بخش 56

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بخش 56

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Desert Rose the Harlot

KONYA, JANUARY 1246

Barring me from much these days, ever since the scandal I caused at the mosque, the patron doesn’t let me go anywhere. I am grounded forever. But it doesn’t upset me. The truth is, I haven’t been feeling much of anything lately.

Every morning the face that greets me in the mirror looks paler. I don’t comb my hair or pinch my cheeks to redden them anymore. The other girls constantly complain about my bad looks, saying that it keeps the customers away. They may be right. Which is why I was quite surprised when the other day I was told that a particular client insisted on seeing me.

To my horror, it turned out to be Baybars.

As soon as we were alone in the room, I asked, “What is a security guard like you doing here?”

“Well, my coming to a brothel is no more bizarre than a harlot going to a mosque,” he said, his voice heavy with insinuation.

“I am sure you would have loved to lynch me that day,” I said. “I owe my life to Shams of Tabriz.”

“Don’t mention that revolting name. That guy is a heretic!”

“No, he is not!” I don’t know what came over me, but I heard myself say, “Since that day Shams of Tabriz has come to see me many times.”

“Hah! A dervish in a brothel!” Baybars snorted. “Why am I not surprised?”

“It’s not like that,” I said. “It’s not like that at all.”

I had never told this to anyone else before and had no idea why I was telling Baybars now, but Shams had been visiting me every week for the past several months. How he managed to sneak inside without being seen by the others, especially by the patron, was beyond my comprehension. Anyone else would assume that it was with the aid of black magic. But I knew it wasn’t that. He was a good man, Shams. A man of faith. And he had special talents. Other than my mother back in my childhood, Shams was the only person who treated me with unconditional compassion. He had taught me not to be despondent, no matter what. Whenever I told him there was no way someone like me could shed the past, he would remind me of one of his rules: The past is an interpretation. The future is an illusion. The world does not move through time as if it were a straight line, proceeding from the past to the future. Instead time moves through and within us, in endless spirals.

Eternity does not mean infinite time, but simply timelessness.

If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.

Shams always told me, “You see, the present moment is all there is and all that there ever will be. When you grasp this truth, you’ll have nothing to fear anymore. Then you can walk out of this brothel for good.” Baybars was watching my face carefully. When he looked at me, his right eye looked off to the side. It felt as if there were another person in the room with us, someone I couldn’t see. He scared me.

Realizing that it would be best not to talk about Shams anymore, I served him a pitcher of beer, which he drank in a hurry.

“So what is your specialty?” Baybars asked after he guzzled his second beer. “Don’t you girls each have a talent? Can you belly dance?”

I told him I didn’t have such talents and whatever gift I had in the past was gone now, as I was suffering from an unknown illness. The boss would have killed me if she heard me say such things to a client, but I didn’t care. The truth was, I secretly hoped Baybars would spend the night with another girl.

But, to my disappointment, Baybars shrugged and said he didn’t care. Then he took out his pouch, spilled a reddish brown substance from it into his palm, and popped it into his mouth, chewing slowly. “Do you want some?” he asked.

I shook my head. I knew what it was.

“You don’t know what you are missing.” He grinned as he reclined on the bed, drifting away from his own body into a stupor of cannabis.

That evening, high on beer and cannabis, Baybars bragged about the terrible things he had seen on the battlefields. Even though Genghis Khan was dead and his flesh decomposed, his ghost still accompanied the Mongol armies, Baybars said. Egged on by the ghost, the Mongol army was attacking caravans, plundering villages, and massacring women and men alike. He told me about the veil of silence, as soft and peaceful as a blanket on a cold winter night, that descended upon a battlefield after hundreds had been killed and wounded, and dozens more were about to give up their last breath.

“The silence that follows a massive disaster is the most peaceful sound you can hear on the surface of the world,” he said, his voice slurring.

“It sounds so sad,” I murmured.

Suddenly he had no more words inside him. There was nothing else to talk about. Grabbing my arm, he pushed me onto the bed and pulled off my robe. His eyes were bloodshot, his voice hoarse, and his smell was a repugnant mixture of cannabis, sweat, and hunger. He entered me in one harsh, abrasive thrust. I tried to move aside and relax my thighs to lessen the pain, but he pressed both hands on my bosom with such force that it was impossible to budge. He kept rocking back and forth even long after he came inside me, like a string puppet that was manipulated by unseen hands and could not possibly stop. Clearly dissatisfied, he kept moving with such roughness that I feared he was going to get hard again, but then suddenly it all came to an end. Still on top of me, he looked at my face with pure hatred, as if the body that had aroused him a moment ago now disgusted him.

“Put something on,” he ordered as he rolled aside.

I put on my robe, watching out of the corner of my eye as he popped more cannabis into his mouth. “From now on, I want you to be my mistress,” he said with his jaw jutting out.

It wasn’t all that uncommon for clients to come up with such demands. I knew how to handle these delicate situations, giving the client the false impression that I would love to be his mistress and serve solely him, but for that to happen he had to spend a lot of money and make the patron happy first. But today I didn’t feel like pretending.

“I can’t be your mistress,” I said. “I am going to leave this place very soon.”

Baybars guffawed as if this were the funniest thing he had ever heard. “You can’t do that,” he said with certainty.

I knew I shouldn’t be quarreling with him, but I couldn’t help it. “You and I are not that different. We both have done things in the past that we deeply regret. But you have been made a security guard, thanks to your uncle’s position. I have no uncle backing me, you see.” Baybars’s face became wooden, and his eyes, cold and distant up till now, suddenly widened with fury. Dashing forward, he grabbed me by the hair. “I was nice to you, wasn’t I?” he growled. “Who do you think you are?” I opened my mouth to say something, but a sharp stab of pain silenced me. Baybars punched me in the face and pushed me against the wall.

It wasn’t the first time. I had been beaten by clients before but never this badly.

I fell on the floor, and then Baybars started to kick me hard in the ribs and legs while hurling insults at me. It was then and there that I had the strangest experience. As I cringed in pain, my body crushed under the weight of each blow, my soul—or what felt like it—separated from my body, turning itself into a kite, light and free.

Soon I was floating in the ether. As if thrown into a peaceful vacuum where there was nothing to resist and nowhere to go, I simply hovered. I passed over recently harvested wheat fields, where the wind fluttered the head scarves of peasant girls and at night, fireflies glinted here and there like fairy lights. It felt like falling, except falling upward into the bottomless sky.

Was I dying? If this was what death was like, it wasn’t terrifying at all. My worries diminished. I had tumbled into a place of absolute lightness and purity, a magic zone where nothing could pull me down. And suddenly I realized I was living my fear and, to my surprise, it wasn’t frightful. Wasn’t it because of the fear of being harmed that I had been scared to leave the brothel all this time? If I could manage not to be scared of death, I realized with an expanding heart, I could leave this rat hole.

Shams of Tabriz was right. The only filth was the filth inside. I shut my eyes and imagined this other me, pristine and penitent and looking much younger, walking out of the brothel and into a new life. Glowing with youth and confidence, this was what my face would have looked like if only I’d experienced security and love in my life. The vision was so alluring and so very real, despite the blood before my eyes and the throbbing in my ribs, that I couldn’t help smiling.

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