Long ago, before I met the sultana or the sultan, I was a young and innocent slave trader: a business I inherited from my father, who died of apoplexy after fustigating a recalcitrant odalisque too vigorously and in a fashion that lowered her market value most lamentably.
Soon after I took over the family slave trade I found myself in a bind.
My clients had an unquenchable thirst for redheads, but these were in short supply—sporadically imported from the Occident by hard-working pirates, whose earnest diligence justified their steep prices.
Before my father’s untimely death, I once asked him why we had to obtain our slaves through such an erratic source. Surely we could bribe local rulers, or use trickery to turn girls against their families, and then seduce them with the scent of hashish and the voluptuous promise of the Orient.
“No, no,” he said; “Occidentals would never be that stupid.”
We’d once attempted to breed redheads locally, he told me, using imported odalisques as broodmares; but due to the overwhelming virility of our men their children always had dark hair. In the end there was only one way to satisfy our erotic urges: pillage Occidental towns and enslave their most beautiful daughters. A wretchedly inconvenient process!
I was already struggling to keep up with my clients’ insistent demands for redheads when an announcement came down to me from the palace—not directly, but through the slave of a messenger of an assistant to the secretary of the Chief Eunuch—that the royal harem required a new source of odalisques, the former supplier being indisposed after his recent beheading.
Our local lust for imported odalisques was shared in double by the sultan, who would have nothing but redheads: redheads day and night, morning and evening, noon and midnight; and the unimpressive fate of his previous dealer was the sad sequel to a sudden supply-chain failure.
Beneath the silken strands of my turban, pride at the honor that might be bestowed upon my humble business warred with a frisson of fear, and a less than subtle worry that the head which they swaddled so luxuriously would soon detach itself from my uncomfortably sweaty neck.
Had I known what the messenger’s slave would inscribe quite casually and unhesitatingly in charcoal on the standard odalisque order form I slid before him, I would have risked almost certain royal wrath to reject the request.
Instead, I accepted graciously—and thereby sealed my fate.
As was my custom, I arranged for the imported odalisques to arrive early: fresh Occidental slaves often resist even the least violent erotic attentions from their new owners; but give them first a week alone with a strapping young man, a hookah, and an inexhaustible supply of hashish, and they break with reliable consistency.
When the time comes to deliver her—they are such timid and self-conscious creatures—I invariably make the same appeal:
“Henceforth all will call you a common whore, no matter how you try to preserve your virtue. Don’t fight, but embrace it fully, for then you shall be uncommon, and proud.”
Is it really true?
Does it matter?—as a licence to debauchery, the phrase works wonders.
My pirate partner reached our port on the appointed day, his hold full with the fairest odalisques; but a nameless official, hearing advance word concerning one of those episodes of death and destruction that occur so often in the Occident, ordered the ship placed in quarantine.
At this news I loosed a long string of lashing language, whose specifics I’ll avoid recollecting to spare the delicate sensibilities of my dear readers.
The Occident, I mused when my mood moderated, was cursed by its rich natural resources in exceptionally attractive young women: the world’s only known source of redheads; blondes too. Taking such beauties for granted, Occidental men neglected to protect themselves from piracy and pestilence. Though the former of these failures weighed in my favor, the latter caused me no end of headaches.
When I realized the quarantine would prevent me from delivering the sultan’s shipment of redheads at the appointed hour, my mind leapt like the flame of an oil lamp sputtering madly in the desert wind. Had we built up this small family-owned slave trading business only to be bankrupted by an overzealous bureaucrat? I couldn’t countenance such a devastating financial defeat, nor the prospect of a more than usually deadly decapitation.
Fervent elucubrations finally furnished the best type of plan: one whose risks and costs would be borne by others, but whose benefits would accrue entirely to me.
I hired an agile hand, his skin the color of our muddy harbor at midnight, to evade officials and board the quarantined shipment of odalisques under cover of darkness, and promised him an hour among them, provided he return to me hale and untouched the palest pair.
I waited in worry.
