Chapter Four. PARROT IN A CAGE

The sky was by now an inky blue and continued to darken. A mute who stood outside the door of the pavilion, seeing Orkhan emerge, pointed towards a path, indicating that he should follow it. The shingled path was lined on both sides by a series of lacquer and silk screens topped by flambeaux. As he walked, the wailing of Perizade grew faint behind him and he began to hear the sound of running water and, further away, women’s voices and the beating of a tambourine. It was cooler now and the arrival of evening released unfamiliar perfumes. Orkhan walked slowly, alert to every sound and movement, for he now sensed that the paradise he walked in was a poisoned one. At last, he came out from between the screens into a large circular space framed by chenars and cypresses. At the centre was a dried-up fountain and on its sculpted edge sat a stunted figure.

Orkhan addressed the Vizier peremptorily,

‘Arrest that wretched woman in the pavilion. I do not want to see her again — or anyone like her.’

‘To serve the Sultan is all our joy,’ replied the Vizier, but he did not move.

Orkhan looked sharply at the Vizier,

‘And where are the ministers? Should not some of them be here by now?’

‘Some of the ministers were indeed here before now, oh my master, but, since you were entertaining that woman, it seemed inappropriate to admit them to your presence, so I sent them tiptoeing away. They are, of course, greatly looking forward to transacting government business on some future occasion. But Perizade did not please you? We can easily find another woman. My wife is a hunchback like me. I could lend her to you. You would find her a challenge, I am… ’

Orkhan gestured him to be quiet. They gazed at one another. Then, after a long silence, Orkhan spoke,

‘No ministers have been here really, have they?’

‘No.’

‘And no ministers are coming, are they — ever?’

‘No.’

‘And you have not arrested Anadil?’

‘No.’

‘And you will not arrest Perizade either?’

‘No,’ the Vizier was looking a little uncomfortable. ‘I am the Sultan’s slave and I hoped for the best, so I did not want him to hear what would have displeased him.’

‘Well then, you have failed, for I am most displeased. You are no longer my Vizier. Before I have you arrested, you will explain yourself.’ But, even as he heard himself speak, Orkhan knew that his words were empty and the Vizier now turned scornful,

‘You cannot arrest me! I think that you must be living in some blood-boltered dream of your own, going around giving orders: “Arrest this person!”, “Arrest that person!” “Execute this person!”. The world you find yourself in is not like that, nor is it in your powers to dismiss me as Vizier.’

Orkhan sat down heavily beside the Vizier.

‘So, tell me what is the world really like? I think it is time for you to tell me what will please me not.’

‘Oh my master, you may think that you rule as Sultan over an empire of men… but here in the Harem, you actually live on sufferance in a republic of women. There was a time — a hundred years ago perhaps — when the Sultan ruled over the Harem and the Palace, as he did over the Empire. Then the fitna of the women occurred. You should know about this word, fitna. It has entered our language from the Arabic. It means discord, revolution, sedition, but it also means temptation or seduction. It has other meanings too. It means a trial, burning, and melting, rapture, madness and possession. Finally, fitna also means woman. A hundred years ago, women used their seductive powers to stage a revolution in the Palace and they used beguilement, artifice and drugs to enslave the man who was then Sultan. Ever since that time, the woman who holds the rank of Valide Sultan has controlled everything. The eunuchs, the mutes and the slave girls all move to her command — and only her command.’

‘So I — so the Sultan has become nothing but a plaything of the Harem?’

‘Alas! Would that it might be so! It is easy, after all, to imagine worse fates than that. No, things in the Harem have taken a graver turn. It is all because of the hellish Prayer-Cushion movement… ’

‘What is this business with prayer-cushions?’

‘Ask not. It is better that you know nothing of this — at least until you absolutely have to.’

‘No, the time for secrets and whispers is over. I want to know everything now. Speak plainly and tell me what danger can there possibly be in prayer-cushions?’

‘Well, if you must… but you will be sorry that you asked. Of course there is no danger in a cushion, in the sense of some soft, embroidered pad on which a man may take his ease. But I speak of the movement known as the Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh. It is a very ancient and evil sect followed by some of the tribes who inhabit the depths of the forests and swamps of the Balkans. Though it has flourished in the Balkans, it has nothing to do with either Islam or Christianity, being much older than either. Its devotees hold that man can only reach God through women. They believe that women are not of the same race as men. Women are spirits, friendly demons of a kind, who have been given flesh and placed upon the Earth in order to monitor man’s spiritual progress towards the Divinity. Women are men’s prayer-cushions and intercourse with them prepares man for Mystical Union with the Divinity.’

