Pick of the year 2008
By Robert Olen Butler
Attila, 47, Khan of the Huns
Ildico, 17, his twelfth wife
in his bed in Pannonia, on his wedding night, as he dies from ruptured esophageal varices, 45
a sudden warmth deep in my throat like the bloom on the chest of an enemy as the arrow flies in and I cannot draw a breath and I lift up and try again and again and there is nothing but the old man, the Shaman of Rome, the Papa called Leo, and I am on horseback at the ford of the River Mincius and he comes on foot and I dismount because he wears golden robes and I know he carries invisible arrows, though I can still take his life, my hand moves to the hilt of the Sword of Mars, which came to me long ago as a sign of my greatness, and this man in gold pleads quietly that I do not press on from this place to his Rome to sack it and burn it and he says Do not think that you deal simply with Valentinian, for my Emperor is not of this world and I do not understand, but my hand wants to kill him at once and take his golden robe for spoil and I would advance on his city, but then another man appears, assembling himself from the empty air beside the Shaman, and my horse knows to mutter and rear and this man is lank and draped in linen and he has an uneven beard and dark quiet wounds in his side and he wears a crown of thorns and he advances, and though he carries no weapon I begin to tremble, and he says very softly I am his Emperor and he stops before me and he angles his head backward and to the side and he offers his naked throat, and I know that if I cut it I am lost.
I cannot stop my legs from shaking, my chest from trembling, even with the weight of him on me, and the root of every hair in my head burns from the ceremonial dragging to his bed, and outside, his warriors vibrate their tongues, filling the air with cries like birds of prey come to wait beyond this canopy of white linen, wait in the flicker of pine torch, wait until he is done with me to pick the flesh from my bones, and now he rears like a horse and gasps and gasps, though I can tell he is not finished inside me, and now he falls heavily upon me again and he grows still, and lo, he is suddenly weak, he is gentle suddenly, and a sweet hopeful surging comes into me, for I see there is a side to my fierce new husband that perhaps will let me hold him close, and I put my arms about him
“Intercourse” is a powerful, breathless piece. It is composed of one single sentence for each protagonist, one sentence for the dying Attila, and one for his 12th bride Illico on their wedding night.
Attila is unconcerned with the woman he has just taken. He is dying from ruptured esophageal varices, and is having a vision – an encounter with Pope Leo, and Pope Leo’s “emperor,” Jesus. Attila wants to kill them both, and Jesus offers his neck, and suddenly Attila knows that if he does kill Jesus, he will be lost.
Illico, meanwhile, has just experienced first-time sex with her fierce new husband. Afterwards, he slumps in her arms, “suddenly gentle.” She doesn’t know that he is dying yet, and hope surges inside her, hope that her husband might not be the brute she had expected, but gentle, at times, and that, after all, they might have joy together in the future.
The title alone is intriguing and layered. “Intercourse” not only refers to the sex that is had, but also to a more general exchange of thoughts and feelings, between Attila and Leo, and foreshadowing Attila’s communion with Jesus, and Illico’s futile hopes of communion with her new husband.
I like long sentences, and here, the author has used them to great effect. In the first part, we enter mid-sentence, galloping through the steppes with Attila the Hun, the rhythm and breathlessness of his sentences mirroring his own breathlessness, his battling with his own conscience, his encounter with Jesus, his ephiphany, ending in a full stop.
Illico’s voice is different, but there is a breathlessness here, too, showing her fragile, shaky state of mind, and the sudden surge of hope at her husband’s unexpected gentleness.
Her words end with her putting her arms around him, but there is no full stop, no end to her story, yet.