months. “Well, it sounds like a plan,” Spence agreed. “By the way—do you think there are any gay pubs in Madurai?” “Spence, you are incorrigible,” Murray protested. In Madurai, their first task was to find a hotel. By making a few phone calls, Murray was able to find a vacancy in a dingy but adequate establishment on a side street. There was only one
The Temple of Skanda 239 room available, with a double bed, but for a small extra fee the management was willing to put a cot in the room for a third person. They paid the additional tariff without complaint, although Murray and Conor had no intention of making Spence sleep on the cot; all three of them could pile into the bed together. They explored the famous Meenakshi temple complex, with its four thousand granite statues on the lower levels alone, its so-called Tank of the Golden Lotus, and its shrine devoted to the goddess. In a pavilion, green parrots—the birds associated with Meenakshi and believed to bring luck—were kept in cages suspended from the ceiling. The shrine of Meenakshi’s husband, Sundareswarar—another manifestation of Shiva—was nearby, as was the Hall of a Thousand Pillars. After visiting two museums, one of which was in a threehundred-year-old former palace, the three men were ready for dinner. Because they’d once again managed to find cheap accommodations, and because this would be their last night with Spence, they splurged on a truly excellent meal in the rooftop restaurant of a much classier downtown hotel. Afterward, there was still time to return to the temple to take in one of Madurai’s great attractions. The nightly ceremony between eight and nine p.m. featured an image of Sundareswarar being taken from his shrine and carried in a procession around the temple grounds to Meenakshi’s shrine, so that he could spend the night “sleeping” at her side. The image would be returned to its usual place the next morning. Unfortunately, from Murray, Conor, and Spence’s perspective, this ceremony, though colorful and impressive, did not culminate in an orgy—not officially, at least. After stopping for a few drinks on their way back to their hotel, the three men were all in a decidedly randy mood. They folded up the cot and moved it out of the way, then stripped. Spence, aware that their remaining time together was limited, got right to the point: “I want to see you two beautiful men make love to each other.” “Sure. But don’t you want to join in?” Conor asked. “Eventually, of course. But first I’d just like to sit back and
240 Roland Graeme watch. This is going to provide me with surefire jack-off fodder later on, during any lonely nights I experience back home or on the road.” Conor, excited by the prospect of performing for Spence’s benefit, responded eagerly when Murray embraced him. He caressed Murray’s firm buttocks, his stomach, his thighs; they kissed again and again, tongues darting deep into each other’s mouths. They tumbled down onto the bed together in a tangle of limbs. They kissed some more, then maneuvered their bodies into a sixty-nine position. Spence sat down on the edge of the bed to get a closer look. It was obvious he was enjoying the spectacle; if he wasn’t applauding, it was only because his right hand was otherwise occupied. Conor heard him grunting with satisfaction. Murray and Conor continued to suck each other. Only a few more minutes elapsed, however, before Conor and Murray—as though by mutual, unspoken consent—broke away from one another, and attacked Spence, pulling him down on the bed between them. They took turns sucking Spence’s cock, licking his balls, his ass. They also took turns fucking Spence’s face. It became a playful game, to see which of them could arouse their friend more effectively. The contest appeared to be a tie: no one bothered to keep score. For the record, Conor was going down on Spence and Murray was fingering Spence’s ass and tickling his balls with his tongue, when Spence suddenly ejaculated. Conor drained him. “Oh, my God,” Spence groaned, when he’d finally stopped coming. “That was fantastic! Give me a minute to get my breath back, lads. It’s not exactly cool in here. I’m afraid I may pass out!” Murray opened a bottle of water and they passed it around, each man drinking deeply. As all three of them quickly rearranged their bodies so that Conor could sandwich himself between the other two hot, sweaty men, he wondered if they were ever going to stop and try to get some sleep. He certainly hoped not!
