- The Harem
The scent of myrrh drifts through the musty room, bringing life to the marble floors. It smells like the earth, like the anticipation of the first bloom. I close my eyes. As if it is my own memory, there are the fig trees my foster father speaks of from our native land. Their leaves flap in a slight breeze, the freshness of renewal covering them like dew. Nearby, there is the quiet trickling of a stream, down where the trees of my namesake, the delicate myrtles, grow. In reality, I do not know where the myrtle and fig trees grow, whether they take to water or reject it; a life confined by city walls, then palace walls, have robbed me of such knowledge. Yet I long for the water, for the babbling of streams my ears have never known, and so there the trees live— in my imaginings.
Lately, I have taken to these inherited remembrances. When I can no longer hear my foster father’s voice— though I know, from the courtiers, that he stands right outside the gates, asking after me— it is these images that calm me. All the girls here have their comforts; the Kushite braids the strands of her hair over and over again in the style of her mother; the Armenian hums lilting lullabies; the Arachosian draws designs into her arm, her finger alighting her amber skin. It’s a strange dynamic, here in the harem. There is a sort of bond between us; not one of sisters, but one of circumstance. We have all been touched by the same man, sharing his skin and his bed— and yet sometimes, the tinge of jealousy of that very fact can sour the air. Some here are so young, virgins; they cannot help but be taken by his touch. Separated from friends and family, aside from the maidens each of us were assigned to beautify us, his is the only touch we have had in months.
I lean against the wall, and the Arachosian turns her dark eyes to me. Another four months of myrrh and then the sickeningly sweet scent of perfumes will choke this air for six more. For so long, this scent has seized us, and yet, I do not know which I will prefer. The myrrh is both bitter and sweet; the way most of the women view our situation here. Our lives are one tangled dichotomy. We hope to be called to the king; we hope to be sent away, back to our homes. We wish to find his favor and we pray to dispel it. We hope to reap the benefits of his attention for our peoples, and we fear his wrath will be turned upon them on our accounts. What is preferable: forced solitude, or forced union? A life condemned to serving the king’s needs, or no life at all? Living in hiding, fearing revelation, or living freely, facing the consequences? There are so many decisions, and yet so few are ours to make. We are all children of Mother Persia— if not by choice, then by force. We all know the language of the kingdom, and yet some of the women stubbornly stick to their own language when among the others, as if to assert their nation’s superiority. The King is not to know; should he hear of the way some of us have clung to the customs of our ancestors, he would have us executed. We all have seen the young virgins escorted to the king with heads held high— only to return solemn and sullen, shells of their former being, the shame of exposing one’s body to another’s every whim, the violation of a soul.
Still, the women glance at one another with envy when another is called to the King. They all hope he will choose them, despite it all. Because if he does not, what will become of us?
I seem to be called more often than them all, though I do not wish it.
They say when the King wishes to taste a virgin, he calls for me. When he wishes a non-virgin, he finds it in me as well. I do not pretend to care what allures him. I ask for nothing when I go to his chambers; I return, praying no seed will return with me.
Whenever they take me out of the harem, I hear the courtiers whisper. They all believe I hail from their nation. They all claim me as one of their breed. Let them speculate. Perhaps they are correct— I am not a princess of this world, not bound to one nation. They will never find my true kingdom; they will never know my true King.
Though I was named after the myrtles that grow in my homeland, my foster-father gave me a new name when I was brought to this place.
“Ishtar,” he whispered, hurrying after me out the door, as the king’s men gripped my arms. “Esther.”
I have to suppress bitter laughter when I announce my name to the others. They will never know the irony. They think I am named after their goddess; they do not know that my name is the Hebrew word for “hiding.” This entire regime was built on what was hidden, down to the King’s very right to the throne. Not royalty, but a ruffian; not a legitimate heir, but one who stole the crown from the very wife he condemned to death.
They will never know.
When they ask about my homeland, I tell them I have none. When they inquire about the land of my parents, I say I do not know it. It is not a lie. My home has been gone from the beginning. My ancestral homeland was ruined the day they stepped foot in it.
Perhaps this very mystery is my allure. Because I do not reveal myself— whether I am Jewess or Indian, Armenian or Arachosian; virgin or betrothed— the King can imagine me into whatever form he wishes me to be. It is a likeness he sees in me, I believe. The King and I, we are both concealing our true beings.
