Excerpt from Seraglio by Janet Wallach, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Janet Wallach

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  • Published:
    Jan 2003, 336 pages

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The kislar aghasi studied her, moving his eyes slowly downward from her tangled hair, past her high forehead, her blue eyes, her slightly pointed, upturned nose, her cupid's lips. He pointed at me and ordered me to yank open her mouth and hold it wide so that he could check her teeth. At first I was afraid she might bite, but then I realized she was too frightened to move or make a sound. He ran his finger inside her mouth, counted her teeth and checked her gums, appraising her as he would a camel or a horse. When he had assured himself of her oral condition, he returned to inspect her flesh.

He ordered my colleague to lift her hair and his eyes grazed along her neck; he stopped for a moment, thinking he had spotted a mark, but it was only a tiny spider, and he continued, resting his eyes on her milky white breasts. He tweaked her nipples to make sure they held no liquid, and she flinched, but he ignored her and ran his jeweled fingers several times across her soft bosom. He glanced at her navel, then continued his journey downwards, focusing on her triangle. He noticed the lack of pubic hair and smiled; she was prepubescent.

He seemed pleased as he shifted his eyes to her well-shaped legs and ankles and checked her toes to see if they were straight. He cracked his whip again, made a circle in the air with his finger to indicate that we should turn her around, and started the whole procedure one more time. He took another look at her long neck, stopped at what might have been a mole on her back, and ordered one of us to inspect it. It was a piece of dirt. He scrutinized the rest of her back, followed her figure downwards until he reached her buttocks and came to a halt. Then, cradling her round bottom in one hand, he ran his other fingers over her smooth pink flesh and pinched it slightly. He eyed her thighs and legs and well-formed calves, and when he reached her feet, he nodded, and I knew what was coming next.

We turned the girl around so that she was facing him. He curved his hand around her knee and then inched it slowly up her inner leg and northwards on her thigh until he reached the place where the opening was and plunged two fingers inside. The startled girl cried out, and I thought he would slap her, but he didn't. Instead, he twisted his fingers inside her, pulled them out and licked them. I saw her shudder and then her head dropped, and she wrapped her arms around herself to cover her shame. Knowing she would be worthless if she were not a virgin, we waited to see if the kislar aghasi would give us a sign to keep her. Slowly he tilted his head up and down, nodding in approval.

"Tulip, take charge of her," the chief black eunuch commanded. Pleased that he had confidence in me, though fearful if things went awry, I wrapped her dress around her, put my finger to my lips to let her know she could not speak, and took her to the baths, where I stayed with her in the dense heat until she was clean. It had been weeks since she had bathed, and she submitted readily when the slaves sat her on a marble slab, poured water over her from a silver ewer, and rubbed her hair and scalp. I could see the envy in other girls' eyes; they did not like her yellow hair or her azure eyes or the patrician way she held herself; she was not a peasant from Russia or the Caucasus like most of them, and they did not take her strangeness well.

When she had adjusted to the swirling sulfurous vapors, she looked around with her saddened eyes: half a dozen young women lay langurously about, manes of black hair trailing down their backs, jet-black eyes glistening against their luminous white skin. Standing behind them were others, some white, some black, bare-breasted and thinly clad below the waist, grooming the girls like loving cats caring for their kittens. In a corner, two voluptuous figures were locked in an embrace. The girl did not say a word, but later she confided:

Excerpted from Seraglio by Janet Wallach Copyright© 2003 by Janet Wallach. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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