The Scent of Saffron
Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling were having dinner, as was their habit in warm weather, on their terrace.
Dr. Lecter watched Clarice pick restlessly at her food, an ill-tempered, dissatisfied frown creasing the space between her eyebrows.
A bewitching expression, as were they all. All of her quirks, her moods, her less than lovely tempers, were endlessly pleasing to him, all were equally fascinating and entertaining.
"The paella is not to your liking, Clarice?" he asked her, even though he was certain it was not her supper she was angry with.
Her frown deepened, but she did not answer him or look up. Just scowled at her plate.
"This is saffron rice, isn't it?" she finally accused.
"Yes. Saffron, incidentally, is composed of the cured and dried stigmas of the crocus sativus, a late blooming annual that is cultivated in Greece, Spain, Iran, and certain parts of the U.S. The saffron in your rice is Greek, and has a coloring strength of 250, by which the quality of saffron is usually determined, and -"
"It tastes like Clorox," she interrupted.
"I . . . I beg your pardon?"
"Clorox," she repeated firmly.
"Clarice, perhaps your ongoing obsession with the laundry has gone too far. Saffron most definitely does NOT taste like - "
"Tastes a little like semen, too," she said, and a small smile quirked her mouth, although she did not look up from her plate.
She could still surprise him, even after three years. All too frequently, in fact.
After a pause, he thought of an answer.
"Although I do very much enjoy cooking, Clarice, I can assure you that I do not enjoy it quite THAT much."
She laughed and looked up at him at last. Her eyes were sparkling and there were spots of color high up on her cheeks.
"So you say. But how do I know what you're putting in the food? You won't even let me in the kitchen half the time."
She smiled to show she was teasing, and then sighed. "I'm sorry, Hannibal, I don't really mean to be grumpy. Don't know what's wrong with me. I guess I'm just not good company tonight."
"You are invariably good company, my love. You really needn't be pleasant to please me, as you should know by now. If I may venture to suggest, your . . . malaise is, I think, the result of biological causes. You are due to menstruate in some two or three days, and - "
"Are you suggesting I have PMS?" she inquired frostily.
"I'm suggesting that a variety of extremely powerful biochemical substances are coursing through your blood and affecting your behavior and emotions, the same way it happens around this time every month - "
"Men! Every time a woman does something that a man has no immediate answer for, right away it's PMS!"
" - every month," he went on, exactly as if she hadn't spoken. "As well as causing a complex of other symptoms, including irritability, emotional lability, anomalies in sensory perceptions such as - "
"Hello? Are you done yet?"
" - such as taste and smell, retention of fluids, lower - "
"Will you PLEASE stop 'handling' me like I was a madwoman!?"
" - lower back pain, increased bodily secretions, unusual food cravings, breast sensitivity, and a marked spike in - "
" I AM NOT A CHILD!!"
" - a marked spike in libido and sexual desire, one symptom, I confess, I consider to be a stroke of good fortune for me. No, you are certainly not a child, Clarice. You are a woman, the most adorable, vexatious, mesmerizing and enigmatic woman in the world."
He stopped to lock gazes with her, noticing that it had already become a touch difficult to breathe evenly.
"Would you prefer to skip this course? Move on to dessert?" he suggested, perhaps a bit suggestively. "Clariiiicce?"
He reveled in the blaze of mingled ire and desire in her eyes as she glared at him. He always enjoyed this particular phase of her cycle, in part because she was so wonderfully unpredictable at this time. And he was not above . . . enhancing . . . her erratic reactions where he saw the opportunity. To fever pitch, if he could.
"Maybe," she growled at him. "Maybe I would. What's for dessert?"
A new game appeared to be in the offing. How delightful.
"Why, anything your heart might desire, of course," he answered. "No less. You have only to tell me."
She rose from the table fluidly, eyes fixed on him. A lioness stalking her prey through the tall grass could not have been more sinuous, or more intent. His jaw tightened involuntarily as he waited to see what she would do next. He had no doubt some unusual agenda was busily spinning itself out in her mind.
"You smug, self-satisfied prick," she commented, advancing smoothly toward his end of the table. "I think we ought to put YOU on the menu."
"I am sure that could be arranged, Clarice," he answered, watching her carefully. "Especially since you ask so nicely."
She closed the remaining distance between them and pounced, raising her skirt to throw a long leg over his knees and throwing herself into his lap, the same way she might mount a horse. She then preceded to squirm and wiggle vigorously, as she might do to find her seat in the saddle. The effect was delicious. All the muscles in his lower abdomen and groin tightened and twitched. He schooled himself to stillness, albeit with some effort. It wouldn't do to give away the game so early.