Though it has been just a few days since the King has called for me, and though I do not enjoy the time in his presence, the harem has begun to feel suffocating. It is stuffed with too many women’s homesickness; too many despairing dreams. I find myself almost relieved when the door opens and Hegai, the King’s eunuch, enters and calls my name.
“Ishtar,” he intones. It sounds harsh in his mouth, insistent, a sensual snake. It is so different from my true name, gentle as the breeze kissing the leaves. Slowly, I rise and follow him, keeping my eyes to the ground. His presence unnerves me. He may be castrated, yet that does not stop his gaze from lingering over the thin sheens of fabric covering our bodies whenever he enters.
As I follow Hegai out into the hallways, where we will venture through corridors until we reach the King’s chambers, I allow my eyes to linger over the walls. The palace is adorned with the finest materials—hangings of white cotton and blue and purple wool, fine linen and silver rods and alabaster columns, couches of gold. Every time I see them, I remember my uncle’s words. These items were stolen from us, from the true palace, meant for true royalty, the Almighty— not the facade of a palace of a thieving, conniving King. He put them up to mock us, to discourage us from rebelling; yet he cannot know how in reality, seeing these remnants nourishes my vision of a place that is no more. Salvation tips my tongue.
“We have arrived. You may enter.”
Hegai pushes me forward into the King’s chambers.
— — —
When I approach the King, he is lounging across the bed, spread across the finest linens, wearing nothing but his crown. He likes to keep it on, even when he has his way with us, as if to accentuate that it is his way to be had, that we are all under his hands. He is always tender with me; but I have heard the reports of the other girls, the way some of them come back with bruises, shuddering. His disguise does not fool me.
I glance above the bed, where the portrait he had made of Vashti still hangs, her likeness threatening all the girls who lay beneath him.
“My princess. My soon-to-be queen.”
He always teases the girls with these promises, false and empty. I cast my eyes down and pretend to blush, so that he does not see my disgust.
“You are so lean. Do the courtiers not give you enough to eat?”
I smile but do not respond, instead choosing to let him bask in my mystery. The truth is there is nothing for me to eat. They place chines of pork before me; I refuse, claiming it will tint my skin sallow and make my stomach extend. In the early days of our arrival in Shushan, when I was still but a girl, my foster-father cautioned me against eating the food of the people here, lest we mire ourselves in this exile and find ourselves unable to extricate when it is time to leave. I forgo most meals and eat only seeds, or whatever other tidings the courtiers can scrounge up to me at my foster-father’s prodding.
“Ishtar, Ishtar. My goddess. Must you always tease me with your shyness? Well, no more of that. Today, I want a lion.”
There is something different about the way his eyes watch me today— hungry, conniving, like a carnivore who has just torn into meat and is eager for more. I wonder how many girls have lay in this bed since the last moon. I can count from the ones who disappear in the nighttime, to return in the morning, from the scent, salty and sweaty, that clings to them, from the glances of shame, but I do not.
“I shall be whatever you wish, my King.”
As he envelops me, placing a new crown atop my head, I close my eyes, retreat into that faraway place where the myrtles sway with the breeze and Mordechai’s gentle voice coos to me, refusing to be here with the King, taking myself away from what he is doing to me.
Queen Ishtar. Queen Esther. Queen Ishtar.
The title echoes within the panes of glass, entrapping itself momentarily before ringing back at me. Even the mirror, who cannot lie, must reject it. And yet the mirror does lie. It lies to me right now, as I sit in front of it, with this crown atop my hair, these jewels pressing into my forehead, these loose shawls of fine cotton, blue, cords of linen and purple lining the edges. It lies to me as it lies to my new husband, the King, who claims these garments are his. Though they came from my Temple, they still feel stolen on me. Stolen, just as my very being. I am a borrowed object, here for show of the King’s splendor, just another stolen piece of this stolen kingdom.
I never saw the previous Queen with my own eyes, but her image reflects back at me all around the palace. It’s not just the portrait of her which he used to hang above the bed— where now remains an empty spot, waiting for my portrait, for me, like a grave waiting to be filled. It is not just her throne which I now must claim, though I try to perch on it delicately. Sometimes, when he is barely awake, he whispers her name. And sometimes, when a courier comes with an important decision for the king to make and he looks out absentmindedly, that dreadful expression of confusion etched on his face, I see— it was she who ruled, and not he.
