Many of the men on the ship had overlooked her mostly because she had wisely remained out of sight. She could have been called at any time she knew. As she had previously learned, most of the men did not consider the slaves they captured “women.” Only a few had no qualms about quelling their desires on the merchandise, and even that was within reason. It would not do to have a pregnant slave.
Any who rebelled were tossed over the side of the ship with their throats slit or missing limbs so they could not swim to safety even if they tried. More often than not, they were devoured by the creatures of the great blue (“the sea,” these people called it). It had been twelve more months since she had seen the slave market last, a lifetime for a slave. She had learned to love and she had lost. She had been belittled, battered and bruised. But they could never break her. Maude had always told her that her pride would lead to something like this.
There was every chance that she may never see the kind old woman again. Had she had time to say goodbye? She was unsure. She tried to move but her back stung like an evil spirit had gone to work on her. Of course, one of those evil ones had.
She remembered the master’s wife and the look in her eyes as Zahra had been dragged to the whipping post. It would not do to curse people, she learned this lesson long ago from the priest in her village (who she now only vaguely remembered) and from Maude. Both were of the easy-going temperament and they both had the same views on life.
Perhaps that was why Zahra had been so drawn to her. She shifted slowly, ignoring the pain the best she could, until she was sitting upright. She would miss the old woman. Shutting her eyes, Zahra said a small prayer for her. When she was done, she surveyed her surroundings, being careful not to move too much. There was a large welt on her shoulder by now, she knew. The whole thing hurt and she had nobody to really blame but herself. By the stiffness in her back, she would say it had been about three days. By the hunger pangs, it was harder to tell when her last meal had been.
Maybe she shouldn’t have riled her masters. Then she wouldn’t be sitting here, surrounded by filth and other abandoned slaves and their filth, with the unknown looming over her head. Her new masters may be even worse than the previous ones. But how would she know? She would have to accept her fate. In this land of foreigners, she had no will, no rights and no freedom. She could not wander the villages and see the sights and after the ordeal she had been through, she was not entirely sure she wanted to.
Besides reports of creatures that wandered in the night that took life as easily as one killed a mosquito and the slavers who would not hesitate to kill her, she wasn’t too sure which was the mercy and which was the evil. The servants had whispered amongst one other about some strange deaths that had caught the attention of a few authorities. It was mere tea-room gossip and children’s tales, Zahra was sure, much like the ogres and spirits that dominated the stories of her people.
It seemed she was limited to only two options, servitude or death, as unpalatable as both were.
The room she and the others were put in was a few paces wide and maybe thirty metres long. There was barely any light to see by - a few rays made their way inside through the slats of wood that comprised the structure and a few holes in the walls. They were signs of the structure’s integrity and none of them comforting. If it rained, the room would definitely flood. She was grateful for the warm weather in that case.
Well, the owners were certainly not going to go out of their way to fix it up and certainly not for slaves like her.
The room was filled, from what she could see as she peered into the gloom, from end to end in bodies. Some of them may have been alive and some of them - not. She couldn’t tell which was which, not even the sitting ones, she remembered with a shudder from her last time in a place like this, and decided it was best not to look too closely. She could estimate maybe seventy slaves at a glance, perhaps more sat in the darkness and semi-darkness beyond.
The stench in the room made her gag but throwing up would definitely not improve things. Not for her roiling stomach, not for her back and not for whomever she happened to get sick on. The two slaves beside her shifted and she looked away immediately, her heart breaking. One had a large scar across his face puckered and swollen and most likely infected and the other had sick wounds all over their body. That one would not be sold soon. She could just as easily been in their place, plucked from the warmth of loving families and homes to come and die in this festering pit, struggling to see one more day at the end of strength and hope.
Cruelty was all she knew from these foreigners. Cruelty, disdain and disregard for life. Here she was chattel, no better than the oxen that ploughed the fields back home. The oxen were treated better, at any rate.
A door opened before Zahra, blinding her momentarily and illuminating the bodies that lay in front of and around her. She was not so sure some of them were even alive any more. She turned her eyes away and squinted into the light. Three burly men walked in with one pointing out the ones he wanted (the slaver, she would guess) and the other two hauling them out into the fresh air and sunshine. Zahra watched as they pushed some of the bodies around, probably making a mental note of which ones moved and which ones were mere waste, and then the slaver’s eyes landed on her.
He looked her over then pointed at her and walked out.