She put her hands on the back of his chair, one on either side of his head, and brought her face very close to his.
"Who's ASKING?" she hissed at him, and struck, kissing him, hard, a breath-stealing kiss.
"I'm quite prepared to acquiesce to whatever evil intentions you may have, Clarice," he said, once she'd finished and he'd recovered his breath. "It isn't safe to cross a woman in YOUR condition."
"So . . . your theory is that I've been driven temporarily insane by my own raging hormones, is that it?" she asked, voice dangerously low.
She squeezed her powerful runner's thighs together around him, constricting and immobilizing his lower body and creating a subtle pressure where she was seated.
"If you find you are comfortable with such a gross over-simplification, dear," he managed, but just barely. "Yes, that is essentially it."
She grinned at the challenge, and at the insult. "Oh, you are gonna get it, smart guy. I'm going to drive you right the fuck out of your mind, right here and now."
He smiled at her patronizingly. "Something of a pyrrhic victory, don't you think, even if you could manage it? Some might say I haven't that far to go."
She laughed and nipped lightly at his chin before drawing herself up to regard him with lofty sternness.
"Not in this arena. They haven't seen your uncannily accurate impression of a block of granite, like I have. You can't go sneaking Clorox into the rice with impunity any more, Hannibal Lecter. Prepare to be judged."
"And I say I am innocent of these mad charges. Although I do find I am increasingly prepared for . . . judgment. As is becoming self-evident, I expect."
She wriggled some more to verify this last remark, and managed to wring a gasp out of him.
"Self-evident," she repeated, with some satisfaction.
He put his arms around her and pulled her closer still, hands spread out on her back. "I am at your disposal, dear Clarice. Tell me what you'd like me to do."
"Oh, noooooo, darling, you can't have it all your own way all the time. Not after the heinous crime of poisoning the rice, and not after pissing me off with all that PMS bullshit. Not tonight. Tonight, I'LL do, and YOU'll tell."
Ah! So this was to be the game. She wanted to toy with a bit of role reversal.
As a general rule, he tended to be the more active partner in their lovemaking, and he was generous, perhaps to a fault. He rarely asked Clarice for any special service or particular attention, mainly because her reactions in themselves were so endlessly satisfying to him. He simply didn't have any strong preferences; in truth, he didn't much care WHAT she did. Everything she did was immensely pleasing, all aspects of their interactions, form the greatest to the least, were equally gratifying.
Tonight, however, it appeared she wanted him to be both a passive and a selfish lover. Happily, she remained unaware that he was always a selfish lover, at least from his perspective.
An interesting, double edged game. He was intrigued. But he mustn't spoil her fun by agreeing too readily. Clearly, this was to be a battle, and she wanted to "win". She wanted him to give her a fight.
Very well. I can do that . . .
Quick as a striking serpent, he clamped his hands around her wrists on his chair back and dragged her arms behind her back. He grinned without humor, like a shark does, as he crossed her wrists at the small of her back and held them there. She tossed her shoulders fetchingly in her efforts to escape. All her angry squirming was really very enticing.
"What makes you think I'll agree to any such thing?" he asked her, growling, threatening. "You're in no position to give orders now, are you?"
She immediately went completely limp, all struggles over. A clever strategy.
"You'll tell me what I want, sweetie, or I won't do anything at all," she retorted coolly. "Those are the terms, you can blame PMS. I'm through fooling around with you. Make up your mind. 'C.S.I.' is about to come on."
He had to expend a near superhuman effort not to laugh at that, both for the inappropriate context and for the monumental insult. Her favorite television show. Forensic science as popular entertainment. Could anything be more absurd? He despised the show, and, for some unknown reason, he simply could not abide that lead actor, whatever his name was. "C.S.I." indeed!
He released her wrists and dropped his own hands to the arms of his chair, regarding her with great disinterest. She might have been a hatbox that someone unknown had accidentally left in his lap.
"Perhaps you'd better run along and watch it, then," he said coldly.
She regarded him as though he was a new strain of streptococcus as seen through a microscope.
"All right," she answered equally coldly, and bounced briskly to her feet. "I will. See ya later."
He let her turn her back on him and begin to walk away, and allowed her get to the outermost limit of his reach before lunging forward in his chair and grabbing her arm. He jerked her backwards and pulled her back down into his lap, facing away from him now, and wrapped his arms around her tightly.
"Wait . . ." he rumbled into her ear from behind, and bit at the back of her neck, as though to hold her in place with his teeth.
Oh, this was fun!
She did not move, or struggle, or react to him at all. Not even when he brushed his thumbs over her breasts in a way that he knew for a fact she particularly liked.
