Secret of the Sands (10 page)

After some weeks, Zena learns that she is all but invisible to everyone in her master’s household. The servants come and go, each with a prescribed list of duties that they undertake like clockwork. She need not clean nor cook nor even wash herself – everything simply seems to happen without any effort on her part. A tray of food arrives twice a day. Jugs of scented water are delivered so she can be washed. There are clean clothes and a doe-eyed, tongue-tied negro girl combs and dresses Zena’s hair. She is a
sidi
slave who speaks neither Arabic nor her own Abyssinian tongue nor, indeed, any language at all it seems for, she never says a word to anyone, and will not indulge even in sign language, for Zena has tried. It seems to her that the slaves clean the furniture, make the bed, refill the lamps, sweep the floor, leave fresh water and jellies for the master’s delight and care for her in the same way that they look after everything else – there is for them, no distinction between their master’s inanimate objects and the girl who is confined to his room day after day. It is all very businesslike.

This must be what it feels like to be a pet,
Zena thinks, and then she realises that in her experience, even a pet is shown some affection.

Meanwhile, each morning the master rises shortly after sunrise, prays and leaves. In the evenings he returns to the room with one of three or four slave boys, who are his favourites, and occasionally two of them at the same time. Zena spends almost all day at her seat by the window where she finds she can pass the hours simply watching the activities on the street. There are white
jubbahed
hawkers and earnest, serious-faced slaves going about their business, intriguing, covered litters carried by muscle-bound black bearers and keen-eyed messengers, stick thin from running errands and always keen to be on their way. Down the hill she catches glimpses of the azure sea, all the way across the bay and out to the Strait of Hormuz. At night, the stars are fascinating, though none of the shapes they make in the sky are familiar or at least appear in the location she expects them, as seen from the fragrant, lush vantage point of her grandmother’s compound where she used to sit and listen to the crickets in the darkness and trace shapes between the specks of bright fire above. In Muscat, Zena loves the sunsets and after the blazing sky settles into darkness she enjoys watching the bustle of so many far-off people moving indoors, eating with their family and feasting with friends as the city closes its shutters and lights its lamps.

When the master arrives back at his room it is always very late. Zena lights the
naft
in anticipation though when he swings briskly through the door he only dismisses her casually as soon as his slave boy arrives – just as he did the first night she met him. Lying in the hallway on the cool earthen tiles that line the floor, she hears a lewd cry or two from behind the thick, cedarwood door and falls asleep after midnight, staring at the low moon and waking only as the
muezzin’s
calls start when the first red line of dawn appears on the horizon.
Prayer is better than sleep,
they echo around the bay from minarets all over the city, summoning the men to the
fajir
and lending a rhythm to Zena’s day even if she does not pray when they call. As the music fades, the door to the room opens and the master’s boys step over her on their way back to their own quarters. Then she waits patiently, hovering outside for perhaps half an hour or more, listening to the household wake up – the sound of far-off doors opening and closing, a child’s voice and a woman’s laugh – before the master himself leaves and she can take her place, like some kind of ornamental doll, a place holder, on the cushions by the window.

The rhythm of the days numbs her and after the initial relief that she is fed and cared for, it does not take long until Zena is bored to distraction. In such a situation even a small change in routine can come as a shock so she finds herself taken back when one evening the master returns alone and in a fury. He slams the door and, flinging himself onto the cushions like a child in ill-humour, he pokes a smooth finger into the brass-bound box of rose jelly that is replenished daily. Then he takes a deep breath and sighs heavily. It is a dramatic sigh. The master is trying to communicate.

Zena hesitates. Her huge, black eyes flick towards the doorway. The slave boy will be here any minute. The master takes another deep breath and heaves it out again. This is quite the most interesting thing that has happened in the last fortnight. Zena decides to make a move. She crosses the room gracefully, her hips swaying beneath her blue
jilbab
. She presses her hands together in supplication, lowers her eyes modestly and bows down to the ground, prostrate at the master’s feet.

The master raises another rose jelly to his mouth, dropping a trail of powdered sugar across the velvet cushions. He stares openly at Zena’s long, curled hair splaying across the carpet towards him. He thinks it is like the surf on the shore, reaching towards him on the sands. He is tempted to kick but manages to restrain himself.

‘What they sent you for, I don’t know,’ he says.

Zena looks up and smiles. She is no fool and there is no measure in letting him treat her like one. ‘Oh, master, I think they have sent me hoping that I can tempt you. That is what you said yourself, is it not, the first day I arrived?’

‘Yes. Yes,’ he laughs. ‘You are right. That is exactly it.’ He makes a dismissive noise and waves his hand to demonstrate how ridiculous this notion is. ‘My father thinks because I like Aran and Sam and they are black like you . . .
Galla.
Pshaw! He is a fool! How dare he?’