Then, just before dawn came to dust away the stars like a trinket monger sweeping the pebbles before his stall, he returned with neither two nor even one odalisque at his side. In his right hand, still dripping with blood, dangled something completely unexpected.
At first I thought it was a wig.
In the half-light I could hardly distinguish the sticky, matted hair from the liquid pink of freshly severed flesh. But he thrust it forward a hand’s breadth from my eyes and said:
“Girls’re all dead—took the important bit instead.”
Was this a stroke of genius—or a bizarre and cretinous cover-up for his appalling abuse of an entire ship full of exotic slave girls? To this day I’m not certain.
I trembled, not because a droplet of the dead redhead’s blood had landed on the tip of my nose, but from fear that the Chief Eunuch would peel my large and very finely shaped cranium in a similar manner before he bothered to remove it from my body.
Lost in meditation on these excessively reasonable worries regarding my own imminent demise, I let him go without a word, and dumbly watched the dawn, with that slippery Occidental flesh pinched between my thumb and forefinger like some erotic, or demonic, totem.
I hurried inside and placed the scalp in my chest of valuables. It lay there limp, like some hirsute octopus, or giant urchin—a monstrous sea creature thrown on the beach after a storm. When I locked the chest I didn’t know if I was locking thieves out, or locking that red hair in.
My policy of scheduling a break-in period for new Occidental slaves had blessed me with extra time before I was obliged to fulfil the sultan’s contract, but not enough: redheads came from the most distant and unpleasant parts of the world; they had to be ordered well in advance.
I massaged the upper folds of my turban as if an answer was hidden somewhere between those distinguished rolls of premium quality cloth.
No, there was nothing. It was time to rub the magic lamp fate had handed me, and hope the djinn who escaped its spout was not maleficent.
With my entire shipment of imported redheads dead, there was only one solution: I had to make the recently severed scalp into a wig, buy a replacement Occidental with pale skin but much less auspicious hair, shave her, glue the wig on, swear her to silence, sell this fake to the sultan, and then pray the violent throes of passion did not urge him to tear at the scavenged hair with excessive and frenzied persistence. Worse still, I would have to trade in one of my jewels for a mere Occidental brunette, scarcely more valuable than a sack of couscous; for with my payment to the pirates held in escrow, my liquidity merited an unflattering comparison to that lifeless desert which protects our civilization from the unmapped jungles to the south.
I returned to my chest of valuables and removed a small ruby ring from beneath the still-damp red scalp. I cleaned the jewel with my thumb, picturing the second rate slave I was forced to exchange it for.
What a waste!
I sighed in resignation, then hurried to the bazaar.
I walked past the opening market stalls quickly, but wearing an easy smile, careful not to give any sign that something was amiss. I’d always taken pains to ensure my neighbors thought of me as their reliable, friendly local slave dealer, and not some fiscally challenged miscreant who would have to pawn a ring just to buy a virgin brunette. Reputation is everything in my trade. A poxy, lazy-eyed doxy, cleaned up and talked up by a dealer known for class and refinement, will fetch a better bid at auction than a buxom houri hawked by some slovenly apprentice slaver. So when I approached the office of a man I knew well and trusted not at all—I’d seen him bring ruin to shopkeepers whose conscientiously oiled abacuses had nevertheless failed to accurately calculate his calamitous interest rates—I stooped to the side and tried to hide my face.
I told him I’d closed a large deal with a party who preferred to remain nameless, and I needed his slight assistance in financing the necessary human resources—by which I naturally meant the slaves due for delivery—to complete the contract in the timely manner that my reputation foretold. Like the best lies, it was almost entirely true.
The moneylender held an even expression. Was I imagining the clues of knowing amusement at the edges of his eyes, and between his thin mustache and those almost imperceptibly upturned lips?
Using the ring as collateral I secured a quantity of dinars that would be more than sufficient for the purchase of a single slave whose life the market judged to be of fairly mediocre value.
Even after all these years, recounting this sorry sequence of events fills me with dismay. For now, with the advantage of hindsight, I can see how each small mistake slid me a camel’s whisker closer to the quicksand of cruel fate. Indeed, prior to that day I’d done nothing to merit ill fortune or heavenly vengeance—had never cheated a buyer, never sold a single slave with teeth more rotten than I openly advertised; in short, I’d been a simple, honest slaver.