When she refused to cow to his demands, the king’s servants— all of them drunk with spirits and power— boldly proclaimed, “Let the maiden who pleases the king reign tahat Vashti…,” instead of her. But the servants were unwitting prophets— for we all knew the new queen would always be tahat Vashti…beneath her. And thus, when I lay in the darkness of his chambers and I force myself to shed my skin and become someone else, though I enchant him with my mystery, I know, I know— he wishes it was she who was beneath.
After Vashti, the King demanded the codification of his insecurity. He proclaimed that every man should dominate in his household, and speak according to the language of his nationality. And yet it is the women whom he constantly seeks. For he knows— he is powerless without a Queen.
I sigh and think of Mordechai, the only one who knows me beyond my façade. He sits at the gateway. He appears far away; my other life, out of reach. I watch him through the lattice when I am allowed out of the chambers into the courtyard. There is his back, its curves so familiar to me. His humble, quiet nature. The way he holds himself— silently, stolidly. That is the nature of a true ruler, I often think. A subtle confidence. A gentle leading.
We do not speak, Mordechai and I, in honor of our silent pack to continue to keep my lineage a secret. But sometimes as I walk by the courtyard, he hears my footsteps and turns and we share a glance, and I know— I am not alone.
And yet, I am not the Hadassah who sat huddled in his house, sweet and demure. I am sensual and alluring, poised and proper; I snatched the attention of the King; I do not dare to bend my head to those beneath me. Names have power— they shape identity— and so I do not reveal my true one, just as Mordechai instructed me. But it no longer even seems to fit me. It is locked away, somewhere outside of me, slumbering next to Mordechai outside the gates.
While I sit before the mirror, musing, a message arrives for me. I tense as I read it. Mordechai overheard two of my husband’s chamberlains, Bigthan and Teresh, planning to overthrow the King. As I put the message aside, a sick desire sparks within me, the inclination to comply with the rebels and get rid of the King, and this life to which he has condemned me. But I know why Mordechai has sent me this message. It is not to participate in revenge or indulge in twisted fantasies; it is a chance to ingratiate ourselves in the King’s good graces.
I tell the King gently, but it cannot stop the way his hands shake and his eyes glaze, as though watching his downfall already.
“Hang them. Immediately,” he orders, and his advisors scurry off to comply.
“It is thanks to Mordechai the Jew that this plan was uncovered,” I walk behind him hesitantly, placing my hand on his shoulder.
“At least those Jews are good for something,” he mumbles, and walks away from me.
— — —
There is a minister here. He is one of the king’s seven chief advisors, leader of the council.
The rumors about him abound— that he began a lowly bath attendant, eternally on his knees; that he was a skill-less barber, scrambling for the smallest coins; that even as a soldier, he failed. Is it true, or is it jealousy? It is difficult to believe that his origins are so lowly; he holds himself with such dignity.
He is handsome in an understated way. He knows all the names of the other ministers and their wives and their children, but they do not know his. He rides his chariot throughout the streets, acting solemn and dignified, but the lower servants mock him when he cannot hear them.
Every day, he passes by the King’s Gate. His gait is measured, calculated, as though an entourage is watching him. He always carries around a little figurine with a gaping mouth, boring eyes pointing up at him.
Every day, I sit by the lattice and watch quietly.
One by one, the servants at the gate fall to their knees, heads low to the ground as he passes. I do not know what it is he said to them to make them do so— for I know, my King would not command it. And every time, one sticks up like a weed. From the arch of his back, confident and stolid, I know it is my Mordechai.
When he enters the palace courtyard on his way to the council room and he passes me, he bows his head just slightly enough to qualify as a bow.
“My Queen,” he says in an even voice.
“Haman,” I intone. He rises and smiles politely. Some intelligence lurks behind those dark eyes, some cold calculation that he tries to mask with his polite speech and his smile. But his smile is too tight.
This Haman, he speaks to the King about the other ministers. The King will not hear of any of the gossip about his past; that denial of where we came from, we all share, if anything. The King likes his awareness of them; he knows who is thinking of rebelling and who is too tied to his wife and children to ever dream of such a thing. So the King keeps him close. He promotes him.