Zena feels embarrassed. What can she say? That they have spent a fortune on her? That in the past many men have found her attractive? That three years ago her grandmother had an offer of two horses and a white peacock for her hand in marriage, if the Arab trader who made it could be assured that she was a virgin? That an
imam
promised a chest of gold but the old lady did not want to let her go with him for she believed Zena too young. The old lady protected her, she realises now, too much. ‘We will find a grand, Ethiopian prince for you, my love,’ she promised, ‘when the time is right. And you will bear a king for our own country.’

The master does not care about any of that. There is a moment’s hesitation and then what Zena finds she can say is this. ‘Shall I dance for you? I used to dance at my grand-mother’s house.’

The master regards her. He stares into the distance, distracted by his fury at the situation that has brought her here. Then he gestures with his hand. ‘Dance then,’ he says curtly.

There is no music, not even a drum, but that doesn’t matter. Zena simply imagines Yari playing for her as he has a hundred times before. She imagines that Baba is still alive and she is dancing for the old lady’s guests after a magnificent feast. She raises her arms and starts to gyrate, easily finding a rhythm of her own and, lithe as a
dyk dyk
in the bush, she dances back to Abyssinia in her mind. Her hair falls in a curtain and she tosses it aside to the rhythm, she stamps her feet and sinuously moves her hips, she flutters her eyelashes and flashes her eyes. She is as smooth as a fast-flowing river and she dances, whirling like a dervish, tossing her hips like a girl for hire at the bazaar. She moves frantically as if all her days of inactivity can be kicked away in the rhythm. She dances until she is not even aware of the master anymore, and when the music in her head stops, her skin is flushed with delight and she is panting as she falls on the vivid cushions beside him with a wide smile.

He claps. He laughs.

‘If ever I was to . . .’ he starts, moved by the display momentarily before he catches hold of himself and suspends the sentence, hanging in the air. ‘You are very beautiful,’ he finishes. ‘For a woman.’

‘Do you think,’ Zena asks him, ‘that they will take me away if you don’t want to . . .?’

The master shrugs his shoulders. ‘I don’t know what they are going to do. All my slaves are employed elsewhere tonight so that I will come back to you here and we will be alone. I almost slept downstairs. They want me to marry, but if I do they fear I will disgrace the family. When there are no children a wife can insist on a divorce.’

There is an earnestness in his tone, a crack of emotion too. Zena feels sorry for him.

‘I can sleep here tonight,’ she says, ‘if you would like it. No one will know what has or has not happened.’

The master looks at her as if she is insane and for a moment she thinks she has gone too far. Then he reaches out and pulls her towards him. Zena has never been kissed before. The master’s mouth is soft and tastes of sweet rose-water and she finds, to her surprise, that she kisses him back easily. Kissing, she thinks, is like dancing – much better when you lose yourself in it and don’t think too much. The sensation is pleasant. She sighs as she breathes in. His skin smells of the smoke of his
shisha
pipe – aromatic and musky. There is a gentleness in his movements that is surprising and the brush of his small beard on her skin makes her cheek tingle. Zena falls back on the cushions and the master runs a lazy hand down the line of her body.

‘It is no use,’ he says sadly. ‘You are too . . . soft.’

Zena puts her arms around him. She is unsure what more he could want. At least the kiss has broken the monotony. There is a frisson to this seduction business, she thinks – a pleasure. At last something has at least happened. The master, however, looks forlorn. Zena knows to comfort him.

‘No one will know,’ she promises. ‘No one will know. Come on, let me put you to bed and I will sleep next to you. Give me your hand.’

The next morning when the slaves arrive to wash her and clean the room, they bring a new
jilbab
made of white gossamer so fine it could be a cobweb. It is cut to reveal an enticing glimpse of her dark cleavage and edged with gold and silver ribbon. With it there is a box containing three thick, gold bracelets and an ankle chain with tiny bells along its length. Two sheer, red scarves for dancing are laid beside the cushions in easy reach. When the silent
sidi
comes she dresses Zena’s hair and threads a clinking strip of pretty amber beads through the coils. Then she scents the trailing wisps with orange blossom. Afterwards, there is a hot plate of roasted chicken and a sweet, milky pudding with slices of sugared lemon and a swirl of rose syrup.

They are watching,
Zena thinks, moving carefully, for now with each gesture she tinkles like a bell.
They know that I danced for him. They know that last night I didn’t sleep outside.

