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Copyright © 1997 Robert Irwin.
All rights reserved.
The women lay heaped like pack-ice round the walls of the Cage. As Orkhan sat shivering in the courtyard, he imagined the ladies of the Harem at ease beyond the Cage's walls. The women were braiding each others' hair; they practised embroidery; they strummed at dulcimers; they smoked narghiles; they studied books on the pleasuring of men; they scratched themselves and waited for their master. The Harem was nothing other than a series of waiting-rooms before sex. He could picture the women at their idle amusements only in his mind's eye. But sometimes — rarely — the breeze did carry the actual voices of the women, singing or laughing, over the high walls of the Cage — the Kales. The rare sound of women, like the gurgling of a fountain was cooling and soothing.
He spent most of his days imagining the Harem beyond the walls. His every third thought was woman-shaped. If he had studied mathematics or astrology for a quarter of the time that he had spent thinking about women, then, young though he was, he would already have become a venerated sage. But his thoughts about women did not progress in the same way that puzzling over astrological theorems might have done. He had concluded that there was something about the smoothness of their forms which defeated logic. It seemed to Orkhan that he would have done better to have spent the last fifteen years meditating on a tiny pebble. For an inhabitant of the Cage, thinking about women was a branch of speculative philosophy, since no woman had ever set foot in the accursed place. Orkhan had last seen his mother at the age of five. He had a dim memory of being in one of the smaller pavilions in the gardens of the Palace and of vainly clinging to a vast skirt embroidered with tulips and then the black hands coming from behind to pull him away. It was all but certain that Orkhan would die before he ever saw a woman again.
The Cage was located in the heart of the warren of buildings, courtyards and covered alleys that comprised the Imperial Harem. The princes it imprisoned lived in a complex of rooms built around a flagged courtyard with a tiny garden at its centre. An arched colonnade running round two sides of the courtyard allowed the princes shelter from the sun and rain as they exercised or lazed about. A dormitory and two low-domed reception rooms led off from the colonnaded walkway and smaller cells were reached from the reception rooms. A handful of elderly deaf-mute eunuch servants shared the princes' confinement. These slept where they could in the storerooms and the kitchen on the other two sides of the courtyard. The Cage's windows all looked inwards on the dismal garden and supplies were delivered through a hole in the kitchen wall. The solitary, iron-studded door of the Cage was only opened to permit the entry of a doctor or the departure of a corpse. On the rare occasions when the door did open Orkhan and his companions strained to catch a glimpse of the corridor beyond, which was known inauspiciously as the Passage Where the Jinns Consult.
Beyond the dangerous Passage was the Harem and, beyond the Harem, the rest of the Palace and beyond the Palace was Istanbul, but Orkhan could not expand his imagination half so wide. Until a week ago there had been nine princes in the Cage. But one day last week, while the princes were lunching, picnicking in the courtyard, the door of the Cage had swung open and a pair of black eunuchs filled the opening. They did not enter the courtyard but stood at the door and beckoned to Barak, the oldest of the princes. Barak had bowed his head and passed between the eunuchs through the door and down the Passage Where the Jinns Consult. He had never looked back. Barak and Orkhan (the second oldest of the princes) had had a pact, that whichever of them should be released first, would, if he was able, send for the other. But there had been no summons from Barak nor any word of his fate. Indeed, no news of the world outside had ever entered the Cage.
The Cage was, like the Harem, a waiting room, but, whereas the Harem's odalisques waited for the delights of the bedchamber, the occupants of the Cage waited and prepared themselves for sovereignty or death. Their fates were dependent on the health and humour of the Sultan Selim and his Harem. One day it must happen that Selim would die and on that day courtiers and soldiers would come hurrying to the Cage and, having plucked out one of the princes, they would proclaim him Sultan. On the other hand, it was really more probable that, before that longed-for day arrived, Selim acting under the influence of an ominous dream or the whispered words of a jealous concubine, would suddenly and capriciously issue instructions for the execution of one or more of his sons. On that day then muscular deaf-mutes would be lining the Passage Where the Jinns Consult and one of them would be holding the silken bowstring, for it was the honourable tradition of the Ottoman house to execute its princes by strangulation.
