Once upon a time, The Orphan Pearl began in a Turkish bath. I liked this scene so much because I lived it. Anyone lucky enough to travel to Istanbul should put a visit to the hammam on their itinerary. The old baths are gorgeous, and (personally) I like the public nudity too. I always start out nervous and paranoid, afraid that people will stare and think unkind thoughts, and I always leave feeling very calm and body-positive. Somewhere along the way I stop worrying, chill out, remember that bodies are bodies and we're all odd in some ways and beautiful in others and that's how it ought to be.
Oh, and the detail about the sticky ropes of skin? That's real too. You might think I included it just because Lydia and Zohra are so very dirty after fifty days of hard travel (and they are), but I've walked into a hammam a few hours after taking a shower and still seen the skin ropes. Not just me, either - most people with exemplary bathing habits have the same experience. They're really gross, but the final result is worth it.
Click through to read the deleted bath scene.
“Will you get my back?” Lydia asked, turning to provide free access to the part in question.
“If you’ll do mine.” Zohra took Lydia's wet bathing cloth and scrubbed like a country girl attacking a load of dirty laundry.
They were both naked, and surrounded by many other naked women: great haunches of hip and belly crowded next to meager shanks of thigh, slow grey-haired ancients side by side with proud-breasted young brides. Children of both sexes scampered between sheltered booths, skidding on the wet marble floor. A mother or older sister occasionally pulled one of the little ones from the fray with a hooked arm, then used the other to apply slick-stinging soap while the child squirmed. Lydia caught a few curious glances directed her way; a woman as pale and blonde as she was always attracted attention.
When she was done, they changed places. Zohra dragged her thick black hair out of the way, and Lydia set to mercilessly. They hadn’t bathed for weeks, and it showed. The dead skin sloughed off in dark, sticky ropes.
When she was done, Zohra’s back glowed bright pink. Lydia handed Zohra her rag and picked up a cake of rose-scented soap. She worked up a thick lather, massaging the foam into her foot and inching on up. Her leg, once slim and shapely, looked stringy. The past two months had been hard on her body, harder on her soul.
It had been fifty days since her world collapsed. Fifty days since a swarm of Russian soldiers converged on Rustem’s compound. Outnumbered and outgunned, Rustem stayed to fight while Lydia and Zohra slipped away in the dark. She’d lingered long enough to see him die, crumpling to the earth in front of the villa, the plaster walls behind him cratered by the spray of bullets.
They ran from the raiders that night, and they’d been running ever since. It had been a long, hard journey.
“Are you thinner, too?” Lydia asked Zohra.
“Not like you.” Zohra answered, assessing her friend’s body openly.
Lydia reached for an empty bucket and carried it to the nearest spigot. The water came out burning hot, so she blended it with cold from a separate faucet. Finding just the right temperature was part of the ritual. She tested the mixture with two fingers, sloshed some of the water over the rim of the bucket and added more cold. Satisfied, Lydia balanced on one leg so she could take one foot, and then the other, into her hand, thread her fingers through her toes and rinse out the soap that collected between them.
Star-shaped windows in the dome overhead let in the afternoon sun. Thick steam trapped the light, preventing it from spreading evenly throughout the room – instead, spears of white pierced the opaque mist. The extravagant marble floor and copper fixtures were only found in city baths, built by kings and princes. Lydia knew she might never enter another Turkish bathhouse again, and she was glad her last excursion was such a special one.
Lydia returned to her mat and picked up the soap again. This time she slid the lather between her thighs, over the flat surface of her belly, and up the shallow curve of her waist.
“What if nobody recognizes you?” Zohra asked, casting another frank glance at Lydia's hardened figure. While she spoke, Zohra slicked one hand along the rounded contours of the opposite arm. Zohra always started from the top and worked her way down.
As they inched closer to Constantinople, Lydia had begun to consider the possibility that they might actually make it to England. There were so many things she missed about her homeland – strawberries and willow trees and rain, just to name a few.
And yet she dreaded her homecoming. Only fear for her life sent Lydia back to her father’s doorstep. Nothing else was worth the humiliation.
“They’ll recognize me,” Lydia answered calmly.
“But your family will find your marriage to a Muslim shameful,” Zohra said.
Lydia nodded. They’d had this conversation before.
“What will we do if they abjure you?”
It would be a disaster. They needed her father’s protection. What would they do if he wouldn’t give it? Die probably. Or…Lydia shrugged, “There’s always America.”
“Yes, that’s right, why don’t we just run for the rest of our lives?” Zohra snapped, then stood and grabbed the bucket with a violent swipe of her hand.
In the changing room, Lydia put on a clean set of underclothes. A silk tunic that reached to her knees and a pair of loose trousers made up the first layer. After that, she had to make do with dirty outer garments – a heavy wool tunic, embroidered around the collar and cuffs, followed by a heavy satchel she carefully positioned against her belly. The sack disappeared under the loose black robe that came next. Finished, Lydia glided over to the mirror to stand behind Zohra, who was using a fingernail to tug a ribbon of glossy black hair out from under her veil to sweep in a gentle curve across her forehead. Kohl rimmed her slanted almond-shaped eyes.
“A veil masks a woman’s face, but like all masks, it communicates as much as it hides,” Luke Benton wrote in In the Footsteps of the Crusaders. She’d read those words long before she set foot in the Orient, and Zohra was living proof. It didn’t matter how much fabric she draped over her body, Zohra was a walking challenge to all mankind.
Lydia could see herself in the mirror too. She looked, as she always did when she was troubled, serene as a porcelain doll. Her face remained frivolous and innocent, no matter how dire the circumstances.
Satisfied with her appearance, Zohra turned away from the mirror. She took Lydia's tightly clasped hands in her own and gently pulled them apart.
“I won’t follow you forever, Mihrimah.” Zohra said, her first words since the outburst.
“What would you rather do?” Lydia met her friend’s gaze without flinching. “Do you want to stay in Constantinople? We could make it happen.”
“I can’t stay here any more than you can.” Zohra dropped Lydia's hands. “Put on your headscarf. We should go, it’s humid in the bath.”
Lydia focused on her veil, tugging the silk into loose folds that covered her hair completely and cast her face into light shadow. Unlike Zohra, she didn’t want to attract attention.