The morning that Zena tucks into the first meal she has had in months that consists of more food than she can manage, it is well over twenty years before Sigmund Freud will be born in the Austrian town of Pribor. In fact, Freud’s mother is not yet even a twinkle in her own father’s blue eyes, and as for Carl Jung, his genius is a good forty years off seeing its first light of day. So it is true to say that nobody – not one single soul – in the whole wide world, has any particular idea why Kasim and Ibn Mohammed, the most renowned slavers in the whole Peninsula, hate it so much when they come back to Muscat. This should be, after all, why they undergo the privations of the long slaving trips – the triumph of making money enough for a luxuri ous home, endless feasts with their friends, a host of slave girls, a
harim
of submissive wives, a nursery of children and all the material goods a man can desire. Thanks to their dedicated barbarism in the stealing of what, over the years, has been thousands upon thousands of souls, Kasim and Ibn Mohammed are among the richest men in Oman and the regular tributes they pay the
soultan
for the privilege of being his subjects would keep the population of the whole country lavishly in couscous and roasted goat for a year.

Mickey sends a message with Rashid, a couple of hours ahead of his arrival. He wants to announce himself. When he reaches Ibn Mohammed’s compound, the boy is waiting outside under the shade of a plain, pale, canvas awning that runs along one side of the house. Rashid, constitutionally unable to make any kind of effort that is not strictly necessary, crouches by the door and rises to his feet only as Mickey is directly before him.

‘You delivered my note?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did he say anything?’

Rashid shakes his head.

Mickey is concerned that the men are too lately arrived and will be too busy to help him, but if anyone can find out what happens beyond the
wadi
and across the
jabel
out on the sands it is Ibn Mohammed and Kasim. Both have a well-earned reputation as hard men who are as un forgiving as the harsh desert itself, and they boast a network of contacts, spies and informants that will make the job of locating Jessop and Jones and negotiating their release considerably easier. The
Bedu
that Mickey is hoping to engage for the job will come on board more easily if Ibn Mohammed and Kasim give their names to the mission. Ever the broker, Mickey is in the habit of seeking as much help as possible for any job he undertakes and when matters are as tricky as this one, he is certainly wise to do so. Finding Jessop and Jones will not be an easy business and freeing them will take real skill.

He is standing at the heavy, studded door and has smoothed his robe and told Rashid to smarten up ready to knock for entry when, unexpectedly, Kasim trots briskly towards the house, alone on an ornately bridled black stallion, his saddle trailing intricate weaving work and long red tassels that look particularly impressive against the animal’s black, glossy flanks. In a black robe and a long, dusky
kaffiya
, Kasim is a vision of darkness with a small monkey perched on his shoulder like a familiar. As he reaches the gate he pulls on the reins, raising a cloud of pale dust as the horse’s hooves stop dead on the parched ground. Kasim dismounts fluidly next to Mickey with the little monkey still clinging to him. His lavish robe swishes behind, making the whole action rather balletic and, with his chocolate eyes lowered, he bows respectfully.


Salaam aleikhum.’

‘Aleikhum salaam.’

The men, knowing each other of old, kiss lightly three times on alternate cheeks.

‘They sent for me when they received your message,’ Kasim explains with a flash of his milky teeth.

‘You were at home?’ Mickey is all politeness.

Kasim gives only a slight shake of his head. ‘I went to the
wadi,’
he says, aware that camping in the valley outside town is hopelessly eccentric when he owns a lush compound of his own and could stay with any number of good friends inside the city’s walls.

Kasim does not know why they call Muscat the Jewel of Arabia. He values the open air and excitement of the chase and the city feels like a dungeon to him whenever he returns. He behaves as evenly as he can towards his slaves, servants and wives while he is constrained within Muscat’s high, white walls but he longs to be free no sooner than he has greeted his relations and checked his stockpiles of gold. He considers the place hot, dirty and tiresome, the round of hospitality expected of him feels like pressed labour and why most men prefer to stay in the city rather than adventuring on the high seas or the mountain trails, he does not know – a view he expresses publicly from time to time, much to the shock of Muscat society. By contrast, Ibn Mohammed hides his loathing of the capital and does what everyone seems to expect of him on his return though, had Dr Freud been born some years earlier and already embarked on his career, he might have noted that Ibn Mohammed beats his slaves ferociously when in residence in his Muscat compound while on his slaving missions he is known as the more gentle one (this of course, given the nature of the men’s business, is a relative term and does not hold true on those occasional moments when Ibn Mohammed loses his temper).

These days, Kasim and Ibn Mohammed do not personally run or capture shipments of day-to-day working slaves – the recent outing in Abyssinia was for
habshis
and they had, in fact, hoped to find more of the unusual or rare in the villages they raided. Like most wealthy and successful slavers, they have several managers, great brutes of men who undertake regular forays into Africa on their masters’ behalf and bring out cargoes of negroes to ship all over the region and beyond – for
sidis
make up the majority of the trade even though they are worth only a few dollars each. The advent of the British anti-slavery blockade is a case of mere strategy to both Ibn Mohammed and Kasim who will simply find a way around the new rules to allow them to continue to make money by selling the people they steal. When he heard that the British had banned the trade and their ships would block all traffic, Ibn Mohammed commented drily that the wind blows in both directions. He claims for himself the authority of one to whom Allah has gifted personally the right to sell others if not in one geographical location, at least in another.