The Temple of Skanda 241 He wanted Spence’s cock in him—wanted to feel him fucking his ass with that ruthless male probe which Conor had just had in his mouth and throat—but he suspected that even the insatiable Aussie would need a little time to recuperate before he was ready to ejaculate again. Spence had his own ideas about how to pass the time in the interval. Gently, he kissed first Conor, then Murray, and then got off the bed and fumbled in his luggage. Murray took advantage of having Conor all to himself for a moment by embracing him and kissing him all over, and Conor was relieved to find himself responding so whole-heartedly to his employer, in front of their mutual friend, without any hesitation or embarrassment. Nothing the two of them did with Spence could change the way Conor felt about Murray. “I want to watch the two of you fucking each other with this,” Spence announced. He sat on the bed again and deposited an object in Conor’s lap. Conor gaped at the huge double-headed dildo. Of course, he was no naïve waif; he’d even seen porno actors using such a device in DVDs. But to use so grotesque-looking a device himself, to take it up his own ass, that was an entirely different matter. The dildo was enormous. It was curved slightly so it could be inserted at the appropriate angle. The shaft, made from silicone, had to be three or four inches in diameter. The twin heads, shaped exactly like a pair of real cock heads, were even larger, with blunt, rounded tips. Where the two halves met, there was a protruding ridge to separate them. The whole thing looked more like a weapon or a torture device than a mere erotic plaything. “I cannot believe you’ve been carrying that thing around with you this whole time,” Murray said. “How the hell did you ever get it through customs?” “Oh, no one questioned it. I kept it rolled up in one of my shirts, and it’s not like it set off the metal detector. I intended it as a gift for you two, as a matter of fact. I remember you telling me you were into sex toys, Murray,” Spence said. “You won’t
242 Roland Graeme have any difficulty taking it out of the country. Before we left the village, I had Kumara write out and sign this.” He produced a sheet of paper, with writing on it, both in English and in Tamil script. “It’s a statement from your doctor, Murray, all about how this device is absolutely necessary to treat your delicate and unfortunate medical condition.” “But Kumara isn’t a doctor!” Murray protested. “Yes, but who knows that, outside the village? And who, here in Tamil Nadu, is going to question the signature of a ‘doctor’ who’s named after a Tamil god?” Spence was already giving the dildo a thorough greasing-up, with, appropriately enough, an extremely slick silicone-based lube. “I think it’s time for your first treatment!” “I’ve done this before,” Murray admitted, “although not with anything quite this thick. Sit facing me, Conor,” he instructed. “Put your legs around my hips, and I’ll fit mine around your waist—yeah, like this—so that once this thing is in us, we can rock back and forth, and we can rub our own dicks together and jerk off and kiss while we get fucked. Now, use just the tips of your fingers to hold my asshole open—that’s right—while I, uh, try to fit the head of this damn thing in there and, uh, push it through and inside—!” Conor watched, in fascination and disbelief, as the head of one half of the double phallus and part of its thick, flexible silicone shaft vanished up Murray’s butch ass. It seemed to slide right up inside his lover’s tight anal canal without any difficulty at all; and the rapt look on Murray’s face suggested that the insertion was more pleasurable than painful. “Okay, now help me get my half in me,” Conor demanded, suddenly eager to take the plunge. Spence, who was kneeling behind Conor on the mattress, his hand resting familiarly on Conor’s shoulder, so he could get a good look at Murray pushing the dildo up his ass, chuckled. “I knew I was dealing with a couple of size queens.” “Spread open your ass cheeks with your hands and I’ll put it
The Temple of Skanda 243 in you,” Murray offered. “Tell me if it hurts—I’ll do it slow and easy, I promise.” Conor gasped and suppressed a shiver of anxiety as the slippery bulk of the fake cock head was eased up into his yielding body, sending chills and spasms of response through his flesh. Spence reached around him to caress his pecs and toy with his cock and balls, relaxing him, making it easier for Conor to accept the penetration. Conor groaned as the massive head pushed its way still deeper into his rectum. “Are you all right, baby?” Murray demanded. “Yeah! But this must be what getting fist-fucked feels like! I don’t think I’ve ever been stretched open this far!” He looked down and gasped at the sight of how half of the immense object was buried inside him, his sphincter muscle stretched and distorted into a thin circle of pink flesh. But the dildo was so thick that the part of its shaft that was between his body and Murray’s, connecting them so obscenely, pressed up continually against both men’s balls and the undersides of their cocks, flattening and rubbing against and stimulating their genitals in a way that no real penis could; the pressure and chafing was relentless—and wildly arousing! Murray, obviously just as turned on by the special properties of the sexual device, was humping his half of the silicone cock furiously, letting the dildo all but pop out of his anus, and then forcing his body to accept its full plunging length again, in a single reckless thrust. In and out, back and forth, the artificial phallus stabbed at his anal depths, each insertion and partial withdrawal resulting in a similar fucking movement of the other half of the dildo within Conor’s butt. They were rocking steadily back and forth on the creaking mattress, and Spence rocked with them, the front of his body pressed against Conor’s back as Conor let his head fall back onto Spence’s shoulder, his long mane of reddish-blond hair tumbling across the Australian’s face and tangling with his own sweat-soaked dark blond locks.