The most embarrassing moment came after I left the moneylender’s with that bulging, clinking bag badly hidden under my robe like an usurious abscess. Claiming to be short on gold coins, he’d paid me partly in small change. I would have concealed it within my turban instead, had my cranium not already filled that stylish article over-full with mental matter.
After I reached my next destination I opened with small talk about the lack of rain and the price of frankincense. The shame of buying an Occidental girl from a rival dealer—of buying an Occidental girl retail and not wholesale, for that was what I was now forced to do—led me to dither in a most inhabitual manner.
I’ll spare you the details of the haggling; suffice it to say that it went badly. Though I was careful not to allow the smallest stutter to suggest my predicament, my competitor’s intransigent insistence on an extortionate price for a mere brunette proved he’d divined my desperation.
It was obvious he knew of my contract with the palace harem. Not only that: he knew my family business would be broken if I failed to fulfill it, and bribed the Bey to quarantine my shipment of plundered redheads, in order to eliminate a prominent and indeed self-evidently superior competitor from the bazaar. Surely it was too great a coincidence for a genuine plague to arrive at the precise time I’d staked my family business on incoming human cargo!
I returned to the familiar comfort of my slave market with an almost weightless bag of dinars and a virgin brunette trailing behind me like a stubborn but unusually attractive camel.
My frustration at this ill-spent morning nearly led me inside before I’d remembered the need to conceal her true hair color from likely enemies, such as my neighbors and servants. After exercising my brain for a short time but at a particularly rapid speed, I pulled her into the dim and narrow alley that adjoined my office, emptied the last few coins into my pockets, and pushed the bag over her head. Moments later I was prodding a hooded odalisque inside like an executioner leading the condemned to a scaffold—though in this case it was a scaffold lushly decorated with carpets, pillows, fine painted pottery, and various expensive trinkets reminding my clients to pay me an analogously luxurious premium.
To head off any rumors and suspicions, I told the following story about the bagged odalisque.
I’d made a pledge to a very special buyer that none in our Oriental lands would see her face before he did, so she would be a wholly fresh spectacle, and therefore, as it were, a double virgin. (Perhaps there is no such thing as a half virgin; but a truly great slave salesman can bring a double virgin into being—at least within the clay-like cranial contents of his clients.) Indeed, I myself had never looked under her hood, but was reliably promised by the author of her involuntary export that she was entirely as beautiful as one could imagine her to be, and in some cases, considering the frequently feeble imaginative powers of men such as those presently attending, more beautiful still.
No one doubted me: the rumor that I had an imminent contract with the sultan had by now flown far and wide, and indeed, as you have seen, farther and wider than was strictly beneficial for my longevity.
When evening fell and I was alone with the new odalisque in the small storage room behind my office, I pulled off the bag. The kohl under her eyes had mingled with sweat and tears and collected in the hollows of her face: her unnatural Occidental pallor seemed sickly and ghoulish in the flickering lamplight, like an omen of disaster.
I went to my chest of valuables and removed the scalp. I’d scraped off the flesh and added some glue to hold the hair together, but had neglected to clean it properly. There was no time now; I’d leave scrubbing to her.
When she saw the bloodstained locks which until very recently had adorned the cranium of a living redhead—now refurbished into a nearly serviceable wig—her eyes trembled and grew as large as the generously denominated gold dinars the moneylender had neglected to give me.
My dearly departed father, who never let a day of my childhood pass without reminding me that slaving is a trade for learned men, had once taken advantage of our pirate parters’ end-of-fiscal year sale to purchase a former scribe whose lame hand disqualified him from useful labor, that he might instruct me in the Occidental tongue, which I therefore spoke with a degree of poetic fluency surpassed only by my skill in our much more melodious native language. By dint of my father’s foresight and my own studious dedication, she was hence at least theoretically capable of grasping the following summary of my stratagem.