"Wait?" she said evenly. "What for? Care to tell me?"
He wondered if she really would have abandoned the game and gone off to watch some dreadful television show. He had an uncomfortable suspicion that she very well might have. Perhaps he didn't have quite as much control over this game as he imagined.
But that, of course, just made it even more fun.
He sighed angrily. "Don't go off and watch television, then," he growled at her stiff back. "I want you here."
"Why?" she retorted, unmoving and unrelenting.
He grasped her hips and pulled her closer into himself, fitting the delectably rounded buttocks into his own hips tightly. A perfect fit, like spoons in a drawer. Or it would have been, had he not been positively rampant at this stage of the game.
"Can't you tell?" he asked unpleasantly, as though he believed she might be learning impaired. "Perhaps you require a hint?
"No, I can't bloody well TELL. You tell me, or I'm done for the night! I mean it!"
He waited to see if she would try to stand up again, or turn around to look at him. She didn't. Well played, Clarice.She really was the worthiest opponent he had ever had the pleasure to engage.
"Turn around," he demanded. "Do it now."
She slowly turned in his lap, brushing him in as many places as she possibly could in the course of her leisurely, sensuous revolution. Not until she was again straddling his thighs, her knees wedged into the chair on either side of him, did she bring her eyes up to meet his.
"Well?" she asked, again regarding him with cool indifference. "What now? Stop wasting my time. What do you want?"
He grabbed her shoulders and pulled her very close, so that he could glare directly into her eyes.
"You bitch," he hissed at her, showing his teeth and hiding a frisson of triumph as he noted the pleased shudder of excitement that ran though her at the epithet. He rarely used abusive language on her, and had imagined the unexpected vulgarity might heighten her pleasure. So nice to be proven right.
"What do you want?" she asked again, calmly. But her eyes were glittering, her pupils were dilated, and she could hardly expect to hide the hot flush in her face and throat.
He clamped one hand around her chin, just this side of what would hurt. He could feel her slow smile widening under his palm. She knew she was only a turn away from the end of the game she craved. Now, to give her the game point . . .
"All right," he admitted through his teeth. "All right. I want to fuck you until you scream. I'm DYING to do it. Are you satisfied?"
He gave her chin a final petulant shake and then kissed her roughly, pressing her jaw open with his fingers and pushing his tongue down her throat as far as it would go. He could feel her whole body positively thrumming with vindication. Her own hands tightened on his arms and a pleased shudder of excitement ran through HIM as he felt her teeth grazing him.
Sometimes victory could be sweet for both the vanquished and the victor. Her pores opened and he could breathe the perfume of her arousal as her body tensed and her breath quickened and she returned the kiss hungrily. He had never been happier to throw a game.
The emotional balance of their play shifted in the course of the mock-hostile kiss, became less a battle of wills and more a cooperative effort. They forgot their earlier adversarial roles as easily and naturally as they might have cast aside party masks and their desires fell into perfect alignment through this intimate medium. There are people who are comfortable with the ugly art of the grudge-fuck. Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling were not such people. Perhaps they were both too well acquainted with real violence to ever mistake love for war.
Now Clarice touched with affection and pleasure, her former irritability vanished. She found his hands and guided them both to the arms of his chair, and held them there gently until he understood that she wanted him immobile. Then she found the pulse point in his throat where she knew he liked to be touched and licked at it delicately, like a kitten lapping cream, while she, also as a kitten might, kneaded at his shoulders. The combined sensation was exquisite, and he let his head sink backwards as he shut his eyes to concentrate on it.
"What would you like me to do next?" she murmured, coaxing now, rather than demanding. "Please tell me."
He considered. Perhaps there might be a few things he wanted her to do after all. He raised his head and opened his eyes to look at her.
"Open the bodice of your gown, please, Clarice," he asked, perhaps a trifle hoarsely. "I'd like to see you."
She smiled and arched backward a few inches, to allow him a better view. "Just as you say. Shall I take the whole dress off?"
But he had decided he wanted to enjoy her in parts tonight, a series of carnal vignettes, a glimpse of breast here, the cream of a thigh there. He wanted to see the flesh framed in the opened clothes, a far more erotic sight than simple nudity would have been.
"No, only the bodice. You might raise your skirt a bit more, only if you want to."
She brought her fingers to her collar and undid half of the small buttons there, revealing a considerable amount of cleavage, but no more. Then she stopped and lowered her hands to her lap primly, as if she were a small girl on her best behavior in church.