It was possible, Orkhan thought, that Selim was dead and that Barak, who had forgotten his promise to Orkhan, was the new Sultan. It was alternatively possible that the old Sultan was still alive and had made Barak governor of Erzerum or Amasya. It was, however, all but certain that Barak was dead by strangulation. Orkhan had read that the victim of such a fate invariably experienced an erection and ejaculation, the little death of orgasm serving to mask the greater death which followed so close behind. It was one of the forms of dying classified in the books, for a reason he had not yet fathomed, as 'the Death of the Just Man'. Orkhan was as diligent in his study of death as he was in his thinking about women.
There were still hours to go before the sun would have risen above the walls of the Cage, but it had been hot all night and Orkhan was not shivering from cold. Suddenly he realised that it was not — or not just — the probable fate of Barak, which filled him with foreboding and fear. He had had a dream that night. He now remembered it, but it was not for him to interpret it, for everyone knew that, whereas the dream belonged to the person who had it, its meaning belonged to the first person it was given to for interpretation.
In search of an interpreter, Orkhan re-entered the room used by the princes as their dormitory. The seven princes lay sleeping on the stone floor. Once they had slept here on mattresses and, moreover, the reception rooms had been liberally strewn with carpets and cushions. But then Barak, their leader, had called them round him and spoken to them about the meaning of their lives. Each of them was, he said, preparing himself so as to rule as a Sultan or die like a man. So, whatever their destiny, effeminate softness had to be shunned. They should cultivate Ottoman virtues and practice to make themselves fit, hard and strong. 'Are we not men?' The princes had followed Barak's lead and from that day on they had exercised and practised at weightlifting, archery and wrestling. They bathed only in cold water. They cut their garments of silk into pieces. The princes had also gone about the Cage collecting cushions, carpets and mattresses for a bonfire. For the last two years they had slept on stone.
In the dormitory, Orkhan's half-brother, Hamid, lay staring expressionlessly up at the ceiling. He was the only one of the princes who was awake and it was he who followed Orkhan out into the courtyard. Hamid had been born to a Hungarian concubine. He was red-haired and pale-skinned. His chest was remarkably hairy for one so young.
Without preamble, Orkhan began to relate his dream:
'I was in a desert in which the sand was so compact, so smooth that it was like walking on brass. The night came on and I found myself confronted and my way barred by a dark shape. It rose against me, rearing high above me, but I thrust my sword into it and it fell. Then I lay upon it using it as my pillow and waited for the dawn to come. The stars rolled swiftly over the desert and a little before the sunrise I could make out what it was that I lay upon. In shape it somewhat resembled a foetus. The smoothness of its pinkish-white bulges and curves was here and there broken up by little tufts of hair. The thing had no head, no arms and no legs, but there were fleshy flaps which might have been mouths and which seemed to pucker and breathe open as I prodded at it with my sword. Then, not knowing what to do, I left my dream.'
Hamid only paused briefly before replying,
'The desert stands for continence. The sword is your sexual member. The monster is the place into which your 'sword' enters. I believe,' concluded Hamid cautiously, 'that the whole of the dream means that you will enjoy sex before sunset.'
Orkhan gave a brief, barking laugh as he gazed up at the roofs of the Cage's buildings and Hamid shrugged before suggesting a wrestling bout. The princes, as they wrestled, were accustomed to tell each other that they were building up muscle and studying at cunning. They were training to master the Empire, preparing themselves first to lead armies against Vienna and Tabriz and then to ride the ladies of the Harem, but, when Orkhan wrestled, he thought to himself that he was preparing for the terminal fight in the Passageway against the mutes with the bowstring. Orkhan and Hamid now went to the kitchen, where they would not be disturbed by the other princes. A servant sat crouched in one corner of the kitchen, but not only were the servants of the Cage deaf and mute, they were also, as far as the princes were concerned, to all intents and purposes blind and invisible as well.