Orkhan pondered the Vizier’s words, before asking,

‘Indeed, it all seems strange and mad, but it does not seem so very dangerous. Why should any man fear the Prayer-Cushion of the Flesh?’

‘Oh my master, consider that if a man has prolonged sex with a Prayer-Cushion woman, it involves his total destruction and remaking, for that is the meaning of fitna. Having been seduced, the man’s soul has to be melted down in order that he may experience the Rapture and it is possible the Rapture may kill him, but whether a man comes out of it alive or not is irrelevant. Long before that, the man has been seduced into total self-abnegation and his original personality has been burnt up in the fires of ecstasy. The thing which walks away from the bed has nothing in common with the man who originally lay down there with a Prayer-Cushion of the Flesh.’

Orkhan had been trying to concentrate on the meaning of what the Vizier was saying, but he found it difficult. The problem was that every time the Vizier said ‘woman’, or ‘women’, or ‘bed’, the tongue in Orkhan’s mouth stirred. What did the meaning of an Arabic word matter and what did practices of ancient Balkan sects matter, if only the viper that coiled and uncoiled behind his teeth could be given its drink? It was getting harder and harder to think of anything except soft, white, fleshy thighs.

Finally Orkhan confessed,

‘I do not understand. I have no idea what you are talking about.’

‘I do not understand it myself,’ replied the Vizier. ‘Only the women understand these things.’

He was about to say more, but at that moment a girl in a page’s uniform came marching up the path and delivered a message to the Vizier. He, having read it, began to argue fiercely with the page girl. Finally he shrugged and dismissed her. Then he turned to Orkhan.

‘It seems that Mihrimah awaits her Sultan.’

‘Is Mihrimah a person who commands sultans?’

The Vizier did not trouble to reply to this. Instead he said,

‘We are going to a different part of the Harem which is distant from the parts you have so far visited. I will tell you a story as we walk.

The story the Vizier told was as follows:

Hundreds of years ago, one of the first of the Sultans, an ancestor of Orkhan’s, led his armies against the Kingdom of Nabatea and ravaged it. Nabatea was (and still is) notoriously a foul and idolatorous land, inhabited by sorcerers, poisoners and cannibals, and the Sultan’s armies dealt with them accordingly and the Turkish soldiers only withdrew after turning most of the territory into a wasteland. Although the Nabateans were almost all wholly evil, it must be conceded that they did possess the virtue of patience. In the year that their land was devastated by Turkish armies, a girl was born to the King of Nabatea. The king, the proud father, gave orders that poison was to be added to the child’s suckling milk. In accordance with his orders, the nipples of the wet-nurse were smeared with the poison. There are different reports of which poison was used — perhaps aconite, perhaps mercury, perhaps arsenic — but, whatever the substance, it was fed to the little girl in the tiniest quantities, so that, instead of the poison killing her, the baby became accustomed to its ingestion, and, as the baby grew into a girl, poison continued to be added to her food, so that every vein of her body was saturated with the deadly stuff.

This was in the great age of the poisoners when toxicology was the master science. There are no such poisoners now, alas! But, to return to the girl — Aslan Khatun was the name of this princess — she had become a poison damsel and the very saliva from her lips could burn through porcelain. Once she reached the marriageable age, the King of Nabatea wrote to the Ottoman Sultan proposing a perpetual peace between their two realms and that this peace be confirmed by a marriage alliance between his daughter and the Sultan’s heir apparent, Prince Nazim. His design, of course, was to kill the Sultan’s son, for the moment the prince embraced the princess he would infallibly die from the poison carried in the juices of her saliva, or the moisture between her legs. Her body was so impregnated with poison that the interior of her vagina was like a nest full of angry wasps. Sex with a poison damsel is one of the recognised forms of the Death of the Just Man.

