Copyright 1999 by


	This is, as far as I know, a true story.  The
 path by which it came into my hands is an unusual one,
 so a few words of explanation are in order.
	During my last year in college, in order to fill
 out my General Education requirements, I took several
 courses in gerontology, which (I'll save you a trip to
 the dictionary) is the study of aging in society.  The
 girl I was dating at the time was a gerontology major,
 and my primary interest in taking these courses was to
 have her as a teaching assistant.  In the last course
 I took, in lieu of a final exam, the students were
 allowed to undertake a selection of in-depth projects.
	Most of them were basically dry reports on
 aging-related issues, but one involved working at a
 local nursing home and writing about the experience.
 Thinking it would be the easiest--my error would become
 evident soon enough--that was the project I chose.

	I was put to work in the nursing home's social
 services department, helping coordinate the various
 social activities that the staff put on for the
 residents.  Finding this rather tedious (and wondering
 what sort of grade a report about bingo and clown
 visits would garner), I hit on the idea of interviewing
 the residents about their lives.

	Well, my boss thought this was a wonderful idea,
 and I soon discovered one of the unpleasant truths
 about nursing homes: a lot of the residents are very
 lonely.  Most of them have families who visit them
 regularly enough, but too many of them don't.  Either
 the families feel "uncomfortable" visiting them, or
 they simply don't have any close relatives.  So when
 I showed up wanting to talk to them, I quickly had
 more material for my report than I ever could have

	In the beginning, I tried to write down every-
 thing I heard, but eventually I gave up and just
 listened.  Most of what the residents told me was
 rather mundane (I heard enough stories about World War
 II to last several lifetimes), but I have to say I
 found it all quite fascinating. These stories would
 form the bulk of the paper I ultimately wrote (for
 which I got an A and a lot of glowing compliments from
 the professor), but they were not the story I really
 wanted to tell.  This is that story, but for reasons
 that the reader will see, it was not the one I turned

	After I had interviewed perhaps two dozen
 residents, I met the woman who wrote this story, whom
 I will call Fatima (out of respect for her wishes, I
 have not used her real name).  She reminded me
 immediately of Katherine Hepburn.  Not that she looked
 anything like her, but she had, like Hepburn, the sort
 of bone structure that made it very easy to see that
 she had once been a most beautiful woman.  She still
 was, of course, but you could see that in her prime,
 she must have been quite dazzling.  She was Middle
 Eastern, of slight build and steel gray hair, but her
 eyes still held a sharp twinkle.

	I introduced myself, and told her I was inter-
 viewing the residents about their life stories, but
 she only sniffed at me.

	"Why would you want to hear such a thing?"

	I gave her the explanation I had given everyone.

	"I want to help preserve your knowledge, the
 experiences of everyone here.  So much of what you know
 might be lost otherwise."

	She looked at me severely.

	"But what if it's a story I don't wish to tell?"

	"Well, I don't want to pry into anything
 private.  I only want to hear what you want to say."

	"Well, the story of my life in America is not
 worth listening to.  I have children and grandchildren,
 but they don't care about me anymore.  So I will not
 tell you about them.  Before that . . ."

	Her voice trailed off and she turned to look out
 the window.

	"Let me think about this.  Come back tomorrow.
 Now go."

	Intrigued, I returned the next day to find her
 waiting for me.

	"I have decided to tell you my story.  But it
 is something I should write down.  If the nurses hear
 me telling you such things, they will only sedate me
 and chase you away.  My own children don't believe
 this, so the nurses will just think I am raving at you.
 Find me something to write with.  If I ask the nurse,
 she may not bring it for days."

	I went back to the social services office, and
 brought her a legal pad and a pen.

	"I don't think this will be enough, but it
 should last me for tonight at least.  Bring me more

	When I returned the next day, I found her
 feverishly scribbling on her legal pad, with two filled
 pads next to her on her tray.  One of the nurses I had
 gotten to know stopped me outside her room.

	"Do you know what she's writing?  She won't tell
 us, but she complained until I brought her more paper
 to write on."

	"The story of her life, I think.  She wouldn't
 tell me either."

	Fatima waved me into her room.

	"More!  I need more paper.  This will take more
 than they gave me."

	"How much?"

	"More.  I will see."

	I tried to take one of the filled legal pads to
 read what she had written, but she smacked my hand

	"Not until it is finished."

