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Equal of the sun, p.2
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       Equal of the Sun, p.2

           Anita Amirrezvani
 

  “No doubt your courtiers would say that it was a shame for such a costly and beautiful bowl to be destroyed, but that since the act was committed by a royal person, it is a fine thing.”

  “That is exactly what they would say,” she replied, kicking one of the shards with a bored look.

  “I don’t imagine you would believe they meant it.”

  She looked up, interested. “Why not?”

  “Because it is nonsense.”

  I waited with bated breath until Pari laughed. Then she clapped her hands to summon one of her ladies.

  “Bring in my bowl.”

  The lady returned with a bowl of a similar pattern and placed it in the alcove, while a maid swept up the shattered pottery. I bent down and examined the shard near my foot. The peacock’s head looked fuzzy, unlike the crisp lines on the bowl that had been brought in, and I understood that she had broken a copy.

  Pari was watching me closely. I smiled.

  “Did I surprise you?”

  “Yes.”

  “You didn’t show it.”

  I took a deep breath.

  Pari sat down and crossed her legs, displaying bright red trousers under her blue robe. I tried to suppress my imagination from traveling to the places hidden there.

  “Do you like to start things or finish them?” she asked. “You may not say both.”

  “Finish them.”

  “Give me an example.”

  I thought for a moment. “Mahmood didn’t care for books when he was a child, but it was my duty to make sure that he could write a good hand, read with expertise, and recite poetry at formal occasions. He now does all three, and I am proud to say he does them as well as if they were his favorite activities.”

  Pari smiled. “Knowing Mahmood’s preference for the outdoors, that is quite an accomplishment. No wonder my father recommended you.”

  “It is an honor to serve the fulcrum of the universe,” I replied. In fact, I missed Mahmood. After being in charge of him for eight years, I felt as protective toward him as if he were a younger brother, but I dared not claim such feelings for royalty.

  “Tell me the story of how you became a eunuch.”

  I must have taken a step back, because she added quickly, “I hope you don’t take offense.”

  I cleared my throat, trying to decide where to begin. Remembering was like sorting through a trunk of clothes worn by a dead man.

  “As you must have heard, my father was accused of being a traitor and was executed. I don’t know who named him. After that calamity, my mother took my three-year-old sister to live with relatives in a small town near the Persian Gulf. Despite what happened to my father, I still wished to serve the Shah. I begged everyone I knew for help, but was shunned. Then I decided the only way to prove my loyalty was to become a eunuch and offer myself to the court.”

  “How old were you?”

  “Seventeen.”

  “That is very old to be cut.”

  “Indeed.”

  “Do you remember the operation?”

  “How could I not?”

  “Tell me about it.”

  I stared at her, incredulous. “You want to hear the details?”

  “Yes.”

  “I am afraid the story’s gruesomeness will offend your ears.”

  “I doubt it.”

  I did not spare her; I might as well find out right away what she was made of.

  “I found two eunuchs, Nart and Chinasa, to assist me, and they took me to a surgeon who worked near the bazaar. He directed me to lie on a bench and bound my wrists underneath it so I could not move. The eunuchs positioned themselves on the inside of my thighs to hold back my legs. The surgeon gave me some opium to eat and dusted my parts with a powder he said would relieve the pain. Then he placed himself between my thighs and held up a cruel-looking curved razor. He told me that before he could perform such a risky operation, I must grant him permission in front of two witnesses. But the sight of the gleaming razor in the air unnerved me, and the restraints against my legs and arms made me feel like an animal in a trap. I twisted against the bench and yelled that I did not give my assent. The surgeon looked surprised, but lowered his razor right away and told the eunuchs to release me.”

  The princess’s eyes were as round as polo balls. “Then what happened?”

  “I considered my options once again. I didn’t see any way of subsisting except at court. I needed to earn enough money to take care of my mother and my sister, and I wished to bring back the luster to our family name.”

