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Three Lives Lost (1986)

Three Lives Lost (1986)

©1986, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1986). Three lives lost. Unpublished short story.

Illustration: Pierre-Auguste Renoir. (1877). Jeanne Samary in a Low-Necked Dress.




Three Lives Lost

A Short Story by Dallas Denny


I counted myself fortunate for having set by enough funds to enable me to travel through America for a time. That on the eve of my return to London I would be invited to dinner aboard an actual yacht surpassed my grandest expectations. Yet that is what transpired. I had spent almost the last of my monies on a suite in a hotel that would have ordinarily been beyond my modest means; passing away a pleasant afternoon in the lounge, I had struck up a conversation with a small-statured gentleman in jeans, sweater and topsiders. Having complained rather more loudly than I should have that I had met no one interesting in the colonies, I found myself accepting his invitation to dinner. I promised to be at the hotel’s dock at seven that evening.

The appointed hour arrived and I found myself on a motor launch, skimming across the bay. The pilot was a taciturn man who said nothing more than good evening as he steered toward a gleaming yacht. I surmised it was the vessel of my host floating before us. It was considerably more a ship than a boat: white, streamlined, and looking expensive beyond words. The size and elegance of the craft rather surprised me; from the way my prospective host had been dressed, I had been expecting something less extravagant.

As I climbed on deck I was greeted by my host, and we finally told each other our names; his, he said, was Merriwether—Amos. (I’ve almost certain that wasn’t his real name, for I’ve since made inquiries using that name, but have turned up nothing.) As he leaned over the rail to give instructions to the man in the launch, I took the opportunity to study him briefly. Merriwether was dressed in the same jeans and topsiders, but a blue blazer had replaced the sweater and a yachtman’s cap covered the bare, bald head. As I’ve already noted, he was short, about five-foot-four. He was perhaps fifty, but it was difficult to tell with any degree of certitude, for his face, although tanned, was relatively unlined. His eyes were blue and piercing, and his neatly trimmed beard shone blue-black in the light of the setting sun. There were tufts of grey at his temples. His hands and hips were small, and his hips wide for a man, but he moved with masculine self-assurance as he directed me to a sitting room. He mixed a drink for me and another for himself, and we chatted for a moment before he excused himself to dress for dinner.

A door opened and a woman entered the room. She was handsome, about the age of my host, with long, dark hair threaded with streaks of gray. I assumed she was Mrs. Merriweather. She smiled at me, but didn’t speak as she settled herself into a chair near me.

The room was cozy, but close, and her silent presence was disconcerting. Her eyes were like black ponds, twin fathomless pools that, I somehow knew, had seen more pain than I should care to know about. Wanting to get away from those eyes, I soon found myself on deck, having excused myself to, I told Mrs. Merriwether, admire the setting sun.

After a few moments, I turned to make my way back to the room, but found myself instead in a small cabin; it was a reading room of sorts. Handsome paneling of cherry with wainscoting ran around the room. Books lined one wall; there were glass covers to keep them in place when the ship was to sea. Along a second wall there was a series of portraits. In acrylics, I recognized my host and the dark-haired woman I had taken to be his wife—but my eye was drawn to a third painting. In the middle, between the acrylics and rather larger than them, was a well-executed oil of a strikingly good-looking young woman.

The woman’s features were small and regular, her hair thick and dark brown. Her eyes smiled with mischief under delicately arched brows. There was a subtle smile on her blue-eyed face, beguiling as the Mona Lisa, as if she had been entrusted with some arcane secret. Her low-cut gown showed the beginning of an admirable cleavage. I regarded her for a long moment. She was quite pleasant to look at, and I thought I should very much like to meet her.

Along the further wall, there was a montage of photographs of my host and hostess and of the brown-haired girl as well. The man and wife on a mountain, above the timber line, with a grinning alpine guide; a vintage shot, obviously self-taken, of the girl smiling on a city sidewalk; my host in front of a chateau or country house; the girl on horseback; the man and wife with what looked to be the extended family. In all the photos, the wife had the same bassett-hound sadness in her eyes I had noticed earlier, but both the man and the girl had a look of confidence, of joie de vivre, that I found most pleasant.

