Elizabeth was rigid with emotional shock and limbs stiff from immobility. Thus, when Gita came to help her up and to enfold her in her robe, she rose awkwardly. Her emotions had slashed wildly in impotent rage for so long that her interior state had eventually been overwhelmed and became as numb as her body. Once standing, it was all she could do to put one foot in front of the next. She was led, bewildered, through a honeycomb of corridors and antechambers to arrive back at the private room she had been taken to an hour after the prince’s visit to the women’s quarters that morning. Gita left her at the threshold saying something to the effect that food would be brought to her.
She looked blindly around and registered little beyond the low bed with its avalanche of pillows into which she immediately burrowed herself, curling up like a hedgehog. Holding herself in a tight ball she attempted to bind the wounds of her lacerated emotions, to soothe the burn of her humiliation, to search for a way to gather together the fibers of her being that had been bruised, battered and beaten to near extinction in the past few weeks.
This effort of self-comfort lasted until the moment a new fear struck her. She shot bolt upright, clutching her heart. Would the prince, now that he had stripped her of her dignity, come to rob her of her virtue? She would not let him see her cower. If in the previous minute she had been emotionally drained, she was now back on alert.
She stood up and decided to take stock of her surroundings, to orient herself within the palace. She knew from the outside that the main bulk of the fortress was a fantastic jumble of walls, battlements and wooden balconies, fretted windows, airy turrets, carved galleries and majestic pavilions. From the inside she knew only the women’s quarters with its main room and rabbit warren of chambers and alcoves which were separated, on the one side, by pierced wooden screens adjacent to the Hall of Audience and, on the other, by a garden full of fruit trees and roses and tame gazelles gracing the entrance to the Queen’s rooms. She knew from the way the light moved through the women’s quarters during the day that they were nestled in a part of the west wing. She guessed the Rana’s family occupied the rest of that wing.
She also knew the secret passages leading to a trap door to the exterior through which the lovers of bored concubines came and went, eluding lazy guards. She did not know Badar Ali’s balcony was the only break in the bleak mass of the western wall nor that the newly returned prince had plugged the palace leaks.
The room she now occupied was like others she had seen, in that it was small – hardly ten feet by ten feet – and elegantly furnished with a comfortable bed, piles of velvet pillows and cushions, a low table inlaid with silver and thick rugs underfoot. There the similarities ended. Her room boasted the marvel of one small window whose graceful arch was carved in a charming trefoil pattern and whose magnificent view of the countryside told her that her room abutted one of the palace walls. A glance at the setting sun informed her that her view lay to the south. The surprise of the window was matched by the lack of a door, not even a curtain. Nevertheless, her space was private enough, surrounded as it was by a small herb and flower garden, walled on four sides, and with only one gate, which she guessed was locked on the outside. This relative self-containment, then, was the most remarkable aspect of her current living quarters since she had formed a sense that all other spaces were more interconnected.
She leaned against the doorframe and let wash over her the sharp scents of mace and saffron and ginger mingled with the sweet scents of orchid and citron and champa. It was a beautiful space, she could acknowledge, but alien all the same, and she shivered in the face of the fresh threat that might await her from the prince.
She fell to contemplating the small fountain on the south edge of the garden where Gita had earlier washed the brown stain from her skin and the dye from her hair. She steered her thoughts toward making sense of being seated on a rug naked in the presence of a savage prince but winced away from the effort, as if pricked by sudden shower of needles. She drew a breath and tried again to creep up on these most recent memories, she a predator in the tall grasses stalking her prey, but in the end she couldn’t find the will to pounce. No sense could be made of those hours that had been as outrageously offensive to her as they had been finally puzzling. The prince hadn’t looked at her, not really, nor had he taken any other kind of interest in her.
Perhaps he wouldn’t come this night.
Her heart seized to hear the chain on the far gate rattling and the sounds of a lock being opened. Her heart eased to see Gita come through the gate bearing a tray. She was suddenly ravenous.
She awoke disoriented. Her torso was stretched out on the bed while her feet were on the floor. When she sat up, her neck had a crick. The room was dark, the only light being a faint glow at the window, but it was enough for her to see the tray set on the table and the remains of her vegetable curry, the last bite of a tasty dal, broken pieces of naan surrounded by crumbs and a bowl of pistachios and walnuts reduced to a pile of shells. After eating she must have fallen asleep sitting up. She was still wearing her robe.
The relief of having avoided the horror of violation left her vulnerable to terrifying memories that leapt out at her now, like a tiger from the brush. Some ancient layer of the human capacity for survival shielded her from remembering the carnage she witnessed through the tall elephant grass, flattened on her stomach, after she had wandered away from the caravan during one of its stops to relieve herself. She also remembered little of the next hours as she lay there immobile, baking in the sun, flies buzzing, insects crawling, snakes finding their way to the same stream of water that had drawn her.
What burst forth ferociously was her memory of that first night. She felt the heat and saw the moonlight, heard the ugly sounds of jackals howling, hyenas laughing, a mongoose chittering, bats swooping. The air was heavy with the stench of flesh ripped open. She had climbed for refuge into the skinny branches of a sal tree, hoping that a snake had not taken the place of the vultures that likely usually roosted there but were then gorging on the remains of the human feast in the dusty road left by the bigger animals.
In the first flush of dawn she roused from a fretful doze to discover she was still clinging to a branch. She looked down, expecting the sal to be encircled by a pack of jackals waiting for her carcass to fall into their midst. She saw nothing but dry dirt and tufts of grass and felt woozy relief.
Then she did what she had to do. She approached the horrific scene, averting her eyes as much as possible, valiantly managing the bile rising up her throat. She identified her beloved and covered what was left of his face with a scrap of a bloody handkerchief. She stripped the ruined saris from the bodies of several serving women intending to fashion a whole one for herself and found a relatively intact chuddah ‘shawl’ she would rinse of its bloodstains in the stream. Then she divested herself of her Western clothing before she tore it all to shreds and attempted to make it look like it, too, was bloodied. She was thankful for the necklace she wore, sure she could use pearls to good end.
Of course anything of value was long gone, the horses, the wagons, boxes filled with kitchen equipment, dishes, glasses, silverware, linens, books, instruments. So she wasted no time trying to find anything in the wreckage. However, under the splinters of a broken carriage, she came across a seemingly worthless piece of paper and picked it up. Ripped in places and ground into the earth by dusty boots, it was legible all the same. She was holding a survey map of the region. She held it to her breast and sent a prayer of thanks heavenward.
The next day she began experimenting with nuts and berries to darken her skin and dull her hair.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen