River Run

by Kass

Written for daegaer as part of Purimgifts 2012.

Many things about the harem of King Achashverosh surprised Myrtle.

She hadn't expected to spend a twelvemonth there before her chance to audition for the king's favor. During the first few weeks she wandered the columned gardens of the women's palace, wondering whether she could have tried harder to hide from the couriers of the king.

But after a while, she discovered that she liked this strange new life. The women were served exquisite food three times a day, subtly spiced preparations of vegetables and grains which sated her so fully that she never needed to venture the fowl or meat. There were daily massages, and baths scented with rosewater.

Best of all, she had nearly endless time to read, and the libraries of the king were vast. The eunuchs told her that the library at Persepolis was grander even than the one at Susa; she tried not to wonder whether she would someday see that one, too. It all depended on the king. Everything was in the king's hands.

The eunuchs were kinder than she had imagined. None of them seemed to mind their state of affairs, and they knew a great deal about make-up and perfumery. (She was also fairly certain that some of them still liked women, and were willing to provide the services of their hands and mouths, though no one had made such an offer to her, for which she was secretly grateful.)

She made few friends in the harem, aside from Hatach, the eunuch assigned to her care. Many of the women looked askance at forming friendships with one another; were they not competitors, in the end? But she didn't mind.

Every afternoon she walked in the gardens, and when she heard Mordechai reciting psalms outside the carved stone screen which separated her courtyard from the outside world, she stopped and spoke with him. Every day she confirmed that she was well, that no one was mistreating her, that she still lived and breathed.

Often she dreamed strange dreams. Sometimes, in her dreams, a Voice spoke to her and through her. The Voice told her that she was destined for greatness. That she would bring her people to safety. Sometimes she dreamed that she was a stream, a rill of water between two mighty beasts, and that she was growing, growing, and would wash both monsters away.

But when she woke, the dreams always faded. Within moments, the sounds of the harem -- water in the fountains, birdsong, the rushing chatter of the hundred women nearest to where Myrtle slept -- pushed them away. Often then she doubted herself: who was she, a poor orphan girl, to receive visions in dreaming?

When the appointed day came for her to take her turn before the king, her maidservants bathed and dressed her in her finest silks. The chief eunuch himself painted her face, outlining her eyes with kohl and adorning her ears and hands with precious stones.

As she followed Hatach and the other servants from the women's palace to the king's chambers her heart was pounding, but she kept her steps steady and her gaze unwavering. There he was: the man upon whom her fate and fortune depended. His beard was greying but his curls were still dark. He wasn't bad-looking. His face did not seem cruel.

Achashverosh reclined on his couch beneath a portrait of a veiled beauty. Her job, she knew, was to make him forget the woman in the portrait -- unlucky Vashti!

Heavenly King, guide my steps, she thought, and knelt in humble obeisance for a moment before nodding to the musicians, smiling at the king through her nearly-transparent yashmak, and beginning to dance. Her sapphire slippers and bejeweled hands gleamed. As she whirled, she opened herself. O King, she thought, I am Yours --

-- and the visions came.

Image borrowed from JT Waldman's gorgeous Megillat Esther.

The End