And I, I watch. And I wait for the day when I reveal what is truly behind those eyes.
The King’s advisors are always casting dice before him. Hunched over the table, they scribble down numbers, rearrange letters, make meaning out of nothing.
I see how he watches them, eyes squinted with anxiety, right hand with his ring with the official seal tapping, waiting to see if his actions will succeed.
He believes in no god but all of them; he believes he is the true King, yet waits for confirmation from meaningless games to calm him. He is the King but he is a slave, bound to the opinions of everyone around him, basing his will on chance.
Chance. What is such a thing?
Mordechai never spoke as such. He always taught that every incident, every seeming coincidence, emerges from the one G-d— every separate piece connected as though through an invisible string. I know it to be, have seen it in our people’s history.
Yet sometimes, these days, even I struggle to believe.
As I watch the advisors throw their dice and decipher their nonsense into tangible advice, though I roll my eyes, I wonder.
If fate exists, why has my lot been cast as such?
That night, the King calls me in and lays me down on the bed again. But his face is troubled; his movements are different, at once distant and desperate, as though he is worrying about all the swords he cannot see, all the fates he cannot predict.
Afterwards, I lay awake and wonder what will be.
— — —
It isn’t until the following nighttime, after my maidens assist me in washing off the residue of the King’s hunger, that I receive the message.
One of the girls brings the news, breathless. “Your uncle is wearing the clothes of mourning. He stumbles through the city like a drunkard, wailing and tearing at his clothes.”
For a moment, I hesitate. My mind feels hazy. My uncle, in mourning? There is no one left of our family but him and I. Who could he possibly be mourning for? Has he gone mad?
“Send for my attendants. Quickly.”
When they confirm, my blood starts to run cold. My fingers shake, but I will not let them see. Instead, I summon the chamberlain Hatach, whom I know I can trust. He looks at me pityingly.
“Bring these to Mordechai at the gate. Tell him to take off his sackcloth and dress in the manner as befits a servant of the King.”
I send Hatach with a bundle of clothing. He does not know that I have hidden a message within the pocket, inquiring. But Mordechai will find it, I know.
The night feels like it lasts longer as I wait for Hatach to return. When he finally comes back, he is breathless and pale, and he grips a crumbled scroll in his hands, along with the clothes I sent to Mordechai. Why didn’t he take them? I wish to check if he found the note, but Hatach hands them slowly back to me and opens his mouth, though nothing comes out.
“What is it, Hatach? What’s wrong with Mordechai?”
He looks as though he has heard sour words.
“It’s not Mordechai,” Hatach whispers, looking down. “Not just Mordechai.”
His words are strange, concealing. “Then who? What happened?”
“Your people, my Majesty.”
I clear my throat. I decide to test him. Here, I must tread carefully. “Our people, you mean? The Persians?”
He shifts uncomfortably. “Your true people.”
My heart pounds, but I try to steady my hand as I reach out.
“Give that to me, please.”
It looks like a royal document, like an announcement of an edict. I recognize the King’s seal, that same seal he has pressed into me.
On the 13th day of the twelfth month, I scan, all the citizens in all the king’s provinces may destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, and to plunder their possessions.
I cannot say anything. I cannot even breathe.
“He wants you…”
I close my eyes. “What, Hatach?”
“He wants you…to appear before the king. Reveal your true identity. Plead for your people.”
My head spins like a tangle of threads. I think of all the times, all those nights, when the King has asked me who I truly am. All the times I have responded demurely, enticingly: “I am whoever the King would like me to be.” How, though his curiosity nags, he cannot conceal his slight smile, his secret pleasure. If I am nobody, he can mold me. We are both masters of deception. My mystery is why he loves me. Why he keeps me. I think of the empty spot above his bed, where Vashti’s portrait used to hang. Of her empty throne. Of the King’s barbarism, his paranoia, his cursory comments about my people in his land. Of all the nights where I have allowed him to claim me, thinking only of the possibility that one day I may be able to return to Mordechai and live in peace.
If I do not have my secrecy, I have nothing left.
“I cannot,” I speak hastily. “He will kill me.” Tears choke the back of my throat. “We must wait.” The tears stream down my eyes. I feel the kohl bleed down my cheeks. “Until he calls me again.”
Hatach nods solemnly, then walks away, back to the gate.
That night, again, I lie awake.