The Ottoman Sultan naively agreed to the king’s proposal and Aslan Khatun set out on the long journey from Nabatea to Istanbul. On the day of her arrival in that city she was brought before the king and his son. Aslan Khatun was radiantly beautiful — literally so, for there was a strange silvery sheen to her skin. (Perhaps it was arsenic that she had fed upon, for arsenic is reputed to be good for the skin.) Prince Nazim fell in love with her at first sight. When he saw her standing tall and graceful before him, he knew he needed no other blessing from life, save to be possessed of her body. And in the course of that evening’s wedding feast, she, very much against her will, slowly and reluctantly fell in love with him. She had been trained from birth by the women of the Nabatean court in all the arts of seduction, and though now she did not want to seduce this young man, whom she first thought she liked and then realised she desired madly, nevertheless every word she spoke and every little gesture she made seemed to hint at the delights of love. She knew no other language and so she lured the man she desired and yet did not desire to his doom.

At last, the moment came for Prince Nazim to lead his bride to the nuptial chamber. This was the moment for which Aslan Khatun had been raised, so that she might avenge the wrongs suffered by her native land. But now she realised that she cared nothing about avenging the injuries of Nabatea. Before the amorous prince could lay a hand on her, she warned him to desist. If he valued his life he had to keep away. She went on to explain her father’s evil design. ‘You may look, but do not touch,’ she said, ‘for I love you more than I love my father and his poisonous dreams of revenge’.

But Nazim, who was already in love with her, having heard her confession, only became the more besotted with the Nabatean princess. He knew that he loved her, he loved all of her, and if poison was part of her, the fluid that coursed through her blood and her saliva, then that poison was also something to be loved. He swiftly decided that his life was well lost for a moment of loving rapture with this radiant woman. So he said this to Aslan Khatun and, before she could resist, he took her in his arms and embraced her fiercely. Then he kissed her and drank her bitter saliva greedily and in his last remaining moments he went on to ravish her, before expiring in great pain and fierce delight. In the morning the courtiers came and found the prince dead on the nuptial couch. His corpse was already black from the deadly, putrefying liquids which coursed through it. Aslan Khatun sat lamenting beside the bloated body of her lover and, when she asked to be buried alive in the tomb of the man who had been her husband for one night, it was a request which the courtiers were happy to agree to.

As soon as the Vizier had finished this story, Orkan wanted to know why he had told it.

‘Does everything have to have reason? It is a fairy-story told for pleasure.’

‘Did Barak sleep with a poison damsel?’ Orkhan persisted.

‘He certainly did not. There is no such thing as a poison damsel. As I said, it is merely a fairy-story. The story of Nazim and and Aslan Khatun is, like the stories of Majnun and Layla, or Khusraw and Shirin, a romance about lovers. Enjoy my story and enjoy your life. You are young, strong and a prince. You still have the capacity for adventure, romance and love. An ageing, hunchbacked dwarf like myself has never had your fortune… Yet nature did not make me the way I am. For that I curse my parents. Do you know what a gloottokoma is?’

Orkhan indicated that he did not.

Gloottokoma is a Greek word. It means a box which is designed for the making of dwarfs. In my early years as a child in a Greek village I spent almost all the hours of the day in a series of boxes, which were designed to stunt my growth, for my parents had decided that I should be reared as a dwarf and sold for a good price to some king’s palace. The less of me there was, the more valuable I would be. Other people in our village were rearing their girls to become concubines. As I remember it, the whole village was composed of slave farms. Similarly, in Egypt we hear that there are specialists in the manufacture of entertaining cripples. In Jezira there are surgeons who are masters of the art of creating ‘laughing men’ — men whose lips are so distorted that they seem always to be laughing, for in such a manner they may earn a living as cheerful-seeming beggars. There are also craftsmen who specialise in giving boys deformed limbs or giant testicles. Cages and boxes in which monsters like myself are created are scattered throughout the world. This is the rottenness of the age.’

Orkhan thought about this. ‘You have not done so badly. You have become Imperial Vizier.

The Vizier smiled,

‘Well anyway, you are young, the night is young and you are going to see Mihrimah. Enjoy what is to come for as long as you may.’

They passed down a series of narrow, covered streets, flanked by tiers of cells for the use of concubines and eunuchs. The Vizier stood aside to allow Orkhan to pass through a door and alone descend a flight of steps which led down into a kind of oval pit. There was a rank sort of smell which he was unable to place. A couple of candles had been placed on the floor of the pit, but these flickered in the faint draught so that it was some time before he was able to see that the far end of the pit was caged off and that behind the close-meshed golden grillwork of the cage stood a veiled and hooded woman.