One of the men came over to grab her arm but she was already on her feet and heading for the door. It was much better to take herself out, making sure she didn’t injure her back more than necessary than to endure rough treatment which she wasn’t entirely sure she could withstand and not faint. Already the room swam and between the stench of the slave room, the pain she’d had to endure and the hunger that gnawed at her belly, she couldn’t be sure she was already delirious and dreaming.
At least she would have thought so, had she not stumbled and fallen onto her hands and knees, an action which jarred her back and she hissed in pain. The slaver appeared at the door again and saw her there. He motioned to the two men who brought her outside and pulled down the top half of her dress, turning her around so her back was to him. She felt some of the scabbed wounds open afresh as warm liquid dribbled down her back.
The slaver cursed and motioned to his men again. They held her upright as the slaver looked her over again, turning her face this way and that. And here she was, too weak to protest. Well, he could do his worst. She didn’t care anymore. He grimaced when he got too close (probably catching a whiff of the slave room stench on her) and looked away motioning for the men to carry her over to the other slaves.
The next part was different from what happened on her first trip. When she had first arrived, fresh from the docks, they had been stripped naked, carelessly splashed with water and then presented to their potential masters as they were, without a stitch of clothing. It was humiliation. Some of the slave owners did not have anything to clothe their new slaves with either and the slave had to travel to their new home naked as the day they were born into the world.
This time, however, she was carried into a small room in a nearby building where an old woman sat with bottles and vials of herbs and salves. Zahra could smell the medicines around her and her nausea returned. She threw up her stomach contents as the old woman cursed but not, she realised, at Zahra. She pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at Zahra's mouth seeming completely unbothered by the smell.
“Another one Percy? You really should stop.”
“What?” The slaver asked feigning innocence. He had followed the two men and Zahra to this room and, with their job done, had excused them. He stood by the door now with his hands held behind his back and beaming like a child who had done some marvellous thing. The old woman rolled her eyes.
The men made her sit on a small wooden stool in front of the woman. She had dark skin – not dark like Zahra’s but not light like the slaver’s. Her skin was wrinkled and her light brown eyes showed wisdom, much like those of Zahra’s own grandmother and the elders of her village. There was an air of mystery about her, something Zahra could vaguely sense that both interested and comforted her, like a kindred soul; and that kind smile seemed to hold an entire world of secrets. She eased somewhat and forgot her circumstances for a moment. She would have smiled if she hadn’t moved and felt her back sting again.
“She’s in much better condition than most of the others and with such a pretty face, she could fetch a higher price, especially to our special clientele.”
The old woman snorted and motioned for a servant to come in and clean the mess Zahra had made. This one, she noticed, was from “the Orient” – wherever that was. Those servants were rare in these parts but not completely unheard of. While Zahra had heard tales of them here and there, she had never actually seen one.
The lovely young woman had jet black hair and delicate pale skin. Her beautiful upturned eyes were dark and sharp, never missing a thing. She was beautiful and unmarred except for a single scar on her cheek, small enough to ignore. Far from affecting her beauty it seemed to enhance it, lending her a touch of humanity where she might have been a porcelain doll like the ones Mrs. Galagher liked to keep in the house.
Zahra caught her gaze momentarily before the woman hastily turned and walked away, having finished her task, her movements lithe and graceful. It was a novelty. While she had always been taught that it was impolite to stare, in this case, she would have to be forgiven for her rudeness.
“Now let’s see here,” said the old woman peeling back Zahra’s clothing and exposing it for the second time. The clothing was now sticky and wet and hanging uncomfortably over her frame. Some of the wounds itched and most of them hurt. She wished desperately that they would just hurry up and get it over with. She was feeling sick again and it was taking a lot of effort to sit up and not move.
“Oh, what have they done with you,” said the old woman touching some of her wounds and clucking her tongue. She poked and prodded a few more times then sat back and sighed.
“If you mean to sell her again, you definitely can’t in this condition. I'm not sure if she hasn't caught anything either... we'll have to make sure. She may be ready to go in a few days’ time, a few weeks at least if she’s to heal properly, but not before that.”
Percy ran a hand over his face in frustration and tapped his hat on his thigh. He let out a deep sigh and looked at Zahra again. Whatever it was he saw in her face, made him decide.
“It’s a lot of trouble but I’m counting on you Tess. Make sure she gets the best care. You know how particular the clientele is… you are the only one I trust with this.”
