I was taken into the king’s palace under the supervision of Hegai, the guardian of the women, the lord of the harem. His understanding of the king’s desire was such that he knew upon sight if a girl would bring pleasure to the royal bedchamber. All who arrived without obvious disease were washed and groomed and displayed before him. He inspected them and determined their fate.
Some had known men though they were not married. Some were young but did not display the beauty of youth. Some bore a blemish that would dampen the king’s desire. Some spoke in sour tones. And some were so quarrelsome that even the harem wine would not make them agreeable. Girls such as these were not admitted into the harem, but sent to the army barracks to serve the rough pleasure of the king’s soldiers. There they soon grew old and broken.
While I recovered from the effects of the harem wine, the others had moved on to the hairdressers. Puah washed my hair herself, checking my scalp for nits. She spent an hour combing my tresses with slow and cautious strokes, spreading them in a fan across my back until every strand lay in its place, smooth and shining down to my waist. The old servant had no cosmetics at her disposal, no kohl to rim my eyes or perfume to sweeten my scent. But she massaged my feet with almond oil and rubbed pomegranate juice over my cheeks and lips.
A young eunuch appeared in the doorway of the little room and nodded to Puah, who helped me rise. I was yet unsteady on my feet, and clung to her arm as she guided me through the maze of corridors to a large apartment at the far end of the harem.
I entered a receiving room, my eyes tearing at the bright light that shone from the numerous bronze ceiling lamps. I lowered my gaze to the floor, covered with carpets of scarlet and blue wool woven into an intricate pattern of rosettes within squares. The fabric on the wall hangings shimmered like stars reflecting on the river at night, but the images they depicted—naked women with heavy breasts and full thighs—made me flush with embarrassment.
Puah urged me forward, guiding my steps toward an enormous man who sat on an ornate armchair of ebony inlaid with lapis lazuli and silver. Male attendants stood on either side of him, some holding jeweled daggers. Two boys hovered over him from a perch on a box behind the throne, one with a large fan of woven reeds and the other with a leather fly whisk.
He was dressed in royal robes woven from violet silk and silver threads. Every finger on his hands sparkled with a ring of gold or silver. His posture, even sitting, indicated someone who held himself to be of great importance. The expression of his face—a mixture of scorn, disgust, and revulsion—made his great bulk menacing.
I stood before this man, not knowing who he was or why I had been summoned to him. My reason still muddled by the wine, I formed an idea in myself that he must be King Xerxes. And so I fell to my knees and bowed my head.
“Come forward,” the enormous man ordered. But the pitch of his voice, higher than my own, revealed that he did not have a man’s full vigor. I gazed up at his face: his round, smooth cheek betrayed him as a eunuch despite the tuft of false beard attached to one of his chins.
This creature—neither man nor woman—could not be King Xerxes. Yet I understood from his manner and position that he wielded great power in the harem.
Puah helped me to my feet. We walked to the edge of the carpet, stopping just short of the platform. I saw by the eunuch’s pursed lips and fearsome stare that I did not please him. I glanced to Puah at my side, hoping for some hint how I might win the eunuch’s favor. But her eyes remained fixed on her feet.
“So our wine was not to your liking!” The eunuch’s shrill voice startled me.
“I could not support its strength, my lord,” I whispered.
“You are from Susa?” So great was the pressure of his enormous weight upon his throat that his words came out as great gasps of sound.
“Yes, my lord.” I held back tears for my cousin’s household and all that I had lost that day.
“What are your parents?”
“I am an orphan, my lord.”
“A pretty orphan,” he sighed, appraising me with a stare that made me feel like a goat for sale in the marketplace. He sighed again and leaned toward one of the eunuchs by his side. “Such fair skin and shapely form would tantalize the king’s desire. Bright eyes the color of ripened wheat, and the shape of luscious almonds. And look at the abundant hair. She would have served him well.”
The regret in his voice held my heart like the hangman’s noose. I did not want to be an object of the king’s pleasure, but I feared a worse fate if I did not cooperate. “I shall be your obedient servant,” I heard myself promise.
The eunuch shifted his great bulk back toward me, his eyebrows lifting in surprise. His sharp eyes rose from the flesh of his face like a crescent moon peeking over a mountain.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“I shall be your obedient servant,” I repeated, afraid that I had displeased him.
“What are you called?” he demanded.
“Esther, my lord,” I replied. The name scratched my throat and tore at my tongue as it escaped, like a difficult birth. I no longer heard the word as Mordechai had said it, with love and concern for my safety. I did not hear it as I had introduced myself to the others, with a show of courage. It was the name of someone I did not know.