I heard a small sound. Turning, I discovered my host, champagne glass in hand.

I’m sorry,” I told him. “I was turned about, and found myself In here. It’s a comfortable room.”

“No worry,” he replied. “All of these doors look the same. Dinner is served two cabins down.”

“I was admiring your pictures. The woman with the dark hair— I presume that is your wife.”

He smiled. “Yes. It is.”

“She’s very attractive. And the brown-haired girl. She’s your daughter?”

His eyes assumed a far away look. “Yes,” he murmured. “My daughter. Amanda.”

“She’s quite beautiful.”

“She was. “

“Was? Then she—she’s—is she—”

“Amanda is no more,” he said in a tone ridden with regret.

“I’m sorry,” I told him.

Almost visibly, he shook himself. He seemed to come back across an immense distance. “Come. I’ll show you to your place.”

Dinner was sumptuous, with rather more silverware than I knew how to handle. It was served by a spare gray manservant, the only other person I’d seen on board. We made small talk only, or at least Merriwether and I did. The wife continued to keep her silence, picking at her food. Once I started to say something about Amanda, but something checked me.

Later that evening, I found myself playing chess with Merriwether. I am afraid that with so much of his excellent wine inside me, my tongue began to run away with itself. I was maudlin, expounding with great aplomb and serious foolishness on subjects of which I knew nothing. My host regarded me with quiet amusement, studying my moves. After the first game, he began to win.

He said nothing until I attempted to take him on an illustrated voyage through Shakespeare. “Tragedy,” I said, in the midst of a harangue his tragedies. “There is no true tragedy in life. Pain, yes; suffering, certainly; unhappiness, in great profusion.  But tragedy, as Shakespeare saw it— it just doesn’t exist. No one’s lives could be so tragic as, say, those of Romeo and Juliet.”

Merriwether was looking at me strangely. “I believe I must stretch my legs,” he said. He rose and quickly left the room.

His wife was standing, regarding me with much the same sort of vacant look I had noticed earlier in Merriwether. She had been quiet all evening, not even replying when we were introduced, so I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t respond to my query about my host. Instead, she left the room, her hand to her face.

I realized I had in some way made a serious social error. I had my coat in hand when the manservant entered the room and relieved me of it. “Mister Merriwether wishes to see you. You will follow me.” It was not a question.

I walked behind the servant to the same room I had wandered into earlier. Merriwether was standing, staring at the oil portrait. Turning, be begged me to sit.

He sat beside me. He stared into his brandy for a long moment, then began a most peculiar tale. I still don’t know quite whether I believe it. I suppose the reader will have to judge for himself—or herself, as the case may be.

“Earlier, you were saying there is no tragedy in this world. I would beg to differ.”

“Please,” I protested. “I meant nothing by it. I know nothing of it, really. I was just talking to hear my own voice. I had too much of the excellent contents of your wine cellar inside me. It was the foolishness of youth. You must forget all I’ve said.”

“I’m going to tell you a story,” he said somberly. “When I’m through, you will tell me if there is indeed no real tragedy in the world.”

He thought for a moment, as if searching for a thread with which to begin. “There was once a boy, the eldest son of a family of great wealth. This child had every conceivable advantage. He wanted for nothing. He attended only the best schools, had only the best friends, owned only the best things. It was understood he would some day inherit the family fortune, and he was groomed from birth toward that future. One would have thought he would have been happy, but this wasn’t the case. He didn’t want the money, or the power, or the privilege. He didn’t even want to be a man. You see, early on he had discovered, almost by accident, that he made a quite presentable girl, and he often fancied himself as one. Through stealth, he accumulated a small wardrobe of dresses and underthings, and he would model them in private, imagining he was a beautiful woman, a model, a seductress, a movie star. He quite understood his family would disapprove of this behavior and successfully undertook to keep it from them.

