Not Safe For Work

From Desert Moon, inspired by an apocryphal story of 13th century Asia (novel excerpt)


Night. I awake in blackness, unable to move. I am not bound except by pain. I see only shadows and outlines; they are doubled, and this dusky world is soon spinning end over end. I close one eye. After several long moments, I am able to discern that I am in a large tent, with a hole at the top of the ceiling; I see no stars. I have been stripped and cleaned and layed on a mattress on a low bed, with a light cover over me. Beside me is a large man, sitting up straight on a low bench, hands on his knees, eyes closed. He does not move. I slip back into unconsciousness.

Daylight. A small girl is watching me. When she realizes I am awake, she becomes wide-eyed and runs away through a flap in the tent. I still need to close one eye to see, and the world still turns. I am still on the large, soft mattress on a low bed. I am still in the large tent. It is completely white, but there are beautiful silk sheaths hanging on the wall on my side of the tent. The other side of the tent has a mattress and a trunk, and a sword on the wall, but that is all. Chaka, my sister-enemy whom I have not seen since I was a child, enters the tent. She is still beautiful, but old. She has lived hard, I think. I close both eyes and drift, trying to keep enough consciousness to know if Chaka comes at me with the sword, thinking that after all this I would prefer to die with my eyes wide open. When I sense her leaving, I sleep.

Night. It is a bright night, almost as light as day. If I work hard to focus, I can bring my double vision together; the world bounces slowly, but it does not roll. I think to check my teeth with my tongue; they are all there, though loose. My lip has been stitched where I bit through. The large man sits next to me. I have decided this is my husband. I examine him side-eyed. His dress is simple, but of high quality silk and skillful embroidery at the neckline. He looks to be Mongol, being somewhat squat and rounded, with the kind of hard protruding belly that comes from lifting heavy things over a lifetime. He has kept his hair, though it is thin with age, not choosing to shave the crown of his head as my people’s adult men do; his hair is midlength and combed, peppered with gray; the same is true for his well-trimmed mustache and beard. He is not young, and assuming this is my husband (or master), my heart rather sinks. His forehead is naturally high, his nose streamlined, his lips thick. I try to watch the sky through the hole in the ceiling, hoping for some hint of the moon, which if it is full, would mean it has been a week since I was taken.

When he senses that I am awake, he leans over and stares curiously. He runs a large, rough hand lightly over my forehead, then my cheek, and I swallow a whimper. He moves his hand back, but when he is sure I am silent again he scowls and shakes a finger at me and touches the cheekbone, the jawline, and the chin. He touches below my lip. I suppress my tears as best as I can, though it makes me shake slightly and the world flips over again. I close my eyes and moan. He lets out a frustrated growl, and I open my eyes. He scowls and wags his finger again. Again, he brings his hands up to feel my face. His nails have been chewed down so far and for so long that they are tiny waning moons hiding in the tips of his fingers. His arms and hands are brutally scarred. His left forearm at almost the elbow is nearly circumnavigated by jagged, deep, wide scars, as if someone had attempted to cut the arm off; the hand is crippled, bent in at the wrist, and the two outside fingers are curled tightly into the palm. He uses his thumb and forefinger, clawlike, to pull down the light cover. Looming over me and using both hands, he presses on each rib, gauging my pain by whether and how much I gasp, as much as I try not to. He presses on my belly, which is not painful, and on each hip bone. I look again at the scars on his arm; they are pink and angry; the injury is not old. He sees that I am watching the crippled hand as he brings the blanket back up to my shoulders. I am embarrassed and look away; he grunts.

Slipping his huge right hand under my back, and cradling my head in his elbow, he lifts me to mostly sitting. In his left hand he holds a skin drinking bag which he puts to my lips, but I turn my head at the stench. He shakes me a little, just enough to remind me I am helpless. He shoves the skin in my mouth, with his clawed hand forcing the foul, warm, clotted liquid into my mouth. Against my conscious will my body drinks it, desperate for liquid and sustenance. It is fermented, and the alcohol and sweet fetid clots of fat quickly make me drowsy. I am lowered to the mattress, and the blanket is tucked around my shoulders. In my mind’s eye, I see the two hands as I drift yet again.