The eunuch’s thick lips went slack and his mouth fell open as if gasping for air. His false beard quivered. He tightened his grip on the arms of his throne.
He stared at me for some time. I forced myself to return his gaze as if beholding an object of delight.
“Let us inspect her,” the eunuch commanded, breaking his silence after a minute or two. One of his attendants signaled for Puah to remove my robe. The gauzy fabric fell away from my flesh.
I stood alone in the shame of my nakedness. I felt Hegai’s eyes upon me but I could not meet his gaze. After some moments of silence, he raised a finger to a young eunuch who stood beside him. Heaving his great bulk out of the chair, he leaned on the youth like a walking stick and approached me. Each step required great effort. He came so close to me that I could feel the heat of his labored breath on my skin. He circled me, examining every inch of my bare flesh. I held myself very still. I imagined that I was a statue of cool white marble.
After Hegai looked at my skin, he examined behind my ears and in my mouth. He pressed his nose into the hollow between my arm and shoulder. His massive hands cupped my breasts, as if to feel their weight. Then he signaled that I should be laid on my back. With the help of an attendant, he lowered himself to his knees.
Puah draped my robe across my shoulders and chest while a eunuch elevated my hips with a cushion. My legs were spread apart. I was a statue; I felt neither fear nor pain. I closed my eyes and saw my mother.
We were walking on the marble pavement below the hanging gardens of the great ziggurat. Everything was in bloom. She closed her arms around me, holding me close to the child she was soon due to deliver. She wept, thanking the One God for my life and my health. The midmorning sun warmed us, and we sat down to share a piece of honey cake. We watched the boats on the River Euphrates float past like clouds. I turned back to my mother and saw a spasm of pain pass over her sweet face. And I knew that her time had come. “No man has known her,” the eunuch Hegai declared, rising to his feet. Puah helped me with my robe, and I sat up. The keeper of the women washed his hands in a basin.
“An apartment shall be furnished for her by the evening,” he pronounced. “Attendants shall be provided her as is her due. Whatever her request and her desire, it shall be granted to her.”
I bowed to the keeper of the women, trying to find the words to thank him. But my tongue was still thick with the wine and my body shivered in shame for all that his hands had done to me. And so I said nothing as he pronounced me suitable for the king’s pleasure and instructed Puah to attend me until my apartment in the harem was ready.
We returned to the room where Puah had cared for me. She helped me settle on to some large cotton floor cushions and brought me more goat’s milk.
“Thank you for your kindness,” I said as I took the familiar bowl. I tried to tell myself that I had only imagined the interlude in the eunuch’s apartment, but I still felt his hands probing me. I longed to bathe, to rub raw my tainted flesh, to be pure again.
Puah peered down at me, her large eyes blinking as if she were unsure of what she saw.
“Please sit with me,” I begged.
She lowered herself onto a cushion by my side and raised her hand to smooth my hair. I welcomed her comforting touch.
“You have been spared great suffering,” she observed, tucking some hair behind my ear.
“I have not been spared,” I retorted, the words bringing a bitter taste into my mouth.
“You would have gone to the soldiers,” Puah revealed, an edge of reproach in her voice. “Women who cannot tolerate the wine always go to the soldiers.”
I put the milk aside. My hands shook with fear for what I had escaped.
“Your beauty found favor in the eunuch’s eyes,” Puah continued, “but it was something else too.” Her brow furrowed with puzzlement. “Something you said.”
“Perhaps he will change his mind,” I worried.
“He has bestowed upon you an apartment while you are yet a virgin,” Puah replied. “Never has such an honor been given. If you are obedient to him and work hard to please the king, he will not change his mind.”
I kissed Puah’s hand with gratitude. “I cannot remember all that happened after I drank the wine, but I am glad fate brought you to take care of me.”
“It was my God, the God of the Jews, who called me to you,” she insisted. “When you became ill, Shaashgaz sent a messenger in search of a maid. I, the lowest of the chamber servants, put myself forward for the task. No one expected you to stay in the harem, and so I was granted permission.”
I kissed her hand again. “You cared for me as if I were your own child.”
Puah laughed with pleasure. “When I saw you in your illness, I knew you were the child I never had,” she explained. “I thanked the One God for giving me even a few hours to care for you. I prayed for His mercy and begged Him with all my heart to keep you from the soldiers.”
“He heard your prayers,” I whispered, my eyes filling with tears.
“He heard me,” she agreed, drawing me close. “And now we are bound together for all time.”