  I did not tell her that deep in my heart had burned a fierce desire to unmask my father’s murderer. As I contemplated the surgeon’s knife, I imagined myself dressed in shining silk robes, having attained high position at the palace. Such prominence would allow me to expose my father’s assassin and force him to admit to his crime. “From now on, your children will know the sorrow I have endured,” I would say. Then he would receive his punishment.

  Pari looked down and adjusted her sash, an evasion that made me wonder if she knew anything about his murderer.

  “What happened next?”

  “In the end, I told the men to proceed, but added that they should cover my eyes so I could not see the razor and that they should not restrain my arms.”

  “Did it hurt?”

  I smiled, grateful that now it was just a memory.

  “The surgeon tied a cord made of sinew around my parts and asked for my permission. I gave it, and seconds after I felt his hand lift up those parts, the razor sliced through me in a clean sweep. Feeling nothing, I tore off the blindfold to see what had been accomplished. My parts had vanished. ‘That was easy!’ I said, and I even joked with the eunuchs for a moment, until all of a sudden, I felt as if I had been sliced in two. I screamed and descended into blackness. I learned later that the surgeon cauterized the wound with oil and applied a dressing made of the bark of a tree. Then he applied a bandage and left me to recover.”

  “How long did it take?”

  “A long time. For the first few days, I was not myself. I believe I said broken prayers. I know that I begged for water, but was not permitted to drink in order to allow the wound to heal. When my mouth became so dry that no words could emerge, someone moistened a cloth and placed it on my tongue. My thirst was so great that I begged for death.”

  “By God above! I can’t think of another man willing to do what you did. You are very brave, aren’t you?”

  I did not tell her the rest of the story. Several days after the operation, I was allowed to drink some water. Nart bustled around me, attending to my bedroll and pillows, but looked strangely nervous. Every few minutes, he asked if I needed to relieve myself. I told him “no” repeatedly until he became tiresome and I begged him to leave me be. When I finally felt the urge, he removed the dressings and the plug and gave me a pot over which to squat. I was now smooth except for a small tube that I had not seen before. I closed my eyes at the sight of that raw, bloody canal.

  It took a while, but when I was able to produce, I screamed in pain as the hot liquid shot through my exposed tube for the first time. I thought that I might lose my senses, but as I wanted to avoid falling into my own puddle, I managed to remain upright. When I had finished, I was surprised to see Nart’s eyes shining. He opened his palms to the sky and bellowed, “May God above be praised!” Never had the sight of a man at his business been so pleasing to him, he told me later. My wound had been festering, and he had been greatly afraid that I might suffer the agony of an obstructed tube, a death too ugly for words.

  Pari was still waiting for my answer. “How modest you are! Most men would quail at the sight of that razor. I still remember my father’s astonishment when he heard your story.”

  Long before I had been cut, I had gone to a tavern and watched a dancer twirl her wide purple skirt over her head while the other men dared me to grope her. She shot me a seductive smile, but after a while, her mischievous flirting began to remind me of the way a boy
toys with a lizard. Finally, spotting her large, rough hands, I came to a startling realization: She was a man! My face went hot with rage as the dancer grinned and whirled, and I felt ashamed that I had been duped. But now I was just like that dancer—indeterminate, strange to all, always provoking fierce reactions because of what I had done and what I lacked.

  “I was very young,” I said in my defense.

  “Not that young.”

  “I was inordinately fervent.”

  “And now?”

  I paused to think about it. “I have learned to moderate my actions.”

  “You are perfectly controlled here at court. I suspect you would be ideal for secret missions.”

  I bowed my head to acknowledge Pari’s praise with the correct amount of humility.

  “What is the difference between men and women?”

  I looked up, surprised once again.

  “I imagine you must have a better answer to this question than any other man.”

  I thought for moment. “They say men want power and women want peace. You know what the truth is?”

  “What?”

  “Everyone wants everything.”

  The princess laughed. “I certainly do.”

  “In that case, in what ways might I be of service to you?” I knew she already employed several hundred eunuchs, ladies, maids, and errand boys.