"Oh, no you don't," she said, and he saw that her smile, at least, was not at all prim. At least ten little devils were dancing in each of her eyes. "This is about what YOU want. What's the word on the skirt?"
He laughed. "Raise it. Now finish those buttons, you wicked baggage, and don't you dare stop again."
She undid the rest of the buttons and stared at him as she slipped the fabric off her shoulders. The wispy champagne colored brassiere she was wearing seemed designed more to decorate her breasts than to cover them. He noted the front closure of the undergarment with some satisfaction. Sometimes, if a man was very, very fortunate, undressing a woman could be like opening a present.
She didn't want him to use his hands. Hmmm. There were other ways . . .
"Raise up another few inches and lean forward, now, " he told her. She complied at once. Obedience. What a rare and interesting element to add to this erotic mix. He decided he quite liked it.
Once she was at the proper position, it was easy to work the fastener with his teeth. And from there, it was easy to feast on the newly freed delicacies beneath. Firm and soft, smooth and full, coral and cream, thin, delicate skin and fragile flesh and the heartbeat just within, so achingly . . . alive. He could devour without destroying, he could be satisfied until the end of the world. Ahhhhhh. She writhed for him and held his head closer still, softly moaning her appreciation, a most accommodating feast. His hands at his sides had begun to ache to hold and caress.
"Breast man . . . " she observed in a fond whisper.
He looked up at her face, and admired the flare of her nostrils, the sharpness of her breath, the parted lips.
"Give me my hands back," he demanded, and was surprised at how guttural his voice sounded. "I want to touch you."
Her response was a slow, evil smile, absolutely mind-bending in its exquisitely cruel seduction. "No. Not yet. Don't move them."
Apparently, she had not abandoned her earlier ambition of driving him out of his mind after all. What delicious perversity. What black invention. He gripped the arms of the chair harder, savoring this subtle twist of pleasurable agony. Another turn of the screw . . .
"You despicable little monster," he growled. "I thought this was supposed to be about what I want."
"Within certain narrow parameters, darling. It's PMS, it makes women mean as snakes. But don't worry, I'll help you out . . . "
She grabbed his shirt and pulled it open roughly, with a fine, flagrant disregard for the integrity of his buttons. Another shirt, ruined. She could be so hard on clothes. Once she had the shirt opened and his chest bared, she lowered herself until she could fit herself to him precisely, skin to skin, breast to breast. He could feel her heart trip-hammering away inside her ribcage. Or was that the pounding of his own heart?
"There," she said. "Now you're touching me."
He laughed. "That is NOT what I meant, and you know it."
She laughed too and tugged playfully at his ears while she rolled her hips delicately against him, forward and back, the beginnings of that primal rhythm that all humans are born knowing in their blood. He wondered, momentarily, who it was that was groaning in that hoarse, hungry way, and then decided that it must be him.
"Did you say something, dear?" she inquired solicitously. "Are you comfortable?"
"Perhaps a bit constricted," he answered as best he could, unable to keep a tremor out of his voice. "Otherwise, yes, thank you, quite comfortable."
He was lying. If he didn't shed a few layers of clothing soon, he was going to have a heart attack. Or, judging from the insane throbbing in his temples, throat and nether regions, perhaps his head would just explode, splattering blood, bone and brains everywhere. THEN she'd be sorry!
But she didn't need to know that . . .
But perhaps she'd made a guess already. Her small, capable hands insinuated themselves into the small space between their bodies and dipped first to his belly, his waist, and finally nestled into the fork of his legs, precisely where his trousers had become the most painfully tight. His hips jumped, and he threw his head back and groaned again, no longer caring to try not to.
"You know . . . I don't think you really are comfortable. Not at all. "
Now her voice was breathy and hoarse too, at least as uneven as his. Maybe she could drive him crazy, that much was possible. But she couldn't do it without putting her own equilibrium at risk. Games like this never worked in only the one direction.
Small hands working again, loosening, unfastening, unzipping, sliding over fabric and then over flesh engorged beyond all reason, now stroking his length, now cradling and testing the weight, now closing around him and applying gentle pressure. He felt like screaming and ground his teeth and gripped the arms of the chair so hard that the right one cracked.
"All this, just for little me . . ." she marveled archly. "Would you like to take your hands off the chair now?"
No need to ask twice. His hands flew off the chair and he was touching her everywhere, crushing her in a ravenous embrace and kissing her, again and again, he could never kiss her enough, not if he could do it from now until the end of time, and he used the great strength of his hands and fingers to shred the final barriers of flimsy cloth that remained between them and pushed into her, hard and fast and to the hilt. He heard her characteristic hum-gasp-trill as he entered her, the small, unique sound she always made upon being penetrated. It always reminded him of the fragile peal of a little silver bell.