	So for the next week, I brought her paper to
 write on as she filled up a small pile of legal pads
 with her story.  Finally, when I came to see her about
 seven or eight days later, she was finished.  She
 handed the stack of paper to me with a flourish.

	"There!  There is your story.  Do with it what
 you like."

	"This is a lot more than I've gotten from the
 other residents."

	"Well, I expect I have more to tell.  But I
 swear to you every word of that is true.  You will
 think me mad, but it is so."

	I assured her I believed her, but she laughed.

	"Say that again after you have read it."
	I didn't get a chance to read it until I got
 back to my dorm that night.  Her handwriting was some-
 what shaky, though elegant, so the going was a little
 slow.  But once I got into it, well, suffice to say I
 didn't get to sleep until very late that night.

	No single word could really describe my reac-
 tion.  "Stunned" is a good one, though.  When I got
 into the meat of the story, and realized what I was
 reading about, and what she had experienced, my head
 was almost buzzing.  It was almost too much to believe,
 as she had warned me, but she had written it too quick-
 ly and passionately to have made any of it up.  It was
 a view into someone else's soul the likes of which I
 had never expected.  I'll tell you this much, though--
 I think I fell in love with her that night.  I don't
 know--and still don't--who it was I came to love,
 whether it was the young girl in the story, or the old
 woman in the nursing home, or some mixture of both, I
 really can't say.  But I did love her.

	Going back to see her the next day was one of
 the hardest things I've ever done.  She was waiting
 for me, sitting in her bed with a regal expression on
 her face.  She accused me of not believing her, but I
 assured her I did.  We began talking about her
 experiences, the things I had read, though censoring
 it carefully for the ears of the nurses.  There was
 even more than what she had written, and this time, I
 took notes judiciously.

	I basically abandoned my project at that point.
 She was the last resident I interviewed, even though
 the nurses told me there were others who wanted to
 talk to me.  I still feel a little guilty about that,
 but Fatima had me captivated.  She didn't want me to
 leave, so I didn't.

	As the reader will see, Fatima was at one point
 a storyteller.  She did not at first write out any of
 these stories; she mentions them in her life history,
 but no more.  Once I asked her about them, however,
 she was soon writing them out for me.

	From her I learned another important lesson.
 Most of us think of older persons as set in their ways
 and resistant to change.  I learned from Fatima that
 one is never too old for new experiences.  As odd as
 it might seem for a woman in her nineties to be bitten
 by the writing bug, that seems to be what happened.

	She wrote me a whole stack of stories, all the
 ones she could remember from her youth.

	"I had books with these stories," she told me,
 "and I took them with me when I came to America.  I
 hoped to pass them on to my grandchildren, but they
 care nothing for books.  They are only interested in
 rap music and video games.  In any case, they are
 written in Pakistani, which none of them can read.  I
 don't suppose you can read Pakistani?"

	I couldn't, of course.

	"Well, it doesn't matter.  I'm sure my children
 have long since thrown them away.  They want nothing
 to do with their mother's homeland.  They are too
 interested in being American."

	Her children, as I knew from her history, were
 half-white, as she had married the American man who
 brought her to this country.

	Some of the stories she wrote I have included
 in this work, some I have not.  I could not include
 them all, so I chose the ones I thought she liked the

	But finally one day that spring, I arrived at
 the home to find her room empty, and the nurse telling
 me that she had died in her sleep that night.  It was
 one of the few times in my adult life that I ever
 really cried.

	The nurse told me she could not give me any
 information about her without her family's consent,
 but she promised to tell them I wanted to attend her

	I never heard from them.  That was about four
 years ago.
	For four years, only one other person saw
 Fatima's stories.  Soon after she died, I showed them
 to my girlfriend.  I wasn't sure how she would react,
 but perhaps because of her training in gerontology,
 she was as captivated as I was.  She even asked me if
 I wanted to act out several scenes in the stories
 (which we did; I leave it to the reader to guess which

	For a long time, I didn't want to tell anyone
 else about Fatima, but my girlfriend convinced me that
 I was doing the same thing to her that her family had:
 hiding her away out of embarrassment.  That my motives
 might have been purer was irrelevant; the end result
 was the same.

