I start forgetting things. Sometimes I remember that I’m forgetting but sometimes I don’t so I keep a list. I note the consequences because I think that may provide an incentive for me to remember in the future.
Forgot: to wear sash.
Consequence: beaten on soles of feet and pay docked for three days as couldn’t work.
Forgot: to salute the Valide Sultan when she returned to the palace after an excursion to the Sweet Waters of Asia.
Consequence: beaten on the backs of knees with cane and pay docked for two days for insolence.
Forgot: to appear for dawn prayer.
Consequence: beaten on the ribs by mufti with bare hand and severe punishment undoubtedly to come in Afterlife.
Forgot: words and motions of midday prayer.
Consequence: no one noticed as initially forgot prayer time and so was at back of congregation. Punishment in Afterlife of course much worse—beg forgiveness from Almighty.
The man who sleeps beside me in our barracks—an Assyrian with sad eyes and a handsome face that condemns him to the most menial jobs in the palace—provides me with kind and useful prompts when he sees me.
“What should you be remembering right now?”
“To have lunch.”
“To deliver the note in your hand —” (here he taps the package wrapped in an embroidered handkerchief that I am holding at my side) “—to the Sultana that the Master of the Robes gave you only minutes ago. Then to have lunch.”
I never forget lunch. Especially on the days we have aubergine and pilav.
An important doctor comes to see one of the Sultan’s mistresses, a Venetian princess who was abducted by a Turkish corsair when a child and then sold to the Sultan.
On such a visit, we stand in parallel rows to form a corridor through which the doctor may pass into the harem without seeing the sick woman. She inserts a hand in a gap between two of us for the doctor to inspect. He is not permitted to speak in her presence and so, in the dark passage outside the Chamber of Favoured Women, he provides her prescription—invariably a sherbet of some sort.
On this particular occasion, in error I wear my ceremonial hat in place of my turban and as a result I stand out from the others. The doctor assumes that I am senior and gives me the Venetian’s prescription. I take the opportunity to tell him about my forgetting.
“Impossibly common,” he says squinting into his eyeglasses. “Of course, I remember everything. Seven almonds with breakfast every morning. And a sherbet of roses and—” he raises one thick eyebrow, then the other, “—another ingredient.”
The Assyrian continues in his efforts to help me. He whispers as we lie on our mats looking up at the tiled ceiling in the dim light of the moon and stars late at night.
“What is your name?”
“They gave me the name of a flower,” I say.
“Rosebud,” he says. “What is my name, Rosebud?”
“You are the Assyrian with the sad eyes.”
“I am Egyptian,” he says. “Do I have sad eyes?”
On another occasion, “What is the year?”
“What is the name of the Sultan?” This question very softly.
“His Sacred and Imperial Majesty, Emperor, Sovereign of the Sublime House of Osman, Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe, Custodian of the Two Noble Sanctuaries—”
“Mehmet the Fourth,” he says.
He asks me about my life before the palace. I can’t remember a moment, a sound, a taste. “In my mind, there is a wall on every side,” I tell him. I ask about his.
“I’ve told you,” he says. “How many times we lay beneath this starry ceiling, and talked of home, of our villages, of our parents, our livestock, our fortunes and misfortunes, and our journeys here.”
A bird sings outside the window and I hear myself say, “I remember that!”
“What?” he says.
But there are no trees outside and the bird flies away. “I don’t know,” I say.
He continues, “I don’t know the name of my village. My name before I came here was Kekkol which meant peace in my language. I was the seventh child in my family and my father sold me for what would be twenty Aspers today, not enough to buy a barren goat. I went by boat up the Nile and then from Grand Cairo to Alexandria at the back of a camel train. I was auctioned to a man who brought me to the Sublime Porte and here they paid three hundred Aspers for me. I may not have your face but I am strong and obedient and people see it in my eyes.”
“But what do you remember?” I ask him.
“I remember the smell of a man who was sick and then died in our boat. It was a smell that reached deep down the back of the throat and twisted itself into a knot. And when they tossed his body out, he floated away on the currents, not even food for crocodiles. I remember,” he continues, “that the sand when they buried me up to my neck burned at the surface but was cold beneath. I remember a dish my sister made of curdled camel’s milk sweetened with the sap from a date palm. It coated the tongue like fur.’ He makes a noise—tchanp—with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “I remember the heat of my mother’s stomach against my head.” Our voices crack with age, but here his breaks in a different way.