244 Roland Graeme Spence was pinching Conor’s tits, each wrench making Conor’s anal muscles nip more sharply at the dildo he was screwing himself with. Conor clawed at Murray’s own jutting pectoral mounds for support as Murray slammed his rear end down against the tool they were sharing between them. It was now a contest to see which of them could take his half of the dildo faster—harder—deeper! “I can’t stand this! I’m getting so hard, watching you two studs fuck yourself on that big dick,” Spence panted, hoarsely. “I think my cock is going to split wide open!” Conor groaned in reply. He was very much aware of Spence’s erection pressing against the small of his back; it felt huge as it rubbed restlessly over his sweaty skin. Spence panted against his ear. “I can’t wait,” Spence gasped. “I’m going to have to DP you!” Conor knew what DP meant—double penetration. He’d never done it before. He wasn’t sure he could take it. But he didn’t care! “Do it!” he said. Spence grabbed the tube of lubricant, squirted some onto his cock, and grunted as he rubbed the lube all over his aching cock. Then he pulled Conor’s buttocks farther apart with his hands. A moment later Conor felt Spence forcing the blunt head of his slicked-up prick into his asshole from behind. Spence was trying to get his cock in there, next to the dildo. Conor bellowed as the Australian stud’s flesh-and-blood male organ stretched his sphincter even wider open and then slid deep into his already full ass. He was being fucked by both a real and a fake cock now. “I can’t believe how tight you are,” Spence marveled. “I’d have thought taking all those men up your ass back there in the temple the other night would’ve stretched that hot little ass of yours wide open!” “Fuck me,” Conor retorted. “Just shut up and fuck me! Fuck
The Temple of Skanda 245 me hard!” “Fuck him, Spence!” Murray urged. “Fuck his ass!” Conor was surprised that he lasted as long as he did. He didn’t dare to touch his own cock. He tightened his anal muscles desperately, and squeezed down on Spence’s cock shaft as hard as he could, while the blond stud worked that thick fuck tool of his in and out of Conor’s seething hot anal canal. Conor came, his cock spraying out his semen in a miniature geyser that drenched Murray’s face and chest. “I’m going to come,” Murray warned. “I’m going to come, too. I can’t hold it back!” Conor wiped a palmful of his own sperm from Murray’s torso and used it to lubricate his hand as he seized Murray’s cock and pumped it savagely, helping to get Murray off. The crucible overflowed. Molten lust poured out in a rivulet. Murray was still spurting helplessly when Spence began to ejaculate, too, filling the top of the condom fitted snugly around the head of his cock with his hot fluid as he continued to plunge it back and forth deep inside Conor’s body. Like the bronze, Conor thought. Like that molten bronze, filling the mold, overflowing from it—! “So hot,” he moaned. “This is so fucking hot! Don’t stop, guys! Don’t stop!” They didn’t. Not for hours, until their exhausted bodies finally demanded rest. Conor slept between Murray and Spence, a dreamless sleep of complete physical and emotional satisfaction. The next morning, Spence drove them to the railway station, and, not caring who might be looking, gave Murray and Conor each a hug and kiss just before they boarded their train. “We have to do this again next year, lads,” Spence declared. “It’s a date,” Murray agreed. “And you two have a standing invitation to come stay with me in Darwin. I’d love to show you around Australia.”