“As his adolescence approached, he knew he didn’t want the changes puberty would bring. He knew his body would thicken, his voice deepen. Hair would sprout on his chest and on his face, and from his ears. Like the other males in his family, he would grow bald. All this made him almost physically sick.

“He was fortunate, or so he though, for he remained unaffected for some time. But eventually his body started to mature. It horrified him, and he determined to stop it. By subterfuge, he managed to acquire a supply of estrogens, the female hormone, and he took them in secret in small doses. By doing this, he managed to minimize the masculinization which nature had intended should occur, and he acquired some of the characteristics that would have been his if he had indeed been a female. His body didn’t harden; it rounded. His voice went no deeper than alto, and his facial and body hair remained sparse. He developed small breasts of which he was absurdly proud, and the presence of which he managed, by wearing loose clothing, to keep from his family. His hairline remained low, his hair thick and glossy. He wore it long, but not long enough to excite concern. His family was of course somewhat concerned that he wasn’t more masculine, but parental wisdom had it he was just slow to mature and would one day catch up to where he ought to be.

“He expanded his wardrobe. When he was fourteen, he obtained a supply of cosmetics and a hairpiece. He painted his face, blended the artificial hair with his own, and looked at himself in the mirror. He was stunned, for in place of the rather ordinary-looking boy he had been, he saw, or thought he saw, a ravishing, exquisitely feminine creature. With trembling hands he donned underthings and a gown, and high-heeled shoes. This made his transformation even more complete. He thought it wonderful.

“When he reached the age of sixteen, he was given an automobile and a substantial allowance. Screwing up his courage, he appeared in public in a dress; he went to a matinee screening of a film. To his surprise, no one detected his imposture. He became more daring, even to the point of renting a flat, where he would spend weekends and live for several weeks during the summer, always in feminine attire.

“He grew poised in his ability to move in social circles as a girl. He soon had a group of friends and acquaintances who knew him only as a young woman. He obtained documents of identification in his feminine name. For all practical purposes, he was a woman during the times he was at the flat; he spent perhaps a quarter of his time in this way.

“He discovered quite early on men found him attractive. He was aggressively pursued, and even received one or two proposals of marriage. But although he would flirt and allow himself on occasion to be kissed, and once even let his breasts be fondled, he was uninterested in having sexual relations with a man. This puzzled him, but what perplexed him even more was his attraction to women. He was nevertheless quite shy around them. He grew to young adulthood without ever seriously romancing a young woman.

“Of course, his family eventually found out about his surreptitious doings. There was a horrified reaction from his mother, a withdrawal of affection by his father. There was talk about modifying the will. He didn’t care. He was taken to several therapists, none of whom were astute enough to induce him to admit the extent of his infatuation with his feminine self, or even that he was taking estrogens.

“The furor eventually died down, for he remained sufficiently masculine in appearance (when he tried) to not excite comment and thus embarrass the family, and he discharged the majority of his duties honorably. Once it was understood he was not a homosexual and that his appearance as a woman was sufficiently different form his masculine presentation and his behavior sufficiently discrete to avoid scandal, his side trips into femininity came to be seen more as an eccentricity than a disgrace. After a year during which because of the interference of his family he had had little opportunity to indulge his feminine side, he found himself with more freedom than ever, and soon he was again living part of his life as a young woman.

“When he was four-and-twenty, he chanced to meet a young woman. She was attractive and came from a good family. It was looked on by both families as a fine match. She was as shy as he, but agreed to go out with him, and agreed to a second meeting, and then a third, with the result that they soon became inseparable. Their courtship was innocent, and sweet, and pure, and long, but intense, with an undercurrent of barely-contained passion. Before they had even kissed, they were deeply, hopelessly, in love with one another.

“If ever two people were soul mates, it was they. Both were highly intelligent and intellectual persons, and on a purely mental plane, they were perfectly matched. Each was easily bored, yet neither ever bored the other. They soon had a huge repertoire of observations and comments and sly remarks that only they could hope to comprehend. Others would look at them in confusion, unable to understand the secret code they had developed. Their tastes were the same. They found the same things humorous, tragic, pathetic. They became almost telepathic. He could look at her and tell what she was thinking, and she could do the same. They were like two halves of a Saint Christopher’s medal— a perfect fit.