My problem becomes worse and worse still and finally it becomes public knowledge in our community of servants. “Did you remember to sleep?” they say. “Yes—but did you remember to wake up?” And they play tricks. “These are not your slippers. This is not your bed. These are not your duties but these and these instead.”
Nonetheless, I am promoted. My face is my fortune—“The ugliest in the Kingdom,” the Master of the Robes says when he tells me I’ll be moving from the Carriage Gate to the Baths.
“But the women,” I say, “they’re cunning and clever.”
“Fool,” the Master says, slapping me less gently than I would expect across the face. “This is major.”
“And the women?”
“If they ask for gourds or radishes, slice them before serving.” He has a cruel laugh and dark gums slick with spit. “There’s only one Sultan and he’s too few to service a hundred of them.”
I have a new uniform—a sash of stiff red silk with slippers and a waistcoat in the same fabric over my tunic and trousers. My hat is of green velvet embroidered with birds and vines in golden thread.
I serve in the final room of the Baths, where the women come after they have been steamed and washed and a ball of dead skin the size of a pomelo has been scrubbed off their blushing bodies in the tepidarium. Then they emerge from that chamber dense with vapours into a bright, carpeted room with a vaulted ceiling tiled with blue and green chrysanthemums. Cushioned divans are arranged around it and in a corner there is a brass stove with a conical chimney and pierced fireguard that is used in the cold season.
A fountain of spurting marble pinecones gurgles in the centre of the room and it is said that the water cascading from one basin to the next masks the sounds of voices so the women may gossip freely. Some of them sing, some dance and some play the saz or the tanbur. They drink coffee perfumed with cloves and cinnamon, and sherbet made of violets and pansies and scented with ambergris and musk, and eat ashure and sesame paste halva and talk. I am the only servant of my kind there and spend most days running between the kitchens and the Baths, between one woman and another, without time to forget.
One afternoon shortly after I have begun serving in the Baths—it is the day of the Circumcision Feast of the step-brother of his Majesty—the Baths empty and only one woman remains. She is a remarkable Circassian with breasts that swell like full skins of wine and a complexion as smooth as fresh feta.
“They’re killing me!” she says, kicking off her high pattens. “These endless days.” She sprawls across the divan. Her muslin chemise barely covers her and conceals nothing that it covers. But in the tremulous curve of her lips and set of her jaw there is something desperate and familiar. She reaches across to a crystal nargileh at intervals and puffs at its mouthpiece. A Nubian girl behind her braids her hair with pearls.
I am obliged to remain at the Baths as long as the last of the Sultan’s women and so I stand to attention by the cascading fountain. The light through the wrought iron grilles over the high windows casts a shadow of scrolls and curlicues across her legs, which are as thick as marrows.
“There was a comet last night,” she says to her girl. “It left a trail in the sky the shape of a sword.”
The girl nods and says, removing a sharp hairpin from her mouth, “It’s a sign of good luck for the Sultan. His enemies will be cut down.” She mimics a swinging blade with her hand.
There are seventeen pinecones on the fountain. There are three hundred and thirty-eight tiles in the ceiling. I realise the Circassian is signaling to me. “You don’t see me or hear me,” she says as I come closer. “As though I’m nothing.”
“I’m old and forgetful,” I say.
“Whoever knows how old you people are. You could be ancient or a child.” She asks for coffee and melon and after I set the tray beside her, she says, “Don’t stand so far away,” and waves at a place immediately behind her by her slave girl, close enough that on one occasion a plait of her hair falls across my hand as her girl flicks it into an arrangement.
The Circassian pays no attention to the tray after I have set it down and the snow scattered across the slices of melon melts into a soup that wobbles at the rim of the dish. From the steaming finjan of coffee, the fragrance of cloves and cinnamon creeps across her body, dips between the darting fingers of her servant and curls about my head. She enters into a discussion with the Nubian about a perfume that should be applied to her and suddenly, her servant girl walks away and disappears into a side chamber.