246 Roland Graeme “Goodbye, Spence,” Conor said. “Goodbye, lad. Watch out for those snakes in the bed!” In Tiruchirappalli, Murray and Conor visited yet another
temple and a museum, but particularly enjoyed walking through the older part of the city, which had bazaars, and a vegetable and fruit market. “What are you thinking about?” Conor asked. “I’m thinking that I must be a bad person,” Murray admitted. “As much as I love the people back there in the village, and as much as I love Spence—I’m still glad that, right now, it’s just the two of us again.” “I’m glad, too. If that makes you a bad person, then you’re the kind of person I’d like to be bad with. Let’s be bad together.” “Yes, let’s.” During the flight from London to New York, Murray and Conor amused themselves by reviewing the photos stored on the card inside Murray’s digital camera. “This is the one, I think,” Murray said. “What do you think?” Conor studied the image. It showed him and Murray, barechested above their lunghees, leaning back side-by-side against the trunk of a palm tree, embracing. They were both tanned and disheveled, and as they smiled at the camera they looked hot, sweaty, and deliriously happy. “I do like that one,” Conor agreed. “When did Spence take it?” “On our last morning in the village—remember? Just before we changed clothes to leave. As soon as we get back home, I’ll have a big print made of it, and framed. It can go up on the bedroom wall. And then you can have the pleasure of tossing the old picture of Derek and me into the trash.” “No,” Conor said firmly. “We’ll hang the old picture of you two somewhere else. In the guest room, maybe. If I’ve learned anything, Murray, I’ve learned you can’t erase the past, or pretend
The Temple of Skanda 247 it didn’t exist.” Murray looked at him in that way that always made Conor flush with pleasure, as though the heat had suddenly been turned up. “You are so smart, Conor. So wise. What did I ever do to rate a guy like you?” “You just got lucky, boss. Or maybe you prayed to the right Hindu god.” When their plane landed in New York, it was snowing. “Yikes. We’re not exactly dressed for this, are we?” Conor said. They’d dressed for comfort for the long flight in jeans and T-shirts. “No,” Murray agreed. “I don’t think we’ll be changing into our lunghees just yet! At least we’ve got our dupattas. We can wrap them around our heads once we get outside.” There was more snow on the ground when they finally arrived at the farmhouse. Without bothering to unpack, they put in a busy day dealing with James’ complaints; Murray caught up with his mail, including his e-mails; and Conor packed some orders that had accumulated in the warehouse, so they could be shipped out the next day. By evening, things were more or less back to normal. Conor and Murray sat down to dinner together at the kitchen table. “I think this calls for a little celebration—our successful trip, I mean, and our safe return home,” Murray declared. “I’m going to open a bottle of wine. One bottle,” he assured Conor, with a rueful grin. “While I’m doing that, why don’t you get a fire started in the living room? Then we can sit there and relax.” “Sure. Should I get out the quilt?” “Oh, I think the quilt is definitely called for tonight. Don’t you?” “I couldn’t agree more.” In the living room, Conor stuffed some crumpled sheets of
248 Roland Graeme newspaper underneath the logs in the fireplace, struck a match, and quickly got the fire lit. He didn’t bother to turn on any other light in the room; the glow from the flames was all they’d need. He spread the quilt over the floor in front of the hearth. He looked up, saw the little bronze image of Agni looking at him from the mantelpiece, and smiled. All was right with his world, as far as he was concerned. He and Murray would drink a little wine, get a slight buzz on together, and then they’d get naked and make love in front of the fire. Warm and sweaty, they’d go upstairs and sleep together. In the morning, after breakfast, it would be back to their usual routine. Fresh snow was falling outside to join what was already on the ground. The windows were frosted. It could hardly be more different than India and yet Conor couldn’t help thinking of India: blazing sunlight during the day, tropical nights, exotic colors, sounds, tastes, and smells. He remembered the singing and dancing in the village. He thought of Spence, and Chidambar, and the other men—the frank, unashamed lust they’d shared in the temple of Skanda and in the dormitory. He smiled as, inside his head, he improvised his own song of triumph and gratitude. The beautiful youth sought my love, he thought, humming the tune he had heard being sung that first night in the village. The men worshipped me as a god…my desire burns like the noonday sun…but I long to be the companion of Murugan. I languish for the love of Murugan. Murray came into the room with the wine bottle and two glasses, which he’d already filled. “Oh, that fire looks and feels great on a cold night like this,” he sighed, handing Conor his glass. “It looks as though I’ll have to keep you around. You’re a man of many talents.” “Murray. The little statue of Agni—I’d like to buy it. I don’t want anybody else to buy it.” “You want it? It’s yours.” “No, you’ve already given me so much. I want to pay for it
The Temple of Skanda 249 with my own money. And even that will be your money, really.” “It’s your money. You earned it.” “But you know what I mean.” “I do. It’ll be amusing to see James have to treat you like any other customer. Did you know who worked on that statue? Chidambar. It’s one of his pieces.” “I didn’t know that. That makes it mean even more to me.” “So that’s a done deal, then. Now, what shall we drink to? To Agni? To Skanda? To all our friends back in India? Oh, I know,” Murray went on, before Conor had a chance to answer. “Let’s be selfish for a change. Let’s drink to us.” “Yes, here’s to us.” They touched glasses and drank. “Do you want anything else?” Murray asked. “Besides the wine, I mean? To eat, maybe?” “No, thanks. I do want something, though. I want a kiss. For starters.” Murray grinned at him, carefully set his glass down, and took Conor in his arms. They kissed. The companion of Murugan had all that he desired.