Mordechai spoke of my people. My people? We have not been a people since my foster-father left out homeland. My people is fractured, scattered, dispersed. Would I even be able to recognize them now that they have blended into this kingdom? So many are hiding, just like me, pretending to be what they are not. Mordechai always made sure to tell me, proudly, we are descendants of Binyamin, the only son of Jacob who remained blameless in his brother’s sale. But history has worn us down. Still, the Judaeans look at us disparagingly. They have never forgiven us for the incident of when our men seized and raped a concubine of Levi, taking it to be a symbol of our inner barbarousness. Or perhaps their hatred extends far earlier than then, to the very beginning, when our Patriarch favored the children of Rachel over those of Leah. The palace sees us as united; if only they really knew, we are as fragmented as the kingdom itself and its 127 provinces. Sometimes I feel I have more in common with the Arachosians in the harem than with the women of Judah who live here.
They have eaten and drank what is forbidden. They have lost themselves and forgotten the word we were supposed to live by.
My foster-father taught me should we sin, we lose G-d’s mercy.
And what of I, who have lain with the king night after night?
I cannot go before the King, begging.
Mordechai will understand. He will know what I mean.
— — —
It is a different messenger who returns the next day, one who I do not know, though he carries the same urgency and anguish on his face.
“My Queen,” he dips his head demurely. “Forgive me.” He hands me a bundle of clothes and then scurries off, as if frightened. I unwrap it slowly. The material is coarse, cheap, rough. It is burlap and frayed edges. Mourning clothing.
I almost miss the final note wrapped up between the sackcloth, yet I know it’s there. When I read it, it is in his voice, smooth and calming, yet confident, bolstered by his faith.
“Do not imagine for yourself that you will escape in the king’s palace the fate of all the Yehudim.”
In my mind, his words are sharp. His brows crease up. He points a long finger towards me.
“If you remain silent now, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from another place, and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows…”
I can feel his anxiety as he steps close in my mind, nearly grabbing my shoulders and staring at me with clear eyes.
“Who knows if perhaps it is for this very moment that you have come to the palace?”
I crumple the note and close my eyes. I think of my life. The King. His ministers, dragging me out of Mordechai’s house. The harem. The perfume and the oils. The girls who never returned. The girls who wished they never had to return. The portrait of Vashti. Her empty throne. The bed that has become my prison. The King’s sleeplessness. His paranoia. Shifting eyes, shaking hands. The crown, placed gently upon my head. Haman with his solemn coldness. The lots. The luck.
I think of Mordechai, his gentle face, precise tone, making me repeat hallowed words. Instructing me, guiding me, reminding me that our G-d is One.
And at that moment, I know. I know.
“Courtier,” I say. “Take me to the King.”
Danielle Resh’s work has been published in the Jewish Literary Journal, Sunlight Press, Hevria Magazine, Poetica, and Valiant Scribe, Intrinsick Magazine, JOFA Journal, and is forthcoming in JewishFiction.net. She is currently seeking publication for her novel about a small Jewish town in 1800s Poland whose Torah begins miraculously growing. More information about her work can be found at www.danielleresh.com.
 Esther 2:11
 Esther 2:12
 Megillah 13a:21
 Esther 2:15
 Megillah 13a:11
 Esther 2:10
 Esther 1:6
 Culi, Yaakov 1689-1732, et al. The Torah Anthology: Me’am Lo’ez/The Book of Esther; Translated by Aryeh Kaplan. Maznaim, 1978. Pg 66.
 Megillah 13a:16
 Megillah 13:a
 Esther 2:4
 Esther 1:22
 Esther 2:19-20
 Esther 2:21-22
 Esther 2:23
 Culi, Yaakov 1689-1732, et al. The Torah Anthology: Me’am Lo’ez/The Book of Esther; Translated by Aryeh Kaplan. Maznaim, 1978. Pg 77.
 Megillah 16a:9
 Esther Rabbah 2:5
 Esther 3:2
 Esther 4:4
 Esther 4:5
 Culi, Yaakov 1689-1732, et al. The Torah Anthology: Me’am Lo’ez/The Book of Esther; Translated by Aryeh Kaplan. Maznaim, 1978. Pg 106.
 Esther 3:12-14
 Esther 4:8
 Esther 4:10-11
 Esther 4:12
 Esther 4:13-14