	So I spent the better part of a month tran-
 scribing and editing her life story.  The changes I
 have made are largely cosmetic; I have made a
 conscious effort not to impose my voice on hers.  I
 merely tried to fix the problems inherent in any first
 draft, which her handwritten story was.  Some bits
 were illegible, and I had to guess at them; others I
 added from our discussions after first reading it.
 And, as I said, I added some of the stories she wrote
 for me.  In her history she mentions her storytelling
 but does not repeat any of the stories.  I thought it
 worthwhile to insert some of those stories into those
 parts of the history.  But other than that I made no
 real changes.

	I would have liked to put her real name on this
 work, but as the reader will see, she deliberately sets
 out to remain anonymous, so I have respected her
 wishes.  I do not think it detracts from the story.

	She still lives in here.  I hope you come to
 love her as much as I did.

                           * * *

	I am an old woman now, and the Sultan is long
 dead, so I may safely write of the things I have seen.
 My children dismiss these tales as the ravings of a
 woman who took too many puffs of the hookah, but if
 anything, I expect what I say here will not fully
 capture the intensity of my experiences.

	The land where I was born is now much changed
 and contorted by modern politics, so I will not confuse
 the reader by adding names to the places I describe.  I
 was forty-five before I left the city of my birth, and
 the great bulk of my story takes place within the
 Sultan's palace, so it matters little what went on

	I was born in the greatest city of our land, the
 oldest daughter of my father's third wife.  My father
 was a merchant, who traded in silk that he had shipped
 west from China.  He had many children, but I was his
 prettiest daughter, and thus his favorite.  I grew up
 pampered and spoiled, with no demands placed upon me
 other than that I grow more pretty each day so as catch
 the eye of some other rich merchant or (even better) a
 noble and allow my father to further expand his
 operations, and thus his wealth.  He would be more
 successful in that endeavor than he could have

	The ruler of our land was the Sultan Suleimein,
 who was named after the great conqueror of the 13th
 Century.  The Sultan's personal life was an object of
 much speculation and gossip among the people of my
 city, and especially among foolish young girls like
 myself and my sisters.  Although he had the four wives
 that our faith allows, it was widely suspected that he
 had a large group of concubines, whom he kept hidden
 away.  There were rumors about young girls being
 snatched off the streets by the Sultan's men, never to
 be seen again.  Like most such stories, it was one for
 which witnesses were impossible to come by, but that
 everyone seemed to have heard.

	I first heard these rumors from my half-sisters,
 who delighted in tormenting me with them and many other
 frightening stories, so jealous were they of my
 father's attention.  

	"I wager the Sultan doesn't keep those girls
 for himself.  I think he takes them to his dungeon to
 torture!" one of them told me.

	"No, I bet that he eats them!" another said.

	"You lie!  You don't know these things!" I would
 cry in protest.

	"Yes I do," my oldest sister said, "I have heard
 of them many times.  The Sultan likes to cut girls into
 small pieces to feed to his horses.  He likes to boil
 them in oil."

	"Yes, so you'd better be careful," my other
 sisters would say, "he likes spoiled little girls like
	Of course, they would keep this up until I was
 in tears, and I would run to my mother for comfort.
 She would tell me not to listen to me, that they were
 just jealous of my beauty.  But she never told me the
 stories were not true.  I would be fifteen when I
 learned the truth myself.
	At fifteen, I was rapidly approaching marriage-
 able age, and my father was now casting about for those
 parties who might be interested.  I had no shortage of
 suitors, but none who quite fit my father's expecta-
 tions.  My opinions, of course, meant nothing, but that
 was how it had always been in our land, so I did not
 question it.  I only hoped my father would pick someone
 young and handsome, whom I could love, and not one of
 his withered old business partners.

	Although my mother, as a married woman, was
 required to wear the chador (the full length veil that
 concealed her totally from view) outside our house, I,
 as an unmarried daughter, was not, so there were many
 who could see my charms when I accompanied her.  Know-
 ing that our servants were on hand to protect me, I
 enjoying flirting with those whose notice I attracted.
	On one of these trips outside, along the main
 road from the market, we were passed by a contingent
 of the Sultan's guards coming toward us.  Rather than
 storm past us however, the captain of the group drew
 up sharply as he approached, and stared at me quite
 boldly as they passed.  He did smile, nor did he leer.
 This was not the looks of desire I had grown used to;
 it seemed more an appraisal, for what purpose I could
 not fathom.  My mother noticed him, and a moment later
 wrapped her cloak around me and hustled me past.