As my shipment of redheads had been arbitrarily quarantined, resulting in their still unexplained and very unfortunate demise, she was to go in their place and wear this salvaged scalp to meet the color specification ticked on the sultan’s odalisque order form.
It was a simple scheme for one of my acknowledged intelligence, but she made incredulous expressions and uttered the early portions of several unbecoming words without completing any of them; and I was obliged to repeat myself—her comprehension, no livelier than a lizard on a chill night, being nevertheless indispensable to my success. I explained that her soul was tethered in this world only by the thin filaments of the admittedly quite poorly made red wig I held before her; and without it, both our brains would soon become no more than an unpalatable evening meal for the sultan’s least favorite dogs.
At this a diminutive glimmer of understanding finally shone within her shadow-smudged eyes; and, like a hen whose mouth has been permanently disconnected from her throat by a kitchen cleaver used in the manner indicated by its name, she ceased squawking. I eased my tone, and putting on a fatherly expression, offered her a plate with two freshly cooked and delicately spiced fish that I had purchased that afternoon at great expense, for reasons that will become clear momentarily. She ate them heads and all, watching me throughout as if I would rob her at the first opportunity.
Having secured small quantities of both understanding and good will, the next problem to solve was her own hair.
It was a magnificent mane, I now noticed—but too voluminous to hide under the severed scalp she would soon don in its place. Moreover, the smallest brown lock might hinder the appropriate satisfaction of the sultan’s particular urges.
I reminded her of the coming stage in my plan, and, with a slow and unthreatening motion, revealed a recently sharpened razor. Having enjoyed my fish, she now seemed to trust me with this implement more than I trusted myself. Perhaps the fact that I had owned her for several hours without beating her once had caused her to feel an entirely understandable degree of infatuation with my person.
Though I am a man of many talents, which extend from haggling with pirates to the creation of exotic musical works of great but underappreciated originality and value, my portrait proves that the use of sharp objects to remove hair is not, in fact, a particular area of expertise. But I could trust no one with such a dangerous secret. If it were so much as whispered that she was not a genuine redhead, my life would be forfeit along with my family business, and my soul would thus ascend to that place where virgins are given for free—an exceptionally poor environment for a commercial slaver of even the best salesmanship.
Nor could I trust the woman before me with a razor at the very moment when dawning horror at her approaching fate might encourage her to use it in an impulsive and usually fatal way.
I had to shave her myself.
Thoroughly depilating a beautiful virgin brunette by the soft glow of lamplight after sharing a fine meal in a private room is a difficult task for a slaver in the prime of his life, at least if that slaver needs her to remain a virgin brunette the following morning, as I did. I had to restrain an acquired habit of sampling my less virginal acquisitions, despite manipulating her intimate regions with the utmost delicacy; but in the slave trade, professionalism is ever our watchword. Even so, by the time I reached her scalp I was trembling slightly, for she was a female fit for the sultan in every respect but hair color, and a tiny slip sent a trickle of blood drooling down her forehead, past the place where her eyebrows had once been, and into her right eye, which immediately began twitching in a manner that soon translated to the entirety of her body.
I was taken aback, but only briefly, for when I saw her now, bloodied and hairless like an infant fallen from a cradle hung above shards of broken pottery by neglectful parents, all lust departed my body. I restrained her with the appropriate vigor, then completed the task without any further trouble. Finally I glued on the wig, and added matching eyebrows using a small bottle of stain I’d purchased on the pretext of repairs to my fine pottery collection.
After I’d finished painting the shaven odalisque, I stepped back and admired my handiwork. She was both magnificent and ridiculous: a foreign ship’s figurehead brought to life. Quite dubious in my view—but among the wealthy the worst taste could pass as the best, provided it was presented with the trappings of class.
I gave her a pail of water and a copper looking glass and said it was her responsibility to clean the wig and touch up the makeup when the sun rose, and if she heard anyone but me at the door she was to stuff her head deep into the bag immediately, though with appropriate gentleness so as not to damage a preserved scalp that was worth more than her own rather forgettable life. Then I left.
When I returned to my office the following morning, the Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s Assistant’s messenger was already waiting for me at the door.