The two princes stripped and oiled each other, reaching down to a jug on the floor and slapping great handfuls of olive oil onto their bodies, until they seemed to be sheathed in a body armour of gleaming leather. They lowered their heads, like a pair of angry and confronted bulls, and they wrapped their arms around each other's shoulders. They pressed hard against each other so that their oil and sweat ran together. Still locked together, they turned and turned, each trying to get a leg behind the other's. Suddenly, Orkhan stepped back and pulled Hamid to him and threw him over his extended leg. Hamid fell, but he kept his grip on Orkhan who followed him in the fall. Then Hamid was on his back slightly winded with Orkhan on top of him. His mouth formed an O of surprise, which Orkhan silenced with a kiss. Raising himself slightly, Orkhan ran his hands down Hamid's oiled cuirass of a rib-cage and muscled stomach. Pulling away yet more, he felt for Hamid's testicles and squeezed them. Hamid moaned, not from pain, but apprehension, as Orkhan, kneeling between his legs, reached for the flask of oil and, having poured more onto his left hand, he forced Hamid's legs upwards, and inserted the oil into the cleft between Hamid's buttocks. Then, as he was satisfied that the way was now prepared, he brought himself closer, so as to force his cock into the cleft of Harold's arse. Even so, though the entry had been prepared, it was still difficult. Orkhan ground his pelvis against Hamid's body. Harold moaned crazily. Orkhan was hammering at a door which opened only slowly. Finally he came deep inside his stepbrother.
Victory. He had used Hamid as one might use a lavatory. This was indeed part of the victory. This was the way of the warrior — a hard-fought contest where one conquered and the other played the woman's role and submitted. It had nothing to do with the love that poets and women played at. He withdrew and contemplated Hamid's hard and gleaming buttocks. He was relieved to find that he felt no desire for Hamid's body, for desire of the flesh made one vulnerable, womanish. Victory, yet it was, he knew, only a shadow victory, as sex with a man was reported to be only an adumbration of sex with a woman. It was only a game, an exercise, practice for the real war which was between men and women. On the other hand, it was better than being in bed with a eunuch. As those who have had sex with eunuchs will know, eunuchs are childish, petulant creatures. They are always demanding chocolates or toys for their favours.
Orkhan lay beside Hamid, looking up at the ceiling and thinking of the day which stretched ahead. It would be precisely the same day as yesterday — only it would bear a different date. They were all schooled in boredom. The same day came round again and again and in it they wrestled and engaged in target practice. Some of the princes gardened, measuring out their days against the slow growth of plants. Others raced cockroaches, placed bets on the fall of leaves in the wind, or sat like idiots watching the sunlight climbing up a wall. Orkhan read books on miscellaneous topics — the manners and customs of the inhabitants of the Russian steppes, sex-lives of the eunuchs, how to cook edible clays, conjuring tricks with eggs — whatever literature was procurable through the hole in the wall. Sometimes, he wrote poems or love-letters to the Ladies of the Harem and, having scrolled them round the shafts of arrows, he fired them over the enclosing roofs of the Cage. No arrows ever came back. Now he lay back beside Hamid and poured more oil over his cock which was sore. Hamid, seeing what he was doing, crawled over to suck the cock, working his tongue from the base to the tip until Orkhan came again, this time in Hamid's mouth. At length, bored with each other's company, they went next door to the tiny bath-house to wash the oil off.
Hamid limped off back to the dormitory. Orkhan was left alone in the courtyard — apart from a couple of old deaf-mutes that is. He felt his sense of triumph ebb away, for he now asked himself was it to him that Hamid had submitted, or was it to the dream? Destiny, after all, has its own power. Suddenly the wind changed and the women's voices could be heard. It seemed to him that they sounded unusually excited, like the twittering of exotic birds disturbed by the proximity of a predator. Then the door of the Cage opened. A black hand beckoned and Orkhan walked towards it.
Excerpted from PRAYER-CUSHIONS OF THE FLESH by Robert Irwin. Copyright © 1997 by Robert Irwin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.