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« A Lurid Excerpt »

“Well,” the storyteller says, taking back the floor, “I can tell you our Flavius never met a man with a coin for the empire. You know in the provinces a tax collector is entitled to ten per cent of whatever he manages to get; and an effective man in the post always has influential friends. The job is often done with truncheon in hand. There was a man in ___ called V. the Marrow-drinker, who carried a black bronze rod bound to his wrist by a leather thong, and who took broken bones in lieu of money. They say he wore a ring set with a man’s tooth. You cannot pay him, but there he stands; how will you get a man like that, a man who knows the sounds a long bone makes when struck by his awful tool, out of your poor home? His great forearms are thatched in hideous black hair and the thewy sinews stand out at his wrists in the shadows of his balled, impatient fists. His eye tooth looks across the twilit room at you like it is looking at a naked hare. Send, therefore, your family from the room and plant your palm upon the table; it pays him as well to shriek and clutch your ruined hand as to have the money ready.”

The women listened rapt, pale with imaginary anguish or droopy-lidded with worldliness or disbelief. The men exchanged a look or cringed or cracked their knuckles.

“Every man feared this V. because he feared nothing, wanted nothing. The people of the province, unable to rid themselves of him in any more indirect way, finally beat him to death in the shade of a plane tree on the edge of the town of C., a mob of sixty or eighty peasants and blacksmiths crashing over him in waves of righteous revulsion. They beat him until his jaw swung free from his face, until the basket of his pelvis collapsed, until they cut their insteps on the jagged points of his ribs.”

There was a very small silence, an eyeball of silence, before someone said, in a long, slow way, “No-o-o.” And the others shifted on the couches, relieved by this exhalation of doubt, and then there was a longer silence; or rather silence apart from the sound of T. sucking on the pit of a prune.