The glass in the windows of the vaulted ceiling is stained with scarlet and amber and softens the light in the room. I hear someone singing a song I know about a beautiful boy who becomes a fish and the scales of the fish are silken but the fishboy can’t find a mate because there are none others like him. The tune takes me suddenly to a yellow field of trees and I see red goats sitting in the branches.
The Circassian whips around, the heel of her hand pushing mine away. “What did you do?” She jabs one knee into the divan and props the other foot on the ground.
“Nothing,” I say. “I didn’t do anything -”
“You put your hand on me,” she says, pulling the chemise closed over her.
I look at my hand and then at her and at my hand again—which is the same as it was before.
“You touched me,” she says and raises a pointed finger. “You touched me.” She taps against the swell of her breast with that finger. “They will hang you from the hooks in Eminonu.” Her mouth glows crimson when she speaks and sprays flecks of spit like crystal.
“No,” I say. “No no no.”
“They will break the joints of your body with a hammer. They will tie you up in a sack and throw you into the Bosphorus.”
Her eyebrows arch like bowstrings. I look away. I think, This is it. This is really it. I think,This is it and I don’t remember any of it. This is it and I can’t even say what it was to me. I want suddenly to go home but I don’t know where that is. Is it flat land? Is it mountain? Does the sea surge angrily at its shore?
She is shaking her head and pursing her lips and looking at me sharply. “People like you, the Sultan trusts you. Trusts you with what’s most valuable to him.”
“Forgive me,” I say. “Princess —” though of course she isn’t one “—forgive me.”
“It’s not for me to forgive.”
My legs give way beneath me and I fall against the back of the divan.
Then she says, and her tone has changed, “If you did something for me, I might forget this.”
“What can I do for you?” I say, to myself as much as to her.
“For something very simple, I could forget,” she says.
I don’t reply. I think, This is nothing. This is a game. This is the snake and the civet. My skin and my eyes become hot and it seems as though a long time is passing. I look up and I see that the Circassian’s servant has returned with a cloth bag. She has turned away from me as though nothing is the matter, taking the bag from her servant and now speaking some words softly to her, whereupon the servant girl leaves again.
The Circassian takes out from the bag a folded letter. She wraps it in a cloth, ties it with a ribbon and gives it to me. Then she describes to me an area in the palace grounds and a building in that area and a window in that building behind a golden grille of stars. I tell her I may not go to that part of the palace without permission from the Sultana, and she says, “Everyone knows you forget things. You could have forgotten this.”
She walks away from me and I say, “I could forget to deliver your letter.” I am only speaking my fears aloud.
She pauses and, with her back to me she says, “Think of the hooks in Eminonu. Think of the Bostanci’s hammer.” Then she taps her sharp nail against a marble column several times and leaves.
I stop in the walkway outside and lean heavily against the gritty marble baluster. The sun slices through the arches, piercing the shade with hot blades of light. I might as well be dead, I think, for the fool I’ve become. Then, What is death but another room in this house? Then, Can I remember being held?
When I hear the call to evening prayer, I take the letter to the place she has told me. Her directions lead me down the dark paved alley outside our barracks, past the Princes’ School, through the forecourt of the Valide Sultan and below the low balconies over the Golden Passageway. Here the path narrows and turns sharply between the Laundry, the Clothes’ Store and the suite of the Head Laundress. As the Princess has promised, there is an opening between two walls and steps downwards—forty-three of them—and now a door, unguarded.
It opens onto a marble terrace under an enormous sky. Ahead are sparkling lawns, bushes of night jasmine and verbena, a flowering lily pond and a row of cypresses. Birds call in their various voices—something I hear so seldom inside the harem.
The walls here are lower than in our part of the palace. I can see the glimmering Golden Horn. A tall galleon glides past with the wind buffeting its sails and the setting sun flashing silver on its foaming oars.
There are beds of red tulips alongside the wall and I follow the wall till it becomes higher and then higher still. The garden ends at a building that I know by legend. It is home to the brothers and uncles of the Sultan and is called the Cage. By a tiny window, there is a ledge and in a corner of the ledge the dust has been brushed away. I leave the letter there, as directed.
