The Master

GD Dess
Steve Shook from Moscow, Idaho, USA

That spring when the Covid lockdown went into effect, Thomas decided to quit New York City and go live with his mother in their Hudson Valley estate. A respected art consultant, Thomas was typically engaged by auction houses and galleries, and sometimes private collectors, to research and confirm the provenance of paintings and sculptures, their sales history, and projected valuation, all of which he could do with a phone and an internet connection. The solitary, scholarly nature of his assignments, and his general lax attitude toward maintaining his friendships, had, over the years, resulted in his becoming somewhat socially isolated. Thus, he had no qualms about leaving the city and taking refuge from the pandemic upstate.

The estate’s main house, a stately red-brick Georgian, was built in the 1800s. Two wings, in the original style, were added by his father in the sixties, one accommodated the library, the other an updated kitchen. All the rooms were graciously proportioned, light streamed in through Palladian windows. Throughout, there were high ceilings, wide hallways, fireplaces where you would expect them. A broad, flowing staircase led to the bedrooms and maid’s quarters on the second floor. Henry James would have been at home here.

There were two additional structures in close proximity to the main house, a dilapidated barn, used mostly for storage, and a guest cottage, which had been “lightly” modernized in order to retain its rustic charm.

In the west, over the ridge line, on a fine day, the dusk was prolonged by the light reflected off the Hudson River. His mother had taken up permanent residence on the property after his father passed away five years previously. She hired a housekeeper shortly after her arrival. Engaged through a “concierge agent” in Paris who acted as an intermediary for an employment agency in Germany that specialized in finding eastern European domestic help, Ivona was Ukrainian. She was, his mother told him, twenty-seven. In addition to her native language, Ivona also spoke a smattering of Polish, having worked in Warsaw as a nanny before coming to America. Her English was coming along, as his mother said. One morning Thomas found an English-as-a-second-language book on the kitchen table. It was dog-eared and filled with marginalia. The self-tests at the end of each chapter were mostly completed, her score generally falling slightly below the fiftieth percentile.

Two months after he arrived, a week before her eighty-eighth birthday, his mother contracted Covid. Fifteen days later she passed away from complications arising from the virus. She was buried in the family plot in Bronxville, next to his father, after an intimate, sparsely attended memorial service conducted over Zoom.

A week following the ceremony one of his mother’s friends emailed Thomas inquiring what he intended “to do” with Ivona. She was, she wrote, so good, so nice, so thoughtful and thorough, and had taken such good care of his mother that she would be happy to “take her” if he decided he wasn’t in need of her services. He had not, until then, thought much about Ivona, but upon learning that someone found her desirable, his interest in her was piqued.

Not long thereafter, whether coincidental or not, one evening Ivona appeared at his side at the dinner table and asked whether he planned to keep her on. Did she have another opportunity she wanted to pursue? She did not. She had nowhere to go and was curious about his plans for her. She could stay as long as she liked, he told her.

Ivona’s duties at the time of his mother’s death consisted of cleaning and arranging what his mother dirtied and disarranged. Helping her prepare for the day in the morning and helping her prepare for bed at night, crippled as she was by arthritis. Ivona was in charge of shopping, keeping the pantry and refrigerator stocked, cleaning and cooking, as well as maintaining the flower arrangements in all the various rooms.

Organized and disciplined, his mother had lived by a schedule. Breakfast at eight-thirty, lunch at one, tea at four, dinner at seven. Tea or Absinthe at ten. Ivona continued to impose this timetable even after his mother’s passing. In the morning, if Thomas wasn’t in the kitchen at eight-twenty-five she would knock at his bedroom door, open it a crack and announce that breakfast was waiting. When he didn’t show up in the dining room at one for lunch because he was caught up in work, she came to fetch him from the library where he had set up his office. At first he was annoyed by her interruptions, often refusing to give in to her entreaties, but over time he found touching her unflagging efforts to get him to comply with the schedule, and eventually he surrendered to her demands. That he was willing to follow the household protocols established by his mother appeared to give Ivona a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

It was after their discussion of Ivona’s job security that he recalled his mother saying that although she didn’t call attention to herself, Ivona was “very pretty” when you actually looked at her. He began then to look at her and concluded his mother was correct. Ivona was very pretty. She was, he decided, more than pretty. Coming upon her in the kitchen when she was taking a break, sitting at the table with a cup of tea, in her stillness, she brought to mind the stately elusive beauty of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Particularly her silky, milky skin tone. Wandering into the great room when she was dusting the interior of the lamp shades he was struck by her stately profile, which, he thought, bore an uncanny resemblance to the aquiline elegance of Sargent’s Madame X. Closer and more frequent observation revealed that no matter what task she was performing she exhibited the same grace and equanimity that Norbert Hanold—and Freud—discerned in the bas-relief of Gradiva.

Soon, his growing appreciation of her beauty dictated that he seek her out whenever he got up from his desk to stretch his legs. She appeared unperturbed when he sauntered into the room in which she was working, protected as she was from his verbal assault by her earbuds. She acknowledged his presence with a head nod or a smile, then continued to attend to her tasks as if he wasn’t present. He would meander around the room, picking up a magazine or paper from a table and pretend to read it while following her every movement, or he stood and stared out a win- dow that showed her reflection. Her assiduous attention to detail— from running a cloth over the cables leading from the television to the wall socket to remove the dust, to rotating and plumping the pillows on the couch—created an environment in which everything was always just right, nothing was ever wrong. No matter which room he found himself in, he felt embraced by luxe, calme et volupté, a state he had not previously experienced living alone, nor had imagined possible for himself. Her religious dedication to her work had as its goal his comfort and happiness. He wondered what he would do without her. Lacking in her solicitude, bereft of her care, what would his life be like, how would he go on?

Occasionally he did more than observe her. Even though he knew it was wrong, he sometimes forced her to acknowledge his presence and talk. In the kitchen, while she was changing the flowers in the vases, he stood beside her and helped her cut the stems, engaging her in random, inconsequential conversation. One day when he was helping her change the sheets on his bed, he got out of her that her father was a mechanic and her mother a baker, and that she had two younger brothers, all of whom had been killed during the war in Donbas. He didn’t press her for details. He empathized with her sorrow. Which brought to mind his father’s admonishment when he was growing up, not to trifle with “the help,” as his father had called anyone who was in the employ of the family. Politeness and firm, unambiguous direction was the only dialog necessary. Any drift toward befriending or becoming emotionally entangled with a person who worked for you was a grievous breach of decorum not to be tolerated.

Concerned that his increasing infatuation with Ivona was blinding him to her faults and that the crystallized image of her beauty he held in his mind bore no correspondence to reality, he invited a few friends who had begun socializing up from the city to visit in order to solicit their opinions of her. If one of them pointed out a flaw, it would, perhaps, break the spell she had cast over him.

They adored her. She was gorgeous, exquisite, how was it that she was working as a housekeeper isolated in the country. Why didn’t he do something for her, help her improve her position in life. There was, one of his guests pointed out, something simple and pure and innocent about her, like Flaubert’s Félicité. Everyone wanted her. How did he keep his hands off her?

On the days his work demanded his full, uninterrupted attention because a deadline was looming and he couldn’t spare the time to follow Ivona around the house, she began to appear to him in moments of reverie when he turned his eyes away from his screens to rest them, and staring into space he saw her spread out naked on a chaise lounge, like Manet’s Olympia, except Ivona was not staring at him with a brazen, careless gaze but with a dreamy, sultry, sympathetic expression that urged him to come closer as she dropped her shoes, uncrossed her legs and spread them apart for his pleasure. He would shoo away the cat, pull the curtain to dismiss the servant, sit beside her and run his hands up and down her porcelain-white legs, across her belly, explore her orifices, roll on top of her, slip inside her...and at night it was worse. Ivona’s image began to override and supplant the pornography he watched while masturbating. Suddenly he was unbuttoning her blouse, marveling at the size and shape of her breasts before taking them in his hands and feeling their pendulous weight, thrilling with pleasure as her nipples stiffened and puckered and her breath quickened as she acceded to his hands moving down her sides, over her hips, under her panties, taking her naked vulva in one hand while the other found its way back up to her breasts, now fully exposed so he could feast upon them, nibbling at her nipples, listening to her moan so intensely that he hardly noticed when they tumbled to the floor and she lifted her dress and ripped aside her panties and thrust him inside her.

One Friday morning, after breakfast, he called her into his office to review her job performance. She sat demurely in a chair opposite him with her legs crossed, her hands resting ladylike on her knees. He talked about her various responsibilities, praised her dedication to her work, made some suggestions for improvements, asked if she had any ideas she would like to implement to make her job easier. After giving her a generous raise, he somehow came around to asking whether she was happy with her situation, and then, out of nowhere, the words escaping his lips before he knew what he was saying, he asked how she felt about him, and, before she could answer, he said, I think you like me. He was completely in the grip of his obsession when he next asked what he could do to make her like him more. She answered slowly, with quiet assuredness. She apologized for his feelings toward her, which she said she had sensed intensifying these past months, but which, she pointed out, she had done nothing to purposefully arouse or encourage. He was stunned into silence as she went on to say that as an educated man, he should realize he would be better off pursuing someone more appropriate to his own age, and someone who wanted him. She hoped she hadn’t hurt his feelings and that none of what she said would affect her job because he was very nice and she liked the house and liked her work and wanted to stay on. She wondered when her raise would go into effect.

After this abject rejection he knew there was no path to possess her with her consent, and the agitation this caused him was unremitting and painful and his fantasies involving her took a violent turn. He began imagining outrageous, sadistic scenarios out of de Sade and Bataille. He played with the idea of taking her prisoner in order to have her. There were only the two of them in the house, he could do anything he wanted and no one would know. He could see himself tying her up, holding her captive in the root cellar below the kitchen, pinning her arms behind her back and affixing them to an iron ring in the wall so he could nuzzle his head between her naked breasts while spreading her legs apart as wide
as the shackles on her ankles would permit and having sex with her whenever he felt the need. He would never let her leave, she would always be at his disposal. Ethics, morals, manners—decorum— were all very well and good but what did they matter when your blood boiled and the object of your desire refused you.

Late one afternoon he climbed up into the barn loft to rummage through the boxes containing his collection of old art catalogues and, needing more light, he went to the window and opened the wooden shutters. Across the yard, through the second-story window of the house, he saw Ivona, naked. She was showering. He stepped sideways to remain unseen, and adjusted the angle of the shutters to improve his view of her. Water was cascading over her head, which was titled up, emphasizing her long, elegant neck and magnificent breasts. One hand was soaping her throat, the other washing herself below although he quickly realized she wasn’t washing, she was masturbating. He watched as she began to tremble and soon saw a shudder course through her. Her shoulders shook, her body wrenched itself in a paroxysm of pleasure as she raised up both hands and pulled back her hair and shook her head under the falling water. He rushed back to the house, ran into the shower and did as she had done.

From that day forward his desire for her became frenzied, unceasing. He couldn’t concentrate on his work, his thoughts drifting to the vision of her naked in the shower that was indelibly inscribed in his memory. Every day he bound up the stairs in the barn and stood by the window watching like a loyal, patient pet waiting for its master to return. But Ivona didn’t always shower at the same time, and there were days that she didn’t, as far as he could determine, shower at all. He imagined then that at night she must lie in bed and pleasure herself, using her orgasm, as he did, as a soporific.

On the days that she did appear he immediately unzipped his pants, took his cock in his hand, and stimulated himself at a pace that assured he would climax in synchrony with her. He could tell when she was close from the contractions of the muscles in her arms and the way her body tightened and her chest rose and fell as her breaths came quicker and quicker, sometimes so deep he could swear he heard them across the yard. He wondered what sound she emitted at the moment she climaxed, imaging it to be a long, lonely, melancholy moan, like the train horns that came echoing over the hills from the valley. When she began to shudder and tilted her head back and was embraced by the water, he came, too. He spewed his seed on the floor, and, after catching his breath, using his boot, he pressed it into the parched, rotting wood, which thirstily absorbed it.

One day his orgasm proved so powerful that he lost his balance, stumbled and hit the window frame with such force that the ancient brackets holding the shutters in place gave way and came clattering down. Standing, exposed with his cock still hard in his hand, from across the yard he felt Ivona’s eyes on him, regarding the pathetic picture he must present before he had time to move out of her line of sight. She gave no indication that she saw him other than to abruptly turn off the water and step out of the shower.