For many days and weeks after, I was tended to by women. They were very kind, and very stern, pointing to name people and things and calling upon me to repeat and remember. The one named Bortje gave all directions to the other women. She seemed to be in charge of gauging my usefulness and teaching me the practical arts. Once I could sit, she set me to work braiding horsehair into tight ropes, and then to embroidering silk; she communicated in scowls and finger-slaps and the occasional nod. Chaka was initially in charge of nursing me out of bed and walking, but to her dismay was quickly demoted to picking glass out of my feet. I suffered a little at her hands with each dig, but she seemed not to dare do any real harm; I relished giving the occasional whimper for Bortje to hear and scold her for.

But before long I was up and making fires, feeding dogs and goats, learning how to milk almost every living creature known to man, and staring in wonder at the white camels, and the giant oxen that seemed to do most of the heavy pulling and carrying required around the camp. This tent city of 100,000 people and ten times more animals was in constant motion, whole neighborhoods going up and down as different regiments came and went. Usually the sturdy yurts were packed on camelback to move, but sometimes a yurt or even a small neighborhood of them on platforms would be hooked up to scores of oxen and pulled into the desert. Indeed, I spent most of my early days gaping in wonder at the harsh but beautiful animals, people, and land.

The woman named Yisui, who was a Jin, and whose beauty belonged to some far earlier year, came to be the woman I spent the most time with and learned the most from. She was also the easiest to run afoul of. Yisui would eventually come to shadow me for many weeks and months, teaching me the language and manners I would need to remain useful and respectable. The other women, and the servants, were curious about me, my dear city Yinchuan, and my people the Tangut; but Yisui wanted to hear nothing of it, and swooped in to scold when she heard us attempting to talk amongst ourselves. Every word in Mongol; no “I used to”; no “we called it such-and-such”; and no “I miss,” especially. If Yisui did not show how to do it, or teach how to say it, it was not to be done or said, or–especially–missed.

I missed everything.

In those first weeks the only time the food was not foul was when it was bland. The only thing to drink was the fermented rotten mare’s milk, called kumiss, that was my first nourishment. Sometimes the men brought home a stew that was cooked over several days’ time in an animal bag, positioned under their saddles as they rode practice maneuvers. This I found especially objectionable. Otherwise, meats from every imaginable animal were cooked in coals or boiled, with very little seasoning other than the endless variety of onion-like weeds to be found. I learned what dog meat looked like, and tried to avoid it, associating it too closely with the friendlier canines that had been my childhood pets and companions in the streets. There were a thousand yogurts, as many as the women who made them. Chaka made the yogurt in our little area of camp, and I avoided it carefully. I would not have put her above poisoning me, and yogurt, being soured already, can give little sign of adulteration. There were no breads or grains, though in future summers when we settled, more or less, at Karakorum, there was occasional rice and some spices. Generally, for the Mongols, growing things to eat was for lesser peoples, and eating things that had been grown was not true nourishment.

You will think this very strange, but in these weeks while learning how to speak, eat, and live again, I was not introduced to my husband, nor did I ask who he was, nor was I told. It seemed… impolite, or presumptuous, somehow. We were stationed on a high plain north of the Gobi, with mountains over our shoulders, and it seemed this would be where we would stay for some time while men came and went from various practices and wars. He would come. I did not see the large man with the crippled hand, but I began to wonder if he were a doctor or even an old shaman, rather than a general and my husband. He had worn no decorations and carried no weapon. He’d had no entourage to accompany him.

When there were new men in camp, I heard names of towns and territories, and their fates, in vague terms. The men would come and go and spoke freely to Bortje, who seemed most invested in various conquests and difficulties and diplomatic expeditions. I was able to piece together the reason my city Yinchuan had been spared; apparently, along with me, a few artisans, and some especially coveted pottery, the Mongol Empire had also gained Tangut complicity in any upcoming wars against the Jin. The hard-won peace between Tangut and Jin, which had allowed both peoples to flourish, would be ending. My father’s legacy was lost.

When a new general approached the area of our tents, or when I heard a new name, I tried to pay extra attention and look extra bright, but always for nothing.

It’s funny. I don’t know at what point I decided I had been promised to a general, but I could not reconcile my taking and my mother’s suffering with less, at least without becoming teary and angry. So I waited for my general. And this brought another thing to wonder: was I wife? Was I concubine? Were I to be a pampered slave, or even less? Surely my mother had made a better deal than concubine or slave. But I did not know the social structure beyond what I could guess of my small group of confident and hard-working women, who were all married to some husband or husbands not present, and the language was too slow to come for me to ask or to even reasonably ponder. As for asking Chaka, she was quickly sent (or left for) elsewhere, and I would not have asked her nor believed what she answered.

