When I was in the army, many of the soldiers used to play a game in which about twenty or twenty-five men would sit around a table, each of them with a long string tied to his organ. The players were known as the "Knights of the Round Table.” One man,
At intervals King Arthur would select a string and pull it, inch by inch, over the notched markings on the table top. The soldiers scanned each other’s faces, aware that one of them was suffering. The victim would do all he could to conceal his pain and maintain his normal posture. It was said that the few men who were circumcised could not play the game as well as those who were not circumcised, whose shaft was protected by a foreskin. Bets would be made to see how many notches the string would pass over before the torture victim would cry out. Some soldiers ruined themselves for life by sitting out the game just to win the prize money.
I remember the occasion when the soldiers discovered that King Arthur had conspired with one of the men by tying the string around his leg. Naturally, this soldier was able to endure more pain than the others, and thus King Arthur and he succeeded in pocketing large sums of money. The cheated knights secretly selected the punishment they thought fitting. The guilty men were grabbed from behind, blindfolded, and taken into the forest There they were stripped and tied to trees. The knights, one after another, slowly crushed each of the victim’s parts between two rocks until the flesh became an unrecognizable pulp.
Later, in the army, there was a group of twelve of us, and at night in our tent we used to talk about women. One of the men griped that he could never really do all he wanted to do—or at least, never for long enough—while making love to his woman. Some of the others seemed to have similar problems. I wasn’t sure I understood, but it struck me that they might all be suffering from something curable, so I advised them to see a doctor. They assured me that no doctor could help—it was nature’s verdict, they believed. All that could be done, they maintained, was to hold oneself in while making love, to avoid thinking about the woman, to avoid concentrating on what one was doing, feeling or wanting to feel.
They complained that a woman seldom if ever tells a man how he compares with other men with whom she has been intimate; she fears revealing herself. This is a barrier, they argued. A man is condemned never to know himself as a lover.
I recalled the girl friend I had when I was in high school. We used to make love when my parents were out. One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our love–making and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again.
It upset her, she said, that I could have an erection purely through an act of will—as though I had only to stretch my leg or bend a finger. She stressed the idea of spontaneity, claiming I should have a sense of wanting, of sudden desire. I told her it didn’t matter, but she insisted it did, claiming that if I made a conscious decision to have an erection, it would reduce the act of making love to something very mechanical and ordinary.
In the first days of the month the regiment started its preparations for the National Day parade, and several hundred of us, chosen for our uniform height and familiarity with parade-ground drill, began our daily rehearsals.
We used to muster at dawn on the packed, sun-baked earth of the parade ground, surrounded by forest. Despite the summer heat the drills lasted all day, and we marched up and down in a single column four abreast, goose-stepping along the whole length of the parade ground, all six units wheeling and turning, crossing and recrossing each other’s tracks like so many shunting railroad cars.
After a month of this arduous training we had become a single entity, marching as one man. We breathed in unison and saluted with a single gesture; we swung our rifles that had become an extension of our bones and muscles. All that we could think of during those exhausting days was the pain of our swollen, burning feet, and our warm, coarse uniforms rubbing against our sweaty skins. It seemed we were forever marching toward the motionless forest, but invariably the column would turn about before reaching the shadow of the trees.
On National Day reveille came earlier than usual. The parade was to be held some distance from the camp. It was then I realized that I could miss the entire tedious day. If four of us, the three men who marched abreast of me andI, should quietly disappear and spend the rest of the day in the forest, it would be extremely unlikely that our overanxious officers would detect our absence. In the evening we could easily reenter the camp and lose ourselves among the returning soldiers.
I spoke to my fellow soldiers; they agreed to the plan and we decided to leave the camp before the first muster was called. Instead of going to breakfast in the canteen we marched over to the dumping ground, as though we were the men attached the sanitation detail. Then it was merely a matter of affecting the confidence to stand about at the loading platform and signal the trucks in and out, until a suitable moment would present itself to walk off into the forest. We were not challenged, and as soon as we had burst through the first bushes, we began to run, dragging our rifles. The jays screamed as we plunged ahead, and occasional squirrels leaped from bough to bough ahead of us. We were deep in the forest before stopping. We stripped and lay down.
As the sun climbed higher, the forest floor steamed. A single distant bugle call broke into the myriad sounds of chirping and buzzing that drifted into the clearing. We fell asleep.
When I awoke I felt heavy, my throat burned; I grew more alert and stood up. The sun touched the treetops, the light in the clearing was dim. My fellow absentees were still asleep, their uniforms hanging on the nearby bushes. A sound was approaching from the depths of the forest: it was getting louder and closer every second. Suddenly I realized that it was the band. I peered in the direction of the sound. What I saw shocked me: less than two hundred yards away our regimental band was marching through the trees toward us, the bandleader’s gilded staff flashing as it caught the light, the white leather aprons of the drummers standing out clearly against the green of the foliage.