Shamed by his behavior, he wanted to beg for her forgiveness. He wanted to say he was sorry. He most especially wanted to say that he knew what he had done was wrong, and that he was not a pervert. He would confess that, yes, he had been secretly observing her for weeks, but proclaim his surveillance was a symbol of his love and respect for her. He would plead that his invasion of her privacy was a sign of his inner strength because he had managed to sublimate and transform his violent desire to fuck her into a victimless act of voyeurism. He was desperate for their lives to go on as before. He suspected, however, that the sight of him in flagrante delicto was still alive in her memory, poisoning her feelings about him, rendering any attempt to ask her for absolution absurd.

Over the next week, Ivona kept her distance from him and evinced a wariness and fearfulness toward him as if he had physically assaulted her. She exited any room he entered, denying him the opportunity of her company. She withdrew into herself. The joy and light that had been evidenced a wariness and fearfulness toward him as if he had physically assaulted her. She exited any room he entered, denying him the opportunity of her company. She withdrew into herself. The joy and light that had been visible in her countenance daily as she carried out her duties was extinguished. Poised, and as elegant as ever, she circulated throughout the house as if she were in a trance—which somehow made her look more beautiful than ever. He guessed she must be contemplating abandoning him, which would leave him alone and miserable.

A sensation of impending doom settled upon him.

At lunch one day he placed his hand on her arm as she set down a plate before him. Can we talk, he asked. She let his hand rest there a moment before shaking it off like she would a fly or an ant, in disgust. He cried out not an apology or an explanation but, I need you, I want you, I want you in a way you can’t understand, that I can’t understand. She stared at him blankly without exhibiting any emotion, and without giving any indication that she had understood what he said, turned, and headed for the door.

I could kill you, he said.

He picked up the paring knife from the table and in one clean strike sliced open his wrist. Blood exploded from the wound. He held out his arm for her to see. The cut was deep, blood was cascading down his hand, dripping off his fingers, puddling on the floor. She fetched a dish towel and applied it to the wound attempt- ing to stop the blood. He took advantage of her occupation to fondle her breasts with his good hand. She screamed in protest but continued to tend to his wound. She grabbed another towel and ripped it in half length-wise, and tried to tie a torniquet around his upper arm. She was breathing hard, her body quivering the way it did in the shower when she was excited. He continued his groping, placing his hand on her heart which was throbbing fiercely.

You mustn’t, she yelled. Having tied the towel around his wrist and to the best of her ability a torniquet around his arm, she began
to back away leaving him slumped in the chair covered in blood.
I want you, he said, you don’t know how I want you. You have to help me, he implored her. Stop, she screamed, backing farther away, out of his reach. There’s nothing I won’t do to have you, he said. He took up the knife again and slashed his other wrist. The blood came in an instant in a great gush of red. She ran to him howling, grabbed another towel and struggled to tie it at his elbow as he sought out her breasts, ripping her blouse and bra and the waist- band of her skirt as he fell out of the chair onto the floor, pulling her down on top of him, his life leaking out of him. Straddling him she unzipped his pants and pulled out his cock. She ripped off her panties, spit into her blood-stained hand and used it as lube, and guided him inside her. He let out a whimper, a moan that echoed her own as she absorbed him, and as she began to glide up and down he gasped for air and asked her to tie the torniquet tightly around his newly wounded arm as he was losing blood fast, but she was caught in the rhythm of her pleasure, riding him up and down, each downstroke pumping blood out of him onto the floor and as she felt him softening she hurried her hips faster and contracted her pelvic floor gripping and pulling on him until he felt himself building in her and he begged her to stanch the blood before it was too late and she whispered she would as she watched it flood the floor around them but so close to climax was she that she could do nothing but continue until she felt the tingle and the heat spread over her body, and her chest and face flushed, and she tilted her head back and burst out laughing and giggling and collapsed on top of him forcing from both wrists an ejaculation of blood before his head lolled sideways and his breath came no more.

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GD Dess

GD Dess writes fiction and literary criticism and publishes the newsletter Dess Writes on Substack.

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