His master’s master had heard from another slaver, he informed me, that my odalisques might not arrive at the promised time, thus potentially triggering the sultan’s wrath in a manner that would be quite irreversible as far as my personal health was concerned, and he begged me to disabuse him of his well-intentioned concerns regarding the imminent non-existence of my obviously very respectable person.
Most slavers would have quailed in the face of such a bald-faced, though elegantly stated, threat. But as I had created a valuable redhead from an equally bald-craniumed brunette just the previous night, I saw the early arrival of the sultan’s messenger—three days before the delivery was due—as an opportunity to distract from my impending and unavoidable failure to provide the full number of specified odalisques on the agreed schedule.
I told him these jealous rumors spread by my competitors were so far from reliable that a less generous merchant than I would feel compelled to describe their authors with reference to the parable of the dung beetle who wished to be a camel; and that the smaller than normal cranial domes concealed beneath their turbans were likely too deficient to permit them to pass the recently proposed slaving certification exams with a score worthy of our empire’s trust; but that, because of the excessive altruism for which I am so justly known, I would nevertheless respond to their accusations as if they were made by men whose intelligence exceeded that of senile circus monkeys or stunted fish spawned in the drainpipes adjoining our city harbor, provided he would follow me to the room behind my office, where a freshly imported and astonishingly virginal redhead (I prayed) even now awaited the sultan’s pleasure.
Few things instigate the garrulous violence of my tongue so much as impugning the reputable customer service of my slaving business.
I led him behind the office, chattering loudly and inanely about the cost of couscous in hopes that the former brunette behind the storage room door would hear us and conceal her cranium. But when I showed my visitor in, she was still struggling to fit the bag over her head: the red wig dribbled down her chin like a barbarian’s beard.
I rushed past, blocking the sight with my body, and yanked the canvas over her inverted coiffure. My mind raced. How could I possibly excuse a bearded odalisque?
But I needn’t have worried. Her clothes were on the floor, and the messenger was lost in the rapt contemplation of regions well below her chin.
At that moment an idea of genius bubbled above my occipital bone and inspired my throat to vibrate even as my lips formed a series of sophisticated shapes in rapid alternation.
I castigated the accidental voyeur before his mind could register what the corners of his eyes must have seen, and accused him of pouncing into the room in an altogether premeditated fashion, damaging the double virginity of the sultan’s new slave with the oppressive and far-worse-than-tangible violence of his male gaze, and thereby inviting inconceivable punishments to fall upon his almost memorable person should even a very slight allusion to the deed reach royalty.
The thoroughly false accusation sounded flimsy and indeed nonsensical to my ears; and yet faced with my confident expression, he surrendered after a few fearful stutters—falling to his knees and blabbering excuses and apologies in the ingratiating manner of a well-trained lackey.
In disbelief at the easy success of my gambit, I continued to berate him in a meaningless but rhetorically imposing fashion; his head sank lower and lower to the ground, until he kissed my slippers and vowed to serve my will, provided I would refrain from recounting this grave sin to the sultan’s Chief Eunuch’s Secretary’s slave, or to anyone else in the palace who might wish his head relocated to a position uncomfortably distant from his shoulders.
This nearly accidental victory over the dim and wisp-like soul of a minor bureaucrat’s errand boy was my first toehold on the levers of power that move our empire; and though he himself was weaker and more contemptible than the tiny weevils that feed on unripe dates, it was common knowledge that a swarm of such pests could ruin a season’s crops. In the same way, I reasoned, a swarm of petty and pusillanimous humans, caring only to ascend the imperial ladder of hierarchy and attain the good regard of other people so engaged, might suffice to destroy a nation, if not to make one. The thought may sound prescient now; I assure you it was casual and insignificant at the time, almost forgotten in the ambitious rush of calculation which then occupied most of even my own notably spacious skull.
Suitably impressed by my first palace ally’s aptitude for buglike groveling, which exceeded that of the average slave by a distance greater than the beak of an ibis, I dismissed him with newfound disrespect, and desired him to inform his master I would deliver the first redhead that very afternoon.
Continued in Chapter Two: The Reeducation of an Occidental Virgin.