Orkhan cautiously made his way between the candles and, pressing against the cage’s bars, gazed at the woman inside. She wore a blouse of white silk gauze which hung over thin rose-coloured trousers of damask, embroidered with silver flowers. A broad scarlet sash ran round her waist and this was fastened with a clasp of diamonds. The woman’s feet were encased in white leather boots studded with gold. Behind her, at the back of the cage was a door on which was painted the crudely executed image of a black cat.

Orkhan spoke first,

‘Lady, who are you? And who has imprisoned you in a cage? Shall I set you free?’

‘My name is Mihrimah which means “Sun-Moon”, but my title is that of Durrah, the “Parrot”. Nobody has imprisoned me. Rather I have arranged to have myself locked in here for your own protection, lest I kill you.’ The woman’s voice was sweet, but, seeing how Orkhan pressed against the golden bars, she became insistent, ‘If you value your life, do not attempt to break into the cage. Instead, sit down and I will explain to you why the “Parrot” is in the cage, as well as the meaning of my name. Sit down, listen and admire.’

Orkhan obeyed and Mihrimah continued,

‘We who are Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh teach and test incessantly, but we never repeat ourselves and no man in our care ever experiences the same orgasm twice. Anadil having given you your first lesson, it falls to me to take you over that same ground again. Since I am your second designated concubine, I take the title of Durrah, the “Parrot”, and I repeat what you have experienced before and I go over it, in order to make sure that you have understood it. And yet we never repeat ourselves, so that, whereas Anadil only spoke of externals, I point to their inner meanings. Just as Anadil’s beauty is only a shadow of mine, so in her prattling she served you merely the outer husks of sense, while I deliver the inner kernel, for foolish Anadil knows the names of things, but she does not know their meaning….’

Orkhan thought of Anadil and her jangling jewellery and daft lessons on the parts of the body. Mihrimah, pale in the shadows, continued to talk on and on about how he had so far learnt only about sex and not about love. Yet sex was a necessary preliminary, a dim adumbration of the Rapture that lay ahead. Sex with stupid people, such as Anadil and her washerwoman, was good spiritual discipline for a man. She was saying that on the following day he should go and seek the pardon of those ladies, for that was the lover’s way of abjection…

Orkhan sat listening quite contentedly as Mihrimah walked about her cage, talking about the mysteries of desire and extinction. Man was born to love the transient and the passing, the flesh that grew raddled and hung slackly. It was only because fleshly beauty was passing that it was truly loveable. Of course, nothing Mihrimah was saying about mystical sex made any sense at all to him, but she had a lovely voice and her vanity was charming — as was the waggle of her hips as she paced about her cage. He was happy to sit and watch this creature forever. All the same, it occurred to him that Mihrimah would have all her occult nonsense about lunar rapture, the exaltation of servitude and whatnot rapidly knocked out of her, if only he could get his cock inside her. He had just decided that Mihrimah was a nice, ordinary young woman and that her mad notions were the natural outcome of not having been with a man — of having spent too long in a Harem which was not being serviced by a proper man — when she began to speak of the Dolorous Gaze,

‘Before the end, you will long for death, if only to free you from the Rapture. For the moment, you behold me dressed, hooded and veiled, lest the splendour of my naked beauty blind you. I have covered myself as an act of mercy to you, lest you die of the Rapture. But now, if you are ready, I will intensify your desire by allowing you to gaze successively on the most dangerously desirable parts of my body.’

Orkhan having nodded, Mihrimah began to fumble with the lacing of her blouse. She knelt to expose her breasts and, supporting them with her hands, she thrust them forwards for Orkhan’s attention. As she did so there was a strange trumpeting sound in the distance.

‘These are the first subjects of contemplation,’ she said. ‘What did Anadil call them?’

‘She called them her moons,’ replied Orkhan.

‘She was right to do so, yet what is the meaning of that?’

Mihrimah knelt as close as she could to him, so that the tips of her breasts brushed against the golden bars of the cage. Even the eyeholes of her veil of black velvet were covered with a fine trellis of threads. Orkhan toyed with the idea that her face might be ravaged by leprosy or otherwise hideously disfigured.