  “I need a man to gather information for me inside and outside the palace,” she said. “His trustworthiness and loyalty must be impeccable, his energy high, his need for sleep and amusement very low. That man will have no desires outside of his work for me. His silence about my activities will be obligatory. For these services, I am prepared to pay a substantial salary.”

  She named a figure that doubled what I earned. I felt suspicious: Why was the offer so good?

  “By serving me, you will be at the heart of palace politics,” she added. “You must have a strong stomach to be successful. The challenges ahead will be severe, and if you can’t bear them, you will be discharged. Do you understand me?”

  I said I did.

  “You may begin your duties tomorrow morning here at my house.”

  I thanked her and was dismissed. As I put on my shoes, I felt my brain prickling with possibility. After twelve years of service, my work at the palace had finally begun in earnest.

  Pari’s thorough questioning and strange beauty made me remember myself as a man, not just as a eunuch. I was, after all, more than a mutilation, in my own eyes. But Pari must never know that I loved and desired the women of the harem in ways that no one would ever expect.

  Prior to my operation, I had been lying with a woman named Fereshteh almost every night. The first time had been on the day that my mother and my sister, Jalileh, left the city of Qazveen, traveling by donkey rather than by horse, in so much disgrace that our neighbors dared not look at them. I remember pacing the length of my boyhood home, which had been sold. One cushion remained in the room where my family used to gather for afternoon tea; I perched on it and watched the snow drown the bushes and the fountain in our garden. That night, in a tavern, I drank until my old life disappeared in a fog. My new friends recited poems and were happy to keep me company while I paid for jugs of ruby wine. I banged my fist on the wooden table and called for more to drink, and then more, and sang heartily to every tune. After midnight, I stumbled into the fresh snow and discovered Fereshteh, who was still new at her trade. Her large dark eyes were revealed by the black chador that covered her hair, and she was shivering in the cold. She took me to a room not far away and advised me not to drink. In her arms, I discovered my body for the first time, and I sank into her the way a thirsty traveler in the desert thrusts his head into a spring.

  Toward dawn, we whispered our stories to each other in the dark. Fereshteh had been flung out of her home by a stepmother who claimed that she had made advances toward her only son. Her father was long dead, and there was no one to defend her. I told her that I, too, was about to be evicted from the only home I had ever known. Fereshteh comforted me as only a tormented fellow soul could do, and in the weeks ahead, I wanted nothing but to be in her arms. I spent every night with her that I could afford. Ah, that was a time of such fierce pain and pleasure I couldn’t imagine ever experiencing it again.

  In the days after my operation, any touch caused my entire body to ache. Pain became an extraordinary armor that repelled even the lightest physical contact so that my body could heal. I longed for the cessation of the pain, which seemed like the greatest possible gift. Once my body had healed, however, the mental torments began. In the morning, I would go to urinate expecting to handle my parts, and suddenly, my hands empty, I would feel as if I were falling. The vertigo was so great I feared I would slip into the latrines. Was I male? Female? What was I?

  Then I would remember why I had done it, and I would steady myself, remove my plug, do my business, and emerge still shaken by my changed state.

  I wanted Fereshteh, my only lover, to know what had happened to me. I tried to find her, but another prostitute told me she had left town. As time went by, a curious thing began to happen. My lips remembered the softness of Fereshteh’s tongue; my chest longed for the butterfly-wing beat of her eyelashes; my thighs tightened at the thought of gripping her hips. The beauties of the harem started to turn my head. They could show each other all their glories, and why not? No men were around to make them feel uneasy. Secretly, I enjoyed every glimpse, but there was no corresponding rise in my middle. Frustration coursed through me. What good was desire to a gelding?

  One day, while soaping myself in the baths, I became aware of a strange new impulse. I was like a man who has lost a limb but believes for a moment that he can leap up and swing his legs over a horse. As I ran the rough kisseh over my skin, my groin and lower back buzzed as if I had been grazed by lightning. I gasped, awash in sensations that were more diffuse but deeper than any I had ever felt. It was as if my freshly healed wound had reinvented my capacity for pleasure.

