I followed Smithee down through the house and out the back door to a veranda. The long green lawn sloped away before me, and the cave that would be my home was just visible through the thicket of bushes and trees. A white rabbit was mounting a brown one a few yards away in the grass until the butler clapped his hands and they scampered off. “Sir,” he said, and it wasn’t “Sir, whenever you’re ready” so much as “Sir, can we get on with this,” so I walked down a short flight of steps and crossed the morning-wet lawn toward the outcrop of stones I’d seen from Mr. Crane’s window.
Off to my right, in the direction of the faraway ocean, a circle of pavement sparkled with dew and with what may have been tiny fragments of glass mixed into the surface. At first I didn’t know what it was, maybe a foundation for another building to come, but as I moved through the grass and my angle changed I realized it was a helicopter landing pad, right there in Mr. Crane’s yard. I’d seen mansions with their own landing pads in movies, of course, but I’d never imagined people actually had them.
As I slowed to look at the landing pad, Smithee kept moving quickly, charging along at his efficient but effortless professional pace. I rushed to catch up but slipped on the wet grass of the hill and ended up sliding past him on one foot, waving my arms to stay upright, and one flip-flop slipped from my toes to tumble away in the grass. I might have cried out but I didn’t fall down. As I chased down my sandal, Smithee said again, “Sir,” but he might as well have told me that I was the most pathetic creature he’d ever seen, and that he’d rather smack me in the head with my sandal than wait for me to retrieve it.
He was able to pack a whole lot of meaning into his “Sir,” but I suppose that was part of his job—to respond to all the situations of the household with a limited, unobtrusive professional vocabulary. Maybe, I wondered, that’s what the verb “to butle” actually meant, and if not that’s what it should mean.
I walked with more care the rest of the way, sure to keep up with Smithee so I might avoid his sharp eye and tongue.
The cave, when we reached it, was fifteen feet or so deep by about ten feet wide and better lit than I had expected, though my eyes took a moment to adjust when I stepped from the sun of the garden into my shadowed new home. The walls were carved with niches and nooks of all sizes, some stocked with candles and others hosting pinecones and feathers and the types of objects a hermit might choose (or be told) to collect in his home. The cave made me think of amusement park rides with their mountains made of fake stone, each rock painted to convince passengers of miniature railways and roller coasters as they speed by. But this cave, my cave, had been built from real stone, carefully chosen and painstakingly quarried and carried up into the hills to Mr. Crane’s yard, where it was blasted and chiseled and carved with water cannons to simulate years of erosion and weather. Smithee told me all that as we approached it, in a bored monologue that sounded rehearsed.
A low wooden pallet stood at the far end of the chamber, not quite against the wall and layered with straw. Two dark gray blankets—one thick, one thin—lay folded upon it. They weren’t a uniform gray but were speckled, almost the same as the walls of the cave, and beside the blankets lay a dark tunic made from the same rough material. I lifted it from the bed and it unfolded to hang to my knees, and a length of frayed rope—my new belt—fell out of the folds. Shaking the fabric even that much stirred a strong, stomach-churning scent of lanolin, and the cloth—if I can call it that, as scratchy and raw as it was—coated my fingers with oil from whatever sheep had been shorn for my sake.
“If that will be all, sir,” said Smithee. “Your present attire will be collected when a meal is delivered. Mr. Crane reminds you that silence should be undertaken immediately, so now is the time to say what you will.”
He looked so bored with the possibility of my last public words, so disinterested in me altogether, that instead of something profound or considered I said just, “Okay.”
In reply Smithee said only, “Sir,” of course. Then he walked away toward the house on silent, gliding steps that gave him, in his dark suit, the look of a movie vampire. At the bottom of the hill, though, where he would have been hidden from the view of the windows, Smithee stopped. He pulled a flat black notebook from the inner pocket of his jacket and followed that with a pen. He wrote something down, then flipped back a couple of pages before writing something else. Then he tucked away his tools, smoothed the front of his jacket with the palms of his hands, and carried on up the hill to the house. I hadn’t been able to tell while walking behind him, but watching him from a sideways distance I noticed that however steep the slope of the hill his body stayed perfectly straight; his feet must have met the ground at an angle, but the rest of him never leaned. Not that it meant anything, but I’d never seen anyone walk like that before.
I stripped off my clothes and stood nude in the air of the cave, pale and tender and pink, aware of each pore and pimple and each pound of flesh in a way I never had been. A cool breeze blew in and I broke out in goose bumps, every hair standing straight up off my body. The sudden cold on the parts I’d kept covered made my whole body shiver, the way it happens when opening your fly at a urinal in a cold bathroom. It looked warmer outside, so I left the cave for the grass with the tunic and belt in my hands. Sunlight fell on my cock and balls for the first time perhaps ever, and I stood with my hands on my hips, thrusting myself slightly forward into the warmth.
Then I looked up the slope of the lawn toward the house, toward Mr. Crane’s window on the third floor, and saw the round glint of his telescope lens with the silhouette of a person behind it. And, below his window, a blonde woman sat in a patio chair looking in my direction.
I ducked into my cave to pull the tunic over my head and knot the rope belt around my waist. For the first several seconds there was only the smell, that lanolin smell, closing my throat and watering my eyes, but then I moved some part of my body in some tiny way and the itch was explosive. Prickling like millions of dagger-sharp fibers were sticking and stabbing my cotton- and nylon-spoiled skin, and I burst into bright hives all over. My body had been bound and trussed all my life, covered by clothes I had rarely noticed were there. I pulled them on in the morning and took them off again at night to wear other clothes made from the same fabrics, but pulling on that tunic was the first time in my life I could feel every inch, every thread of a garment where it crossed my body, and it burned. I attacked myself with my fingernails, and rubbed my back and ribs against the rough walls of the cave, and the itch began to feel a bit better if only because the bloody welts I raised with my scratching were so painful themselves that they drew attention away from the other discomfort. Until the fibers of the tunic scratched those raw wounds, and everything hurt even more.
And like that my days in the garden began to go by.