The Sultana of Story

by Jordan Taylor


“Listen,” the Sultana says. “This is a ghost story.”

She lights the dripping white candle on the little cloth-covered table in front of her, pushing her gauzy black veil away from her face. In the blooming light you can see her wide, dark eyes and the bruises underneath, her white hands floating in the dark like doves.

There had been the knot of a crowd in the street below the crumbling brick and twisted iron of her building, all shaggy bangs over their eyes and pants legs sweeping the ground and cigarettes held at their cocked hips like little smoking revolvers.

It was this that had arrested your attention, more so than the block-type letters of the sign hung out of her fifth-story window: “Mind-Reading, Tarot, and Palmistry. See your future! Seances Thursday Evenings at Seven.” Underneath was that staple of the New York City Psychic, the all-seeing eye.

No, anywhere a crowd gathers in New York something worth seeing is sure to be close by, this you have learned. It may not be what you have been searching for, but sometimes it is. That is the beauty of New York.

So you’d hung around, and when the crowd had entered the lobby of the building, scuffed and dirty marble under their feet, sagging tin ceiling, graffiti on the walls, and climbed the steep and narrow piss-smelling stairs, you had drifted along with them.

You stand in the back of the dusty little room, the better to see the Sultana but not be seen. You tug the brim of your hat down over your face.

The Sultana says: “When I was a child, I sold stories in the streets for a ha’penny.

“I’d been born a princess, in India, the spoiled only child of a rich, widowed officer. My mother was a native, dying in the bungalow of the white man as she gave birth to his child. I was given to an ayah, was fed on the milk of the Ganges, on the sweet fruit of the mango and date. But after I was brought to my father’s cold world of smoke and rain, my karma changed.”

Her accent is strange, you notice that now, as if she has spoken a thousand languages and they are all trying to make themselves known on her tongue. It is impossible to tell how old she is. Her skin is lined, but her hair is still dark, dark under her veil, and she could be anywhere between forty and ninety.

“When my father died, the matron of my English boarding school took away my silks and my furs, my books and my lace. I was a pauper in the moment that it takes for the cobra to strike.

“In school I’d been famous for the stories I told. Now they were all I had.

“My father’s ghost followed me through the gaslit streets when I ran errands for the cook, the mud seeping through the holes in my boots, wrapped his intangible arms around me when I shivered in my garret bed. Once upon a time, I whispered to him.”

A draft of air stirs the candle’s flame, and you shudder.


There is someone here – I feel her – It’s a woman – who wants you to know that she forgives you, and though the Sultana is not looking at you, your hands shake and you step backwards until you can melt into the shadows dancing on the peeling yellow wallpaper.


“Once upon a time,” the Sultana says, “my father’s ghost entered the body of a monkey, and led me to the home of his former friend, who had just returned from India.

“His friend took me in, and he dressed me in silks and furs and lace, and he put books in my hands, and Father’s ghost smiled at me from the corner of the room, his transparent skin blistered and red from tropical fever, as the pet monkey he’d once lived in bared its teeth at me from its perch on the tall marble mantle.

“I called my father’s friend ‘The Gentleman,’ because I was not a little girl anymore. He fed me on opium and told me to call him ‘Uncle.’

“At night we dozed by the fire, our pipes hanging from our fingers, my father’s ghost smiling broadly in the corner, and then I told them stories.

“Some were from my life. Some I made up. It was like the parlor game, two truths and a lie – Or is it two lies and a truth? – and The Gentleman could never guess.”

The Sultana passes her thin hand over the candleflame, idly, so that the room goes from pitch dark to dim again. The crowd that sits on the threadbare Persian carpet or stands, like you, in the shadowed corners shifts uncomfortably in their haze of incense and marijuana smoke. The Sultana raises her dark eyes to the room. “Would you like to play?

“Once,” the Sultana begins, “In India, I saw a young rajah carried through the dusty streets on the backs of ten men. He was so covered in gems that no one could look at him, but bent their faces to the ground.

“Once, when I was a servant, I saw a beggar child eaten by a dog. The dog, I think, did not know that the child was alive – it was only skin and bones, after all, and it lay in the doorway so still – but it met my eyes as I ran by.

“Once, when I was in school, my father sent me a doll the size of myself. She had me-sized evening gloves, and a me-sized opera glass, and a me-sized gown. And who, then, could say which of us was the doll?”


Does anyone have a cigarette? A girl in the front row shifts where she sits cross-legged on the floor, takes her pack out of her back pocket and passes one to the Sultana. The Sultana lights it on her candleflame, drawing on the smoke luxuriously as she watches the crowd with her dark eyes. A young man stands up in the back, makes as if to slip out while she is distracted. Oh, you don’t believe in ghosts, sir? The Sultana laughs, her hands fluttering in the air, smoke dancing around her dark veil. No matter. They believe in you.


The Sultana drops her voice, a cigarette dangling from her white hand, and as one the crowd leans forward to listen.

She says: “I wore a jeweled turban to my first ball. The Gentleman called me his harem girl. I’d danced as a child, in school, but that was several lifetimes ago, and in this incarnation I hardly knew how. The ball was full of officers, all trying to outdrink their deaths. I sat alone on the edges of the crowd, dazzled and longing for opium.

“A boy in uniform sat down beside me. The lights of the chandeliers glittered in his slicked back hair.

“‘You look like a Sultana,’ he said, and my father’s ghost, by the buffet, tossed back a drink.

“To be a Sultana was infinitely preferable to a harem girl, and so I smiled at him with one side of my mouth” – and she smiles that way now, so that just for a moment you can see what she looked like when she was young – “And I said, ‘Once upon a time…’”

The Sultana’s voice rises to fill the room. “Once upon a time, an enigmatic heiress was married to the war hero son of a prominent London family, and the wedding made all the papers. I walked down the aisle on the arm of my father’s ghost, my eyes lined in kohl, as The Gentleman watched from the front pew, his arthritic fingers trembling on his jeweled cane.

“But I soon learned that marriage was only another kind of servitude. I left my husband in just a few short years, to travel to the Continent. My father’s ghost leaned against the ship’s railing and shook his head in dismay.” The Sultana’s lips quirk again.

“I joined the other artistes in Paris. I conducted seances in the salon of Gertrude Stein, told stories to Hemmingway – who hated them – smoked with Zelda.” She laughs a husky laugh and stubs out her cigarette on the shawl-covered table in front of her, as if daring the audience to cry ‘Bullshit.’

“My father’s ghost followed me from apartment to party, clearing his throat, frowning, this tiresome vestige of the last century, and I could not shake him. When he breathed on my neck I could feel again the tight laces of my dolls’-clothes, the gnawing pain of starvation in my belly, the stifling heat of The Gentleman’s fire, the numbness of my husband’s war-hardened silence.

“We called it living fast, that mad champagne fizz between wars, and that was what it felt like, like I was running from the red-blistered face of death.”


The Sultana’s eyes are closed, the white spiders of her hands reaching for the room. Is there someone here whose name begins with R? Is there a Robert here? A Reggie? Her eyes fly open, her voice a hoarse gasp. Ralph?


“When the war came again,” the Sultana says, “I took another ship to America. They were taking Jewish refugees, then, and I looked Jewish enough. A friend forged my papers and I spent all my life’s savings on my ticket.

“I was Sara Crewe no longer, but Sarah Cronenberg.” The Sultana drops her voice like a stone falling into the dark room. “Change your name and you change yourself.

“The ship was overcrowded – not even room for a ghost – and with my new identity I shook my father at last.”

The Sultana raises her wrinkled arms, and the candleflame dances across the faces of the audience. “It was the land of freedom, of free free free, and when I landed I changed my name again, no more karma dogging my steps, I had taken it in my fists. Steam-set hair and my shirtsleeve rolled up over my bicep, I was in charge and I was one step ahead.

“I was Sarah Charkrabarti, Sultana of a new land, and I settled in New York and opened my own salon for immigrants, did my shopping in Chinatown, held seances in my apartment, the lease for which I’d signed myself in my new name.”

The Sultana smiles and spreads her heads. In the candlelight her teeth are white as ghosts.

“And here I have been ever since. I will not say that I am everyone’s granny, the psychic lady upstairs. I am much more than that.

“I am the last true psychic of New York City. I am the Sultana of Story, the Bodhisattva of Darkness, the Maharanee of the In-Between.” Her eyes glow like dark coals, and the little boys and girls in the audience draw back, allowing you to glide through them to the front of the room as if through a sea of supplicants, their faces all pressed to the ground.

“I am the Rajimata of Unwanted Memories,” the Sultana says, her voice huge in the dirty little apartment, “but I forgot that no one can escape their karma. Their death.”

Her eyes fix on your face, pinning you in place like an infantry rifle’s bayonet through the chest.

The boys and girls look around at one another, searching for who has caught her attention, but of course they see no one at all. You tip your tall, old-fashioned hat to her with one blistered hand.

She smiles. “It seems mine has caught up with me at last.”

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