It wasn’t long before I felt I was adrift in a sea of women, awkwardly working hard to please someone I didn’t know in a place I didn’t understand.

I had given up my identity. I was beginning to lose my self.

I would learn exactly who I was, and some small measure of what I was capable of, one night in the young fall after a large regiment had come in.

The rumor was that the long campaign had been unusually lucrative, and the men who were coming home to their wives and families were rich beyond their dreams with booty. The joy was somewhat tempered by the missing spirits of those who did not come. Meanwhile, the rest of the camp was preparing to leave. It was difficult work, and with the men there came yaks that I was expected to tend to and load. The yak was an altogether different animal; I had little guidance and was feeling angry and alone, as well as newly battered and bruised by the beast. Bortje had been summoned out of camp, and Yisui had far larger duties than I and could spare little time. I was told that we were going to travel over the top of the Gobi and along the feet of the mountains, to spend the winter somewhat protected in the valleys above the steppe lands. I did not really understand what this meant, except that winter for man and animal both would be less dangerous there.

He came in well after the sun was down, and the night was becoming cold. It was a bright night again, though the hole at the top of the yurt was only partly open. He re-stoked the fire himself, waving me off when I realized that I had let it go down and jumped up to tend to it. He sat next to the bed, as he had those first two nights many weeks ago, with his eyes closed and his hands on his knees, his hard belly resting proudly between. I sat on the bed in a light robe, watching him and waiting.

Finally, he opened his eyes, and motioned matter-of-factly for me to undress. He watched carefully, with little emotion. I tried to read his near-motionless eyes: where did his interest most lie? What level of interest did he expect from me? Was I partner, or object? How much of intimacy did he expect me to understand? I could not tell.

In time, he undressed mostly, leaving on a long undershirt that came down to mid-thigh, showing the strong legs of a horseman and the sagging knees of an old man; the folds of skin below his kneecaps seemed to smile and wink good-naturedly. This was the only hint of smile or good nature I could find. He gestured for me to lie down, and he did as well. He spent a good deal of time exploring me, and asked in simple words how my face felt, and said I was very pretty. I blushed and fluttered my eyes and looked away, but this did not seem to please him. Because he could tell I was curious, he let me touch the scars on his arm. “Axe,” he said, miming the action when I did not understand. “Four seasons, now.” He showed me how his hand would not open.

His lovemaking began as almost grandfatherly, and his initial approach was unimpeachable. He began with a simple, soft kiss below my jawline, somehow conveying he was aware of the deep bruises to my face, and acknowledging I had suffered. He underscored this by touching my lower lip, where the stitches had been. Next, he felt along my collarbone with sucking kisses, and with the textured callous of his thumb he lightly brushed one nipple, then the other. He cupped one breast and kissed the nipple softly with rough lips, and briefly, lightly, took it between his teeth. He took each of my hands and guided them around and under that great belly into a mass of rough hair, and held each hand in his own (as best he could, with the left) as he brought them to the crease between loin and thigh, but no further. He breathed in small, restrained, rhythmic gasps as he became excited. He found me immediately, and reached around to hold me at the top of each buttock as he entered.

Each move he made was measured, gentle, and considerate to a fault, but there was the unmistakable presence of great strength–the otherworldly strength of the soldier who broke my ribs when he picked me up that horrible day I became a captive–but he also had softnesses I would never have guessed. Nonetheless, the strength made me wary to the very edge of fright. I tried to match his pacing and show my willingness without assuming too much or taking the lead. I had never been with a man of quite that age, as I’ve said, and, trying to look on the brighter side, I made the decision to be curious and rise to the challenge. I did not find it objectionable in the least, despite the trepidation that kept my genuine pleasure somewhat muted.

Throughout he seemed invested in my satisfaction, a rare enough attitude in my experience, especially for an initial encounter. He was also intensely aware of his own satisfaction–and while this isn’t unusual, he seemed to be a man of high standards in his pleasure, and I was keenly aware that the better I could satisfy him in bed, the better my life might be–and the more power I would have–outside of his tent. And so, to the best of my ability, with voice both enthusiastic and demure (which did he want? could I succeed at both?), I expressed my satisfaction at the appropriate moment.

Or perhaps a moment off.