“Because nobody else will take on the job for you,” she cackled. Taking Zahra by the hands, she slowly helped her up and led her into another room deeper into the building. Two servants appeared seemingly from nowhere and took her from the old woman. They walked her to another room down a corridor and off to the left. It was a small-ish room with just enough space for maybe five men to stand comfortably. There was a single window in the opposite wall next to a small a clean bed in the left corner, a bed table beside that with a red wax candle sitting in a small china plate on top of it, and a secluded bath in the corner directly opposite the door.
The water in the tub looked warm. It would not be enough to submerge her wounded body, but it would be enough to clean her up which, she suspected, the old woman meant to do. Zahra was unable to believe that these people would show her such kindness and that she would even get to bathe again.
To be a servant was a little better than being a house slave and if she had followed the slaver and the old woman’s conversation correctly, she was supposed to become a servant to one of these “special clients” that Percy had mentioned. Or perhaps she would just be a house slave all the same. She was "to be sold again," she'd heard.
Together, the servants stripped Zahra down to nothing and stood her against the wall, careful to avoid her back. The old woman came back carrying a tray of bottles containing several medicines and soap. Together, the servants and the old woman carefully washed and dried Zahra, only pouring a little water on her back. Here the work began. As they cleaned, medicine was applied and washed off only to apply more. The process was repeated several times with the water being changed five times before the old woman was satisfied with her work.
The sting was not as bad as the sting of the whip had been but Zahra still found herself weak and trembling by the time it was over, and she leaned heavily against the wall, barely able to stand on her own. The servants carefully dried her back then turned her around and dried her front. She was given a strange robe that only covered her front to put on, then she was led to the bed where she was allowed to lie down on her stomach .
“Well, whatever happened to you," said the old woman crossing her arms as she surveyed the damage, "at least someone had the sense to treat you somewhat. You will scar but not much.”
Zahra did not move, grateful for clean sheets and a warm bed. The blankets were laid over her up to her waist and the old woman took another salve that smelled thickly of herbs. She gently dabbed this in several places on Zahra’s back providing a cooling effect instead of stinging. Perhaps the medicine she had been given in the bath was meant to numb the pain. Maude had told Zahra of such treatments. One couldn’t live in the same vicinity as Maude and not learn a thing or two about healing, however basic that knowledge was.
After this application, Zahra was left alone in the quiet room. After the ordeal she'd had, it was impossible not to fall asleep almost immediately. As she drifted off into the land of dreams she thought briefly about her mother and the night she had taken Zahra’s place as bait for the invaders. She thought of her cruel former mistress and her “parting gift” which seemed to be the reason she was here in the first place. Then she thought of the kind Maude who looked out for her exactly as a mother would.
If she’d understood the old woman, Tess, correctly, someone - most likely Maude - had tended to her wounds to some extent before she had been sent away. That had probably saved her life. The conditions of the slave rooms guaranteed that some of the slaves never survived – wasted merchandise, she’d once heard someone say. She said another short prayer for the old woman who’d been the mother she needed in those tough times.
Then, she thought about Hadi, which put a smile on her face. Her brave, yet mischievous Hadi who had gone into war and that was the last time she had seen him. Her sweet and romantic Hadi who would never raise a hand against her or force himself on her… She wondered briefly if it would matter to him that her innocence had been taken by another. After all that time, surely he would understand…
She hadn’t thought of that before. He might not love her enough to accept this. Purity was important in a marriage, that was their custom. The purifying ceremony was only held for widows who were to be married again. Women who had lost their purity otherwise always went into a marriage with shame and continued to live with it for the rest of their lives.
Could she ever live like that? Would she ever make it? Now that she was safe and rested, she had time to think over the time she had been away. If she were to return, she would be a changed woman. She would no longer be her father’s innocent flower, but a woman who had seen and experienced much. She might even be shunned for crimes she had not asked to be committed against her.
And much as she wanted to believe in her people and their goodness, there was also the unquestionable societal attitude. She settled on the mattress quietly pushing away all the negative thoughts. Tears pricked her eyes and began to pour.
If she could never go back home… If she were to go back after all this pain and torture and struggle and only be treated as something filthy and unclean… If she had to face villagers whose friendly faces had lit up on seeing her, and who would now scorn her and spit at her feet and speak about her behind her back – or even insult her to her face.
She was not sure she could handle it if she had to face that…
And it was with a heavy heart that the tears began; tears she would have shed over her innocence, over all she had lost, over being so homesick she almost felt physically ill, over being sold without a care to her wellbeing, over being treated like an object and being discarded, over losing a child she had not asked for… but only realised she’d wanted when she’d lost it.
And as she exhausted all her tears and her sorrows, she drifted slowly off into a deep sleep.