By Leigh Cuen
“Tell me the truth,” Esther told me in the minutes between day and darkness.
Before Haman and his sons were condemned. Before they dangled from wooden beams, vacant eyes bulging. Back then, Esther was just another daughter harvested for the harem, a tangle of limbs to be plucked, pruned and presented.
“Me?” I asked.
Most women in the waiting room never noticed us eunuchs. The rich blackness of my skin helped me melt into the vibrant storm of colors in the tapestries and the calligraphy billowing up inside the dome ceiling.
“Yes,” Esther asserted, skin slick with fragrant oils. “I’m talking to you.”
I couldn’t tell whether I liked it or not, being acknowledged.
Esther looked up, pressed against the dark of her eyes like a palm against a window. “Tell me, what do I look like?” She repeated.
My hand wandered to scratch at the scars across my groin.
“You have weak eyes?” I asked.
She licked her lips. “No, but I don’t see myself in the mirror anymore. I see the countless other virgins that disappeared into this waiting room.”
I swallowed, embarrassed for her. She continued.
“I’m exiled inside my own body. Who says that eyes and ears tell the only truth? Maybe this nagging uncertainty in my stomach is just as real. It says I don’t compare.”
I melted. I might have a sister her age, if she is still alive.
“Here is what I know.” I crouched to meet Esther’s gaze. “Where I’m from, past the mountains, there was a child who rejected food and cried after the moon. The parents tried every herb. Nothing worked. The child grew sick and frail. Then one day a Bedouin appeared in our village.”
“Was that common?” she interrupted.
Such questions are only asked by those who always lived in the capital, surrounded by swarms of people and their smells.
“Not alone. No one survives the desert alone.” I answered. “But the Bedouin didn’t look thirsty. His robes lacked the tatter and sweat stains of travel. He prayed an undulating song, keeping the child under his elbow until the stars faded. The child wailed all night. But the Bedouin’s voice never faltered for a second. He knew the scripture, and used recitation to battle in spirit. The child ate heartily in the morning. After breakfast the Bedouin left.”
“What did the Bedouin want?” Esther asked.
“Nothing,” I smiled, just for her. “He already had command of his jinn.”
“And what of the child?”
I looked away, past the balcony into the sunset.
“The child probably still eats well,” I replied.
Esther touched my shoulder, an uncomfortably intimate gesture. Then the engraved door opened. History ensued. Maybe our conversation was trivial. Perhaps Esther learned from other guidance how to stop crying after the moon. I don’t know. I only spoke to her once, long before anyone committed her story to papyrus. So many words for such a tiny queen.
Here is what I do know. The night before violence broke out in the eastern provinces, I had a dream. I saw the wandering Bedouin. The desert winds roared behind him. His beard was trimmed and combed.
Leigh Cuen is a writer from California, currently living beside the Mediterranean Sea. Her journalism work has been published by Al Jazeera English, The Jerusalem Post, Salon.com and many others. Her creative wrings have been published by Poetica Magazine, the international journal War, Literature & the Arts, The International Museum of Women and more.