In the hush of the harem, past the low hiss of the hookahs, I felt her hand across my perfumed thigh.
Something of my old faith and nearly forgotten life rose in me and I pushed her hand away, but not before squeezing it gently. I needed no more enemies as even my God had turned from me. He had delivered me from my ship into the hands of pirates to this place, the palace of the Sultan. Even Josephine Bonaparte's cousin had been taken, never to be returned and women knew the risks of travel. They knew there would be no return. Even if they managed to return, they were considered defiled beyond measure.
And, I, a virgin accepted I had been raped and forever altered though I had not been touched. I lounged in my scented skin wondering if my God, my vengeful God thought silk a sin.
At the beginning, I had held myself up. I slept against the wall of the main house until my clothes were rags. Finally, the women had enough. They took me to the baths, tearing my clothes from me covering me in a filmy chemise. The slaves took my clothes away to burn them. They held me under the water until I started fighting against their soft white resolve. I saw the beautiful faces of the harem women like moons from under the water. I broke the surface in a great sob.
I had been baptized, again. But into what, Lord? Oh God, into what?
Imbreah, the black one, came to me once a week.
"Are you ready, wretched one?" he would ask and then begin guiding me in the unwilling process of conversion. I learned my hands were sensual beyond measure and had to be covered in gloves as my face, too had to be covered when outside this gilded cage. Each morning, as the women prayed to Allah, I turned my face up looking for my God, his holy mother or anyone who may listen.
Until I turned my face down, until I pressed my forehead against the rug, I could not hear Allah who whispered to me things about the luxurious seduction of women.
They held me down and removed my hair. Applying a burning solution to my upper lip, underarms and my womanhood; they systematically removed my hair so that my 19 year old body has the look of a lascivious 9 year old. The place between my legs remembered their fingers for days as they made sure my hair was completely gone. It was an affront to Allah to be hirsute in these secret places.
To the Allah who had much to say about women.
"You must know you are lucky," she finally said to me after what I think had been months had passed.
"You speak..." I asked incredulous beginning to regret my lonely soliloquies I now knew she had heard.
"Most of us to do some degree. You should be careful." Her gaze was powerful even without the focus of her veil.
Finally, I had someone to talk to beside Imbreah and I did not know what to say. Her brows were vivid dark wings. I longed to touch them.
"Our husband, he is young. He has a pretty mouth and shapely legs. You could have been used by the pirates until you died. You could have been sold as a 4th wife to serve the other 3 wives. They might have killed or scarred you and your husband would have done nothing to save you."
Nothing. How much more nothing could there be I wondered as I had not yet understood the indolence of the harem.
I did not move her hand from my thigh.
"You must understand our ways of love so as not to offend the Sultan with your stupidity and barbarism. Allah would will this."
I felt a certain revulsion. I now understood Imbreah was not a man. I understood what eunuch meant more fully. My eyes were being pried open to the world no matter how tightly I tried to keep them shut.
When he was 10, the Chief of his people had sold Imbreah to a Jew. That first night, he was held down while a sharp sword was used to remove his penis and scrotum. A glass tube was shoved up his bleeding urethra. He was then buried up to his neck in the sand and given water once a day.
There he bled secretly into the underside of the desert. His manhood's ghost ached into the sand. He was not the only boy planted there in this garden of emasculation. He was the only one that lived.
"I must teach you of love," he said.
And I wondered how he possibly could.
"You should beware the mouth of the eunuch," she said with a half smile. She was applying henna to my hands in careful, ornate strokes. She promised to include the nearly forgotten coat of arms I had sketched out for her.
"He always talks of Allah or..." I trailed off.
"Of love?" she looked at me feline from under the arch of her brows. "You must learn to say it. You must learn to be it. I have spoken to him of you."
"The Sultan?" I was surprised. Unsure. I was Christian. I had lost God. Her hands were on mine. Hot. Perfumed. Perfect. The jealousies in the harem were venomous. Even children were killed to try to gain advancement and power in the harem. To be heir, was to be hunted. To be the mother of the heir was to live in fear. However, this perilous route was the one to power or the closest thing to freedom possible.
Zalena had her own rooms and I was beginning to realize what this meant. She knew a lot about love.
Strangely proffering me to her lover, she was threatening her own position should I conceive. In suggesting me to her protector, she was trying to protect me too.
I was alone, more alone than Job could have imagined. However, was that not always the irony of Job? The irony that he was a man who suffered when women were expected to know that is all there was. Women knew not to bother God with all of their tears.
Her hand brushed against the embroidered silk of my left breast.
I was not alone. I was in a golden palace of seductive women who were each trained in skills of love she may never be called upon to use.
My God knew nothing of temptation.
When Imbreah requested that I put on the robe, I thought I was again being checked to see if I had maintained my virginity. I had become used to his fingers and prying eyes, but nothing had prepared me for his mouth, the new Garden of Eden.
For the first time, I spoke in a tongue that was not my own.
Zalena shared the hookah with me. There was little reason to resist opium when my soul was lost at sea. The pirates had me again it seemed and they had no faces. Only eyes and gloved hands. Her servants had been sent away and she taught me about indolence. Slowly she tongued circles around my nipples. I taught her of the Eunuch's kiss. We were heavy in our voluptuous disregard for time. I may have kissed her for days. It may have been seconds.
"He will call for you soon."
I knew. I knew he would. I was 20, knew a world of sensual dissonance, and willed it down on my head.
The greatest secret about the art of love was to be quiet enough to let it whisper to you.
As Imbreah led me to the chamber of the Sultan, he steadied my shoulder with a squeeze and gave me a significant look. He was the keeper of the feminine records and knew this night was one that might speed conception. He only did this for his favorites. My only other hope was to catch the Sultan's whimsical notion of mythology and pleasure.
I swam up the end sheets as I was taught, kissing his feet and sliding up, eyes down until he touched my chin. And then, it began. A softly scented, warmly oiled dance like something on the southwind you have heard all of your life and had known it would come to you. The whisper in your blood that knew the name no one else knew you by.
Our Lord, he was comely. His shapely legs spread my own as he caught my chin between thumb and palm and smiled. I was prepared for this. I had been prepared for the blood and the torn ragged thing that brought tears to my eyes. He licked them away. I began imagining what Imbreah had said. Imagine your jade gate is a velvet glove that has a scepter in it. Imagine using your pinky fingers to take the jewels out of it. I began taking the rubies out of the base in a focus that brought us both a flush of pleasure. He thrust deeply, then again. I rose up to meet him as I imagine I was peeling off oblong emeralds from around him. He pushed down on my hip bones with his palms and thrust lightly then pressed deeply in to me. I imagined tiny clusters of sapphires at the head of his scepter and tensed up touching them all at once. He gave in. He, the great sultan spun his gold into me in a gift of what I imagined might be his obsidian-eyed child. There I felt a shuddering rapture and then, a slow melodious peace.
My newly appointed rooms were by Zalena's as I had requested. The servants chatter and happy talk invaded my mood and I commanded them leave me alone.
I stood in my palatial room full of rich carpets and jeweled furniture. New clothes were laid out for my approval. At the windows I would never be allowed to open, I looked through the narrow lattices.
A false God is one you call on that does not answer you. The one that turns his face. I stood cleansed of that Christian infidel and opened my heart to the only one that made sense. Eros. Allah, forgive me. It is Eros I must follow.