He hovered over me then, and kissed my tender, scarred lip. Neither of us had broken a true sweat. He positioned himself raised on one elbow, next to me but not touching. Perhaps somewhat boldly, I turned to him to see if he was pleased. My mother had given, perhaps, her very life in negotiating a suitable trade, and she had given me my marching orders to make a good life for myself and represent our dying nation well. She would not have sacrificed me thus if she did not think a good life was possible. It seemed that a Mongol general’s bride was to be my lot, and I was to make that lot–crippled hand and smiling knees, as well as milking yaks and embroidering war flags–my own.

As I was thinking, I was examining his face. It was almost entirely inscrutable, except for some essential element I could only almost recognize, that hovered somewhere behind his eyes.

And then he was on me again, with animal quickness and animal strength. Again, I worked to match his pace and state of being. If I had not, I quickly came to believe, I would have been suffocated or broken in some way, another Mongol victim to be tossed to the vultures. Even so, I was eventually overcome, limbs pinned, and had to fight from a place of submission to please him and save myself. His demands–this hand, here; not like this, but thus–made it clear that pleasing him and saving myself were at least entangled, and probably synonymous.

I could not have fought less hard, as I have said, but I should maybe have fought less well (or more slowly), as his pleasure came before mine and I was wholly unprepared. We both fell back, slick and panting and wild-eyed like dogs, and with the kind of determination that must make a Mongol warrior fierce above and beyond his great strength he was on top of me again, this time making sure that I was ready for both of our satisfactions, whether I wanted to be or not. I was almost doubled over backwards by the force when it came, and the cry that came from the depth of my soul was ecstatic to the point of pain. His simultaneous pleasure and relief made him shudder for several moments after he had collapsed beside me.

We lay atop the glossy fox fur, both of us warily measuring our breaths, concealing our exhaustion like wounded beasts. My still-healing ribs and face throbbed, and I prayed he’d had his fill. I prayed I would not cry, so frightened I was by his strength and my exertion and the power of our climax. At first I fought the urge to pray that I would die, rather than endure. And then I prayed that I had pleased him, and that the power I could exert over him was equal to the power he now held over me.

But eventually, my frenzied prayers subsided, and my heart and breath became my own again, though labored. I could feel the full moon tantalizingly close, though I could not see it. In some distant corner of the camp I could hear the men engaging in the double singing these fierce people did when they came together after a raid or battle and the booty was good, or bad, and most of the men were alive, or dead. It was a rasping warble deep in the throat, and a thin whistling above, and even then, early in this life with them, I could not listen to it without seeing wild ponies and green rivers of grass and hearing the cries of eagles. Someone joined with a two-stringed fiddle, and someone joined with a drum, and a woman joined, because here if a woman could, and wanted to, she did.

I needed to sleep, but I was chilled with sweat and weak in my legs, and I doubted if I could rise and fix the fire without disturbing him and then return to bed, slipping under the furs to recover. I lay forever, listening to the strange music and his breathing, unsure I would be able to live with my fate.

And then he chuckled.

I waited, as the revelers and mourners added more voices and instruments. He laughed again more fully, and got up to fix the fire. I slipped beneath the covers while I could. “They said you were virgin,” he said in my language, heavily accented and stilted. “This, my soldiers said!”

He poked the fire with his bare hands, and tossed in one more block of dung.

I watched his shoulders ripple and bounce as the chuckle grew to a laugh.

“I think the Mi-nyak lie!” he roared, his laughter now fierce and free.

He turned, and in the moonlight his face, mirthful on the surface, hid a thousand other emotions, most of them dangerous.

He must have seen my fear, as he laughed again more softly, joining me under the covers. “This is better.”

I was not sure how many times this night I could feel myself avoiding death. Each time, like this time, I thought, Once more.

The music had reached its climax, drums and fiddles and finally cymbals clanging, and after a moment a lone voice returned, in a mountain dialect I could not yet understand. Against my will, still on alert like a small wild bird, I felt myself being overcome. If I did not sleep soon, I would begin to sob.

“What do I call you?” I asked, before I left the world until dawn.

“In the tent, you may call me Temujin.”

I pondered this for a moment. I did not know the name. “And what do I call you outside the tent?”

He looked perplexed for a moment, and then surprised. It was a look I would become familiar with, over the next years.

“Outside? Outside, you call me Khan.”

He rolled onto his stomach, grunting and laying his huge arm upon my chest and cradling my tender face in his crippled hand.

When I awoke sometime before dawn, in utter darkness and silence, he was gone.

~ Greta Ode ~