abouT The auThoR ROLAND GRAEME is one of several pseudonyms used by a prolific writer of erotic fiction. A native of Pennsylvania and a descendant of Swiss immigrants, Graeme began his writing career as a teenager. He earned a Ph.D. in English, writing his doctoral dissertation on Male Bonding in the Novels of Sir Walter Scott. (“Roland Graeme” is the protagonist of Scott’s novel The Abbot.) His wide range of interests includes literature, history, art, music, world culture and religion, and (of course) sexuality. A passionate advocate of adult education, he believes it is never too late to develop new interests and try new things. Graeme has never seen any incompatibility between his two chosen disciplines, the scholarly and the entertaining; on the contrary, one enriches the other. His first book for MLR Press, The Temple of Skanda, in fact marks his return to full-length fiction, after a hiatus during which he devoted himself to classical music criticism, among other pursuits. A second M/M romance, Two Marked Men, is being published by Dreamspinner Press. Graeme lives in Buffalo, NY and can be contacted at [email protected]
the trevor project
The Trevor Project operates the only nationwide, aroundthe-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Every day, The Trevor Project saves lives though its free and confidential helpline, its website and its educational services. If you or a friend are feeling lost or alone call The Trevor Helpline. If you or a friend are feeling lost, alone, confused or in crisis, please call The Trevor Helpline. You’ll be able to speak confidentially with a trained counselor 24/7. The Trevor Helpline: 866-488-7386 On the Web: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ the gay men’s domestic violence project
Founded in 1994, The Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project is a grassroots, non-profit organization founded by a gay male survivor of domestic violence and developed through the strength, contributions and participation of the community. The Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project supports victims and survivors through education, advocacy and direct services. Understanding that the serious public health issue of domestic violence is not gender specific, we serve men in relationships with men, regardless of how they identify, and stand ready to assist them in navigating through abusive relationships. GMDVP Helpline: 800.832.1901 On the Web: http://gmdvp.org/ the gay & lesbian alliance againstdefamation/ glaad en español
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Glaad) is dedicated to promoting and ensuring fair, accurate and inclusive representation of people and events in the media as a means of eliminating homophobia and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. On the Web: http://www.glaad.org/ Glaad en español: http://www.glaad.org/espanol/bienvenido.php
servicemembers legal defense network
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, legal services, watchdog and policy organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (dadT). The Sldn provides free, confidential legal services to all those impacted by dadT and related discrimination. Since 1993, its inhouse legal team has responded to more than 9,000 requests for assistance. In Congress, it leads the fight to repeal dadT and replace it with a law that ensures equal treatment for every servicemember, regardless of sexual orientation. In the courts, it works to challenge the constitutionality of dadT. Sldn Call: (202) 328-3244 PO Box 65301 or (202) 328-FAIR Washington DC 20035-5301 e-mail: [email protected] On the Web: http://sldn.org/ the glbt national help center
The GlbT National Help Center is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization that is dedicated to meeting the needs of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and those questioning their sexual orientation and gender identity. It is an outgrowth of the Gay & Lesbian National Hotline, which began in 1996 and now is a primary program of The GlbT National Help Center. It offers several different programs including two national hotlines that help members of the GlbT community talk about the important issues that they are facing in their lives. It helps end the isolation that many people feel, by providing a safe environment on the phone or via the internet to discuss issues that people can’t talk about anywhere else. The GlbT National Help Center also helps other organizations build the infrastructure they need to provide strong support to our community at the local level. National Hotline: 1-888-THE-GLNH (1-888-843-4564) National Youth Talkline 1-800-246-PRIDE (1-800-246-7743) On the Web: http://www.glnh.org/ e-mail: [email protected]
If you’re a GLBT and questioning student heading off to university, should know that there are resources on campus for you. Here’s just a sample: US Local GLBT college campus organizations http://dv-8.com/resources/us/local/campus.html GLBT Scholarship Resources http://tinyurl.com/6fx9v6 Syracuse University http://lgbt.syr.edu/ Texas A&M http://glbt.tamu.edu/ Tulane University http://www.oma.tulane.edu/LGBT/Default.htm University of Alaska http://www.uaf.edu/agla/ University of California, Davis http://lgbtrc.ucdavis.edu/ University of California, San Francisco http://lgbt.ucsf.edu/ University of Colorado http://www.colorado.edu/glbtrc/ University of Florida http://www.dso.ufl.edu/multicultural/lgbt/ University of Hawaiÿi, Mānoa http://manoa.hawaii.edu/lgbt/ University of Utah http://www.sa.utah.edu/lgbt/ University of Virginia http://www.virginia.edu/deanofstudents/lgbt/ Vanderbilt University http://www.vanderbilt.edu/lgbtqi/