“Once they consummated the relationship and released the passion, it nearly devoured them. They were like minks, at it with each other at every possible opportunity. Their physical fit was as good as their mental. They made love outdoors, in the back seats of cars, and once in an airplane. They spent weekends in bed, arising only to meet other physical needs or to shower away their funk. They explored each nook and crevice of one another’s bodies and found no fault with each other. It was one of those few instances in which the physical union is so perfect interest is maintained forever. She enjoyed the act as much as he, and he enjoyed it as much as she. There was no sign they would ever tire of each other; nor, I imagine, would they have.

“Had things been different, it would have been a perfect marriage: socially, emotionally, physically. But they weren’t destined to be happy. Eventually, she commented on his small breasts. Taking the opportunity to confide in her, he told her of his secret life. But rather than sharing his amusement, as he had hoped she would, she was horrified. She withdrew from him.

“For a time, it seemed their relationship was over. Yet it wasn’t over—it was merely doomed. From that point on, it was never the same. Their moments of happiness when together were few, for the thought of his feminine life was never far from her mind. She began to find fault in him, in all aspects of his being. She didn’t trust him to be away from her, yet when she was with him, she made his life—and hers—thoroughly unpleasant. She didn’t even trust him to be alone, for he might crossdress.

“Where before she had found only perfection, now she had criticisms of his appearance, his voice, his mannerisms. Everywhere she looked, she seemed to see chinks in his masculine armor. He tried to be more manly for her, but every time he would try to put away the hormones, his body and her shrewishness would disgust him and he would start taking them again.

“They never recaptured the physical closeness they had once had—the hours and days of rage and hurt and pain came between them. He became impotent with her. Still, their need for each other was so great neither was willing to drop the other.

“After three years of her hostility towards him—three years during which he had little opportunity to indulge his feminine self—the young man began to grow obsessed with his secret life. He came to imagine he wanted to become a female—to have a change of sex. Looking at his body, he asked himself whether such would be practicable. His answer to himself was yes, it would be. His small stature and thick hair and delicate features would serve him—had already served him—well in the role of a woman. His family would of course be aghast, but they would hardly, at this point, be surprised. The only thing stopping him was her.

What he wanted most in the world was to recapture their former closeness, and hopefully to be allowed to dabble on occasion in his alternate wardrobe, but she would allow neither. She kept close tabs on his time, and yet when they were together, gave him no peace. He had no real hope things would change, but nonetheless decided to give the relationship one more year. That year passed, and yet another, he doing what he thought was his best to please her. Still, there was no improvement.

“At the beginning of their eighth year together, he told her he was considering changing his gender. He told her that she must marry him immediately; if she didn’t, he would begin to further feminize his body.

“She wouldn’t, of course, marry him; consequently, he increased the dosage of hormones and took the matter up with his therapist.

“At the beginning of their ninth year together, he flew to a clinic in Virginia and had his testicles removed—this to increase the feminizing effect the hormones would have on him. When he returned home, he went to her and told her what he had done.

“She reacted in a predictable fashion. She flew into a terrible rage, snatching things off the wall, smashing knickknacks and vases. She stormed out of his flat and squealed the tires when she drove away in her car.

“He didn’t see her for a week. She reappeared on the eighth day, mascara running down her face from her tears. Thereafter, she couldn’t bear to look at him without crying. She might manage to be pleasant for an hour, or even half a day on occasion, but invariably, before they parted, there would be an argument, and the tears would come.

“For a time their relationship proceeded in this manner, but she was watching him as he became more feminine nearly by the hour, and it tore her apart. It became harder and harder for her to live with something she had never accepted and was clearly growing stronger. She accused him of ruining her life, of deceiving her, of not caring for her. She began talking about suicide.

“He was of course alarmed by her talk of doing away with herself, but in the end decided she was too passive to take such a drastic step.