I sprang to my uniform, for a moment thinking only of making a run for cover. Then I jumped over to my lazily stretched-out companions and shook them from their sleep as they mumbled abuse at me. When they finally grasped what was about to happen, the same panic hit them. They grabbed their uniforms, boots and rifles, and plunged into the tangle of bushes and trees.
Impulsively I threw myself forward, and was instantly gripped by an immobilizing tremor. Within seconds the seizure passed, but I still could not flee. I simply stood in the clearing, naked, my rifle and uniform at my feet, as though I had consciously decided to hold my ground and wait for the column to arrive.
The leading ranks were only yards away. They had now perceived me, for the band stopped playing and several mounted officers detached themselves from the body of the troops and galloped toward the clearing.
There was pandemonium in the column; some men had broken ranks and others were shouting and gesturing at me. The regimentalstandard swung into sight and I was possessed by the reflex to salute. I reached for my cap, drew myself to attention, and raised my hand to my brow. A derisive cry went up from the nearest soldiers, a single bugler raised his instrument and gave a hunting call, breaking the sequence of my movements. I stared down in horror at myself: there was nothing I could do—I was aroused.
Commands rang out: the column halted, and though the sergeants ordered the men to hold their ranks, they could not prevent them from laughing. Two soldiers advanced toward me, followed by a mounted officer. A second officer dismounted and bellowed that I was under arrest. Other commands were given: the column re-formed and marched off, continuing on its short cut through the glade to the camp. I dressed and was led away by the guards.
I was charged with absenting myself without leave and with deserting my place of duty. I was called upon to name my companions; but I stated I had acted entirely alone, maintaining they must have arrived in the clearing independently while I was asleep. I insisted that I was guilty only of the minor charge of not signing out of the camp, claiming that 1 had been released from the parade during a drill by one of the officers; and though he no longer chose to recall it, my absence should not be held against me. To the charge that my salute, when naked, was a studied, insult to the flag, I pointed out that there had been many occasions when soldiers who were caught naked by surprise attack had been compelled to fight in such a state.
Are you circumcised? I’ve always wondered. Not that I’m sure I would know the difference anyway.
Why didn’t you ask me before?
It’s really not that it’s important, and I was afraid to ask the question. You might have interpreted it as some sort of expectation on my part, even as disapproval. Aren’t men very sensitive about things like this?
I don’t know; men vary.
Is circumcision really necessary? Like having your appendix out, for instance?
No, it isn’t.
Today it seems so cruel and unnecessary; a part of an infant’s body is removed without his consent! Isn’t it possible that as a result of mutilating him, the man becomes less sensitive and responsive? After all, a delicate organ that nature intended to be covered and kept tender becomes exposed, and almost like one’s knees and elbows, is constantly chafed by the linen, wool, and cotton one wears . . .
I was ordered to camouflage myself in a forest several miles from any settlement. I selected a full-branched tree and prepared a comfortable perch, remaining there for several hours during the maneuvers. Scanning the surroundings with my field glasses, I noticed another camouflaged soldier from my regiment, positioned about half a mile away: Since I had been ordered not to reveal my position, I remained hidden, looking at him occasionally through my binoculars. Suddenly I was alerted by his movement and followed the arc of his rifle barrel: on the border of a distant field, just outside the boundaries of the regiment’s territory, two people were walking slowly. The soldier’s rifle kicked twice and muffled shots cut into the silence. When I looked at the couple again, they lay in the swaying grass like two surfers abruptly swept off their boards by an unpredictable wave.
I watched the sniper closely now. Though I could not see his face, it occurred to me that he might have seen and recognized me, and I felt my heart contract; but his rifle lay across his knees and he lolled peacefully against the boughs that gave with the drowsy sway of the forest. I peered at him cautiously until the bluish air drooped over the scraggly trees, and darkness rose as though born from the dew which covered the ground.
The next day the adjutant announced that two civilians had been killed by stray gunfire. The investigation did not produce any results, since we were all able to account for our allotted ammunition.
Later two truckloads of regimental soccer players took a short cut through a field reserved for artillery practice. The field was supposed to be marked as a danger area, but either the drivers did not see the warning signs or someone in the regiment had removed the signs; in any case, the soccer players never arrived. The trucks must have traveled halfway across the field when the artillery opened fire: all that was left was a pair of surprisingly clean white tennis shoes.
SUPPOSE HE WOULD BECOME my lover? To kill that thought you’d have to destroy him, wouldn’t you?
I don’t know. I’m not sure.
Once, when we were buying a coat for me, the salesman came over to help me try it on. When he put his hand on my neck to adjust the collar, you came up to him and without a word took his hand and removed it—just as though it were an object. You must have squeezed his hand terribly hard: he froze. His face was almost purple and his mouth opened as if he were going to cry out.
I took his hand off your neck because I didn’t want him to touch you.
He certainly didn’t mean to be personal.
I don’t know what he meant and you don’t either. I was thinking about what you might be feeling when he touched you.
To kill your thought you actually had to remove his hand from my neck?
Could you kill a man? I mean: for some important reason?
I don’t know.
whom we called King Arthur, held in his hand all the ends of the strings without knowing who was at the other end of each.