	I squirmed from her grip and looked back behind
 us.  The captain was turned slightly, watching us walk
 away.  Then he barked an order at his men, and they
 resumed the rapid gait with which they had approached

	For two weeks, my mother would not allow me to
 accompany her out of the house, no matter how much I
 whined and complained.  Finally, I tattled on her to
 my father, who then demanded of her why she was hiding
 me away when he was trying to arrange my marriage. She
 would not answer him, and he smacked her to the floor.
	After that, my mother let me come with her, but
 she held me close at all times, glancing about as if
 we were pursued by invisible enemies.  Where before she
 ignored my flirtations, she now slapped me and called
 me a foolish child the first time I let someone catch
 my gaze.

	I did not know it then, but we were indeed being
 followed.  On one of our trips outside my home, we were
 accosted by a filthy beggar, who pestered us until one
 of my father's servants knocked him flat on the ground.
 Had that servant known then who he was striking, his
 heart might have burst in fear.

	Much later, I would learn that the Sultan liked
 to amuse himself by dressing as a beggar and slinking
 about his city to learn the things his advisors might
 not tell him.  I am certain that beggar was the Sultan,
 who had come to see the young girl his guard captain
 had spotted.
	Two nights after our run-in with the beggar, I
 was awoken by shouting and wailing from the front of
 our house.  My door burst open, but rather than my
 mother or my servants, who were the only ones who ever
 came to my room, it was my father's first wife, whom I
 feared and despised.  She brusquely ordered me to
 dress and come out to the entry room.

	Half in fear, but more in curiosity, I obeyed.
 As I followed her out to the front, I saw my sisters
 peeping out of their rooms, but she shouted at them to
 go back to bed, and their doors all slammed shut at

	I was brought up short in amazement when we
 reached the front of the house.  My mother was being
 restrained by two large servants, and she wailed in
 despair at the sight of me, reaching out to snatch me
 away.  My father was there as well, but he wore an air
 of obsequiousness and servitude the likes of which I
 had never seen.  In his hands was a plump pouch which
 he clutched like his most precious possession. Finally,
 I saw the source of the commotion.  In the entryway,
 flanked by several of the royal guards, was the captain
 who had stared at me so boldly those weeks before.  He
 looked me over and nodded to my father, who motioned
 me to come closer.

	Not giving me a chance to comply, my father's
 first wife jerked me over to them.  He took my arm and
 pulled me close.

	"Fatima, you must go with these men.  They will
 take you to your new home."

	I looked again at the guard captain.

	"Is he to be my husband?"  The man was handsome,
 and he seemed to be important, so the prospect hardly
 repulsed me.  I had not thought my marriage would be
 so abrupt, though.

	My father hesitated.

	"Not quite.  But he will take you to him," he

	The captain took my arm, and I gave a final
 glance back at my mother, who shrieked in terror as
 if I were being killed.  My father darted over to her
 and smacked her repeatedly, telling her to be silent.
 I felt a twinge of fear at this, but I was too excited
 at the prospect of meeting my husband.

	The captain wrapped me in a full cloak, covering
 even my eyes, and took me out to the street, where a
 coach awaited us.  Inside were two fat, beefy men, who
 looked me over once and then ignored me.  The captain
 shut the door behind me, and I heard a latch snap
 closed.  The coach began moving, and my mothers wails
 gradually faded away.

	"Do you know is to be husband?" I asked the men.

	Both of them chuckled.

	"You are not to be married," one of them said,
 "we are taking you to the Sultan." 

	I gasped, and suddenly understood my mother's

	"Will he boil me in oil?" I squeaked.

	Now they laughed out loud.

	"No, girl.  You will see," the larger one said.

	This calmed me slightly, but it is no over-
 statement to say that I was terrified.  Perhaps he
 would not boil me in oil, but I had not the slightest
 conception of what would happen to me.

	Ten minutes later we reached what I took to be
 the palace, but I could not see out of the coach to be
 sure.  When we stopped, the two men pulled the clock
 over my head again to cover my face.  I heard the door
 open, and they led me out of the coach.