When I am next at the Baths, once again the room empties and only the Princess remains. “Is it done?” she asks and her soft voice echoes.
I tell her it is. There are thin gold chains of bells around her ankles and she taps her heels against the marble so they tinkle. “I dreamt of aubergine,” she says. And it wasn’t the Grand Signor’s.” Her laugh is the sound of trickling water.
“You must know fifty ways to cook aubergine to win a man’s heart,” I tell her.
“A man’s heart!” she says. “I don’t know a single way. But look how I dance.” And then she spreads her arms and whirls in maddening circles like a dervish towards the chimney and around the fountain and in and out of the doorways that lead into this chamber till she swoons onto a divan. “When the Sultan sees me…” she says, her cheeks flushed and chest swelling and rising. “None other can dance like me. But sometimes I can’t either.”
I wait and then she pushes herself upright, pulls her pelisse around her, slides her feet into her velvet slippers and stands up. She lolls her head on her neck and after a moment waves me towards the door. “You aren’t like the others, she says. “You don’t smell of piss.” She removes another letter from inside her cloak. She holds it to her lips and then gives it to me. “But you are my left hand. I use you for unclean things.”
And so it continues. Sometimes when I deliver a letter, there is one waiting on the ledge to be returned. Sometimes they are infrequent. Once I am stopped by a gardener. I tell him the Sultana wants a singing bird. “They come from the South,” he says. “They sing in the mating season. The male to the female.”
Another time, I am stopped by a janissary with a sharply curved moustache in a walkway beside the Turban Hall. He won’t listen to my explanation and beats me with the thick butt of his harquebus.
“Imagine being told a story,” I tell the Assyrian, “and forgetting where it started before you reach the end. How do I know what it means?”
“When we were young,” he says, “we sat thigh to thigh in the madrassa here and drew the alphabet in the air. So quickly you learnt. At night in our room, you traced the letters on my back. ‘This is mim,’ you said, ‘for a mouth and here is lam that is a body.’”
“We aren’t young anymore?” I ask him.
“‘I won’t be one of a thousand,’ you said. ‘I won’t remain a guard. The Sultan will take me for his companion. He will take me for his treasurer. He’ll take me as the Guardian of this Abode of Felicity.’ You said, ‘You’ll be always at my side. And when we’re old, we’ll retire to Grand Cairo and buy houses there with a bridge between them.’”
“Houses with alabaster colonnades,” I say, “and gardens of strutting peacocks and talking mynahs that sing, ‘God is great. God is merciful.’ A peacock has one hundred and fifty feathers in his tail. One hundred and fifty eyes that see everything.”
“Like us,” he says. “But like the rosebud, we keep our lips closed.”
“I’ll die soon,” I say. “May the earth of my grave be fragrant.”
Late one afternoon, I find myself behind the Circumcision Room on a quiet terrace that is shaded by its eaves. It leads into a small square of grass bordered by beds of crocuses with marbled blue petals. In the centre, there is a magnolia tree with pale, upright flowers stiff as taffeta and under it the sun glows pink. I sit on the cool turf and listen to the birds. Macaws, nightingales, canaries, doves and grey crows with black hoods swoop and dart through the branches and about my head.
Shadows creep across the lawn towards the terrace and now up its broad steps. The sickle moon is a faint imprint in the sky.
Things I remember:
the mouth feel of well-water thick as honey;
a goat shittering pellets and a naked little boy that must be me laughing in the dark shade of a tree;
dirty ligatures around my belly and thighs;
being held up by my armpits and made to walk after they unsex me with the kind of curved blade you use
for cutting wheat;
the sound of currents shuffling against a hull.
A man is standing in the shade of the eaves hugging with one arm a large package. A scythe hangs loosely from his belt and the curved tip of its blade is sunlit gold. He approaches me and I stand up. He’s a pale, beardless boy—a Georgian or maybe Greek—and his cheeks and the bridge of his broad nose are flushed with blood.
“A bird for the Sultana,” he says and uncovers the package. It is a wooden box, gridded with narrow openings, each no bigger than the thorn of a pomegranate. There is a hinged, bolted window on one side.
“Yes, I think she’d like a bird,” I tell him slowly.