It had been an interesting and absorbing game, full of surprising twists and unexpected gambits, and he was grateful for the entertainment, he'd been glad to play. But he was not in a mood to play now.
It always came to this. He could never quite see a game through to the end with her; there always came a point when he would discover that he was in deadly earnest.
"Now I'll tell you what I want, Clarice," he whispered to her, lips moving against her cheek. "Now I'll tell you. I want to stay like this, exactly like this, forever. That's what I want. Can we do that, do you think?"
She pulled away from him a small space, only enough to look into his face. The kindness and wonder in her smile was breathtaking. She was no longer playing either.
"Sometimes . . ." she said, seriously. "Sometimes I think we can do anything. Anything at all."
He nodded, equally seriously. "Sometimes, Clarice . . . I do too." Then he bent his head to the tender angle between her jaw and her throat.
He could feel the pulsing of her heart in her throat where he kissed her, and in her breast where it was pressed to his, and in the enveloping recesses inside her, where she held him fast. He considered that beat, and it gave him an idea, something he wanted to try, something impossible that he believed that they could, nevertheless, do.
He took both of her hands in his, and took a moment to admire their delicacy and strength, and then placed one of them on her breast, just over her heart, and the other on his own.
"There, dear Clarice, can you feel that? That's your heart beating, and mine. Can you feel the two different rhythms? Yours is a bit faster."
"Mmmm . . . yes, I feel it . . ."
"I think we can match them. I think we can align these two divergent beats into one, a new one. Would you like to try it?"
"Oh, yes. Yes. What do we do?"
"Relax, like that, just let your head down . . ." he guided her head to the crook of his neck, stroked her hair. "Close your eyes. Concentrate."
He covered her hands at their respective chests with his own, slightly larger hands, and started to tap out a rhythm, something halfway between her quick flutter and his slower, stronger pace. He tapped, and felt how her body began to pick up the pace he was setting, how she tightened and relaxed around him in time to his tapping, and then how her her hips cycled into the cadence, forward and back.
His own movements started to echo hers, and echo the tapping, and their breathing aligned.
tap-TAP, tap-TAP, tap-TAP, tap-TAP, tap-TAP . . .
Closer and closer, movements combined, precision and passion, breathing in tandem, the one rhythm over all, and their heartbeats slowed and speeded and fluttered in adjustment, and . . .
. . . and, at last, synchronized. Synchronized perfectly. Synchronicity.
The seamless melding of the immediate to the infinite and the material to the illimitable. Blood and bone, stock and stone, so strange and wonderful that the physical meshing of flesh could be the way to the incorporeal world of the spirits. The poetry of meat, the ghost in the machine.
But he knew that. He'd found the path to the unseen through the quivering tissues of the body before. He'd pulled these red threads, that could lead so far past the flesh, out of the bodies of others. He'd devoured them whole.
This was a better way.
The tandem rhythm that they'd created sped and doubled and trebled and spun out of control, and their movements, though precisely aligned, grew frenzied, and their cries escalated and whatever boundaries of identity there are that make the difference between self and other melted.
The human heart is not made to exist without limits for long. We were made to live in the material world. The inevitable climax occurred, and it was impossible to know how, or why, or who. Clarice screamed in ecstasy, face raised to Heaven and head thrown back. Or was that him screaming? Or were they both . . ? He could never be certain.
Whatever the case, they both had to subside and to catch their breath, and Clarice curled and panting in his arms, a precious, living bundle that continually astonished him, night after night.
Just another night on the terrace. One of many.
Thank you God, if You're out there, I may forgive You yet. Stranger things have happened, after all. Observe this woman that I have somehow won, for example. What other evidence of the possibility of the unlikely might one ask?
An unfinished meal and abandoned plates, an uncleared table and a cracked chair.
Sometimes, he thought, we dance at dinnertime. And sometimes . . . we don't finish dinner.
He put his head back against the chair again, resting as he savored the rare moment of contentment. He breathed in the scents of the mild night air, the combined musk of the coupling just past, the clean fragrance of her skin and hair, the varied scents of the cooling, uneaten food, the scent of . . . what? What was that . .?
Ah. He laughed. Of course.
The scent of saffron.
Clarice stirred and raised her head to look in his eyes.
"I love you." she said simply.
The world could be an evil, lying place, and he often found he had to expend great efforts to keep whatever fragile grip he might on his place within it. But there were things that could help to bind him there. Real things.
The light in her eyes. The rhythm of a heartbeat. The scent of saffron.
For that night, for that time, with that grace, he was satisfied.