	I could not see anything but the floor, which
 was ornately tiled, and I dared not lift my head. They
 took me deep into the palace, up several narrow flights
 of stairs.  Finally we reached a richly carved wooden
 door, and one of the men knocked.

	A moment later, a strangely accented female
 voice answered.

	"Put her through."

	A heard a latch move, and the men opened the
 door and pushed me forward into a small compartment.
 The door shut, and somehow it latched again.  I looked
 up slightly and saw another door before me.  Then the
 door opened, and I dropped my head in fear.

	Someone approached closely, and I saw a pair of
 feet below me, bare except for a gold ankle chain and
 richly painted nails.  Hands reached up, and pushed
 back my hood.  It was a woman, apparently the one who
 had spoken, and I gasped when I saw her.

	She was not of our land.  Her skin was pale and
 her face was framed by long flaxen hair.  She had large
 blue eyes and was at least as pretty as I was, if not
 more.  With a start, I realized she was nude!  Her
 smooth body and firm breasts were as exposed as the
 golden hair between her legs.

	I blushed and looked away from her.  She brought
 a hand up and stroked my cheek.

	"It's all right.  You must be Fatima.  My name is Greta.  Welcome."

	"Where am I?"

	"In the Sultan's seraglio.  He has brought you
 to us."


	She smiled.

	"Yes, there are many more of us here."

	I looked back at her.  She was still smiling at
 me, wearing the sort of pleasant expression my mother
 did when she kissed me and put me to bed.  This relaxed
 me considerably.  Unless her mind was gone, I did not
 think this could be a woman who faced dismemberment in
 the Sultan's dungeon.  She seemed so much older and
 more worldly than I, though I know now she could not
 have been more than nineteen.

	"We have been waiting for you.  Come."

	Greta took my hand and led me along a richly
 tiled hallway to another set of doors.  As we
 approached I could hear music and quiet conversation
 ahead of us.  Greta open the doors and led me in.

	Shock is too mild a word to describe my reaction
 on first entering the seraglio.  I was not an ignorant
 village girl; my father, rare among the men of our
 culture, had insisted that his daughters possess some
 learning.  I had been taught to read, and had been
 given books deemed suitable for a girl of my age and
 station.  But my intellect, once let out of the bottle,
 was not so easily contained, and I had stolen some
 moments in my fathers library, perusing other, more
 lurid and erudite works.  I was aware there were other
 lands than our own, whose people were not all black
 haired and brown eyed as we were.

	But never in my life had I imagined there could
 be such a diversity of femininity as I now saw before
 me.  There were women like me, dusky and dark-haired,
 but they were greatly outnumbered by the others.  Dark
 women from Africa, fair-skinned women from Europe, some
 with dark hair and eyes like mine, but others with hair
 like flax or burnished copper, and eyes like lapis
 lazuli or jade.  There were women from China, with
 black hair and skin almost yellow in tone, and narrow
 eyes even darker than mine. Other women seemed to fit
 into no pattern I recognized, perhaps a mixture of
 cultures or from one I had no inkling of. 

	And they were all nude--every one!  They lounged
 around the seraglio, chatting or playing with one
 another as if totally oblivious to the fact that their
 bodies were completely exposed.  Many wore various bits
 of jewelry, but there was not a single shred of cloth-
 ing I could see.

	As I looked over the room, I realized something
 else.  All of them, without exception, were breathtak-
 ingly beautiful.  I was too young then to be truly
 vain, but I had grown proud and spoiled, thinking
 myself among the prettiest of girls, certainly more
 beautiful than any of my sisters or the girls I knew.
 Yet none here were less pretty than I, and there were
 many whose beauty was so incandescent it made me ache
 to look upon them.

	And then I saw one who outshone even these last,
 whose face and body were so flawlessly formed that I
 felt myself physically wilting before her.  She was
 European, like Greta, but while Greta was a shining
 jewel, this one was the most perfect gem in Creation.
 She seemed older than most of the others (though none
 here were even as old as my mother, who was then per-
 haps in her early thirties), but if time had robbed
 her of any of her loveliness, she must have once been
 truly blinding.  As I looked on her, I felt a flush
 spreading over my body, and an unfamiliar heat growing
 between my legs.  I feared her, this daughter of the
 gods, but I also desired her.  It would have been
 impossible not to. 

	"That is the Mistress," said Greta.  "She is
 the First Concubine.  You will meet her soon enough."