One year ago today I published “The Trick”, the first of my “fictional interludes”. I must admit that I’m surprised I’ve been able to deliver one every month; I always used to say that unlike my dependable and constant Muse of Nonfiction, my Muse of Fiction was like a sulky girlfriend: when she wanted me she demanded my undivided attention, but when she didn’t want me I couldn’t even get her on the phone. But ever since “The Trick”, she has visited me without fail at least once per month, usually without my even having to beg her. Today’s installment, for example, came quite of its own accord less than two weeks after I wrote last month’s “A Decent Boldness” (and in fact two days before it was published). I hope you enjoy it, though you may find it a bit…disquieting.
It had been a few weeks since the new Chief had moved in, but Desiree (the oldest member of the Harem, who had been there through two previous changes of power) said that it usually took at least that long for them to get settled in, familiarize themselves with the myriad administrative responsibilities of the position and have enough free time to sample the spoils of victory. Olga, the youngest of the women, had finally stopped crying (she had become genuinely fond of the last Master of the House) and resigned herself to her duties, and the others constantly gossiped about the man with whom they would all become intimately acquainted in the next few months. But Fatima, as usual, was pragmatic about the whole thing; in her mind one man was much like another. They had a job to do and there wasn’t much point in their whining about their situation or wondering what other kinds of lives they might’ve had if things had been different. Every woman here had been given a choice; each had chosen to become a Concubine in order to save her family from ruin, and each had vanished from the world of sunlight and freedom into the gilded cage of the Harem.
Viewed dispassionately, it wasn’t a bad life at all; they were treated to the best of everything, could do virtually anything they liked which didn’t involve going out in public, had servants to prepare their meals and keep their quarters clean, and only had to work once a week at most; those who were less favored for one reason or another might only work once a month. And their pay was more than most of them could have earned on the outside; Fatima and Desiree made much less than they had as free harlots, but being relieved of the need to find new customers and the constant threat of police persecution made up for it.
The memories leapt unbidden into Fatima’s mind; four years ago she had been hunted down and trapped, and then a man had come to her cell to make her the offer. Given that the alternative was relentless and lifelong pursuit of every person she had ever cared about on false charges supported by paid informants and fabricated evidence, how could she refuse? She felt the anger rising and fought it down. It doesn’t matter, she thought; the world isn’t fair. Many women are raped, or end up with abusive husbands, or work themselves into early graves with drudgery, or develop terminal diseases and die in long-protracted agony; her life was pleasant and she was protected from all harm. The only thing missing was freedom, and was she any less free than a woman with five children to support? Freedom is largely an illusion anyway.
She decided that the best thing would be to simply immerse herself in preparations; she had been notified earlier that her services would be required this evening, and though the scheduled time wasn’t for hours yet she wanted to make a good first impression, and that required composing herself so her face would reveal no trace of disquiet. She had no desire to offend this one as poor Ruth had offended his predecessor; after their first time together, he had only ever called her when he felt in a particularly sadistic mood. No, far better to be sweet, accommodating and enthusiastic than to risk living like that until another rival took his place years from now. So she took a long, hot bath, burned her favorite incense while meditating, took her time selecting a flattering outfit and then carefully applied her makeup before calling in the hairdresser, a chubby little lady with a maternal manner who could always make her smile.
Eventually it was almost time, and she went out into the common area where all of the other Concubines were waiting to hug and kiss her and wish her good luck. Olga started crying again and Fatima reassured her that it would be all right, then told all of them that she would share her experience when she returned so they would have some idea of what to expect when their turns came. The guard was waiting to escort her when she stepped outside the door, and together they travelled along carpeted corridors until they reached the elevator, in which she rode up alone. Her heart was pounding as it had when she was about to meet her very first client almost a decade ago, but she took slow, deep breaths to calm herself and when the elevator doors opened she glided gracefully forward into the presence of the most powerful man in the world. Dropping a deep curtsy, she greeted him:
“Good evening, Mr. President; I’m very pleased to meet you.”