Mihrimah’s melodious voice continued to discourse learnedly about her breasts being the figures of moons in a sexual cosmos and, like all things connected with the moon, subject to change and decay. They had to be loved not only for what they were, but for what they would become — withered dugs. But the breasts were also doves’ eggs and they were pomegranates too. Above all, they were to be reverenced as the Lesser Prayer-Cushions, on which man might find his solace and spiritual salvation — the parts here standing for the whole of a woman’s body which is the Greater Prayer-Cushion. All men, in longing to return to the breast, are actually longing to return to the Divinity. The twin moons were divinely-fashioned navigational aids on this journey of mystical return.

While Mihrimah spoke of domes of alabaster lit by rays of lunar mystery, Orkhan gazed on her breasts as if hypnotised. They were indeed very pretty, but he thought that they more closely resembled blind puppies who were in need of petting than they did mystic moons. He felt something stirring at the base of his spine.

‘Look at my breasts! Really look at them!’ Mihrimah insisted. ‘They seem to offer themselves to you, whether I wish it or not. They are soft and vulnerable and yet they seem to threaten you, do they not? How can this be?’

Seeing that Orkhan made no reply, she pointed at him and continued,

‘Or if you cannot truly see my breasts as they should be seen, then gaze upon yourself — so hard, so tight, so compact, but with that cock you cannot control. You are very strong, a hard man, but yet you are trapped by my weakness. Seduction is nothing but the trick of the weak to capture the strong. The strong always yearns to discharge its strength in softness and become weak. But you must become weaker yet. It is time for the second stage in the discipline of the gaze.’

And, so saying, Mihrimah threw back her hood and stripped off the veil, to reveal a mass of golden hair framing a calm and pleasantly rounded face, which, in the dim candlelight glowed like the pale moon. She smiled at Orkhan as she lectured on herself and especially her face. Her hair’s tresses were a net to trap the lover. He, the lover, was a nightingale trapped in a rose-garden in flames. The nightingale and the rose-garden were both alike doomed to perish and they would achieve union only in the mingling of their ashes. Was it nobler to love beauty or to be beautiful? Which had the finer part — the nightingale or the rose-garden?

Though she went on speaking of the high mysteries of her sex, Orkhan as he contemplated her face, breasts and shoulders, was fantasising about what it would be like to have the woman’s flesh actually under his hands. Desire was building within him. The pain between his legs was so intense that he did not think he would be able to rise again, unless he speedily achieved some relief. He was only startled out of his brooding frustration when she announced,

‘Now I shall show you my other face.’ She turned away and, unclasping the sash, she lowered her trousers, talking all the while.

‘In this way,’ she said ‘I conquer by humbling myself before you, for the way of the lover is self-abnegation without hope of the gratification of desire. This is the penultimate stage in the discipline of the gaze before you shall behold me fully naked. Then look on my bottom and marvel!’

Orkhan did as he was told. She swayed and shifted her weight from one foot to the other, so that the heavy cheeks of her bottom rose and fell, gleaming in the brilliant light. Her bottom was, he learned, like the breasts in that it was a figure of the moon and governed by the moon. It was pale and luminous and, like the moon, it could destroy man’s reason.

Orkhan decided that he preferred Mihrimah’s bottom to her breasts, for her bottom had an imperious quality that her more tentative breasts lacked. So, as she sought to instruct him about the sand dunes over which a lover’s hands must travel, about the soft, white clouds which veiled the Divinity from man, and about the astral thrall exerted by the bottom and the bitter mystery of its dark abyss, Orkhan furtively raised his robe and in a quiet fever set to masturbating. He was desperate to come to a climax and, if possible, to do so before Mihrimah should turn to him again, but just as he was ejaculating in hot thick spurts, she turned to him and cried out in dismay. An instant later the door behind her swung open and a strong gust of wind swept through the pit and Orkhan was plunged into darkness. It was as if a vast black-gloved hand had descended, extinguishing the candles.

Another woman’s voice, not Mihrimah’s cried out, fierce and terrible,

‘Unhappy the man who has failed the test of the Dolorous Gaze! Leave him to darkness and shame, the prisoner of his lust.’

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