“Her threats weren’t hollow, however. One day she went to his rooms to meet him. He was away, and from the feminine disarray of his bedroom, she knew how he was dressed. She went straightaway into his kitchen, looked under the sink, and removed a can of drain cleaner. She poured it into a large glass, added water, and drank it.

“When he returned he found her unconscious on the floor. He called for the ambulance, ripping off his skirt and blouse before he cradled her poor, disfigured face. He rode with her to hospital, his own mascara now melting with his tears.

“She had ruined herself, of course. Her digestive system was destroyed, her face horribly scarred, her tongue dissolved, Plastic surgeons were able to eventually reconstruct her face, after a fashion, but the tongue was beyond even the most modern techniques, and there wasn’t tissue enough to make the intestines go all the way to the proper spot; she was given a permanent colostomy.

“He was devastated, of course, the more so since he had been at a party pursued by good-looking men while she had been lying in the floor in pain. In revulsion, he carried his entire feminine wardrobe into the back yard and burned it. He swore never to wear women’s clothing again, nor did he. He flushed his estrogens down the drain, cut his hair, chopped off his long nails, stopped plucking his brows. He went to the doctor and obtained a prescription for the male hormone, for he had had their natural source removed from his body. Their effect caused a late puberty. As she slowly recuperated, his voice deepened, hair erupted on his face and body, and his skin and scalp grew oily. Hairs started appearing in his comb. He developed acne.

“When she could listen, he promised her he would stay with her always. When she was released from hospital he took her home, where he treated her with great tenderness. When her facial reconstruction was complete, he married her.

“They attempted to recapture their relationship, but there was little common ground. He made the same droll and sarcastic comments he had once made, but of course she couldn’t rebut his witticisms, for she was unable to speak comprehensibly. Except for an occasional comment she would write on a slip of paper, she remained silent. The fabulous rapport they had had with each other was permanently, irretrievably gone.

“Although the androgens he was taking had increased his sex drive, he found he remained impotent with her. It was psychological, of course, but even with therapy he was never able to overcome his feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Eventually he stopped even trying. He discovered he could perform with other women, and to his immense shame, he found it necessary to do so on occasion, but he never again even so much as thought about putting on a dress.

“He watched his beard grow, his features harden. Within a year he was balding; within three years, there was no hair left on the top of his head.

“They remain together to this day, but they do so only in remembrance of what they once had. For, you see, they have nothing. The great sharing they once had had been dissolved by the destructive action of  the lye. The wonderful sex they once had had been reduced to clumsy fumbles. And of the femininity of which he had once been so proud, there was now no trace.

“There was nothing left for them. They live on, but they only wait for the end. He hopes she outlives him, for with her gone, he doesn’t think he can live with the masculine thing he has become. She hopes he outlives her, for she is dependent upon him to help her with her medical needs. They had so much, yet wound up with nothing at all. Both are miserable, pathetic creatures who managed to ruin what little chance of happiness they might have had.

“Yet more than two lives were destroyed. A third was ended. The graceful, feminine creature that he had once been was no more.

Merriwether smiled at me. “More brandy?”

During the telling of his tale I had had a thousand questions, but now I found I had none. I mumbled it was indeed a tragedy and apologized a final time for my foolish tirade.

A bit later, I was shown out of the room and led to the launch by the manservant. I looked to him for a clue about the story I had been told, but his face remained impassive.

The bay was choppy and I was feeling a bit seasick by the time I was dropped off at the pier. Consequently, I wasn’t thinking well as I took myself back to my room.

But some time during the middle of the night I awakened and sat up abruptly.

I wondered—that lovely creature in the portrait in the stateroom—could that have possibly have been my host in his earlier years? Was the tale he had told indeed that of himself and his wife? Had the dark-haired woman—Mrs. Merriwether—swallowed lye? Was that why I hadn’t heard her speak? Or was the whole thing a horrible joke, a farce? Surely the brown—haired girl was really Merriwether’s daughter. And yet Amos—Amanda—the names were so close.

I thought of the oil portrait of the girl. It was as if it had been deliberately hung between the two watercolors, to separate the man and the women.

The awful possibilities kept me awake for the rest of the night.