Now in their late thirties, the men have been trading together for some years, since they set out on their first travels on a whim fresh from the schoolroom and unsure what they wanted to do with their lives. It was only when, quite by chance, they had the opportunity to raid an encampment that things fell into place. Now they are specialists – epicures and collectors – as much as businessmen. Kasim has already started to plan his next foray into the Heart of Darkness – he has heard tell of
Zigua
eunuchs in the hinterland of Somalia – and he only hopes he can convince Ibn Mohammed to leave the charade of Muscat life soon. Eunuchs, like virgins, are the holy grail of slave trading in the Middle East – a fine, black eunuch most of all – there is a demand for that kind of creature from Turkey all the way to India and they are sure to fetch three hundred and fifty silver dollars each, sometimes more. The
Zigua
are known for their long limbs and fine teeth. Kasim can hardly wait to be off. That very morning, while bathing in a shallow water hole up on the
wadi
he was bitten by a camel fly. The insect’s tiny mandibles, like daggers, left a thin trail of blood down his thigh. He squashed the creature between his fingers and felt, he realised, curiously satisfied, for he is a man who does not mind pain in the slightest. Now he is dry again and dressed, he feels the sting on his skin and decides that, failing an early departure by
mashua
, he will camp in the
wadi
for as long as he can without raising the ire of his wives who seem to want to look after him for some reason. He feels uneasy, some might say guilty, about refusing to allow them to do so, but he does not really wonder why. In the meantime, Ibn Mohammed, without the escape valve of the
wadi,
will act so viciously towards his servants, slaves, wives and children that his whole household will breathe a sigh of relief when Kasim finally convinces him they have spent enough time in Muscat and can once more respectably depart for the African coast. Just the thought of it makes Kasim’s heart pound. He can’t wait to get away.

Kasim pats his horse’s neck and surveys Mickey. He cannot help but notice each time he comes home that more and more of his contemporaries have become fat and complacent and this fills him with a horror for which he has no explanation. Now, when they return to Muscat, normally five or six weeks out of the year, each day feels like a month and he shuns this kind of thing as much as he can. He has only come so he can tell Ibn Mohammed about his plans to return to Africa. Up until now they have considered an exploratory trip to capture some Circassians in the north, but
Zigua
eunuchs, now he thinks upon it, make far more intriguing game and capturing Circassians might only enrage the Turks who are more difficult to deal with than ill-educated tribal chiefs in the hinterland of the Dark Continent.

‘Thank you for returning to town so swiftly,’ Mickey bows, unaware of just what a trial it is for Kasim to make the short journey from the
wadi
. ‘I need your help.’

‘For the white men? The infidels?’ Kasim knows all of Mickey’s interests and is not one for beating around the bush. His tone is dismissive.

‘Two went on a foray into the desert some weeks ago and have not returned. There are rumours they are being held by the
Bedu
.’

Kasim shrugs. Mickey, he notes, has greyer hair than the last time they met, over three years ago now. At the side of the cloth trader’s face there are strands that are almost completely white.

‘You look well, my friend,’ he lies nonchalantly, for he can think of nothing else to say – certainly nothing about the subject of Mickey’s concern. The white men are nothing to Kasim – you can sell the women but the men make poor slaves and in any case, their capture causes ructions. Europeans demand their male soldiers and sailors back if you steal them fairly in a fight. Besides, if these two missing
Nazarene
have been taken by the
Bedu
, he knows the men must have perpetrated some hideous crime against the emir. The
Bedu
can be mercurial but something must have happened, they would not have taken the white men for no reason at all.

‘What did the pale-skinned ones do?’ he asks.

‘Allah alone knows.’

Without looking, Kasim strikes the door of his friend’s house to call the servants. ‘Come,’ he says.

He is here now and has, after all, nothing better to take up his time. Besides, Mickey has been a good customer over the years and has a fine reputation. The bonds of brotherhood are strong across the Peninsula and influential men help each other as a matter of course. He might as well, he reasons, hear the story before he can get Ibn Mohammed alone and enchant him with the idea of not one
Zigua
eunuch but perhaps a clutch of them with children – yes, very small
Zigua
children, that can be dressed in feathers – to frame the eunuchs when they present them for sale to their private, most wealthy clients.

‘Let’s go in. We will drink together and share a pipe. I have an appetite. We will see what we will see about your
ajamiyah
friends.’

‘Thank you, Kasim,’ Mickey bows formally.

The two men enter the shady courtyard, Kasim pulling the reins of his big black stallion behind him as the red tassels bounce lethargically against the animal’s shining, black hide and Ibn Mohammed’s slaves rush to welcome their master’s important guests.

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