“Do it like this,” he says. He swings the box from side to side and flicks it with the blunt of his thumb.
From it, I hear a sweet trill and I am suddenly crouching by a pit of writhing flames. The air is like hot hands on my cheeks and neck. My face is pressed into my mother’s firm flank. Her arm is tight around me and her fingers pinch my shoulder. The broad sleeve of her jallabiyyah is flung over me. Looking up I can see the jut of her chin, her lower lip. Roasting meat crackles in the pit and insects bob and flicker before the flames. “He was my goat,” I’m telling my mother. “Why did you take him?” Someone’s silhouette plays a reed flute and the sharp notes prickle my eyes.
The bird stops singing. Its box is covered again. The maybe Greek puts it by my feet. “Tell her my name,” he says. He reaches up and shakes a branch and petals tumble to the ground around us. “The weather is changing.” Then, “There is something -” he squats and reaches into the tall grass at the foot of the tree – “in the grass.” He pulls out a package wrapped in dark red silk embroidered with pale blue lotus blossoms and holds it out to me. “What is it?”
It is a garden, I think. It is houses with no walls between them. It is a sky that never ends and water streaming down my back. It is birdsong. It is the dry desert wind crackling over straw thatch.
He turns it over and over again. “Someone has left it here,” he says. It is bound with silver ribbon. “Can we open it? No—there will trouble if we do.” He pauses with the ends of the ribbon between his fingers. “But how can we know what to do with it. Who is it for? We can close it again.” He unwraps it carefully. Inside there is a piece of yellow paper flecked with gold and folded in two. It is sealed with wax and when he turns it, I read on the reverse in long looping letters, “My lion”.
“What does it say?” he asks, gesturing at me with the package. I tell him.
“His Majesty is the lion,” he says and tucks it into his waistcoat. He gives the box a gentle kick. Then he shrugs. “I sing to the bird and he sings to me,” he says. He crouches and whistles a few shrill notes. There is only the papery rasp of rustling wings. “Sometimes I cover the box. Sometimes I don’t give him food. Try different things. But tell the Sultana who gave him.” He raps on his chest.
After he leaves, I uncover the box and put my ear to its openings. I tap a phrase of rhythm against it with my fingers and thumb and the bird makes some small sounds quite different from before. “Will you die in here?” I say. Then he trills a few short phrases and something swells in my chest, something that is impossible and terrible and beautiful.
I open the window in his box and inside I can see a dark shifting shape in one corner. “The days are short now,” I tell him. “Come out to enjoy the last few moments of sun.” He hops towards the window in his box, then onto its ledge. He’s a small green thing with a proud chest and a gold border on his wing. He shifts from one leg to the other. I take him in my hand. “Are your feathers still warm from Africa?” I ask him. I set him on the low wall where the garden ends. He takes several tentative steps towards its edge. He cocks his head towards me. And then in a deep arc like the curve of a sword, he swoops down towards the water below and then up again to the distant minarets of the Ayasofya.
When I hear the muezzin’s baying call at dawn, I remember that we must assemble at the mosque for prayers. We crowd in the narrow gully outside to wash ourselves before we enter. In the dim light that dips between the low eaves, I count seven bars across each window of the Princes’ School opposite, each with a lintel of thirteen bricks. There are rapid footsteps and a voice calling. A small procession of guards pushes past. Two in the center are struggling with a gunny sack between them that is bulging and bucking and moaning. It is tied with a wide, red silk ribbon.
“They’re clamping down,” says the man who sleeps beside me.
One of the guards nods towards the bag. “How wicked will she be at the bottom of the Bosphorus?” he says. It kicks out at him. There’s a tinkle of bells and the bag wriggles free from his grasp. His end of the sack hits the paving stones with a thud. “These girls can eat,” he says with a laugh and scoops it back up. “Halva and sherbet all day.”
We watch the procession till it turns into the Gate of Felicity and listen to the sound of their footfall as it softens.
Taymour Soomro is a British Pakistani writer and currently a second year Chase doctoral fellow at UEA. He has law degrees from Cambridge University and Stanford Law School. His fiction has been published in The New Yorker and is forthcoming in The Southern Review.