  I thought of Fereshteh’s deeply grooved waist, so fine in my hands, and her quick tongue. I yearned for her. Brushing the kisseh over my belly, I whooped with joy and growled deep in my throat. The other eunuchs, most of whom had rounded shoulders and soft thighs that made them look womanly, turned their heads in surprise. I felt like a cypress tree ravaged by fire and presumed dead, until one day, by the grace of God, new green shoots sprout from its charred heart.

  On my first day in Pari’s employ, I said my morning prayers and walked from my quarters in the harem to her home just inside the Ali Qapu—literally the grandest gate—shortly after dawn. A handful of trusted nobles had been granted homes inside the main palace gate, but Pari was the only woman who enjoyed this honor. Most royal women were confined to quarters deep inside the walled harem and permitted to exit only by permission from the Shah.

  It was early; I would probably be the first to arrive. I said good morning to the guards, who lounged in the shade of the massive brick gate. They were at their ease until they unlocked the huge wooden doors and allowed members of the public to stream in to petition the Shah or his men at one of the administrative buildings on the palace grounds.

  The princess’s home was located behind high walls. I knocked, and when the door was opened by a servant, I stepped into a courtyard filled with the invigorating scent of pine. A long fountain led the way to a small but elegant building decorated with yellow and white tiles patterned with interlocking hexagons. After entering the house through a carved wooden door, I was escorted right away into Pari’s birooni, the formal rooms in which she greeted visitors. To my surprise, her staff had already assembled. Dozens of eunuchs and errand boys stood in order of rank awaiting her command, and maids moved in and out soundlessly with trays of tea. I was struck by the taut air of discipline in the room, so different from what I had experienced when serving Mahmood’s mother.

  “Javaher, you are late,” Pari said. “Come in and let’s get to our business.” She indica
ted the place where I should stand and frowned, her coal-black eyebrows darkening her forehead.

  Pari’s birooni was more austere than any of the other women’s, who often competed with one another by adding lavish touches to their quarters. She sat on a cushion atop a large dark blue carpet, but rather than displaying golden songbirds or gardens of flowers, it was illustrated with mounted princes pursuing onagers, zebras, and gazelles, as well as bowmen aiming their arrows at lions. In alcoves lay neatly placed reed pens, ink, paper, and books.

  A latticed wall at one end of the room permitted Pari to receive male visitors to whom she was not related. A young man in a blue velvet robe was standing on the other side of the lattice. We could see him through the lattice, but he couldn’t see us.

  “Majeed, I am pleased to introduce my new chief of information, Javaher Agha,” Pari said, adding the title used for eunuchs. I had asked around about her vizier and learned that Majeed was young but destined for high service. He was from an old Shiraz family, which, like mine, had served the court for generations.

  “Majeed is my liaison to the nobles of the court,” Pari added. “Javaher, you are my liaison to the world of women, both inside and outside the palace, as well as to places where Majeed’s nobility would not permit him to go without being detected.”

  She might have said the same thing about my own nobility, had my father not been accused of treason and killed. The old shame of it brought heat to my cheeks, and I bristled with the urge to prove myself the better servant.

  “Javaher, you will observe me at work. I will deploy you later once you understand what I do.”

  “Chashm, gorbon,” I replied, the short form of “by my eyes, I would sacrifice myself for you.”

  For the rest of the morning, I watched Pari attend to routine business. Her first task was to check on the progress of the annual celebrations at the palace of the life of Fatemeh, beloved daughter of the Prophet. Women schooled in religion must be hired, food prepared, and rooms decorated. Then one of the Shah’s eunuchs arrived to ask Pari how to process an unusual document because no one else could remember the protocol. The princess rattled off the order of the necessary signatures and named the men who must provide them, without even looking up from the document she was signing. Next, Pari read through a stack of messages and suddenly burst out laughing.

 
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