Beautiful Birds in a Cage
first published July 20, 2016
I was born into slavery ; I never knew any other life. My mother was taken as a girl. As I was the product of her body, so I was property as well. My mother was concubine to the master and even though I was the offspring of that union, I had no birthright.
We, and others like us, had to work because we were not wives. We had no power, no rights, little privilege. We were at the beckoning of the master’s mother, who ruled us like a queen.
Those who were concubines went to the master or his guests when summoned. Otherwise, we worked in the house or in the court at jobs that best fit our skills and age. The concubines did not work in the fields, lest we become unattractive and our usefulness diminished.
When I was young, I sewed tiny precious beads onto beautiful fabrics, in elaborate, intricate designs using the finest golden thread. These were later made into clothing for the family. I did this until my fingers cramped and bled (I had to be careful not to stain the silk!) I did it until my eyes crossed and I was nearly blind. I did it until my neck and back ached even when I slept.
Still, my lot was better than the slaves who worked the fields and orchards. I thought myself lucky. I was fed regularly. My living quarters were clean and dry and warm in the winter. If I became very ill, my symptoms were tended to by the doctor. We were not beaten or whipped.
We were kept away from all men. Our bodies were not ours to give nor for any man but the master to take or share as he saw fit. We belonged to him, to be used or lent at his (or his mother’s) whim. I was never sent to the master because I was his own child but I was, from time to time, offered to visiting dignitaries or officials. These men were not gentle or kind, but fortunately, as I was not particularly beautiful or adept in bed, my charms were not in high demand. Eventually, I was completely ignored for such things.
All I knew about life beyond the walls was what some of the others, including my mother, told me. For many, the outside world seemed more difficult, full of poverty, back-breaking work, and starvation. Almost all were young virgins when they were captured so they did not long for lost husbands or lovers or children. Many were captives of war, and were grateful for the peace and plenty of their new circumstances. But some were captured away from their families. These girls found adjustment most difficult. They would weep and cry when they first arrived but in time they forgot their old lives and settled into the new. I was lucky because I had nothing to miss, and because my mother was there to teach and protect me.
I did not consider my life bad or unfortunate.
When the weather turned warm, I enjoyed being outside in the courtyard with the others, working, gossiping. Not all the women were embroiderers. Some minded the children. Some played instruments and sang. Some were dancers. Some were ladies’ maids to the women of status. Some of the favorite concubines had only to keep themselves attractive. This was very important as it was her access to the master that gave her power. Each of us had access to different parts of the household, and so each had different information. By sharing what we knew, we could put together a bigger story.
Oh, the plots and rumors and intrigue that were discussed!
Some of the older women, longtime favorite concubines and lesser wives, those with more power and influence than I could ever hope for, were quite adept at grand manipulations. A carefully planted rumor, a well-told lie, a damning truth, whispered genially and sincerely in the right ear, all served to help accrue more power and influence. Over the years, there was more intrigue and machinations than I can recount. There were poisonings and betrayals, false friendships and lies, all in the service of power and rank. But my own ambition was never so great as some of the others.
When I was young, I was useless at that game but I observed and listened closely, and slowly, I learned the way it was played.
My first manipulation began accidentally when I befriended the youngest child of one of the lesser wives. The nanny who minded her was dull and sullen and was too lazy to play with her. I could see that the child was bored so later, alone, I fashioned a small doll for her from scraps of blue silk, with eyes of fresh water pearls and tiny lapis beads, and a smile of garnets. This was not done with any specific plan in mind. The girl seemed lonely and I felt sorry for her, so I made her a small gift using what I had at hand. She was, after all, my sister (although this was not common knowledge among the other women.)
I gave it to her the next time I saw her. She was delighted. And her nanny was pleased that someone else made an effort to entertain the child, relieving her of the burden of having to pay attention.
Several days later, when we were again all outside together, the girl came over to where I sat to watch me work. She seemed fascinated by the idea of making designs with beads and thread. As I worked, she listened raptly as I told her stories about fantastic creatures and faraway places, completely of my imagination. I felt a kinship for her and although she did not know who I was, she sensed the attachment.
Seeing us together, it occurred to the nanny that I was perhaps entertaining the child too well. She suspected that her position might be in jeopardy. She called the child to come away from me but she was reluctant to go. In that brief moment, I sensed opportunity. I whispered to the girl to come see me again soon. I’d have more stories for her.
Her nanny, by then, had become wary and prevented her from visiting with me. But the girl kept her eye on me. I would smile and wave. I would tell funny stories to the other girls my age to make them laugh, so the child would see this and feel she was missing the fun.
And one day, not long after, I was summoned by the girl’s mother and informed that I would now be her nanny.
And so, my rank among the women of the household increased.
The girl loved me because I devoted myself to her. And I loved her, because, even though there was a great difference in status, I knew we were blood. We shared many of the same features, and I brushed her long black hair and styled it like my own.
When she was grown enough to no longer need a nanny, she kept me close by making me her ladies’ maid. And so my rank increased again, as I was now privy to more important information, received firsthand, which made it more valuable. Information was currency. I could trade it for favors.
Eventually it came time for her to marry. Her husband lived afar. Although she wanted me to come with her, I was still property of the household and her father would not give me to her. Both he and I understood that if I went with her, her husband would be my new master, and if he took me as his concubine, as was his right, it would cause her deep pain.
She did not see the danger of this new situation as I did. I consoled her, assuring her it was for the best.
We bid our tearful farewells. She was both a child and a sister to me. She was the only person I ever missed. I only saw her once again, many years later, when she returned for her father’s funeral. It was a sweet reunion.
By then, I had spent many years as a ladies’ maid to increasingly important wives, my circumstances improving and my status growing.
I was a slave , but as a life, it was better than many who live free.
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artwork: Kamil Aslanger (I discovered this image a year after writing/channeling this post but it’s such a perfect image, one might think it was actually inspiration for this story. It was not.)